Monday, 30 July 2007

Chartist Lives: Thomas Allsop


He was born on 10th April 1795 and baptised on 20th November 1795 at Wirksworth, Derbyshire, the son of William Allsop, farmer, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Harding, of Stainsborough Hall, near Wirksworth, a property which belonged to his grandfather. Allsop was educated at Wirksworth grammar school, and though originally intended to follow his father’s profession, a desire to see more of the world led him to abandon farming for the experience of London. At the age of seventeen he entered the large silk mercery establishment of his uncle Mr Harding at Waterloo House, Pall Mall, where he remained some years. Ultimately he left for the stock exchange, where he made a fair amount of money during the early years of railway construction.

Allsop attended Coleridge’s 1818 lectures, and was so impressed that he addressed a letter to him. Coleridge found it so ‘manly, simple, and correct’, that he asked to meet Allsop, and consequently established a friendship that lasted all the life of the poet, Coleridge becoming a frequent guest at Allsop’s house. On the poet’s death, in 1836 Allsop published his most considerable work, entitled the Letters, Conversations and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge. The collection’s main virtue, that it was a product of an editor greatly devoted to and friendly with Coleridge, is also its main defect, as Allsop interpreted many of Coleridge’s comments in light of his own character, and his edition therefore ran counter to the general impression of the poet. This was seized on by the reviewers of the time and the finer points of Allsop’s recollections went unremarked. It is impossible, however, to read Coleridge’s letters and not perceive the personal value that he set on Allsop’s companionship.

Allsop included other literary figures in his social circle; his wife worked to make their home attractive to her husband’s friends, and it became a favourite resort of Charles Lamb, Barry Cornwall, and William Hazlitt, among others. Lamb’s letters and Thomas Talfourd’s Memorials of Lamb record a high personal estimation of Allsop, reflected in the fact that Lamb asked Allsop to be an executor of his will, in a letter dated 9th August 1823. Other visitors to his home included men as dissimilar as William Cobbett, Giuseppe Mazzini, and the emperor of Brazil, who, after a visit to Coleridge’s grave, sent Allsop an expensive silver urn engraved with words of personal regard.

Allsop’s foresight in the area of public affairs, as well as on intellectual matters, was demonstrated in his Budget of Two Taxes Only, addressed to the then chancellor of the exchequer in 1848. His last work was California and its Gold Mines in 1852–3, mines which he during two years personally explored. The book consists of letters addressed to his son Robert, after the manner of his friend Cobbett’s letters to his son James. While Allsop’s letters display remarkable practical judgement, similar to that of Cobbett, there is a brightness and vivacity of philosophic reflection in them without parallel in commercial reports.

Allsop’s political sympathies were radical; when Feargus O’Connor was elected member for Nottingham, Allsop gave him his property qualification of £300 p.a. in land, then necessary by law, that Chartism might be represented in parliament. When on a grand jury about 1836, Allsop startled London by informing the commissioners at the Old Bailey that he should think it unjust ‘to convict for offences having their origin in misgovernment’, since society had made the crime, and he considered the state culpably insensitive to the condition of the people. He despaired of amelioration from the influence of the clergy, and, when needing a house in the country, stated in an advertisement that preference would be given to one situated where no church or clergyman was to be found within five miles.

Deploring the suppression of France under Napoleon III, Allsop, like Landor, entertained and showed sympathy for Orsini. On the trial of Dr Bernard for being concerned in what was called the ‘attempt of Orsini’, it transpired that the shells employed were ordered by Allsop in Birmingham; but as he used no concealment of any kind and gave his name and address openly, it did not appear that he had any other knowledge than that the shells were intended as an improvement in a weapon of military warfare. The government offered a reward of £500 for his apprehension, when George Jacob Holyoake and Dr Langley had an interview with the home secretary, and brought an offer from Allsop immediately to surrender himself if the reward was paid to them to be applied for the necessary expenses of his defence, as he did not at all object to be tried, but objected to be put to expense without just reason. The reward was withdrawn and Allsop returned to England. By reason of his friendships, his social position, and his boldness, he was one of the unseen forces of revolution in his day, and his sentiments are instructive. His favourite ideal was the man who was ‘thorough’, who saw the end he aimed at, and who knew the means and meant their employment. He had a perfect scorn for propitiation when a wrong had to be arrested. Without expecting much from violence, he thought it was merited when there was no other remedy.

On the night before the Chartist demonstration on 10th April 1848, Allsop, being the most trusted adviser of Feargus O’Connor, wrote to him as follows from the Bull and Mouth Hotel, St Martin’s-le-Grand, London: ‘Nothing rashly. The government must be met with calm and firm defiance. Violence may be overcome with violence, but a resolute determination not to submit cannot be overcome. To remain in front, en face of the government, to watch it, to take advantage of its blunders, is the part of an old general who will not be guided like a fish by its tail. Precipitate nothing, yield nothing. Aim not alone to destroy the government, but to render a class government impossible. No hesitation, no rash impulse, no egotism; but an earnest, serious, unyielding progress. Nothing for self, nothing even for fame, present or posthumous. All for the cause. Upon the elevation of your course for the moment will depend the estimation in which you will henceforth be held; and the position you may attain and retain will be second to none of the reformers who have gone before you.’

Yet in these seemingly revolutionary fervours Allsop was none the less in many ways still a conservative, and only sought the establishment of right and justice. He adopted no opinion which he had not himself well thought over, and he expressed none of the truth and relevance of which he was not well assured in his own mind. Allsop died on 12th April 1880 at Castle Park Gardens, Exmouth, and his body was removed for burial on 17th April to Brookwood cemetery, Woking, in order that Holyoake, to whom he left autobiographical papers, might speak at his grave, which could only be done on unconsecrated ground.

The major sources for Allsop are: T. Allsop Letters, conversations and recollections of S. T. Coleridge, 2 volumes, 1836, P. Fitzgerald (ed.), The life, letters and writings of Charles Lamb, 1876, volume 3, pages 79–102, G. J. Holyoake Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens, 1881, pages 189–90, T. N. Talfourd Memoirs of Charles Lamb, ed. P. Fitzgerald, 1892, notes page 228n, T. Allsop California and its gold mines, ed. R. Allsop, 1853 and J. M. Wheeler A biographical dictionary of freethinkers of all ages and nations, 1889

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