The moors of the Pennine hills have a fine tradition of playing host to sedition. From Brigantine rebellions against the rule of Rome, to the class struggles of the Industrial Revolution. It is as if the will to fight against oppression is a tangible element, embedded in these liminal places of rocky outcrops and quaking peat bogs. The Pennine winds sing songs of noble causes past, open spaces bring forth new ideas and the plentiful rain washes it down the hillside streams, into the numerous reservoirs that surround the watershed. The history of Marsden Moor and the Colne Valley is not just about geology and natural history, it is also about people.
Despite its comparatively remote location, Marsden found itself embroiled in the forge of the industrial revolution and the tumultuous politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as transport routes improved along Colne Valley bringing both commerce and ideas.
The first Wakefield to Austerlands Turnpike road was constructed in 1758, following an old packhorse route running from Huddersfield, through Longroyd Bridge and Thornton Lodge before starting the long climb up Crosland Moor to Holt Head. Then close to Marsden, before passing the base of Pule Hill and following the route of the Roman Road along Thieves Clough. This was upgraded to the Coach Road by Blind Jack Metcalf in 1790, sections of which were floated over the peat bogs on rafts of heather. In 1839, the new coach road (now the A62 Manchester Road) was opened.
The famed Standedge Tunnel, part of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which enters the hillside at Diggle, runs under Standedge and Pule Hill, and exits at Marsden, was started in 1795 and finished in 1811. Progress was surprisingly slow, with work stalling for lengthy periods. These stoppages caused considerable hardship to the miners, tradesmen and labourers, who were not paid during lay-offs (1). Signs of the tunnel can still be found on the surface, with air vents on Pule Hill and Redbrook Engine House, opposite the Carriage House Inn. Built in 1803, this was used to bring spoil to the surface and still sits surrounded by huge heaps of rubble.
Colne Valley was flooded on 29th November 1810, when Swellands Dam (on Bobus) burst its banks at one o’clock in the morning. Factories and homes were destroyed from Marsden to Paddock. The event became known as the ‘Night of the Black Flood’ and took the lives of six victims (2).
Colne Valley has been at the heart of the textile industry for centuries. The steep hillsides of the valley, dotted with weaver’s cottages. Then variously water and steam powered mills. By virtue of this, Marsden played a unique role in the story of the Luddites.
The cropping frames, so hated by the Luddites, were made at the Marsden foundry of the Taylor brothers, James and Enoch. Ironically, the hammers used by the Luddites to destroy the frames were made by the same foundry and were known as ‘Enochs’, leading to the Luddite cry of, “Enoch makes them and Enoch shall break them.”
Another major player was William Horsfall, the outspoken, anti-Luddite owner of Ottiwells Mill in Marsden. He fortified his mill with gun loops and his quoted desire to, “ride up to his saddle girths in Luddite blood”, led to his assassination by four men, while riding back to Marsden from Huddersfield Cloth Hall, across Crosland Moor. He stopped briefly at the Warren House (which stood on the corner of what is now Charles Street and Blackmoorfoot Road) for a stirrup cup before continuing up the turnpike road. Four men were waiting for him in a walled plantation (on the corner of what is now Dryclough Road and Blackmoorfoot Road). They fired on him and fled, while he fell from his saddle. He was taken back to the Warren House, where he died the next day.
His assassins were pursued by the magistrate Joseph Radcliffe, of Milnsbridge House (3), where he would interview suspects in his ‘sweat room’. George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith of John Wood’s Cropping Shop in Longroyd Bridge (Benjamin Walker’s life was spared for turning evidence), were hung at York in January 1813. The evidence for their guilt was never truly proven and their alibis ignored, but the appointment of a hanging judge sealed their fate before the trial had begun.
The Luddites were just one chapter in the long tale of the Labour Movement in this area, agitated by the poverty induced by the Napoleonic Wars, the outlawing of Trade Unions and the hugely undemocratic state of suffrage in nineteenth century Britain. The 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester only served to antagonise the situation, as did the Corn Laws and the monstrous 1834 New Poor Law.
What followed was a ground swell amongst the working classes, demanding suffrage and representation via parliamentary reform, which became to be known under the umbrella term of Chartism.
The first People’s Charter was published in 1838, on the basis of the following main aims:
1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
2. The ballot – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
3. No property qualification for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
The Lancashire/West Yorkshire Pennine Moors were often used as venues for mass political meetings that could be termed as seditious by the authorities. They were often accessible by foot and not easy places to be taken by surprise by troops on horseback. Something that would have been considered important after the Peterloo Massacre. Chartist meetings tended to take place out of the gaze of the authorities and mill owners and could attract surprisingly large numbers. A meeting on Blackstone Edge in 1846, attracted 30,000 people to hear Ernest Jones speak.
When the second Chartist petition, containing 3,250,000 signatures was handed to Parliament in 1842, a motion to hear the petitioners was defeated by 287 votes to 49. This sparked widespread unrest resulting in a general strike, that spread through a number of industrial towns in August 1842 and became known as the Plug Riots.
On 12th August, thousands of strikers streamed out of Lancashire, over Standedge, into the Colne and Holme Valleys. They stopped off at the mill of Sykes and Fisher in Marsden to demand that work stop immediately. Upon refusal, they drew the plugs of the mill’s boilers (which stopped the steam driven machinery). After visiting the Taylor’s foundry, they marched through Colne Valley, stopping off at Slaithwaite, Golcar and Longwood, drawing the plugs at every mill, until eventually, a mob of over 6000 were confronted by troops at Longroyd Bridge and read the riot act (4).
In 1848, as Europe quaked under revolution (in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere), the Chartists held a huge outdoor meeting at Kennington Common, on 10th April, which processed to Parliament to present another Charter. In Manchester, Chartists stormed the hated workhouses.
Following the failure of this final Charter, the movement petered out and many moved towards the Trade Union movement. Although the Chartists didn’t achieve their aims during the lifetime of the movement, all but one of their demands (annual Parliaments) were eventually enacted.
It is not overly imaginative to say, that during those years during the first half of the nineteenth century, Britain came as close as it has probably ever come, to revolution and Marsden played a crucial role during those turbulent times.
(2) Floods in these valleys were not uncommon. Another flood in Holme Valley, when Bilberry Reservoir burst its banks on 5th February 1852, caused 81 deaths.
(3) Milnsbridge House still survives and can be found on the junction of George Street and Dowker Street, in much reduced circumstances to those that Joseph Radcliffe enjoyed. It once stood in beautifully landscaped grounds, with two ponds. The industrialisation of Milnsbridge hemmed the house in, although for a while, its gardens were maintained as a park. Now however, the once grand house is now used by a fabrication company and the exterior has suffered greatly.
(4) The History of Huddersfield and its Vicinity – DFE Sykes 1898