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 Shuttleworth, Joseph Brotherton, Absalom Watkin and William Cowdray among its number. The 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. Prentice 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.
John, Thomas, William & Richard Potter
John 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
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.