Chartist Lives: The Binns family


They were drapers[1], originated with George Binns (1781-1836), born at Crawshawbooth, Lancashire, on 8th March 1781, the fourth son of David Binns, a clogger, and his wife, Ann Robinson. The Binns family were Quakers who had extensive links with other Quaker families throughout the north of England. David and Ann, along with their eldest children, began a drapery and later grocery shop in which George learned his craft. The family soon entered the expanding cotton trade, putting out work to local hand-loom weavers and selling finished calicoes in Manchester. After George’s marriage on 30th January 1807 to Margaret, the daughter of Joshua and Rachel Watson of Staindrop, co. Durham, he began to look for an opening near by.


In 1811, he purchased the woollen drapery and linen shop of Thomas Ellerbury at 176 High Street, Bishopwearmouth, a part of Sunderland, co. Durham, which employed a journeyman and three apprentices. His nephew David Binns, the son of his elder brother Richard, came as apprentice in 1814 and was quickly entrusted with buying for the shop in the Manchester market and travelling around the local mining villages to sell goods. David left in 1822 to manage another drapery business for his uncle at Staindrop and was replaced by George’s eldest son, Henry Binns. In addition to Henry, there were seven other children, including George Binns (1815–1847), a prominent Wearside Chartist. The whole family were radicals and maintained close associations with local Quaker families such as the Grimshaws, the Richardsons, and the Robsons. The elder George Binns died in Sunderland on 19th February 1836 and the shop was left to Henry.

George Binns 1815-1847 


Born in Sunderland on 6th December 1815, George Binns was one of 15 children. His father (also George) was a Quaker and successful draper, and the young George worked in the family business before he and James Williams opened a bookshop in 1837. The following November, the partners founded the Sunderland Chartist Association, and their bookshop became a centre of radical activity in the town. In July 1839, after the failure of the first Chartist petition, both men were arrested for sedition. Tried at Durham the following August, they were convicted and sent to prison for six months. A huge gathering greeted Binns on his return to Sunderland after his release in January 1841, and he was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association.


After an unsuccessful attempt to re-enter the drapery business, Binns emigrated in August 1842 to New Zealand. He got work supervising a whaling establishment in Nelson, but was sacked after becoming embroiled in a public row over the sale of short-weight bread. Defending himself against accusations that he was “a Chartist ringleader”, Binns wrote to the Nelson Examiner: “When I came to New Zealand, it was after I had suffered imprisonment, sacrificed my business, and lost the good-will of relations, in an endeavour to free my country; and I was and now am desirous of atoning, in some measure, for my past hostilities, by a life of “peace and good-will” here. I did not expect the word Chartist would be employed against me as a term of reproach in a distant land like this. We are all united here by a community of interests, and though I am not ashamed of my principles, yet I should never render myself obnoxious by their intrusion upon others. I have nothing to do with Chartism in New Zealand, and my past enthusiasm might have been forgotten where there is no grievance to redress and no enemy to our weal.” Although he had hoped to return to England, Binns was left in serious financial difficulties by the collapse of the whaling business in 1844. Although he subsequently found work as a baker, he died of consumption on 5th April 1847, aged just 31. An obituary in the Northern Star of 5th February 1848 remembered him as “a handsome high-spirited, talented, true-hearted man – every inch a Democrat”. 


Henry Binns 1810-1880


He was born in Sunderland on 19th June 1810, was a deeply committed Quaker and an active member of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.  He advertised his refusal to sell ‘any goods manufactured from cotton not warranted to be free labour grown’, giving his customers the opportunity to strike an ‘effectual blow to the traffic so opposed to the services of religion and humanity’.  Nevertheless, the business prospered and moved to larger premises on the other side of Bishopwearmouth’s high street in 1844. Binns’s opposition to slavery was a reflection not just of his religious principles but also of his political views, which embraced further constitutional reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Through Quaker circles in Newcastle upon Tyne he knew John Bright before the Anti-Corn Law Association was founded in 1839, and he and his brother George were involved in the growing protest movement, helping to form the Durham branch of the National Charter Association in 1838. George and James Taylor, his partner in a local bookshop, were the most active, printing tracts, handbills, and posters and speaking throughout the north-east. Both were arrested in 1839 along with other Chartist leaders, but they continued their activities until their trial in summer 1840. George Binns was imprisoned for six months, and Henry himself was briefly detained with Bright but was not put on trial. After his release George was elected to the executive of the National Charter Association in June 1841, coming fifth in the poll.

George Binns’s health had suffered during his time in prison and he left Sunderland for Port Nelson, New Zealand, in August 1842; he died there of tuberculosis on 5th April 1847. Henry Binns was involved in Bright’s attempt to stand against Lord Dungannon for the Durham parliamentary seat in March 1843, his bid to be nominated for the Sunderland seat, and his eventual election for Durham in July. Unlike some Quakers, Binns did not break with Bright over his opposition to the Anti-Slavery Society’s call for tariffs on goods produced by slave labour.

Henry Binns married Elizabeth Bowron, probably in 1836. They had ten children, the eldest of whom, Sir Henry Binns (1837-1899), emigrated to Natal in 1858. Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1855 and Henry retired in 1865 to Croydon, Surrey, where the following year he married Emma Andrews, the widow of John Grimshaw. She died in 1868; Henry died at his home, 62 Lansdowne Road, Croydon, on 17th January 1880.


[1] M. Moss and A. Turton A legend of retailing: House of Fraser, 1989 and Binns papers, University of  Glasgow, Archives and Business Records Centre, House of Fraser archives


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