Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ashworth, Henry (1794-1880)

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ASHWORTH, HENRY (1794–1880), friend of Cobden and vigorous supporter of the Anti-Corn Law League, was born at Birtwistle, near Bolton, Lancashire, on 4 Sept. 1794, and coming of quaker parentage was in due course sent to Ackworth school. After leaving that famous academy of the Friends he, in partnership with his brother Edmund, managed their extensive mills at Turton, where they distinguished themselves by their careful provision for the well-being of those whom they employed, and for whose benefit they established excellent schools, library, and reading room. Ashworth was a staunch nonconformist, and resolutely refused to pay church rates. He was a founder of the Anti-Corn Law League, and was one of its warmest supporters both by money and personal influence and exertion. He had made Cobden's acquaintance in 1837, and was ever after his firm friend. In 1840 he was one of a deputation that waited upon Lord Melbourne to urge the repeal of the corn laws. 'You know,' said the premier, 'that to be impracticable.' Sir Robert Peel was equally unpleasant. In answer to Mr. Ashworth's plea that the import of food should not be restricted in order to uphold rents. Sir James Graham called out, 'Why, you are a leveller!' and asked whether he was to infer that the labouring classes had some claim to the landlords' estates. The prosperous manufacturer was naturally somewhat startled at this unexpected phrase, and protested against its injustice. In dismissing the deputation Sir James told them that if the corn laws were repealed great disasters would fall upon the country, the land would go out of cultivation, church and state could not be upheld, the national institutions would be reduced to their elements, and the houses of the leaguers would be pulled about their ears by the people they were trying to excite. In 1843, in company with Bright and Cobden, he visited Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland, and East Lothian, to obtain information as to the position of agriculture, and they were sometimes mentioned as the A B C of the league gone to study farming. Mr. John Bright, speaking at the opening banquet at the Manchester Town Hall in 1877, described a visit in company with Ashworth and others to the ruins of Tantallon Castle: 'As we walked amongst those ruins, my friend Mr. Henry Ashworth said, with a look of sadness almost, "How long will it be before our great warehouses and factories in Lancashire are as complete a ruin as this castle?" I have thought of that scores of times since, and I thought of it then with sadness, as I think of it now. One thing is certain: if ever they come to ruin they will never be so picturesque a ruin as is the ruin of Tantallon Castle.' At the great meeting held in Manchester 23 Dec. 1845, Ashworth proposed that 250,000l. should be raised for the purpose of the agitation. Their strenuous and zealous efforts were crowned with success, the corn laws were repealed, and the final meeting of the league was held in the Manchester Town Hall on 2 July 1846. Ashworth gave valued assistance to Cobden in the negotiation of the French treaty. His most important work is 'Recollections of Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League ' (two editions, London 1876 and 1881), which is full of important historical and biographical matter. Ashworth defended Cobden at the great indignation meeting held in Manchester after the lamentable incident in the House of Commons, when Peel, who was harassed, unwell, and suffering from the depression brought on by the murder of Thomas Drummond, charged the leader of the league with connivance at assassination. The accusation was eagerly repeated by excited partisans.

Ashworth's action in connection with the Anti-Corn Law League is that by which he will be remembered, but during a long life he was a steady advocate of peace, retrenchment, and reform. In addition to the work named he wrote:

  1. 'Statistical Illustrations of Lancaster,' 1842.
  2. 'A Tour in the United States and Canada,' 1861.
  3. 'An account of the 'Preston Strike' of 1863, and some pamphlets.

He was a member of the Society of Friends, but had a most unquakerly passion for the gun, which he used with great dexterity on the moors. His hardy frame and careful life gave him unusual advantages, so that at eighty he was as sure in his aim as at twenty. He made several continental tours, and in February 1880 left his house, The Oaks, Turton, to winter in Italy, as he had usually done for some years. Whilst travelling from Rome he caught a chill, and at Florence was laid up with Roman fever, and, after about two weeks' illness, he died at Florence, 17 May 1880.

[Ashworth's Recollections of Cobden, with a portrait of the author; Prentice's History of the League; Morley's Life of Cobden; Manchester Guardian, 19 May 1880; Times, 20 May 1880; Academy, 1880, i. 401.]

W. E. A. A.