Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and the middle classes 1840-1842

The ‘new move’ was marginalised after damaging conflict in which accusations of intimidation and dictation from the O’Connor party were difficult to discount. The differences between O’Connor and the relatively small section of the Chartist leadership involved in the ‘new move’ (Lovett, Vincent, Hetherington, Collins, O’Neill and Lowery) reflected contrasts in style and emphasis. ‘Rational’ protest was increasingly opposed to O’Connor’s assurance that the mass platform was the means of achieving the Charter. It should, however, be recognised that those who rejected the ‘new move’ were not opposed to temperance or Christianity or educational reform being associated with Chartism. What they feared was the dissipation of the movement’s energies through the spread of rival organisations with different additional agendas and that shared much common ground with middle class radicalism. They also feared the intervention of middle class reformers, with their own priorities, in the movement and the debate with the Complete Suffrage Union in 1842 suggests that their fears were not unfounded. This posed a far more divisive threat to Chartism, especially in 1842-3.

The broadening of Chartism in the early 1840s left the central problem of how to achieve the Charter unanswered. What Epstein calls ‘the middle class embrace’ was one potential means of breaking the impasse. Increasingly, some Chartists concluded that without co-operation with sections of middle class radicalism, they lacked the strength to achieve their objectives. Between 1840 and 1850 there were various attempts by middle class radicals to re-forge the alliance with the working class radicalism: the Leeds Parliamentary Association 1840-41, the Complete Suffrage Union 1841-3 and the ‘Little Charter’ and National Parliamentary Reform Association 1848-50. The sticking point was O’Connor’s inflexible insistence on the full Charter and his direction that Chartism must maintain its independence from all forms of middle class radicalism. He opposed advances from sections of the Anti-Corn Law League and from calls for ‘limited’ suffrage. This was clear by early 1840[1]

“Join them now, and they will laugh at you; stand out like men and THEY MUST JOIN YOU for the Charter.”

The failure to obtain Corn Law reform from the Whig government in 1840 led to growing frustration with the narrowness of its concerns among some middle class radicals resulting in a more outward-looking attitude to reform in which suffrage reform appeared a better possibility. The Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association was formed in May and held its first public meeting in late August[2]. The ‘Leeds new move’ favoured household suffrage, the ballot, equal constituencies, triennial elections and the abolition of the property qualification. However, it reflected the opinion of certain sections of the Leeds middle class and, while it could count on the support of Working Men’s Association members and on workers who followed middle class radical leadership, it encountered widespread opposition. Edward Baines[3] and his son, proprietor of the influential Leeds Mercury, did not support the Association believing that free trade could be achieved without a dangerous tinkering with the 1832 reform settlement. Richard Cobden and the Lancashire leadership of the Anti-Corn Law League took a similar position. There was implacable opposition from the main Chartist leaders and from the columns of the Northern Star. The Association petered out in early 1841 and was eventually absorbed by the Complete Suffrage Union.

Chartism and the 1841 election

The creation of the Complete Suffrage Union was in part a response to the modest though genuine success of the Chartist intervention in the general election of 1841. Several Chartist candidates stood, though none came close to election. However, contemporaries were impressed by the disciplined way in which Chartist voters acted collectively in support of candidates recommended by their leaders. Where there was no Chartist candidate, voters were asked to support whoever was thought the most radical, with support for democratic reform (as in the case of J.A. Roebuck in Bath) coming ahead even of opposition to the new Poor Law as a touchstone.

Where there were no radical candidates, votes were to go to the Tories rather than the Whigs. J.T. Ward[4] suggests that this was a continuation of the affinity between O’Connorite Chartism and Tory Radicalism that had been forced in the factory reform and anti-poor law campaigns. James Epstein[5] disagrees arguing that such an alliance was always illusory where the Charter was concerned and that opposition to the Whigs was simply based on their record min government and in the hope of undermining them as a party leaving a gap that might be filled by a more radical party with Chartist sympathies.

Support for the Tories was not universally accepted within the Chartist leadership. Bronterre O’Brien, for example, argued that where the choice lay between Whig and Tory, the only principled position for a Chartist to take was to abstain. The new political alignment did not happen in 1841 but the Chartists’ efforts to influence the outcome of the election was viewed by contemporaries as making a material contribution to the Whig defeat. This helped to create a frame of mind in which Sturge and his allies chose to reach out to suitable figures within the movement.

The Complete Suffrage Union

Class co-operation had been the Birmingham message under Attwood and now Joseph Sturge was updating the Attwood agenda[6]. The Complete Suffrage Union developed out of the anti-corn law agitation in the autumn of 1841 following the Whig general election defeat[7]. The Rev. Edward Miall[8], editor of the Nonconformist, and Joseph Sturge, a wealthy Birmingham corn dealer, aimed at uniting the middle and working classes in a crusade to obtain ‘full, fair and free representation’ of the people in Parliament. Sturge wanted to reconcile the middle and working classes through the repeal of class-based legislation and a declaration that the exclusion of the bulk of the population from the franchise was both unconstitutional and unchristian. The movement reflected anxieties among parts of the middle class about the class tensions of the early 1840s and growing belief that Corn Law repeal would not occur without suffrage reform. What made the Complete Suffrage Union different from earlier attempts at class reconciliation was its acceptance of universal suffrage as necessary to forge a cross-class alliance. This posed a real problem for O’Connor and throughout 1842, while expressing personal respect for Sturge, he consistently opposed any Chartist alliance with the CSU. The Northern Star opposed the formation of the CSU in April 1842 on the grounds that two national associations committed to universal suffrage could not co-exist.

Some Chartists, mostly those who had already approved class collaboration, were sympathetic to the CSU. Lovett and Francis Place lent support and at the meetings organised by the CSU in Birmingham In February and April 1842 and the moderate nature of the movement was emphasised by the systematic exclusion of O’Connorites. Lovett and his allies would not budge on the Charter itself. No alternative definition of complete suffrage was acceptable. The April conference postponed a definite decision on the status of the Charter until the autumn. Sturge’s middle class supporters wanted to shed the Charter with its insurrectionary symbolism and association with threatening and fierce rhetoric. However, those who fought for it, Lovett included, celebrated its history and would abandon neither the name or the ‘six points’.

By late April 1842, there were fifty local associations and the CSU presented a rival parliamentary petition to that of the NCA. O’Connor’s attitude was ambivalent. The CSU was too closely associated with free trade and the Anti-Corn Law League to be acceptable. O’Connor initially conducted a fierce campaign against the CSU, which was obliged to adopt the Charter in all but name, but recognised the tactical advantage of an accommodation with middle class radicals and came out in favour of class collaboration in July 1842. This strategy of infiltration led to widespread Chartist support for Sturge when he stood for the open and radical constituency of Nottingham at a by-election in the summer. O’Connor did not seek an alliance with the CSU but rather the incorporation of a section of the middle class into the Chartist movement. He told a Chartist meeting at St Pancras in September 1842[9]

“We will stand firm and united – We will listen to no coalition, no half measures. Mahomet must come to the mountain…We are the mountain – we are the people.”

By the autumn, under pressure from Chartist hard-liners and by his failure to attract substantial middle class converts, he reversed his position and again attacked the CSU as ‘a League job’. A conference to try to determine a common programme was called to take place in the saloon of the Mechanics Institution, New Hall Street, Birmingham from 27th to 30th December 1842. Weeks of jockeying for position now ensued, with each faction trying to send the most delegates. O’Connor and other representatives of the NCA stood in the election to nominate delegates. This proved successful and O’Connor was elected as one of the six delegates for Sturge’s home town of Birmingham. The result was a conference packed with Chartist delegates despite prior agreement. The middle class radicals insisted on the adoption of a 96-clause ‘New Bill of Rights’ for universal suffrage instead of the emotive ‘Charter’. This was an attempt to disassociate middle class radicalism from the anarchic confusion associated with O’Connor and his supporters.

Things did not start well. Thomas Beggs, a Nottingham delegate, presented a series of resolutions, supporting the six points of the Charter, asking that the conference support “such means only for obtaining the legislative recognition of them as are of a strictly just, peaceful, legal and constitutional character” and take as the basis for discussion a Bill of Rights prepared by the council of the Complete Suffrage Union. The two measures were substantially identical, as both parties to the conference admitted, but there was an absolute deadlock over the term ‘Chartist’. Lovett, as leader of the Chartist faction at the conference, proposed in the interests of harmony that both bills be withdrawn or that both be considered clause by clause. But all attempts at conciliation failed, Lovett was not prepared to accept this and tactically (and temporarily) joined with O’Connor in substituting ‘Charter’ for ‘Bill’ and his original motion carried by the decisive majority of 193 to 94. When it became clear that the Charter had the support of the majority of delegates, Joseph Sturge resigned from the chair and withdrew from the conference with many of his supporters. Further splits followed as the conference went on, and by its end the 300 to 400 delegates present at its opening had fallen to just 37. Neither side would accept the other’s conditions for joint action. Class collaboration was ended, the CSU was allowed to wither and O’Connor’s grip of the movement was tightened.


[1] Northern Star, 28th March 1840.

[2] On the LPRA see Epstein The Lion of Freedom, pages 265-273 and Fraser Urban Politics in Victorian England, pages 260-61.

[3] On Baines see Derek Fraser ‘Edward Baines’, in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 183-209.

[4] J.T. Ward Chartism, pages 150-51, 156.

[5] Epstein The Lion of Freedom, pages 276-86.

[6] On the Complete Suffrage Union, Epstein The Lion of Freedom, pages 286-302 is the best examination of Chartist responses. Alexander Wilson ‘The Suffrage Movement’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 80-104 considers the 1840s and the 1850s with a useful section on the CSU. Alex Tyrrell Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain, London, 1987 is the standard biography.

[7] The defeat of the Whig administration in the general election of 1841 and its replacement with the Conservative administration of Sir Robert Peel posed problems for both the Anti-Corn Law League and Chartism. The Conservatives, especially the Tory wing of the party, had opposed Whig constitutional reforms and were in favour of retaining the Corn Laws.

[8] On Edward Miall, see David M. Thomson ‘The Liberation Society 1844-1868’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 210-238.

[9] Northern Star, 17th September 1842.

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