Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Henry Hetherington

Hetherington[1] was born in Compton Street, Soho, London, the eldest of the three children of John Hetherington, a tailor. He may have been the Henry John William Hetherington baptised at St Anne’s, Soho, on 1st September 1792, in which case his mother was probably Elizabeth Rundle, who had married a John Hetherington at the same church on 18th June 1789. Little is known about his early life. At the age of thirteen, Hetherington was apprenticed to Luke Hansard, the parliamentary printer. In 1811, he married, and subsequently he and his wife had nine children. For a time he worked as a printer in Belgium. About 1815, he returned to London and established a printing business on Kingsgate Street, near Holborn. He remained there until the beginning of 1834, when he moved his business to the Strand. During the final fifteen years of his life he worked and resided at two other locations in central London.

Hetherington’s career as a journalist took form in the 1820s. He became active in the London Mechanics’ Institution and in organisations which supported the ideas of Robert Owen, including the Co-operative and Economical Society, formed in 1821, and the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge, which was founded in 1829. Hetherington also took up the cause of universal suffrage, seeking to infuse it with a vision of economic and social justice. As his views became increasingly radical, he immersed himself in the political culture of working-class London. He became active in three organisations, all of which were engaged in the struggle for political democracy: the Radical Reform Association, led by Henry Hunt; the Metropolitan Political Union, whose council Hetherington served on; and the National Union of the Working Classes, which opposed the whig Reform Bill of 1832 because it did not provide for universal suffrage. During the 1820s, Hetherington was little known. He published several radical tracts and pamphlets, but none won him particular attention. Then, in October 1830, he took up the cause with which his name will always be identified: that of a penny press. The issue involved the repeal of the taxes on newspapers and other printed materials, which had first been imposed in 1712. These duties had become more onerous since 1819, when the 4d newspaper duty was applied to all journals issued on a regular basis. For Hetherington the ‘taxes on knowledge’ became the defining issue of his career because he thought they unfairly punished the poor and obstructed the advancement of political and economic knowledge. He began to publish weekly unstamped journals, which were illegal. The most famous and important of these was the Poor Man’s Guardian, first issued in July 1831, in ‘defiance of the “law” to try the power of “right” against “might”‘. It remained in circulation until December 1835.

Beginning in 1831, Hetherington engaged in full-scale political warfare against the Whig government. He hired shop-owners and street vendors to sell the Poor Man’s Guardian and his other illegal papers, which included the Republican (1831–2), the ‘Destructive’ and Poor Man’s Conservative (1833–4), and Hetherington’s Twopenny Dispatch, and People’s Police Register (1834–6). He employed various ruses in the distribution of these papers, including physical disguises and the making up of dummy runs. He also gave numerous speeches to groups of radicals in London, the English provinces, and Scotland, taunting the authorities for maintaining a system of inequality between rich and poor. Repeatedly he attacked ‘old corruption’ and appealed to a vaguely defined working-class consciousness based on an alleged dichotomy between industrious producers and idle consumers. Hetherington was prosecuted several times for seditious libel and selling unstamped newspapers. He was fined, had his presses seized, and on three occasions between 1831 and 1836 was imprisoned. He spent a total of about sixteen months in the King’s Bench prison and in New prison, Clerkenwell. At his trials, Hetherington defended himself vigorously and printed cheap verbatim accounts of his legal battles. Other radical journalists followed his lead, and between 1830 and 1836, when the 4d stamp duty was reduced to a penny, more than 500 unstamped periodical titles were published. Hundreds of street vendors were also incarcerated for distributing illegal papers. Hetherington formed close friendships with other working-class radical reformers during this ‘war of the unstamped’, notably James Watson and William Lovett. While he did little writing himself, Hetherington hired talented editors for his journals, including Bronterre O’Brien (Poor Man’s Guardian) and William J. Linton (The Odd Fellow).

After 1836, Hetherington remained a powerful advocate of universal suffrage and economic co-operation. He also began to champion more mainstream reform issues, such as the repeal of the Corn Laws and temperance legislation. Along with Watson, Lovett, and other working-class reformers, he became a leader of the moderate ‘knowledge’ wing of the Chartist movement that emerged in 1837. He was a founder of the London Working Men’s Association, which promoted self-reformation and the ‘march of intellect’ as an alternative to political revolution. Hetherington toured cities and towns throughout the country as a ‘missionary’ on behalf of the association, helping to build up local Chartist organisations. In 1839, he was elected to represent London and Stockport at the first Chartist convention. He later attacked Feargus O’Connor’s National Charter Association and advocated the fusion of the ‘moral’ and ‘physical’ wings of Chartism. He was active at the Complete Suffrage conferences of 1842 in support of this objective. Hetherington also worked closely with Lovett, W. J. Linton, Thomas Cooper and other reformers to promote working-class literary and temperance activities at the John Street Institute in London and elsewhere. In the 1840s, he took up international causes, for instance supporting the French revolutionaries of 1848 and the efforts of Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian nationalist, to bring about the unification of Italy. He was active in the People’s International League, an organisation which opposed the radical ideas of Karl Marx.

Hetherington’s final years were dominated by yet another cause. This was religious freethinking, which he had advocated since the 1820s. At that time he had been involved with an organisation of freethinking Christians who espoused a radical Unitarianism. After being expelled by the group in 1828, he took up a modified rationalist creed based upon the ideas of primitive Christianity. In 1840, Hetherington was prosecuted for blasphemy, after publishing a cheap edition of C. J. Haslam’s Letters to the Clergy of All Denominations. This was a gratuitous act by the Whig government; Hetherington did not specifically endorse the ideas in the book, which was largely an attack on the Old Testament. At his well-publicised trial, Hetherington energetically championed the cause of religious freedom but he was convicted and sent to prison for four months. Two years later, in 1843, he reprinted a pamphlet, Cheap Salvation, or, An Antidote to Priestcraft that he had first written in 1832. In it he made the case for a ‘Church of Christ’, devoid of superstition and priestcraft. In his Last Will and Testament, published just before his death in 1849 by George Jacob Holyoake and a group of secularists, he reaffirmed his belief in rational religion and requested that he be buried in unconsecrated ground.

Hetherington possessed some of the defects common to the self-educated artisan: a lack of humour, a touch of self-righteousness and a tendency to equate personal morality with political conviction. Francis Place, an ally, criticised him for being ‘one of those men whose peculiarities fit them for martyrs’[2]. Other reformers with whom he quarrelled, such as Richard Carlile, were even harsher in their criticism. Yet, in retrospect, it is perhaps best to see Hetherington as a man of genuine conviction and courage who sacrificed a measure of personal comfort for his beliefs. He was not an original thinker, but as a symbol of conscience in the face of numerous political obstacles he loomed large in the history of working-class radicalism. During his final years Hetherington fell heavily into debt. Eight of his nine children predeceased him and only his wife and one son, David, survived him. In 1849, Hetherington became a victim of cholera. Acting out of personal conviction, he avoided all medical treatment almost certainly hastening the spread of the disease. He died at 57 Judd Street, Hanover Square, London, on 24th August 1849, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery two days later. About two thousand friends and admirers attended the service, which consisted of speeches by radicals and freethinkers. No clergyman was present at the burial. Fittingly, the hearse that carried Hetherington’s body to the cemetery was emblazoned with his own words: ‘We ought to endeavour to leave the world better than we found it.’


[1] Sources: A. G. Barker Henry Hetherington, 1792–1849, 1938, W. J. Linton James Watson, 1880 and R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edition, 1894. Archives: Public Record Office: Home Office MSS, 64/11 and 64/12 and British Library, Francis Place collection.

[2] British Library, Place MSS

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