Joseph Johnson was born in Manchester in 1791. Although he became a fairly successful brush manufacturer he also developed radical political ideas.
A strong supporter of universal suffrage and annual parliaments, Johnson joined the Manchester Hampden Club formed by John Knight. In 1818 Johnson helped John Knight, James Wroe and John Saxton to start the radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer. Within twelve months the Manchester Observer was selling 4,000 copies a week. Although it started as a local paper, by 1819 it was sold in most of the large towns and cities in Britain. Henry Hunt called the Manchester Observer "the only newspaper in England that I know, fairly and honestly devoted to such reform as would give the people their whole rights."
In March 1819 Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Patriotic Union Society. Johnson was appointed secretary of the organisation and Wroe became treasurer. The main objective of the Patriotic Union Society was to obtain parliamentary reform and during the summer of 1819 it decided to invite Major Cartwright, Henry Orator Hunt and Richard Carlile to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The men were told that this was to be "a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone. I think by good management the largest assembly may be procured that was ever seen in this country." Cartwright was unable to attend but Hunt and Carlile agreed and the meeting was arranged to take place at St. Peter's Field on 16th August.
Joseph Johnson was on the platform during the meeting and was named by William Hulton as one of the four men to be arrested. Johnson and the other men were charged with "assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of inciting discontent". Henry Orator Hunt was found guilty and received two years and six months, whereas Joseph Johnson, Samuel Bamford, John Knight and Joseph Healey were each sentenced to one year in Lincoln Prison.
While Johnson was in prison his young wife became ill and died. The governor of Lincoln Prison refused permission for Johnson to attend the funeral. Imprisonment and the death of his wife broke Johnson's spirit and he ceased to play an active part in politics after he was released from prison in March 1821.
Joseph Johnson died in 1872.
Trade here is not worth following. Everything is almost at a standstill, nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face. The state of the district is truly dreadful. I believe nothing but the greatest exertion can prevent insurrection.
The people in the crowd were so compact and stood to firm that they could not reach the hustings without halting. Few, if any of the meeting, even yet, supposed that this martial display was intended for anything more than securing Hunt, Johnson, Knight and Moorhouse, for whom they had warrants. Mr. Hunt was called upon to deliver himself up, which he offered to do to a Magistrate, but not to the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry. A gentleman in the commission presented himself, and Mr. Hunt acknowledge his authority, and departed for the rendezvous of the Magistrates; where Mr. Johnson and Mr. Saxton were taken, and from thence conducted, along with Mr. Hunt to the New Bayley prison; Mr. Knight escaped, but was afterwards arrested at his own house and Mr. Moorhouse was soon after taken into custody at the Flying Horse Inn.