How the woke Guardian newspaper was founded with a fortune linked to cotton

26 June 2020

7.9 MINS

By Guy Walters, The Daily Mail.

Editor’s Note: The British historian Guy Walters delves into the complicated past of The Guardian, now a mouthpiece of the ‘woke’ Left condemning the historical sins which just so happened to fund the paper’s creation. A fascinating irony for people to chew on before jumping on the bandwagon of confected moral outrage. Read the original article at The Daily Mail.


Of the many outraged voices amid the Black Lives Matter protests, few have been more prominent or persistent than The Guardian newspaper.

As statues are torn down and long-established companies take to their corporate knees in apology, the paper and its columnists have been vociferous in calling on Britain and its institutions to acknowledge and atone for their involvement in the ‘vicious business of slavery, and the imperial project that carried on long after it was abolished in 1833’, as a recent editorial put it.

When it comes to this country’s historic links to the slave trade, The Guardian has provided unrivalled breadth of coverage, often devoting several pages per edition to the subject.

Under the heading ‘A shameful period of English history,’ Friday’s paper castigated distinguished finance houses including Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays Bank, HSBC and Lloyds Bank, insurance market Lloyd’s of London and the brewer Greene King for having founders and predecessors who made money from slavery, some of whom received substantial compensation when the vile trade was abolished.

A few days earlier, Dr Kojo Koram, a lecturer in law at the University of London, used The Guardian’s pages to demand that the nation establish a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ looking into slavery and the British Empire, in order that we can ‘really think about the type of Britain we want to build today’.

Other contributors have gone further, calling for financial reparations or ‘reparative justice’ for any historical association with slavery, while columnist Nesrine Malik wrote last week that

‘civil disobedience, strikes, riots and boycotts are not the hijacking of process: they are its continuation by other means’.

Columnist George Monbiot, meanwhile, took the opportunity to tell readers that the grandfather of Mary Wakefield — the journalist married to Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings — possessed a fortune ‘made from the ownership of slaves, and the massive compensation paid to the owners when the trade was banned’.

The Manchester Guardian was initially created following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819

The Guardian has long taken pride in its history as a friend of the oppressed, even if today it is easily caricatured as a mouthpiece of the London-dominated Left, obsessed with identity politics.

The newspaper has a radical history, after all, founded in Manchester in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which up to 20 people were killed when cavalry charged a peaceful crowd gathered to protest for parliamentary reform.

Today, The Guardian is run by the not-for-profit Scott Trust, upholding values that include newspapers ‘having a moral as well as a material existence’.

Yet morality is complicated. And, as it continues in its attempt to change the way we think about our island story, the newspaper might like to examine its own complex history, too.

John Edward Taylor founded The Guardian in 1821 with money made through cotton trade links

For when The Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 by cotton merchant John Edward Taylor and his friends, they did so with money inextricably linked to the brutal treatment of enslaved black men and women who had been transported from West Africa to work themselves to death on American plantations.

Taylor was a partner in a firm called Shuttleworth, Taylor & Co, which was listed in the Commercial Directory of 1818 under the section headed ‘Cotton, Twist, and Weft Dealers’.

It was not unusual to be involved in the cotton trade in Manchester in the early 19th Century. The same directory listed some 325 businesses involved in all aspects of the industry that made Manchester rich, along with nearby towns such as Bolton, Preston and Blackburn. A light and fast-drying alternative to wool, cotton was comparatively easy to spin in the damp air of Lancashire towns where the threads didn’t snap.

Manchester, though, was the undoubted centre of the trade, and in today’s money it is thought that the city earned some £1.3 billion per year — profits that helped fuel the rise in associated commerce and industry such as banking and engineering.

As was well known at the time, however, the raw material for this wealth came mostly from plantations in the Americas. Which is to say that the fortunes of Taylor and his fellow Lancashire merchants were acquired on the backs of slaves who picked cotton in the most appalling conditions.

Many of those involved in the early days of The Guardian earned money from cotton mills.

During harvest, the slaves would work for some 18 hours a day, whether they were men, women, or children — some as young as four. To ensure they worked hard, they were regularly whipped — and woe betide any caught trying to escape.

In one horrific punishment known as ‘Derby’s Dose’, recaptured slaves would be flogged and have salt, lime juice and pepper rubbed into their wounds. Other elements of the punishment are too graphic to be mentioned here.

It was not actually considered a crime to kill a slave until well into the 18th Century.

Taylor himself was a figure of great respectability when, with his friends, he founded and edited what was then called The Manchester Guardian. (It would later drop the word Manchester and relocate to London.)

In the modern day, The Guardian has been a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter protests.

He belonged to a liberal-minded group of men calling themselves the Little Circle, non-conformists who included Taylor’s cotton-dealing partner John Shuttleworth, and Joseph Brotherton, a minister and vegetarian, whose own family’s fortune derived from owning a cotton mill.

Also part of the Little Circle was Thomas Potter, who later became Mayor of Manchester and was knighted in 1840. He too derived much of his wealth from textiles, including cotton.

Then there is the troubling question of Taylor’s views. Under his aegis, The Guardian was hardly the beacon of liberalism it is today. So far to the Right did Taylor’s editorial line soon drift that he earned the opprobrium of his fellow Little Circle members.

The Guardian sided with the mill owners rather than the men, women and children toiling in often terrible conditions, and the paper was denounced as the ‘cotton lords’ Bible’ by factory reformer Richard Oastler.

The campaigner, who loathed the owners, called upon the ‘little girls and boys’ who worked in the mills to destroy machinery in ‘self-defence’ — a stance which enraged Taylor.

There was no doubt that Oastler had a point. Although certainly not as bad as cotton plantations in America’s Southern states, Lancashire’s cotton mills were brutal. Many workers suffered from bad lungs, caused by a condition then known as ‘spinners’ phthisis’, which was a form of pulmonary tuberculosis caused by cotton dust and fibres. The disease, identified in the 1830s, was even written about by Elizabeth Gaskell, who noted how many mill hands would fall ‘into a waste, coughing and spitting blood, because they’re just poisoned by the fluff’.

Shifts were long — 13 hours was a normal day — and there was no respite from disease when the workers got back home. Many lived in slums, with open sewers and communal toilets. Cholera was an ever-present danger.

Despite all this, Taylor remained opposed to Oastler’s Tory radicalism. In September 1836, his newspaper stated that

‘Mr Oastler has broken the law by publicly recommending and inciting others to commit an unlawful action’ by destroying ‘the property of a manufacturer’.

Taylor was at least consistent. While many in Britain felt a deep unease about the use of child labour in the textile industry, it was the Manchester Guardian that fought to retain it, opposing the Ten Hour Movement, a campaign seeking to reduce working hours. This, in the proprietor’s view, would have led to the ‘gradual destruction of the cotton industry’.

Nor was he much in favour of giving everyone the vote.

Another Guardian editorial argued against universal suffrage, saying that

‘the qualification to vote ought to be low enough to put it fairly within the power of members of the labouring classes by careful, steady and preserving industry to possess themselves of it, yet not so low as to give anything like a preponderating influence to the mere populace’.

Taylor passed away in 1844, but The Guardian’s association with illiberal causes did not die with him. That same year it demanded that striking Lancashire cotton workers should return to work.

Two decades later, The Guardian sided with the slave-owning Southern states, the Confederacy, against Abraham Lincoln and the North in the American Civil War. The paper loathed Lincoln and made no secret of it.

‘It was an evil day both for America and the world when he was chosen President of the United States,’ it thundered in 1862.

Even when Lincoln was assassinated three years later, The Guardian could find little or nothing good to say about him, stating that ‘of his rule, we can never speak except as a series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty’.

Yet quotations are selective, and risk ignoring the complexity of the issues at the time. While some continue to interpret the attacks on Lincoln — a man often seen as the greatest of all American presidents — as evidence that The Guardian was somehow pro-slavery in the 1860s, the truth is more subtle.

The paper supported the Confederacy not because it favoured slavery but, rather, because it believed the Southern states should be free to determine their own destiny.

The Guardian honestly believed, too, that an independent South would be more likely to abolish slavery than a South still yoked to the Union.

As most fair-minded commentators would agree, the newspaper’s view of American politics was a product of its time. The past, after all, is a complicated place — and that includes The Guardian’s links with, and attitudes towards, slavery.

Figures such as Winston Churchill — and indeed John Edward Taylor — are complicated, too, and contradictory. Churchill, in common with many at the time, expressed some views of race that are abhorrent today, but he also helped rid the world of fascist totalitarianism.

Edward Colston, whose statue was defaced then thrown into the River Avon in Bristol, did indeed make a great deal of money from slavery, but his philanthropy has undoubtedly helped — and continues to help — many in the city.

And while Taylor and his fellow members of the Little Circle made fortunes from dealing in slave-picked cotton, they founded a great liberal newspaper that has often been an important voice for the less fortunate in our society.

Should, then, The Guardian be added to the burgeoning list of institutions making reparations for their historical links with a truly monstrous trade? After years of multi-million-pound losses — although it recently claimed to have made a small profit — the paper is probably in little position to do so.

Perhaps, instead, the statue topplers and campaigners for a thorough rewriting of our history should heed the words of one leading journalist in 2011.

Referring to The Manchester Guardian’s coverage of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s, this commentator observed that the leader writer of the day was dealing with

‘immensely difficult issues… which are as irresolvable and hard to balance today as they were 150 years ago. He was not to know that later generations would have a different set of priorities.

‘He was sailing into the darkness. He couldn’t foretell the future. And neither, we sometimes need to remind ourselves amid our own certainties, can we.’

This was written by Martin Kettle, an associate editor and longstanding columnist for The Guardian, a newspaper with a distinguished past which is about to celebrate its bicentenary.

Today, those who sit in angry judgment on Britain’s distant past and the people who lived in it, would do well to remember his conclusion.

[Photo by British Library on Unsplash]

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