Thursday, 6 September 2007

Chartist Lives: Henry Vincent

Vincent[1], a radical, was the eldest son of Thomas Vincent (d. 1829), a gold- and silversmith. He was born on 10th May 1813 at 145 High Holborn, London. When the family business failed in 1821, the Vincents moved to Hull. Henry received little schooling, though he was an avid reader. In 1828, he was apprenticed to a printer. During his apprenticeship, his early interest in radical politics ripened into activism with his election as vice-president of a local Paineite discussion group and as a member of the Hull Political Union. Upon the completion of his apprenticeship in 1833, Vincent’s uncle helped him obtain a position at Spottiswoode’s, the king’s printers, in London.

In 1836, Vincent became involved with a dispute at Spottiswoode’s and left the firm with about sixty other employees. About this time his mother inherited an independent income, which freed Vincent of family responsibilities (his father had died in 1829, leaving a widow and six children). Vincent became more deeply involved in radical circles and in 1836 joined the London Working Men’s Association. He became a very successful lecturer and travelled extensively promoting the People’s Charter. His greatest impact was in the West Country and south Wales. His oratorical skills led to his selection as the chief speaker at the great Chartist meeting held in London in the autumn of 1838. So remarkable was his command over an audience that he was called by Sir William Molesworth ‘the Demosthenes of the new movement’.

In December 1838, Vincent further contributed to the Chartist cause through the founding of a weekly newspaper, The Western Vindicator. His lecturing and writing activities were brought to an abrupt halt when he was arrested on 7th May 1839 at his house in Cromer Street, London. The warrant from the Newport magistrates charged him with having participated in ‘a riotous assemblage’ held in that town on 19th April 1839. He was taken to Bow Street, charged, and committed to Monmouth gaol to stand trial at the ensuing assizes. So great was the tumult outside the court that the mayor was obliged to read the Riot Act. The trial took place on 2nd August 1839 before Sir Edward Hall Alderson, baron of the exchequer. Serjeant Thomas Noon Talfourd conducted the case for the crown, and John Arthur Roebuck that for the defence. Roebuck showed clearly from the admissions of the chief witnesses for the prosecution that Vincent had told the people to disperse quietly and to keep the peace. Vincent, however, was found guilty and sentenced to twelve calendar months’ imprisonment. He applied for the use of books and writing materials but was refused all but religious books.

On 9th August 1839, Lord Brougham brought Vincent’s case to the attention of the House of Lords. Vincent, though found guilty of a misdemeanour on one count only, was treated as a felon. Lord Melbourne was forced to promise an inquiry. The intense feeling among the Welsh miners about Vincent’s treatment in prison helped spark an armed rising of the Chartists in south Wales. On the morning of 4th November 1839, large crowds, estimated variously at from eight thousand to twenty thousand, marched towards Newport, where they came into collision with the military. Ten of the rioters were killed and about fifty wounded. Frost, their leader, was arrested that night, with Williams and Jones, leaders of other divisions which had not reached the town in time for the riot. In March 1840, Vincent (along with Edwards) was tried a second time at Monmouth for ‘having conspired together with John Frost to subvert the constituted authorities, and alter by force the constitution of the country’. A second count charged the men with having uttered seditious language. Again Serjeant Talfourd conducted the prosecution. Vincent having been dissatisfied with Roebuck’s conduct of the defence at his first trial, now decided to defend himself. He did so with such skill and persuasion that the Monmouthshire jury, while finding both prisoners guilty, recommended clemency for him. He was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. Talfourd was so impressed by Vincent’s defence that he indicated his regrets at having undertaken the case for the prosecution and became involved in the efforts to obtain better conditions for Vincent. His efforts, along with those of Francis Place and Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, and others, resulted in his transfer from Milbank penitentiary to Oakham gaol. There he did much to improve his education in French, history, and political economy with Place’s help. On 31st January 1841, Vincent obtained a remission of the sentence through the help of John Cleave, a printer and bookseller in Fleet Street.

After his release Vincent married Lucy Chappell, daughter of John Cleave, at the register office, St Luke’s, Chelsea, on 27th February 1841. They settled in Bath, where Vincent resumed lecturing and publishing The Vindicator. Following his time in prison, he espoused a more moderate political philosophy. He associated himself with teetotal Chartism and Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union. In July 1841, he stood as a radical candidate for Banbury in the first of what was to be a long list of unsuccessful attempts to gain a parliamentary seat: Ipswich (1842, 1847), Tavistock (1843), Kilmarnock (1844), Plymouth (1846), and York (1848, 1852).

Afterwards, he lectured on a number of social and historical questions. Among his topics were ‘The constitutional history of parliaments’, ‘Home life: its duties and its pleasures’, ‘The philosophy of true manliness’, ‘Cromwell and the men, principles, and times of the Commonwealth’, and ‘Human brotherhood’. In these later years he also spoke out in favour of popular education, free trade, and religious tolerance. In 1848, he lectured for the Peace Society. Vincent’s own religious sympathies were with the Society of Friends, though he was never formally received into membership. In addition to his public lectures, Vincent frequently conducted services on Sundays in free church chapels as a lay preacher. His strong advocacy of the north in the American Civil War made him a welcome visitor when he arrived in the United States. He made lecturing tours in September 1866, October 1867, the winter of 1869 and again in the winter of 1875–6. On all these occasions he was enthusiastically received. His lecturing career drew to a close following a tour of the north of England in late 1878. Arriving home from Barrow in Furness, he endured three weeks of illness and died on 29th December 1878 at his house, 74 Gaisford Street, London. He was survived by his wife and several children.

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[1] Sources: W. Dorling Henry Vincent, 1879 and R. G. Gammage The history of the Chartist movement, from its commencement down to the present time, 1854. Archives: Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester: correspondence with John Minikin.

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