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Poor Law Opposition

The Poor Law Commission of 1832-4 concluded that charitable relief to the able-bodied would lessen the will to work; and the resulting Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, requiring the accommodation of the poor in Poor Law Union workhouses, where conditions were deliberately made uncomfortable. Poor relief was taken out of the hands of townships and assigned to local Unions.

Though most Calderdale townships went into the Halifax Union, Wadsworth, Erringden, Heptonstall, Langfield, Stansfield, and Todmorden with Walsden were incorporated into the Todmorden Union, and this was where John Fielden and others were active in opposition to the new scheme, to a much greater extent than in Halifax. Todmorden with Walsden refused to pay poor rates to the Union, but persisted in managing its own poor relief, as before, on the grounds of the severity of the new system and the traditional autonomy of the townships. The Todmorden Working Men's Association, a group that later allied itself with Chartism, was founded in 1836 and declared its intention to seek repeal of the Act. Public meetings, demonstrations and trade boycotts of shops and merchants supporting the law were among the repertoire of their activities.

In 1838, William Ingham of Mankinholes, local Overseer of the Poor, was fined for the local refusal to contribute towards a Union Workhouse; his refusal to pay brought two special constables to his door to confiscate goods on November 16, 1838. John Fielden, however, or his workers at Lumbutts Mill, had prepared for trouble and when the constables arrived at Ingham's house (now Mankinholes Youth Hostel) alarm bells were rung from Lumbutts Mill (of which the waterwheel tower remains) and a crowd of over a thousand gathered at the scene. The constables were severely beaten and stripped of their uniforms before finding refuge in local houses. A rumour that they were returning with a troop of soldiers on November 21 sparked off another, more destructive riot that took a crowd of a thousand or more strong to the homes and mills of local Poor Law supporters, including Todmorden Hall, damaging doors, windows and other property. Forty men were arrested for the disturbances; investigations with a view to prosecuting Fielden failed to find anybody prepared to testify against him. In the end, only one was imprisoned, the presiding magistrate commenting that he felt others were more responsible for the riots than those in the dock - a veiled reference to John Fielden's role in the affair.

Exasperated by this stubborn local resistance, the Poor Law Commission took steps to take over administration from the townships on July 6, 1838. Fielden immediately promised to close his mills on that day unless the Poor Law Guardians backed down, a strategy designed to place 3000 workers and dependents on to the Commission's responsibility, thereby severely disabling the system. The Guardians held out, local magistrates drafted in cavalry and special constables in case of disorder, and Fielden's Mills reopened on July 16. Militant resistance to the law continued during the summer and autumn. A troop of infantry was permanently stationed in the town, restricting public opposition to boycott tactics (though intimidation of Guardians was not uncommon in Todmorden and Hebden Bridge).

The fear aroused by the violence of riots, and intimidation of Poor Law supporters in Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, almost paralysed the local Guardians and led them by 1840 to pursue an interpretation of their role that was very similar to the old township system in all but name, and an unsatisfactory (to the Commission) status quo settled until 1871, when the Poor Law Board threatened to disband the Todmorden Union and reallocate the townships between Rochdale and Halifax - unless they built a union workhouse. The local guardians finally agreed to do so and built the new workhouse at Beggarington, in Langfield (The building later became Stansfield View Hospital) .

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