Friday, 7 September 2007

Chartist Lives: Benjamin Wilson

Wilson[1], a Chartist and horticulturist, was born on 7th August 1824 at Skircoat Green, Halifax. Of humble parentage, he never attended day school, but learned to read at the Wesleyan Sunday school in the village of Skircoat Green, an early centre of both Methodism and radicalism. His autobiography The Struggles of an Old Chartist, published in 1887, contains the reflections of an archetypal self-educated working man, who experienced the transition from a semi-rural to an urban-industrial society, evolving from physical-force Chartism into the respectability of Gladstonian Liberalism. It makes no reference to his father, but reveals that his mother had gone into mourning for ‘the victims of Peterloo’, attending radical meetings at a shoemaker’s cottage in Skircoat Green and joining a protest march through Halifax in the aftermath of the Manchester massacre of 1819[2]. He surmised that his mother’s radical instincts sprang from the poverty of her own upbringing, when she had been obliged to earn a living pounding sand for a neighbour and subsisting upon a diet of boiled potato peelings. Wilson himself was put to work at an early age as a farm labourer and in the textile industry as a card setter, for which he received a mere ½d for setting some 1500 card teeth.

Wilson later wound bobbins for his uncle, Joseph Wilson, a small piece maker of Skircoat Green, whose wife, ‘a famous politician, a Chartist, and a great admirer of Feargus O’Connor’, aroused his interest in the Chartist movement, prompting him to attend a large rally addressed by O’Connor at Hartshead Moor on Whit Monday 1839[3]. Wilson provides evidence of arming in the West Riding prior to the Newport rising of November 1839 and an eyewitness account of the ‘plug’ riots in Halifax in 1842. The latter were followed by a serious attack on the military at Salterhebble, which Wilson attributed emphatically to local youths rather than ‘plug’ rioters from Bradford or Lancashire. His account confirms that he himself purchased a gun in the heady atmosphere of 1848 when Halifax was rife with rumours of drilling following the outbreak of revolution in France and the rejection of the third Chartist petition. However, he appears never to have used it and was unarmed when he was chased by mounted troops over a wall at Toftshaw Moor, Bradford, on 12th June 1848.

Wilson records his involvement in township and municipal politics and his support in the Halifax parliamentary elections of 1847 and 1852 for the Chartist candidate Ernest Jones. Wilson remained a close friend of Jones for the rest of his life and represented the Halifax branch of the Reform League at his funeral in Manchester in 1869. Between the demise of Chartism and the foundation of the Reform League, Wilson became increasingly involved in the co-operative movement, and in 1849 ‘resolved not to taste of any intoxicating drink or smoke tobacco’ as an example to others in the belief that ‘if working men could have been induced to invest in the co-operative movement what they were spending in intoxicating drinks it would have greatly improved their condition’[4]. He also identified with the campaign for secular education and later joined the Halifax Liberal Electoral Association.

During the 1840s, Wilson earned an average weekly wage of 9s, working variously as ‘a woollen weaver, a comber, a navvy on the railway, and a barer in the delph’, and was ‘frequently short of the commonest of food’[5]. He subsequently worked as a gardener, gaining a reputation locally for his knowledge of horticulture and especially the cultivation of dwarf hybrid perpetual roses, his favourite flowers. He judged horticultural shows and wrote articles on rose cultivation in the local newspaper. He was one of the few Chartist autobiographers not to appear dismissive of the Chartist land plan, believing that ‘the scheme was before its time’ and that ‘the day is not far distant when it will be successfully carried out’. He took a keen interest in the Halifax co-operative farm in the mid-1860s, during his spell as a director of the Halifax Industrial Society[6]. He greatly admired Gladstone, whose first ministry he thought ‘the most Radical that we ever had in this country’[7]. He organised a reunion of twenty-two former Chartists at Maude’s Temperance Hotel, Halifax, in 1885 to celebrate the passing of the third Reform Act, but spent his declining years denouncing the formation of the Independent Labour Party.

A gifted and witty raconteur and writer and gregarious by nature, Wilson was known affectionately as ‘Old Ben’. Surprisingly, no likeness or even a physical description of him is known to exist. On 17th April 1854, he had married Mary Robinson (1826/7–1907), who came from Haley Hill, Halifax, and who had been almost blind since childhood. Wilson died suddenly, probably from heart failure, at a tea party for the elderly in the schoolroom at Salterhebble United Methodist Free Church held to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee on 21st June 1897 after reminiscing, amid much hilarity, about an inebriated woman’s conduct at local celebrations marking the queen’s accession. He was eulogised as ‘a Cromwell in the cause of progress and liberty’[8] and his funeral at All Saints’ Church, Salterhebble, and burial in the graveyard there on 25th June were attended by a veteran Chartist and by serving Liberal aldermen and councillors and members of the Salterhebble and District Rose Club, each of whom wore white roses as a mark of respect. A memorial service was later held at the Salterhebble United Methodist Free Church, where tribute was paid to Wilson’s ‘honest and straightforward’ desire ‘to do good in his day and generation’[9]. The straitened circumstances of his widow prompted an appeal, which raised over £20, for a tombstone which bore the inscription: ‘erected by public subscription to the memory of one who strove for the civil and social welfare of his fellow men’.

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[1] Sources: B. Wilson The struggles of an old chartist, 1887, reprinted in Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, pages 191–242, ‘Chat on the politics of the century’, Halifax Courier, 16th March–7th September 1895, 26th June 1897, 3rd July 1897, 26th October 1897 and 30th October 1897, J. A. Hargreaves ‘Guns and roses: Benjamin Wilson (1824–1897) of Salterhebble, chartist and horticulturalist’, Aspects of Calderdale, ed. J. Billingsley, 2002, J. A. Hargreaves Halifax, 1999, D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984, K. Tiller ‘Late Chartism: Halifax, 1847–1858’, The Chartist experience: studies in working-class radicalism and culture, 1830–60, ed. J. Epstein and D. Thompson, 1982, pages 311–344, especially 327, Halifax Guardian, 26th June 1897, Halifax Guardian, 3rd July 1897, B. Wilson, newspaper articles, 2 volumes, Calderdale Central Library, Halifax, Horsfall Turner collection, M. Blatchford History of Halifax industrial society, 1901, Halifax Courier, 22nd June 1897 and A. Taylor ‘Commemoration, memorialisation and political memory in post-chartist radicalism: the 1885 Halifax chartist reunion in context’, The Chartist legacy, ed. O. Ashton, R. Fyson, and S. Roberts, 1999, pages 255–85.

[2] B. Wilson The struggles of an old chartist, 1887, reprinted in Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, page 195.

[3] B. Wilson The struggles of an old chartist, 1887, reprinted in Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, page 197.

[4] B. Wilson The struggles of an old chartist, 1887, reprinted in Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, page 212.

[5] B. Wilson The struggles of an old chartist, 1887, reprinted in Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, page 210.

[6] B. Wilson The struggles of an old chartist, 1887, reprinted in Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, page 210.

[7] B. Wilson The struggles of an old chartist, 1887, reprinted in Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, page 237.

[8] Halifax Courier, 22nd June 1897.

[9] Halifax Courier, 3rd July 1897.

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