Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Chartist Lives: John Taylor

Taylor[1], a surgeon and Chartist, was born on 16th September 1805 at Newark Castle, Ayrshire, the eldest son of Captain John Taylor of Blackhouse, Ayrshire, who had served in India and married an Indian lady. His family was connected with the Ayr Coal Company and owned considerable property in Ayrshire. Taylor was, in his own words, ‘born to immense affluence’ and ‘educated in the most splendid fashion’[2], with poetry, Byron, and political reform as his chief interests from youth. He was trained in medicine, probably at Edinburgh University, and was for a time a naval surgeon.

Taylor spent a substantial part of a £30,000 legacy fitting out a ship which he took to the aid of the Greeks in their war of independence. Much of the remainder disappeared in legal costs defending his libel of Thomas Kennedy, who had defeated him in the 1832 parliamentary election for Ayr burghs. That cost him control of the Ayrshire and Kilmarnock Gazette. His next two years were spent trying to make a commercial success of the Ayr Chemical Company. Then he used the remaining funds to purchase the Glasgow trade-union-supported newspaper The Liberator, which survived until May 1838. His obsession with Byronic heroics led him into several jousts with the law, especially in the first year of the Chartist movement, but initially in France in 1826 for plotting sedition with French republicans and again in September 1833 for challenging Kennedy, now a lord of the Treasury to a duel[3].

By the end of 1836, Taylor had contested two parliamentary elections, become a leader of the Anti-Corn Law Association and chairman of the West of Scotland Radical Association. His handsome appearance, with dark flashing eyes and flowing locks of curled hair: ’he carried ladies’ hearts by storm’ Harney later commented[4] together with his impassioned eloquence helped to establish his widening reputation as a radical reformer. He became popular in the north of England in the winter of 1837–8 with his campaign to support the Glasgow cotton spinners against their sentence of transportation. His main claim to fame and notoriety came with the blossoming of the Chartist movement, in which Taylor quickly became identified as one of the ‘physical force’ wing, tempted to move beyond the mere threat and demonstration of popular strength.

Taylor’s initially moderate behaviour in the general convention earned him the sobriquet of Mirabeau of the Chartists, but this was displaced after May 1839 by periodic declarations promising liberty or death. After his arrest and brief imprisonment, following the Bull Ring riots, he denounced most of the convention as spies, cowards, and traitors, and engaged himself in plotting insurrection in Cumberland and Northumberland. This was intended to be part of what proved to be a badly co-ordinated plot for synchronised uprisings in Yorkshire and south Wales, along with Taylor’s ‘men of the north’, which resulted in partial outbreaks at Newport in November, and later at Sheffield, Dewsbury, and Bradford. By that time Taylor had been arrested in Newcastle, bailed for £400 sureties in Carlisle, and plagued by chronic illness, lack of money, and shattered dreams of heroic rescues. By February 1840, even the authorities decided they need no longer take him seriously and the charges of sedition were dropped. In March he left Hull for Germany, before returning to Larne, Northern Ireland, where he spent the rest of his life at the manse of his brother-in-law the rector of Island Magee. There he devoted himself to writing religious verse and to religious study with a view to entering the church. Taylor, who never married, died of consumption at the rectory on Island Magee on 4th December 1842, and was buried two or three days later in Island Magee churchyard, where a statue was erected over his grave. Commemoration dinners were held by the Chartists of Ayr, Prestwick, and Greenock. A statue in ‘Taylor’s cemetery’ at Wallacetown, Ayr, was erected by public subscription in Ayr and Kilmarnock in 1858. Apart from his editorial writings of the 1833–8 period, Taylor’s publications include Letters on the Ballot (1838), The Coming Revolution (1840), Christian Lyrics (1851), and other verses in Modern Scottish Poets (volume 15, 1893).

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[1] Sources: A. Wilson Scottish chartist portraits, 1965, A. Wilson The chartist movement in Scotland, 1970, Birmingham Public Library: Lovett collection, volume 2, D. Urquhart The chartist correspondence, 1855, British Library: Place Collection, Add. MSS 27820–27822, 34245, R. M. W. Cowan The newspaper in Scotland: a study of its first expansion, 1815–1860, 1946, Northern Star (1838–45), True Scotsman (1838–40), Ayr Advertiser (1834–42), D. H. Edwards Modern Scottish poets, with biographical and critical notices, volume 15, 1893 and Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 5th January 1889.

[2] True Scotsman, 27th April 1839.

[3] Case of Duel and Statement of Conduct of T. F. Kennedy M.P., 1833.

[4] Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 5th January 1889.

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