Mr. James Rayner Stevens was one of the most violent political preachers of his day. Originally a member of the body of the Wesleyan Methodists, and a minister of the particular creed which that respectable sect professes, he was excluded their church by reason of his interference with political subjects, in a manner which was deemed unbecoming his character as one of their clergymen. Already highly popular among the people of the district in which he resided, for his uniform opposition to those measures which they deemed harsh and hurtful to their interests, as well as for a mild and amiable disposition which, it appears, amidst all his violence on political subjects, he possessed, they were determined that he should not be without an arena in which he might display his acknowledged but dangerous powers of eloquence. The manufacturing inhabitants of Ashton, Dunkenfield, and Staley Bridge therefore quickly erected for him chapels in each of their respective districts, and here he continued to exercise his functions as a preacher, up to the period of his apprehension. As we have already said, mild, amiable, and charitable in private life, he was a universal favourite amongst his flock; but he unfortunately sought to gratify their tastes, at the same time that he obeyed the dictates of his own feelings, in disseminating doctrines opposed to the maintenance of the existing law, and subversive of the interests of society. The New Poor Law was his favourite topic of abuse; and in this he found a ready echo in the breasts of those who heard him. But from a subject which might be so easily made calculated to excite dislike towards the Ministers by whom the law was introduced, he turned to others of a more general character; and in his discourses in reference to these as well as the first object of his professed hatred, he was guilty of making assertions and employing arguments which eventually procured his indictment and imprisonment on a charge of sedition.
In his sermons Mr. Stevens boldly maintained his principles, and sought openly to make them known; he contended, not perhaps for their legality, but that they were such as he had a right to hold and proclaim; and he frequently loudly called upon the authorities, "if they dared," to impeach him of his political offences in this respect. This invitation was given once too often; and at length, on Thursday, the 28th of December 1838, he was apprehended at Ashton by Goddard and Shackell, Bow-street officers, on a warrant which had been issued by two magistrates of Lancashire, and placed in their hands for execution. Mr. Stevens made no effort to resist the law, and he was immediately taken to Manchester to be examined by the magistrates there, escorted by a company of the Queen's Bays. He was lodged in the New Bailey for that night; but on the next day a public investigation took place.
The charge made against him in the warrant was, that he did, on the 13th of November, at the market-place at Leigh -- for his speech-making was not confined to his pulpit -- with a great number of evil-disposed and disorderly persons, assemble together in a tumultuous manner with banners, flags, and ensigns, and that then and there, by loud shouts, and by the discharge of fire-arms, they terrified the inhabitants of Leigh; and that he did, by violent and inflammatory language, endeavour to excite the people so assembled to violence against the persons and property of divers of her Majesty's liege subjects in Leigh and its vicinity. This charge was sought to be substantiated by various witnesses, who, being inhabitants of Leigh, had heard his speech, and were able to give a general account of its tendency.
Mr. James Johnson, a linen-draper, proved that on the day in question a meeting was held at the market-place in Leigh of between two and three thousand persons, at which the prisoner was present and made a speech. He described the general effect of the speech. The prisoner, he said, referred principally to the factories and the existing poor laws. He condemned the practices in the factories, and advised the people to arm themselves, and to get guns and pikes and hang them over their chimney-pieces; they were to have them ready, and then he would come over, and they should appoint him their leader, and he would tell them what they were to do. When the grand attack was made, they were to go to the factories with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other. He referred to a particular instance of the alleged mal-treatment of a boy at the factory of Mr. Jones, and he talked of tarring and feathering Mr. Jones, and sending him as a present to the commissioners. During the meeting pistols were fired, and the people shouted. Mr. Stevens checked the firing of pistols, saying that there was too much cracking. He said that he had not done "cracking" yet, and that they might crack again by and by. The witness added, that he saw as many as twenty pistols among the crowd; and he also observed a person walking about with a pike, upon which a loaf and a herring were impaled.
William Coward, a constable of Leigh, gave a longer account of the speech than Mr. Johnson. He said that when he first went to the spot, Mr. Stevens was addressing the meeting on the condescension of our Lord in this world. He subsequently quitted this point and went to other subjects. He quoted the passage, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord;" and he added -- What I mean to say is, that God has perhaps raised you up to fire these buildings (alluding to the houses round about), and perhaps even that venerable church, which our forefathers have erected." He advised the people to take away their families from church, and to save their pennies to buy pikes, and guns, and pistols. At night there was another meeting by torch-light, at which Stevens again spoke in the same strain as that which he had employed in the morning. He spoke about the soldiers and officers, and said that there was nothing to fear in that quarter, for that the officers had admitted his writings into their mess-rooms, and that the soldiers had listened to his preaching, and loved to hear him. He spoke of the hardships which the people underwent, and declared that if he lived at Leigh, he would collect the people in parties of from six to twelve, and go to the poor law guardians and bring out one of their number; then he would take his coat and waistcoat and shirt off, and, having got a barrel of tar, he would cover him with it, and he would give him a pillow of feathers, and feather him, and then he would say, "Go to roost, thou devil! "At this meeting the same system of pistol-firing was kept up which had been maintained in the morning, and there were pikes to be seen, and many of the people carried torches. The witness added, that he had since seen between one and two hundred pikes in the cottages of the poor people, which had doubtless been procured at the instigation of Mr. Stevens's speech. The inhabitants of Leigh and its neighbourhood were much alarmed at the occurrences of the meetings. The witness declared his regret at being compelled to give evidence against a person whom he had known so long as Mr. Stevens, because he had been acquainted with him when he was esteemed a highly respectable member of the body of Wesleyans; but he felt bound to state what he had seen, for he was convinced that since Mr. Stevens had been in the habit of going to Leigh, there was more irritation among the people than he had ever known before. Arms had been collected, and he knew one or two smithies which were wholly employed in making pikes. These were made principally of steel, and they were fourteen or fifteen inches long; at one end was a screw, so that they might be fixed into a staff, and at the other the point was exceedingly sharp. Gentlemen in the neighbourhood had been threatened to have a pike or a ball through their bodies; and the people, on going to various shops to buy bread, had declared that they would "fetch the next at the point of the pike." The witness further stated, that there were banners at the meeting, on one of which was the inscription, "The murders of Peterloo shall never be forgot."
Both witnesses were cross-examined by Mr. Stevens with great tact and ingenuity, and eventually the conclusion of the proceedings was postponed until the following Thursday, Mr. Stevens in the meanwhile being admitted to bail.
The termination of this examination was awaited with great interest by a large number of Mr. Stevens's friends, and upon his liberation he was received with the greatest enthusiasm. On the following Sunday he preached as usual at Staley-bridge, without making any allusion to what had passed. In the evening he was proceeding to his chapel at Ashton, where he was informed that the congregation was so great that fears were entertained lest the building should fall; and eventually the service was read and the sermon delivered in the market-place by moonlight, no fewer than ten thousand persons being collected to witness this extraordinary scene.
On Monday evening Mr. Stevens attended a tea-party at Hyde, where one thousand persons were assembled. He took a review of the past year, and dwelt on the prospects of the future. He said that the factory system was doomed; and that the poor-law could not much longer continue to exist. He declared that it was so much opposed in Ashton, that a board of guardians could not be formed; and pointing to a flag which was suspended against the wall, he said that rather than it should be established, they should marshal themselves under it, and following the standard-bearer they would shout its motto,
"For children and wife
We will war to the knife:
Down with the bastiles.
And Stevens for ever! "
On Tuesday evening a meeting was held in Manchester at which Mr. Feargus O'Connor and others addressed the people, urging them to attend the examination of Mr. Stevens in thousands and tens of thousands, but peaceably and without banners, in order to show their gratitude to their benefactor.
On Thursday at least four thousand persons were assembled outside the New Bailey, but their conduct was orderly, although they appeared to take great interest in the fate of their favourite. Mr. Stevens was in attendance precisely at the hour appointed, and he was loudly cheered, but there was no appearance of riot. There was one additional witness now examined, whose evidence was a mere repetition of that of Johnson and Coward, and on this charge Mr. Stevens was ordered to stand committed to take his trial at the next Liverpool Assizes. He was informed that there were other charges which might be brought against him with reference to the organisation of illegal societies; and it was also intimated to him, that he would be liberated upon his putting in bail to the amount of 2000l. for his appearance when called upon. The crowd immediately dispersed, and in the evening Mr. Stevens was discharged from custody.
On Thursday the 15th of August 1839, Mr. Stevens was put upon his trial. The indictment alleged the same offence as that which had been stated in the warrant, and it was fully supported by the same evidence which we have already detailed. At the conclusion of the trial, a verdict of" Guilty "was returned, and Mr. Stevens was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment in Knutsford House of Correction, and was ordered on his discharge to give bail, himself in 500l., and two sureties in 250l. each, that he should keep the peace for five years.
Mr. Stevens was subsequently removed to Chester Castle, from whence, on the 1st of February 1841, he was discharged. This liberation took place eight days earlier than the term of his sentence; but, in consequence of the death of his father, the Rev. John Stevens, Lord Normanby kindly consented to the remission of the few days, to enable him to attend the last sad duties to the deceased.