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  • Writer's pictureJohn Evans

Who were the reformers?

The call for a public meeting to discuss reform of the House of Commons at Leigh, now part of Greater Manchester, provides a useful and unusual insight into the sort of men who were most active in fighting for change - specifically, what jobs they did.

Half of the front page of the Manchester Observer of Saturday 7 August 1819 is devoted to a list of the people (well, men) who had signed the requisition for a public meeting to discuss 'the most LEGAL and EFFECTUAL means of obtaining a REFORM in the Commons House of Parliament'. The meeting would be held on 11 August, the last to be held in the North-West of England to pass off peacefully before Peterloo.

This is a long list of names and addresses, as has been the case for similar announcements in previous weeks. But on page 6 of the same edition there is something rather more useful and interesting to those following the events of 1819.

The parish of Leigh in Lancashire, now part of the metropolitan borough of Wigan in Greater Manchester, will be the venue for a public meeting five days before that in Manchester. Twenty-six householders have called the meeting. We are not told their full addresses, but unusually their occupations are listed.

Eight were doing jobs that put them, superficially at least, in the better-off section of the community, if at different ends of it: three gentlemen (presumably of private means, 'raised above the level of the vulgar by his character or post,' according to Samuel Johnson's diary), a surgeon (the term was less specific then, so this may have been a doctor), a full-time and a part-time shopkeeper, and two farmers.

Eighteen may have worked for someone else, though some could have been self-employed. Weavers and warpers (winding yarn for the weaver) came from the same industry. A leather-cutter did what you would expect, while a currier dressed and coloured leather after it was tanned. Hatters and millers need no explanation.

Thomas Longshaw of Pennington was identified as a shopkeeper and police officer. How this was received by local government and police officials is not recorded.

Gentlemen (3), surgeon (1), manufacturer (2), warper (2), weaver (8), sizer (2), miller (1), farmer (2), hatter (1), shopkeeper (1). In addition three men had two jobs: a second shopkeeper, a shoemaker, a police officer, a chapman, a currier and a leather-cutter.

That leaves the manufacturer, the sizer and the chapman.

The manufacturer could have been a workman (Samuel Johnson), an artisan or craftsman (one of the Oxford English Dictionary usages at the time), or an employer (one of the American meanings in Webster's dictionary in 1828).

The sizers are harder still to pin down. The OED says it is one who applies size to any article, the Victorian Occupations website suggests textiles, while Johnson says a sizer is from, 'a certain rank of students in the university of Cambridge,' perhaps less likely.

The chapman (part-time) could have been a merchant, a market trader, or a hawker

Whatever these 26 were doing, it does at least suggest that the reformers' cause, if this case is anything to go by, involved a reasonable cross-section of the male population.

More information

Samuel Johnson's pioneering dictionary, published in 1755, was still very much in use in 1819 and would remain so for decades to come. British Library background. Volume I (Internet Archive) Volume 2 (Internet Archive)

Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828. Online version

Oxford English Dictionary (first completed, 1928) is available online for users of most UK public libraries, including remotely.

Victorian occupations website lists jobs from the 1891 census, and what they were.

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