In my forthcoming novel, All the People, due for publication on Friday, 28 February 2020, a Bedfordshire farmer, James Hull, becomes a missionary for the United Brethren (the Moravians) in 1834 and is sent into an area of deprivation that is known as Little Ireland, later called the worst spot in Manchester*. Here, confronted by the disease, filth, deaths and desperation of the people just struggling to survive, he makes a new resolution: instead of preparing people for life after death, he will work to make their lives on earth bearable.
Set against him is a society that demands that the natural order should remain unchanged. This axiom is preached by his religion as much as by government and business. The latter is symbolised by the local mill owner, Hugh Hornby Birley, who employs many of the Irish that live close to his mill. He is the most hated man in the town of Manchester, remembered not for his business and political skills, nor for his philanthropic work but for just one act: Birley was the man that led the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry at Peterloo in 1819, when twenty men, women and a child were killed and hundreds injured by the yeomanry and troops. Birley becomes the missionary’s main adversary, rejecting change and any notion of help for the starving of Little Ireland**.
All the People spans the period of 1832, just after the introduction of the Great Reform Act, to 1842, just after the Plug Plot Riots have made their way throughout the northwest of England, when the Chartists sought to change the natural order through the institution of universal suffrage.
It is now 2020, 178 years later, and the Birleys and Hulls have gone their separate ways through history. Last year was the year that commemorated the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, so it was high time that the scions of the rivals for the soul of Little Ireland came together.
I had long used the facilities afforded to me by Ancestry.com to discover the family trees of the Birley and Hulls. It underpinned all my research and I now brought the research to the present day. I found that two of the direct descendants of Hugh Hornby Birley and James Hull now live, coincidentally, in Dorset, many miles from Manchester but just twenty miles from each other. I had contacted Dr Roger Hull some years before and he had been gracious enough to invite me to his home near Blandford Forum in Dorset. Having now discovered the whereabouts of a direct descendent of Hugh Hornby Birley, I made contact with Dr Rick Birley.
James Hull – missionary for the United Brethren. Born 1782, he was a farmer in Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire. With his wife, Elizabeth, and nine children, he made his life as a missionary in Manchester around 1836. James died on 9 May 1856 and was interred at the Moravian Settlement in Fairfield.
Hugh Hornby Birley – mill owner near Little Ireland who, throughout his life, failed to rid the world of the memory that he had led the charge of the yeomanry at Peterloo, destined to be remembered for just one act. Born on 10 March 1778, he was successful in his business ventures and a philanthropist (e.g. the Treasurer of the Lying-in Hospital in Manchester, where the poorest gave birth). He died on 31 July 1845 and was buried in the family vault / crypt in St Peter’s Church, very near to St Peter’s Field where the events of 1819 took place. This is now buried under roadways in Manchester. Birley’s mill – Chorlton Mill, located at the corner of Cambridge Street and Hulme Street in Manchester and still there today – forms the cover for All the People.
A few words about these two descendants of James Hull and Hugh Hornby Birley:
Dr Roger Hull is a scientist, with a PhD from London University. He was born in 1937 and is a great-great-grandson of James Hull. Roger has been a highly successful scientist and writer, the author of the well-known ‘Comparative Plant Virology’ and continues to research how plants obtain resistance to virus infections. He has an Emeritus Research Fellowship from the John Innes Centre in Norwich and lives in Child Okeford in Dorset. Roger is currently writing the follow-up to his book.
Dr Rick Birley is a composer, who gained his doctorate from Southampton University, and was born in 1954. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Hugh Hornby Birley. Rick has been a music teacher and devoted much of his life to helping other composers to reach their potential as well as composing his own music. This includes a String Quartet and a Violin Concerto. Rick lives in Dorchester, also in Dorset.
It was a pleasure for me to arrange for the three of us to meet up, which we did in early December 2019.
We initially met at Rick’s home in Dorchester where we talked about All the People with Rick, his wife, Sally and Roger. Clearly, 178 or so years after the period in which All the People ends, any antipathy between the ideals of James Hull and Hugh Hornby Birley no longer persist as a handshake beneath the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs confirmed. That we were able to visit the place where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were incarcerated was another coincidence. Their fight to be ‘unionised’ nearly 200 years ago and their arrests and severe sentences (originally to death, later commuted to deportation to Tasmania) led to a mass movement on their behalf. It was on such a march that Feargus O’Connor, later to lead the Chartist movement, is said to have gained the notion that he, an Irish MP, could play an important part in the working people’s movement in England. He performs an important part of All the People.
Our discussions of their ancestors were honest, informed and highly agreeable. Rick has been highly critical of his ancestor and there was no disagreement about the need to change the natural order in 1842. However, in case any arbitration was required, Rick and Roger went before the ‘judge’ in Shire Hall, Dorchester – where the Tolpuddle Martyrs had been sentenced in 1834.
The Dorchester Men were sentenced to deportation but the judge considered that 177 years of estrangement had been long enough and that the Birleys and Hulls should be allowed to remain in the beautiful County of Dorset, the home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and now home to the descendants of the Birleys and the Hulls.
All the People is published on 28 February, 2020 – available via the Troubador website and all online bookstores (hardback, paperback and electronic).
*Frederick Engels – The Condition of the working Class in England (published in 1845)
** See my blog for the People’s History Museum – https://phm.org.uk/blogposts/the-captain-of-the-yeomanry-at-peterloo/