Karl Marx in the New York Daily Tribune 1854

The Troubles at Preston


Source: Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Edited by Kenneth Lapides;
Written: by Marx;
First Published: in the New York Daily Tribune, March 31 1854;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

The agitators of Preston, the great fomentors of the strike — the men who pretended to form a new estate of the realm, and to be the nursing fathers of the Labor Parliament, have at length received a check. Some dozen of them have been arrested and examined before the local magistrates on a charge of conspiracy, released on bail and sent before the Liverpool assizes.

Such are the words in which The Morning Post announces an event which I was prevented from writing about earlier by the pressure of other matter. The charge against the leaders rests upon the fact that the masters had sent to Manchester and induced men to come down to Preston. They were mostly Irishmen. The people met them at the railway station, where they presented a scene of misery and wretchedness. About fifty-four of them were persuaded to go to the Farmer’s Arms where they were regaled all day, and, having consented to return, were escorted in the evening to the railway station amidst the exclamations of 15,000 persons. The employers got hold of seven of these people and brought them back to Preston to convict Mr. Cowell and his colleagues of conspiracy. Now, if we consider the [real facts] of the case, there remains no doubt on the question who are the real conspirators.

In 1847 the Preston cotton lords reduced wages on a solemn promise to restore them as soon as trade should have become brisk. In 1853, the year of prosperity, they refused to keep their word. The working men of four mills struck, and were supported by the contributions of the remaining at work. The masters now conspired together that they would lock their mills, and entered each into a 5,000 bond to enforce their conspiracy. The operatives then appealed for support to the other towns of Lancashire, and that support was given. The employers had sent emissaries to persuade and incite the cotton lords of other towns to lock out their hands, and succeeded in their endeavor. Not content with this, a vast subs[cription was] opened among them to counterbalance the [subscription] of the operatives. When they found that all these efforts were of no avail, they sent their agents far and near to induce laborers and their families, needlewomen, and paupers from the work-houses of England and Ir[eland to come] to Preston. Finding the surplus did not flow in fast enough for their wishes, they tried to provoke the people to a breach of the peace. They aggravated them by their insolence. They forbade meetings in the Marsh, but the people held meetings in Blackstone Edge and other interdicted localities. They introduced one hundred new police, they swore in special constables, they turned out the fire-brigade, they kept troops under arms, and went so far as to read the riot act in order to provoke a riot. Such was the conspiracy of the masters [but] they were defeated in each of their attempts. Notwithstanding these facts, an indictment of conspiracy is charged, not against the masters, but against the men. Besides, there is a special case bringing the masters under the law of conspiracy. The men of a certain factory resumed the work. The masters’ committee and the men’s committee alike called for explanations. The men published a placard to the effect that they had gone to work on condition of payment at a certain rate. The masters’ committee threatened proceedings against the master of that mill to recover 5,000 as penalty on a bond given to support the masters’ strike. The mill-owner thereupon said something which, being a flat contradiction of [the] men’s statement, occasioned them all to withdraw. If [making] of this bond of 5,000 was a conspiracy in the terms of the law, the menace to enforce it was still more so. But this is not all. The very indictment of the men’s leaders was brought about by a conspiracy committed by the magisterial benches at Preston. According to The Times itself, the magistrates got up evidence, sought for it, brought up their surplus slaves in cabs to their council chamber, dreading the publicity of the town hall, there to arrange their evidence, and there, in the dead of night to pounce on their intended victims.

The expectations of these little Napoleons of Lancashire [were,] however, set at naught by the good sense of the working people, who neither allowed themselves to be provoked into a breach of peace, nor to be frightened into [submission] to the dictates of the Preston parvenus.

A public meeting was held in London on Wednesday night in St. Martin’s Hall, Long Acre, for the purpose of affording the working classes of the metropolis an opportunity of expressing their opinion of the conduct of the Preston masters. The following two resolutions were unanimously accepted:

That the present Lord Chancellor of England, when Baron Rolfe, [and] in his capacity of judge, laid down the law thus:

That if there were no other object than to persuade people that it was their interest not to work except for certain wages, and not to work under certain regulations, complied with in a peaceful manner, it was not illegal.

That the operatives of Preston have for a period of thirty weeks been engaged in a contest with their employers, and during the whole of that time have conducted themselves in the most peaceable and orderly manner.

That, notwithstanding these facts, four members of the Operatives’ Committee have been committed to take their trial at the present Liverpool Assizes on a charge of conspiracy, although neither violence nor intimidation has been proved or even charged against them.

This meeting is therefore of opinion that the conduct of the manufacturers and magistrates of Preston is reprehensible; that they have been guilty of an unwarrantable assumption of power; that they have destroyed at once the equality of the law and personal freedom; and that such proceedings ought to be condemned by the unanimous voice of the people.

That the sympathy and help of the entire working classes of the United Kingdom should be devoted to the vindication of justice and the maintenance of right. This meeting, therefore, pledges itself to an extraordinary and continuous support of the Preston operatives in their present trying position, and earnestly exhorts all who have an interest in the elevation of labor to join with them in supporting its best interests.

[The] London press generally condemn the proceedings [of the] Preston masters, not from any sense of justice but [from fear] of the probable results. They apprehend that [the] working class will now understand that the indivi[dual] capitalist who oppresses them is backed by the whole machinery [of state], and that in order to hit the former they [must] deal with the latter.