William Clegg remains an obscure figure in the history of the anti-Poor Law movement, due to the lack of coherent information concerning the roles of behind the scenes organisers. Historians note that he was a friend of Robert Owen, and was associated with John Fielden in the National Regeneration Society (a radical society aimed at enforcing an 8 hour day in all factories, if necessary by strike action). Following the collapse of this society in 1834, and upon the introduction of the New Poor Law to the North in 1836/7, Clegg was soon involved in the opposition movement, and became treasurer of the South Lancashire Anti-Poor Law Association. He and the President, R.J. Richardson, attended as many meetings as possible and cultivated the press, channelling the popular discontent into a more coherent movement than had previously been the case.
This is about the sum of the official knowledge concerning William Clegg, yet it is clear from this group of letters that his association with the Fieldens was long standing and close, and it appears that he was employed in their Manchester warehouse in Peel Street in a senior capacity.
As far as can be ascertained William Clegg seems to have been a sort of secretary or clerk for the market end of the business, passing on information from the Liverpool brokers, giving details of the Manchester market, sending orders and supplies to the Todmorden Mill, corresponding with the Bower Bank Printworks in Crumpsall, and acting as general carrier of news between the brothers and their families by passing on details of arrivals and departures, as well as family news. As the commercial activities of the firm were managed from Peel Street, including the sales and cotton purchase ledgers, it appears that all transactions went through the hands of William Clegg. The letters are to various members of the family, depending upon the information contained therein, especially John, James and Samuel.
Perhaps most interesting are the numerous references, especially during 1838, to the anti-Poor Law movement, including references to such prominent local men as Joseph Livesey, J.R. Stephens, and Dr Matthew Fletcher, and discussions of public meetings, riots and arrests. Details are less frequent during 1839, with Clegg concentrating rather more on the poor state of the cotton market following the panic of 1837 than the troops gathering in the Unions. However, these letters are valuable in providing more information about Clegg himself and his connection with the Fielden family, and, although the sequence is incomplete (missing out the important events of 1837 in Todmorden and Oldham), providing an insight into the connection between economics and politics in the North during this period.
Some of the letters feature pencil notes on their contents added by a previous researcher.