Thursday, 27 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s -- 'Knowledge Chartism'

Despite his more peaceful approach to reform, it was William Lovett rather than Feargus O’Connor who went to prison in the crackdown on Chartism that followed the rejection of the first petition. As secretary to the first Chartist Convention, Lovett’s name appeared on a series of resolutions that were to be printed and distributed around Birmingham condemning the use of the London police to suppress disturbances in the town in mid-1839. Lovett was arrested and held for five days, missing the end of the Convention before being released on bail. On 6th August 1839, he and John Collins, a leader of the Birmingham workers who had taken the resolutions to be printed, were brought to trial at Warwick Assizes and sentenced to one year in gaol.

William Lovett and John Collins spent an unpleasant and unhealthy year in Warwick prison and were finally released in July 1840[1]. Lovett’s intense dislike of O’Connor, still evident over thirty years later in his autobiography, and his disillusion with political agitation as well as his experience in prison helps explain his changing attitudes. Though both men had suffered badly in prison, they managed to write a small book, Chartism: A New Organisation for the People[2]. In fact, the book was almost certainly the work of Lovett alone. Published shortly after Lovett and Collins were released, its message was that Chartism now required a “new organisation of the people”, essentially a scheme for a national system of popular education and self-improvement that would be financed by popular subscription and provided independently of the state. This plan was to be effected though the creation of a National Association of the United Kingdom for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.

The leading ideas in Chartism evolved from his writings for the LWMA in 1837 and 1838 especially two addresses, To the Working Classes of America[3] and On Education[4] and a petition on national education. But the proposal sparked a storm within the Chartist movement, and provoked a torrent of abuse from O’Connor and his editor, William Hill. In his The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, Lovett recalls that the book “was no sooner issued than it was denounced by O’Connor and the writers in his paper, the Northern Star, as a ‘new move,’ concocted by Hume, Roebuck and O’Connell for destroying his power, and for subverting his plan – that of the ‘National Charter Association,’ and his land scheme”. Lovett goes on: “All who appended their names to it were condemned as ‘traitors, humbugs and miscreants,’ and myself in particular came in for a double portion of abuse. A number of those who, approving of the plan, had appended their signatures to it, bowed and cringed most basely under this storm of vituperation; and the only reward they got from the Star for withdrawing their names from our address was to obtain the designation of ‘rats escaping from the trap.’ Votes of censure and denunciations innumerable assailed us from every corner of the kingdom where O’Connor’s tools and dupes were found, but fortunately for me and my friends they had not power in proportion to their vindictiveness, or our lives would have been sacrificed to this frenzy. Among the most prominent of our assailants in London was a Mr J Watkins, a person of some talent, and I believe, of some property, who preached and published a sermon to show the justice of assassinating us.”[5]

From 1840, Lovett saw educational reform as a necessary sequel to political change and became a sponsor of moderate tactics. He advocated an alternative culture grounded in elite artisanal attitudes and on the ethos of self-help. He did not stop being a vigorous spokesperson for the poor but he did so in ways sufficiently moderate to make his views acceptable to middle class reformers. Lovett’s focus on liberal individualism and class collaboration rather than collectivism and the mass platform saw him become an increasingly marginalised, though not as David Goodway [6] suggests an insignificant, figure in Chartist politics. Lovett and Collins argued that too little had been achieved so far because of working class ignorance. What was needed was a grand scheme for moral and social reformation. Self-supporting schools should be established and adult education, a particular interest of Lovett’s, could prevent the development of ‘vicious and intoxicating habits’ and result in self-improvement. A National Association for Promoting the Improvement of the People was proposed as the means for putting these ideas into practice.

In March 1841, Lovett and seventy-three (and later eighty-seven) other reformers published an Address to the Political and Social Reformers[7] and the break became final. He was supported by Hetherington, initially by John Cleave (he soon defected to the NCA), James Watson[8], Moore and Henry Vincent. The Address put the case for the National Association in confident terms. O’Connor struck back immediately labelling Lovett and his supporters as ‘Knowledge Chartists’ especially when the scheme was supported by middle-class reform groups and by Daniel O’Connell, the arch-opponent of O’Connor’s Chartism. Lovett could not win against O’Connor numerically. The National Association[9] was launched in the autumn of 1841 and lasted till 1849 but its membership, never more than five hundred and most of them artisans, their wives and children, was dwarfed by the NCA. The struggle between Lovett and his supporters and O’Connor was an unequal one. O’Connor and his allies were able to drum up effective opposition, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire from which Lovett drew scant support. The danger for O’Connor was the increased possibility of co-operation between the National Association and the middle classes. He was not opposed to an alliance with the lower middle classes in principle but only if he controlled the political agenda. What concerned O’Connor most, and this was reflected in the vitriolic attacks on Lovett and the National Association in the Northern Star, was his deep-seated fear that Lovett’s actions would shatter the unity of the working class.

If it is useful to interpret Chartism after 1840 in the light of the distinction between physical and moral force, the NCA was closer to the former position. James Epstein makes it very clear that O’Connor had rational political objectives[10]. He, like Lovett, wanted to lead a unified working class movement. Both men endorsed the interests of the working class through their own organisations. But their tactics diverged. For O’Connor, the Charter could only be won by massing support and by a combination of effective organisation and platform oratory. For Lovett, success depended on working men who were committed to personal improvement as well as collective reform. It is not surprising that O’Connor saw Lovett’s arguments in Chartism as a threat to the unity of the movement. This situation was made worse by Lovett’s refusal to join the NCA. The antagonism between the two men was now irreconcilable.

After the short-lived alliance with O’Connor in late 1842 opposing the Complete Suffrage Union, Lovett, ceased to play a major role in Chartism. He and his supporters turned their attentions instead to the National Hall they had established in Holborn as a venue for public meetings, lectures, concerts and “classes of all kinds, to most of which the public were admitted on reasonable terms”. The hall also boasted coffee rooms and a library for the use of members. It had, however, cost the London Members £1,000 to repair and equip, and a debt of £400 not covered by subscriptions hung over them throughout the organisation's existence. Eventually, Lovett recalled, this “was one of the chief causes that led to the dissolution of the society”. Education now took priority over politics. Indeed, Lovett says that although efforts were made in “some few places” to form local bodies in support of the National Association, “they did not enrol sufficient numbers to make them effective”. Instead, in 1843 he established a Sunday school. “Free admission was given to all who came cleanly in clothing and person; the education given being reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and geography, with such other kinds of information as was in our power to bestow.”

In 1846, Lovett handed over the secretaryship of the National Association to Charles Neesom who was once considered so radical that he had trouble gaining admission to the London Working Men’s Association, but, since throwing in his lot with Lovett in 1841, a trusted ally. However, the National Association struggled on just until April 1849 before debts overwhelmed it. Lovett continued to devote himself to education. In May 1849, he gave evidence to a select committee of the House of Commons inquiring into the establishment of public libraries, a cause he heartily endorsed. And in March 1850, on the invitation of the Bishop of Oxford and of Henry Cole, later to be the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he agreed to become a member of the “Working Class Committee of the Great Exhibition” alongside Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Henry Vincent “and other well known personages”.

Disaster struck in 1857, however, when the school that Lovett had run in Holborn was evicted from the National Hall and the building converted “into a gin palace”. Lovett was to continue teaching elementary anatomy and physiology for a further 10 years, also writing books on astronomy and geology while inveighing against the teaching of religion. Always intellectually curious, Lovett’s autobiography also records his invention in later life of a “self registering ballot box” aimed at providing a cheap, just and efficient method of electing MPs.


[1] Joel Wiener William Lovett, Manchester, 1989, pages 76-95 is the clearest account of Lovett’s role between 1840 and 1842.

[2] William Lovett and John Collins Chartism: A New Organisation of the People, 1840, Leicester, 1969 with an introduction by Asa Briggs.

[3] William Lovett Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876, 1967, pages 107-111.

[4] Lovett Life and Struggles, pages 112-121.

[5] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, London, 1876, pages 250-251.

[6] David Goodway London Chartism 1838-1848, Cambridge, 1982, pages 40-42.

[7] Lovett Life and Struggles, pages 202-207.

[8] James Watson (1799-1874) was a London printer and publisher who worked closely with Lovett throughout the 1830s and 1840s. He published smaller Chartist periodicals including the Cause of the People (1848) and Cooper’s Journal in the 1850s. See biography in J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 1: 1770-1830, Brighton, 1979, pages 512-514.

[9] Lovett Life and Struggles, page 259 lists those “who took, more or less, an active part” in the National Association. They were: Henry Hetherington, the Owenite publisher of radical newspapers and founder of the LWMA; born 1792, died of cholera 1849; John Cleave, printer, bookseller and publisher of Cleave’s Weekly Police Gazette, also a founder member of the LWMA; born c1790, died 1847; Henry Vincent, London-born radical whose oratory was well received in the West Country and Wales, where he was a missionary for the LWMA; abandoned physical force Chartism and split with O’Connor over this and teetotalism; born 1813, died 1878; Henry Mitchell; James Watson, originally from Yorkshire, moved to London and became active in the campaign against stamp duty and in the National Union of the Working Classes; a founder member of the LWMA and later partner with G J Holyoake in publishing anti-Christian journal The Reasoner, born 1799, died 1874; John Collins; Richard Moore, founder member and committee member of the LWMA; one of six LWMA signatories to the original Charter; James Hoppy; Charles H Neesom, a tailor, originally from Yorkshire; joined the LWMA soon after its formation, but was considered a violent revolutionary; abandoned physical force and threw in his lot with Lovett; ran a booksellers’ business; James Savage; H B Marley; Joseph Turner; Arthur Dyson; Stephen Wade; R W Woodward; George Bennett; Isaac F Mollett; Charles Tapperell; C H Simmons; A Morton, founder member and one of six LWMA signatories to the original Charter; John Alexander; Charles Westerton; W J Linton, wood engraver and, in 1851, a member of the National Charter Association executive; born 1812, died 1897; Benjamin Huggett ; C H Elt; H Beal; J Peat; J Newton; J H Parry, editor of The National Association Gazette; William Statham; John Statham; William Saunders; Thomas Wilson; J Kesson; James Stansfield; Sidney M Hawkes; William Shaen; Henry Moore; John King; William Addiscott; R McKenzie; George Cox; Abram Hooper; Richard Spur; G Outtram; Thomas Scott; J Jenkinson; Thomas Lovick; W H Prideaux; Henry Mills; John Mottram; James Lawrence; John Lawrence; Capt. Walhouse; John Bainbridge; William Dell; John Parker; Henry Campkin; Thomas Donatty; J J West; J Dobson Collett; T Beggs; J Corfield; F Rickards; Charles M Schomberge; W H Ashurst; H Taylor; J Beasley; A Davenport; William Hyde; William Crate; and, J Tijoue

[10] James Epstein The Lion of Freedom. Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement 1832-1842, London, 1982, pages 236-249.

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