The industrialization of the textile industry led first to the concentration of formerly rural people into Rochdale. The population exploded and by 1841 there were 68,000 people in a town that just 20 years earlier had 23,000. Living conditions in the overcrowded, squalid and increasingly polluted town were dreadful. As mechanization increased and prices for cloth fluctuated, the wages paid to factory workers and the prices paid to independent handweaves spiraled ever downwards. As local medical practitioners at the time commented "the labouring classes in the Borough of Rochdale......are now suffering great and increasing privations. That they are unable in great numbers to obtain wholesome food in sufficient quantities to keep them in health; and that they are predisposed to disease and rendered unable to resist its attacks.....In this respect the population amongst whom we practice are in a much worse state now than they were five or six years ago."
It was in this climate that Rochdale as a town developed, and the drama played out in the meeting halls and on the streets of the town over several decades. Driven by a thirst for wealth and power the middle-class clashed on ideologal grounds with the ruling upper-class Tories. Meanwhile, the working-class fought to stave off starvation and learned how to organize their considerable numbers against the overwhelming power of the rich and powerful who controlled every aspect of their lives.
The political battle that ensued at the beginning of the 19th century was no simple struggle. The often competing goals of the various classes were inevitably intertwined. I will endeavour to unravel them but apologize in advance for any oversimplification.
In 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's army was defeated and the Twenty Years War came to an end. Having won the war, England faced a serious problem at home. In fact, the country teetered on the brink of revolution. Even before the war there had been unrest in the country . It was in every respect a period of repression in which the condition of the poor had steadily deteriorated. Exploited in factories by the new capitalists and on the land by the old aristocracy, the frustrations of the poor often manifested themselves in violence, notably bread riots in Rochdale. In 1791 a riot was put down by the militia, on the order of magistrate Thomas Drake, resulting in two deaths. Falling wages precipitated attacks on weavers' cottages, and in one incident in 1808, an angry crowd liberated several men, who had been arrested, and burned down the "lock-up" on Rope Street. In reaction to the unrest Rochdale became a barracks town giving it a permanent military presence ready at a moments notice to put down any riots.
The move to reform the existing parliamentary system dominated the political mood of the country. A party of reform minded men, equipped with blankets to keep them warm on overnight stops, set off from Manchester on March 24, 1817 to present a petition to the Prince Regent in what became known as the March of the Blanketeers.
The same year a large political reform meeting was held on Cronkeyshaw Common outside Rochdale. 35,000 men and women marched through Rochdale to the Common, and amongst the crowd at the meeting was Samuel Bamford, a reformer/radical from Middleton.
Two years later Bamford led a party of Middleton people to an assembly on open ground near St. Peter's Church in Manchester, where they hoped to hear Henry "Orator" Hunt speak.
"They wore their Sunday suits and clean neckties; and by the side of fustian and corduroy walked the coloured prints and stuffs of wives and sweethearts, who went as for a gala-day, to break the dull monotony of their lives, and to serve as a guarantee of peaceable intention. Such at least was the main body, marshalled in Middleton by stalwart, stout-hearted Samuel Bamford, which passed in marching order, five abreast down Newton Lane, through Oldham Street, skirted the Infirmary Gardens, and proceeded along Moseley Street. each leader with a sprig of peaceful laurel in his hat."
Among the throng on St. Peter's Field it was reported that some banners were seen saying "Bread or Blood", "Liberty or Death" and "Equal Representation or Death". Hunt had barely made it onto the stage when the 15th Hussars, dispatched by magistrate the Rev. Hay, later the Vicar of Rochdale, rode, with sabers drawn, into the crowd . Eleven people were killed and 400 injured in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
The government of the day finally addressed the parliamentary reform issue in 1832, by passing the Parliamentary Reform Act. Unfortunately, for the majority of the people in Rochdale and around the country nothing changed. The Act abolished "Rotten Boroughs" and gave their seats to new towns including Rochdale. It extended the franchise but only on the basis of wealth to £10 householders in boroughs and £50 tenants in the counties. In Rochdale this meant that 687 out of a population of 28,000 could now vote.
Rightly or wrongly, the mass of the working-class saw the right to vote as a chance to influence government policy (something that continues to be almost impossible, even with universal sufferage) and to improve their miserable lot. A national movement known as Chartism grew up to address this working-class discontent. It derived its name from the six point charter that set out the demands of the organization, demands which some were prepared to back with force if necessary:
In Rochdale one of the prominent figures in the Chartist movement was Thomas Livsey. Livsey was a local lad, the son of a blacksmith, who was educated until the age of 15 in Rochdale. Livsey also worked locally on such issues as shortening working hours in the mills, restricting child labour and fighting the Poor Laws that introduced the despised workhouses. Livsey was an affective interlocutor between the middle-class and the working-class and a strong advocate for the latter. He was also involved in the development of the local Co-operative movement.
The struggle for acceptance of the Charter raised passions and for a while there were real concerns that it could lead to an armed insurrection. Plans to organize a period of sustained protest across the country in 1839 collapsed in disarray. By 1842 when the Charter was still a dream, it began to be apparent to a lot of people that the way forward for working-class people lay not in electoral reform but in self-improvement, a decision which in Rochdale led to Co-operation.
The middle-class fought for parliamentary reform because they wanted to have access to the power that the Tory gentry had by right. The only way to achieve the change they wanted was to create a ground swell of discontent and to do this they needed to enlist the support of the working-class. The working-class joined the frey in a desperate attempt to give some strength to their demands for improved living and working conditions. Throughout this whole period, life and work in Rochdale was characterized by riots and strikes over food shortages, pay and working conditions.