Monday, 3 September 2007

Chartist Lives: Joseph Sturge

Joseph Sturge[1], philanthropist, was the son of Joseph Sturge (1763–1817), a farmer and grazier, and his wife, Mary Marshall (d. 1819) of Alcester, Warwickshire, was born at Elberton, Gloucestershire, on 2nd August 1793. He was the fourth of twelve children: six boys and six girls. He spent a year at Thornbury day school and three years at the Quaker boarding-school at Sidcot and at fourteen commenced farming with his father. Afterwards he farmed on his own account. The Sturges were members of the Society of Friends, and at the age of nineteen, when Joseph followed the family’s pacifist beliefs and refused to find a proxy or to serve in the militia, he watched his flock of sheep driven off to be sold to cover the delinquency. In 1814, he settled at Bewdley as a corn factor, but did not make money. In 1822, he moved to Birmingham, where he lived for the rest of his life. There, in partnership with his brother Charles Sturge (1801–1888), who was associated with him in many of his later philanthropic acts, he created one of the largest grain-importing businesses in Britain. With other family members he invested in railways and in the new docks at Gloucester. Leaving the conduct of the business to Charles, he devoted himself after 1831 to philanthropy and public life. On 29th April 1834, he married Eliza, only daughter of James Cropper, the philanthropist. She died in 1835. He married again on 14th October 1846; his second wife was Hannah, daughter of Barnard Dickinson of Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, with whom he had a son and four daughters.

From the 1820s, Sturge warmly espoused the anti-slavery cause in collaboration with his younger sister Sophia Sturge (1795-1845). He soon became dissatisfied with T. F. Buxton and the leaders of the movement, who favoured a policy of gradual emancipation. In 1831, he was one of the founders of the agency committee of the Anti-Slavery Society, whose programme was entire and immediate emancipation. Sturge and his friends engaged lecturers, who travelled through Britain and Ireland arousing popular interest. They were disappointed by the measure of emancipation passed by the government on 28th August 1833, granting compensation to slave owners and substituting a temporary system of unpaid apprenticeship for slavery. Between November 1836 and April 1837, Sturge visited the West Indies gathering evidence to demonstrate the flaws of the apprenticeship system. On his return he published The West Indies in 1837 (1838), the first edition of which rapidly sold, and gave evidence for seven days before a committee of the House of Commons. He travelled round Britain, hoping, as one of his friends explained, to bring ‘the battering ram of public opinion’ to bear on parliament and the West Indian planter interest. He was successful, and in 1838 the apprenticeship system was terminated.

Sturge and his friends subsequently sent large sums of money to Jamaica in support of schools, missionaries, and a scheme for settling former slaves in ‘free townships’. He founded the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1839, and organised international anti-slavery conventions in 1840 and 1843. In 1841, he travelled through the United States with the poet J. G. Whittier, to observe the condition of the slaves there, and on his return published A Visit to the United States in 1841 (1842). Towards the end of his life, he bought an estate on the island of Montserrat to prove the economic viability of free labour if efficiently and humanely managed.

Meanwhile political agitation in England was rising. One of the first members of the Anti-Corn Law League, Sturge was reproached by the Free Trader for deserting repeal when, in 1842, he launched a campaign for ‘complete suffrage’, hoping to secure the co-operation of the league and the Chartist movement under his leadership. He was encouraged by the support he received from Edward Miall and middle-class nonconformists as well as from some of the Chartists, including A. G. O’Neill and Henry Vincent, but the league leaders refused to participate, and the movement faded away after it was opposed by William Lovett and Feargus O’Connor at a conference in Birmingham in December 1842. Sturge unsuccessfully contested parliamentary elections at Nottingham in 1842, Birmingham in 1844 and Leeds in 1847 on platforms that included ‘complete suffrage’.

For several years after the mid-1840s, Sturge was one of the leaders of a movement for ‘people diplomacy’, which attempted to create an international public opinion in favour of arbitration as a means of avoiding war. Together with Richard Cobden, Henry Richard, Elihu Burritt, and others, he organized peace congresses at Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, London, Manchester, and Edinburgh. In 1850, he visited Schleswig-Holstein and Copenhagen with the object of inducing the governments of Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark to submit their dispute to arbitration. In January 1854, he was appointed one of the deputation from the Society of Friends to visit the tsar of Russia in an attempt to avert the Crimean War. Largely through Sturge’s support, the Morning Star was launched in 1856 as an organ for the advocacy of non-intervention and arbitration. In 1856, he visited Finland to arrange for distribution of funds from the Friends towards relieving the famine caused by the British fleet’s destruction of private property during the war. Sturge died suddenly after a heart attack at Edgbaston, near Birmingham, on 14th May 1859, as he was preparing to attend the annual meeting of the Peace Society, of which he was president. He was buried in the graveyard of the Bull Street meeting-house, Birmingham.

Sturge’s range of interests as a philanthropist and reformer was very wide: anti-slavery, peace, free trade, suffrage extension, infant schools and Sunday schools, reformatories, spelling reform, teetotalism, hydropathy, and public parks. He was one of the street commissioners of Birmingham during the 1820s, and from 1838 to 1840, he was an alderman of the newly created Birmingham town council. The mainspring of his actions was a sense of Christian duty derived from his Quakerism. He was also influenced by his association with radical nonconformists who shared his antipathy for the aristocratic Anglican elite that dominated British political life. He has been seen as one of the many wealthy Quakers who attempted to alleviate the problems of the age by their philanthropy. He has also been described as one of the best examples of a group of reformers who called themselves ‘moral radicals’ and strove to impart a religiously based idealism to the emergent Liberal Party of the mid-nineteenth century.


[1] Sources: A. Tyrrell Joseph Sturge and the ‘moral radical party’ in early Victorian Britain, 1987, H. Richard Memoirs of Joseph Sturge, 1864, Birmingham Journal (1830–59), The Friend, volumes 1–18 (1843–60), British Emancipator (1838–40), British and Foreign Anti-Slavery reporter (1840–60), Herald of Peace (1819–59), Nonconformist (1841–59), J. Sturge and T. Harvey The West Indies in 1837, 1838, J. Sturge A visit to the United States in 1841, 1842, and J. Sturge and T. Harvey Report of a visit to Finland, in the autumn of 1856, 1856. Archives: British Library: correspondence, Add. MSS 43722–43723, 43845, 50131; Bodleian Library: correspondence, journal relating to involvement with the Anti-Slavery Society, British Library: correspondence with Richard Cobden, Add. MS 43656; Sturge MSS; Huntingdon Library: letters to Thomas Clarkson, University of London: Brougham correspondence; and, West Sussex Record Office: correspondence with Richard Cobden.

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