"In every place there is a story that should not be forgotten." - E.F.
In the early 19th century, in the North West of England, cotton manufacturing overwhelmingly dominated the industry, employing tens of thousands in sprawling towns. With 90 per cent of cotton manufacturing located in Lancashire and over a hundred mills in Manchester, workers flocked to it. In other places, such as Preston, some 35 miles away, there were also dozens of mills, and the struggle between capital and labor often raged in these towns.
Throughout these years and almost at the height of the industrial revolution, a history of wealth and power emerged around the landscape of these lands, but also of oppression, resistance and solidarity.
Joseph Hanson, The Weaver's Friend
With the expansion of the spinning industry, male workers increased their demands and organized prolonged work stoppages. To protect themselves from the growing number of competitors, companies had to find ways to continually reduce costs; first by opting to replace men with lower-paid women.
The first sign of an intensified demand for higher wages by spinners was in 1808 and 1810. The formation of the first federation of local spinning clubs and district societies gave members the organization to carry out wage strikes.
During the commercial decline of 1811 in Manchester, the spinners' union was embroiled in a four-month dispute over pay cuts. Employers prevailed, but according to James M'Connel (1762-1831), a cotton spinning and textile machine manufacturer at the time, the rate cut that was achieved was less than employers expected. Another turnout in 1813 was followed by a "great advance in wages". Employers successfully lowered wages in 1816, but two years later there was widespread participation lasting three months to return to the high wages of 1814. The militancy of male workers, manifested in recurrent and prolonged strikes, represented a threat to the viability of the spinning companies.
Manchester and Lancashire had for years been the scene of notable strikes and was a center of Chartist agitation and 10-hour workdays and pioneering efforts to form unions. These types of protests over poor working conditions forced employers to renegotiate hours and wages.
"Strength fails, all capacities for physical enjoyment are destroyed […] until they lead to bleak apprehension, to the deepest depression, and almost to despair." J. Kay-Shuttleworth, On the Mental State of Manchester Cotton Workers, 1832.
Until the end of the British slave trade in 1807, large shipments of textiles were shipped from Manchester to Africa, where they were exchanged, along with other goods, for slaves. These people were then shipped to the Americas, where they were forced to do back-breaking work on plantations.
Employment in the Manchester cotton and other textile industry was often a miserable affair. Workers were crowded together in sweltering conditions and plagued by disease and injury.
In this context, Joseph Hanson (1774-1811), an English politician and lieutenant-colonel who in 1807 petitioned for peace in the Napoleonic wars, began to gain notoriety after empathizing with the plight of the local men employed in the cloth trade and vehemently defended this famous cause, being known as the weaver's friend. It was not for less, since if we go back to his ancestors, his father, William Hanson (1729-1798), was a fabric manufacturer like his great-grandfather Richard Foster (c.1648-1730), who set aside his pressing workshop so that the construction of a chapel could be carried out at early 18th century in Ossett, West Yorkshire. Obviously Joseph Hanson (1774-1811) already knew this business from a very young age, which was passed down in his family for several generations.
"In 1815 and 1841, the average Manchester textile company employed between 351 and 400 workers. The average fine-spinning company in Lancashire employed 191 workers." Lloyd-Jones, Roger and Le Roux, A.A., "The Size of Firms in the Cotton Industry: Manchester 1815–41", February 2008. The Economic History Review, 33 (1): 72-82.
In Preston, we know from historian Anthony Hewitson (1836-1912) that the town's cotton spinners had an obscure organization in 1795, just four years after John Horrock's (1768-1804) had launched the first successful cotton mill enterprise in Preston. With the introduction of the Combination Acts of 1799 which outlawed Trade Unions we also know that at great personal risk, these local Preston spinners, numbering only 50 or 60 to begin with, were driven underground and continued to meet and operate in great secrecy.
To avoid arrest operative mule spinners would meet together as members of Trade or "Friendly Societies", which operated sickness benefit schemes and burial clubs and which in the eyes of the law was perfectly legal. In reality these meeting were also of a Trade Union nature where workers would formulate strategy and agitate for better wages and conditions.
In May 1808, Joseph Hanson (1774-1811) once again intervened between the local weavers and their employees in a dispute, attempting to appease the weavers. However, on May 24 of that year, the so-called Riot Act was read, a law of the United Kingdom Parliament that authorized local authorities to declare any gathering of more than twelve people illegal, and the military was sent to intervene. He was arrested for aiding and abetting rioters.
The York Herald published an editorial the following year, stating in passing Have we too our Hansons and he successfully sued for libel and forced a retraction to be printed in the newspaper on the 27 June, sheepishly admitting that they were unconscious of wounding his feelings.
In 1809 Joseph Hanson (1774-1811) was charged with conspiracy, tried at Lancaster Assizes, and imprisoned for six months. Upon his release, his supporters in Macclesfield went five miles south on the road to meet him, and drew him through the town. The Manchester weavers marched from Ardwick to Stockport and carried him to the top of Lancashire Hill, while Joseph rode in a carriage adorned with two silver shuttles.
Back at Strangeways Hall, his home, 39,600 men had each subscribed a penny each to present him with a Gold Cup and Salver, to which Joseph replied:
"I must be insensible to every honorable feeling if I did not consider myself very much gratified by such a mark of attention – Accept my sincerest thanks; and be assured of my unalterable determination to support in every way your interest; in doing which I am confident that I shall be promoting the best interest of my King and Country. Your remembrance of me during my imprisonment will always afford great consolation, and the fact of enjoying the approbation of 39,600 inhabitants of my native county and its vicinity, has been and ever will be the pride of my life." Manchester Mercury 19 December 1809.
His lease of Strangeways Hall was extended by the Ducies family in 1810, and the following year he gave evidence in the House of Commons in support of the Manchester weavers. However, imprisonment had weakened him, his health was badly affected, and he died at the age of 37, on 3 September 1811 at Strangeways Hall.
It has been said that his death was very unjust and his life fleeting, but without a doubt Joseph Hanson (1774-1811), popularly nicknamed the weaver's friend, was one of the first defenders of labor and wage reform in Manchester and fought tirelessly for the rights of workers. He had become so entwined with working-class politics that he paid a heavy price, leading to his being fired at a young age. However, the welcome of more than 39,000 souls was all that Joseph needed to leave this world in peace, being remembered today for his perseverance and courage in the face of adversity.
It should be noted that after the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 and 1825, spinners had more freedom to form associations of workers. In 1828, John Doherty (1798-1854), an Irish radical trade unionist and labor reformer who devoted his life to political and social reform, became leader of the Manchester Spinners' Union, and the following year textile mill owners began imposing reductions salaries to their workers. In an attempt to persuade the employers to change their minds, members of the union went on strike. The strike lasted for six months but in October the spinners, facing starvation, were forced to accept the lower wages being offered by the factory owners.
John Doherty (1798-1854) realised that it was very difficult for local unions to win industrial disputes so he organised a meeting of spinners from all over Britain. The result of the meeting was the formation of the Grand General Union of Operative Spinners of the United Kingdom. Doherty's union only lasted two years and it was not until 1845 that a similar organisation was formed. However, it was not until 1870 with the establishment of the Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners that the trade had a real national union.