Saturday, 8 September 2007

Chartism: A Question of Interpretation 3

Biographies and local studies 1940-1980

The general history of Chartism began to be fleshed out after 1939 with the development of two new lines of enquiry, biographies and local studies. The publication of David William’s study of John Frost in 1939 and G.D.H. Cole’s Chartist Portraits the following year opened up a new dimension to Chartism. These seminal works were followed by Cecil Driver’s study of Richard Oastler in 1946, John Saville on Ernest Jones in 1952, A.R. Schoyen on Harney in 1958, Donald Read and Eric Glasgow’s study of O’Connor in 1961 and Alfred Plummer on O’Brien ten years later. Joyce Bellamy and John Saville produced the first volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography in 1972.

Looking at the localities

The most influential reaction to Hovell’s account in the post-war period was the volume edited by Asa Briggs entitled Chartist Studies that was published in 1959. Briggs took the view that Chartist writing had been too dominated by national studies and, particularly by an undue emphasis on the great national leaders. The result was a collection of essays that altered the focus from leaders to the localities and resulted in the emergence of sociologically based regional and local studies of the Chartist movement in different parts of the British Isles. The essays brought to light a number of local leaders, mostly artisans, whose contribution had been almost totally ignored by earlier writers. They also confirmed how central the political and social struggles of the 1830s were to the emergence of Chartism and help to explain why hostility to the new poor law helps to explain why there was so much more popular support for Chartism in the north of England than there was in London. These studies, in particular for Scotland, London and East Anglia, underlined the diverse nature of the movement and the difficulty of making generalisations about Chartism as a whole. Chartist Studies spawned a number of other local studies that increased the depth of understanding of the movement but at a cost. The point was elegantly made by Frank Mather in his pamphlet Chartism in 1965[1]: “Because Chartism was a product of diverse social forces, the movement itself lacked unity. The division in the Chartist ranks of which historians have been most acutely conscious is that between the advocates of rival methods of winning the Charter – moral force and physical force. This distinction has often been made to appear too clear-cut. What existed were not two schools, but a range of opinions which shaded into one another, and individual Chartists often shifted the emphasis of their views so markedly as to give the impression of having changed sides.”

The result of these biographical and local studies was a more rounded but increasingly fragmented picture of the movement. Some historians, especially those on the intellectual Marxist left felt that local studies had a limited value unless they were securely integrated into the wider picture since Chartism was essentially a national movement. This is evident in Dorothy Thompson’s The Chartists published in 1984. It is an analysis rather than a history of Chartism and provides a multi-dimensional account of its social composition and values.

Historiographical dimension in the 1970s

By the late 1970s three types of writing about Chartism had clearly emerged: the broad narrative approach, biographical studies and studies of regional and local events, within two historiographical traditions: the broadly Fabian approach and Marxist analysis grounded particularly in the class dimension. These provided a picture of considerable richness and diversity. There were, however, important questions that had not been resolved satisfactorily. The emergence of local studies led historians to question how far Chartism was a movement. Mather quoted an American writer who described Chartism as[2] “a series of responses, not a movement”. He thought this “an exaggeration but…by no means devoid of truth”. The unity of 1839, he suggested, did not endure and that the history of Chartism “must contain not one story, but several interwoven stories”. This kaleidoscopic view of Chartism is important in broadening understanding of what happened in particular areas of Britain and of the experience of Chartists in those areas, their concerns, their priorities and their particular political, social and economic agendas. It did, however, pose a challenge to those who saw Chartism as a united campaign at the forefront of an emergent labour movement. Certainly it did not fully realise the ideals of working class unity advocated by its leaders and it passed into the tradition of the labour movement much like Peterloo and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Perhaps, some historians suggested, its influence on the form working class activity would later take had been over-exaggerated. Mather suggested that “Chartism, however, can have been no more than a subsidiary influence on this development”[3] .


[1] F.C. Mather Chartism, The Historical Association, 1965, page 15.

[2] Victorian Studies, volume 5, (1962), page 266.

[3] F.C. Mather Chartism, London, page 31.

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