Thomas Potter, the third son of John Potter, was born in 1774. John Potter had been a draper in Tadcaster, but sold his shop and used the capital to invest in a cotton business in Cannon Street, Manchester. Thomas and his two brothers William and Richard all worked for their father and eventually became partners in the company.
Although fairly rich, John Potter and his sons were all Unitarians who had a deep concern for the poor. John Potter held meetings at his home for other liberals in Manchester. Members of the group included John Shuttleworth, John Edward Taylor, Archibald Prentice, Absalom Watkin, Joseph Brotherton and William Cowdray. The group that Prentice called the 'little circle' was strongly influenced by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Joseph Priestley. The Potters objected to a system that denied such important industrial cities as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, representation in the House of Commons.
After the death of John Potter, Thomas and Richard continued with the campaign for reform. In December 1830, Thomas Potter and Richard Potter joined Abasolm Watkin, John Shuttleworth, Mark Philips, William Harvey and William Baxter in a group campaigning for moderate parliamentary reform. They proposed that the seats of rotten boroughs convicted of gross electoral corruption should be transferred to industrial towns. Boroughs such as Penryn and East Retford were targeted but Parliament refused to take action.
In 1831 Absalom Watkin was given the task of drawing up the petition asking the government to grant Manchester two Members of Parliament. As a result of the 1832 Reform Act Manchester had its first two Members of Parliament, Mark Philips and Charles Poulett Thompson.
Whereas Richard Potter became M.P. for Wigan but Potter concentrated on local politics. Between 1832 and 1835 Potter led a successful campaign in Manchester against church rates. After the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835 Thomas was elected to the borough council and in 1838 became Manchester's first mayor. In 1840 Thomas Potter was granted a knighthood.
Thomas Potter died in March, 1845.
(1) Archibald Prentice, Personal Recollections of Manchester (1851)
John Shuttleworth and John Edward Taylor could sell their cotton to men who could not buy it cheaper elsewhere. In like manner, Thomas and Richard Potter could sell their fustians, Joseph Brotherton and William Harvey their yarns, Baxter his ginghams and shirtings, and I my fine Glasgow muslins. And yet our position was uncomfortable. We were safe ourselves, but every day brought us report of wrong and outrage done to our humble fellow countrymen - wrong and outrage which we felt could not fully redress. We thought, in our own cheerful homes, of the poor men in prison for alleged political offences - the main offence being that they, like ourselves, were of opinion that our representative system was susceptible of amendment. The whole aspect of society was unfavourable. The rich seemed banded together to deny the possession of political rights; and the poor seemed to be banding themselves together in an implacable hatred to their employers, who were regarded as their oppressors.
(2) In his diary on 12th October, 1831, Absalom Watkin wrote about a meeting held in Manchester concerning the demands for parliamentary reform. The meeting ended in a clash between the radicals and the moderates. Thomas Potter was the leader of the moderates.
Attended the public meeting on the rejection of the Reform Bill. It began at eleven o'clock in the Riding School but was immediately adjourned to Camp Field. There were between 80,000 and 100,000 people present at the height of the demonstration. Thomas Potter was persuaded to take the chair. He climbed on to the cart with Archibald Prentice, John Shuttleworth and Mark Philips. Our leaders battled with the crowd until four in the afternoon and all that time did we stand on our wagon, squeezed, elbowed, threatened and in danger, in the midst of a furious mob. At last, after protesting against it, Thomas Potter was compelled to put a mangled version of our address praying for annual Parliaments, universal suffrage and vote by ballot and we left the ground, tired, baffled and exhausted but congratulating ourselves upon having escaped personal violence and avoided endangering the peace of the town.