Monday, 30 July 2007

Chartist Lives: Introduction

One of the major problems facing historians of Chartism is precisely who they were[1]. Although we know a considerable amount about some Chartists, especially the regional and national leaders and some important biographical research has been published either as monographs or articles[2], there is still nothing approximating to a ‘collective biography’ of the Chartist movement[3]. This material[4] is not really an attempt to do this. It simply provides a set of unconnected biographies of key figures or at least some of those individuals for whom it is possible to produce a biography that goes further than a name, occupation or location.

Many of the leading Chartists wrote their own, frequently self-justifying autobiographies[5]. Though these often contain valuable information, their analysis of events is far from objective and, in some cases decidedly misleading. It is, however, important to recognise that memoirs and autobiographies may give inaccurate or jaundiced versions of events and people, and that they need to be used with caution and an open mind. The authors may well be unrepresentative of the membership as a whole, being more radical, committed, better educated or better off than the average member of the rank and file, most of whom would have had little if any education, and therefore been unable to leave any written evidence of their involvement in the movement. Nevertheless, Chartist reminiscences do have a place in the recording of the movement’s history. E. P. Thompson talks of ‘secret’ oral traditions emerging in the 1850s, when the last vestiges of ‘physical force’ Chartism was dying down[6]. This ‘secret history’, relying on memory and sentimentalism, and drawn on heavily by later nineteenth century historians like Frank Peel, can be useful in identifying local Chartists but, again, needs to be used with caution.

What do these biographies show? For Carlyle, heroes were set apart by their strength of character that let them shape events rather than simply react to them. This gave them a moral superiority capable of uniting people and acting as role models in a divisive society. William Lovett in his autobiography published in the 1870s reflected Carlyle when he wrote that[7] “They [the working classes] were always looking up to leadership of one description of another; were being swayed to and fro in opinion and action by the idol of their choice, and were rent and divided when some popular breath had blown that idol from its pedestal. In fact the masses, in their political organisations, were taught to look up to ‘great men’ (or to men professing greatness) rather than to great principles.” James Vernon argues that[8] “In a world devoid of the ‘stars’ of mass entertainment and organised sport, [political leaders] occupied a (possibly the) central place in popular culture, at once revered and reviled, loved and loathed.”

Political leaders quickly learned that they needed to present themselves in different ways to different people. They needed a sense of audience. The working class in the nineteenth century venerated their leaders as heroes and as potent icons. Birthday anniversaries, prison releases or simply a local visit were all sufficient reason for a celebration to honour the hero and shower him with gifts. A sense of devotion, commemoration and awe can also be seen in the ballads and songs. Oratory too encouraged the glorification of leaders. As James Vernon puts it [9] “Those blessed with the gift of the gab appeared natural leaders, their commanding presence on a platform, their ability to keep audiences enthralled, conveyed the impression of men in control of their own destinies, shaping, not reacting to the course of events.”

Marketing leaders was also important and this meant access to and ideally control of, their own newspaper or journal. Bronterre O’Brien, O’Connor and Ernest Jones all used their newspapers to get their particular messages across as well as to report their sufferings and successes to an absorbent national audience. This allowed a strong sense of personal familiarity to develop between leaders and the masses. The political memorabilia of the day – portraits, statuettes and figurines – illustrates the popularity of leaders as well as their iconic importance. This was the nineteenth century equivalent of today’s poster and it was often highly personal. The Morning Chronicle in 1849 that in Lancashire[10] “the people have a fancy for christening their children after the hero of the minute. A generation or so back, Henry Hunts were as common as blackberries – a crop of Feargus O’ Connors replaced them, and latterly there have been a few green sprouts labelled Ernest Jones.”

Yet leadership is an elusive and controversial concept[11]. Political leadership is something many today view with cynicism. Certainly the historiography of Chartism is saturated with historians who took a hostile view of the nature of Chartist leadership. O’Connor was, for example, at worst a demagogue, at best a democrat; Lovett a conciliator acting pragmatically to achieve his objectives. Yet the Chartist leader at whatever level was central to the development of the movement.

How can the historian characterise the Chartist ‘leader’? The archetypal leader was a ‘politician’ who sought the will and the welfare of ‘the people’. He saw himself as spokesman and leader of a social group from which he drew his energy and moral authority. He had faith in the integrity of the group he represented. He fed on group approval. Drama was essential. Roles must be played out. The task of the Chartist leader was easiest when agreement was clear, difficult when agreement was unclear and most difficult when that unanimity appeared compromised. In relation to this, image was of primary importance. The Chartist leader must maintain the group’s recognition of his authority, on this his credibility depended and ultimately his power and legitimacy as a leader. Different images of the leader – the father, the martyr, the fighter, the hero – were presented as and when necessary. Above all, the Chartist leader needed to ingratiate himself with his supporting constituency. He was, in part, a charismatic figure. He could not be completely charismatic, for the man of charisma imposes his values on the group rather than the other way round. However, his popularity was bound up in perceptions of the accuracy of his interpretation of the group’s values and aspirations. But the chemistry of group support was notoriously fickle and the actions of leaders could easily be misread. It followed that the Chartist leader was necessarily committed to a heavy schedule of personal contact with his supporters. He could not afford to neglect this nor could he afford to be aloof. He must be busily engaged in a continuous series of personal contacts. He must maintain and sustain consensus. This could prove difficult. The line between seeking and manipulating consensus was often difficult to draw. Group membership fluctuated and group values formed short-lasting unity. Better economic conditions, alternative social groups, fragmented ideology all contributed to the decline of support.

Classifying the leadership patterns within the Chartist movement is essential if the archetypal framework is to have real meaning. It is possible to see Chartist leaders in three major ways. First, there was an important geographical dimension. Leaders tended to be national, regional or local in their appeal to the working class. O’Connor is the classic example of a national figure pulling together the diverse elements in the movement. Regional leaders were significant within particular areas of the country with their own social and economic structures and political traditions. Joseph Rayner Stephens was primarily concerned with the north of England, William Lovett is perhaps best understood in relation to London, while Henry Vincent was characterised as the ‘Demosthenes of the West’ in 1839. Local leaders pose the greatest problem for historians. Some like Thomas Cooper in Leicester were their own publicists or like John Frost ex-mayor of Newport became national celebrities but most are little known. Yet, in their day, individuals like Joshua Hobson of Leeds played a major part in the development of the movement. Hobson had links with Richard Oastler with Robert Owen and with O’Connor. His Voice of the West Riding helps explain much in the Northern Star. Indeed, he was the main publisher of the Northern Star from its beginnings in 1837 until it was moved to London in 1844.
Secondly, it is possible to consider them in relation to particular leadership characteristics. It is important to recognise from the outset that these ‘types’ are not all-inclusive. An individual may straddle two or more of the different categories. It is possible to identify four main leadership characteristics in Chartism:

  • Ideologues. These individuals provided the theoretical foundation on which Chartism was built. Three are particularly important: Bronterre O’ Brien, George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones. O’Brien and Harney both based their theorising on the achievements of the French Revolution and saw the mission of the working class as the working-out of the logical completion of the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. O’Brien took Robespierre as his model while Harney opted for Marat. O’Brien translated Buonarotti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiration des Égaux; Harney called himself the ‘Ami du Peuple’ and sported the ‘bonnet rouge’. O’Brien supported the nationalisation of land and, by extending the principle to all monopolies of capital as well as land, became a pioneer of collectivism. Harney became a leading exponent of internationalism on a proletarian basis and published the first English edition of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Ernest Jones took a Socialist route, at least in the 1850s when he became the white-headed boy of British Marxism.
  • Activists. Those individuals who were good at the type of organisation required for handing a local or regional group. Their talent lay in organising things in a practical rather than theoretical way. They were able to take into account the realities of human nature and fluctuating enthusiasm. They were determined to keep things going and, in addition, were sensitive to the way things were going.
  • Communicators. Those who were good at communicating with others either face-to-face or through some other medium. Henry Hetherington, James Watson and George Jacob Holyoake fell into this broad category.
  • Leaders. Those who like taking responsibility and making decisions. Those who found leadership a natural role rather than an opportunity to exert a power they felt they needed. In many respects leaders are good at making things happen providing the direction and determination to get things done as well as the skill to overcome obstacles. It is a personality skill more than an intellectual one. What Walter Bagehot wrote of the character of Sir Robert Peel, “the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man” applies equally to Chartist leaders. Reynolds Miscellany proclaimed as late as 1848 that “Feargus is irresistible. He has great declaratory powers but he is wholly destitute of original ability. He declaims admirably; but he would not do for debate. He has vast energy…and energy always tells well in a speaker, especially a popular speaker.”

Finally leadership and membership were fluid in the Chartist movement. They changed over time. There were significant differences between who were the leaders and members of Chartism in 1839, 1842 and 1848. Though some individual leaders, like O’Connor, were involved in all three phases, others like Attwood had passed from the scene and most were involved in only one or two of the movement. This lack of political continuity, rather than the quality of management itself, may help to explain some of the inadequacies of leadership during the course of the movement.


[1] The most extensive general discussion of the question ‘who were the Chartists?’ is to be found in Dorothy Thompson The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution, Aldershot, 1984, pages 91-236. Christopher Godfrey Chartist Lives: The Anatomy of a Working-Class Movement, New York, 1987 is a more detailed study. I have included a brief discussion of some of the methodological problems faced by historians in my Broadening horizons: Chartism and the colonies, volume 2, chapter 15.
[2] The major monographs include the following. On William Lovett see, David Large ‘William Lovett’ in Patricia Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, Edward Arnold, 1974 and Joel Wiener William Lovett, Manchester University Press, 1989, the best modern biography. O’Connor died in 1855 before he could write his own account of events. Contemporaries from Lovett onwards and historians from the first study by Gammage have been overwhelmingly hostile to O’Connor’s achievement. James Epstein The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement 1832-1842, Croom Helm, 1982 sought to redress the balance. Alfred Plummer Bronterre: A Political Biography of Bronterre O’ Brien 1804-1864, London, 1971 is the standard work on this enigmatic figure. A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: a Portrait of George Julian Harney, London, 1958 remains the best biography. Ambrose G. Barker Henry Hetherington 1792-1849, London, 1938 remains the only modern biography. Michael S. Edwards Purge This Realm. A Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens, London, 1994, pages 38-106 deals with Stephens ‘Chartist years’. William Dorling Henry Vincent: A Biographical Sketch, London 1879 remains the only detailed but dated study of his life. Stephen Roberts Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain, Lampeter, 1993 provides an excellent study of Robert Peddie, a leading figure in the Bradford rising. David Williams John Frost: A Study in Chartism, Cardiff, 1939, reprinted New York, 1969 is a key biography from a historiographical perspective. John Saville Ernest Jones: Chartist, London, 1952, Miles Taylor Ernest Jones, Oxford University Press, 2003 and Owen R Ashton W. E. Adams: Chartist, Radical and Journalist, Bewick Press, 1991 are the most valuable biographies of later Chartists. Raymond Challinor A Radical Lawyer in Victorian England: W. P. Roberts and the struggle for workers’ rights, I. B. Tauris, 1990 provides an interesting middle class perspective. Paul Pickering and Owen Ashton Friends of the People: Uneasy Radicals in the Age of the Chartists, Merlin Press, 2002 contains biographies of six radical leaders including Peter McDouall and Henry Solly.
[3] There are two reference works that have proved invaluable: Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, 11 volumes, Macmillan, 1972-2005 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 1 1770-1830, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1979 and volume 2 1830-1870, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1984.
[4] This material has been put together gradually over the last decade, though it has been thoroughly revised in the past few months to take account of material in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 60 volumes, Oxford University Press, 2004.
[5] Three important autobiographies are: first, William Lovett Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876 is Lovett’s autobiography. The 1967 edition prefaced by R.H. Tawney is an edited version. Secondly, Thomas Cooper The Life of Thomas Cooper, 1872, reprinted with an introduction by John Saville, Leicester University Press, 1971 is a major autobiography by a key player in 1842. Finally, Brian Harrison and Patricia Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery Radical and Chartist, London, 1979 introduce an annotated selection from Lowery’s writings.
[6] Frank Peel The Risings of the Luddites, Chartists and Plugdrawers, Cass, 1968 reprint of 1895 edition, page xiv.
[7] William Lovett Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876, references to 1967 edition prefaced by R.H. Tawney, page 75.
[8] James Vernon Politics and the People, Cambridge, 1993, page 251.
[9] Vernon Politics and the People, Cambridge, 1993, page 253.
[10] Quoted in Dorothy Thompson ‘Women and Nineteenth-Century Radical Politics’: a Lost Dimension, in Juliet Mitchell and Anne Oakley (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, London, 1976, page 122.
[11] Christopher Hodgkinson The Philosophy of Leadership, Oxford, 1983 is a valuable study of the principles underpinning leadership.

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