Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Chartist Lives: William Lovett

William Lovett[1] was born in Newlyn, Cornwall, on 8th May 1800, the son of William Lovett, captain of a small trading vessel and a native of Hull, who was drowned before Lovett’s birth. His mother, Kezia (c.1778–1852), raised Lovett and his four siblings with the help of her family and by her own efforts, which included selling fish in Penzance market. He was sent to the local dame-schools, but he was always to regret the limitations of this education and of the reading materials available during his youth, inadequacies accentuated by his strict Methodist upbringing. After serving seven years’ apprenticeship to a rope maker, he was unable to secure employment at the trade and turned instead to his natural skills as a woodworker. When, in June 1821, he left Cornwall for London he was to learn a second trade of cabinet-making by working for ‘a trade-working master’ in Somers Town[2]. Within a few years, he was able to serve a qualifying period at a respectable shop and eventually gain admittance to the √©lite West End Cabinet-makers’ Society, of which he was later elected president.

It was as a young man in London that Lovett was able to indulge his passion for the pursuit of knowledge, by joining several mutual improvement societies and attending lectures, as he recalled, at the recently opened mechanics’ institute, as well as frequenting the radical coffee houses, where he was influenced by such speakers as John Gale Jones, Richard Carlile, and the Revd Robert Taylor. On 3rd June 1826 at All Souls, Langham Place, he married Mary Solly, a lady’s maid from Pegwell, Kent, who was to be his unobtrusive, uncomplaining support. Of their two daughters, Kezia died from an accident in infancy, and the other, also Mary, was at the end of Lovett’s life attempting to make a living in the theatre. The Lovetts proceeded to open a confectioner’s shop off St Martin’s Lane, but this was the first of several failed business ventures. By now an advocate of Owenism, Lovett had joined the First London Co-operative Trading Association and, having given up the shop, he took over from James Watson as storekeeper at the close of 1829. This position too did not provide a livelihood and he was for much of 1831 secretary of the nationally important British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge, launched after the First London Association had hived off its propagandist functions. By the late 1820s, in addition to Watson, Lovett had also got to know his other principal lifelong radical associates Henry Hetherington and John Cleave. This key grouping, which was to provide a highly visible leadership within metropolitan working-class radicalism for most of the 1830s, differed from Owen himself in considering political reform to be as important as the transforming powers of co-operation, and they engaged in both activities concurrently.

The first political society to which Lovett belonged was Henry Hunt’s Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty of 1827. Two years later, this was renamed the Radical Reform Association, with a programme of universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, and the ballot, and held weekly meetings at the Rotunda amid the excitement occasioned by the French revolution of July 1830 and Wellington’s cancellation in November of the king’s annual visit to the City for fear of insurrection. Lovett’s traditional reputation as an uncompromised proponent of moral force, while entirely valid for the Chartist period, is out of kilter with his outspoken militancy during the years of the reform agitation. An experienced police spy described him as ‘a dangerous man’ for advocating arming and declaring ‘he for one would fight’ against the aristocracy[3]; and Lovett vehemently opposed Hunt’s efforts to prohibit the display of the tricolour at meetings and to purge Gale Jones, Carlile’s supporters, and other revolutionaries when the Radical Reform Association disintegrated in December 1830.

Although Lovett was also a member of the councils of both the Metropolitan Political Union and the National Political Union, these were organisations created by the middle-class reformers—at the inaugural mass meeting of the latter, after Cleave was howled down for seconding his amendment in favour of universal suffrage, he denounced the middle class for wanting to make the working class ‘tools of their purposes’[4] and it was the National Union of the Working Classes, founded in April 1831, that was the ultra-radical successor to the Radical Reform Association. Despite joining the union belatedly, in September 1831, he rapidly became a member of its committee and one of the twenty-four class leaders, as well as drafting with Watson the rules, including the widely circulated ‘Declaration of the National Union of the Working Classes’. The union’s most successful demonstration was against the national fast day of 21st March 1832, proclaimed by the Whig government in expiation of the outbreak of cholera, when tens of thousands attempted to march from Finsbury Square to Westminster. Lovett, Watson, and William Benbow were arrested but acquitted, amid acclamation, of the charge of causing a riot. The previous year, on refusing as a non-voter either to serve in the militia or to find a substitute, Lovett had had, to great publicity, his household goods distrained and auctioned; balloting for the militia was thereafter discontinued. His intensive activity of these years also included a significant contribution to the campaign for an unstamped press, for whose victim fund, in operation from July 1831, he acted as sub-treasurer and secretary.

Lovett was ‘a tall, gentlemanly-looking man with a high and ample forehead, a pale, contemplative cast of countenance, dark-brown hair, and … a very prepossessing exterior, in manner quiet, modest and unassuming, speaking seldom, but when he does so always with the best effect’, although for Place ‘his is a spirit misplaced’, being ‘in ill-health’, and ‘somewhat hypochondriacal’; ‘a man of melancholy temperament, soured with the perplexities of the world’[5]. From 1832, the Lovetts took over the former Hatton Garden premises of the First London Co-operative Trading Association and ran them as a coffee house and discussion centre, with a reading-room and library. While financially unsuccessful, these two years marked a transition for Lovett, in the aftermath of the failure of both co-operative trading and radical parliamentary reform. He began to allot education a major role in the attainment of political and social change, and to move towards his ultimate repudiation of Owenism. He was shortly to enter into collaboration with the middle-class reformers Dr James Roberts Black and Francis Place.

The outcome of these developments was the foundation on 16th June 1836 of the (London) Working Men’s Association (LWMA), with Lovett as secretary, whose membership, costing 1s. monthly, was further restricted to ‘persons of a good moral character among the industrious classes’[6] over three years only 318 were admitted, although honorary members could be elected from the middle class. During its first year the working men listened receptively to lectures on, and discussed, orthodox political economy. In February 1837, a public meeting was held at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand to petition parliament for what were to become known as the ‘six points’ of the People’s Charter. Meetings in May and June between the working men and radical members of parliament led to a committee of six from each group, and then (probably in December) to Lovett and J. A. Roebuck alone being appointed to draw up a parliamentary bill incorporating the Crown and Anchor petition. When Roebuck withdrew from the task it was Place who provided the drafting expertise. The writing of the Charter was therefore the combined work of Lovett and Place, although suggestions of the committee of twelve and of the LWMA did result in revisions to the original document. The People’s Charter was published on 8th May 1838 and adopted by the Birmingham Political Union, but was also taken up by the very different movement which was mobilising in the north and the midlands and increasingly under the influence of Feargus O’Connor and his Northern Star. Already the LWMA had been wrong-footed when in the winter of 1837–8, during the trial—ending in the transportation—of the five Glasgow cotton spinners, Daniel O’Connell, one of its parliamentary coadjutors, made his extreme hostility to trade unions explicit and was successful in instituting a select committee to investigate them. In February O’Connor’s attack on the LWMA was answered by Lovett’s denunciation of him as ‘the great “I AM” of politics, the great personification of Radicalism’[7]. Open conflict between its two opposing wings had broken out even before the new movement of Chartism had emerged. The LWMA was still able to control events in the capital sufficiently to fix the election of its eight candidates, including Lovett, at the New Palace Yard meeting of September as London’s delegates to the first Chartist convention, which when it met in February 1839 unanimously appointed him as its secretary; but both the LWMA and its leading member, Lovett, were now relegated to the sidelines, never to recover their former influence.

After the convention had moved to Birmingham, Lovett, as the signatory of its resolutions condemning the Metropolitan Police’s dispersal of the Bull Ring meetings, was arrested on 6th July and sentenced four weeks later at Warwick assizes to twelve months’ imprisonment for seditious libel. On his release from Warwick gaol in July 1840, he declined to join the newly established National Charter Association, which he condemned as an illegal organisation; and, after publishing the short book Chartism: a New Organisation of the People (1840), which he had written in prison with John Collins, he proceeded to launch in 1841 in London only the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, which it had proposed. This ambitious vision of a network of halls, schools, and libraries was denounced as ‘knowledge Chartism’ and a ‘new move’ by the National Charter Association and the Northern Star, and all who wished to participate were compelled to isolate themselves from mainstream Chartism. Financial support was barely enough for a national hall to be opened in High Holborn in 1842; W. J. Linton, himself a member, provided a damning assessment: ‘Lovett was impracticable; and his new association, after obtaining a few hundred members, dwindled into a debating club, and their hall became a dancing academy, let occasionally for unobjectionable public meetings’[8]. Lovett’s espousal of class collaboration made him a natural supporter of the Complete Suffrage Union, of which he became a council member; yet at its second conference, in December 1842, he rejected a proposed ‘bill of rights’ in place of the Charter and, seconded by O’Connor, his resolution was carried overwhelmingly. This caused the exodus of the middle-class delegates but, equally, Lovett spurned the detested O’Connor’s offer of reconciliation.

For the remainder of his career Lovett scraped a living as a teacher in various schools and published two textbooks, one on Elementary Anatomy and Physiology (1851); but in old age he was reduced to poverty, dependent on the charity of friends: ‘Perhaps few persons have worked harder, or laboured more earnestly, than I have; but somehow I was never destined to make money’[9]. Although he had begun his memoirs as early as 1840, not until the year before his death at his home, 137 Euston Road, London (long since a deist inclining to Christianity), on 8th August 1877, did he publish The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, in his Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom. It is one of the outstanding working-class autobiographies, but in it Lovett underplays the importance of his early political activities and excises their extremism, distortions that have been followed until recently by most historians. He was buried in Highgate cemetery. Lovett was a creative leader of metropolitan artisan radicalism in the late 1820s and early 1830s, he was joint author of the Charter, and he was the perfect political secretary. He also became a respectable Victorian Liberal and thereby estranged himself from the great and turbulent movement of Chartism which he had helped to create.


[1] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, ‘William Lovett’, Howitt’s Journal, 8th May 1847, J. Wiener William Lovett, 1989. D. Large ‘Lovett, William’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume. 6, D. Large ‘William Lovett’, Pressure from without in early Victorian England, ed. P. Hollis, 1974, pages 105–30, I. J. Prothero Artisans and politics in early nineteenth-century London: John Gast and his times, 1979, D. Goodway London Chartism, 1838–1848, 1982, M. Hovell The chartist movement, 2nd edition, 1925, B. Harrison ‘“Kindness and reason”: William Lovett and education’, Victorian values, ed. G. Marsden, 1990, pages 13–28 · E. J. Yeo ‘Will the real Mary Lovett please stand up?’, Living and learning, ed. M. Chase and I. Dyck, 1996, pages 163–81 and G. D. H. Cole Chartist portraits, 1941.

[2] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, page 28.

[3] D. Large ‘William Lovett’, Pressure from without in early Victorian England, ed. P. Hollis, 1974, page 116.

[4] D. Large ‘Lovett, William’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume. 6, page 167.

[5] M. Hovell The chartist movement, 2nd edition, 1925, pages 55-56.

[6] D. Goodway London Chartism, 1838–1848, 1982, page 22.

[7] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, page 161.

[8] D. Goodway London Chartism, 1838–1848, 1982, page 41.

[9] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, page 400.

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