Thursday, 23 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Robert Lowery

Lowery[1] was born on 14th October 1809 at North Shields, was the eldest of a sailor’s four sons; his mother was the daughter of a local master shoemaker. Educated at North Shields, Banff, and Peterhead until aged nine, he took a pithead job when illness threw his father out of work. His mother, who opened a school for girls, encouraged ambition in a son who was mischievous as a child but alert and inquisitive as a teenager. Lowery was thirteen when his father died and got himself apprenticed as a sailor, but within two years a rheumatic illness had lamed him for life.

Long convalescence brought wide reading, which was carried further with the encouragement of his wife, a cousin whom Lowery married at eighteen. With two daughters before he was twenty-one, he was apprenticed to a Newcastle tailor, trained himself in public speaking, and became secretary to the North Shields Political Union. An active trade unionist, he was secretary to the tailors’ branch of the Consolidated Trades’ Union, lost his job, and was at times very poor, but published his pamphlet State Churches Destructive of Christianity and Subversive to the Liberties of Man in 1837.

After being elected Newcastle delegate to the Chartists’ Palace Yard meeting of 17th September 1838, he became a Chartist lecturer. Over-optimistic and somewhat stagy in style, he displayed the provincial Chartist’s jaunty irreverence and delight in taunting authority. Fascinated by history and admiring the seventeenth-century puritans, he was proud of his class. As Newcastle delegate to the Chartist convention at Christmas 1838, his actions were more moderate than his speeches. His autobiography (penetrating on the art of oratory and alert to regional contrasts) vividly describes a Chartist missionary’s experience in Cornwall and Dublin. In 1839, his published address recommended exclusive dealing and he opposed physical force during the Frost rising and at the Chartist convention’s second session in 1839–40. He relished Scottish intelligence and religiosity and lectured there, managing to evade arrest.

Serious illness in 1839-40 launched Lowery on religious conversion, political quietism, and commitment to moral reform. Urquhartites, influential in Newcastle, with a programme that required class harmony, helped him through this personal crisis and sent him on a Russophobe mission to Paris in autumn 1840. Defeated as radical candidate at Edinburgh and Aberdeen in the general election of 1841, he was persuaded by Aberdeen teetotallers to take the pledge and temperance lecturing became his new route to respectability. He supported the Complete Suffrage Union in 1842 and drifted away from Chartism via Lovett’s moralistic and gradualist ‘new move’. In 1848, he was first secretary to Lovett’s People’s League, which aimed to head off revolution through a wider franchise and lower taxes. Less prominent as a temperance reformer than as a Chartist, Lowery was a respected lecturer for several temperance organisations until rheumatism and a failing voice compelled him to retire in 1862. With a public subscription raised for his support, he emigrated in September to his daughter Sarah Edwards in Canada and died at Woodstock, Ontario, on 4th August 1863. He was buried in the Baptist cemetery there, together with his daughter, son-in-law William Edwards, and some of his grandchildren.

In his public life, Lowery was neither as distinctive nor as prominent as some, but no Chartist published an autobiography of such quality so soon after the event. Vivid, evocative, and reflective, the thirty-three anonymous instalments of his ‘Passages in the life of a temperance lecturer … by one of their order’ in the Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement for 1856–7 recount his life up to 1841. Somewhat wistful in tone, his autobiography shows zest for dramatic scenery, historic events, and the Romantic poets, and displays shrewd insight into personality. Lowery’s taste for anecdotes, his ear for dialect, and his fine visual memory reveal an attractive personality who consistently pursued the Chartist aim of justifying his own class to society at large, fair-mindedly and without apology. Chartism, he insisted, was a respectable movement and its supporters’ actions should be judged in contemporary context. But his career fitted awkwardly into the pedigree that led from Chartism to socialism and the Labour Party, so he sank from public view until he was rediscovered in the 1960s.

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[1] B. Harrison and P. Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery, radical and chartist, 1979, B. Harrison and P. Hollis ‘Chartism, liberalism and the life of Robert Lowery’, English Historical Review, volume 82, (1967), pages 503–35 and B. Harrison and P. Hollis ‘Lowery, Robert’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 4.

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