Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Chartist Lives: William Benbow

Benbow [1] was born at Middlewich, Cheshire in 1784. He learned the trade of a shoemaker, but was a dissenting preacher in Newton, Manchester, by the time that he commenced his political activities in 1808. In December 1816, he was delegated by the Lancashire radicals to liaise with ultra-radical elements in London. It seems likely that he was fully aware of the Spa Fields conspiracy of that month, and his association with the Spencean revolutionary group in London dates from about that time. He also associated with Sir Francis Burdett and William Cobbett, and acted as agent in Lancashire for the Political Register. He represented the Manchester Hampden Club at the convention called by Major John Cartwright in January 1817 and was an organiser of the Blanketeers’ march. After plans for a revolutionary government involving him were exposed later that month, Benbow prepared to flee to the United States, but he was arrested in May and detained for the remainder of the year.

After a brief spell in Manchester, mainly promoting a plan to destabilise the economy through the circulation of forged banknotes, Benbow joined Cobbett in America. Benbow was responsible for disinterring the bones of Thomas Paine, though it was Cobbett who brought them back to England. Benbow returned to Manchester in December 1819 to resume insurrectionary activity, but moved to London early the following year. From a shop in the Strand, he established himself as a major radical bookseller, a leading supporter of Queen Caroline, and also a publisher of bawdy and obscene literature. He was arrested for caricaturing George IV in May 1821 and was detained without trial for eight months, during which time his first wife died and his business collapsed. He resumed on a smaller scale in 1822, and was immediately prosecuted, unsuccessfully, for a pirated edition of Byron’s Cain. A further unsuccessful prosecution for obscenities published in his Rambler’s Magazine followed in July 1822. He quarrelled furiously with Cobbett and with the radical publisher Robert Carlile about his pirated editions of Paine and pornographic publications.

During the quieter political climate of the mid-1820s, Benbow concentrated on publishing pornography. After further imprisonment in 1827, possibly for debt, he changed his business to that of coffee- and beer-house keeper. The ‘Institution of the Working Classes’, his premises at 8 Theobalds Road, Holborn, became an important centre for metropolitan radicals, especially the National Union of the Working Classes, co-operators, and female radicals (led by Benbow’s second wife). His insurrectionary views were undiminished in the reform crisis, but his lasting contribution to radicalism was made in his pamphlet of January 1832, Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes. In it, Benbow argued the case for a simultaneous general strike and radical convention. Neither of these ideas was original: he leaned heavily on Spencean thinking in his development of the strike proposal, while the idea of a national convention as a radical alternative to parliament had been a staple of English reform since the 1780s. Benbow’s anti-establishment invective and cogency were remarkable, however, and Grand National Holiday went through three large editions and continued to be read well into the 1840s.

Benbow is most easily characterised as an insurrectionary conspirator and opponent of the ‘old corruption’, whose political work constituted a significant stage in the evolution of a self-consciously working-class radicalism. However, his career after the famous pamphlet was anti-climactic and was marked by several unsuccessful publishing ventures, by quarrels with fellow radicals over his financial probity and by his trenchant opposition to the influence of Robert Owen. Benbow espoused the cause of working-class co-operation against what he claimed was Owen’s patronising and anti-democratic attitude, and in doing so he achieved some influence. In all, though, these were inauspicious circumstances in which to develop further his career as a radical reformer, even after he had ceased issuing libertinist literature. In 1834, his business failed and he turned first to shoemaking and then greengrocery to earn a living. He reactivated his links with Lancashire during the anti-poor law and Chartist agitations and was arrested there in August 1840 and charged with sedition. In all he spent two years in prison, where, in the words of a prisons inspector, ‘time seems to have abated nothing of his warmth in the cause of Republicanism’. Released in 1841, he returned to London and a precarious career as a Chartist lecturer. His last public appearance of any kind was on the platform of a meeting of the Finsbury Manhood Suffrage Society in October 1852. The date and circumstances of his death are unknown.


[1] I. Prothero ‘Benbow, William’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 6, I. McCalman Radical underworld: prophets, revolutionaries, and pornographers in London, 1795–1840, 1988, I. Prothero, ‘William Benbow and the concept of the “general strike”’, Past and Present, volume 63, (1974), pages 132–71 and Prison inspector’s report, 1st January 1841, Public Record Office: HO 20/10.

1 comment:

Charlotte Frost said...

Thank you! I'm off to the British Library to read Benbow's 'Real John Bull'. I knew nothing about him until the day before last, and this is fab background.