Friday, 31 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Francis Place 2

The 1820s

Despite the defeat of 1819, Place’s reputation as an organizer and a repository of information on social issues grew. His political influence, his practical experience of business, and his wide reading gave him a new status among the theorists. In 1808 he had met and befriended Jeremy Bentham and through him encountered James Mill, who in turn introduced him to the economist David Ricardo. In 1810 Place befriended his old mentor Godwin, now a chronically insolvent figure, who seems to have expected him to contribute regularly to his maintenance. Place had a horror of debt and the two men disagreed. Already attracted to the doctrines of Bentham and Mill, because they seemed to offer a firm theoretical foundation for popular education and a safe principle for the extension of the franchise, Place began to shed the utopian radicalism he had absorbed in the 1790s. A visit to Bentham at Ford Abbey in 1817 confirmed his membership of the utilitarian circle. Place accepted Bentham’s jurisprudence, Malthus’s principle of population, and Ricardo’s doctrine of the wages fund, but when Godwin published a defence of his position against Malthus in 1820, he wrote a lengthy reply called Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population (1822). In this Place criticised Malthus for his ignorance of the conditions in which the poor lived and Godwin for giving up all hope for their improvement. If Godwin was too despondent, Malthus was too naïve to suppose that working men would be persuaded to avoid hardship by marrying later in life. Place himself thought that the poor could be persuaded to avoid the burden of large families only if they were encouraged to use contraception, and his frank propaganda for this lost him many friends.

Place tried to stay loyal to his artisan origins, and he never wavered in his dislike of aristocratic society, but his new allegiances affected, and in some ways compromised, his claim to speak for the poor. He was abused by leaders of popular radicalism: Cobbett disliked him as a utilitarian and a Malthusian. He retaliated by calling Cobbett ‘an unprincipled cowardly bully’, and by using all his influence to keep him out of the representation of Westminster. He also distrusted the radical agitator Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. He thought such men owed their popularity to their readiness to deceive simple people into believing in easy solutions to complex social problems. After some disillusioning experiences with the educational schemes of Joseph Lancaster, who disagreed with him over his ‘infidel’ opinions (Baker, 377), Place was inclined to follow the utilitarian policy of James Mill, who, by conveying the main texts of his political creed in simple, accessible treatises, sought to form a new democratic public of candid, self-reliant, and rational individuals who would teach by their example. But utilitarian theories never commanded a wide popular following. Meek converts such as Rowland Detrosier could prove ineffectual; but able and original ones such as Thomas Hodgskin might turn heretic.

More effective than such proselytism was the policy of lobbying sympathetic people in power on insulated issues. Here Place’s mastery of detail was more effective than his grasp of theory. His greatest success came in 1824, when he helped the radical MP Joseph Hume first to effect the repeal of the combination laws, and then to stave off the threat of their reintroduction by the government the following year. His motive was not to make trade unions a part of the social fabric; he thought they were brought into being in response to employers’ combining to lower wages, and that they would wither away when the legislation against them had been repealed. Working men, once convinced that they could control their own numbers, would not need any other contrivance for raising wages. Place was not, as later historians claimed, pioneering a new form of objective parliamentary investigation. Managing committees and priming witnesses were devices his opponents could use against him, as he discovered in his efforts against the evangelically inspired select committee on drunkenness in 1834. What he most disliked were restrictions on the power of the working man to make his own choices. In union organisation as in the temperance movement, he thought well-meaning interference worse than the faults it sought to cure.

From 1830

Place’s commitment to free contract and self-help made him a staunch defender of capital honestly earned. What made him radical was his hatred of what he regarded as the unearned wealth of the landed classes. But when the Whigs came to power in 1830 he supported all their reforms. The first Reform Bill surprised him by its thoroughness, and though he deplored the fact that the £10 household franchise deprived many Westminster electors of their votes, he approved the bill as a whole. When in October 1831, the Lords rejected it, he helped form the moderate National Political Union to support ministers and to counter the more extremist National Union of the Working Classes, which met at the Rotunda in Blackfriars Bridge Road. His aim was to prevent the middle classes from deserting their poorer allies in alarm at threats to property and order. In the ‘days of May’ in 1832, when Grey’s resignation raised the prospect of a Wellington ministry, Place claimed that his placard urging a run on the banks (‘To Stop the Duke, Go for Gold’) had deterred the duke and reinstated Grey. Place said that the Reform Act, when finally passed, was valuable as a start of the destruction of ‘the old rotten system’ of representation, and at first he wrote as if further reforms leading to a republic were a mere matter of time, given a strong popular demand. He supported the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and the reform of municipal corporations in 1835, and collaborated with Joseph Parkes over the framing of the latter. But he was not prepared for the rapid disintegration of the reforming majority in parliament, and he could not understand why his friends there became more and more reluctant to propose further radical measures or support a government which declared the Reform Act a final measure. By then his own reputation as a radical was also compromised. After 1836, the popular radicalism he had wanted to revive developed ideas of which he disapproved. In 1838, he helped draft the Peoples’ Charter in a gathering of the London Working Men’s Association. But the Chartist movement was soon captured by currency reformers, Owenite socialists, and advocates of ‘physical force’. Its political aims were discredited by the violence of its meetings, and Place became disillusioned. He opposed factory reform and supported the Anti-Corn Law League without apparently realizing that these attitudes associated him with the enemies of the working man. Despairing of influencing events, he turned more to arranging his recollections and accumulating the records with which he hoped to write a social history of his time.

Place’s private life had meanwhile undergone a change which he ironically called ‘my own revolution’. On 19th October 1827, Elizabeth Place had died, to his great grief. In February 1830, he married Louisa Chatterley, an actress twenty-six years his junior. Her first husband had died of drink, and her second partner had been transported. To a man of Place’s antecedents these were not objections, but his son called the marriage ‘a terrible falling off from his former rigidly virtuous life’. It is not clear if she was the cause of his financial losses which he suffered in 1833 and which led him to leave Charing Cross and settle at Brompton. By the move he ceased to enjoy the close contacts he had had with politicians and reformers in the library above his shop. He also lost status. He would have liked to be offered a post on one of the many commissions instituted by the Grey government, but was passed over. This vindicated his bitter criticisms of the system, but it meant that he had never any direct experience of the responsibilities of government, and remained a critic on the margin. Readers of Place’s voluminous papers, now one of the chief nineteenth-century collections in the British Library, cannot be surprised at this. Place’s doctrinaire outlook, together with the dogmatism of the autodidact, made him a difficult colleague in any public business. He tended to decide in advance what course should be followed and to attribute all subsequent difficulties to the fact that his advice had not been taken. His papers are full of bullying interviews with humble men, brutally candid appraisals of the shortcomings of colleagues, and hectoring letters of advice to MPs and officials. James Mill once tried to cure him of his habit of ‘raving’ and it may be that in later life Place indulged this habit in the long drafts of letters which, if sent at all, could only have caused offence. His advice to the Chartist Henry Vincent when he announced his intention of standing as a candidate for Banbury is characteristic: ‘Become a man of business for the next ten years. You may perhaps at the end of that time be in a condition to do some public service. You will be quite in time for enacting the Charter, or for doing any other great national good.’

The obverse of this dogmatism was an impulse to collect evidence, at first probably to illustrate his own rectitude, but later to document the larger movements of his time. From 1898, when Graham Wallas published the first biography, until our own day, the Place papers, including his autobiography, have provided one of the richest sources for the history of radical reforming movements in the period covered by his life, from the LCS to the Chartists. In 1844 Place suffered a stroke which left him partially disabled. In 1851 he separated from his second wife, and went to live with his daughter Annie. He died in her house in Hammersmith on 1st January 1854. The editor of The Times, J. T. Delane, told Joseph Parkes on 4th January that he would be glad to publish his memoir of Place, ‘but can’t you get him into one column? A column used to be enough for a hero; it ought to suffice for a tailor—even a Radical tailor’.

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