Share this page

Small ads

Hebden Bridge Local History Society

Fielden Brothers and Radical MP John Fielden: how one cotton firm profited from slavery

Speaker: June Turner

Saturday, 15 October 2022

Like other cotton firms, Fielden Brothers of Todmorden used cotton grown by enslaved people, and as June Turner explained to Hebden Bridge Local History Society, that fact seemed to jar with what she had always known and believed about the humane attitudes of the brothers, and especially the political sympathies of John Fielden the Radical MP.

Dobroyd slavery frieze

It was a coincidence of events and opportunities that led June to investigate further: her longstanding interest in the family firm; the enforced free time of Covid lockdowns; the toppling of the statue of slave-owning Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol and the availability of on-line resources from all over the world that opened up other perspectives.

There was a very specific model of slavery, based entirely on race, which was first tried in Portuguese held islands. The British adopted and codified this system in 1661 in a document that set out to justify the status of black slaves as permanent chattels.

By the early 19th century the dominant source of cotton used in the mills of North West England were the slave plantations of the southern states of America.

At a time when Fielden Brothers was one of the most successful cotton manufacturers, the 20,800 bales of cotton they imported relied on the annual labour of 14,000 enslaved people. So slavery was fundamental to their success.

Fielden Brothers' success went beyond manufacture as they owned a fleet of ships and built up a lucrative trade supplying cotton brokers. At one time they were the largest importers of cotton into the port of Liverpool.

Their successes enabled them to invest capital in new ventures in America and in Brazil, underpinning the slave economies of these regions. In the years and months before the American Civil War, which brought an end to slavery in the United States, Fieldens were buying up cotton for stock, perhaps in anticipation of the Cotton Famine which caused tremendous hardship in Lancashire towns. Many mills closed, and in Todmorden, Fielden Mills closed for several months, paying the laid off workers half their normal wage. This was a benevolent gesture by the owners, though one which was probably mitigated by the value of the stock they had built up.

As well as establishing the extent of the involvement of Fielden Brothers in the slave economy, June looked at the record of John Fielden MP. She found no evidence of involvement in the 1833 Act to abolish Slavery. News of the brutal suppression of slave rebellions in Jamaica had amplified the voices of opposition in England.

John Fielden was certainly involved in the movement for parliamentary reform, addressing a massive crowd at St Peter's Field and plotting to topple the Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington by organising a run on gold. Fielden was in favour of abolition without compensation for slave owners, a view which was not consistent among all Radicals.

Looking at John Fielden's record as a parliamentarian, June felt that his reputation as a humane man, aware of his humble origins, was justified. He was a proponent of a minimum wage for handloom weavers as well as proposals for a 10 hour limit on the working day. He opposed the harsh Poor Law Act and was a signatory to the Peoples' Charter demanding universal male suffrage. Engels himself saw Fielden as an exception to the grasping capitalist class.

But there is a need for acceptance that the company profited hugely from a system based on the exploitation of enslaved people. Questions to the speaker reflected the unease people felt about how to respond to the opening up of facts about the slave economy, when there was at the time no obvious alternative moral choice. The point though is to make the facts and the work of the enslaved people visible, to see a fuller picture.

The next talk to Hebden Bridge Local History Society is on Wednesday 26th October at 7.30 and will follow a short AGM. Michael Peel will explore The upstairs, downstairs world of Hebden Bridge in the 1900s, revealed by a cache of forgotten postcards. All welcome, visitors £4.

Details of the History Society talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the History website and you can also follow History Society Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

See also: the HebWeb History section