It’s a little known fact that Lancaster University’s first Vice Chancellor spent time in Strangeways Prison.
Sir Charles Carter – credited with laying the foundations for the institution’s future success and later knighted – refused to be conscripted into the army during World War 2, and spent three months in the notorious Manchester prison for his conscientious objection.
Like Carter, many individuals with connections to Lancaster have stuck their head above the parapet over the centuries, to fight for human rights, social justice and freedom, often becoming the victims of religious or political prosecution.
Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Fry are two significant female figures, especially in Quaker history, and both passed through Lancaster Castle.
Fell was tried and imprisoned there as a religious dissident in the 1660s while Fry visited the castle some 150 years later during her national tour inspecting prison conditions.
Both women led the way in speaking up for decent conditions for all prisoners.
Protesting is so important and part of the problem is that we don’t have enough of itProf Cary Cooper
Carter, Fell and Fry feature among many others in a new “radical history” website called Documenting Dissent, which has been put together by Lancaster development education centre Global Link.
Lancaster Castle and its use as a centre of incarceration for almost 1,000 years has shaped a lot of the stories.
Gisela Renolds, from Global Link, which is based in the city’s YMCA building following many years in New Street, said: “We are interested in how and why ordinary people take action for social justice and human rights, and as the castle was a place of trial and incarceration we knew that there would be many stories of people who had taken such actions over the centuries.
“We discovered that Lancaster has an interesting history of political, sexual and religious dissent, and that Lancaster Castle, as a key implementer of state power particularly in Tudor times, tried, incarcerated and hung many political, sexual and religious dissenters.”
Case studies include stories of Quakers and Catholics who dissented against the Tudor state, and the well-known Pendle “witches”.
The website documents stories of Chartists and other political reformers and radicals in the nineteenth century who fought for political rights and better living conditions.
It also tells the stories of men who were locked up and in some cases killed for their homosexuality; one volunteer musician wrote and produced a song – available on the website – documenting the Isaac Hitchens Trial where five men were killed for homosexuality at Lancaster Castle in 1806.
Documenting Dissent links some of the distant histories with more recent histories of political activism in Lancaster, through articles and audio clips from peace and environment activists and activists who fought for gay rights.
Gisela continued: “Lancaster has a recent history of political activism as well as being the site where political dissent was put on trial by the State at Lancaster Castle.
“We have tried to document more recent political dissent through the recording of oral histories which are being stored at North West Sound Archives, with some audio clips on our website.”
Much of the material on the website was researched and written by volunteers, who read, attended lectures, undertook research trips to Lancashire Archives, the Castle and elsewhere, or recorded oral histories.
Prof Cary Cooper professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, who was knighted last year, said: “I think all this is really healthy and it’s a very interesting subject.
“Dissent is healthy, as long as it’s done in a rational way, based on principles, and with an ultimate purpose.
“In the 60s and 70s dissent was everywhere, but these days generally we’re not protesting as much.
“We’ve become less of a ‘we’ society and more of an ‘I’ - what’s in my interests - and that’s the population generally.
“Protesting is so important and part of the problem is that we don’t have enough of it.”
Examples of more recent political dissent are well documented in Lancaster.
One area in particular which stands out, according to Documenting Dissent contributor Pete Yeandle, relates to peace and environmental activism.
The website states:
# In 2005, six students at Lancaster University – the George Fox 6 – were arrested for protesting against the exhibition of weapons on campus.
A number of students continue to oppose the university’s relationship with BAE weapons systems and have staged a series of “die ins” on campus.
# In January 2000, the trial of Trident Ploughshares activists began at Lancaster Castle. Those on trial received a lot of support from locals.
This includes protest at the construction of the nuclear power stations at Heysham and most recently a demonstration to highlight the impacts of climate change on Heysham nuclear power station.
# In Garstang, the UK’s first fair-trade town, protests have taken place over the processing of nuclear fuel at the Springfields site.
Actions have been taken against genetically-modified crops.
# In Lancaster, cyclists take part in a monthly “critical mass” bike ride, aiming to draw attention to the dangers of cycling the city’s one-way system as well as the environmental impact of unnecessary car use.
Campaigns against motorway building and road extensions have been commonplace, most recently opposing both the western and northern bypass.
# The concern of Lancaster’s citizens for the environment is reflected in the high proportion of Green Party Councillors on the City Council.
Pete says: “Dissent continues into the twenty-first century. Several thousand Lancastrians travelled to London to protest Britain’s involvement in the second Iraq war.
“In recent years, large demonstrations against welfare cuts have taken place. An Occupy camp formed for three weeks in November and December 2011 (in Dalton Square) and four people, arrested for squatting an unused hotel, made national and international news in January 2012.
“In the summer of 2014, the town centre was the site of multiple Palestinian solidarity rallies.
“Each year, the May Day rally attracts hundreds of demonstrators.
“Lancaster citizens, it seems, are following in the footsteps of their forbears and are undertaking many acts of dissent for future historians to document.”
Gisela says that Global Link “would be delighted” to see some of the stories highlighted within the grounds of Lancaster Castle.
She said: “We are pleased because we have incorporated some stories of 19th century political dissent in the Castle Museum’s interior panel exhibition, but we would like to see these stories represented visually in the Castle grounds. At the very least we hope to have website links between www.documentingdissent.org.uk and the Castle and City Council websites.”
A spokesman for The Duchy of Lancaster, which owns Lancaster Castle, said: “With the Castle now open for visitors, tours, events and exhibitions, there is an opportunity for us all to re-visit and re-imagine the many diverse historic moments, the stories of the people involved and the changes in our cultural heritage through the eyes of the castle. Working with groups such as Documenting Dissent, who have uncovered many stories, will help to animate the rich, often dark history and bring these stories back to life in a variety of ways. It is hoped that Documenting Dissent would like to create more events at the castle to celebrate their work.”
Global Link development education centre has received £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s First World War; then and now programme to mark the First World War Centenary by researching the stories of conscientious objectors in Lancashire.