West, John (1812–87), chartist and textile worker, was born 20 February 1812 in Dublin. His father died when he was a child and he was taken by his mother to live in Manchester; no other details of his family are known. He started work as an adolescent in the textile trade, and would have come into close contact with the many other Irish people who emigrated to the area for employment in the 1810s and 1820s. The poverty and inequalities of wealth that he experienced, as a hand-loom weaver and factory operative, helped to shape his radical political views, and he became drawn to the chartist movement. The six-point charter sought universal male suffrage, constituencies based on the number of residents, annual parliaments, secret ballots, the abolition of property qualifications to become an MP, and proper salaries for MPs. His natural talent for public speaking was first noted at the general election of 1832, when he canvassed on behalf of William Cobbett, chartist candidate for Manchester and Oldham. The opposing candidate was so impressed by West's speeches that he offered to pay for his training to become a barrister. West refused this offer on the grounds that it might alienate him from the working classes. From the early 1830s he addressed groups of chartists at meetings in the north west of England. He was a bitter opponent of the new poor law that was introduced in 1834, and campaigned for the removal of stamp duty on newspapers and the reduction of working hours. By the late 1830s he moved to Macclesfield and worked as a silk-loom weaver, but as a district lecturer for the chartist movement spent lengthy periods away from home. He addressed meetings in Cheshire, Lancashire, the midlands, and Tyneside, and was described as a lively and provocative speaker with a good sense of humour.
Though the Macclesfield chartists advocated mainly peaceful forms of protest, they did support the ‘universal holiday’ (general strike) in August 1842. It is likely that West was among those who stormed a textile factory and extinguished the fires of factory engines. He was arrested at a meeting in Leicester in October 1842 and was incarcerated for thirty-eight days prior to his trial. He was acquitted and the judge commended him for the manner in which he defended himself. At the general election in July 1847 he stood as a chartist candidate for Stockport. He was unsuccessful and received just fourteen votes. In September 1848 he was one of forty-six chartists arrested in Newcastle. He was found guilty of attending an unlawful meeting and sent to Kirkdale prison for twelve months. While in prison he was supported financially by local sympathisers and was able to pen contributions to political publications such as Chartist tracts for the times and the Northern Star.
During the 1830s and 1840s West was one of the most popular chartist orators in England. Unlike many of his colleagues, he was not aligned to the Anti-Corn Law League. He was a staunch supporter of protectionist trade policies and the abolition of the poor laws. The cycle of economic boom and busts in north-west England convinced him that it was the craftsmen and labouring class, rather than the middle classes, who would be affected by the repeal of the corn laws. There is no evidence that West visited Ireland during adulthood, but he helped to forge close links between English chartists and groups in Ireland who campaigned to repeal the act of union. He continued to be involved in political campaigning in the 1850s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, even though by then chartism had lost its impetus. In May 1879 he took part in an enquiry held by the Macclesfield chamber of commerce into the depression of the silk industry. Friends described him as having a smiling open countenance with an ‘Olympian laughter’ (Davies, Macclesfield). He lived in poverty during old age, and after his death (in Macclesfield, 15 January 1887) the few surviving chartists noted that his contribution to the cause had been almost forgotten. He married and had two sons, one of whom worked as a designer for the William Morris textile factory.