Monday, 30 July 2007

Chartist Lives: W.E. Adams

He was born in humble circumstances in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 11th February 1832, the son of John Adams, a tramping plasterer, and his wife, Sarah, née Wells. He was raised by his widowed maternal grandmother, Anne Wells, and her three unmarried daughters, all of a radical political persuasion, at 250 High Street, from which dwelling they worked as washerwomen to Cheltenham’s wealthy residents. He was educated briefly and intermittently at a dame-school, a private seminary (Gardner’s academy) paid for by doing laundry work, and then, towards the end of 1844, at a Wesleyan day and Sunday school in Cheltenham; he was not religious later in life. In adult years, he attended evening classes of the London and Manchester branches of the Working Men’s College[1].

Adams started work as a bookseller’s errand boy, but in 1846 was apprenticed for seven years as a printer to the proprietor of the Cheltenham Journal. Before completing his indentures, he was chairing branch meetings of the National Charter Association, the Fraternal Democrats, and the People’s Institute, a literary and debating society that he founded. Apart from the works of Thomas Paine, the greatest political influence on him was the republican internationalism of Giuseppi Mazzini, whom he long afterwards spoke of as ‘the greatest teacher since Christ’. In 1851, he founded the Cheltenham Republican Association, came into close contact with the leading English disciple of Mazzini, the Chartist W. J. Linton, and raised funds to assist European refugees.

In 1854, Adams went to work as a printer on the production of Linton’s English Republic at Brantwood, a mansion beside Lake Coniston and future home of John Ruskin. When that journal ceased in 1855, he tramped to London, where he found work on the Illustrated London News and became active in Chartist–radical circles and debating clubs; here he participated in discussions that formed the basis of his pamphlet Tyrannicide: is it Justifiable?, which appeared on 13th February 1858. A spirited defence of Felice Orsini’s vain attempt to assassinate Napoleon III a month earlier, the pamphlet contributed to the hostile political climate that led to the fall of Palmerston’s government on 19th February 1858. The prosecution of the publisher of the pamphlet, Edward Truelove, caused a controversy about the extent of freedom of political discussion. John Stuart Mill, one of Adams’s supporters, made the affair the subject of a note in his second chapter of On Liberty in 1859.

Adams’s talents were recognised both by the secularist Charles Bradlaugh, for whose National Reformer he wrote radical–republican and anti-slavery articles between 1861 and 1863 under the pseudonym Caractacus, and then by Joseph Cowen jun., the Tyneside radical, industrialist, and newspaper proprietor, who employed him as editor of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle from 1864 until his retirement in 1900. Under Adams’s editorship, the Weekly Chronicle was transformed. Politically, the paper’s advanced radicalism, support for trade union rights, co-operatives, ‘Lib-Labism’ and internationalism, exemplified by Adams’s series of articles signed Ironside, earned it a reputation as the ‘Pit-men’s bible’. More generally, Adams succeeded in creating a family newspaper and magazine in one by including a range of special interests such as a ‘literary supplement’, antiquarian features, a ‘ladies’ column’, and a very large ‘children’s corner’ run by Adams himself as the avuncular Uncle Toby and centred on the ‘Dicky Bird Society’. Adams married Elizabeth Jane Owen Smith in London on 25th May 1858; they had two sons and five daughters.

As a lifelong radical and Mazzinian internationalist who laid stress on duties rather than rights, Adams came to deplore the emergence of socialism in the 1880s. Following serious illness and a tour of the north-east USA, the experiences of which were serialised in the Weekly Chronicle and then published as a travelogue entitled Our American Cousins, 1883; reprinted 1992, Adams largely abandoned politics. Instead, he used his editorial power to concentrate on a range of local cultural concerns and conservation interests. He was a founder member of the Newcastle Tree Planting Society, a campaigner for the spread of bowling greens for working men and parks for the people, a committee member and benefactor of the Newcastle Free Library (1880), and a tireless supporter of the preservation and collection of north-east folk music and literature. In June 1893, at a public ceremony in recognition of his public-spiritedness, Novocastrians presented him with a cheque for 450 guineas. Bad health forced him during the English winters to the warmer climes of Funchal, Madeira, where he wrote his Memoirs of a Social Atom, 1903. He died at the Bella Vista Hotel, Funchal, Madeira, on 13th May 1906 and was buried there. On the first anniversary of his death, a marble bust was unveiled in Newcastle Public Library by the miners’ leader Thomas Burt MP.

[1] Sources: Adams wrote an autobiography late in life: W. E. Adams Memoirs of a social atom, 2 volumes, 1903; reprinted with introduction by J. Saville, 1968. Further biographical information can be found in O. R. Ashton W. E. Adams: chartist, radical and journalist, 1832–1906, 1991, N. Todd The militant democracy: Joseph Cowen and Victorian radicalism, 1991, M. Milne Newspapers of Northumberland and Durham, 1971, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 15th May 1906 and Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 19th May 1906.

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