Thursday, 6 September 2007

Chartism: A Question of Interpretation 1

Between 1838 and 1858 large sections of the working classes of Britain were involved in the Chartist movement[1]. On three occasions during that time, in 1839, 1842 and 1848, extensive national campaigns took place and signatures were collected for national petitions. These were presented to Parliament and on three occasions they were rejected. Understanding Chartism seems deceptively simple. A widespread campaign among working people between 1838 and 1858 failed to achieve any of its demands. In their The Bleak Age J.L. and Barbara Hammond wrote that the history of the Chartist movement was “confused and perplexing”. Yet, as J.F.C. Harrison, a more recent historian, said[2]: “For nearly twenty years after 1837, Chartism was a name to evoke the wildest hopes and worst fears, like Bolshevism in a later age.” Also Clive Behagg has said: “It is time that we started to take the Chartist movement seriously. The main obstacle to doing so, however, is that this movement for political reform, which spanned the years 1838-58, was a failure.”

Why were contemporaries and later writers fascinated by the movement? First, the Chartists wanted their society reformed and they tried to achieve this by changing the way in which that society was governed. Chartism was a movement through which people sought access to political power and control over their own lives. It maintained that the lives of ordinary people could not be improved without the right to vote. It sought social justice and, through its emphasis on universal manhood suffrage, demanded equal political rights. In this respect, Chartism was part of a more general international movement among different classes and people who organised, campaigned and, in some cases, died to gain their rights or to change existing forms of power. Secondly, Chartism addressed questions, either in its political programme or in its discussions and tactics, which were later to challenge the modern labour movement. How, for example, is it possible to implement particular political principles? What methods should be employed? Is change something that could be better achieved dramatically through revolution or through more gradual means? How could the support of working people be obtained and, more importantly, retained over time? Finally, there is a crucial historiographical dimension. Many of those who have written about the movement have either been looking for the origins of their own political beliefs or using Chartism as a means for assessing their own historical theories. As a result the interpretation of Chartism is closely connected with understanding events in the writer’s own world. This has affected their perception of Chartism and its influence[3].

Contemporary writers and early historians 1850-1880

Nineteenth century society unquestionably saw itself as a society of different ‘classes’ though what this meant in practice was a cause of considerable contemporary debate. Some people argued there were two classes. William Cobbett, for example, saw society in terms of “masters and slaves”; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels recognised proletarians and bourgeoisie[4]; Benjamin Disraeli saw “two nations”, the rich and the poor[5] . Other writers saw three or more classes. The crucial point is that, whether modern historians like it or not, we cannot get away from the fact that contemporaries saw their society as one based on class and that contemporary definitions of class were imprecise and remarkably fluid. Class provided cultural definition and self-identity rather than simply determining political allegiance. Its value lies in describing contemporary attitudes and behaviour rather analysing them. Certainly the language of class was central to both contemporary writing on Chartism and the analyses of later historians.

Robert G. Gammage was born around 1820 in Northampton and became active in politics after Henry Hetherington of the London Working Men’s Association visited the town to form an offshoot of the organisation there. As a young man, he swiftly gained experience as a public speaker before departing in 1840 on a journey around England that would bring him into contact with many of the leading figures within Chartism. In 1852, Gammage was elected to the executive of the National Charter Association after Ernest Jones effectively took control of the organisation. However, he was out of sympathy with Jones and his increasingly socialist faction and joined James Bronterre O’Brien to establish the short-lived National Reform League. After a chequered career in which he was frequently forced to move because of his Chartist activities, Gammage became first an insurance agent and later a doctor, practising in Newcastle for the best part of thirty years. He retired in 1887 and returned to his home town of Northampton, where he died the following year after falling from a tram.

In 1854, Gammage, irritated by his experiences in the later years of the movement, published the first history of the Chartist movement in seven parts[6] . A complete text was produced the following year. A revised edition appeared in 1894, some six years after Gammage’s death, including some corrections and observations from others in the movement. His narrative is lucid and he used sarcasm and irony to considerable effect. Written so soon after the events in describes, and by an author who had participated in many of them, Gammage’s book is by no means an impartial account of Chartism. He fitted that type of improving artisan, wedded to the acquisition of knowledge, most likely to find O’Connor’s direct, and frequently emotional appeals to working-class audiences distasteful. It is clear from his writing that he abhorred Feargus O’Connor and that be believed Chartism had been ill-served by its most prominent leader. However, Gammage was trying to write history rather than polemic, and though he cannot hide his views, the story of the Chartist movement is presented as fairly and accurately as he could manage. His aim, stated in the introduction, was: “I have often been pained to observe that writers for or against Chartism, have been swayed rather by party bias than a regard for impartial truth, in giving vent to observations upon that movement which, whether for good or evil, has for many years commanded no little share of public attention. This is to be regretted, for it is only by rigid adherence to impartiality, that a sound and healthy opinion can possible be formed. The purpose then of this book is to supply this obvious want.”

Gammage’s account was taken rather uncritically as an objective account until, in the early 1950s, John Saville pointed to distortions in his work on Ernest Jones. In reality Gammage’s book is both a partisan contribution to the movement and a reflection on it. Gammage stressed the political nature of the movement, an emphasis found in many of the large number of contemporary accounts that have survived. The issue was the vote. However, an alternative view of Chartism was stressed in many middle class novels on the subject and put forward dogmatically by Thomas Carlyle in his 1839 pamphlet. Chartism, he argued, was motivated not by demands for political reform but by the need to improve social conditions. Chartism was, in Carlyle’s analysis, a crie de coeur. There had been “an abdication on the part of the governors”, a breakdown in relations between classes and the destruction of the ‘bond of connection’ between the poor and their social betters. What was needed was genuine social understanding and justice[7]. “Delirious Chartism will not have raged entirely to no purpose as indeed no earthly thing does so, if it have forced all thinking men of the community to think of this vital matter, too apt to be overlooked otherwise. Is the condition of the English working people wrong; so wrong that rational working men cannot, will not, and even should not rest quiet under it?”

Four years later, in Past and Present, Carlyle restated the point[8]: “We have more riches than any Nation ever had before; we have less good of them than any Nation ever had before. Our successful industry is hitherto unsuccessful; a strange success, if we stop here! In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls and full barns, no man feels himself safe of satisfied.” This ‘condition-of-England’ question influenced novelists including Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley who largely accepted Carlyle’s interpretation. Gaskell in Mary Barton and Kingsley in Alton Locke created sympathetic Chartist characters leading many readers, some Chartists but most not, to consider the authors to be receptive to the movement. This is to misread their novel. Neither author had any real warmth for the Chartist leaders or their political ambitions. Mary Barton aroused the sensitivities of the novel-reading middle class audience, combining sentiment with naturalism, hard facts with deathbed tears: “Don’t think to come over me with the old tale, that the rich known nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We are their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us….” Published in 1848 it seemed to touch the right nerve at the right time. Fraser’s Magazine commented in January 1849[9]: “Do they want to know why poor men, kind and sympathising as women with each other, learn to hate law and order, Queen, Lords and Commons, country-party and corn-law leagues, all alike --- to hate the rich in short? Then let them read Mary Barton.”

For Charles Kingsley Alton Locke is the story of a young working man deceived by his experience of poverty and distress into following immoral and dishonest Chartist leaders in pursuing political answers to what were moral questions. Kingsley’s vivid reconstruction of the Kennington Common ‘fiasco’ of 10th April 1848 established a negative picture, accepted by historians later in the century, of Feargus O’Connor as an ineffective leader and of the whole movement collapsing in chaos and dejection. Spencer Walpole, writing of the events of 1848, decided that the discovery of fraudulent signatures on the Petition[10]: “had turned the whole thing into ridicule …. [and that] the cause of Reform was for years arrested by the abuse of the machinery devised by the Reformers.”

Kingsley’s view of Chartism and of the working classes in Alton Locke has been an issue of some controversy. A.L Morton[11] paid particular attention to his endeavours on behalf of the poor as Parson Lot, Christian Socialist. He praised Kingsley’s genuine commitment to the plight of the down-trodden though he considers Kingsley was a combination of both Radical and Tory. Believing in the worker and the aristocrat, it was the classes in between for whom Kingsley had a great antipathy. Morton also lauds the depiction of the worker and of Chartism in Alton Locke. Though Kingsley finally denounces Chartism, this is the first time that English fiction deals with it seriously and sympathetically. Though Kingsley never really succeeded in standing apart from his Tory views and though his socialist work invariably failed, he was, according to Morton, “like Ruskin, one of those who helped to prepare the ground from which a genuine socialist movement was to spring a generation or so later”[12]. Raymond Williams[13] stressed that while throughout Chartism and the plight of the workers are treated sympathetically the true solution to life’s problems resided in the acceptance of God. Williams also points to the novel’s preface where Kingsley argues that “The regeneration of society…will meanwhile proceed under the leadership of a truly enlightened aristocracy. It will be a movement towards democracy, but not to that ‘tyranny of numbers’ of which the dangers have been seen in the United States”. Though much of Alton Locke, according to Charles Muller[14], reads as a political tract and Alton himself is represented through much of the novel as a dangerous agitator, a dramatic change occurs at the end when he renounces his subversive views and embraces religion as a solution. Kingsley saw no distinction between the secular and the religious and believed that social emancipation would come about through spiritual or religious emancipation. Kingsley was indeed courageous in going further than merely sympathizing with the demands of the workers. He actually worked alongside them and “it was this that in the 1850s brought on Kingsley, and on Maurice, the wrath of the religious Tories of the Record and the Quarterly Review and of secularists such as Karl Marx who feared competition from the Christian Socialists’ ‘holy water’”[15]. Alton Locke may be viewed not primarily as a Chartist novel but as an expression of Kingsley’s Christian work on behalf of the poorer classes. The novel “is really a Christian novel, written in the spirit of his sermons which never failed to emphasise, on the one hand, the Gospel message of the Kingdom of God and, on the other, personal salvation or reform”[16].

The judgements of contemporaries were highly influential in the subsequent histories of Chartism. Yet the context of the 1850s, when they were established, has not been fully recognised. The mid-Victorian period was ushered in with a sigh of relief that troubled times appeared to be over and a new age of prosperity was to be enjoyed by all the people within the framework of existing political and economic structures.


[1] This material is an extended version of material contained in my Chartism, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[2] J.F.C. Harrison The Common People, London, 1984, page 261.

[3] Useful summaries of the historiography of Chartism can be found in Dorothy Thompson ‘Chartism and the historians’, in Outsiders. Class, Gender and Nation, London, 1993, pages 19-44, Miles Taylor ‘Rethinking the Chartists: searching for synthesis in the historiography of Chartism’, Historical Journal, (1996) and John Charlton The Chartists. The First National Workers’ Movement, London, 1997, pages 90-95.

[4] The literature on Marx and Engels is immense. Of particular importance in understanding how they viewed industrial and urban society are F. Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Leipzig 1845, K. Marx and F. Engels The Communist Manifesto, 1848 and K. Marx Capital, volume 1, 1867. See also Charlton The Chartists, pages 87-89 for a brief discussion of Marx and Engels on Chartism.

[5] Benjamin Disraeli Sybil or the Two Nations, London, 1845. See the discussion of Disraeli as ‘industrial’ novelist in Raymond Williams Culture and Society 1780-1950, London, 1958, Penguin, 1963 pages 99-119 and in Christopher Harvie The Centre of Things. Political Fiction in Britain from Disraeli to the Present, London, 1991, pages 29-54. Louis Cazamian The Social Novel in England 1830-1850, Paris 1903, first published in translation London, 1973 is still, despite its age, perhaps the clearest discussion of the genre.

[6] R.G. Gammage The History of the Chartist Movement, from its Commencement Down to the Present Times, 1st ed., 1855, 2nd ed., Newcastle, 1894. A useful discussion of Gammage and his History, especially the differences between the two editions, can be found in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume vi, London, 1982, pages 114-117 and in Saville’s introduction to the 1969 reprint especially pages 24-29.

[7] ‘Chartism’, printed in Alan Shelston (ed.) Thomas Carlyle: Selected Writings, London, 1971, pages 152-153.

[8] ‘Past and Present’, Alan Shelston (ed.) Thomas Carlyle: Selected Writings, London, 1971, printed on page 263

[9] Fraser’s Magazine, volume xxxix, (1849), pages 429-32. Other important reviews of Mary Barton appeared in the Athenaeum, October 21st 1848, pages 1050-51, the British Quarterly Review, volume ix, (1849), pages 117-136, the Edinburgh Review, volume lxxxix, (1849), pages 402-405 and the Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, volume li, (1849), pages 48-63.

[10] Quoted in J.T. Ward Chartism, London, 1973, page 7

[11] A. L. Morton, “Parson Lot,” in his The Matter of Britain: Essays in a Living Culture, Lawrence & Wishart, 1966, pages 137-143.

[12] A. L. Morton “Parson Lot,” in his The Matter of Britain: Essays in a Living Culture, Lawrence & Wishart, 1966, page 143.

[13] Raymond Williams Culture and Society 1780-1950, Penguin, 1977; first published 1958, page 112.

[14] Charles H. Muller “Alton Locke: Kingsley’s Dramatic Sermon,” Unisa English Studies, volume 14, (1976), pages 9-20.

[15] David Lawrence Edwards Leaders of the Church of England, 1828-1944, Oxford University Press, 1971, page 136.

[16] Charles H. Muller “Alton Locke: Kingsley’s Dramatic Sermon,” Unisa English Studies, volume 14, (1976), page 9.

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