|The United Branches of Operative Potters (UBOP) was born on the 6th of September 1843. Likewise, the Cotton Spinners Association. And the Operative Stonemasons' membership swelled from 2,134 in 1842 to 4,861 in 1845. The printing trades united to form the National Typographical Association and the Tailors and Shoemakers where in the process of forming national societies.
The powerful United Flint Glass Makers' Society was strong enough to withstand a legal onslaught that cost them £1,800, and it was in this context of emerging trade unionism that the Miners' association of Great Britain and Ireland was born.
The general strike itself was a cry of despair from the whole of the country. Economic conditions had deteriorated: unemployment was extensive, in some towns reaching as much as half the population, whilst those fortunate enough to be employed were often on short time, and subject to frequent wage cuts. Almost all of the working class was on the verge of starvation
An engraving from the Illustrated London News of 1842 - showing a picture of the Staffordshire colliers with whom the 1842 riots were thought to originate
In a Midlands' miners' report it stated - "They did not mind being hungry themselves, but when they heard their wives and children crying for bread, it cut them through and they could not stand it". They talked of walking to London to see the Queen and Prime Minister for they thought the sight of a long column, marching six a breast would be impressive. They believed that affairs in London were in some mysterious way the source of their problems. The background to events in the Potteries was similar to that elsewhere. It had been severely hit by the depression: the workhouses were overcrowded; prices were high and wage cuts frequent.
The spark to set the district alight was struck in early June by W.H.Sparrow, a Longton coal owner, when he disregarded the law and failed to give the statutory fortnight's notice before imposing a hefty pay reduction.
The miners at Longton were to receive 7p per day less, as well as expected to hew an extra yard of coal. This was equal to a 13p per day loss of wages. The miners refused to submit to these new conditions and were locked out.
Men at other pits expressed their solidarity, giving money to a strike fund. A meeting in Hanley, attended by 2,000, passed a resolution "That it viewed with disgust and indignation the attempt of W.H. Sparrow to reduce the wages of his workmen, and pledges itself to support, with all means in their power, the struggle of might against right." Others quickly became involved in the dispute.
At the Earl of Granville's collieries and ironworks at Shelton, the employers tried to reduce wages by 6p per day. The workers objected and the pits became idle. By the end of July, all the North Staffs mines were closed and the whole of the Midlands was engulfed. An account, appearing in a journal called 'The Union', says - "The strikes began in the coalmines of Staffordshire.
They have since spread over the principle manufacturing districts of England and created a great stagnation in every department of trade and commerce."
The miners on the whole appear to have opposed to the use of violence. They understood it would provide the authorities with a pretext for massive reprisals, so generally they only turned to violence in self-defence, when the military employed force against them or when their leaders were arrested.
A 'Morning Herald' report on the North Staffs stated - "The distress exceeds anything known in this district, but there is no disposition to break the peace."
The 'Northern Star' said that "in the Potteries they have continued up to the present moment very peaceable although it is stated that 10,000 miners have organised themselves to withstand the proposed reductions."
Due to hunger many a sheep and vegetables disappeared from the fields to sustain the starving miners and their families.
As they became more distressed, they sold everything they could to turn into money. One man told a Midlands' mining commission he had "as many pawn tickets as would fill a tea cup." Many families were lying on the floor; having no bedsteads'; their furniture and clocks had vanished as everything had been converted into money.
Early in July, Ridgway, Hanley's leading pottery manufacturer and chairman of the Stoke Board of Guardians, went on a deputation to see the Prime Minister. Unless something was quickly done, he warned Peel "a struggle will commence of which no man can foresee the consequences". His prediction proved to be correct. As the coal owners imposed wage cuts, colliers went on strike. This in turn made it impossible for the pottery manufacturers, depending on plentiful supplies of coal, to continue production.
By early August, an uneasy peace had returned to the Potteries. Yet tension remained high. The arrest of three pitmen for begging resulted in an angry crowd surging through Burslem. They broke into the police station and released the men, then went on to destroy all the windows in the town hall as well as those of the police superintendent and publican who had been responsible for the arrest. A violent sequence of events followed. This included the enforcement of the general strike at almost every pit and pot bank. At Stoke, the police station was ransacked, the furniture burnt and cutlasses stolen. Next came the house of Thomas Allen at Fenton, where, after helping themselves to the ample provisions in the larder and wine in the cellar, the climax came when the family deeds were burnt on the lawn.
A second riot, which lasted two days, happened after Thomas Cooper a self educated worker made a speech at Crown Bank in Hanley on the 15th August 1842.
The Home Secretary had written to magistrates throughout the country telling them to suppress all large meetings, regardless of their character and let the troops act with vigour and without parley.
Sneyd, a local magistrate and coal owner, was merely carrying out these instructions when he marched into Hanley at the head of the cavalry and infantry to tell the crowds to disperse.
He arrived as another coal owner, Ridgway, was holding a meeting of his own to hear about the workers' grievances and counsel moderation. Ridgway was an enlightened and well respected master: He had abolished the Truck System at his Ubberly pits near Hanley; he paid fair wages; he had instituted a sick club for his workmen and subscribed to a local infirmary on their behalf. Being popular with the men, he requested the right to continue the meeting to conciliate. Sneyd ignored this request and read the Riot Act. As a result, about 300 were clamped in prison.
The next day, Thomas Powys, a Burslem magistrate and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the county, ordered troops to fire on a procession of strikers in Burslem Square. One was killed and many more wounded. This incensed the crowd and they set off to retaliate, by burning down Powys's house. The whole situation continued to deteriorate. The agent of Lord Granville's pits had, his house pillaged and his office burnt. The Rev Aitkens house was partly destroyed, his money stolen and his wine drunk. Many other acts of vandalism and retribution were done, but coal owners, clergy and magistrates were singled out for special attention.