It was just before 2000, when Lister Lane Cemetery was a virtual jungle, and the Cemetery’s Friends group was just being launched. It was then that Harriet Dell rediscovered the tombstone of Chartist orator Benjamin Rushton in an overgrown and remote part of the Cemetery, and assisted by others, began to research this little-remembered hero of the 1840s working classes.
Ben Rushton was born at Dewsbury in 1785, moving to Halifax in his youth, to work as a handloom weaver. A member of the Methodist New Connection, in those days Ben worshipped at Salem Chapel, North Parade, where he was a preacher, and heavily involved with Sunday School teaching. In 1809, he married Martha Helliwell at Halifax Parish Church. They had several children and lived for most of their married life in a cottage at Friendly Fold, Ovenden.
The first references to his political and radical life come from when he was in his 20s. Inspired and distressed by the poor conditions around him, Ben began to champion the cause of the handloom weavers, whose standards and quality of life were being eroded by industrialisation. He also campaigned against the new Poor Law of 1834, with its unjust and hated Workhouse system. He was a radical agitator for at least thirty years, from the time of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, through to the final years of Chartism.
Chartism, the first truly working-class movement in Britain, was named after the People’s Charter, which set out six political demands: universal suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by secret ballot, annually elected Parliaments, payment for MPs and abolition of property qualifications for MPs. Three times the Commons refused to accept the charter’s presentation, in 1839, 1842, and 1848, although it contained over 3,000,000 signatures.
In January 1838, at a public Halifax meeting, before the publication of the Charter, Ben supported a resolution calling for five of its six demands. Over the next few years, his many passionate speeches were delivered to appreciative audiences at Chartist meetings throughout the district. Often these gatherings had to take place at remote moorland spots, out of easy reach of the authorities.
Ben served for years as treasurer for the West Riding Chartists. He was not afraid to speak out for the people’s rights in Halifax itself. In August 1842, at a meeting when thousands gathered from miles around during the so-called Plug Plot unrest, he addressed crowds in Halifax, only to be told personally to refrain by local magistrate Col George Pollard. His refusal to do so resulted in Ben’s arrest and imprisonment.
Events were very tense in Halifax that August, when a huge tide of humanity – women as well as men, numbering many thousands - swept down the upper Calder Valley from Lancashire, while masses arrived on the edge of Halifax from Bradford at Godley. The ensuing pulling of the plugs from the boilers of many Halifax factories, led to a standstill of the textile industry in Halifax, and an enforced general strike. Among those affected was Col Akroyd’s mill at Haley Hill and William Haigh’s mill at Garden Street. The large crowds were eventually dispersed by soldiers, and eighteen were arrested. Another contingent was dispersed by gunfire and a sabre charge at North Bridge resulted in several deaths. The next day, protesters, having failed to rescue the Chartist prisoners, ambushed a troop of soldiers at Salterhebble, causing serious damage to the troop until reinforcements arrived; this engagement was considered to be the closest that troops came to being overwhelmed during the disturbances. For weeks, many refused to return to work, following the first General Strike in Halifax.
Over the years, Ben Rushton became disillusioned by religion, and was expelled by his chapel for his militancy. He had little income, and yet would be happy to spend much time speaking out for what he believed in. And the ordinary people of the West Riding loved and admired him, for he was on their side, however coarse his language might be at times, for he always inspired them by his rousing and compelling rhetoric. However, the movement was in a decline after 1842.
On Good Friday 1848, a huge demonstration of the West Riding Chartist Association was held on Skircoat Green. Twenty thousand attended, which shows that Halifax was a leading centre of Chartism at that date. Processions poured into Halifax with bands and flags, from Bradford, Huddersfield and elsewhere. Ben presided at the event.
Ernest Jones the prominent national Chartist stood as a Radical Candidate at Halifax at the 1848 election. Few of his supporters had the vote, and his electoral challenge failed. Soon afterwards he was arrested for sedition. On the eve of the Jones’s return to Halifax in July 1850 following his release from prison, Ben spoke at a mass meeting at Blackstone Edge. Shortly afterwards he also spoke at a large rally at West Hill Park, Gibbet Street, just north of Lister Lane Cemetery, welcoming Jones back to Halifax. Joins again stood unsuccessfully as a Parliamentary candidate at Halifax in 1852.
By 1850, support for Chartism was waning, due to repeated lack of progress towards its goals. Socialism and Constructive Trades Unionism were beginning to take its place.
Late in life, attempting to supplement a minimal income, Ben also became a tea salesman. Having been widowed, Ben died on 17th June 1853 at Friendly Fold, of the effects of jaundice. He died as he had lived, in poverty, and the local Chartist executive immediately declared that he should be honoured by a public funeral at their expense. Five special trains brought Chartists from Bradford and further afield to the event on 26th June, and attendance at the funeral was estimated by the Halifax Guardian as between 6,000 and 10,000.
John Hargreaves has written of the occasion: “A large procession headed by leading Chartists Ernest Jones and R.G. Gammage, followed by marshals, bearing wands tipped with crape and members of the public walking six abreast met his remains at Friendly Fold, Ovenden. They were encased in an elegantly embellished double coffin covered with black cloth, bearing the inscription ‘Chartists weep! And let your grief be true A nobler patriot country never knew.’ The procession led by a brass band and a marching column of Chartists from Bradford was so large that it took an hour and a half to pass through the town along a route lined, as Ernest Jones observed, by ‘a continuous wall of human beings ranged for a length of two miles on either side of the road.’ Indeed, the hearse, of the most classic design, adorned by weeping figures of life-like size surrounded by a forest of plumes and drawn by two horses, which was intended to bring up the rear of the procession soon formed but a feature in the centre of the long column so great was the multitude pouring in from all parts.”
Following speeches by Robert Gammage and George White, the final oration over the grave was given by Ernest Jones, and it was non-religious.
I quote the following from a bulletin sent to the ‘New York Daily Tribune’ by Karl Marx, shortly after Ben’s funeral. Marx saw Ben as a great hero of the working classes:
“…Ernest Jones had announced the death of Benjamin Rushton, a working man who years before, had presided at the great Chartist meeting; and he proposed that his funeral should be made a great political demonstration, and be connected with the West Riding meeting for the adoption of the Charter, as the noblest obsequies to be given to that expired veteran. Never before in the annals of British Democracy, has such a demonstration been witnessed … the number [present] unprecedented even in the most excited times.”
That momentous event took place here, in the heart of west central Halifax.
The headstone of Ben Rushton (left) was paid for by his Chartist friends, or he would not have any memorial. On it, Ben is described as ‘The Late Old and Tried Patriot’, and below are inscribed lines written by Burns:
An honest man here lies at rest
As e’er God with his image blest;
The friend of man, the friend of truth,
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm’d,
Few heads with knowledge so informed:
If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.
David C Glover