Joseph Harrison was born on the 7th July 1779, most likely in Clavering, Essex where his father was Minister of the Independent Chapel at the time. His parents were Reverend Joseph Harrison and Mary Beezley who came from Swinden, West Yorkshire.

In 1790 Harrison’s mother died and his father accepted a call to the pastorate of Skipton, West Yorkshire where his uncle James Harrison acted as deacon.

It was probably at Skipton that the young Joseph would first develop his radical views after experiencing first hand the prejudice meted out against the Dissenters. Around this time his uncle James was siezed by a red-coat and dragged into an inn and swore he would run him through with his sword if “he did not there and then drink damnation to the French.” Being a principled man, James refused to do so and it was only after strong remonstrances from the landlord and his son that the red-coat would free his prisoner.

Harrison’s father would also have a strong influence over his son’s political views and choice in career. He mentioned that his father “had been a steady Whig” and a disciple of Charles James Fox and it was from the Whigs that he had learned his politics. In 1793 the family moved to Bingley, Yorkshire where his father combined tuition with preaching for a short time.

In 1806 Harrison, now married, would return to Essex as pastor and schoolmaster to the newly formed Henham Independent Chapel. Troubles began in late 1810 which resulted in his resignation being attributed to the “many sad instances of loose immoral conversation and indecent behaviour.”

Harrison then moved to the small cotton town of Glossop, Derbyshire in late 1812 and became minister and schoolmaster of the Littlemoor Independent Chapel. He laboured there for about 5 years but was again compelled to resign his charge for “indiscretion of conduct.”

Around June 1818 he moved to Stockport “a very poor man” and took up residence at Sandy Brow. His first appearance was at one of the “principal fairs in the town where he got up in the middle of the market place and preached to the populace.”

“My public career, as a Reformer, was, indeed, by wishing, first, to prevent the spread of infidelity. It grieved me to the very heart, though I had long been at the side of liberty, to find these principles widely spread amongst the Reformers. I must tell you, Gentlemen, my father is a Whig, a minister of the Gospel, and from the Whigs I learnt my politics…When I came to Stockport I determined to lift up my feeble voice in the defence of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; and let who would dispute angrily with me, I made many enemies in proving the truth of that Gospel, which its gainsayers could not deny. Another object in my view was, by any influence I could exert (though poor myself), to do all I could for the relief of the people…In my disposition to do good I am generally styled the notorious Harrison. I further, Gentlemen, became a Reformer to induce our Rulers to redress our grievances, and put things on a better foundation than they were; I thought that if we had a Reform that this would follow.” (Morning Chronicle, Apr 20, 1820)

John Bagguley of Blanketeer fame moved to Stockport around the same time and opened a school in a disused cotton factory called the Windmill Rooms. Soon after he employed Harrison as his assistant teacher who began using the largest room on Sundays to conduct religious services.

Harrison’s debut as a Radical occurred at an outdoor Reform Meeting at Sandy Brow on August 10. He was introduced and recommended to the crowd by Bagguley following the refusal of William Perry, the Stockport Union leader, to take the chair in response to objections from his panicked wife. With their charisma, skills in oratory and the ability to attract monetary subscriptions, Bagguley and Harrison would soon become the new dominant players in the Union.

The next important Reform Meeting occurred on September 1 and was attended by the Blanketeers – Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston with Harrison acting as chairman. Livesey the spy and John Horatio Lloyd, the local magistrate’s clerk’s son, took notes of their “seditious” speeches.