The Widdrington radicals

Charles Junius served his apprenticeship next door to the Black Bull.
Charles Junius served his apprenticeship next door to the Black Bull.

Luke and Sarah Haslam came from Sheffield, but moved to Widdrington, where Luke became the village schoolmaster. Their son, Charles Junius, was born in 1811.

The name is significant. Lucius Junius Brutus founded the Roman Republic in 509BC, while the Letters of Junius, 1769-72, demanded press freedom and democratic elections

Charles Junius was followed by seven boys and one girl, all of whom survived. Not surprisingly, he left home when he was about 13. Many years later, in his old age, he gave an interview to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, which was published on February 22, 1902:

“My father was the village schoolmaster at Widdrington. At the time I was young, few people were able to read and write. They used to come to his house to hear the newspaper read. We were the only ones who ever got a newspaper at that time up in our quarter. The paper was Cobbett’s ‘Register’.”

Widdrington was a parochial chapelry with under 400 population. Mackenzie, 1825, says it contained “two good farm-houses, one public house, and 31 cottages, occupied chiefly by mechanics and labourers (and) a colliery where three or four men are employed.”

The school had 30 to 40 children and the master ‘on presenting annually a certificate of good conduct, receives from Lady Bulkley (sic) a gift of £15’.

Parson & White’s Directory of 1828, however, says that she provided a schoolroom, house and garden, and £25 per year for the master’s salary.

A man in Mr Haslam’s position would normally expect nearer £50-a-year, but, unlike many schoolmasters, he was not the parish clerk so his income perhaps consisted only of Lady Bulkeley’s gift and the children’s school pence.

Hodgson, writing soon after, says that the priest who officiated at the chapel lived at Cowpen. If so, Mr Haslam and the Presbyterian minister were the only professional men in the village, and the people who came to his radical newspaper readings were a mixture of pitmen, agricultural labourers and a few tradesmen of the like of tailors and shoemakers.

The Monthly Chronicle for December 1887 records that when William Cobbett visited Newcastle in 1832, he was presented with an address bearing 682 signatures. All were from Newcastle, except two, one of whom was Luke Haslam, schoolmaster, of Widdrington.

“I left Widdrington when a boy, to be an apprentice with Mr Blakey, hatter and furrier, in Morpeth. ... I remained with him for about seven years, and then went to Manchester, in the year 1829.”

Robert Blakey was another Cobbetite Radical. His hat shop was next door to the Black Bull. He did not make hats, but was a hatter’s furrier, supplying furs to the manufacturers.

Charles Junius lived with the Blakeys and worked at the furriery behind the shop on the west side of the Black Bull. It was skilled work, cutting the fur from rabbit and hare skins. In Manchester, however, he changed trades. Pigot’s Directory for 1834 has, under hat manufacturers ‘Haslam William and Charles Junius, 52, Swan Street’.

He joined the Radical Association and later became its secretary.

“I took part in the great Radical meetings which were held in Manchester ... I remember Henry Hunt and William Cobbett well ... They were great advocates for reform and were the principal Radicals then. We heard nothing of the Charter until a great meeting was held – in London, I think – at which it was formulated. After that we were all Chartists.

“I well remember Chartist meetings being prohibited. At one meeting I attended, in a public room at the New Cross, Manchester, a great number were arrested and imprisoned. I succeeded in escaping. About a dozen ‘runners’, as they were called, rushed into the room and arrested the speakers and others because they had assembled to discuss reform. They sent troops of soldiers, ever so many times, to clear the people off the streets. This they did with drawn swords.”

He was also an Owenite Socialist.

“I was in Robert Owen’s company scores of times in Manchester. He used to go and address the Socialists there. (They) were in favour of the establishment of social communities.”

Robert Owen was a successful businessman who pioneered co-operatives, decent housing and recreational facilities for his workpeople at New Lanark. He was also, albeit discreetly, either agnostic or an atheist and this had a profound influence on Charles Junius.

“Oh, those pamphlets I wrote were hardly Chartist pamphlets. They were ‘Letters to the Clergy of all Denominations’. There were twenty-four of them ... setting forth my belief that the Bible was not divinely inspired and that it was a contrivance of ignorance and self-interest by priests. ... Mind you, I want you to note that I am not an atheist. I believe in God, but I do not believe in the Bible. Well, the Bishop of Exeter brought up the matter in the House of Lords and had the backing of the whole bench of bishops.

“The result was that an Order in Council was made, making it criminal for any bookseller in Great Britain to sell these letters. The Bishops reckoned that they would obliterate morality and religion from the minds of the people, and they were just intended for the reverse.”

The British Library has five of his pamphlets, all published in Manchester or Salford.

The earliest is A Defence of the Social Principles delivered in the Social Institution, Salford, by C.J.H., being an answer to the Rev. J.R. Beard, c. 1837. Another Owenite one is ‘Who are the Infidels, those who call themselves Socialists, or followers of Robert Owen, or those who call themselves Christians, or followers of Jesus Christ?’

His best-known work was ‘Letters to the Clergy of All Denominations’, showing the errors, absurdities and irrationalities of their Doctrines. They appeared both separately and together, and were followed by ‘Materials for deciding whether or not the Bible is the word of God?’, addressed to the Bishop of Exeter, 1841. The latest one they have is again an Owenite tract, ‘How to make People Virtuous, 1858’.

Interestingly, Charles Junius did not mention these other pamphlets, but did mention two that are not in the British Library, ‘The Moral Catechism’, an alternative to the church catechism, and ‘The Light of Reason, 1888’, about trade depressions.

John Cleave, a radical printer and bookseller in London, was arrested for selling Letters to the Clergy in April 1840, “for publishing, or causing to be published, a scandalous libel on ... the Old Testament.” Likewise Abel Heywood in Manchester.

But the trial of Henry Hetherington, another London bookseller, brought the issue to a head.

The judge admired his defence, but he was found guilty and served four months in prison. He then brought a charge of blasphemy against a ‘respectable’ publisher, Edward Moxon, for publishing Shelley’s Queen Mab.

This made the law unworkable. Prosecutions became rare thereafter, though there were successful ones in 1977 and 2007.

The blasphemy laws were abolished in 2008, 170 years after Charles Junius’s Letters to the Clergy.