Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Allen Davenport

Davenport[1] was born on 1st May 1775 in Ewen, Gloucestershire. One of a hand-loom weaver’s ten children, he was entirely self-educated. At nineteen, he enlisted in the Windsor foresters, a light cavalry regiment, with which he served mainly in Scotland. After being discharged in 1801, he spent four years working in Cirencester as a shoemaker (a trade he had learned in the army) before moving to London. Here he spent the remainder of his life, married his wife, Mary, a shoebinder, in 1806, and around the same time fell under the influence of the radical land reformer Thomas Spence.

Davenport was a women’s shoemaker and a member of the union executive of the ‘women’s men’. In 1813, the union was ruined by a strike, which Davenport opposed, and from this stemmed his lasting scepticism about trade unionism. He concentrated instead upon politics and journalism, mainly for Richard Carlile’s The Republican but also independently. His first two publications in his own right were poems: Kings, or, Legitimacy Unmasked (1819), a spirited republican drama, and Claremont (1820?), a contribution to the Queen Caroline affair. Like many Spenceans, he was actively prepared for revolution, and in 1819 followed Wedderburn in forming a Spencean splinter group in Soho. Not surprisingly, he later chose to obscure his activities at this time.

From 1822 to 1828, Davenport left shoemaking to become a watchman at Tollington Park (Holloway), Middlesex. Here he concentrated upon his poetry (a collection, The Muse’s Wreath, appeared in 1827) and, more notably, political journalism. His return to shoemaking coincided with the rise of Owen’s influence among the London trades, and Davenport became an enthusiastic socialist and lecturer to Owenite and adult education groups throughout the capital. More than anyone he was responsible for the revival of interest in Spence (of whom he published a biography in 1836), and he extended the case for public ownership to include not only land but machinery as well. He also advocated birth control and women’s rights.

Davenport’s wife died in 1816, and Mary Ann, their only known child, around 1824. Dogged by ill health and deteriorating eyesight, he none the less threw himself into the Chartist movement. He was the founding president of the East London Democratic Association, mentor of the young George Julian Harney, and a supporter of the Chartist land plan. During Chartism’s doldrum years after 1842 Davenport concentrated on secularism, educational causes, and writing, sustained by public subscriptions organised by Harney and G. J. Holyoake. His poem English Institutions (1842) extolled adult education, which was also the main theme of his 1845 autobiography. The Origin of Man and the Progress of Society (1846) drew together his popular lecture series tracing the development of private property. Davenport died at Goswell Road, Finsbury, London on 30th November 1846, and was buried in an unconsecrated common grave in Kensal Green cemetery. The graveside oration was delivered by the freethinker W. D. Saull. ‘Had he been less poor he would have been more famous’ wrote Holyoake in an obituary[2]. However, it was as an educator and agrarian polemicist, rather than as a political leader, that Davenport influenced English radicalism.


[1] Sources: The life and literary pursuits of Allen Davenport…written by himself, ed. M. Chase, 1994, M. Chase The people’s farm: English radical agrarianism, 1775–1840, OUP, 1988, A. Janowitz Lyric and labour in the Romantic tradition, 1998, I. J. Prothero Artisans and politics in early nineteenth-century London: John Gast and his times, 1979, Northern Star, 5th December 1846 and Utilitarian Record, January 1847.

[2] G. J. Holyoake The Reasoner, 29th January 1847, page 18.


Stuart Butler said...

Hello there, Stuart Butler of www.radicalstroud.blogspot.co.uk I came across Davenport's name in The Politics of the Picturesque, and am thinking of waling from the source of the Thames to have a wander around Ewen. I thought I might put something together for the walk, using information from your blog, and a couple of books to give contextualisation to the walk. I don't suppose you know anymore about his Ewen early life? Long shot.
A great read on your blog - thanks for this.
Btw, you might be interested to know that I have received funding from Stroud Arts to make a film about the mass meeting on Selsley Common near Stroud in 1839. Script written.
Stuart Butler
stfc12@hotmail.com or the email address below

Stuart Butler said...

Hello again - first stage of our pilgrimage from the source of the Thames to London and Kensal Green with a memorial to A.D. Please see http://radicalstroud.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/on-trail-of-allen-davenport-from-source.html for a record and a hint about our intentions.
Best wishes,
Stuart Butler