The spirit of Chartism revisited North Staffordshire during the weekend of Friday the 28th to Sunday the 30th of August 1942, when a series of three mass meetings were held across the City of Stoke-on-Trent. The rallies were organised by Albert Bennett, a key figure in the local trade union movement and someone with Chartist sensibilities, to create an atmosphere of excitement in The Potteries the week before the launch of the Lidice Shall Live campaign at the Victoria Hall.
According to news reports the meetings were held at Fenton, Smallthorne and in the open air of Hanley’s Market Square. All were well attended. Bennett, who was to play a significant role in the future economic development of Stoke-on-Trent, was joined by guest speakers Dr Barnett Stross and the former collier, now MP for Llanelli, Mr Jim Griffiths.
The future Secretary of State for Wales was in Stoke-on-Trent to resurrect the spirits of inspirational local 19th century Chartist leaders such as John Richards, Joseph Capper, and Thomas Cooper. Griffiths, Stross, and Bennett roused the good men and women of Stoke-on-Trent with talk of social and industrial lineage, the dignity of labour, moral force and, of course the need to beat Hitler.
It was a mere fortnight since the centenary of the Chartist riots across the Potteries, which had seen miners, pottery workers and their families unleash a torrent of violence and abuse at the British Government, its local agents and beneficiaries on the 15th and 16th August 1842. The trouble was reported nationally as the most violent, belligerent display of class conflict yet seen in Great Britain. There were severe ramifications for the perpetrators, but also the innocent too, as many people legitimately protesting for their rights that weekend were severely punished, flogged, or even transported to Australia.
While today the riots may seem in the distant past for some, in 1942 – in a world without a National Health Service, decent social housing and welfare state, the story of the Chartists was not too far in the dim and distant past; and the cause seemed as relevant as ever.
The first meeting, held at Fenton Town Hall saw Jim Griffiths deal with various aspects of the war situation. Churchill had recently visited the Soviet Union and Griffiths emphasised the significance of this action. He explained:
“…when they spoke of aid for Russia, they really meant aid for us.” Mr Griffiths also expressed the view that Britain’s propaganda was not convincing people of the seriousness of the situation, in that
“…its people realised what they were fighting against but did not really know what they were fighting for.”
In his opinion, this was a missed opportunity for although this was admittedly “a great war”, it was inevitably creating a great revolution in ideas and concepts. Therefore, he appealed to the miners to do their utmost to ensure that the nation had the coal it needed to produce weapons of war, and for other essential purposes. The miners were playing a great and important part in the war effort, and all engaged in the mining industry should feel that they had an individual responsibility to the nation.
This was most forcefully reiterated during an inspirational address in Hanley’s Market Square. Mr Griffiths described to his audience how one hundred years ago their forefathers had gathered at the same place under the Chartists’ banner to press their claims upon the government of the day.
“That night, he said, they claimed the right to present their views on the policies now being pursued by the Government. In exercising that right, however, they must remember that it carried obligations. They must be prepared and anxious to put every ounce of strength into their job so that, first of all, victory, full and complete, over Hitler might be obtained.”