Alfred Jolly Caldicott led a remarkable life for a Midlands-born printer as he used the privilege of his role in the publishing industry to stand up for the rights of his urban businessmen peers and campaigned for reform. He and his family emigrated to Australia in the mid-19th century further demonstrating what a pioneer this man truly was.
He was born in Birmingham in about 1802, one of the five sons of John Caldicott, printer and Sarah Caldicott (nee Payne). He was baptised at St. Martin’s Church, Birmingham (now known as St. Martin’s-in-the-Bullring) on 30th September 1902.
Alfred married Henrietta Saunders, daughter of Robert and Henrietta, at St. Mary’s Church, Handsworth, Staffordshire on 7th March 1831.
Alfred followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming a copper-plate printer, stationer and bookseller. He became partners with Samuel William Higgs, but in 1832 the partnership was dissolved as Higgs retired and Alfred continued the business alone. The business in Dudley Street, Wolverhampton appears in numerous trade directories of the time and Alfred was clearly a well-respected business man with good relationships in the Wolverhampton business community, shown when he joined St. Peter’s Freemason Lodge in 1846.
However, this good will and loyalty to his business community was put into action in a very selfless way when Alfred decided to work with political objectors of the time and use his printing business to take a stand, when in August 1840 he published an edition of the Staffordshire Examiner which contained an article leadingB to riotous consequences.
Here is some of the text from the article –
Two Tory dinners are advertised to take place next week in this division of the count of Stafford. Of necessity they are both on a small scale, the faction being unable to muster anything like a numerous assembly. One of them is to take place at the little town of Brewood, and the other in the manufacturing town of Bilston. We do not know what is intended by these assemblies, or what purpose the Tories hope they will serve. For our own parts, we have no objection to affairs of this kind, for it, as in Mr. Thorneycroft’s case, the dinners are merely bmarket ordinaries,b they serve to make us acquainted with the strength, or rather the weakness of our opponents, while if they are regular Conservative festivals, as the Tories call them, they occasion the expenditure of the sinews of war, and the consequent diminution of the enemy’s power to do mischief. On either ground, therefore, we rather like to hear of this sort of thing than not.
With regard to the Bilston dinner its object is no doubt to display to the astonished eyes of the people of that town the wonderful intimacy subsisting between Lord Ingestre and Mr Baldwin, who will, we dare say hob nob at each other with astonishing cordiality.
We hope our friends will do nothing to disturb the equanimity of Mr. Baldwinbs disposition, or to detract from his gratifying anticipations of a display so calculated to enhance his importance in the eyes of his neighbours. If, however, they should by any chance meet the man-starving Ingestre next Friday, as he sneaks into town by some back way; if, we say, they should by any chance meet him, let them peacefully, and with due regard to the fact that the Tories are very apt at swearing in special constables – let them, we say, peacefully, if not quietly, mark their disapprobation of the conduct of a man who assisted in Parliament to cry down Mr. Villiers and all those who tried to plead for more food for the starving artizans of Bilston. Let them at such a time bear in mind that Ingestre is going to gorge the bread he denies to them, and, that, as he has more of it than he wants, his appetite, his appetite may require a sharpener.
What had made a civilised businessman become involved in publishing suchB vehement rhetoric?
In 1815 the Corn Laws were introduced which imposed restrictions and tariffs on imported grain. They were designed to keep prices of grain high to favour domestic producers. This was to benefit landowners who would maximise their profits in agricultural by keeping their prices of grain high. However, this meant that food prices subsequently became high too. Industrial business owners, who were also keen to maximise profits were paying wages that were no longer enough for their workers to afford to feed themselves and their families leaving them the choice of either raising wages or see their employees suffer in poverty.
Following the trade collapse in 1836 the pressure from industrialistsB for free trade grew and in 1838 the Anti-Corn Law League was established. One strong supporter of free trade was Wolverhampton MP, Charles Pelham Villiers who made many speeches against the Corn Laws in Parliament. At first this view remained politically unpopular and in Feb 1842, Villers was described by Monckton Milne MP as the “solitary Robinson Crusoe standing on the barren rock of Corn Law repeal”. However, Villiers was tireless in his campaigning.
The weight of public opinion opposed the Corn Laws and this was communicated through many newspapers and journals of the time. Following the article published by Alfred Jolly Caldicott in the Staffordshire Examiner, there was a riot at the dinner mentioned in the article in Bilston Market Square. There were 600-700 people involved in the riot and it became violent with stones being thrown and many people were injured.
Alfred, along with the proprietor of the Staffordshire Examiner, George Wynn were tried for libel tending to excite people towards rioting and violence at the Stafford Sessions in October 1840. The case subsequently went to Crown Court in Mar 1841 and during the trial MP Villiers was mentioned several times and a great deal of time was spent examining the strength of public opinion against the Corn Laws and whether this alone would have led to the riot irrespective of the article. However, the two men were found guilty of the charges against them. The “special jury” made a recommendation for a merciful sentence to the judge and Wynn was fined £50 and Alfred was fined £20, and were to be imprisoned until they were able to pay the fines. They both paid their fines shortly afterwards.
The strength of feeling on the matter was equally strong on both sides. Amongst the guests of the dinner was George Benjamin Thorneycroft, a keen Conservative iron works owner. He was a strong supporter of the Corn Laws and was one of the prosecutors inB the trial of the Queen v. Caldicott and Wynn during which he was called as a witness. He vocalised his condemnation of those opposing the Corn Laws zealously –
Mr. Thorneycroft was then asked several questions as to his opinions on the Corn Laws, and said he did not then speak about them. He said nothing about bfoxes and firebrands among the corn on that occasion. He might have used the words; he had used them, but not then. He had not said that any one advocating a repeal of the Corn Laws bought to be tarred and feathered. Had not said the Corn Law lecturers bought to be tarred and feathered; but had said if they excited the people to violence they deserved it. He was called upon to take the chair, and what he said was, They were there as Englishmen to express their opinions, and not to be driven away by a mob.
Despite his reputation for plain speaking Thorneycroft later became Wolverhampton’s first Mayor in 1848 and was known for his generosity and philanthropism within the town. He also served as a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire and Shropshire and it was said that his judgements as a magistrate were firm and upright, and dictated by plain common sense.
Another honoured guest at the dinner which became centre stage to the infamous Bilston riots was Lord Ingestre, who the Staffordshire Examiner accused of gorgingb within the tent that bread for which the multitude were starving and famishing without”. It was revealed during the trial that Lord Ingestre had left the dinner before the riot began and thereby escaped the violence. However, we can wonder what impression it, along with the sufferings and hardship suffered by the people within Staffordshire left his Lordship with, as, already a supporter of Robert Peel, a major proponent of free trade, he became one of the first peers to support the repeal of the Corn Laws. Maybe the article Alfred Jolly Caldicott published played a part in persuading Lord Ingestre to use his vote to end the Corn Laws and contributed to their repeal which began when Prime Minister Peel announced his government plan on 27th January 1846 and was completed 1st February 1849.
Alfred continued to run his printing, stationary and bookseller business in Dudley Street for more than a decade, following his libel case, without any further incident. Then in the early 1850’s he emigrated to Australia along with his wife, Henrietta and six children, Robert H, Elizabeth Jane, Harriet Henrietta, Sarah Jane and Alice Elizabeth. (The couple had also given birth to a second son, Frederick William who sadly died as an infant.
He died in Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia in 1888, grandfather to many Australian-born grandchildren. Not only does he have the legacy of a multitude of Australian descendants, but for playing his part in the abolition of the Corn Laws ending the starvation and hardship of many working class industrial employees and their families.