Matt Dunne, our Collections Assistant, writes: Special Collections holds a collection of business papers of the Marshall family, owners of Temple Mill in Holbeck and notable for producing a number of Whig and Liberal MPs. We also have a series of letters written by James Garth Marshall in 1842 during the week of the Plug Riots. The first of these has been covered in one of our recent Two Minute Treasure videos and it gives an interesting insight into the attitudes of mill owners to the riots. Comparing it with other items in our collections fills in parts of the history of the riots as well.

Pages 2-3 of a letter addressed to Thomas Spring Rice, 1st Baron Monteagle of Brandon, from James Marshall, 16th August 1842. MS 739. Image credit Leeds University Library.

10 years earlier, the great Reform Act of 1832 had widened the franchise and led to James’ brother John Marshall being elected Whig MP for the newly created borough of Leeds, seen here in a poll book for the subsequent general election held from December 1832 to January 1833. The Reform Act was a reaction to popular calls for parliamentary reform in the first part of the 19th century, including the demonstration that led to the famous Peterloo Massacre in 1819, subsequent to the growth of cities in the Industrial Revolution.

The Poll book of the Leeds Borough Election. YAS 0969. Image credit Leeds University Library.

However, many workers were still excluded from voting and pushed for further reforms, giving birth to the Chartist movement calling for the removal of property qualifications for voting rights and the extension of the franchise to all adult men. In 1842 the Chartists’ second petition for increased voting reform was rejected by parliament, and this, along with imposed wage cuts, led to mill workers, miners and other workers taking part in the Plug Riots. Up to half a million workers around the country forced workplaces to close, mainly across the cotton districts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

The people’s charter, c.1837. Pamphlets BC Yorkshire H-SHE-8/GRE. Image credit Leeds University Library.

In the featured letter, James Marshall is writing to his father-in-law, Lord Monteagle, relaying the spread of the riots across the North. He mentions that rioters are spurred on by the anniversary of Peterloo, clearly linking the riots to this long history of struggle for voting reform. The letter itself is in two parts. The morning entry describes the riots as happening elsewhere, with Marshall seeming relatively undisturbed by them. However writing in the afternoon, Marshall describes the riots as much closer, overrunning nearby towns and closing in around Leeds. Despite the Marshalls’ support for at least some voting reform, James is clearly aware that he and his mill may become a target. In the letter he considers asking for military aid from Manchester and his brother-in-law, Charles Spring Rice, Assistant Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. The next letter in this series is to Spring Rice requesting help, and the entire series describes the increasing disturbance throughout the week, leading to an attack on Temple Mill itself.

Aside from military intervention, the letter describes Marshall distributing a placard appealing for calm in the area, also reported by the Leeds Mercury. The tone of the newspaper report and placard does seem to contrast with that of the private letter. Marshall is described as having the deepest sympathy for the poor and he uses the cause of parliamentary reform to appeal to the working class not to riot, in contrast to his letter describing “the mob” and mentioning fear of Chartists. The fact that Temple Mill was targeted shows that he might not have been seen as as much of an ally as the placard suggests. 

The Leeds Mercury. Newspaper LEE. Image credit Leeds University Library.

We can see how this letter, alongside other material from the time, shows the attitudes of a reform-supporting mill owner during the largest uprising in 19th century Britain and also reveals some of the actions and thoughts of the rioters themselves. It shows a complicated social and political situation, not as black and white as simply being for or against parliamentary reform. The reform movement itself had competing voices, some supporting more radical demands and actions. The division between a Whig mill owner and Chartist rioters indicates how much competing class interests and demands were an important factor in the reform movement.