Saturday, 29 September 2007

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

O’Connor reserved his venom for Knowledge, Church and Teetotal Chartists. In part his opposition was principled. They stood for a different brand of Chartism that was elitist, artisanal and exclusive. There might be, O’Connor declared[1] “washing and cleansing Chartists declaring that you were too dirty for enfranchisement.”  In part it was a question of personality and temperament. Above his hostility was about the necessity of a common front against the common enemy, those with the vote. O’Connor recognised that it was unlikely that Chartism could have survived the revival of LWMA elitism. It might have achieved more in the long run for working people, but it could never have bonded a mass movement together, nor could it have rivalled O’Connor’s championing of the ‘fustian coats’. However, even in areas where O’Connor had significant support, local Chartists turned to other strategies to achieve their objectives. These may have not have been as divisive and the elitism of Lovett and Vincent but they reflected the growing diversity of the movement.

In some provincial cities Chartists turned to municipal politics[2]. This grew out of the growing recognition that Parliament had to be persuaded rather than abused. The principal Chartist weapons – marches and petitions, conventions, delegations and public meetings – were evidence of the irresistible support for the Chartist cause. The less raucous variants were intended to convince the ‘ins’ that the ‘outs’ should be given the vote because of their moral responsibility. Taking part in local politics could also show this. Chartists were most active in the towns and the urban political structure allowed them scope in various local institutions. It was in Leeds that real efforts were made to make the Charter work in a local context[3].

Chartists in local government in Leeds

Chartist efforts in January 1840 in the election for improvement commissioners[4] were frustrated by an adverse legal decision. The following years they shared power with Liberals and in 1842 gained full control. The debate over the Leeds improvement bill in 1841 and 1842 raised important constitutional questions on where real municipal power lay. Three options were open. First, the improvement commission could inherit new powers and functions and, as a result, push the council into the background. Secondly, power could be spread among commissioners, councillors and magistrates. Finally, the council could take over all the powers of the improvement commission, an option which, not surprising, it supported strongly. The Leeds Chartist commissioners amended the hill to democratise local government. Powers were to be given to the commission but not to the council or magistrates. Ratepayers were to elect commissioners who would have to satisfy a residential but not a financial qualification. No expenditure over £500 would be possible without the direct consent of the ratepayers and meetings to seek their consent would be held in the evening rather than during the working day. Finally rates were to be levied progressively with houses under £10 being assessed at one-third the rate for houses over £50. The council and the magistrates opposed the bill. Property owners were lukewarm in their support and the legal representatives of the commissioners withdrew. Without financial, legal and political support the bill was withdrawn but the Chartist persuaded the vestry to resolve that no local bill was acceptable that did not contain agreed democratic arrangements. Despite this, the bill was revived, the democratic clauses removed and it was approved by Parliament. The Leeds Improvement Act 1842 vested all power in the Town Council with which the Improvement Commission was merged.

The Chartist moved their attention to other areas of urban government. In 1842, they secured the office of churchwarden, controlled by the Liberals since the 1820s, and held it for five years until defeated by the Tories in 1847. They also moved into the board of surveyors of highways and from 1843 until well after the national demise of Chartism, Chartist surveyors were elected. When a board of guardians was set up in late 1844 it was characteristic that Chartists stood. Three did so in 1844 and 1845 and in the 1846 election ten stood, though only one was elected. In Leeds during the 1840s Chartists were commissioners, churchwardens, surveyors and guardians. This was a Chartist vision of participation by ‘the people’ and if poor men could run local government why should they not be given the right to vote?

Leeds Chartists were not necessarily poor men. To stand for municipal office meant they had to be rated at £30 or £40. From 1842, it was the council that had the real power and, for a decade, Chartists either individually or as a body took part in municipal elections. Most of the Chartists were shopkeepers or artisans and they generally voted with the more radical Liberals. In fact the Chartists were not united and did not vote as a bloc especially on issues involving expenditure. John Jackson[5], a leading local Chartist, voted against a rate for drainage and a new sewerage system in 1844 but in favour of a larger courthouse and altering the market in 1845-6. George Robson[6], another Chartist, voted against Jackson on the former but supported the latter while William Brook[7] voted against Jackson on both issues. The Chartists were split on each of the six votes on the building of the town hall between January 1851 and May 1852. It was, however, Chartist who put forward some of the most important municipal innovations. Joshua Hobson[8] pressed for the creation of a new shopping street in 1845 to include a new town hall. He, along with Robson and Brook, argued for an effective drainage system. The Chartist guardian, John Ayrey, first suggested the building of an industrial school, the only major Poor Law building project in the West Riding in the 1840s.

What gave consistency to the Leeds Chartists was their belief in democratic control. Brook favoured municipal spending when the economy was prosperous but opposed it in 1848-9 when the economy slumped and he did not want to increase his constituents’ rates. Popular involvement and control can be seen in many of the other ideas expressed by municipal Chartists. There were attempts to ensure popular participation in the 1842 Improvement Bill. In education they favoured locally elected boards and rate-aided schools thirty years before the 1879 Elementary Education Act. They were strongly opposed to centralisation and in favour of locally controlled towns. As Fraser rightly says, this was[9] “Chartism in practice in the search for popular democracy in local government.”  The experience of Leeds was paralleled in other major towns; for example in Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Salford and Nottingham and especially Sheffield Chartists became embroiled in municipal politics.

Municipal Chartism and the Charter

Municipal elections clearly showed Chartist attitudes to the representative process, not least because Chartists were more successful in local government elections from the late 1830s through to the 1850s[10]. Generally, the early Victorian municipal electorate was less restrictive than the parliamentary electorate created in 1832. Some towns had open vestries were all parishioners had the vote and could, if they wished, vote by ballot. Newer boroughs, incorporated under the terms of the Municipal Corporations Act, had more restrictive conditions: longer residential requirements for voters and high property qualifications for councillors. However, the municipal electorate, unlike the parliamentary electorate, continued to expand through the 1840s and 1850s helped by the implementation of the Small Tenements Rating Act 1850 in many towns through which tenement dwellers gained the vote.

By the late 1840s, Chartists and ex-Chartists sat on town councils in Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Rochdale and Sheffield to name the better-documented examples. They secured control of the Police Commission in Salford and ran the Highway Commission in Sheffield. Municipal Chartists were often popular local figures like Robert Carter, Abel Heywood, Joshua Hobson, Thomas Livsey, James Moir and William Newton who remained faithful to the principles of the Charter after the 1840s and attempted their implementations in the council chamber and in local constituency associations wherever possible and, in the 1860s in the revived reform agitations that culminated in the campaigns of the Reform League.

The influence of the Chartists led to an attempted democratisation of municipal politics. They insisted on greater accountability by allowing the public into council meetings, outlawed all canvassing during municipal elections (as was attempted in Aberdeen), required those elected to give regular accounts of their activities and resigned if called on to do so by their constituents. In these ways, Chartists in local government sought to put into practice the representative principles of the Charter.

Was O’Connor right?

O’Connor faced major problems after he was released from York gaol in August 1841. The events of 1839 and early 1840 had deprived Chartism of its sense of urgency. The proliferation of ‘Chartisms’ in 1840 and 1841 reflected the inherent diversity of the working class. There was an almost unbridgeable gulf between skilled workers and the rest. Radical activity had always been diffuse and the recognition that universal suffrage was not imminent led to many radicals drifting into other forms of social protest and self-help activity. The unity of Chartism was sorely tested.

Historians have often seen the growing fragmentation of the movement in a negative light. They are, to a degree, right. O’Connor’s style of leadership often but unjustifiably criticised as undemocratic and ‘dictatorial’, was a major area of contention. His attempt to maintain a sense of working class unity at all costs was bound to rankle with other Chartist leaders and the independence of local associations. Bronterre O’Brien argued that[11] “Chartism has been wrecked – frittered away – all but annihilated by the attempt to force the whole Chartist body into one association.”

However, it is better to see the events of 1840 and 1841 more positively as a broadening of the cultural dimensions of Chartism. ‘Knowledge’ Chartism and Church and Teetotal Chartists, particularly at local level, can be seen not as diversions but as complementary to the movement’s more overt challenge in terms of national mass action. O’Connor’s attack in the spring of 1841 was not on education or temperance or religion but on those who used these issues to develop exclusive forms of working class activity. The division between ‘moral’ and ‘physical force’ Chartists, however neat it may have appeared to later historians, does not do justice to the complementary and complex nature of radical activities. Many of those who argued for co-operation, religion, education and temperance in 1840-41 were involved in mass class confrontation in 1842 and 1848. Circumstances rather than principles determined whether the ‘cultural’ or ‘confrontational’ dimensions of Chartism were to the fore.  O’Connor’s position as the pre-eminent Chartist leader was confirmed by the events of 1840-41 and his influence over the policy and direction of the movement was considerable. There were, however, limits to O’Connor’s ascendancy over the movement. Many Chartists may have deferred to O’Connor but there was a turbulent spirit of democracy in Chartist protest that he could not afford to ignore. His leadership was subjected to close scrutiny and criticism by local Chartists keen to show they were not his ‘dupes’. Those who saw O’Connor’s leadership as dictatorial neglect just how conditional it was.


[1] Northern Star, 13th March 1841.

[2] Derek Fraser Urban Politics in Victorian England, Leicester, 1976 and Power and Authority in the Victorian City, Oxford, 1979 provide the best contextual context. Derek Fraser (ed.) Municipal reform and the industrial city, Leicester, 1982 and R.J. Morris (ed.) Class, power and social structure in British nineteenth-century towns, Leicester, 1986 contain useful case studies. J.Garrard Leadership and Power in Victorian Industrial Towns 1830-1850, Manchester, 1983 consider the municipal context of Chartism in Rochdale, Bolton and Salford.

[3] J.F.C. Harrison ‘Chartism in Leeds’, in A. Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, London, 1959, pages 65-98 is a useful starting-point but, as Fraser Urban Politics in Victorian England, page 257 points out, his study is ‘marred by errors and omissions’. Derek Fraser (ed.) A History of Modern Leeds, Manchester 1980 is a broader study.

[4] From the mid-eighteenth century, towns had set up bodies for lighting and draining the streets and for scavenging and watching. These bodies were known as the improvement commission. They were the main agency for sanitary reform. In Leeds the ratepayers elected commissioners.

[5] John Jackson was the first successful candidate put forward by the Leeds Chartists at a municipal election and was elected an Improvement Commissioner in 1840 as part of a bloc of Whigs, Radicals and Chartists formed to defeat the Tories. Jackson, a corn miller from Holbeck, was successfully re-elected in 1841. He was to be elected a Leeds town councillor for the Holbeck ward in 1843, one of the first two successful candidates (with Hobson). Jackson lost his seat to the Liberals in 1846 and failed to regain it the following year.

[6] George Robson was elected as a Chartist candidate to Leeds town council in West Ward in 1844, he retained his seat in the election of 1847. Robson was a butcher.

[7] William Brook was Secretary of Leeds Charter Association and of the committee established to organise the first Chartist attempt to win seats on Leeds town council. Brook was a tobacconist and tea dealer in Kirkgate, who later set up a small nail-making business in Swinegate. He was elected as a Chartist candidate to the council in 1844 for Holbeck ward and retained his seat in the 1847 election.

[8] Joshua Hobson was a member of the provisional committee of the Leeds Working Men’s Association, founded in 1837, and chair of the meeting at which it was elected. Hobson had earlier been a prominent member of the Leeds Radical Association. Born in Huddersfield in 1810, he was apprenticed to a joiner but later worked at Oldham as a handloom weaver, where he wrote for radical papers as “the whistler at the loom”. Back in Huddersfield, he became involved in the local Short Time Committee set up to back moves to cut working hours, and was one of the working men who built an alliance with the factory reformer Richard Oastler. Hobson published Voice of the West Riding from 1833 and was jailed three times for selling an unstamped paper. In 1834 he moved to Leeds where he continued to publish radical material – including Feargus O’Connor’s Northern Star until its move to London in 1844 and Owen’s New Moral World. Hobson was among the first of the Chartist candidates to stand for local office when he unsuccessfully contested an election to be an Improvement Commissioner for Leeds, but was successful two years later when the Chartist list swept the board. He also chaired a municipal election committee set up to organise the Chartists’ first attempt to win seats on the town council, and stood unsuccessfully as a candidate in November 1842. He was elected to the council in 1843 representing the Holbeck ward (with Jackson).

[9] Derek Fraser (ed.) Municipal reform and the industrial city, Leicester, 1982, page 62.

[10] Miles Taylor ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in Owen Ashton, Robert Tyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 17-18 considers this issue.

[11] British Statesman, 5th November 1842.

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