Archibald Prentice was born on 17th November 1792, the son of
a small Lanarkshire farmer. On leaving school he worked as a
warehouse clerk for a local textile manufacturer called Thomas
Grahame. So impressed was Grahame with Prentice’s work that
in 1815 he sent him to represent the business in Manchester,
where he was to become friends with the local Nonconformist
group of political and social reformers that included John
Edward Taylor, John,
Thomas and Richard Potter, John
Brotherton, Absalom Watkin
and William Cowdray among its number.
group lobbied for new industrial towns right to representation
in Parliament – met at John Potter’s house which was popularly
called “Potter’s Planning Parlour”. Prentice
was present at the Peterloo
Massacre but had left St Peters Field when the military
charge against the crowd occurred. His interviews with eyewitnesses,
however, resulted in his sending a written account to London;
his article along with that of John Edward Taylor in The
Time s, were the major accounts of the tragedy in Manchester
in 1819. Thereafter, for a time he contributed regularly to
Taylor’s Manchester Guardian , but his growing belief
that the newspaper was not nearly radical enough caused him
to break his association with Taylor and in 1824 to his own
newspaper, the Manchester Gazette . Prentice also edited
the the newspaper until 1828 when he was forced to close the
newspaper through bankruptcy.
strongly fought for parliamentary reform, religious toleration
and free trade. By 1835 he had joined Joseph Hume and Francis
Place in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law Association, (later
the Anti-Corn Law League); the well known figures of John
Bright and Richard Cobden also joined the League. After
several abortive attempts as proprietor of other newspapers,
Prentice eventually was to work at the Manchester Gas Office.
He was also a prolific writer on political and other works,
including “Tour of the United States” in 1848, “Historical
Sketches and Personal Reminiscences of Manchester” in 1851
and “History of the Anti-Corn Law League” in 1853. Prentice
died at the age of 61 years on 24th December 1857.
London born Absalom Watkin was the son of an innkeeper, though
his father died when Absalom was just fourteen and he was forced
to take work in his uncle John’s cotton and calico manufacturing
business in Manchester. Within a few years John Watkin sold
the business to Thomas Smith, and Absalom continued to work
for his new employer as the factory manager. He developed an
ambition to eventually own his own business and through scrimping
and saving he had raised enough money to buy the factory outright
in 1807. Watkin fervently believed in the need for parliamentary
reform and in 1815 he joined the Nonconformist radical group
of liberals that regularly met in the house of John Potter.
Others members of the group included John Edward Taylor, John
Shuttleworth, Archibald Prentice, William Cowdray, Joseph Brotherton,
Thomas Potter and Richard Potter. They were dedicated to achieving
representation in Parliament for the new industrialised cities
such as Manchester and Birmingham.
Watkin was a Methodist by persuasion and he believed in religious
tolerance. Like other members of the group he argued for an
independent inquiry into the Peterloo
Massacre, although as far as is known he did not witness
the tragedy. It was Watkin who actually drew up the Declaration
and Protest document that was signed by over 5,000 Mancunians.
He was also a close friend of Joseph Johnson, who introduced
him to the radical journalist, Richard Carlisle.
In December 1827, Potter and Shuttleworth suggested that he
should take over editorship of the Manchester Gazette
from Archibald Prentice, but in the event he declined the offer.
Watkin also took part in drawing up the petition demanding that
the government grant Manchester two Members of Parliament. The
1832 Reform Act saw Manchester with its first two Members of
Parliament, Mark Philips and Charles Poulett Thomson. Two other
close friends of Watkin, Joseph Brotherton and Richard Potter
also became Members of Parliament for Salford and Wigan respectively
in 1832. Watkin also became Vice President of Manchester’s Anti-Corn
Law League in 1840. Both of his sons were also active in politics;
Edward Watkin became a Liberal MP and Alfred Watkin became Mayor
of Manchester. Absalom
Watkin died on 16th December 1861.
Thomas, William & Richard Potter
Potter had been a Tadcaster draper, until he sold his shop to
raise the money to set up a cotton business in Cannon Street
in Manchester. Although fairly rich, John Potter and his sons
were all Unitarians who were concerned about the plight and
poor living and working conditions of the poor. John Potter
held meetings at his home for a group of like-minded liberal
radicals in Manchester, including John Shuttleworth, John Edward
Taylor, Archibald Prentice, Absalom Watkin, Joseph Brotherton
and William Cowdray. They fiercely objected to the lack of parliamentary
representation for large industrial cities like Manchester,
Leeds and Birmingham. His three sons – Thomas, William and Richard
– all worked for their father and eventually became partners
in the company. Thomas and Richard would both go on to distinguish
themselves in local politics, while William seems to have been
content to continue managing the family factory.
After John died, Thomas and Richard continued with his political
reform work and after the 1832 Reform Act Richard became Member
of Parliament for Wigan. In 1835 Thomas was elected to the borough
council and in 1838 became Manchester’s first mayor. He was
knighted in 1840 and died in March 1845.
Hugh Hornby Birley was born on 10th March 1778 in Blackburn.
He was to become a leading Manchester industrialist and powerful
political voice in the fledgling city. He owned a large textile
factory in Oxford Road, in Manchester, and it was through textiles
that he was to make his fortune.
He was also a captain in the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry
, who came to notoriety in 1819, when Birley led 60 armed cavalrymen
of their number, possibly many in a drunken state, into St Peter’s
Field and was one of the main people blamed for the so-called Peterloo Massacre.
The government of the day refused a public inquiry into the
tragedy, and it was left to one Thomas Redford, who had been
injured in the cavalry charge, to bring a private assault charge
against Hugh Birley, and three other members of his troop. The
court case was held in 1822 at Lancaster, but, after five days
deliberation, the jury found in favour of Birley, finding that
the assault on Redford had “been properly committed in the
dispersal of an unlawful assembly.” Hugh Birley continued
to live in Manchester after the Peterloo Massacre but was scorned
by the social reformers for his reactionary views and politics.
He was, however, high regarded by more right wing thinkers and
was elected as Manchester’s first President of its Chamber of
Commerce. Later, in the 1820s he went into partnership with Charles Macintosh. He
died on 31st July, 1845.
John Edward Taylor was born at Ilminster in Somerset on 11th
September 1791, the son of a teacher at Daventry Academy. His
mother Mary, was an active supporter of equal rights for women.
His father was initially a Unitarian minister but became a Quaker
and opened a school in Bristol. When his wife died he moved
with his young son John in 1793 to live in Manchester, and worked
at a school in Salford. Here he educated his son and later sent
him to his old school, Daventry Academy. Later he took work
at John Shuttleworth’s
factory in Manchester. Shuttleworth introduced Taylor to other
liberal minded Nonconformist radicals in Manchester. This was
the group that lobbied for parliamentary recognition and representation
for industrial cities like Manchester, which were at that time
unrepresented in Parliament.
In 1810 Taylor was made secretary of the committee that ran
the monitorial school in Manchester, and in 1813 he joined the
Literary and Philosophical Society. Taylor also began contributing
articles to the Manchester Gazette , in which he publicised
his strong views on burning political issues, particularly parliamentary
reform. His lack of support for universal suffrage brought him
into conflict with other members of the group who broke away
and founded the Manchester Observer . This breakaway
faction invited Henry
Orator Hunt to speak at the parliamentary reform
meeting at St. Peter’s Field on Monday 16th August 1819 which
resulted in the Peterloo
Massacre. Taylor was a major reporter of the event as soon
afterwards be began interviewing eyewitnesses. T was his account
that almost certainly formed the basis of the account published
in The Times in London later. He was also one of the
group that founded the Manchester Guardian . Taylor’s
views on parliamentary reform gradually became more conservative
and his old friend, Archibald Prentice, became one of his strongest
critics. John Edward Taylor remained editor of the Manchester
Guardian until his death on 6th January 1844.