Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Evidence for rebellion 1839

Until the summer of 1839, Chartism was marked by its openness and its emphasis on constitutional agitation and organisation. The rejection of the Petition, the cancellation of the sacred month, the demise of the Convention and the physical force Toryism of the authorities led groups of Chartists to cross the threshold of violence and move towards rebellion. This poses major problems for historians since conspirators try not to leave incriminating evidence. The intelligence collected by the government is also problematic: good on what Chartists were actually doing but weaker on what their intentions were. There are also difficulties in tracing a clear line from the rhetoric of Chartist speeches to firm planning. For example, Vincent had mused on the taking of hostages in April 1839, a theme taken up by Frost in early June but there is no evidence that either intended to translate their words into action. Finally, the evidence that was produced after the rebellion was often hearsay, partisan and recriminatory and some was pure fabrication[1].

First, evidence for the planning of a rebellion in the latter days of the Convention is based primarily on the testimony of William Ashton, a veteran Barnsley radical[2]. Imprisoned for two years in March 1840 for his part in events in Barnsley in August 1839, on his release he made allegations against O’Connor at a meeting and was howled down by his fellow Chartists. In early 1845, he detailed his charges in private correspondence that was published in the Northern Star[3]. He claimed that, at a secret meeting, which included Frost, Taylor, Bussey and Cardo, held on the day the Convention was dissolved, the night of 3rd November was fixed for a coordinated rising though he may have added this detail from hindsight. Frost was to lead a rebellion in South Wales and Bussey in West Yorkshire. However, on their journey north to Yorkshire, Ashton became increasingly uncertain about Bussey’s ability or willingness to organise rebellion. Just before briefly escaping to France, he shared his suspicions about the lack of enthusiasm among provincial leaders for the proposed rising with William Hill, editor of the Northern Star who said he would inform O’Connor and warn Frost of the potential lack of support. However, Hill delayed telling O’Connor until he returned from Ireland on 3rd November, by which time it was too late to prevent events in Newport. There are difficulties with the story, not least the fact that Frost appears never to have abandoned his friendship with O’Connor and so could hardly have felt betrayed in the way Ashton suggested. However, Ashton’s view of events is supported by at least three other Chartists. In December 1840, a prison inspector was told by Joseph Crabtree of Barnsley[4] ‘I heard of the expected rise at Newport and that there was to be a rise elsewhere...’ while in 1889, a Carlisle weaver[5] wrote that the events at Newport ‘were not isolated and insignificant affairs which many supposed. They were certainly well known beforehand in Carlisle and if successful might have been imitated...’ In 1856, Robert Lowery[6] recollected how Dundee’s Convention delegate William Burns told him how ‘shortly after the Convention dissolved, some of our leading men...had met to concoct a rising...I observed that it was F O’Connor’s scheme...[but] He answered that they did not let him into their secret, for they did not think he was to be trusted.’

How much O’Connor knew about the secret plotting is difficult to judge. He had always opposed this sort of action arguing that united national action could only be satisfied by open constitutional procedures. He was in Ireland from 5th October to 2nd November. His reasons for going to Ireland given almost four years later – that, facing prison, he wanted to see friends and put his affairs in order – are not entirely convincing. More plausible was the difficulty he faced in giving the movement direction and he may have recognised that Chartist frustration might boil over into confrontation and found it expedient to absent himself. Whatever the explanation may be, his absence was eminently convenient but it left a political vacuum when his personal authority was needed to hold the movement together. James Epstein commented this ‘stands out as the only period during a long career of radical leadership when O’Connor appears to have voluntarily removed himself from the centre of national agitation’[7]. David Williams[8] and A.J. Peacock[9] acquitted O’Connor of the charge of betraying Frost and the Newport Rising though O’Connor always claimed that had he known of the plans he would have done all in his power to call them off. Whether O’Connor knew about the plans for direct action or not, he cannot escape some responsibility for creating the atmosphere in which they developed. While his commitment to open national protest must be stressed, his position on defensive arming was fundamentally ambiguous. He urged the need for arming for self-defence but also seems to have recognised the case for spontaneous direct action. Successful revolution required effective co-ordination, nationwide organisation and efficient communication and in 1839, as the abortive risings demonstrated, this was clearly not the case. O’Connor asserted the need for another convention. In the Northern Star a few days after the rebellion, he wrote ‘for if we looked at the occurrences of the day, we see that it is only organised bodies that can act with effect’. He also counselled against over-exaggerating the strength of the movement: ‘I caution you, again and again, against those who give exaggerated accounts of the spirit of one locality to the people of another locality’ and that ‘Our enemies cannot openly beat us, but our friends may secretly do it’[10].

Alexander Somerville, who had served with the British Legion in the Spanish Civil War of 1835-1837[11], provided a further insight a decade after the rebellion[12]. He claimed that he was asked by the Chartist ‘Secret Committee of War’ to advise on military matters but refused and that his series of pamphlets entitled Warnings to the People on Street Warfare[13] were decisive in preventing revolution counteracting Macerone’s Defensive Instructions on Street Warfare on which the ‘Secret Committee’ appeared to place undue reliance. He also said that rebellion in Wales was ‘to have taken place several times during several months before it was actually begun’. He later specified who the members of the ‘Secret Committee’ were[14]: McDouall (delegate for Ashton-under-Lyme) and Taylor (delegate for Newcastle, Carlisle and elsewhere)[15] and R.J. Richardson (delegate for Manchester) and the Polish émigré and a leading LDA member Major Bartlomiej Beniowski[16]. The main difficulty with Somerville’s testimony is that there is no evidence to corroborate what he wrote and, as he admitted, he learned nothing of the detailed plans for rebellion.

Claims made by David Urquhart[17] in 1856 have greater credence largely because they are partly corroborated. In 1839, Urquhart was seeking to become the Tory parliamentary candidate for Marylebone in London and after some Chartist heckling at his public meetings, he met William Cardo, Marylebone’s Convention delegate. Cardo was impressed by Urquhart introducing him to certain other delegates (John Warden from Bolton, Lowery and possibly O’Brien) who shared with him ‘a plan for simultaneous outbreaks in the long nights before Christmas’ in which ‘a Polish emigrant’ directed ‘military organisation...and was to have command in the mountains of Wales.’ The Polish emigrant was Beniowski who had deserted the Russian army for the Polish resistance in 1830 and who went into exile in France and Egypt before settling in England around 1836. Urquhart said that he and a few confidants quickly toured Chartist centres and successfully dissuaded local leaders from taking part in the rebellion. Urquhart was critical figure in fanning fears of Russian aggression and it is possible that these meetings were largely held to promote his ideas on foreign policy. Cardo, Lowery and Warden formed the core of a Chartist ‘foreign policy’ group and it gained the support of the Northern Liberator[18]. Although Urquhart’s claims only surfaced in the 1850s, reference to a meeting between unnamed Chartists and Urquhart is made in a letter to his friend Pringle Taylor dated 22nd September 1839. The problem with Urquhart is that rebellion and foreign policy issues merged especially as he was convinced that Russian agents were seeking to undermine Britain. Cardo, probably at Urquhart’s instigation, went to Newport ten days after the rebellion where he was arrested on 15th November and, because no intention to make mischief could be shown, he was put on the London mail coach the following day. Local magistrates were clearly puzzled when Cardo informed them that the rebellion was the result of ‘Russian agency’ and identified Beniowski , who they had never heard of, as the agent. Although there may have been talk of sending him to Wales because of his military experience in urban warfare, there is no evidence Beniowski was involved in Newport although there were vague reports of a foreigner on the coalfield in September and October.

William Lovett provided further evidence in his autobiography published in 1876 though it appears to have been written, using several unnamed sources soon after he was released from prison in August 1840[19]. He maintained that Frost and several delegates from the Convention agreed to coordinate risings in Wales and the north. The Welsh would rescue Vincent and the English would rise for the Charter. At a meeting at Heckmondwike of some forty Yorkshire leaders to share the plan, someone agreed to inform O’Connor a week before the rising and enlist him to lead it. Lovett gave the impression that O’Connor was agreeable, however, he soon sent George White to dissuade the northern Chartists from rebellion since he said Wales would not rise. He also sent Charles Jones, the Montgomeryshire delegate to South Wales to tell them there would be no rising in England and that it was a government plot. However, Jones arrived in Wales too late to prevent the attempt to release Vincent. There are major problems with Lovett’s account but despite this, it remains popular with some historians. First, O’Connor was out of the country at the crucial time, something Lovett himself noted but said that O’Connor did not return until after ‘most of the foolish outbreaks were over’.[20] Here Lovett is mistaken as O’Connor returned from Ireland on 2nd November two days before the rebellion. Secondly, Lovett is emphatic that Heckmondwike was the location of the crucial meeting and where regular meetings of the West Yorkshire delegates were usually held on the third or fourth Monday each month. If the meeting Lovett referred to was on 21st October that was attended by thirteen not forty delegates, then what he says about O’Connor is clearly flawed. However, if it was an earlier meeting, then what Lovett wrote is plausible. The difficulty is that he did not give a date and the agreement to inform O’Connor ‘a week before’ the rising suggests October rather than September. His narrative placed O’Connor in a less than favourable light in relation to the rebellion and contained very little on the rising itself and it seems likely that Lovett’s testimony was motivated more by his antipathy to O’Connor than with a clear explanation of events.

Chartists may have been unconvinced by Cardo’s grand theories of Russian involvement; however, they were far better disposed to his suggestion that the Whig government was implicated in the rebellion. Harney, Lowery, William Pattison and other leading radicals told meetings in the winter of 1839-1840 that the rebellion was part of a government conspiracy to impose unpopular legislation and remove ‘piece by piece the last vestige of [our] freedom’[21]. This claim, similar in content and reasoning to Patriote assertions in Lower Canada after its failed rebellion in 1837, was a reflection of the Chartist view of history and their antagonism to central government and its policies. O’Connor[22] was quick to label the rebellion ‘a Whig trick’ and warn of the danger of agent provocateurs and spies, a theme he revived in 1842 and 1848 when rebellion was again in the air. It is easy to understand why Chartists, who lived on rumours and suspicion and were threatened by a coercive state, could be persuaded that the government was involved: it was yet another ‘betrayal’. It was also very convenient for the Chartist leaders who were being criticised for failure and yet were unable to explain why they had failed. It was much easier to blame the spy, the foreigner or the informer.

Is there evidence of an intended general rebellion in November 1839? The major problem is that most of the evidence is ambiguous, produced after the rebellion in South Wales and marred by personal animosity. There is evidence that rebellion was considered by a small group consisting largely of Convention delegates during the late summer. However, there is no clear agreement on the extent of the plans. There was also widespread awareness in West Yorkshire and, to a lesser degree in Tyneside and Carlisle of an intended Welsh rebellion and some agreement to act in concert with events there. Chartist arming and the rhetoric of violence were widespread but, while these are a necessary feature of rebellion, they are not sufficient to demonstrate rebellious intent.


[1] For discussion of the problems of evidence see, Ivor Wilks South Wales and the Rising of 1839, London, 1984, pages 162-164, David J.V. Jones The Last Rising. The Newport Insurrection of 1839, Oxford, 1985, pages 199-208 and Malcolm Chase Chartism: A New History, Manchester University Press, 2007, pages 107-109.

[2] The major sources for William Ashton are D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984, pages 219-221 and J. H. Burland Annals of Barnsley, c.1881.

[3] Northern Star, 3rd May 1845.

[4] HO 20/10, interview with W.J. Williams, 23rd December 1840.

[5] W. Farish The Autobiography of William Farish, 1889, page 40.

[6] R. Lowery Passages in the Life of a Temperance Lecturer reprinted in B. Harrison and P. Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery: Radical and Chartist, London, 1979, page 155.

[7] James Epstein The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement 1832-1842, Croom Helm, 1982, page 196.

[8] David Williams John Frost: A Study in Chartism, University of Wales Press, 1939, pages 201-203.

[9] A.J. Peacock Bradford Chartism 1838-1840, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, 1969, page 30.

[10] Northern Star, 7th December 1839.

[11] Alexander Somerville The Autobiography of a Working Man, 1848, Appendix 2, pages 428-449.

[12] Alexander Somerville The Autobiography of a Working Man, 1848, Appendix 1, pages 422-424, 441-442

[13] Somerville’s Warnings to the People on Street Warfare was published in mid-1839 and was advertised in the Northern Star on 25th May and 1st June. This would place the ‘approach’ by the ‘Secret Committee’ to earlier in the year. Somerville provided no information on the precise date.

[14] Alexander Somerville Cobdenic Policy: The Internal Enemy of England, London: Hardwicke, 1854, pages 28-30.

[15] Either of these individuals could be the ‘Doctor’ he wrote about in 1848.

[16] On Beniowski, P. Brock ‘Polish democrats and English radicals 1832-1862: A Chapter in the History of Anglo-Polish Relations’, Journal of Modern History, volume 25, (1953), pages 146-147 and more generally Iowerth Prothero ‘Chartists and Political Refugees’, Sabine Freitag (ed.) Exiles from European Revolutions: Refugees in Mid-Victorian England, Berghahn Books, 2003, pages 209-233.

[17] On Urquhart, see the elegant essay by A.J.P. Taylor ‘Dissenting Rivals: Urquhart and Cobden’, in his The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy 1792-1939, London, 1957, pages 37-61. Richard Shannon ‘David Urquhart and the Foreign Affairs Committees’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 239-261 and Miles Taylor ‘The old radicalism and the new : David Urquhart and the politics of opposition, 1832-1867’ in Eugenio F Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds.) Currents of radicalism: popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914, Cambridge, 1991, pages 23-43 are useful essays. Gertrude Robinson David Urquhart: Victorian Knight Errant, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1920, pages 81-103 looks at his links to Chartism. J.H. Gleason The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Public Opinion, Harvard University Press, 1950 provides a more general overview of attitudes.

[18] Joan Hugman ‘A Small Drop of Ink: Tyneside Chartism and the Northern Liberator, in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 24-47 is a useful study of the impact of this newspaper.

[19] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, London: Trübner & Co, 1876, pages 238-241.

[20] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, London: Trübner & Co, 1876, page 241.

[21] Northern Liberator, 16th November 1839, Northern Star, 9th November 1839.

[22] Northern Star, 7th December 1839.

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