Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Chartist Lives: William Carpenter

A journalist and compiler of religious books, Carpenter[1] was probably born in St James’s, Westminster, on 8th August 1797, the son of William and Mary Carpenter. It is firmly established that his father was a tradesman in St James’s, and that Carpenter himself lived all his life in London. He had little or no formal education and, at an early age, was apprenticed to a bookbinder in Finsbury. He taught himself several ancient and modern languages. From his early years, he established a pattern of extreme industriousness and productivity which he maintained to the end of his life. Relatively little is known about his private life, although he married one Harriet in his twenties and they had at least three children, one of whom was a failed actor.

In the 1820s, Carpenter met William Greenfield, a well-known editor of biblical and theological publications. The two men worked together for four years, producing Critica biblica, a monthly journal of religious literature (1824–7). Carpenter began to compile other theological works on his own, all in the service of a non-sectarian Christianity. He believed that the dissemination of knowledge, particularly on religion, was the key to personal improvement. Though lacking creative ability and not an original scholar, he became a formidable encyclopaedist. In 1825, he edited Scientia biblica in three volumes, a collection of parallel passages of scripture designed to encourage theological interpretation. The following year he edited A Popular Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scriptures for the Use of English Readers, which drew entirely upon the published work of other writers. As a result of this volume he was forced to defend himself against charges of having plagiarised the writings of the Revd Thomas Horne. He edited several other popular religious compilations during the decade and became a lecturer on biblical criticism and interpretation. He seems to have earned a solid income from his publications and lectures.

Carpenter’s life began to change significantly in the late 1820s, when he took up the twin causes of political reform and freedom of the press. During 1828–9 he edited (and partly owned) the Trades Weekly Press, a newspaper inspired by Owenite ideas of co-operation which was published by the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge. After severing his ties with this organisation, in part because of his own preference for a competitive economic system, he thrust himself into the campaign for an untaxed press. In October 1830, nine months before the first appearance of Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, he began to issue a series of weekly tracts known as the Political Letters and Pamphlets. These 2d epistolary ‘newspapers’ were intended to challenge the stamp duty, which required that every periodical published more than monthly on a regular basis pay a 4d tax. The content of the Political Letters and Pamphlets was supportive of political and economic radicalism, though it rejected the more extreme views of Henry Hunt and others.

In May 1831, Carpenter was prosecuted in the Court of Exchequer for publishing an unstamped newspaper. He resorted to a technical defence which emphasized the discretionary nature of the law. The jury took only one minute to convict him. After refusing to pay a heavy fine of £120, he was sentenced to six months in the King’s Bench prison. In December 1831, shortly before his term was due to end, he was released, but unlike Hetherington and other participants in this ‘war of the unstamped’, he was not warmly acclaimed by reformers. This was because of his firm refusal to endorse further violations of the law. During the remainder of the decade, Carpenter issued no other illegal publications, though he wrote and published a large amount of political literature. This included numerous tracts and journals such as The Political Anecdotist and Popular Instructor (1831), The People’s Book (1831), which featured a borough-by-borough exposition of the iniquities of the unreformed electoral system, Carpenter’s Monthly Political Magazine (1831–2), A Slap at the Church (1832), and the Church Examiner and Ecclesiastical Record (1832). None of these publications had an appreciable impact on the reform politics of the 1830s, but the latter two, written primarily by the more radical John Cleave, are notable for their pungent attacks upon the clergy. Also of interest is Carpenter’s short biography of John Milton (1836), which aimed to make the working classes ‘familiar with those unchanging principles of freedom on which [Milton] has demonstrated that the safety of states and the virtue and happiness of the people must ever be built’.

During the 1830s, Carpenter championed many reform causes. He enthusiastically endorsed the Reform Bill of 1832, which was rejected by some radicals because it failed to enfranchise the working class and bring about political democracy. He took up the cause of the Dorchester labourers, who were transported to New South Wales in 1834 after their abortive effort to form a trade union of agricultural labourers. He launched numerous attacks upon the hereditary peerage, an institution which he believed to be at the root of social and political corruption. He fervently denounced church rates and called for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.

In 1839-40, Carpenter became a participant in the Chartist movement. He was elected to represent Bolton at the first Chartist convention of 1839, where he attacked Feargus O’Connor’s extreme political rhetoric and opposed proposals for a general strike. He also edited two Chartist journals: The Charter (1839–40), which generated heavy financial losses for him, and the Southern Star (1840), which led to an estrangement from Bronterre O’Brien, the prominent Chartist leader. After 1840, Carpenter drifted away from radical politics. But he vociferously espoused chancery reform (he had qualified as a lawyer in 1832), reform of the corporation of London and assisted emigration to the colonies for the poor and unemployed.

Carpenter’s subsequent career as a paid journalist reflects his inordinate capacity for hard work. He was connected with many newspapers, primarily as a sub-editor, beginning with the radical True Sun and Weekly True Sun (1832-4). Occasionally he wrote leaders and did some reporting for the newspapers which employed him. But his chief talent lay in putting a newspaper together. He was primarily concerned with disseminating ‘useful knowledge’ (broadly defined) as distinct from specific political opinions, and in this he was in tune with popular trends in journalism, which increasingly veered away from the confrontational. It is difficult to trace Carpenter’s journalistic meanderings over the course of several decades because his work was unsigned and attracted relatively little attention. However, it is known that he worked on the Shipping Gazette (1836), the London Journal (1836), The Era (1838), the Railway Observer (1843), the Family Herald (1843), Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (1844–5), the Court Journal (1848), the Sunday Times (1854), the Bedfordshire Independent (1854), and the Mining and Military Gazette. Rarely did he leave traces of his presence behind, though he has been credited with introducing a legal section into Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper during his tenure there.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Carpenter directed his attention once more to encyclopaedic works, of the kind he had laboured on several decades before. He expanded and updated a previously published book, A Comprehensive Dictionary of English Synonymes, which went through at least six editions. Affirming the need to make Christianity intelligible and attractive to those with comparatively little education, he brought out several editions of An Introduction to the Reading and Study of the English Bible, a substantial volume which he had compiled earlier. A year before his death, he produced a curious book entitled The Israelites Found in the Anglo-Saxons (1872). In it he drew upon his budding interest in freemasonry, maintaining that the earliest ‘civilisers’ of England were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel.

Carpenter’s final years are obscure. Financially, his fortunes fluctuated during his lifetime. In the 1830s, he was in substantial debt as a result of his prosecution and imprisonment. During the 1840s and 1850s, he recovered his footing. Then, towards the end of his life, he was once more in considerable privation. From the 1860s on, he was nearly blind and in deteriorating health. He died virtually unnoticed at his home, 28 Colebrook Row, Islington, on 21st April 1874; he was survived by his wife.


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[1] Sources: J. H. Wiener The war of the unstamped, 1969, P. Hollis The pauper press, 1970, Sunday Times, 3rd May 1874, I. J. Prothero Artisans and politics in early nineteenth-century London: John Gast and his times, 1979, T. H. S. Escott Masters of English journalism, 1911 and British Library: Francis Place collection.

1 comment:

Marc Demarest said...

Richard -- thanks for this posting. Very helpful. I think Carpenter was also "Common Sense" and the author of *Tracts on Tabooed Subjects,* *Something About Spiritualism* and "The Israelites Found in the Anglo-Saxons* as well as being a Freemason and a member of the S. R. I. A. Does that mesh at all with what you know of him?