All writing © 2009-2015 by Colin Salter unless indicated otherwise. All rights reserved.
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Saturday, 8 May 2010

WILLIAM BAYLEY (1802-1891) AND THE PLUG RIOTS


My Bayley family tree is a perfect illustration of Britain’s nineteenth century social journey. The Lancashire family moved from their eighteenth century farming roots in Hooley Hill to the rapidly expanding cotton industry of the Lancashire towns.

(Hooley Hill was a sizeable village which took to the industrial revolution with gusto, becoming a centre for felt hat production – although I haven’t read this anywhere else, it seems a possibility that Hooley gave its name to special occasions at which a hat might be worn, parties for example, or as they became known in Ireland, hooleys! Does anyone know different?)

William Bayley, unplugged

The Bayleys moved to nearby Stalybridge. William Bayley, first cousin of my great great grandmother Ellen Bayley, was two years old when his father built their first mill there in 1804 – Bridge Street Mill. After the death of his father in a horrific mill accident, he and his brothers developed the family business as Wm Bayley and Brothers in what became known as the Bayley Street Mills.

In 1841 an economic depression brought reduced hours to the Lancashire Mills as it did to the rest of Britain. Hard times and discontent drove up popular support for the Chartists, who were agitating for radical electoral reform. Things came to a head in the hot summer of 1842 when wage cuts were threatened. The fury of the workforce made most mill owners reconsider, but William Bayley imposed a sixpence reduction (2.5p) on a weekly wage of ten and ninepence (53.5p), nearly 5%. Anger erupted in protest meetings and a general strike of mill workers.

A plug riot: this one in Preston, August 1842

When William offered to withdraw the cuts a few days later it was too late; the Chartists were fanning the flames and the strike spread. Nationally half a million people withdrew their labour. In Lancashire mobs went from mill to mill stopping the machinery, by force if they had to. In some cases the rioters broke in and sabotaged the works by removing plugs from the boilers, and the actions became known as the Plug Riots.

By the end of September it was all over and most strikers had returned to work at the old rates of pay. Although the Chartists never again attracted such levels of support, the strike is a landmark event in the history of labour rights, and Friedrich Engels specifically referred to Stalybridge in writing “The Condition of The Working Class in England” two years later.

William Bayley’s role in starting it all doesn’t seem to have done him any lasting political damage. The Municipal Borough of Stalybridge received its charter of incorporation on 5 March 1857, and Bayley was elected its first mayor, serving for three years.

Clarence Mill on the Macclesfield Canal,
now Bollington Discovery Centre

The Bayley brothers subsequently fell foul of another economic crisis. War with the US in 1862 resulted in a critical shortage of cotton and mass redundancies across the Lancashire mills. In Stalybridge only five of over 60 factories and workshops were working at full strength; 7000 workers were unemployed, and an exodus in search of other work left 750 houses in the town empty. The Bayleys had committed to a new state of the art factory, Clarence Mill, and lost heavily on its construction. Some reports say the Bayleys never used the building, and they certainly sold it off only a few years later. William, by now over 60, withdrew from the business in 1863 and led a long and comfortable retirement in his mansion Stamford Lodge.

William's life, almost exactly spanning the nineteenth century, mirrors Britain's industrial development. He experienced all the twists of its story: its rise to strength and the threats to its viability. As a prominent mill owner he played in equal measure the part of wicked employer and that of local benefactor, donating money to local churches and to the building in 1854 of Bayley Street bridge, which connected his mills and the town to new roads and a wider world.

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