Our MP of the Month for April was, perhaps rather surprisingly, the focus of a recent archaeological dig. John Cheetham (1802-1886), who sat as a Liberal MP for Lancashire South from 1852 until 1859, and for Salford from 1865 until 1868, built himself a house at Eastwood in Stalybridge, the town which was home to his extensive cotton spinning business. After Cheetham’s death in 1886, Eastwood was occupied by another MP, Cheetham’s eldest son, John Frederick Cheetham (1835-1916). He represented North Derbyshire from 1880 until 1885, and then sat for his native Stalybridge from 1905 until 1910. As he had no children, he left Eastwood House, its grounds and contents to the corporation of Stalybridge, for use as a public park. His younger sister Agnes lived at Eastwood until her death in 1931, and the park opened the following year.
The house at Eastwood was demolished in around 1950, and it was this site which was excavated during a community dig organised by the Tameside Archaeological Society last month. Alongside the dig, the society displayed an exhibition which included our biography of John Cheetham.
Cheetham, who was praised by John Bright for his ‘useful and honourable’ life, was a shrewd and energetic man, and a diligent representative of the north-west’s manufacturing and commercial interests during his two spells in Parliament. The Cheetham’s family cotton business in Stalybridge had been established by his father George at the turn of the nineteenth century, and Cheetham continued to expand it, employing 1,400 people by 1861. The needs of the cotton industry prompted him to take a leading role in the establishment in 1857 of the Cotton Supply Association, of which he became president. This organisation aimed to remedy the ‘deficient supply of cotton from the United States’ by seeking supplies elsewhere, particularly from India. Cheetham persistently lobbied ministers to undertake public works and encourage investment in India, and was unafraid of criticising the Liberal government’s failings on this question. When the American Civil War dramatically curtailed the supply of cotton from the southern states, Cheetham witnessed the devastating effects of the ‘cotton famine’ in Stalybridge, which saw rioting in 1863 as a result. In March 1863 he had a stone thrown at him as he left a special meeting of the local relief committee.
Although the cotton supply question was his pet topic, both in and out of Parliament, Cheetham also contributed to debate on a range of other issues, notably the grievances of his fellow Nonconformists (he was himself a Congregationalist). He was a keen advocate of parliamentary reform, and saw a more equitable distribution of seats as particularly important. As MP for South Lancashire, Cheetham represented the second most populous constituency in the country (after Middlesex). Yet, as he argued in a speech to a reform meeting at Sheffield in 1854,
‘it is all very well for us to stand up and say that we represent constituencies of wealth, population, and intelligence beyond others; but when we get to the [division] lobby, our aye or no is just put against some man who represents some pocket borough in the south’.
As well as supporting the granting of separate parliamentary representation to his native town of Stalybridge, he also lobbied for Salford, the borough which he represented from February 1865, to be granted a second MP. Unfortunately for Cheetham he was not able to win either of Salford’s seats at the 1868 general election, ending his parliamentary career.
Details of the Tameside Archaeology Society’s dig at Eastwood can be found on its website.