Peter Hoey, 1802 – 1875

Peter Hoey provided an important link between the Chartists of Ireland and those of West Yorkshire, where many made their home in the 1830s and 1840s. But despite his advocacy of peaceful means to gain the Charter, he was gaoled and suffered permanent ill health as a result. A lifelong Roman Catholic, he had the respect and support of many in his local community.

Peter Hoey was born in the textile town of Drogheda in County Meath in 1802. He became a handloom weaver, but with a collapse in demand for the coarse linen manufactured in Drogheda in the early 1820s1, he left for England and a new life – arriving in Barnsley in 1826.

Good humoured and good tempered, Hoey was ‘not an overpowering man’, according to a much later account of his life in Yorkshire2. ‘He was short and bulky. His face was full of fun. But his wide forehead gave him a look of intelligence, and his bearing brought him the respect of strangers and the deference of his equals.’ At some point, he married – though whether this was before or after he left for England is not known. Hoey’s wife Elizabeth, three years younger than him and a bobbin winder, was also born in Ireland. The couple had no children, but Peter may have had close family in Barnsley: James Hoey (a handloom weaver born in Ireland c1806) listed in the 1841 and 1851 census could have been a younger brother.

Hoey joined a growing Irish Catholic community in Barnsley, but seems to have played little part in the events of 1829 when a dramatic slump in demand for linen led to pay cuts, widespread unemployment and a three-month-long weavers’ strike, with tensions running high between local men and more recent migrants. His friend and fellow Chartist John Widdop would later write: ‘He took no leading part in that affair, and it was not until the great struggle for Parliamentary reform in 1831-32 that he came to the fore as a public man, but from that time forward he was a prominent leader in the trade and political disputes that agitated his townsmen’ (‘The late Peter Hoey’, Barnsley Chronicle, 24 April 1875, p3).

Into politics

Hoey became a leading figure in the Barnsley Radical Association, with meetings regularly reported by the Leeds Times to have taken place at his home in Wilson’s Place ‘in a room admirably fitted for the purpose’. In addition to his work as a handloom weaver, Hoey was known to run a beerhouse, so this was presumably the venue. But he and other Barnsley radicals evidently retained their links with Ireland. In 1836, Hoey chaired a Radical Association meeting to raise money for victims of the Rathcormac massacre, in which troops accompanying Church of Ireland tithe collectors shot dead more than a dozen Catholic farmers who confronted them as they sought to extract the tax (Leeds Times, 9 January 1836, p3). The Barnsley initiative eventually raised £5 12s, which Hoey sent via the radical True Sun newspaper (4 March 1836, p4) to Feargus O’Connor, who had interested himself in the ensuing legal case.

With Hoey among those at its head, in 1837 and 1838 the Barnsley Radical Association agitated against stamp duties on newspapers (the ‘taxes on knowledge’), the new Poor Law, and the victimisation of the Glasgow cotton spinners arrested after a bitterly contested strike over pay cuts. Closer to home he was prominent in contesting wage cuts put forward by Barnsley employers. And at the end of that year, he was one of nine signatories to an address from ‘The Radical Association of Barnsley to the working men of the three united kingdoms’ which advocated universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, and an end to property qualifications for MPs (Leeds Times, 30 December 1837, p5).

Hoey was also central to an extraordinary performance of community justice, when he played the part of the judge at a mock trial of a local baker named Joshua Wragge. A subscription had been raised in Barnsley to buy bread for the poor, and Wragge was duly paid to supply loaves of both 8lb and 6lb; but when ‘recipients of the bounty thinking them very small had them weighed’, it turned out that the loaves were only half the agreed weight (Leeds Mercury, 10 March 1838, p4). Disgruntled at the magistrates’ failure to hold Wragge criminally liable, the Barnsley radicals took matters into their own hands. As the Sheffield Iris reported (27 March 1838), they made an effigy of the baker and carried it to the Market-place, opposite Wragge’s shop, where, with Joseph Crabtree, another Barnsley radical, acting as prosecuting counsel, the baker was put on trial, and found guilty. Placing a black cap on his head, Hoey ordered the effigy to be hanged and burnt, with the sentence immediately carried out at the gas monument in the Market-place ‘in the presence of an immense crowd of spectators, who appeared highly gratified with the exhibition’. Perhaps more extraordinarily still, Wragge immediately went to the committee and ‘made restitution’, adding a ‘gratuity in aid of funds’ to the radical association.


In June 1838, after a visit by delegates from the Birmingham Political Union, Barnsley’s radicals adopted the petition that would soon to be associated with the Chartist cause and issued the ‘Barnsley Manifesto’ – a 4,000-word address setting out what it said were the ‘Radical principles and Radical opinions’ and signed by 25 local leaders, including Hoey3. But Barnsley radicalism was soon to ally itself more firmly with Feargus O’Connor, reconstituting itself that summer as a branch of the Great Northern Union.

Though Hoey never played much more than a local role within Chartism, he was a significant and leading figure in Barnsley, hosting meetings, often sharing duties in the chair with his ally John Vallance, and active both as a speaker and in organising the collection of signatures to the petition and donations to the National Rent (which aimed to fund the First Chartist Convention to sit for as long as was needed to make the Charter the law of the land). Under his leadership, the Chartist body in the town had more than 1,000 members.

The Chartist petition was presented to the House of Commons on 14 June 1839. It carried 1,280,958 signatures and ran to a length of three miles. Just four weeks later, MPs voted against even considering what it had to say by a margin of 235 votes to 46. The Chartist Convention, to which the Barnsley Chartists had sent John Vallance, now turned its attention to the ‘ulterior measures’ that Chartists might adopt to force the issue.

Arrest and prison

In Barnsley, a week long ‘holiday’ or general strike began on Monday 12 August. The looms fell silent and huge crowds assembled in the town centre. A large contingent of dragoons and special constables looked on, and followed the crowd as it marched off to Mayday Green, but remained little more than a menacing presence as Peter Hoey took the chair.

The strike soon petered out, and by the third day was all but over – at least on the Chartist side. As William Ashton reported in that week’s Northern Star: ‘On Wednesday, all was peace and the people returned to their work. Thursday was the same; the shuttles busy at work. But now was to begin the reign of terror’ (NS, 24 August 1839)

John Widdop was the first to be arrested at around 3.15pm that Thursday afternoon. Within half an hour Peter Hoey and John Vallance were also in custody – Hoey arrested at the door to the town’s post office where he had gone to send some letters. Others were taken that day: George Utley and Francis Fletcher, who were to be charged for having read London radical daily newspaper the Sun to the Monday meeting; Francis Fletcher, Thomas Lingard, Luke Hobson, Joseph Crabtree, Thomas Haslem, Joseph Wilkinson, and William Ashton. Five others were held after attempting to prevent the arrests from taking place.

Some weeks later Widdop was able to tell readers of the Northern Star what had happened next (NS, 5 October 1839). Brought up in chains before magistrates in a closed session, just minutes after their arrest, Hoey, Widdup and Vallance were committed to York Castle to await trial. ‘A chaise having been driven up to the door, the men were taken out and instantly surrounded by specials, dragoons and yeomanry cavalry. Upon Hoey’s wife attempting to speak to him, she was dragged away by some of the respectables; her gown was torn from her back, and otherwise ill treated; one of the specials calling her a d_____d b_____g, and threatening to run her through with his cutlass. The order was then given to march when the chaise drove off, surrounded by soldiers, with drawn swords, who escorted them four miles out of the town.’  By 5pm they were on the road to York.

Hoey was kept imprisoned at York Castle for eight weeks before being released on bail. In May 1840, he finally came up for trial – accused of having attended an illegal meeting the previous July. Found guilty, he was sent to the Wakefield House of Correction to begin a two-year gaol sentence, subject to the hard labour of oakum picking and the silent system, which forbade prisoners from talking to one another.

Hoey behind bars

Prison interview. The National Archives, HO 21/10. Click for larger image.

The campaign for his release began immediately4. Hoey’s supporters drew up a petition to the Home Secretary, the Marquis of Normanby, arguing that Hoey was ‘a man of honest, sober and industrious habits; and peaceable demeanour’, and that although he had attended radical meetings, he was ‘incapable of wishing to throw the country into Anarchy’. They went on to cast doubt on the reliability of prosecution witnesses, and urged Normanby to remit the sentence.

They were not alone. William Lewis, a special constable, and William Turner, a reporter for the Doncaster Gazette submitted sworn statements affirming that Hoey had never advocated violence in pursuit of the Charter. And John Rigby, Barnsley’s Catholic priest, who had known Hoey for thirteen years, described his parishioner as ‘honest, sober, industrious and peaceable’. He went on: ‘Your memorialist has good reason to know that Peter Hoey so far from joining in physical force did every thing in his power to prevent it & that the total absence of any thing like Chartist violence in Barnsley was mainly owing to the unceasing exertions of Peter Hoey.’

On 26 June 1840, an official wrote to the prison governor on the Home Secretary’s behalf stating there was ‘no sufficient ground’ for him to recommend Hoey’s release.

Later that year, Hoey was one of 73 political prisoners interviewed by the prison inspectors5. Captain William Williams, inspector of prisons for the Northern and Eastern District, met Hoey on 23 December, and followed a standard questionnaire about the prisoner’s family life, their trade and ‘condition in life’, health and religious affiliations. He noted that Hoey saw his Catholic priest frequently, and had taught himself to read and write. Of his financial circumstances, he recorded that Hoey ‘keeps six looms going, and also has a beer house the profits about £1 10s 0d weekly’. Elizabeth kept the beer house open while Peter was in gaol, and ‘has received relief from subscriptions’ collected by Hoey’s Chartist comrades.

Williams evidently asked Hoey whether he had changed his mind about politics, writing in his observations that he had told him, ‘I have made up my mind to “a change”; but I have always been opposed to physical force. I am a Radical and always will be.’

There was already concern for Hoey’s health, with the prison doctor adding milk to his diet, but this would have done little to alleviate the oedema in his leg, which was later ascribed to having to sit too long in the same position in irons while picking oakum. However, a second petition to the Home Secretary, supported by a sympathetic medical report, produced the desired result and Hoey was released in March 1841.

Back into politics

Hoey returns to the fray. From The National Archives, HO 18/26/14. Click for larger image.

On his release from prison, Hoey immediately returned to the political fray, and on 1 April he spoke at a public meeting at Barnsley’s Odd-Fellows’ Hall, billed as ‘our pure, unspotted and dungeon-tried Patriot’, to demand the release of political prisoners and the repatriation of those ‘exiled’ by transportation.

Hoey was greeted as a hero. Never one for understatement, Feargus O’Connor would later declare in the Northern Star that Hoey had has ‘lost a leg’ in prison (NS, 5 June 1841 p8). He was almost certainly mistaken as later reports talk of Hoey being in Ireland with ‘a bad leg’, and in all likelihood he had based the claim on a letter from the Barnsley Chartists which sought donations to enable Hoey to return to Drogheda ‘to make trial of his native air, and to drink the salt waters’ in a bid to save his leg and restore his health (NS, 22 May 1841, p7).

The appeal raised not much more than £2. But that did not prevent Hoey from crossing the Irish Sea, where to the fury of Daniel O’Connell’s supporters he established an active branch of the Irish Universal Suffrage Association. Under the presidency of Patrick O’Higgins, the Chartist organisation would at its peak have more than 1,000 members, 160 of them in Drogheda. Hoey would remain in Ireland for several months before returning to Barnsley.

Hoey continued to be an active Chartist. At the end of 1842, he was Barnsley’s delegate to the ‘Unity’ Conference in Birmingham, called to try to seek common ground with Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union, which ended in abject failure and confirmed the split between working class and middle class radicals. Hoey stood with Feargus O’Connor and the Chartists.

In 1847, when an explosion at Barnsley’s Ardsley Main Colliery claimed the lives of 73 men and boys, Hoey was among those who took up the fight on behalf of the families of the dead and injured (NS, 20 March, 1847). Later that year, when Feargus O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham, Barnsley’s Chartists sent out the town’s bellman to announce, ‘Glorious news for the million’, there was singing and cheering, and ‘the windows of Mr Peter Hoey, and Thomas Acklam, and others, were illuminated with a candle in every pane, and the Chartist flag once more proudly waved in the evening breeze (NS, 7 August 1847 p5). And when Barnsley’s Irish Democratic Confederation met to celebrate the revolution in France and to send a strong message of support to the provisional government in Paris, Hoey was in the chair (NS, 1 April 1848).

Later life

Chartism in Barnsley never quite regained the vigour of its early days, and Hoey never regained his good health. He increasingly found it difficult to follow his trade with the same vigour, and his earnings may have fallen as a result. The 1851 census shows that Peter and Elizabeth Hoey had become lodgers in the house of fellow Chartist Thomas Acklam.

Hoey eventually gave up weaving and opened a flour and grocery shop, moving to Sheffield in 1853 where he continued in the trade until Elizabeth’s death a decade later, after which he lived off his income as principal collector for the St Patrick’s Sick and Burial Society. In 1867, Hoey was allocated a place in an alms house where ‘the inhabitants, male and female are provided with a neat little cottage, coals and a weekly stipend, and certain articles of clothing’.

Hoey lived out his final years there in relative comfort, dying on 14 April 1875. He was interred in the Catholic Cemetery of St Bede at Masbro’ (Rotherham), ‘for like the majority of his countrymen, he was a Roman Catholic, always a good and worthy member of his church and a strict observer of the church’s laws’, as his obituarist John Widdop noted.

Notes and sources

1. ‘The Drogheda Textile Industry, 1780-1820’, by John Fitzgerald in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1981). Accessed on JSTOR, 3 May 2024.

2. ‘The History of the Barnsley Chronicle, No. 31’ Barnsley Chronicle, 5 June 1909, p5. This and all subsequent newspaper reports referenced in the text are taken from the British Newspaper Archive.

3. ‘Manifesto of the Barnsley Chartists’ by Frederick J. Kaijage in Labour History Review 33 (1976). The manifesto itself can also be found here on the Peel Web.

4. Papers relating to Hoey’s imprisonment at Wakefield, including petitions for his release, medical reports and correspondence from the Home Office are held at the National Archives in Home Office: Criminal Petitions, HO 18/26/14. They have been digitised and are now accessible only through the FindMyPast website (see p.129) (subscription).

5. All 73 interviews survive in the National Archives, along with a small number of additional incidental documents including examples of the diet allowed to prisoners. Each interview was recorded on a standard form and later transcribed into a leather-bound book. See HO 20/10. They have not been digitised.

6. John Widdop. ‘The late Peter Hoey’, Barnsley Chronicle, 24 April 1875