Thomas Livsey, Rochdale Chartist, 1815-1864

Thomas Livsey was a Chartist from the early days who also chaired the final National Convention in 1858. He was deeply involved in municipal politics in Rochdale. This is his life story.

This biography of Thomas Livsey was contributed by Mike Brennan. His PhD thesis Civic and municipal leadership: a study of three northern towns between 1832 and 1867 is accessible here.

Thomas Livsey was born in Rochdale on 18 June 1815, an auspicious day in British history. He was the second son of Robert and Mary Livsey. His older brother James died when Thomas was four. His father ran a public house and was a blacksmith, as his father had been before him.

Thomas Livsey had a variety of jobs. He was first apprenticed to a wool merchant, before he formed a partnership as a brass founder and blacksmith. He opened his own cotton making business, employing about 110 men and women, but this was all lost when the mill was destroyed by fire in 1856. His final role was that of railway agent for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway company.

Livsey was a lifelong Anglican, being christened, married and buried from St Chad’s church. He was both a churchwarden and a sidesman. In 1842 he married Sarah Lord and they had one daughter, Mary. Sarah died within two years of Thomas, but Mary never married and died in 1926. Thomas was well educated and clearly regarded himself as middle class. His father had enough property to be a member of the Improvement Commission and Thomas took his place when Robert died in 1840.

By then Livsey was heavily involved in local politics. Mary Livsey’s brother was Robert Schofield, a local radical and a man who ran a local political club, to read the papers and discuss the issues of the day. As a boy, Thomas started there as the candle watcher, but soon became an accomplished reader and debater. There he met the Chadwick brothers, William and Thomas, radical magistrates, who had been horrified by the events of Peterloo in 1819. There he also met James Taylor, a prominent local Chartist and the radical candidate in the first general election resulting from the Reform Act of 1832. Thomas became a firm friend of James’s son, also called James.

As a Chartist, Thomas Livsey was elected as the delegate to help free the members of the Newport rising in 1840, and when O’Connor was released from prison in 1841 Livsey led the collection for him in Rochdale then led the delegation to welcome him to the town. He was central to the decision to bring the radical William Sharman Crawford to stand as the town’s MP in the 1841 election and to help him win the seat, which he held till 1852.

The Northern star described Thomas Livsey as “the most influential supporter in the town”. He was a central figure in the disturbances in 1842, addressing a large meeting on Cronkeyshaw Common in the town and then being present when the strikers arrived from Oldham and Ashton in August 1842. The Riot Act was read then in the crush afterwards stones were thrown and William Chadwick was hit.

Livsey fought his way through the crowd to protect Chadwick.
The magistrate informed him that there was a warrant out for his arrest. He advised him to leave the town. Livsey was reluctant to go but was persuaded by his fiancée Sarah. His only major national role in Chartism after that was as the chair the last National Convention held by the Chartists in 1858. It lasted three days and full reports of the meetings were given in the Rochdale Observer.

In 1839 Thomas Livsey joined forces with John Bright, the local mill owner and later national politician to defeat the plan of the vicar to impose a church rate. The vicar was the Reverend William Hey, who was the magistrate who read the Riot Act at Peterloo. He was not popular in the town and his plan was defeated. When his successor Reverend Molesworth tried to do the same thing he too was defeated.

Livsey was an active member of the Improvement Committee and became chairman of the Gas Company which the town bought. He kept his post as a councillor till his death. His aim was to provide cheap gas for all households and Rochdale had one of the lowest rates in the North West. He held the post of Chief Constable in 1852 and 1853. When the town was incorporated in 1856, he was one of the first councillors elected and was one of only two men to be unanimously elected as an alderman by the new Council.

His other major passion was the control of the Poor Law. He was an early chair of the Board of Guardians from where he launched frequent and decisive opposition to the work of the central Commissioners. There was no Board till 1845, and no workhouse was built till 1877. The Board led by Livsey worked to a simple principle, that the poor are our townspeople and we are best placed to look after them, not a body in London. The minutes of the Board ring with Livsey’s attacks on the Commissioners as do the records held at the National Archive in Kew. His greatest success was during the Cotton Famine of 1861-65, when they forced the Commissioners to allow outdoor relief and got the people to undertake public works. One of these was to cobble the road to the new cemetery. The irony was that one of the first bodies to go up the new road was Livsey’s.

At a dinner given in his honour in November 1863, when he was clearly ill, he made a ringing endorsement of his position as a Chartist, the one belief he had kept constant to all his life. He died on 28 January 1864. Over 40,000 people lined the streets to watch the funeral procession pass, and the entire council attended. The Observer had black edges to the later edition and a public subscription raised over £1,750 at the height of the cotton famine. Livsey is buried in a large red granite tomb, just inside the main gates of the cemetery.