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Political Dissenters


Lancaster has always had its share of dissenters, without itself being a major centre of protest. But as the county town of Lancashire, home to the crown court and the castle prison, Lancaster has witnessed a river of dissent flowing through over the centuries, including the 19th century, where working people driven by poverty and social justice, were tried for demanding basic human rights.  >> READ MORE

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Political Dissent in Lancaster

Posted by Robert Poole

Until 1974, Lancashire covered a huge part of the north-west, including what is now the South Lakes, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

The early nineteenth century brought trials of radical reformers and trade unionists. Thirty-eight Luddite  workers were tried at a special assizes in 1812 on a charge of having sworn an illegal oath, a secret form of association used at a time when trade unions were banned. They were acquitted and their appearance in court was captured by an unknown artist. Perhaps it was the same one who sketched Hannah Smith of Manchester, sentenced to death for her part in a food riot which involved the theft of a cartload of potatoes – the only food rioter to whom we can put a face.

….Hannah Smith of Manchester, sentenced to death for her part in a food riot which involved the theft of a cartload of potatoes.

The organisers of the 1819 reform rally in Manchester, the occasion of the Peterloo massacre when fifteen were killed and hundreds injured by troops, were initially tried in Lancaster, and held in cells which still exist in the King’s Evidence Tower.

In the 1830s and 1840s their successors, the Chartists, also found themselves on trial in Lancaster castle, including their national leader, Feargus O’Connor.

Throughout the 19th century people were forced to stand up for their rights: to vote, to be represented, for work, for food.

19th century protesters were not only found in the cells.  In 1884 a wave of demonstrations swept the country campaigning in favour of a reform bill that would give more than two million men across the country the vote. Lancaster held its own indoor rally in Palatine Hall. The bill was passed that October.

Throughout the 19th century people were forced to stand up for their rights: to vote, to be represented, for work, for food. These political dissenters all had courage to stand up to a hostile state and some paid a price for doing so.

The Chartists continue to inspire social justice activists and artists today. Singer Garth Hewitt’s CDROM ‘The Chartist Hymnbook’ draws parallels between the Chartists and social justice struggles.

Histories of dissent in Lancaster therefore reflect histories of national dissent.

And dissent continues into the twenty-first century. Several thousand Lancastrians travelled to London to protest Britain’s involvement in the second Iraq war. In recent years, large demonstrations against welfare cuts have taken place. An Occupy camp formed for three weeks in November and December [link] 2011  [link to Zephyrine oral history excerpts] and four people, arrested for squatting an unused hotel, made national and international news in January 2012. In the summer of 2014, the town centre was the site of multiple Palestinian solidarity rallies. Each year, the May Day rally attracts hundreds of demonstrators. Lancaster citizens, it seems, are following in the footsteps of their forbears and are undertaking many acts of dissent for future historians to document.