Sunday, 5 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Thomas Cooper

A Chartist and religious lecturer, Cooper[1] was born on 20th March 1805 in Leicester, the illegitimate son of a dyer. His mother continued working as a dyer after the early death of Cooper’s father, which indicates that the relationship was more than transitory. Living in Gainsborough with his mother and half-sister Ann, Cooper[2] began, outside his hours at the free school, what became an astonishing programme of self-education. By the age of twenty he could recite thousands of lines of poetry (including the first three books of Paradise Lost), and was conversant with a huge number of historical and theological texts, as well as Latin, Greek, and French. These achievements profoundly shaped him as a man. He was capable, in later life, of being pedantic and autocratic. Whether as the secretary of the Lincoln Choral Society in 1836 or as the compiler of a proposed volume of Chartist hymns in 1845, Cooper was a man who did not like to be challenged. It should be noted, however, that he was also honest and generous; he had a reputation for giving away money.

Not content with being known as a shoemaker who could recite poetry, Cooper opened, in 1828, a school and continued with this occupation for the next eight years. This was not enough, however, for such an energetic and passionate man. When not in his school, he was preaching in the villages around Gainsborough. He soon quarrelled, however, with his Wesleyan Methodist superiors, who he believed were not working as hard as he was. These arguments led to his departure from Gainsborough for Lincoln and, in due course, to a break with the Methodists. In the cathedral city Cooper embarked on what seemed like a new life. He married and became involved in the mechanics’ institute and the choral society. His marriage to Susanna Chaloner (1801–1880) lasted from February 1834 until her death on 1st February 1880, but remained childless. It was also in Lincoln that Cooper began work as a journalist: he gave up school mastering and became a bold critic of the cathedral clergy for the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury.

When Cooper left Lincoln for London in 1839, it was to begin a long-desired literary career. He had already published by subscription a small volume of religious verse, but was unable to find a publisher in the capital for his historical novel; when Captain Cobler (1850) eventually appeared it was from a radical press. Cooper could only return to newspaper work, and, in 1840, accepted employment on the Leicestershire Mercury. In Leicester, Cooper embraced ultra-radicalism, became an enthusiastic admirer of Feargus O’Connor and made the town a Chartist stronghold. The old leaders were no match for Cooper, who established himself as a preacher, the organiser of an adult school, and the editor of a series of Chartist journals, notably the Midland Counties Illuminator and The Commonswealthsman. He was arrested after the riots in the Potteries in 1842, and was sentenced the following year to two years in prison.

Cooper emerged from Stafford gaol in 1845, a changed man. In London, where he now lived, he remained a firm supporter of the ‘six points’, but, after quarrelling with O’Connor over money and political strategies, he took on the role of an independent Chartist. In this capacity, he became a prominent advocate of religious radicalism, a lecturer for Giuseppe Mazzini’s Peoples’ International League, and, in the Plain Speaker (1849) and Cooper’s Journal (1850), a tenacious campaigner for co-operation between middle- and working-class radicals. Cooper earned his living in the late 1840s and early 1850s by lecturing; he spoke mainly about historical and literary topics. These years did also see a determined attempt to establish himself as a successful writer. The Purgatory of Suicides, written in prison and over 900 stanzas long, was published in 1845. Though few read it from beginning to end, its poetic ambition impressed not only the readers of the Chartist press but also Carlyle, Disraeli, and Kingsley. The Purgatory was a vindication of Cooper’s radical beliefs, but he was unable to find a publisher for a Chartist novel. He produced instead two innocuous novels, Alderman Ralph (1853) and The Family Feud (1855). A collection of short stories, Wise Saws and Modern Instances (1845), was his best attempt at prose fiction.

For more than two decades after 1856, when he announced his renunciation of free thought (he was baptised at Friar Lane Baptist Chapel, Leicester, on 12th June 1859), Cooper travelled throughout Britain as a religious lecturer. A well-known figure, he attracted large audiences. He estimated that by 1866, when he fell ill, he had given more than 3300 discourses; by this time his wife had gone to live with relatives and he no longer had a permanent home. The lectures Cooper gave in his later years were accompanied by a series of texts such as The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time (1871), all of which had good sales. Cooper also brought out his long-contemplated autobiography in 1872. This is generally recognised as the best memoir of a Victorian artisan. With its delightful portrait of the early years of a highly intelligent working-class boy, its informative descriptions of the lower echelons of Victorian literary and intellectual life, and its often neglected sections on the work of a popular itinerant preacher, this brisk and honest book emphasises that Cooper should be remembered as more than simply ‘the Leicester Chartist’. Thomas Cooper died on 15th July 1892 at his home, 13 St Mary Street, Lincoln, having lived in the city since he retired from lecturing. His grave, in Washingborough Road cemetery, Lincoln, was restored in 1993.


[1] T. Cooper The life of Thomas Cooper, written by himself, new edition, 1872; reprinted with introduction by J. Saville, 1971, S. Roberts ‘Cooper, Thomas’, Dictionary of Labour Biography. volume 9, S. Roberts ‘Thomas Cooper in Leicester, 1840–1843’, Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, volume 61 (1987), pages 62–76, S. Roberts ‘The later radical career of Thomas Cooper in Leicester, c. 1845–1855’, Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, volume 64 (1990), pages 61–72 and S. Roberts ‘Thomas Cooper: a Victorian working class writer’, Our History Journal, volume 16 (November 1990), pages 12–26.

[2] British Library: letters; Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam: correspondence; Lincoln Central Library: letters and papers, incl. MS of Purgatory of suicides; notebook; Lincs. Arch: correspondence and papers; Lincs. Arch., discourse on John Wickliffe; Public Record Office: Treasury solicitor MSS, 11/600–602; Staffordshire RO: assize case papers; minutes and notebooks; Bishopsgate Institute, London: letters to Thomas Chambers and Thomas Tatlow; British Library: letters to Freshney, fragments of Purgatory of suicides, Add. MS 56238; Bodleian Library: letters to Benjamin Disraeli; Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester: letters to G. J. Holyoake; and, Leicestershire RO: letters to William Jones

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