The Leighth Feight[a]Leigh Fight was a clash between Chartists and police in Leigh in Lancashire in August 1839. Across the country Chartists were demanding that the franchise should be extended to the working classes.
The fight occurred after two days of relatively peaceful protest marches to mills around the area and demands that work be stopped. On the third day, the Riot Act was read by Squire Worthington and after dispersing and then returning, the protesters were stopped by special constables and troops chased the crowd away.
Dissatisfaction after the 1832 Reform Act that gave property owners the vote but not the working classes, fear of the “bastillesEstablishment where the destitute in England and Wales received board and lodging in return for work.” created by the poor laws, the high cost of living and poor trade all increased social tensions. As industrialisation widened the gap between the social classes, many organisations grew out of the unrest that followed including locally the “Leigh Reform Association” in 1835 and nationally, the Chartist movement that published its five-point charter in 1838.
The economy of Leigh, where many were employed as silk handloom weavers, worsened in 1836 and there was much unemployment. Wages were reduced in 1838, the cotton trade was poor, food prices, particularly bread, were rising and people were worried about ending up in the dreaded workhouseEstablishment where the destitute in England and Wales received board and lodging in return for work.. The Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens embarked on a political campaign in November 1838. He held meetings in Wigan, Leigh and Hyde, attracting large crowds with contingents from the nearby towns.
The banner of the Westhoughton contingent read:
At Wigan the crowd approached the meeting holding banners demanding, “Justice to the Millions” and “It is better to die by the Sword than perish with Hunger”. Stephens’ oratory addressed the plight of handloom weavers, abuses in the mills and coal mines, he attacked the poor laws and advocated for the extension of the franchise.
Stephens was warmly received in Leigh where he addressed a crowd of two to three thousand people. His inflammatory speeches attacked the poor law guardians, the church, shopkeepers, mill owners and advocated violence and arming supporters with pistols and pikes. The authorities were alarmed by his “incendiary” language. The magistrates asked the Manchester Constabulary for help and the Vicar of Astley wrote to the Home Secretary demanding Stephen’s arrest for sedition. Stephens moved on to Hyde were he attracted even greater crowds, but his call “for children and wife we will fight to the knife” led to his arrest and a 18 month prison sentence. The Leigh Chartists became convinced that “physical force” was the way forward.
In February 1839 delegates at a Chartist convention In London attended by moderate and “physical force” advocates agreed to petition Parliament in support of the Charter and if it was rejected, that a”National Holiday” be declared during which a general strike would be held from 12 to 14 August 1839. Chartists in Leigh started to arm themselves and drill on Siddow Common and political meetings were held. When the petition was rejected by Parliament in July 1839 the Leigh Chartists decided to adopt the National Holiday.
On 12 August a large crowd gathered in Leigh market place before processing around the district to stop work in factories and works. They headed to Jones’s Mill in Bedford and forced it to close when activists withdrew the plug from the mill’s boiler. The following day even more people turned out in support. Detachments marched to Astley, Chowbent[b]Atherton, Boothstown, Hindley and Westhoughton and forcibly closed down several mills some by drawing plugs from mill boilers. Numbers were swollen by mill hands who joined in the processions. Some activists were armed with pikes and pistols. The magistrates were nervous and arranged for troops to be sent from Haydock.
On the third day, in pouring rain, a crowd of at least 6,000 gathered in the market place, many were armed and instructions had been given for women and children to remain at home. As the crowd approached, Squire Withington read the Riot Act from the obelisk in the square and special constables and a detachment of troops moved forward to ensure it dispersed. The crowd headed towards Chowbent and for a time the town was quiet but in the afternoon the Chartists returned. What happened next became known as the “Leighth Feight”. Outside the White Horse Inn a special constable stepped forward to advise the leaders to disperse peaceably but was struck with a blow to the head. Thirty constables, brandishing truncheons, rushed to help him in the narrow street. Confusion and panic ensued and many Chartists were felled by blows from the constables’ heavy truncheons. Others following behind turned tail in an attempt to escape. Four constables were injured but the mob were routed.
Activists were arrested and a few were given long prison sentences. Local historian Dr John Lunn’s appraisal was:
”Leighth Feight” was an ugly episode in the swelling theme of franchise extention, an eruption in a movement which has given today to each adult in the land the priceless right of suffrage and privilege of sharing in the election. Leigh Fight is as great an event enshrined in our national history as that of the Tolpuddle martyrs.” Chartism was a spent force by 1848, and its demands were eventually met by other means over many years.