Thomas Walker was born in Manchester in 1749. He became a successful cotton merchant. Walker took a keen interest in politics and was a supporter of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, where he met other reformers such as Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, William Dillwyn, William Allen, Josiah Wedgwood, James Ramsay, Charles Middleton, Henry Thornton and William Smith.
In April 1780 Major John Cartwright helped found the Society for Constitutional Information. Other members included John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Granville Sharp, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Gales and William Smith. It was an organisation of social reformers, many of whom were drawn from the rational dissenting community, dedicated to publishing political tracts aimed at educating fellow citizens on their lost ancient liberties. It promoted the work of Tom Paine and other campaigners for parliamentary reform. Walker joined the organisation and formed a branch in Manchester.
Walker was also a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society founded in 1781 to promote improvements in local health and sanitary issues. It was a great success and over the years John Dalton, James Prescott Joule; Peter Mark Roget, William Fairbairn, Henry Enfield Roscoe, Ernest Rutherford, Tom Kilburn and Joseph Whitworth. Walker led the campaign in the cotton industry for the repeal of the unpopular fustian tax in 1784.
Walker became the organiser of the Manchester anti-slavery group. He chaired the first Manchester committee of 31 people in December 1787. His wife, Hannah, was listed as one of the female subscribers to the committee. Walker helped organise the 1788 petition to parliament for the abolition of the slave trade, which contained 10,639 signatures.
Walker promoted the work of Tom Paine and other campaigners for parliamentary reform. This including the Rights of Man. In the summer of 1792 Paine wrote to Walker: "It must be kept going by cheap publications. This will embarrass the Court gentry more than anything else, because it is a ground they are not used to."
Edward Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963) has pointed out: "In December 1972, a drunken mob was deliberately directed against the premises of Thomas Walker in Manchester: he and his supporters defended themselves successfully by firing into the air." According to Walker: "The same contrivances were used as at a contested election. Parties were collected in different public houses, and from thence paraded the streets with a fiddler before them, and carrying a board, on which was painted CHURCH and KING."
Ellen Gibson Wilson has argued that "Walker's house was besieged by mobs four times, and on the last occasion, his friends had gathered there armed with guns to defend themselves." As a result Walker and six others, including William Paul, James Cheetham and Oliver Pearsall, were charged with attempting "with force of arms" to overthrow the government. His friend, Thomas Clarkson visited him in November 1793. Clarkson wrote Walker "I have no business in Manchester, but wishing to see you on... the impending trial, and to go over some points which it may be useful to the cause to ascertain."
Walker,'s trial was held at the Lancaster Assizes in June 1794. Walker was defended by Thomas Erskine. He was acquitted because the key witness, Thomas Dunn, was shown to have lied under oath. The trial cost Walker nearly £3,000 and nearly bankrupted him.
Soon afterwards, Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall of the London Corresponding Society were arrested and committed to the Tower of London and charged with high treason. Although Hardy, Tooke and Thelwall were acquitted the government continued to persecute supporters of parliamentary reform. Thomas Clarkson said that had they been found guilty he would have moved to America. "For if it was looked upon to be treason to belong to such popular societies as the constitutional society or the society of the friends of the people... no one was safe."
There are many reasons why I am glad (Wilberforce) has undertaken it rather than I, and I think as you do, that I can be very useful in preventing him from betraying the cause, if he should be so inclined, which I own I suspect. Nothing, I think but such a disposition, or a want of judgment scarcely credible, could induce him to throw cold water upon petitions. It is from them and other demonstrations of the opinion without doors that I look for success.
One of the Abolition Committee's first collaborators, Thomas Walker of Manchester, was an early victim of the new treason and sedition acts but Clarkson did not hesitate to call on him when he was in the area in November 1793. Walker had been charged with high treason. "I have no business in Manchester", Clarkson wrote him, "but wishing to see you on... the impending trial, and to go over some points which it may be useful to the Cause to ascertain, it is my Intention to visit you.... I am on horseback. I don't wish it to be known that I am at Manchester, and should therefore like to ride up to your house, and spend the day with you, and be off the next morning." Walker was a long-time advocate of parliamentary reform who had become president of the Manchester Constitutional Society formed in opposition to the local Church and King Club. The reformers were a tiny minority in a town where "No Jacobins Admitted Here" signs hung in the taverns. Walker's house was besieged by mobs four times, and on the last occasion, his friends had gathered there armed with guns to defend themselves. This brought charges against Walker and six others of attempting "with force of arms" to overthrow the government.
At the trial in Lancaster the following April, the seven, defended by Thomas Erskine, were acquitted to Clarkson's delight but the cost of nearly £3,000 almost bankrupted Walker. Six months later Erskine defended Thelwall, Hardy and Tooke with other members of the London Corresponding Society in the more celebrated treason trials in London. They, too, were acquitted. Had they been found guilty, Clarkson intended to settle in America, "for if it was looked upon to be treason to belong to such popular societies as the constitutional society or the society of the friends of the people ... no one was safe."