thrashing the police

The serious disturbances in Colne in August 1840 that saw Special Constable Joseph Halstead lose his life are usually referred to as the Chartist riots. James Carr in his Annals of Colne (1878), gives a quite detailed account of what happened as do the newspapers of the time. Whilst it is clear that committed Chartists were involved and probably behind the organised trouble, the main aim was not to further the aims of the charter: the rioters were protesting about the new police force in the town and were determined to drive it from the streets.

1840 saw the introduction of the new Lancashire Constabulary part of which arrived in Colne in mid April in the form of 16 constables and a superintendent Macleod. Many of the locals did not take well to the tactics of this bunch, outsiders who did not know the area. One newspaper described “a regular system of thrashing and running the people.” Sir Charles Napier noted that the police conduct was extremely offensive, one constable in particular having “prided himself on what he termed “slating them”, i.e. breaking their heads with his staff. The people in …. Colne are said to be a rough and resolute set of men, and not likely to bear this sort of treatment.”

And they didn’t. Unrest first broke out months before the main flare-up which led to Halstead’s death.  Carr quotes here from the personal diary of Napier, commander of the Northern District: On April 27, “the Chartists at Colne thrashed the new police, and troops, horse and foot, were obliged to march from Burnley to their assistance”.

riot apr 1840

The Leeds Mercury, May 2 1840

When the troops arrived from Burnley they found the town peaceful – the trouble-makers apparently had no problem with them. “These fellows”, one man told a reporter, “know how to behave themselves, but the police don’t.” Colonel Constance at Burnley reported to Colonel Wemyss that many people at Colne told him that they were “glad to see the soldiers but were determined not to have the police.”

Colne stayed relatively quiet until August when the trouble was far, far worse.

Sources: R D Storch, “The Plague of Blue Locusts” in Crime and Society, Readings in History and Theory,  Fitzgerald, McLennan and Pawson (eds), 1981; J Carr, Annals of Colne, 1878, pp 28




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