Skelmanthorpe Flag of Freedom 1819

This cotton flag or banner is a rare survivor of thousands of banners carried at meetings calling for electoral reform and suffrage.

It has a remarkable story. It was designed and made in 1819, to honour the victims of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester.

It was mounted on poles and taken to meetings throughout the 19th Century, starting with a reform meeting at Almondbury Bank in November 1819, then various meetings including the greatest reform meeting at Roberttown near Wakefield in 1837, attended by 250,000 people. The banner was also carried at meetings celebrating the end of the Crimean War in 1856 and the American Civil war in 1865. It was again paraded at a reform meeting in St George’s Square Huddersfield in 1884.

The banner had to be hidden between meetings: if it had been found its custodian would have been arrested and it would have been destroyed. On the way to one meeting it was hidden in a flour wagon. Immediately after meetings it was removed from its poles and buried in a specially made box.



Errata the meeting referred to was in November 1819 also this was not a Chartist banner originally as it pre-dates the movement by 30 years although it was used at many Chartist meetings.

The Huddersfield Daily Examiner

January 20th 1921

The Flag of Freedom

A Skelmanthorpe Reminiscence

To the students of Yorkshire history an interesting relic of the Chartist movement has come to light in the shape of a flag which was woven by a man named bird in the Barracks, now known as Ratcliffe street, Skelmanthorpe over a 100 years ago. This flag was first displayed at a Reform Meeting held on August 2nd 1819, at Almondbury Bank, where a great crowd had assembled, and to which “Skelmanthorpe, along with other places, sent a large contingent.” At this meeting a Mr. Dickinson, of Dewsbury, acted as chairman, and a Huddersfield man, Mr. Robert Harrison, who was the speaker, denounced the people responsible for the Peterloo massacre in language so violent and inflammatory that the “Leeds Mercury” refused to publish it.

Evidently at that period this Chartist standard was considered a seditious emblem by the authorities, for the constable of Skelmanthorpe was deputed to arrest the custodian, but as the flag could not be found, no arrest was made, and for the next two years it was often buried and thus retained by the Chartists for future demonstrations.

Whether or not this emblem was publicly displayed during the ensuing ten years I have been unable to ascertain, but it was carried at a demonstration at Wakefield in 1832, and on the 15th of October 1838, it again led the Skelmanthorpe Chartists, this time to the “Dumb Steeple”, then known as Peep Green, where, “though scarcely equal to the Lancashire meeting, it was nevertheless a noble gathering; the numbers were estimated at 250,000. As at Kersall Moor there was no lack of music, flags, and banners, to give spirit to the proceedings. Bands attended from Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, and all the towns within convenient distance of the place of meeting, and as one after another they marched upon the Green, the appearance of the various bodies, with all their paraphernalia, was most imposing.” The meeting was addressed by Feargus O'Connor and “the cheers with which he was hailed as he mounted the hustings were tremendous; the air echoed with the ringing shouts of the mighty multitude, than which nothing could be more inspiring to the object on whom they were bestowed.

His colleagues were Mr. Lawrence Pitkeithly, a merchant of Huddersfield, and Mr. William Rider, a working man. The former was a man of benevolent turn of mind, somewhat of the Cobbett school of politics; a speaker whose earnestness, rather than his oratory, made him popular. About Rider there was nothing of the orator; he was plain in speech as in appearance; indeed he appeared to regard talking as child's play. Belonging to the extreme physical force school, he deemed all moral means of agitation, beyond what was necessary to marshal the democratic forces, as a mere waste of time.”

One cannot mention O'Connor without calling to mind his two contemporaries, Ostler, the “Factory King”, and Joseph Rayner Stephens Holyoake, in his “Life of Stephens,” says “The three, O'Connor, Oastler, and Stephens, played into each other's hands, and had an almost inconceivable command over the public.”

Some weeks before the Peep Green demonstration on the 25th August, Oastler left Fixby Hall, after serving as steward for Squire Thornhill from January 5th 1821 and “was escorted into Huddersfield with a long procession of friends, accompanied by bands of music and flags and banners; all along the route the road was lined with enthusiastic throng. . . When the procession reached Huddersfield, a monster gathering of children (from all parts of the district) welcomed it with great glee and filled the air with their voices, singing the factory child's song, 'We will have the ten hour bill.'

“The streets were crowded, but people readily made way for the procession, which having stopped a few minutes now passed on amid tumultuous cheering. Every window was filled with spectators; and crowds were seated on the house tops. It was not merely Huddersfield that thus greeted the “Factory King.” Great numbers were present from distant parts of the West Riding and many parts of Lancashire. A platform had been erected in Queen Street, where the immense multitude was addressed by Mr. Ostler and other speakers, and the proceedings terminated with the termination of an address to Mr. Ostler by the Huddersfield Short-time Committee. There was not the slightest disturbance though the numbers present were estimated at from 80,000 to 100,000 persons.”

On October 25th Oastler was served a writ for debt at the suit of Thornhill, but it was not until December 9th 1840 that he was incarcerated in the Fleet Prison, and it was in Cell 12, and later Cell 5, Coffee Gallery, that he wrote his famous “Fleet Papers.”

I notice, while glancing through the “Fleet Papers,” that on November 12th 1842, Oastler was removed from the Fleet to the Queen's Prison despite his protests, and in an open letter to the Secretary of State, he condemns the then, Tory Government, as being responsible for “this unconstitutional affair.” In describing his new abode he says “Having been compelled to leave Mrs. Oastler in the Fleet, to take care of our little stock of furniture and large assortment of papers. I could not have a bed, until some arrangement to receive my furniture here, but for the kindness of a 'chum.' I have been four nights wandering about and sitting in my armchair. I should have been six nights without a bed, if my 'chum' had not kindly given up his bed at the Coffee House to accommodate me. It is rather annoying to be put to such shifts, but it is nothing to the pangs I feel when I know that my dear wife is. . . . I dare not trust myself on this point.”

“I soon received a ticket a ticket for a room with a 'chum.' No.2 in 10 (staircase), is now my dwelling place. The room is very small, but pleasant it is the best in the prison; but it swarmed with bugs. It is impossible that I can convey to you, sir, the suffering of my first two nights in this place. Such filthy vermin has been, since I left home, my constant dread. I have been preserved from them until now. The expenses of removing and cleansing (I hope the bugs are all destroyed) will be some pounds, which adds to the sum of which I am defrauded by the Conservative Government.”

Even while he was suffering intense agony both of body and mind he was concerned more for the welfare of his fellow prisoners than his own. On December 24th he wrote:- “I would without a murmur endure the wrongs you are heaping on me. I might silently witness those to which my imprisoned comrades are subjected, were I not aware that this is only an experiment, which, if yielded to without protest, will pave the way to that general overthrow of order, and of right which must be the ultimate result of the successful progress of that system, of expediency of which this is only the beginning.”

Returning again to the Chartist flag, we find it taking a conspicuous in two rejoicings, at the conclusion of the Crimean War in 1856, and again at the end of the American Civil War ten years later.

Once more this emblem of political freedom made its appearance when on October 11th 1884, it led the Skelmanthorpe reformers to a monster demonstration in St. George's Square, Huddersfield, where it was estimated 40,000 people were present. Simultaneous meetings were being held throughout the country to protest against the action of the House of Lords in refusing to sanction the extension of the county franchise. The Huddersfield parade assembled in South Parade, East Parade, Manchester Road, and Chapel hill from there marched along Buxton Road to St. George's Square, where numerous platforms had been built to accommodate the speakers, amongst whom were Mr. E. A. Leatham, Mr. W.H. Leatham, and Mr. Bradlaugh.

The leading article in the “Huddersfield Examiner,” October 18th 1884, said:- “Chatsworth, Bradford, Salford, Rochdale, Great Harwood, Mid-Cheshire and other places not now to be enumerated, saw thousands of determined men. Old reformers of 1832, young Reformers whom the agitation of 1884 has roused to the first pains and pleasures of political consciousness and men of all ages between met with one common purpose. . . . Of the Huddersfield demonstration, even the enemy is constrained to admit that it was in point of numbers a magnificent 'success'. . . . St. George's Square held an assemblage so vast that Leeds itself would have reason to be proud of it and Huddersfield has grounds for legitimate pride in public spirit, the intelligence, and enthusiastic determination of her people.”

In the evening meetings were held in the Town Hall and the old armoury. The speakers advertised included Sir W. Lawson, who, however was unable to attend, Herbert J. Gladstone, E.A. Leatham, and Mr. Bradlaugh; but we learn that “the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company conspired with the fates to increase the disappointment by throwing Mr. Gladstone forty minutes late.”

Mr. Gladstone, says the “Examiner,”;”will carry with him the conviction that the weight of the great towns of the North will be thrown into the Government scale with greater and greater willinghood according as the attitude displayed by the Ministry is firm and unyielding. . . . Mr. Leatham has seldom been more ''happy' than he was in his address at the Town Hall, an address at once able, forceful, and brilliant, and Mr. Bradlaugh, with a moderation which many can scarcely bring themselves to credit, and a fire and force which compel attention and arouse the enthusiasm of his auditors, was very effective.”

It is interesting to note that, despite its old age, this flag is in good condition, and is highly valued by its present owner.


(Contributed by Archibald F. Key, Huddersfield.)


L.S. Library

Cuttings book A.910



A well known local historian of note


By: Fred Lawton

Skelmanthorpe 1926

My dear old master wished me to write the story of my life, he thinks no one can do it as well as I can and, as I lay neatly folded in my cosy drawer, I let my mind go back to the day of my birth, a day in October 1819, so I am 107 years old.

I was born in a house in Radcliffe Street, Skelmanthorpe, next door to John Wainwright’s old joinery shop. My makers name was a Mr. Bird. He was a designer and sold patterns to farmers and manufacturers. I well remember how he handled me when I was a piece of white cotton with a border on each side and how he nailed me to a large wooden frame, for I am 5 feet high and 5 feet 8 inches broad and with what pride he decorated my white face with letters, figures and bordering.

A few friends came in to see how I looked. I remember their conversation was about Oliver the spy, Lord Liverpool and Lord Castleragh. They talked in whispers, their faces were stern, their eyes were afire with anger and passion. I believe if Oliver the spy had walked into their presence, he would have done no more mischief in this world. They told how a big meeting had been held at Manchester when Henry Hunt the chairman had said about half a dozen sentences, and a body of cavalry appeared on the scene with drawn swords; heads, arms and hands were cut off. The crowd was so densely packed they could not get away. From 10,000 throats the cry came, ‘Butchers! Shame! Shame!” but the soldiers went on with their deadly work. In a quarter of an hour, nothing was left in St. Peter’s but the dead, dying and wounded. It was to protest against this massacre that I was made.

It was one November evening when the decorations on my face were complete. About a dozen men came to look at me. Oh, how they admired me, they said I was beautiful to look upon. How proud I felt as I listened to their praises. Then, those rough looking men took off their caps and bowed their heads. Mr. Bird stood up and in a solemn voice said ‘In the name of Almighty God, I dedicate this flag to free meetings, free speech and every man a vote’.

The working classes were never worse off than they are today, even when working their wages are so low that their families are starving, yes, starving, in this glorious England of ours with it’s beautiful hills and valleys, it’s river and trees. The cattle on a hundred hills are well fed, they can herd together, frisk about and bellow to their hearts content; the birds in the air can meet together, sing their songs and enjoy the free air of heaven; even the trees can be together in crowds in our woodland groves, when the wind blows they can moan or whisper or roar without interference. The working man can do none of these things.

Though his soul is as priceless as Lord Castleragh’s, he dare not call that soul his own. We are worse than slaves. We dare not meet together in public meetings, afraid of being murdered by the soldiers. We dare not speak of that which lies nearest our hearts, afraid of being sent to prison, but we men of Skelmanthorpe are determined not to rest until some of these things are possible , or at any rate, to make it easier for our children in their fight for freedom. So, in the name of God I dedicate this flag, hoping it will help us in ‘our great struggle for liberty’ and all the men said ‘Amen, Amen’. After making arrangements for a meeting at Huddersfield on the following day, the men went home.

I shall never forget that Saturday afternoon when I made my first public appearance. A crowd of children were waiting outside the house, I was tied to the long poles and carried down Brown Lane to the edge of the moor, now known as Dice End. Here was a large crowd of men, women and children, they said ‘OH, what a big ‘un, isn’t she a beauty’.

Then they began reading the words painted on my face, some reading one compartment, some another. Amid this babel of voices, a procession was formed. We started started off with a rousing cheer and marched over Skelmanthorpe Moor to Shelley, where another crowd was awaiting us. Again I was admired and several men joined the procession. Arriving in Kirkburton, there was another and bigger crowd and here we had to stay a few minutes so that people could admire me. Oh, how proud I felt as I marched at the head of those men. Arriving at Almondbury Bank where a great meeting was held, we were received with a great cheer from thousands of people. A Mr. Dickinson of Dewsbury was chairman, he made a sensible speech. Then Mr. Robert Harrison of Huddersfield spoke, he denounced the people for the Peterloo Massacre, in language so violent and inflammatory that the newspapers refused to print it. After passing several resolutions, we came home.

I was taken from the poles and carried home in a pocket, so I missed the admiration of the people. In the following week, I was taken from my drawer and put in a wooden box. A grave had been dug in the garden and I was lowered into it. Just imagine my feelings when the clods of earth rattled onto my coffin lid. What ups and downs in a lifetime, with no companions but worms and the smell was indeed earthy. I heard Mr. Bird say ‘I think the constable won’t find it now, I think its life will be spared for a few more meetings yet’. With these words of comfort, I was left to my own thoughts, if the constable had found me I should have been destroyed. I was buried several times and taken up to go to meetings in the neighbourhood – Thornhill Lees, Barnsley and Kirkburton.

In 1832 I went to Wakefield where I had the pleasure of hearing Lord Morpeth and old Neddy Baines of the Leeds Mercury, two real friends of the working classes, speak, we rode to Wakefield and back in an old flour waggon.

The greatest meeting I attended was at Peep Green, a large stretch of waste ground between Hartshead and Robertown, which is said to have been the largest political meeting ever held in England. There would be at least 250,000 there. Processions came miles in length with innumerable flags and brass bands. In appearance those joining in the memorable demonstration seemed to be operatives of the more intelligent class, and their demeanour throughout the proceedings was sober yet determined. The meeting was opened by the singing of Wesley’s fine hymn:

Peace doubting heart! my God’s I am

Who formed me man forbids my fear;

The Lord has called me by my name,

The Lord protects, for ever near.

The singing of which from such a vast multitude had an indescribable effect, accompanied as it was by thousands of musical instruments. I shall never forget it. A touching prayer was then offered up by William Thornton of Halifax. When the popular idol Fergus O’Connor stood up to address the meeting, the enthusiasm of the assembly was tremendous and it was a long time before the cheering which volleyed like thunder, could be stilled to allow his stentorian voice to be heard. O’Connor’s speech was warm and impassioned but in wild fervour it fell far behind that of Bronterre O’Brian who was the most eloquent orator that ever stood on a political platform in this country. After the usual resolutions were passed, we came home. Though I was only one among thousands of flags, I received due homage so I was satisfied.

I rejoiced with the people at the conclusion of the Crimea War in 1856 and again at the end of the American Civil war, Jos. Field and Sons of Garret Buildings borrowed me on that occasion. When the rejoicings were over, they threw me into a lobby amongst old healds in a warehouse and I lay for twenty long, long years. I was covered with dust and dirt, spiders crawled over me and made their nests in my folds, my proud spirit was hurt. I was glad when my old master rescued me one evening in September 1884 and sent me to Huddersfield to be cleaned. I felt fresh and young again.

On the 11th October of the same year, I again led the Skelmanthorpe Reformers to Huddersfield to a great franchise demonstration. The first meeting was held in St. George’s Square, about 40,000 people were present. The speakers were W.H. Leatham M.P., E.A. Leatham M.P. and Charles Bradlaugh M.P. They had put some large letters on my head which said I was a relic of the past. I was looked at with great interest as we marched through the crowded streets. My vanity was satisfied and I came home well pleased. I floated at the opening of our Wesleyan Chapel and at the opening of our Parish Church.

My work is now done and it has taken 100 years to do it. I have often heard my dear old master say that political changes are slow as geological changes and can only be measured by hundreds of years – and it is true!

Yes, my work is done and I can now rest in peace. I belong to no society or organisation but I do belong to Skelmanthorpe and I hope I shall remain in Skelmanthorpe till the last thread in my body has rotted away.

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