The Radical Campaigns of John Baxter Langley

It is always interesting to re-discover that biographies of relatively minor political figures who, for instance, did not make it to the House of Commons, are often more enlightening than those of more compromised senior figures. Such a one is David George’s biography of Baxter Langley. Langley was a man of immense principle who began a career as a medical practitioner but who found his real niche as a campaigning journalist and editor. He had a number of connections with the North and he did his medical studies at the Leeds Medical School and then practised in Blackburn; later he became secretary of the Manchester Athenaeum adult educational establishment, then, when he had turned to journalism, he edited the Stockport Mercury and then in turn the Newcastle Chronicle and the Preston Guardian. In the mid-Victorian period, between 1847 and 1877, he was involved on the progressive side of just about every important political issue. Essentially, if Langley found an unpopular issue, he backed it. He was a man of considerable principle and personal probity and it was a miserable end to his campaigns that he was broken, and his health destroyed, by alleged improper financial dealings of which he was probably innocent. His biographer, David George, is clearly a fan of Langley and he sets out in detail how a combination of his influential upper class opponents and an apparently biased legal system brought about his conviction and imprisonment.

Langley’s particular skill as a journalist and editor, which gave him the upper hand in the many challenges he undertook in what was, before its sidelining in the era of social media, a time of serious public debate, was his thorough research. To this, and allied to his medical studies and the tutelage of his clergyman father who wished his son to follow him into the church, was added a rigorous attention to detail which enabled him to demonstrate that the policies his instinctive radicalism led him to advocate were not only expressions of an immense sympathy for the poor and downtrodden but also based on reason and logic. Self-advancement was alien to Langley and as a consequence he very often struggled to survive financially.

His campaigns spanned fighting Conservatism and local corruption in Stockport to the international scene, attempting to prevent ships being built that would have assisted the Confederacy against Lincoln in the American civil war. Radical causes were espoused by Langley long before they became accepted as the obvious evolution of a progressive society. His radicalism was rooted in social Liberalism and he was a firm anti-Marxist, being placed in his biographer’s words, was “between the decline of Chartism and socialism.” Amongst his political friends were the Liberal radical and co-operator, George Holyoake, the humanist Liberal, Charles Bradlaugh and the feminist pioneer, Josephine Butler. He supported a universal franchise, including women, he opposed capital punishment, the Contagious Diseases legislation, Sabbatarianism which prevented recreational activities on Sundays and the secession of the southern American states, not least because they wished to maintain slavery, which Langley abhorred. He supported trade unionism and was active in the promotion of a miners’ union and the formation of the railwaymen’s union. He was active in the founding of housing associations to combat the appalling living conditions of the “artisans”.

Langley was not just a writer and debater but was also intensely practical. In the middle of actively campaigning for a miners’ union there occurred the disaster at the Burradon Colliery in North Tyneside in which, on 2nd March 1860, an explosion killed 76 men and boys. Langley, at the time the editor of the Newcastle Chronicle, had been campaigning for an insurance fund under the name of the Miners’ Provident Fund. He immediately went to the scene and reported in horrifying detail on the mangled and dismembered bodies of the victims. He straightaway began a twin-pronged campaign to raise immediate funds for the now destitute families and to demonstrate the maintenance failures of the owners and management who, he said, should compensate the widows of those killed by their negligence. Despite Langley’s typically thorough research and preparation of the legal case, the pit owners’ superior resources and the then weight of opinion against spending money on workmen’s safety, their expensive lawyers managed to pin the blame for the explosion on a ten year boy leaving open a ventilation door.

Langley’s role in supporting the miners was recognised in 1997 when the Burradon & Camperdown Forum persuaded a local developer to name a new housing project after him.  His experience at Burradon underpinned his later work in the unionisation of the railway workers who were similarly vulnerable. Twelve years after Burradon there was a serious rail accident at Kirtlebridge, a Scottish village near to Annan, and similar evidence of poor management practices and neglect of safety considerations was produced by Langley. His efforts to establish a union for railwaymen was successful and he commented a few years later that he was “present at its birth and did my best to nurse it in its early years.”

For many years Langley harboured an ambition to become a Liberal MP. Typically his principled devotion to important causes undermined his efforts. He was nominated to stand as a Liberal in a by-election in Colchester in 1870 but the party overrode him and instead put forward a more establishment Liberal, Sir Henry Storks, who supported the Contagious Diseases Bill, to which Langley had strong objections. For a time he continued his campaign as an independent Liberal thus risking splitting the vote. Finally he was persuaded to withdraw but he indicated his opposition to Storks who in due course lost to the Conservative candidate - and Langley was blamed, Not surprisingly this did him no favours with the Liberal Party hierarchy even though he had endeavoured to endear himself to them by gallantly withdrawing in the Greenwich constituency when Gladstone needed a “safe” seat in 1868 in case his lost his seat in Lancashire, as he did, at the same election. Langley then again fell foul of the the party by contesting unofficially and losing a by-election in Greenwich in 1873. Finally, at the 1874 general election he was Gladstone’s official Liberal partner in this two member seat but finished narrowly last. This was his final attempt to enter parliament.

Langley’s eventual downfall came from his last campaign. He was deeply concerned at the poor and insanitary houses that working class families were forced to live in, not least by the burgeoning of the population in the cities. In the larger cities the population had increased by up to five times between 1801 and 1871. Typically he took positive action and he became the driving force behind the “Artizans, Labourers’ and General Dwellings Company” which, among other developments built the Shaftesbury Estate in Battersea. Considerable sums of money passed through Langley’s hands and he was accused of using sums for his own purposes. Langley was taken to court and there he argued that he was only holding the money temporarily in trust for the company. Given his long record of campaigning and of philanthropy he was unlikely to have misused funds but he was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months with hard labour. By this time his health was poor and this experience was disastrous for him and his family. He was released on compassionate grounds in 1877 and survived a further fifteen years in very poor health.

David George has done a fine job of bringing into the light the life of a dedicated and effective radical campaigner who until now has been too little known.

The Radical Campaigns of John Baxter Langley - A keen and courageous reformer, by David M George, pub. University of Exeter Press, 2021, ISBN 978 1 905816 47 7