Thursday, 2 August 2007

Chartist Lives: John Cleave

A radical publisher, Cleave[1] was born probably in Ireland and certainly of Irish parents. It is known that he served in the navy and visited America; otherwise his early life is obscure. By 1828, he was working as editorial assistant on the Weekly Free Press, a London radical paper. Soon afterwards he became a committee member of the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge. Here he met Henry Hetherington, William Lovett, and James Watson, who were to remain his closest friends and political associates. Cleave led the Westminster Co-operative Society, the largest in London, supporting himself through a coffee house and radical news room in Smithfield. Politically, he supported Henry Hunt, through the Radical Reform Association and the Metropolitan Political Union. Becoming more militant he achieved national prominence as an organiser, speaker, and provincial lecturer for the National Union of the Working Classes (1831–5). Here his republicanism, Irish nationalism and support for the unstamped press were much in evidence. The 1832 Reform Act he simply dismissed as ‘the production and idol of the enemies of the working classes’, declaring that ‘a war between labour and property had commenced’[2]. In 1834, he visited northern industrial centres in a covert attempt to maintain the revolutionary momentum briefly achieved by Owenism in its trade unionist phase.

As a Baptist, Cleave sought to exclude religious controversy from political proceedings. Equally he was strongly opposed to ‘the odious Law Established Church’[3], a stance plainly evident in A Slap at the Church, a periodical he assisted in 1832. When it closed, Cleave helped Watson edit the republican Working Man’s Friend. When this, too, folded he moved to another unstamped paper, Charles Penny’s People’s Police Gazette. This proved a seminal career move. In January 1834, he commenced newspaper publishing on his own account with Cleave’s Weekly Press Gazette, a move designed, successfully, to drive Penny out of business. With Hetherington, Cleave became one of the folk heroes of the unstamped press. He was twice imprisoned for his newspaper activities (briefly on each occasion the fine he refused to pay was met by admirers). The circulation of the paper reached 30,000–40,000, according to a supportive Edward Bulwer-Lytton[4]. Principled yet populist, it was the most successful unstamped paper and it laid the basis for Cleave’s subsequent career.

In June 1837, Cleave was one of the six working men who first signed the People’s Charter. He toured England as a missionary for the London Working Men’s Association, sometimes in the company of his future son-in-law Henry Vincent, whose temperance views he shared. But, like Lovett’s, Cleave’s revolutionary fervour began to dim. He signed Lovett’s call for the ‘new move’ and joined his National Association. He also published the moderate English Chartist Circular (1841–3), closely associated with so-called ‘moral force’ Chartism. Yet Cleave sat on the executive of the National Charter Association, was London agent for the Northern Star and stood surety for Fergus O’Connor at his trial in 1842. He did not break with O’Connor until 1847. The explanation for this balancing act probably lies in Cleave’s business acumen. He was now relatively affluent and his news agency made him indispensable to O’Connor. Increasingly his political energies were eroded by the time he devoted to publishing, especially once he turned to fiction. Cleave revealed a scant regard for the niceties of intellectual property in an output dominated by pirated Gothic romances. As early as February 1838, Cleave’s London Satirist had carried lengthy transcripts of Dickens’s Oliver Twist (along with pastiche material by ‘Bos’ and advertisements for works by ‘Poz’). Cleave continued to publish other material, however, including birth-control literature, Owen’s New Moral World, and several more ephemeral socialist periodicals. Another reason for his lower political profile was a personal scandal: in 1840, Cleave apparently introduced his mistress into his marital home. His wife, Mary Ann Cleave, who had hitherto been a strong supporter of his endeavours, suffered a nervous breakdown shortly afterwards. It was an unsatisfactory context within which to pursue the politics of moral persuasion. She, however, survived him; he died at his home, 22 Stanhope Street, London, on 19th January 1850.

Cleave’s career presents several contradictions. He was an avowed Christian, yet closely associated with Owenite socialism. He was cut-throat in business yet readily sustained heavy losses as a political publisher. His cultivation of a democratic readership required a catholicity of taste too generous for stringent reformers. He was a friend of O’Connor and Lovett yet cannot readily be placed in either strand of Chartism they epitomise. In this he was perhaps closer to grass-roots opinion than historians have allowed, which mirrors his shrewd assessment of the English common reader.


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[1] Sources: I. J. Prothero and J. H. Wiener ‘Cleave, John’, Dictionary of Labour Biography volume 6, L. James Fiction for the working man, 1830–1850, 1963, Poor Man’s Guardian (1831–5), especially 30th July 1831; 10th December 1831; 2nd June 1832; 23rd June 1832; 29th September 1832; 27th April 1833; 22nd November 1834, Public Record Office: HO 64/11, HO 64/12, HO 64/15 and British Library: Add. MS 27791, fols. 67–8, Add. MS 35151, fols. 360–61, Place newspaper collection, set 50, fol. 555.

[2] Poor Man’s Guardian, 23rd June 1832

[3] Poor Man’s Guardian, 29th September 1832

[4] Hansard 3rd series, volume 30, 18th August 1834, column 624

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