A Steeple Chase!

The Steeple Family in Oldham, from 1790 to 1851
This little story is a mixture of hard fact and some personal observations, which won't be too difficult to spot!

The contemporary accounts and records, from diaries, local news and directories all serve to give us snapshots of what life was like, in the late 18th and early 19th century across the country, including both Oldham and Derbyshire.

The pictures are from Victorian publications illustrating contemporary events both in England and abroad. the are intended just to help illustrate the wider context of the story.

Part 2

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Circa 1810 to 1830
The first few years of these decades saw grain prices rocket again, with anger and riots as a result. In several instances the rioting crowds again compelled the local provisions dealers to sell their flour and meal more cheaply, for a short time.

During the second decade of this century poverty and starvation were ever-present spectres as the transition from domestic, home based industry, to that of working for a meagre wage in the mills, mines and other manufacturing works, was taking place. Mechanised spinning of cotton was now firmly established but, at first, advances in the weaving of yarns didn't keep pace and, in the latter years of the 18th century the job of the hand-loom weaver was still a highly skilled and valued occupation. There had been several failed or impractical attempts to develop power-looms but it was not until the first quarter of the 19th century that they became a threat to the livelihood of the hand-loom workers. Compounded by the problems caused by the Napoleonic Wars, income fell drastically with the increasing introduction of viable power-looms. The workers in the 'cottage industries' could not compete, on productivity and price, with the output from the mills. There were frequent outbursts of angry protest and sporadic rioting as those still working at home felt their already poor livelihood being stolen from them by the use of unskilled workers operating the machines in the mills. These were the years of Luddite activity, of the violence, wrecking and sabotage of mill machinery, in places as close as nearby Chadderton and Middleton.

In 1811, SARAH gave birth to another son, Robert and, the following year, to another daugher, Jane who died in her first year of life. There is, in existence, a little, pictorial sketch map of the town in 1815 (drawn from memory many years later!) on which a shop, on High Street, is described as, 'Steeple, butcher'. This fact is backed up by an entry in Leigh's directory of 1818-1820 in which JOHN is recorded as having a butcher's shop on High Street. On the sketch there is also a little drawing of, 'the infantry, who wore breeches and black gaiters', for the celebrations after the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Less than three months later, in September 1815, their daughter, Elizabeth (born in 1791) married Peter Corns who was a 'baker & flour dealer' on Clegg Street, in Oldham. They had 8 children before Elizabeth died in 1831 and her huband Peter in 1833.

These two decades saw most of JOHN's children reach maturity, marry and start their own families and businesses. JOHN's daughter Sarah (born 1794) had a child out of wedlock, in 1818, whom she called James. Six years later, in 1824, at Prestwich, she married Richard Broome, from Derbyshire (according to the parish record of their marriage). They returned to Derbyshire and, in 1830, they had a daughter, Harriet.

In the 1818 Leigh's directory, which is the first reliable account of the specific trades in the town, that I have found, there were upwards of 350 entries, not counting those in the more outlying hamlets. There was anything you might need on a day-to-day basis, as well as the less frequently needed ones. On High St, trading alongside JOHN Steeple, were 6 boot & shoemakers, another butcher, a bookseller and stationer, a clock & watchmaker, 3 flour dealers, 3 hatters, a druggist, a fishmonger, an ironmonger & tinplate worker, a joiner, a seedsman, a stocking manufacturer, a surgeon, a tailor, a stay maker, a tallow chandler and 3 licensed premises.

Around the town, the 'victuallers' accounted for the largest number of traders, 40, including 3 that also operated as 'carriers' from their licensed premises. 30 entries indicated involvement in some aspect of the cotton trade; 12 were butchers, 18 were concerned with flour or bread activities and another 30 sold groceries. There were innumerable other businesses catering for everday needs such as the basket & skip maker, cheesemonger, clog & pattern maker, coal merchants, dealer in old clothes, linen & woollen drapers, hosiers, milliners, druggist, confectioners, earthenware & china dealers, fishmonger, furniture broker, hairdressers, a hawker (licensed), ironmongers, pawnbrokers, tailors, tallow chandlers, watch & clock makers. There were also attorneys, blacksmiths, bookeepers, agents, boot & shoemakers, brass and iron founders, a brazier & tinman, a cooper, a currier & leather cutter, clerks, a deputy constable, an engineer, a fell-monger, a flagger & slater, a painter, plumber & glaziers, a pavier, a heald knitter, an iron founder, a tinplate worker, liquor merchants, machine makers, mercers, saddlers, schoolmasters, a seedsman, stocking manufacturers, surgeons, thread manufacturers, a timber merchant, a turner in wood, waste dealers and wheelwrights. A further 12 entries were were just recorded as 'shopkeeper'.

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Although Industrial Oldham was expanding rapidly as new collieries and mills opened, and associated trades also multiplied, the working people of the town were still struggling with the hardships of bad working conditions and the poor harvests of 1816 - 1818. Demands for reform by the Radicals became louder, bolder and more organised. Societies demanding reform appeared in several of the industrial towns, modelled on the Hampden Club in London. Oldham was in the forefront of radical activity and the Oldham Union Society was started in 1816 by John Knight; it's aim being to work towards the same goals as the Hampden Club. The first public meeting of the Radicals was at Bent Green in 1816 and attracted considerable support. A further rally was planned for 1817, also at Bent Green, on which groups from more distant hamlets converged, demanding representation and repeal of the hated Corn Laws. In London, seriously disturbed by the support the Hampden Clubs were receiving, the Prime Minister took the drastic step of suspending the Habeus Corpus Act. John Knight, of Oldham, was one of those arrested and held without trial for almost a year. Driven to meet in secret, in Glodwick and Bent, the Reformers met regularly under the guise of 'muffin eating' clubs, at which they read and discussed the latest articles in William Cobbett's Political Register.

In 1819 JOHN's daughter Ann (born 1792) married Edmund Pendleton, who was a farmer at Sunfield (Oldham). He was the brother of Ann's sister-in-law, Sarah. By 1830 Ann had given birth to five of her 7 children. Over in Bradbourne, Derbyshire, JOHN's son, Stephen (born 1797), married Elizabeth Barnesley, in 1821 and became a farmer in nearby Aldwark. They had three sons, the youngest of whom died when he was just 4.

1819 was the year which has gone down in history as the 'Peterloo Massacre'. Reformers throughout the region had planned a gigantic rally on St. Peter's Field in Manchester. In Oldham it was arranged that the various contingents from the hamlets would meet up on Bent Green and march to Manchester together. There were groups from Glodwick, Waterhead and Cowhill. They were joined by the groups from Chadderton, Crompton, Royton, Lees, Saddleworth and Mossley. Thousands more joined them as they walked along the route to Manchester. The men marched as soldiers, in formation, with buglers, flags and banners. After short rest-breaks in Failsworth and New Cross they carried on and marched into Manchester and onto St Peter's Field. The intention had been that the meeting would be orderly and avoid confrontation but the chairman of the magistrates lost his nerve in the face of the huge crowds and ordered the yeomanry to arrest the leaders. In the ensuing commotion the chairman of the magistrates panicked even further and ordered the 15th Hussars to charge the crowd. Which they did. The crowds fled in panic, leaving behind the dead and injured. One of those who died from his injuries shortly afterwards was John Lees, a cotton worker, from Oldham. In the trials that followed, many of the prominent Reformers were sentenced to terms of imprisonment and those that had avoided capture 'went to ground' in the months afterwards. Known Radicals were targeted by the authorities, and prosecuted vigorously whenever they came before the courts.

Peterloo in 1819

1819 .......... The 'Massacre' of Peterloo, in Manchester

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King George lV

King George lV in his Royal Robes

note from publication:
" He became Regent in 1810 ..... Without any qualities that endeared him to his people, he possessed failings and vices that were conspicuously displayed, and there were few to regret his death which occurred in 1830"

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Peterloo veterans

Oldham Veterans of ' Peterloo' - photo dates from 1881

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In 1820 George lll died and his son George ascended the throne as George lV. He would reign for the next 10 years until his death in 1830.

In 1820 JOHN's eldest son, William (born 1785), married Maria Lowe and, in the next ten years of their marriage had the first seven of her ten children, five of whom died in very early infancy. The earliest record I've found so far, about the shops in Oldham, are the trade directories from Pigot, Leigh and Baines; the earliest being Leigh's for circa 1818. William isn't recorded in this directory (father JOHN has the butcher's shop) but in the Pigot's Directory of 1821 he is recorded as a butcher on High Street and JOHN no longer has an entry. By 1820, JOHN would have been age 60 so perhaps he stepped back and allowed William to take over the shop in the High Street. All other Directory entries up to 1830 record William as having a butcher's shop on High Street. However, this wasn't the full extent of William's business interests. In the Dunn's Survey of 1829 William's name appears several times. By then he owned, rather than rented, the shop on High Street which also incorporated a slaughter house and stable. In addition he owned several 'cottages' on Radclyffe Street. He rented a plot of land, 'Dingle, Lane and Waste' in the district of HIgh Barn and another plot, next to the Gasworks, the use of which is unspecified.

In 1820, JOHN's daughter, Harriet (born 1802) also had a son out of wedlock whom she had baptised with the name 'John'. Two years later, in 1822, she married William Hollingworth who was a twiner at the time of their marriage and a shopkeeper/grocer by 1828 (ref. the baptism of one of their children). The next of JOHN's children to marry was Thomas (born 1804) who married Hannah Smethurst, of Chadderton, in February 1823. He became a farmer, at Stockbrook. By 1830 Hannah had given birth to a son and three daughters.

In November 1823, George (born 1799) married Sarah Beatey at Prestwich. They had 3 children before Sarah died in 1831. Baptism records from 1825 state that George was a butcher at Moor Bottom. However, he also had other business interests. In the same survey, of 1829, He is shown as the occupier, with a 'Joseph Pickford', of The Butchers' Arms, on the corner of George Street and High Street. On the same plot was a shop, kitchen, brewhouse, stable and slaughter house. At Mumps he was recorded as the occupier of 'Further Round HIll, gardens, a slaughter house and turf pits. These were located along what is now the road out, from Mumps, towards Glodwick. In William Rowbottom's diary, dated 1829/03/11 he wrote that George, a butcher, started selling beer at the 'Dog and Partridge'.

The last of JOHN's children to marry was Amelia, who was born in 1806. Amelia married William Whitehead in 1825 at St Michael's, the parish church of Ashton-under-Lyne. They were my 3X great grandparents. They had only one surviving child, Edward, who was born in 1826. William was the son of a builder from Failsworth but, after his marriage to Amelia, he became a butcher on Maygate Lane, according to a directory entry of 1828. On the 1829 survey he is shown as the occupier of a plot of 'pasture' on Maygate Lane.


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Snippets from William Rowbottom's diary for 1820 to 1826:

1820 .......... April 25th. "An unpleasant fracas happened at Oldham betwixt a party of the 7th Dragoons and a party of the inhabitants denominated Reformers. They fought with great severity and several severely wounded on both sides happily no lives were lost."

1821 ........ July 19th. "King George the 4th was crowned and there was the utmost joy manifested on the occasion particularly in Manchester and the different manufacturing districts. At Oldham there was great rejoicings and a deal of meat and drink were given to the lower classes....."

1822 .........31st August. "Was rushbearing Saturday. There were 1 wagon from Greenacres Moor, 1 cart from Dolstile, 1 from Red Tom Nook, 1 from Fog Lane, 1 from Maygate Lane. The company were numerous a deal of rope dancers, jugglers and shows of all denominations. The day was uncommon fine and as usual all was harmony and mirth."

1823 ....... 25th November. "Died at Oldham Edge or Lower Moor Thomas Whitehead Bassoon Player which music he played at Oldham Church for 55 years his age 74 years. On the 30th he was interred at St Peter's Chapel and was attended number of people and a large niumber of music vocal and instrumental. The funeral was attended by 4 different bands of music."

1824.........27th July. "For several weeks past the county has been much alarmed with the rumour of mad dogs and in some instances the rumour hath been confirmed for several persons who have been bit by these animals have died from that disorder which proceeds from the bite of a mad dog ........."

1826 ........ 28th February. " ........... hundreds of weavers have been turned out without work and are now in a starving state most factories are now working some 3 days some 4 days a week. It seems that masters of all denominations are unable to procure sovereigns or Bank of England notes as all country banks are stopped........"

1826 ......... 5th May. "This day the bells rung a merry peal and there was other demonstraions of joy on the arrival of 500 pounds which had been subscribed in London in aid of the distressed in Oldham when the Gentlemen of Oldham immediately commenced a subscription in aid of the starving poor and a large quantity of meal, oats, bacon and flour were distributed to the starving poor."

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The 1820s saw a change in official attitudes and, as some reforms were introduced, there was less militancy and more willingness for discussion on both sides. The need for reform had, at last, been acknowledged. There were meetings at which speakers rallied their followers with demands for concessions which included universal suffrage, elections by ballot, the free import of foreign grain and repeal of the Corn Laws. Prominent amongst the agitators was John Knight as he condemned the Peers and Bishops for opposing the Reform Bill. Eventually, Parliament was dissolved in 1831, over the issue of the Reform Bill and, at the subsequent General Election, those supporting reform swept into power.

It might be easy to believe that no-one was thinking of anything other than the fight for reform but, as always, everyday life carried on and domestic and local issues were of equal importance. Some of the more influential local figures had turned their attention towards the Parish church which they felt did not meet the standards to which they aspired. In 1824 a Vestry meeting was held to discuss the possibilities of building a bigger and better church. One of the arguments put forward was that the church was now too small to accommodate the needs of a fast-growing population. It was also argued that, in the three hundred years since it had been built, the structure had deteriorated and could be deemed dangerous. The scheme didn't receive wholehearted support from all quarters as the inhabitants of Shaw, Royton and Crompton had no wish to contribute to the building costs of a new church in Oldham. They had their own chapels to maintain. There were also voices heard which questioned the way in which the building funds were administered and also those who voiced their dismay that a much respected building should be demolished to gratify the pretensions of a few self-made and wealthy industrialists. The protests were ignored and an Act of Parliament, for rebuilding just the nave of the church, was applied for and granted. This would have left the chancel and steeple, from the old church, still in place. Because this didn't totally satisfy the wishes of those wanting the new church, the plans were dropped temporarily. The Steeple families may have watched the discussions for building a new church with considerable interest as their own church of preference for baptisms and burials was nearby St. Peter's, and not St Mary's. However, as parishioners, they would still have been affected by the cost of the re-building.

Local finances had largely come from the 'tithe', a system of taxation which had been in place for over 1000 years. One tenth of the income from land holdings was collected and paid, most frequently, to the clergy. Originally this had been paid in kind but over the centuries, in many instances, it had become more convenient to pay it in cash or a combination of the two. The produce so collected was stored in a 'tithe barn', located in each parish. The original purpose of this taxation was firstly to maintain the church building and then to support the poor, the bishop and the parochial clergy. On the 1804 map there is a plot of land, just off Water Street, marked as the 'Tythe Barn field'. (It was 1836 before the Tithe Commutation Act was passed, requiring the payment in cash instead of kind). Extra money could be raised, in times of greater hardship, by a levy on the more wealthy amongst the townspeople, by the Overseers of the Poor (and by the Poor Law Guardians after 1834).

In 1826 the system of local government, by the Vestry committee and the churchwardens was replaced by the 'Improvement' or 'Police' Commissioners. The old system of a 'constable' in the parish was not adequate to deal with the unrest and disorder that often accompanied the calls for reform. The new commissioners were empowered to appoint 'special constables' in times of emergency. The Commissioners, themselves, were a group of property owners and professional men. Every townsman who received £50 per annum from property or paid £30 in rent could be a commissioner. This change in government of the town came about at the time arguments about building a new church were still simmering. However, I think it might be safe to assume that many who qualified as Police Commissioners were already active on the Vestry Committee so that this did not seriously disrupt the plans. The scheme was helped by an incident, in 1825, in which pandemonium broke out in the church during a service, when it was claimed that the building was actually 'creaking' and about to come down. There were claims of deliberate rumour-mongering but nothing could be proved. In 1826 a meeting was held to convince people that another act should be applied for, to allow complete demolition of the church and an entirely new church built in its place. It was promised that the final cost would not exceed £12,000. Opposition was still very strong but those wanting it were influential and affluent and could demand the support of those who relied on them for wages. Parishioners from Royton and Crompton were overwhelmingly against it but the votes of Oldham and Chadderton gave the activists for a new church all the support they needed. The act was granted and demolition began; not the easiest job as the tower stubbornly refused to fall and the workmen had to resort to blasting it, as if it was a rock face in a quarry, before it would fall. The new church took three years to build, during which services had to be held in a shed over the hearse house. It was finished in 1830 but the arguments about the cost weren't over and dragged on for years.

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Another issue, about costs and raising public money, was that of the proposed Bluecoat School which had been rumbling on since the death in 1810 of Thomas Henshaw. In 1828 a subscription list was finally opened to pay for building the school on the land which had been donated by Robert Radcliffe of Foxdenton and Joseph Jones Jnr. Workers from Oldham raised £1,332 from amongst themselves. However, the Trustees felt that they needed to have the sum of £5000 before they could apply to the Court of Chancery for the necessary permission to start building. By 1829 they had the required amount and the corner stone was laid by Thomas Barker who had been Henshaw's partner. Funds continued to be a problem and work stopped and started as the money ran out and then dribbled in again. The building was finally finished and the school opened in 1833 ......... 23 years after the death of Thomas Henshaw, the original benefactor.

Life in Oldham in these decades had its lighter side and the town had a theatre.There had been a theatre as early as 1810 (before that there had been a production, in 1807, at the Red Lion Hotel) but, a few years later, when the floor collapsed it had to be closed. In 1829 there was once again a theatre with a production of Guy Mannering playing. These two decades also saw several new churches, along with sunday schools, being built in and around the town. A couple of these were anglican but the majority were non-conformist.

Transport, for both goods and passengers was as ever, a pressing concern as the town and its industries grew. Although there was a canal link and some roads, attention was turning towards the use of the steam engine, on wheels, and its potential for hauling heavy loads. In 1829 Stephenson's 'Rocket' had its trials at Rainhill and excitement really started to grow. An act to enable the construction of a railway or tramroad from Manchester to Oldham had been passed, but not acted upon, as early as 1827. Nevertheless, the interest had remained and in 1836 an Act was passed enabling the construction of the Manchester and Leeds railway which would ultimately benefit Oldham..

There were already some successful machine-making works in the town but 1824 saw the formation of a partnership, between Hibbert and Platt, which would grow phenomenally in the next 60 years until it was employing teens of thousands of workers, making the mill machinery, and owning collieries to produce the coal they used. Around 1825 the Oldham Gaslight and Waterworks Company was started. By 1827 Oldham shops were being lit by gas and, in the early 1830s, Oldham Parish Church was receiving gas and the clock face, glowing in the dark, must have been a sight that had to be seen.

Snippets from William Rowbottom's diary for 1827 to 1830:

1827 ....... 3rd March. " Oldham was lighted with gas for the first time this evening."

1827 ....... 5th June. " This day Mr. Green took a flight in his balloon from Ashton under Line. It was a windy day and he had a friend accompanied him and they alighted at near Doncaster."

1829 ......... 11th March. " George Steeple butcher commenced selling ale &c at the Dog and Partirdge public house, Oldham late Robert Smethurst."

1830 ........ 31st March. "Wednesday the last day of March. A dull dark day.