How Lowbands Began
Quite a few sources of information exist concerning the formation and development of Lowbands. However it should be born in mind that even the earliest of these accounts of what actually took place were not written at or even near to the time of the events but were in fact penned some 50 to 65 years later. They are the recollections and memories of old men recorded for such events as the respective Jubilee's of the Middleton and Tonge Industrial Society or the CWS. Memories and perceptions of younger days do fade and alter with time and occasionally odd details and the exact sequence of events, particularly in the early part of the story, don't quite fit as precisely as one would have liked. However these are more slight ambiguities rather than totally differing versions of events. Most of the versions are remarkably similar and supportive of each other and what follows is a good and accurate representation compiled from all these sources. (Detailed in the bibliography).
Two separate sets of co-operators with entirely different aims formed in Middleton in 1846. Undoubtedly, these men knew each other, not only on a work basis but on a personal level. It is from these two organisations that the Lowbands Farm Co-operative evolved and hence led to the foundation of the vast Co-operative Wholesale Society.
A group of some twenty weavers started a co-operative without a name to manufacture silk at Alkrington. This business was reported to be at the home of William Taylor of Stocks which was a short row of terraced houses just off Sunk Lane. They stood between what is now Kirkway and Manchester New Road. (So far I have been unable to trace a William Taylor of Stocks on either the 1841 or 1851 Census. Rather unfortunately 1846 falls midway between the two). The basic idea of the project seemed to be to club together and buy the raw materials, manufacture the silk cloth, sell it and share the profits between themselves.
It is reported that they "bought the raw material and engaged two weavers to weave it for them". I have to confess that I do have a problem accepting this. It just doesn't appear to fit the situation. There are twenty hand loom weavers, all with their own loom at home, all struggling to make ends meet and they employ two other weavers to do the work for them? It's just not logical. However it is so reported and hence has been included. I will return to the Stocks topic later in the story.
The other group held a meeting over Robert Booth's slaughter-house on Factory Street. This was the first meeting to establish a retail co-operative shop in the town following in the footsteps of the Rochdale Pioneers who had opened their shop in Toad Lane around 14 months previously on December 21st 1844. This was the meeting that led to the foundation of The Middleton and Tonge Industrial Society. These men were of quite definite Owenite or Chartist views but unlike their political counterparts, were more interested in trying to achieve improvements by practical means rather than as political agitators or activists. Amongst this gathering of "the sowers of sedition" were one George Booth (no relation to the aforementioned Robert) and his next door neighbour in Jumbo Thomas Taylor. A subscription of 3d a week raised £40 before the year was out and they " thowt they dust venture to tak' a shop", but it would not be until 1850 that the first shop opened in Little Park on the corner of Heap Street and Irk Street, although a business was conducted from one or two small cottages prior to this. The reason for this long delay was that no one would lease them a shop probably because of the unpopularity of the Chartists and Owenites, a drawback which would have been used by the local credit shopkeepers who would doubtlessly somewhere in the background, have played more than a small role in this delay.
Chartists were originally formed from a number of groups which had united in 1837 to urge political reform. The movement seems to have come about following the publication of Feargus O'Connor's newspaper, The Northern Star, which was first published in that year. Although regarded as a radical group there was nothing particularly new in their ideas and aims which were broadly speaking the same as the Middleton Reformers some twenty years previously. Unsurprisingly their name came from their attempts to establish a six point Charter. This was not like the Citizen's Charter of today in that at least their Charter would have served some useful purpose for the public. They wanted the electoral system changing, Universal Suffrage, Equal Representation, Abolishment of the Property Qualification, Paid MP's, Ballot Voting and Annual Parliaments. The Chartist movement was not against a show of physical strength and sometimes prone to incite or advocate violence and civil disorder and it is this fact which caused their unpopularity in many quarters, including many people who basically agreed with their views.
A known local opponent of these groups was Lawyer Halsall, better known as "Yallow Breeches". These "breeches" would be made of a material called Buffine which was bright yellow in colour. Fustian would be worn by the lower classes. This was a thick twilled, short-napped, cotton based cloth, usually died dark. The rich and successful had a much wider choice of materials and might have chosen a cloth such as Stammel, a fine quality red woollen material which would be at least 12 times the price of Fustian. This choice of clothing by Lawyer Hassall reveals quite an insight into the man. The Buffine he wore was actually only a few pence a yard dearer than Fustian. So either he was tight with his money or not as prosperous as one might expect a lawyer to be. In choosing to wear yellow Buffine rather than Fustian, he clearly intended to show to one and all that he was not of the poorer classes. In his self image, he probably thought he was projecting an image of "I'm one of you" to the richer classes and "I'm superior to you" to the lower classes. In reality, the image both classes probably received was "twenty-four carat, grade one plonker". Nicknames can be a form of affection but you sense that in his case, he would probably be the only person in Middleton unaware that he was known as "Old Yallow Breeches" and it would be a term of derision. (However, enough of this purely speculative homespun amateur psychology on my part).
The Chartists and Owenites were still active in Middleton and the surrounding area in this period. It would have been they who arranged the meeting at which Feargus O'Connor was to speak. Feargus O'Connor's Land Scheme was launched in 1845. His scheme was that land would be bought up then split into smallholding allotments which members would then farm. Lowbands estate in Gloucester was where the scheme was launched and it was from here that the Middleton co-operators took the name when they started their project. In 1848 his scheme collapsed. Samuel Bamford's opinion of the scheme was that O'Connor was telling the poor to buy land when they couldn't even afford bread.
Feargus O'Connor had addressed a Chartist meeting at Rochdale in 1838. At this meeting he had promised the crowd as politicians are want to do, that they would have the vote by this time next year (Sept 29th1839). He said that "On that day they would have Michaelmas Goose, if they did not get it on that day they would have Gander on the 30th". It was after this meeting that Samuel Bamford penned his sarcastic poem, "O'Connor's Michaelmas Goose", deriding and scornful of Chartist leaders and politicians, alleging that they were misleading the public. One verse reads:-
A gang o'bombasters,
They'd pee i'their breeches,
Ere shorten their speeches.
A crew o'decoyers,
An' poor folk destroyers.
We know that Sam was against the violent aspects of Chartism despite perhaps holding some sympathy with their aims. Sam didn't like Feargus but it went deeper than differences of political opinion. It has been suggested that Sam harboured resentment or envy and that he yearned to be the centre of attention again. The masses were cheering new leaders and it dented his ego. Whilst there is an element of truth in this I think that the experiences of Sam's life had made him wary of politicians. After Peterloo he had to his cost, through dealings with men such as Hunt, discovered a breed that we now know as "the career politician", people who use political movements to further their own ends or careers rather than "the cause" or the electorate they are supposed to be serving. Unlike the man in the street, Sam could spot these types of politicians a mile off. I wonder if Sam's "assumed jealousy" by some historians has been mistaken, and that Sam's frustration was caused not because he was no longer "centre stage" but rather that, because he no longer had a platform he couldn't convey to his fellow townsfolk that which he could plainly see and they couldn't. In my view, Sam had seen right through Feargus O'Connor. Neither Goose nor Gander-were delivered as promised in September 1839.
There may perhaps be a further question mark against O'Connor's political motivations. He had previously been elected to parliament but had been unseated because he did not have the required property and land qualifications. Surely in this indignity lay the seeds of his Chartism, "The Northern Star", and his Land Scheme. It could illustrate further that rather than helping the people, he was in fact using them to fulfil his own personal ends.
The exact date that Feargus O'Connor spoke at Middleton is not known, but it is most probably 1849 or 1850. Given his track record, the fact that the Chartist movement had lost a good deal of credibility when their petition to parliament was found to contain many forged signatures, and that his own scheme had failed, one might be surprised that he had addressed a meeting advocating his scheme at all. Perhaps there was a fee involved. However he had a tremendous reputation as a speaker, charismatic, flamboyant, motivating and probably entertaining. This man had not only kissed the Blarney Stone, he'd slept with it. He was a politician of the demagogue mould, popular because he gave the crowd what they wanted to hear appealing to the prejudices of the masses.
Perhaps the roots of these talents can be explained by his family history. He was born 1794, at Connerville, County Cork, and the son of Roger the eccentric and nephew of Arthur. His father Roger was a barrister who on joining the United Irishmen led to a term of imprisonment at Fort George in Scotland. His home Dangan Castle burnt to the ground following a suspiciously heavy insurance cover. He then eloped with a married woman. He was caught red handed robbing the Galway mail train and claimed in his defence that "He had but wanted to obtain from it some letters incriminating a friend". (The verdict isn't recorded.) He was outrageously eccentric and took to writing imaginary annals and foolish books. Arthur his uncle served several terms in prison for high treason before being deported to France. There he married the daughter of French philosopher and statesman, the Marquis de Condorcet. He became a general in Napoleon's army and ended up with the wonderful title of "General de Condorcet O'Connor."
(Sic. somehow seems inadequate; and the image conjured up by the phrase, "gold braid round his wellies", politically incorrect, historically impossible, but nonetheless irresistible).
Feargus O'Connor addressed "an immense audience" at Middleton Wood. Inspiring the crowd with his cry of "the land for the people", the Alkrington silk weavers who's business was not successful, " were carried away and they determined to leave silk manufacturing and go in for farming, a business of which they had little knowledge or experience. In 1851, they rented a farm called Lowbands". There is a different version of the beginning which seems the more likely. "A body of men met in Tonge Township and decided to try Cooperative textile production and Cooperative farming. They numbered four Wolstencroft brothers known as Sam O' Croft's, Jack O' Croft's, Tum O' Croft's, Jem O' Crofts, Joseph Walker, Joseph Staveacre, jun., Joseph Spencer ("Joe at Peggy's") James Taylor, John Taylor, the last two named were the sons of William Taylor of Stocks, George Chadwick, Robert Smith, Joseph Healey, Joseph Jagger and John Andrew. These men met at Jagger's house near Tonge Lane toll-gate. They manufactured velvet waist-coasts which they sold and shared the profits". The two versions now meet again. As the two sons of William Taylor of Stocks are mentioned in the second version it probably indicates that these men, or at least some of them, were the remnants of the Co-operative at Stocks which seems to have struggled to get established and failed as business.
In 1851 the group leased a farm sited on Grimshaw Lane. Their Lowbands "dream" was born and they were blissfully unaware of the problems facing them or the history they would eventually create.