This is a recent article of mine on an incredible champion of the poor; whose life and times have been very much overlooked - probably because he was based in the north of England - and certainly because he spoke 'truth to power'.

“Very few are aware of what the factory system really is - in its rise, its growth and its operation upon society. We talk of our commercial greatness - of the importance of our manufactures, and the advantages thereby conferred upon the country, but most of us little know what all this means. How it has been brought about, and what it is done, and is now doing.” (JRS 1849) ----------------------

Back in the nineteenth century, the people who live in the northern towns to the east of Manchester were more than a little bit notorious for their outspokenness - and for their fury against the injustices suffered by working class people. And none more so than the Rev Joseph Rayner Stephens (‘JRS’)

JRS was born on 8th March 1805 into highly respectable middle-class background, he studied at Manchester Grammar, later attending Leeds Methodist School in order to become a Wesleyan Methodist minister. As a young preacher however, he entered a bit of a spat with his leaders; he felt strongly that the British state should not be tied to the Church. After being suspended for his views, JRS resigned and decided to move from his home in Cheltenham, wanting to head somewhere a little bit more free-thinking. Where else – but the towns that we now know today as making up ‘Tameside’. In the 1830s, Stalybridge, Ashton, Hyde and Dukinfield were infamous, both as the birthplace of King Cotton and the industrial revolution - and as towns that courted working-class radicalism and unrest.

On arriving to settle in the area, JRS set up his own ‘Stephenite Chapel’ in Ashton and very soon he became the darling of the working classes; their champion and their fierce protector. But why was this man so popular, so famous – and so soon? His regular sermons lasted for 3 hours – which might sound like your own idea of hell – but don’t forget that in the 1830s, people didn’t have Netflix, most of the working poor couldn’t read or write and of course, JRS’ message was one of righteous fury against the rich and greedy factory owners. He reminded the people that God was on their side too – a rather cheering prospect for the downtrodden, working person.

There were three main issues of the day that JRS is best remembered for, as a social reformer. The first was his call for Factory Reform. The cruelty of the factory owners was without question. Entire families – aged 5 upwards – had been herded into the cotton mills, thanks to the ‘progress’ of the new capitalism; with the usual - backbreaking – day lasting anything between 14 and 16 hours. Every day little children were either mutilated, crushed and killed, in the pursuit for profit. JRS saw the brutality of this system and the effects that it had on the families in these towns, week in and week out – and soon, his sermons became so well-renowned that he became close friends with Richard Oastler and John Fielden – the country’s fiercest critics of the factory system. Together, these campaigners successfully pushed various pieces of legislation, finally resulting in the Ten Hour Act – limiting the working day for a child, to a mere 10 hours (remind your children and grandchildren of that, when they moan about spending 10 minutes having to do the vacuuming for you.)

Another issue that JRS became closely identified with was the Anti-Poor Law movement. Stephens was one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the hated Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. This legislation was created by the Whigs (Liberals) in response to increasing numbers of people who needed relief from poverty, but it was perceived to be a method of cutting the cost of the poor rates in a brutal way. Its solution was to turn away from providing financial hand outs and instead to provide more workhouses.

This measure invariably treated poverty as a sort of sin or crime, ushering those who were already suffering into despicable conditions and tearing them from their families and homes. The new Act also centralised the distribution of Poor Law relief, alienating many of the middle and upper classes who were concerned about the loss of autonomy in the Stalybridge and Ashton areas and who were resentful that they would be subjected to decisions made by central Manchester (an issue that still bothers some of us today!)

The third social concern that JRS became associated with, was that of Chartism. In 1832, the government had passed the Reform Act, extending the vote to certain areas of the country but only to people who owned property. This legislation was a huge disappointment to the working classes, who primarily lived in rented houses and therefore were still disenfranchised. The town of Ashton was awarded an MP for the first time as a result of the Act, however, and even though the working people had no say in who represented them, there was eager interest in which person would be put forward for election and which party they belonged to.

The ‘Charter’ itself was comprised of six demands; ‘universal manhood suffrage’, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annually elected Parliaments, payment of members of Parliament and abolition of property qualifications for membership. Support for the adoption of the Charter was huge in our towns at this time. In Ashton, 14,200 people signed the Charter before its submission to the 1842 Parliament.

However, even though the general desire of the working class was for peaceful political reform, the campaigning in the area was often infused with violence. At the time, central government perceived no differences between any of these campaigns; as far as they were concerned, violence and agitation were a matter of law and order and were to be dealt with harshly – and this proved to have unfortunate consequences for JRS.

The ongoing demonstrations and military ‘drilling’ of Chartists with their pikes were clearly deemed to be a threat towards the government and the Home Office was in almost constant correspondence with authorities in the area during this time. Despite the fears of the authorities, however, the local newspapers reported that the Chartists themselves were none-too-happy about the behaviour of some of the teenage boys involved in their movement. The older Chartists often grumbled that the youths were too intent on practising with their pikes and play-acting as soldiers, than honing their skills of discourse in relation to the quest for political reform. (Teenagers eh? Always getting the blame for something…)

By 1838, JRS had appeared at many Chartist events and had been nominated several times as a delegate for Ashton and Stalybridge to the national Chartist conventions. His firebrand speeches were so loud and compelling that he was often heard by up to 20,000 people on the fields and gathering places of the north. But his railing against the greedy of the rich and the disregard towards the poor meant that by now, he was very much under Home Office surveillance.

Following one mass meeting in Huddersfield and then another in Leigh, his words were found to be supporting the use of violence against the government. Finally following a meeting in Hyde in December, JRS was arrested and charged with sedition; with attending "an unlawful meeting , seditiously and tumultuously … by torch-light, and with fire-arms disturbing the public peace" and two counts of speaking at a gathering of 5000 people. Witnesses at the meeting (or ‘grassbags’ as we call them in Duki) said that guns had been fired and banners with slogans such as; "Tyrants, believe, and tremble" and "BLOOD" had been displayed.

JRS had never shied away from stating in his speeches that the Bible condoned the working man to arm himself when his livelihood and constitutional rights were deprived. But clearly this was not something that the government - still faffing about over whether they should grant working-class men (never mind women) the vote – wanted to hear and to be printed in the press.

At his trial, JRS defended himself and gave the packed courtroom a whopping great 5-hour speech. Regardless of his incredible eloquence (or perhaps because of it) JRS was eventually convicted and sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment at Chester Castle.

Shortly after his conviction, a portrait was commissioned by the Chartists and distributed nationally in their newspaper, the Northern Star. But not long after this, JRS made it clear – and said that he had tried to make it clear all along – that he wasn’t interested in Chartism per se. That he was only interested in the condition of the working classes and that he would fight alongside them for a fairer wage and a happier life. This disgruntled a fair few of the Chartists nationally, with leaders urging on a mass burning of pictures of his portrait.

On his release from prison in 1840 however, JRS was as popular as ever; copies of his printed sermons were in huge demand across the country; although all agreed that the written word were nothing like as grandiose as hearing this astounding orator speak to a crowd. So JRS continued to be champion of the poor in our area and his flock were determined to cherish him. Living in Dukinfield, he continued with the Stephenite chapel in Stalybridge (which he sold to the Roman Catholics in 1856 and which became St Mary’s on Wellington St) and one on King St in Stalybridge, from which he preached until 1875.

He was bound over for five years at first – so that he wasn’t able to speak in public, but during this time he busied himself campaigning for factory reform, producing several extremely popular newspapers, such as the ‘Ashton Chronicle’, where he interviewed local factory workers, who gave their experiences;

“Sarah Goodling was poorly and so she stopped her machine. James Birch, the overlooker knocked her to the floor. She got up as well as she could. He knocked her down again. Then she was carried to the apprentice house. Her bedfellow found her dead in bed. There was another called Mary. She knocked her food can down on the floor. The master, Mr. Newton, kicked her where he should not do, and it caused her to wear away till she died. There was another, Caroline Thompson. They beat her till she went out of her mind. The overlookers used to cut off the hair of all the girls caught talking to the lads. This head shaving was a dreadful punishment. We were more afraid of it than of any other, for girls are proud of their hair” (Ashton Chronicle, 23 June 1849 – interview with a woman who had started work at the age of eight.)

“Mr. Needham, the factory master and his five sons used to go up and down the mill with hazzle sticks and beat us unmercifully. Frank Needham once thought he had killed me. He had struck me on the temples and knocked me dateless. Swann, the overlooker once knocked me down and hit me with a thick stick. To save my head I raised my arm, which he hit with all his might. My elbow was broken. I suffer pain from it to this day. It was very seldom we missed a day without being beaten. I was determined to let the gentlemen of the Bethnal Green parish know about the treatment we had, and I wrote a letter …. It was broken open and given to old Needham. He beat me with a knob-stick till I could scarcely crawl (Ashton Chronicle, 19th May, 1849 – interview with a man aged thirty-five who had been purchased from Bethnal Green Workhouse to work in the northern mills, when he was just six years old.)

Very recently, when I began the research for my two books on the life and times of my rather astonishing ‘hidden Muslim mayor of Stalybridge’ ancestor, Robert Stanley, I soon realised that the dates of Robert’s life overlapped with those of JRS. I couldn’t, however, find any mention of Robert in the existing resources that had already examined the life of JRS. This was mainly because very little has been written about JRS himself, but also because those who have carried out the research, were not from Tameside themselves and were therefore, more caught up in the national political and social objectives of the man, rather than of him as a character and campaigner in our own area.

So, in order to find out more about him and because the powers that be in the British Library haven’t yet sought fit to digitise Tameside newspapers of this era, I was forced to turn to the dreaded MICROFICHE MACHINE (perhaps I should send the British Library my Specsavers bill, after spending several months, squinting at fuzzy copies of Victorian newspapers).

Trawling through thousands of pages however, proved to be very rewarding. I unearthed all sorts of little gems about JRS, which have never seen the light of (modern) day before. One of the first thing that I discovered – previously unnoticed/skipped over by national historians – was that he had stood as a candidate in one Ashton’s early elections (1837.)

His number of votes was dire – 19, in comparison to the Whig victor of 237. However, as mentioned previously, voting at this time was restricted only to propertied middle- and upper-class men and took place in public, where those who qualified for the vote (just 457 men) made their X on a blackboard in front of the town. When JRS took the platform in what was only Ashton’s 3rd general election, commentators noted that the thousands of working-class people present raised their hand for him. Had they had the vote themselves, then JRS would certainly have been elected as their MP. T

hrough examining local newspapers, we can see that this was a man who seemed to spend every waking hour of his 74 years, fighting for the rights of the poor and pushing for their right to education (he was also one of the first members of Stalybridge School Board). Often his interventions were on a personal level – such as when he stood up to another ancestor of mine, the industrialist John Stanley, who had been made a Poor Law Guardian and who, quite frankly, had been a bit of a rotten egg in a certain case).

He was a frequent commentator too, in relation to the Lancashire Cotton Famine and the Bread Riots of Stalybridge and Ashton – proclaiming his support for the suffering poor. At one meeting in Stalybridge Town Hall, he gave a three-hour speech where he emphasised the nobility of the working class, telling the people that the American Civil War was not to blame for the crisis; rather, it was the result of overproduction and the greed of the 'cotton masters' as the factory owners were known.

On other occasions it was when the townspeople needed to feel that their champion was squarely behind them, such as when Robert Stanley as mayor of Stalybridge, asked JRS to preside over a town’s meeting to condemn the disregard of the rich railway line owners, whose neglect was leading to constant deaths and injuries of innocent passengers. It was more than a little bit pleasing to hear JRS speaking about my own ancestor in this way; “... I rather think that a Mayor with a borough, that is the wisest man of the borough … can deal with the London and North-Western or the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire, or any other company that is a public nuisance.”

But JRS was also all-for a spot of fun – a side that we haven’t been able to see previously. I found that he was forever surrounded by a ‘cloud of pipe smoke’ and that he was always asked to preside over any large gathering of relevance to working-class people. The temperance movement was very strong at this point in British history, but not for old Joe who was often asked to speak in favour of the brewery trade. At the North Cheshire Licensed Beer and Wine Retail Association annual dinner, which was held in Stalybridge in March 1874, he spoke strongly in favour of the odd tipple;

“When men, women, and children are 12 ½ hours in the mill – will you tell me that they are not liable to the temptation of wanting something to sup? Are they not very dry, and do they not feel dull and heavy? Do they not want some excitement and stimulant?”

But JRS did not condone drunkenness and the ruinous path that alcohol could lead to for some. Rather, he explicitly stated that any problem of over-reliance on alcohol amongst the working class was always to do with their unhappiness at the terrible conditions that they were forced to live under, thanks to the exploitative middle and upper classes.

My favourite JRS in later-life moment, however, comes from when I unearthed the fact that the biggest and most popular rave going in Stalybridge at this point in history was the Annual Old Folks’ Tea Party. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was quite a giddy affair – this was a time when it was rather exceptional to live to the age of 70 and quite rightly, the elders deserved a damned good knees-up. In June 1875, when my great x3 grandad presided over the 15th Party as mayor, JRS turned out to act as chairman.

The Stalybridge Reporter repeated his speech verbatim, as JRS gloried in the fact the now qualified in the age stakes (threescore and ten) and could be officially counted as an ‘Old Folk’ himself. Stephens told his fellow ‘Old Folk’ that he was pleased that he had finally earned his rights to a free cup of tea and he then entertained them with a speech that deeply expressed his love for Stalybridge.

Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens died on the 18th February 1875, aged 74. A few years after the opening of Stamford Park, money was raised in order to build an obelisk monument there in his honour. It still stands today – close to the Conservatory (don’t get me started on that issue…) and contains his own poetic words:


Of course, we can never really know the true character of anyone, simply by looking at information that other historians have previously repeated, taken from the works of others, but I do feel that by digging deeper and that by using our very own rich local resources (hello Tameside Archives!) we can gain a fuller characterisation of our famous locals.

I’ve also found that national historians often fail to look at the ‘timeline’ approach of individuals too; in JRS’ case, I noticed that his first year at Manchester Grammar School coincided with that of the Peterloo Massacre, an event that profoundly affected the people of our area, disassociating them further from the wealthy classes. And that only a year before this, 18 Luddites from the Huddersfield area, were executed by the government, for their part in plotting to destroy factory machinery, with dozens more being sent to imprisonment in the colonies.

In his later years, JRS became heavily involved in miner’s trade unions and was a key spokesperson in the establishment of the National Union of Mineworkers – again, perhaps influenced by the hundreds of lives lost and bodies ruined, in Dukinfield and Ashton pits. I

t’s facts such as these, I believe, that made JRS into a man who genuinely wanted the best for the working classes – who was far closer to them than to the middle or upper classes. But he also had a spiritual drive and he wanted the wealthier citizens to wake up and to see what greed can do to their fellow human beings; the immorality of the selfish, money-obsessed lifestyle.

It seems to me, that if JRS were walking this earth today, he would be campaigning against child slavery in factories and mines across the globe – and urging us to boycott shops and products that are unethical and that exploit the poor, in order to benefit the rich – that line the pockets of oppressors. His words from 1849 still ring true today:

“Very few are aware of what the factory system really is - in its rise, its growth and its operation upon society. We talk of our commercial greatness - of the importance of our manufactures, and the advantages thereby conferred upon the country, but most of us little know what all this means. How it has been brought about, and what it is done, and is now doing.”


Joseph Rayner Stephen’s grave is located at St John’s Church, Dukinfield; the font from his Stalybridge Chapel marked the plot – but during the last few decades, the grave was smashed about and became a real mess as vandalism and neglect took their toll. Thankfully, during the last few years, a group called ‘Green Space’ who are part of the church decided to take on the herculean task of restoring the graveyard to its past glories. It turns out that there are four thousand graves there – and plotting/locating them is part of their remit. JRS’ plot is a very important feature for them, so if you would like to contact the church and get involved with these wonderful people at some point – please do!

There is also a blue plaque to JRS on the original frontage of Stalybridge Town Hall and it was wonderful to see my former high school being re-named as ‘Rayner Stephens High’, but I rather think that we can do better for JRS than we have done to date. It would be fantastic to see more information shared about him and other acknowledgements of this outstanding and big-hearted hero of a man, taking place.


Thank you Christina for giving me permission to publish here: Gay J Oliver

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