Joseph Rayner Stephens, the son of a Methodist minister, was born on 8th March, 1805. He was educated at the Manchester Grammar School and the Leeds Methodist School. After teaching at Cottingham for two years, Stephens became a preacher and missionary. Stephens returned to England in 1829 and soon afterwards was ordained as a Methodist minister. Stephens was appointed the minister of the Wesleyan Church in Cheltenham but in 1834 was expelled from his post for advocating the separation of church and state.
Stephens moved to Lancashire where he established an independent chapel in Ashton-under-Lyne. A large number of the people living in the town worked in the textile industry and it was not long before he became involved in the campaign for factory reform. Stephens worked closely with Richard Oastler and John Fielden. In 1836 Stephens organized a fund to support Oastler after he was dismissed from his post as the steward of Fixby Hall.
Stephens also became involved in the campaign against the 1834 Poor Law. He organised boycotts against shopowners who failed to support the reform movement and in Huddersfield in 1838 he played a prominent role in encouraging people to disrupt meetings of the local Poor Law Guardians. As a result of this campaign, Stephens was arrested from making seditious and inflammatory speeches, and in August 1839 he was found guilty and sent to prison.
On his release from prison in 1840, Stephens returned to his mission to end child labour in textile factories. In 1848 Stephens established theAshton Chronicle, a newspaper that advocated radical social reform. Stephens worked closely with John Fielden in his campaign against child labour and after the death of his great friend in 1849, he established a group of radical reformers called the Fielden Society.
In his later years Stephens agitated on behalf of the unemployed cotton workers and supported the founding of the National Miners' Association. Joseph Rayner Stephens died on 18th February, 1879.
(1) R. G. Gammage was friend of Joseph Rayner Stephens and wrote an account of the man in his book History of the Chartist Movement published in 1894.
Rev. Joseph Rayner Stephens had been a minister in the Wesleyan Connection. Because Stephens had been guilty of the unpardonable crime of denouncing the laws of the factory for their cruel oppression of the poor, he was soon marked out for persecution, the ground for that persecution being, that contrary to his duties as a minister of the gospel, he interfered, and mixed himself up with political questions. Stephens was of course dismissed from the ministry, but that dismissal elevated him in the estimation of the people whose cause he espoused, and it was not long before three chapels were erected by the working class in the neighbourhood of Ashton.
(2) Joseph Rayner Stephens writing in The Ashton Chronicle on 19th May, 1849.
Very few are aware of what the factory system really is - in its rise, its growth and its operation upon society. We talk of our commercial greatness - of the importance of our manufactures, and the advantages thereby conferred upon the country, but most of us little know what all this means. How it has been brought about, and what it is done, and is now doing.
(3) On the 23rd June, 1849, The Ashton Chronicle published an interview with a woman who had started work at Cressbrook Mill, Derbyshire, when she was eight years old.
Sarah Goodling was poorly and so she stopped her machine. James Birch, the overlooker knocked her to the floor. She got up as well as she could. He knocked her down again. Then she was carried to the apprentice house. Her bed-fellow found her dead in bed. There was another called Mary. She knocked her food can down on the floor. The master, Mr. Newton, kicked her where he should not do, and it caused her to wear away till she died. There was another, Caroline Thompson. They beat her till she went out of her mind. The overlookers used to cut off the hair of all the girls caught talking to the lads. This head shaving was a dreadful punishment. We were more afraid of it than of any other, for girls are proud of their hair.
(4) In May, 1849, Joseph Rayner Stephens, interviewed a thirty-five year old factory worker. Stephens describes the man as "little bigger than a boy, and so sunken, worn and haggard, he might easily have been taken for sixty". The man, who was an orphan, told Stephens how a factory owner from Derbyshire had purchased him from Bethnal Green Workhouse when he was six years old. The interview was published in The Ashton Chronicle on 19th May, 1849.
Mr. Needham, the factory master and his five sons used to go up and down the mill with hazzle sticks and beat us unmercifully. Frank Needham once thought he had killed me. He had struck me on the temples and knocked me dateless. Swann, the overlooker once knocked me down and hit me with a thick stick. To save my head I raised my arm, which he hit with all his might. My elbow was broken. I suffer pain from it to this day. It was very seldom we missed a day without being beaten. I was determined to let the gentlemen of the Bethnal Green parish know about the treatment we had, and I wrote a letter and put it in the Tydeswell Post Office. It was broken open and given to old Needham. He beat me with a knob-stick till I could scarcely crawl.