Monday, 13 August 2007

Chartist Lives: George Julian Harney

Harney[1], a Chartist and journalist, was born on 17th February 1817 at Deptford, Kent, the son of George Harney, sailor, and his wife. Brought up in poverty, he was educated at dame-schools and by his own reading. In 1828, he entered the Boys’ Naval School, Greenwich, to train as a merchant seaman; but the ill health that dogged him throughout his life—he suffered from congenital quinsy and impaired hearing—kept him in the infirmary for much of the time and, after six months as a cabin-boy, he quit in 1831 and became a pot-boy in London. He joined the National Union of the Working Classes, worked as a shop-boy for Hetherington, and completed his education in what he was to describe as the ‘radical school of the ‘thirties’. He served three prison sentences, lastly at Derby for six months in 1836, for selling unstamped papers. His major intellectual influence was Bronterre O’Brien, yet whereas O’Brien was drawn to Robespierre, Harney came to identify with Marat, frequently signing himself, throughout the Chartist years, as L’Ami du Peuple or A Friend of the People. Harney also learned from the group of old Spenceans and in 1837 formed with some of them the East London Democratic Association, which the following year was reorganised as simply the London Democratic Association in opposition to the Working Men’s Association.

One result of this conflict was that in the first Chartist convention, Harney sat not for London but for Norwich, Derby, and Newcastle. It was his opinion, in December 1838, that ‘as the Gallic Convention of 1793 required a Jacobin club to look after it, so will the British Convention of 1839 require the watchful support of the Democratic Association’; but his efforts to swing the convention behind physical force and immediate preparations to take power failed, earning him the censure of other delegates and a reputation among some historians as a mindless hothead. During his extensive travels outside London in 1838–9, this still very young man, recognised as the foremost spokesman of the most radical, physical-force Chartism, was permanently admitted to the hearts of the new movement’s rank and file. He was of ‘ruddy complexion, of medium height’, with ‘grey eyes, and a plentiful shock of dark-brown hair’; and Gammage, while criticising him for vanity and vindictiveness, conceded that to ‘those whom he considered his friends no man could be more warmly or devotedly attached’.

In April 1840, the case against Harney for a seditious speech at Birmingham the preceding May was dropped; and, equally paradoxically, he failed to be implicated in the conspiracies culminating in and following the Newport rising. After his acquittal, he spent almost a year in Scotland, and in September 1840 married Mary Cameron, of Mauchline, Ayrshire, daughter of a radical weaver. It was a meeting of minds and an immensely happy union, although there were to be no children. On his return to England, he worked as full-time Chartist organiser in Sheffield, and acted as local correspondent for the Northern Star; he moved to Leeds in 1843 to become sub-editor, and was formally appointed editor two years later. This was Harney’s finest and most influential period: he was until 1850 the great editor of a great newspaper. Throughout the 1840s, Chartism cohered around the weekly Northern Star; and under Harney its unrivalled coverage of domestic working-class affairs was supplemented by an authoritative presentation of international radicalism and revolutionary movements, together with a strong emphasis on literature. Harney himself was a bibliophile and a voracious reader, especially of poetry, above all that of Byron.

The Northern Star moved to London in 1844 and Harney proceeded to build up the Fraternal Democrats, a London society (with country members) of Chartists and European exiles, and his new revolutionary internationalism exercised a much broader appeal, attracting key Chartist militants, than had the sterile Jacobinism of 1838–9. His concern with foreign affairs led him to contest Tiverton, Palmerston’s seat, in 1847, dissecting in a two-hour speech on the hustings the policy of the foreign secretary, who responded with what was judged the ‘most lengthy and plain-spoken account of his stewardship ever given to the British public’. In 1843, Engels visited Leeds to meet Harney; they became lifelong friends and Engels a contributor to his journals. From 1848, Harney, with Ernest Jones, was instrumental in moving the Chartist left to a socialist position. Still editor of the Northern Star, he brought out his own Democratic Review (1849–50) until the inevitable break with O’Connor. He then edited the Red Republican (1850), in which the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto appeared. This became the Friend of the People, absorbed into the Northern Star when Harney acquired it in 1852, but by the end of the year the resulting Star of Freedom had folded. Mary Harney died on 11th February 1853; and in December Julian was obliged to move to Newcastle and compromise by assisting Joseph Cowen with his Northern Tribune (1854-55).

In 1855, Harney left Britain and working-class politics to settle in the Channel Islands where he edited the Jersey Independent (1856–62). Here in 1859 he married, secondly, Marie Le Sueur Métivier (née Le Sueur), widow of a prosperous shopkeeper, and acquired a stepson, James (b. 1853). The family emigrated in 1863–4 to the United States, where, in Boston, Harney edited briefly his final newspaper, the abolitionist Commonwealth and then spent the remainder of his working life as a clerk in the secretary’s office at the Massachusetts State House. He returned permanently to England in 1888 to live by himself, but nine years later his wife nursed him in his final illness. The last surviving member of the 1839 convention, he died on 9th December 1897 at Richmond, Surrey. He was buried in Richmond cemetery.

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[1] Sources: A. R. Schoyen The chartist challenge: a portrait of George Julian Harney, 1958, F. G. Black and R. Métivier Black (eds.), The Harney papers, 1969, M. Hambrick A chartist’s library, 1986 and D. Goodway ‘The Métivier collection and the books of George Julian Harney’, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, volume 49 (1984), pages 57–60.

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