Our capital city, London, is the heart of the political system and where power, protest and progress converge to make change a reality in law.
However, the great ideas and movements that have shaped our social and political history have sprung from across the nation.
Yorkshire folk like to speak their mind and when things need to change that’s not a bad thing. In the 19th and 20th centuries many of the biggest social and political changes originated or gained unstoppable momentum with the support of Yorkshire men, women and children.
Here are 8 ways Yorkshire people changed the way we live and work:
1. Advance the abolition of slavery
Britain had profited considerably from the slave trade, but from the late 18th century many people began to question its morality. A public campaign was started to abolish the slave trade in 1787 and Hull-native William Wilberforce lead the fight in Parliament. Wilberforce was a formidable advocate of the cause but the vested interests of slave traders were numerous.
It was not until 1807 that British ships were banned from transporting slaves. Shortly before Wilberforce’s death, the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 prohibited the keeping of slaves throughout the British Empire. Within 20 years, France, Portugal and the Netherlands had also abolished slavery in their colonies.
Not all parts of the British Empire came under the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, and the market for slaves did not disappear following abolition in Britain. It is estimated that a futher 1 million people were enslaved and transported throughout the 19th century.
2. Limit working hours and improve working conditions in factories
We probably take it for granted today that our working hours are limited and that our employers take safety matters seriously, but it wasn’t always the case. Leeds-born Richard Oastler, known as the ‘Factory King’, was one of the leading campaigners for change.
His impassioned speeches at mass rallies and his ability to bring together supporters from opposite ends of the political spectrum helped make the 1833 Factory Act happen. The new law limited the working day for all textile workers to 10 hours, banned children under 9 working in mills and required two hours schooling each day.
3. Improve living conditions for working people
Britain’s booming industrial towns were heavily criticised in the 19th century for their poor living conditions. Some of Yorkshire’s leading industrialists took it upon themselves to provide both jobs and homes for their workers. They included Sir Edward Ackroyd at Copley and Ackroydon near Halifax and Joseph Rowntree near York.
Sir Titus Salt, who was born in Morley near Leeds, became one of the nation’s most-celebrated philanthropists. He built the model industrial village of Saltaire on the outskirts of Bradford between 1851 and 1876. Over 800 homes designed with health and comfort in mind were provided along with community facilities including a park, allotments, churches, shops, a school, adult education institute and hospital.
4. Bring an end to women and children working underground
Until 1842 it was common practice for coal miners to work underground with their wives and children assisting them. On 4 July 1838 26 children were drowned when the Huskar Pit, near Silkstone in Barnsley, flooded. The report on the accident highlighted the conditions in which women and children worked in mines, and the public outcry that followed caused parliament to prohibit males under 10 and all females do from working underground. A memorial to the children who lost their lives stands in the churchyard of All Saints, Silkstone.
5. Campaign for democracy
Chartism was the first mass protest movement in Britain. It took its name from the People’s Charter of 1838, which aimed to make elections fairer and remove the barriers to ordinary working men voting and being able to stand for election as an MP. Yorkshire provided strong support for the Chartist movement – its most successful paper, the Northern Star, was printed on Boar Lane in Leeds.
Peaceful protest gave way to the use of force as the Chartist’s demands were ignored. A failed uprising in Sheffield was led by Samuel Holberry in January 1840. He was sent to prison, where he sadly died. His burial at Sheffield General Cemetary was attended by 50,000 people.
6. Protest for suffrage
The Women’s Suffrage Movement was a popular cause in Yorkshire. Leeds-born activist Leonora Cohen made a high profile protest in February 1913 after the government back-tracked on a promise to give women the vote. She smashed a display case in the Jewel House of the Tower of London with an iron bar wrapped in a note inscribed “This is my protest against the Government’s treachery to the working women of Great Britain.”
She bravely and skilfully defended herself in court after the incident and was acquitted. Later that year she was held at Armley Prison for her part in another protest in Leeds. She went on an immediate hunger and thirst strike and was freed following a direct appeal by her husband to the Home Secretary.
7. Primary education and hot meals for all
Today we take it for granted that there is a school in every community, but until 1870 that was not the case. The existing provision was a patch-work of private, charity and church schools. There were stormy public debates about the roles of church and state in providing schools.
Bradford mill-owner and MP W E Forster successfully piloted the Elementary Education Act through parliament. It set up a network of School Boards, which were to examine the provision of elementary education in each district, and if there were not enough school places they could build and maintain schools out of local rates. Bradford became a pioneer in educational welfare and in 1907 the first hot school meals in the country were served at Green Lane Primary in Manningham.
8. Improved safety for trawlermen
In the late 60s fishing remained an incredibly dangerous industry. The Triple Trawler Tragedy of 1968 saw 58 men from the city of Hull lose their lives, and only one survive.
Local woman Lillian Bilocca led a successful campaign by the wives of local trawlermen, known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries, to improve safety at sea. 10,000 people signed their petition but they faced strong opposition from the fishing industry and even some of the trawlermen themselves.
Lillian threatened to picket Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s private home to have her voice heard. The government was soon won over and agreed to all their demands, which included safety checks before vessels left port, radio operators for all ships, improved safety equipment and a ‘mother ship’ with medical facilities for all fleets.
Written by Craig McHugh, Heritage at Risk Projects Officer at Historic England.