Friday, 17 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Ernest Jones

Jones[1] was born in Berlin on 25th January 1819, the only child of Major Charles Jones, a veteran of the Peninsular War who had fought at Waterloo, and his wife, Charlotte, the daughter of Alexander Annesley, a large Kent landowner. Major Jones was equerry to the duke of Cumberland, but a few years after his son’s birth he bought a small estate in Holstein, where he mainly occupied himself, as he explained in a letter written when Ernest was eleven years old ‘in superintending the education of my only child, already master of the English, German, French and Italian languages’. At the age of thirteen, Ernest entered the College of St Michael, an √©lite institution for the sons of the aristocracy and gentry, where he continued his prose and poetic writings and developed into an intensely romantic young man. The family left Germany when Ernest was nineteen, and he quickly became part of the social world of London and was presented at court by the duke of Beaufort in 1841. Although his future was always assumed to be a literary one, he entered the Middle Temple (also in 1841) and on 19th April 1844 he was called to the bar. Why he chose to move into professional life is not clear—he did not engage in legal practice until the following decade—but in part it may have been prompted by his difficulties in persuading English editors to publish his writings.

It may also have been consequent upon his marriage in June 1841. Jones’s wife, Jane Atherley (d. 1857), came of an old Cumberland family related to the Stanleys, and there were four sons of the marriage. What his financial position was at this time is not known, but in September 1844 he offered £57,000 for Kearnsey Abbey in Kent, a property deal that quickly collapsed into disaster. As early as November 1844, he attempted to resell the house and grounds, and his financial situation continued to worsen until he was declared bankrupt, and his London house was sold over his head.

To this point in his life politics do not seem to have interested Jones. His diaries to 1844 were almost wholly concerned with domestic and social affairs. He was obviously an affectionate husband and father. Within months of his financial troubles, however, political references in the diaries became more frequent, and within a year he was moving towards the most radical movement in British politics. According to his own account, it was during the winter of 1845 that he came across the Northern Star, the national Chartist weekly, and found that ‘the political principles advocated harmonised with my own’. How it came about that this young man of twenty-seven years, previously dominated by literary ambitions, apparently happy in his family life, and having spent all his days in the conservative milieu of the landed gentry, so quickly accepted the radicalism of the Chartist movement is a wholly intriguing question. His financial problems were serious but not at this stage insoluble. Some Conservatives at this time were producing serious criticisms of a society dominated by the cash nexus, and certainly Jones to the end of his life, while hostile to both, still preferred a Tory to a Whig; but whatever the reasons, his acceptance of the programme of the Chartist movement was remarkable. His early political statements were those of mainstream Chartism, but it was as a poet and versifier that Jones first became known at the national level. A collection of poems, the Chartist Songs, was published in August 1846, and the works it contained were recited and sung all over Britain. After his previous disappointments with his literary work, it must have been wonderfully satisfying.

Ernest Jones was an unusual recruit to Chartism and Feargus O’Connor quickly recognised his abilities. They worked together on The Labourer, the journal of the land plan, but Jones’s closest friend soon became George Julian Harney, and it was through Harney that Jones first met Friedrich Engels and then Karl Marx, both of whom were to have a not inconsiderable influence on his general thinking. By the beginning of 1848, Jones was already one of the leading personalities of the movement. He had been a candidate for Halifax in the general election of July 1847. When the revolution in Paris in late February 1848 fired the imagination of both British and Irish radicals, Jones was one of the three-man delegation to present a congratulatory address to the provisional government in Paris—where he again met Marx—and he was the main speaker after O’Connor at the great demonstration of 10th April. This meeting on Kennington Common was the prelude to the presentation of the third national petition. Jones was quite a small man, but he had a powerful speaking voice with an eloquent and striking turn of phrase. From this time, especially in London, he was the outstanding personality of the movement and inevitably was to be among the first arrested by the Whig government. On 6th June 1848, he was apprehended in Manchester, brought back to London to be charged with seditious behaviour and unlawful assembly, tried at the central criminal court before the lord chief justice, and sentenced to two years, imprisonment; he was also bound over for a further two years on his release on 9th July 1850.

Jones’s prison regimen was harsh and he came out weakened in health and strength. The Chartist movement was now much divided and no longer a national force. For the next few years, Jones worked tirelessly to rebuild the movement upon the principles of ‘the charter and something more’: an English version of the ideas and policies of social democracy. There was an unfortunate quarrel with Harney at the beginning of 1852, and of all the 1848 leadership Jones was now alone. His journals and newspapers in the 1850s, above all, the Notes to the People (1851–2) and The People’s Paper (1852–8) offer essential insights into radical politics in this last decade of Chartism, and his political and intellectual career in the last two decades of his life provide a necessary introduction to these years, when there no longer existed an independent political movement of working people. Standing again for Halifax, Jones was the only Chartist candidate to go to the poll in the general election of July 1852. The labour parliament of 1854 was an impractical enterprise, but on the third occasion when he stood for parliament, contesting O’Connor’s former constituency of Nottingham in March 1857, his election address restated his support for the Charter but now also laid emphasis upon the contemporary radical concern with the land question. There was more continuity than is sometimes allowed.

Jones was in serious financial troubles all through this first decade after his release from prison, and his problems seem to have worsened as the years went by. He made two successful applications to the royal literary fund on the evidence of, mainly, his poetry, and among the individuals who responded to his appeals for financial help were Robert Owen, Thomas Allsop, and, at the end of the decade following the death in 1857 of his wife, William Ewart Gladstone. After the sale of his remaining Chartist papers in 1859, Jones began to work steadily in legal practice and his material conditions were soon to be much improved. He accepted, beside the usual day-to-day cases, trade union briefs and poor people’s actions, and his most famous appearance in the courts was his defence of the Manchester Fenians. Their final hearing began in late October 1867, and Jones was not only a leading member of the defence team, but also spoke in public support outside the court.

During this last decade of his life, Jones moved towards a radical–Liberal position in British politics. His internationalism remained vigorous and he took an active part in the campaign to support the North in the American Civil War, but his most important contribution was in the reform movements that led up to the second Reform Bill of 1867. He was married again in 1867, to Elizabeth Darbyshire, and there was a daughter of the marriage. Jones died of pleurisy at Wellington Street, Higher Broughton, Manchester, on 26th January 1869, the day after his fiftieth birthday. Had he lived, he would almost certainly have become one of Manchester’s Liberal MPs, having polled over 10,000 votes when he contested the seat in November 1868. His funeral was the occasion of an impressive radical and working-class demonstration. He was buried in Ardwick cemetery, Manchester.

In the decades that followed his death Jones’s memory was kept alive by the publication of his speeches and commemorative meetings. It was as a radical Liberal that he was remembered in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire and there were still meetings in his name in the last decade of the century, but historians must have a different evaluation. For most of his political life, until the final demise of any movement of Chartism, Ernest Jones rejected middle-class ideas and policies; and he must be given his place as one of the most interesting of the early English socialists.


[1] Sources: G. Howell ‘Life of Ernest Jones’, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, January–August 1898, J. Saville Ernest Jones: chartist, 1952, T. W. Porter ‘Ernest Jones and the royal literary fund’, Labour History Review, volume 57/3 (1992), pages 84–94, A. D. Taylor ‘Ernest Jones: his later career and the structure of Manchester politics 1861–9’, MA dissertation, University of Birmingham, 1984 and The Times, 27th January 1869.

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