Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Feargus O'Connor

Feargus O’Connor[1] was the son of Roger O’Connor (1762-1834) and his second wife, Wilhelmina Bowen, of Connorville in the parish of Kinneigh, co. Cork, was born at Connorville, probably on 18th July 1796. Feargus had three brothers and three sisters as well as a half-brother and half-sister from his father’s earlier marriage. He came from a family of wealthy protestant landowners, although both his father and uncle changed their surnames from Conner to O’Connor and became United Irishmen. Feargus first attended school in London after his father’s exile from Ireland in 1801 and was subsequently educated at several schools near Dublin. He probably went to Trinity College, Dublin, but did not take a degree. He lived on his father’s Dangan Castle estate, co. Meath, where Roger O’Connor was allowed to return in 1803 and where as a young man Feargus pursued a keen interest in horse-racing. Around 1819, he was admitted to the King’s Inns, Dublin, and in 1826 joined Gray’s Inn, London; in 1830 he was admitted to the Irish bar, but he practised law only briefly. Around 1820 Feargus inherited the estate of Fort Robert, co. Cork, from his uncle Robert Conner. O’Connor was a reforming landlord and later claimed that he took part in Whiteboy activity. In 1822, he published his first political tract, A State of Ireland, in which he denounced corruption in local government. O’Connor did not participate in the movement for Catholic emancipation, but during the reform agitation of 1831–2 came forward as an advocate of Irish rights and democratic political reform. At this time his extraordinary talents as a public speaker first became evident.

After the passing of the Reform Bill, O’Connor stormed the country organising the registration of the new electorate. In the general election of December 1832, he was returned as a repealer at the head of the poll for co. Cork. As a member of Daniel O’Connell’s repeal party, O’Connor was an outspoken critic of the Whig government’s policies in both Ireland and England. He soon allied himself with London’s popular radicals and was involved in various radical campaigns, including those for press freedom and the return of the transported Dorchester labourers. In summer 1833, O’Connor clashed with O’Connell over the ‘Liberator’s’ refusal to move a motion for the repeal of the union. O’Connell’s faith in laissez-faire political economy and hostility towards trade unionism further alienated O’Connor. He fully detailed his differences with O’Connell in his Series of Letters…to Daniel O’Connell, published in October 1836. O’Connor was re-elected for co. Cork in 1835, but was unseated in June 1835 owing to his lack of the necessary freehold property qualification. The same month, he offered himself as a radical candidate for the seat at Oldham vacated by William Cobbett’s death, and although he withdrew early on the first day’s polling, his thirty-two votes were enough to secure victory for the Tory candidate over Cobbett’s son. O’Connor now embarked on a career primarily as a leader of English popular radicalism, although he continued to bring Irish issues to the fore.

As an independent agitator O’Connor did more than any single leader to lay the groundwork for Chartism. Having founded the Marylebone Radical Association in September 1835, he toured the industrial north as its missionary in 1835 and 1836, establishing radical associations and campaigning for universal male suffrage, repeal of the newspaper stamp, abolition of the new poor law, and shorter factory hours. In November 1836, he became an honorary member of the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), and in March 1838 he supported the formation of the London Democratic Association, an ultra-radical rival to the LWMA. However, O’Connor increasingly turned his attention to the industrial districts of England and Scotland. Most significantly, in 1837 he established the Northern Star, a weekly newspaper published at Leeds. Within four weeks of the paper’s first number on 18th November 1837, the paper was returning a profit and within a year it was the most widely circulated provincial paper in the land. The Northern Star became, in effect, Chartism’s official journal, publishing not only O’Connor’s weekly letter addressed to the ‘unshaved chins, blistered hands, and fustian jackets’, but a wide range of local Chartist news. In the columns of O’Connor’s paper, adherents became aware of the movement’s national scope. The establishment of the Star coincided with the height of the anti-poor law agitation in which O’Connor joined Richard Oastler and the Revd J. R. Stephens at large rallies characterised by violent rhetoric. O’Connor’s influence was crucial during the spring of 1838 in committing the forces of northern working-class radicalism to the Birmingham Political Union’s national petition, the People’s Charter drawn up by the LWMA, and plans for a national convention. He attended nearly all the ‘monster’ demonstrations from the late summer through the winter of 1838 that elected delegates to the convention. He assumed the role of national leader, co-ordinating and unifying the agitation. But O’Connor’s close identification with the lawless tone of northern radicalism, his presence at torchlight meetings, and his refusal to dissociate himself from Stephens and from recommendations for popular arming, alarmed moderate leaders in Birmingham, London, and Scotland. O’Connor openly confronted his critics in their own districts, where he won overwhelming approval from the local rank and file.

At the Chartist convention that assembled on 4th February 1839, O’Connor was from the beginning the chief figure, declaring the body to be ‘the only constituted authority representing the people of this country’[2]. The convention faltered over the question of what to do once parliament rejected the petition. O’Connor continually pressed the convention to take decisive action in conformity with his own strategy for attaining the Charter through intimidation and the mere threat of violent conflict. In July 1839, however, after the convention had committed the movement to a ‘national holiday’, O’Connor’s opposition was crucial in reversing this decision on the grounds that Chartists were unprepared for a showdown with government authorities and in substituting a token three-day strike. O’Connor probably knew something of the secret plans afoot for armed insurrection in autumn 1839, although he left for Ireland on 5th October and did not return to England until 2nd November. He was not involved in the preparations for the Newport rising on 4th November and warned Chartists against clandestine associations. On 17th March 1840, O’Connor was found guilty at York assizes of seditious libel for speeches—his own and those of others—published in the Northern Star, and on 11th May he was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment in York Castle. From prison he continued to write for the Northern Star. Despite his relatively good treatment in prison, he fully exploited the popular image of the patriot martyr. In July 1840 the National Charter Association (NCA), Chartism’s most important national association, was established. O’Connor strove to make it the party of all Chartists. He first joined the NCA executive in September 1843 as treasurer and was re-elected annually until 1851. On 30th August 1841 O’Connor was released from prison. Ever the populist showman, he emerged wearing a suit of working man’s fustian to signal his allegiance to the people.

Until after 1848, O’Connor had no real rivals for the loyalty and active support of Chartism’s rank and file, who regarded his leadership as crucial to maintaining national unity. During the early 1840s, however, O’Connor clashed with various radical leaders over Chartism’s direction. In spring 1841 he condemned ‘Church Chartism, Teetotal Chartism, Knowledge Chartism, and Household Suffrage Chartism’[3] based on his fears that such tendencies could lead to sectarianism or compromise the movement. More serious was the split over the Complete Suffrage Union (CSU), a middle-class initiative launched by the Birmingham Liberal Joseph Sturge and aimed at uniting middle-class and working-class reformers. During 1842, various leaders, including William Lovett and James Bronterre O’Brien, welcomed the CSU. While O’Connor anticipated winning the ‘industrious portion’ of the middle class (principally shopkeepers) to Chartism, he viewed the complete suffrage move as an attempt to undermine his own leadership and Chartism’s independence as a working-class movement. O’Connor again faced trial on 1st March 1843 at Lancaster, along with fifty-eight others, on charges of seditious conspiracy arising from the Chartist strikes that swept the industrial districts of the north and midlands in August 1842. O’Connor supported these strikes, although he held factory owners belonging to the Anti-Corn Law League responsible for their instigation. Convicted on one count of endeavouring to excite disaffection by unlawfully encouraging a stoppage of labour, O’Connor was never brought up for sentencing owing to a procedural error.

As Chartism waned during the years 1843–7, O’Connor kept the suffrage demand to the fore, although he encouraged causes he deemed complementary. He supported Lord Ashley’s factory bill, backed O’Connell’s final push for repeal of the Act of Union, and rallied support for trade unionism. He opposed the Anti-Corn Law League, and in August 1844 he engaged Richard Cobden in public debate at Northampton. Increasingly, however, O’Connor stressed the importance of working people’s alienation from the land. As early as 1841 he declared: ‘Lock-up the land to-morrow, and I would not give you two pence for the Charter the next day’[4]. In 1843, an NCA conference at Birmingham approved his proposal for establishing Chartist land communities, although it was not until April 1845 that the Chartist Co-operative Land Society was established. His scheme was to buy agricultural estates, divide them into small-holdings, and let the holdings by ballot. O’Connor elaborated his agrarian vision in his book A Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms, published in 1843, in the Northern Star, and in The Labourer (4 volumes, 1847–8), a monthly journal that he co-edited with Ernest Jones. The land plan is best understood in terms of long-standing popular radical interest in and ideas on the land and notions of collective self-reliance. After 1845, much of O’Connor’s energy was absorbed by the land plan, raising money, trying to register the company as a friendly society, buying land, and supervising the building of cottages. On May Day 1847, settlers moved into O’Connorville, an estate near Watford, the first of five Chartist settlements (Charterville at Minster Lovell, near Oxford, survives largely intact). At the general election of July 1847, O’Connor was returned at Nottingham, becoming Chartism’s first and only MP.

In 1848, inspired in part by the revolution in France and bolstered by co-operation with Irish nationalists, Chartism again mobilised large numbers with O’Connor at its head. A third national petition was organised and a convention sat to co-ordinate Chartist strategy. O’Connor presided at the great Kennington Common demonstration on 10th April 1848 and managed to persuade the people to abandon the proposed procession to the House of Commons to present the petition, thus avoiding a violent confrontation with government troops, police, and a large middle-class force enrolled as special constables. That evening, O’Connor presented the national petition to the Commons, claiming that it contained 5,706,000 signatures. O’Connor was greatly embarrassed when the committee on petitions reported that the total came to 1,975,496, a figure that included many bogus signatures. In summer 1848 a select committee of the House of Commons reported that the land company was illegal, although O’Connor was found to have sunk £3400 of his own money in the company. In fact, the company’s legal problems arose directly from the refusal of parliament and the law courts to allow for a popularly owned and controlled association of small-holders. After 1848, Chartism went into sharp decline, although O’Connor remained a prominent leader, offering radical redirection without sanctioning socialism. Some time in 1851, O’Connor suffered the onset of serious mental illness, perhaps the final stage of syphilis. There is no indication that he was possessed of anything but fully sound mind before this. On his return from a visit to the United States in 1852, he struck two fellow members in the Commons and was arrested and confined in the Palace of Westminster. In June 1852, he was admitted to Dr Harrington Tuke’s asylum at Chiswick, where he remained until just before his death. O’Connor died on 30th August 1855 at his sister Harriet’s home, 18 Albert Terrace, Notting Hill, in London. Fifty thousand persons were reported to have attended his funeral on 10th September at Kensal Green. O’Connor never married, although in the 1830s it was rumoured that he and Louisa Nisbett, a celebrated actress, were lovers. He fathered several illegitimate children. Through much of his Chartist career he lived in Hammersmith, having leased his Irish estate, he died a poor man. His claim that he exhausted his personal wealth in the cause of radicalism is probably true.

Physically imposing, possessed of enormous energy and gentlemanly bearing, O’Connor fitted the popular image of the gentleman orator. Although he wrote profusely for the Northern Star and other Chartist journals and published over twenty political tracts, O’Connor was an activist rather than a theoretician. The early histories of Chartism portrayed him as vainglorious and irresponsible, a rabble-rouser who wrecked the work of Lovett and a small band of enlightened artisans. Recent studies, however, stress O’Connor’s efforts to impart national unity, organisational coherence, and direction to a diverse political movement and recognise his extraordinary ascendancy over almost all sections of the movement as well as the degree to which he was held accountable to his followers.


[1] D. Read and E. Glasgow Feargus O’Connor: Irishman and chartist, 1961, J. Epstein The lion of freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the chartist movement, 1832–1842, 1982, F. O’Connor ‘Life and adventures of Feargus O’Connor’, National Instructor, 1850, T. M. Wheeler A brief memoir of the late Feargus O’Connor, 1855, W. J. O’Neill Daunt A life spent for Ireland: being selections from the journals of the late W. J. O’Neill Daunt, 1896, W. J. O’Neill Daunt Eighty-five years of Irish history, 1800–1885, 2 volumes, 1886, T. Cooper The life of Thomas Cooper, written by himself, 1872 and R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edition, 1894; reprinted with introduction by J. Saville, 1969.

[2] Charter, 24th February 1839.

[3] Northern Star, 3rd April 1841

[4] Northern Star, 24th July 1841.

1 comment:

Conor Coatsworth said...

Ah excuse me, I'm from Ireland and am quite familiar with Feargus O'Connor, and he did not attend school in London. He was tutored at home as a child and attended university at Trinity College in Dublin, get it right!