Monday, 22 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Alternate directions 1843-1848

Older historians, especially Mark Hovell and Julius West, gave the impression that the Chartist movement after 1842, apart from the Land Plan, lacked ideas or activities. This was far from being the case. Some Chartists established links with European revolutionaries through organisations like the Fraternal Democrats and the Peoples’ International League. Others turned to the registration of electors. This was a way of building Chartist support in Parliament. Some returned to a revived factory movement in 1846. The proposed reorganisation of the militia led to Chartists involvement in the National Anti-Militia Association under the slogan ‘No vote, no musket’. Still others turned to socialism. This section briefly considers three important themes: the issue of English and Irish radicalism, the question of internationalism and the relationship between socialism and Chartism.

English radicalism and Irish nationalism

The alliance between English radicalism and Irish nationalism dates from the 1790s[1]. Demands for the repeal of the Act of Union were common at English working class meetings and the radical unstamped press gave substantial coverage to Irish issues in the early 1830s. There was already a large and growing Irish population in England concentrated throughout the industrial north and in London. Irish affairs especially repeal and opposition to coercion played a central part in radical thinking in the 1830s and 1840s. O’Connor began his career as an Irish MP and he represented County Cork between 1832 and 1835. His appeals for social justice for Ireland were closely linked with his calls for justice for English workers. Many of the Chartist leaders and activists were of Irish descent and English working class radicals unwaveringly took up the issue of Irish social and political rights. However, there was conflict between Irish workers and Chartists in Manchester in 1841 and 1842. While Epstein, rightly, argues that it would be a mistake to generalise from this local situation. However, Irish opposition to Chartism in other areas did draw workers away from Chartist involvement. He goes on to suggest that “the fragmentation within sections of the northern industrial working class, between Irish and English workers, was a source of Chartist weakness.”[2]

It is difficult to calculate the degree of Irish support for O’Connor and the Chartist movement[3]. Traditional studies have tended to focus on the antagonistic relationship between O’Connell and O’Connor. Irish immigrants remained aloof from Chartism because of the policy of O’Connell and the leaders of the Irish associations and the critical attitudes of the Catholic clergy[4]. There was no formal link between Irish nationalism and Chartism until after 1847. Treble took the view that it was not until 1848 that the ‘vast majority’ of the Irish in the northern industrial counties had any significant contact with Chartism. Dorothy Thompson, by contrast, has shown that informal co-operation between Chartists and Irish workers were common especially in the smaller manufacturing towns and villages before 1848. However, 1848 was different in several respects from anything that had happened earlier and Treble was right to emphasise the differences.

Important shifts took place among the Irish leadership following O’Connell’s death in mid-1847. First, the Irish Democratic Federation, founded in London in August-September 1847, campaigned for repeal. In addition, Fintan Lalor’s ideas had an important influence on the policies of Young Ireland from the early 1847[5]. His social radicalism was invigorated by news of successful revolution in Europe in 1848. Finally, O’Connor made a vigorous attack on the Crimes and Outrages Bill in the House of Commons. In December 1847, he still hoped to liberate both Ireland and Britain[6]. “Ireland for the Irish! And England for the English! Is the mutual cry. Let it be shouted, side by side…it will be the knell of oppression – it will be the birth-peal of freedom – for the solitary fortresses of tyranny must sink before the confluence of our united nations.”  These developments all helped to create a new understanding and provided the basis for an informal but firm agreement of mutual support between the Confederation and the Chartists. It is clear that the major centres of Chartist activity in 1848 – London, Bradford and the West Riding, Manchester and its surrounding towns and Liverpool – were precisely those towns and regions where there was a concentration of Irish immigrants.

These developments posed problems that the English government had not previously experienced. In 1839 and, to a lesser extent in 1842, Ireland had been relatively quiet and this allowed the government to move troops from Ireland to the mainland. In 1847 and 1848 this was not the case. There was, however, one important difference between the Chartist and the Irish radicals. The Chartists were essentially constitutional in their approach while the Irish in England were no longer restrained by O’C’onnell’s prescription of physical force. The leaders of Young Ireland in Dublin quickly realised that diversionary activities in England would keep troops tied down. This placed a great strain on the Chartist-Irish alliance. The Kennington Common meeting on 10th April was followed by violent confrontations between the police and radicals in early June and by plans by a small group of London Chartists and Confederates for a rising on 16th August. It is clear that the Chartists failed to exploit the full physical possibilities of their alliance with the Irish.

John Belchem argues that Anglo-Irish co-operation in 1847 and 1848 did not strengthen the working class challenge in early Victorian England. In many respects, it helped the government more than the Chartists. The Times commented on 10th April that  “The Repealers wish to make as great a hell of this island as they have made of their own.”  Punch showed the Chartists revelling in rape pillage and massacre. The establishment press exploited the Irish card as often as they could. There is ample evidence of distrust and antagonism towards Irish immigrants in this period. Racial and religious prejudice formed an important part in the social consciousness of majority of ordinary people who took little or no part in the events of 1848. Among the middle classes, the close links between Chartism and the Irish played a significant part in their support for the forces of order in 1848. Anglo-Irish political solidarity in the late 1840s gave way to anti-Irish riots in the 1850s and 1860s.

Chartism and foreign policy

Chartism was a remarkably insular movement, suspicious of foreign and colonial causes because they tended to deflect attention away from the Charter and the Land Plan[7]. O’Connor, McDouall and O’Brien were the leading advocates of the view that Britain had perhaps the worst despotism in Europe and that the first priority should be the rights of the English working class. O’Connor reflected the broad opinion of his supporters when he said in July 1847 that[8] “Let Englishmen and Irishmen and Scotchmen work together for England, Ireland and Scotland – let Frenchmen work for France, Russians for Russia and Prussians for Prussia. I will work for home sweet home.”

Fear of Russian aggression was an important feature of the 1830s and 1840s. The critical figure in fanning these fears was David Urquhart[9]. He was able to build up middle class support, especially in the north-east. The anti-Whig flavour of his campaign and an appeal to patriotism led to some Chartist support in 1839 and 1840. William Cardo, a Marylebone shoemaker, Robert Lowery and John Warden of Bolton formed the core of a Chartist ‘foreign policy’ group and gained the support of the Northern Liberator[10]. They put the immediate threat of Russian domination before the long-term objectives of the Charter. In late 1840, O’Connor attacked the Northern Liberator and the ‘wild goose-chase’ of ‘Foreign Policy Chartists’ and the new movement collapsed. He also attacked Harney and Jones for their fixation on foreign affairs later in the 1840s but to less effect. There was, however, a second dimension to O’Connor’s attitudes. He was intensely suspicious of middle class collaboration. Middle class radicals like Urquhart, Miall and Sturge dominated the ‘foreign policy’ group and the successive peace movements of the 1830s and 1840s.

In the early years of the movement, some Chartists were extremely interested in foreign policy. America and, to a lesser extent, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states were seen as models of constitutional and political freedom. France, Poland and Hungary were admired for their revolutionary spirit. This was paralleled by intense suspicion of the foreign policies of successive British governments. The Chartists saw the war scares of 1840-1, 1844, 1846 and 1848 as either follies or attempts to divert attention away from the movement. Britain’s support for what the Chartists saw as the ‘corrupt monarchies and priesthoods’ of Europe was also criticised. The visit to England of Tsar Nicholas in 1844 led to widespread Chartist protest. Colonial policy was also denounced. There was a genuine ambiguity in Chartist attitudes. Some attacked the whole notion of imperialism while others wanted the working classes to benefit from the fruits of empire. Maladministration and brutality in the colonies had their parallels in Britain. Harney’s accounts of problems in Canada and of the Opium War with China were followed in the late 1850s by Jones’ analysis of the Indian Mutiny. In larger associations at Nottingham, Newcastle, South London, Todmorden and Sheffield there were ‘international committees’. Addresses, like those contained in Lovett’s autobiography, and √©migr¾ funds testify to Chartist awareness and their sense of international responsibility. By the late 1840s, fear of Chartist violence was frequently associated with revolutions abroad.

Chartism and European radicalism

Hetherington and Lovett pioneered the view that Chartism was an integral part of a wider European movement for working-class freedom. In 1844, Lovett formed the Democratic Friends of All Nations that merged into the People’s International League in 1847[11]. He often took a more aggressive stance against foreign oppression than his reputation, as a moderate would suggest. In a series of LWMA addresses, beginning in the mid-1830s, Lovett developed ideas that were militant and increasingly pacifist. The world, he argued, would be a safer place for social and political reform if all sources of human conflict were removed. He saw the world organised along the lines of nationality and fused this with class solidarity and non-violent resistance. He sought ‘freedom, peace and brotherhood’. Wiener sums up Lovett’s attitudes in the following terms[12] “There was a powerful element of idealism in Lovett’s thought…For him, however, this idealism was not religious, as it was for Sturge and Miall, nor was it primarily economic, as it was for Cobden, it exemplified a type of moral illuminism shorn of political trappings. Lovett was optimistic about the chances of peace, almost as if the decline of his political influence had given him an incentive to reach out to the future.”

Lovett was highly critical of the Society of Fraternal Democrats founded in 1845. This was the principal organ of class conscious internationalism of the Chartist left principally Jones and Harney. They saw nationalism not as an end in itself but as an intermediate step on the path to international revolution. Their approach was more aggressive, a result of the active involvement of exiled continental revolutionaries living in London. The Fraternal Democrats exerted limited influence on Chartism except in the excitement raised by the 1848 revolutions[13]. Harney wrote, in the immediate aftermath of the February revolution in France that[14] “We have been meeting, talking and writing for the last ten years and have not got our Charter; the French, with three days’ work, have obtained the Charter and something more.”  The subsequent repression in France did not dent Jones’ and Harney’s belief in the need for a true social revolution. He continued to educate the British people in the 1850s about the realities of political conditions in Europe through papers like the Democratic Review and the Red Republican.

John Saville locates the radical challenge of 1848 ‘within the triangle of revolutionary Paris, insurgent Ireland and a revitalised native Chartist movement in London and the industrial North.’[15] Shared enthusiasm for the February revolution, he argues, served to unite Chartists and nationalists throughout the United Kingdom. This consensus was, as Harney recognised towards the end of his life, short-lived. The events of 1848 were, according to McGrath, ‘one huge monument of misfortune’. Many emigr¾s returned home and the British government tightened restrictions on those who remained. Chartists were denounced as the counterparts of cowardly foreign assassins and communists. The Whig government was seen increasingly as the stalwart defender of British freedom. The international ‘reign of terror’ of the next few years led some Chartists to talk vaguely about united action by Irish, American and European reformers. Increasingly, however, many Chartists joined middle class Liberals in demonstrations in favour of European revolutionaries like Kossuth and Garibaldi. Others like Jones and O’Brien moved on to the social-democratic organisations that dominated radical internationalism in the 1850s. Few, like Harney, kept the faith.

Chartism and socialism

Gregory Claeys argues in his study of early British socialism that any “study of the relations between Owenism and Chartism is hampered by a variety of obstacles.’[16] Not least is the unsystematic way in which historians have treated Owenite-Chartist links[17]. Gammage has little to say on the subject except in the context of the post-1848 Chartist programme. Mark Hovell argued that only a few Chartists were ‘downright Socialists’ with the majority discounting Owen because of his communism. Julius West, by contrast, argued in 1920 the Chartism was ‘permeated with Socialist ideas’ because of their support for state intervention in the economy. Post-war historians tended to de-emphasise the links between the two movements with J.T. Ward arguing that ‘Socialist theories never influenced O’Connor – or most of his followers.’ Some local studies have extended our understanding of links between Owenites and Chartists while many others simply fail to mention the connection at all.

There was much in common between early Socialists and Chartists[18]. They broadly agreed about the devastation of rural life and the alienation and distress caused by the new capitalist society. Some people chose to belong to both camps. David Jones gave three examples: Isaac Ironside[19] of Sheffield, John Goodwyn Barnby, poet and ‘communist’ and Thomas Liversey, Chartist leader and treasurer of the Rochdale Owenite Institution[20]. However, competition between the two groups was perhaps inevitable. The Chartists were, in general, less bold in their analysis of existing society and their vision of the new. For Owenites, the Chartist programme was ‘crude and undigested’. They also disagreed about method. Owen rejected political action and threats of violence. O’Connor believed that ‘Knowledge without political power is useless…only a great political movement can obtain the new moral world’[21]. The Chartist press vigorously denounced the Owenites on various grounds creating tensions on both sides. It attacked their antipathy to religion. Christian Chartists took their beliefs seriously. It argued that Socialism had been tried and failed. Specific economic charges were levelled against Socialism especially the call for redistribution of property. Chartist attitudes to economics varied but many would have agreed with O’Connor who argued in 1843 that ‘a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work was the aim and end of the People’s Charter’. Communitarian equality, as suggested by Owen, was never part of the Chartists political agenda. Tension between the two groups was a recurrent problem. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, Owenites often left the movement because of its militancy and limited aims. In Leeds, for example, John Bray and the Owenites withdrew from the Working Men’s Association. Owenites complained in Halifax, Bath and Dunfermline that Chartists lecturers distracted people from socialism. Rivalry and even opposition was common and the two movements were often influential in the same areas.

There is ample evidence that, even before 1848, more Chartists were moving towards socialism. The Northern Star carried several articles and letters stating that landlords had no intrinsic right to the soil but only to the implements used on and the improvements to it. These were motivated, in part, by the need to support the Land Plan but increasingly the language used about it and Owenite communitarianism became almost indistinguishable. In early 1847, the Fraternal Democrats became more forthright in their support for land reform and the common ownership of land. At the heart of this move was Bronterre O’ Brien, who had argued for land nationalisation since the late 1830s, and the propagandist abilities of Harney. It was, however, 1848 that crystallised much Chartist thinking. Claeys argues that there were three main reasons for this[22]. First, the Land Plan was an unlikely agent for social transformation. It was simply too gradual and unwieldy. Secondly, the Kennington Common meeting and subsequent events in 1848-9 marked the end of ‘mass platform’ politics and discredited its leadership. Finally, Chartism ceased to be a narrow British political movement. European socialist ideas became an integral part of British radical thinking. The result was the acceptance of a largely socialist programme by the Chartist movement in 1851. The significance of this development was that it allowed Chartists, for the first time, to address the question of what would happen after the Charter was achieved. As Claeys[23] says, “It raised new questions about the ends, rather than the means, of reform.”


[1] The Irish dimension to Chartism will be considered in detail later.

[2] Epstein The Lion of Freedom, pages 270-271.

[3] Roger Swift The Irish in Britain 1815-1914. Perspectives and Sources, London, 1990 is a brief general survey invaluable for setting the issue in context. D. Thompson ‘Ireland and the Irish in English Radicalism before 1850’, in J. Epstein and D. Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, London, 1982, J.H. Treble ‘O’Connor, O’Connell and the Attitudes of Irish immigrants towards Chartism in the North of England 1838-48’, in J. Butt and I.F. Clarke (eds.) The Victorians and Social Protest, Newton Abbot, 1973, R. O’Higgins ‘The Irish Influence in the Chartist Movement’, Past and Present, volume 20 (1961) and John Belchem ‘English Working-Class Radicalism and the Irish 1815-50’, in Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds.) The Irish in the Victorian City, London, 1985 form the best guide to the controversy about the extent of Irish involvement in England popular radicalism.

[4] On O’Connell’s policies in the late 1830s and 1840s, see Oliver MacDonagh The Emancipist. Daniel O’Connell 1830-1847, London, 1989. Unfortunately, this is disappointingly thin on relations between the Association and the Chartists.

[5] There are important parallels between Lalor’s idea of ‘moral insurrection’ and his notion of an agrarian general strike, and the ideas of the Chartists in 1842. James S. Donnelly ‘A famine in Irish politics’, in W.E. Vaughan (ed.) A New History of Ireland: volume v Ireland under the Union I 1801-1870, Oxford, 1989, pages 365-366 provides a convenient summary of his ideas.

[6] Northern Star, 4th December 1847.

[7] H. Weisser British Working-Class Movements and Europe 1815-48, Manchester, 1975 provides the best general view of radical attitudes. David Jones Chartism and the Chartists, London, 1975, pages 159-168 furnishes a more focussed discussion while F.C. Mather (ed.) Chartism and Society, London, 1980, pages 119-137 provides useful sources.

[8] Northern Star, July 1847 quoted in Weisser British Working-Class Movements and Europe 1815-48, page 153.

[9] On Urquhart, see the elegant essay by A.J.P. Taylor ‘Dissenting Rivals: Urquhart and Cobden’, in his The Trouble Makers. Dissent over Foreign Policy 1792-1939, London, 1957, pages 37-61 and Richard Shannon ‘David Urquhart and the Foreign Affairs Committees’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 239-261. J.H. Gleason The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Public Opinion, Harvard University Press, 1950 provides a more general overview of attitudes.

[10] Joan Hugman ‘A Small Drop of Ink: Tyneside Chartism and the Northern Liberator, in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 24-47 is a useful study of the impact of this newspaper.

[11] On the development of Lovett’s internationalist stance see Joel Wiener William Lovett, Manchester, 1989, pages 108-113.

[12] Wiener William Lovett, page 112.

[13] On radical reaction to the 1848 revolutions, see Margot C. Finn After Chartism. Class and nation in English radical politics, 1848-1874, Cambridge, 1993.

[14] Jones Chartism and the Chartists, page 164.

[15] John Saville 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement, Cambridge, 1987, page 1.

[16] G. Claeys Citizens and saints. Politics and anti-politics in early British socialism, Cambridge, 1989, page 208.

[17] By the 1830s the term ‘Socialist’ had become synonymous with ‘Owenite’. I have used both terms inter-changeably in this section.

[18] On Owenism the more valuable study remains J.F.C. Harrison Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America, London, 1969.

[19] On Ironside, see the biography in J. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume ii, Macmillan, 1974, pages 201-207.

[20] Jones Chartism and the Chartists, page 37.

[21] Jones Chartism and the Chartists, page 39.

[22] Claeys Citizens and saints, pages 268-9.

[23] Claeys Citizens and saints, page 272.

No comments: