Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Chartists and the 1841 election

The 1841 election was a major triumph for Peel[1]. It produced a victory for the Conservatives by more than seventy seats (a majority of 76) and was also the first time in British electoral history that a party with a theoretical parliamentary majority had been replaced by another with a majority.

Analysing the election: a context

The analysis of the election by type of seat appears to support the conclusion that Peel broadened the Tory base. The Conservatives won almost as many seats in the English and Welsh boroughs as the Whigs and this was a notable achievement for a party grounded in the land. However, a closer look at the types of boroughs is important. Only 44 of the seats won in English and Welsh boroughs were in paces with electorates over 1000. In the 58 largest boroughs, the Whigs won almost three times as many seats as the Conservatives and Peel’s party suffered a net loss of two seats compared to its performance in 1837. These larger boroughs were concentrated in the industrial midlands and north where Peel was seeking to broaden the party’s electoral base. But it was here that the Conservatives did least well. The larger towns where the Conservatives did have some success were older ports and commercial centres like the City of London, Bristol and Hull rather than industrial centres like Manchester and Leeds.

In general, the Conservatives did best in those boroughs that were little changed by the 1832 Reform Act. Several of these were still old-style ‘rotten boroughs’ where the patronage of a substantial landowner, rather than electoral popularity, was the decisive factor. Many had little to do with industry but were market towns whose economy was dominated by farming. In addition, there were only contests in 47 per cent of the country’s constituencies, considerably less than in the elections in 1832, 1835 and 1837 which the Whigs had won, albeit with reduced majorities.

The Conservative majority was based on small boroughs and especially the counties of England. The Whigs were all but wiped out in the English counties winning only 20 (14 per cent) of the 144 available seats. By contrast, Ireland and Scotland returned Whig or Whig-allied majorities of roughly three to two. The Conservatives hardly made any showing in the Scottish boroughs.

The Conservatives won in 1841 because they had majority support where the seats were thickest on the ground in southern England and not where the electorates were more numerous or changed by recent industrial and commercial developments. The Conservatives were the party of rural England, were not strong in the United Kingdom as a whole and the Conservative party remained dominated by old-style Tory opinion. Not surprisingly, a large number of Conservative MPs elected in 1841 were fervent Protectionists.

Peel did not advertise his unease about Protection to either the voters or his own supporters. He relied on his growing reputation as an expert in financial and commercial issues to give him votes in the towns while encouraging rural Tories to act in defence of the Corn Laws. Tory votes appear to have been cast overwhelmingly for the party most likely to protect landowners and the Protestant Church. Peel had a broader vision, though he did little to inform potential Tory voters of his real intensions in economic policy, but his party’s creed was far narrower. The 1841 election was a victory for Protectionist Toryism not Peelite Conservatism. Yet much of Peel’s policies as prime minister from 1841 to 1846 ignored this fundamental distinction. It was not long until differences within the Conservative party began to appear.

Anti-poor law attitudes

Agitation against the new Poor Law had been building up in the north of England since the legislation was passed by the Whigs in 1834[2]. Initially the Act was received favourably by the powerful provincial northern press because it was felt to be irrelevant to the industrial areas where poor rates were much lower than in the south and parochial relief had often already been organised. Implementation in the north from the end of 1836 aroused serious and sometimes violent opposition, much of it organised by Tory radicals such as Michael Sadler and Richard Oastler. These middle class reformers, already prominent in campaigning for factory reform, provided an effective campaign against the new Act that the resistance in the south had lacked. The anti-poor law movement in the North represented a temporary alliance between working and middle classes against legislation that was widely regarded as unjust and intrusive; in a sense it was also a local reaction against centralisation that cut across class lines. Eventually differences in emphasis and ideas between Tory radicals, who emphasised the value of paternalism and the emerging Chartist leaders, with their belief in universal suffrage, ruptured the alliance. By the end of 1838, the violent phase of resistance had died down as poor law unions were gradually established and the poor law commissioners made concessions that allowed boards of guardians to give outdoor relief in Lancashire and Yorkshire if the situation required it. By 1839, the campaign began to disintegrate as working class resentment was appeased by the continued use of outdoor relief and rivalries between middle class and working class elements of the movement came to the fore. Increasingly Chartism attracted the more radical supporters of the agitation.

It is difficult to assess the impact of anti-Poor Law sentiment as a campaign issue in 1841. Its electoral potential had been tested at a by-election in Nottingham in April 1841 held several weeks before the general election. The results were not promising for the Whigs. Nottingham had long been a Whig borough and Whigs had been returned to both parliamentary seats since 1818. They also dominated municipal politics holding fifty office of the corporation in 1839 compared to the Conservatives six. Whig dominance was grounded in an extensive popular franchise with voting rights resting with the 40s freeholders and the freemen of the borough. The largest single occupational group among the freemen was the framework-knitters who had traditionally been anti-Conservative. However, rising levels of unemployment and the new Poor Law made the borough electorate a fertile recruiting ground for the Conservatives. In early 1841, anti-poor law feelings focused on the construction of a new workhouse ‘of extreme size’[3] and, for the increasingly depressed working class in Nottingham it seemed large enough to house them all[4]. The alarm of the poor was matched by the dismay of the ratepayers who bore the cost of constructing this ‘pauper palace’ and at a protest meeting an opponent of the new workhouse succinctly summed this up when he declared in favour of the Old Poor Law that it ‘was far more satisfactory than the present sweeping system of centralisation, with all its cumbrous machinery—a system which abridged the comforts of the poor and increased the taxes of the ratepayers.’ [5]

The death of one of the sitting Whig MPs, Sir Ronald Ferguson came at the height of this controversy. The ensuing by-election pitted a Whig, George Larpent (named ‘Larpent the Sarpent’ by his working class opposition) against John Walter, the editor of The Times. Larpent stood on a progressive platform: he supported the ballot and Corn Law abolition and was opposed to church rates; all issues that he hoped would gain him working class support. Walter simply stood as an anti-poor law candidate and this allowed him to represent himself as the popular candidate despite his Conservative credentials. Though corruption was not uncommon in Nottingham elections and both candidates used this tactic in the election campaign, the issue of the Poor Law was the deciding factor. Walter won by slightly over 200 votes out of a total poll of 3,600 but critically he won just over half the votes of the framework-knitters[6]. This was a warning to the Whig government. If they could not hold Nottingham, what seat could be called ‘safe’?

Some effort was made by the Conservatives in their selection of candidates to take advantage of the anti-poor law mood of the north. Disraeli[7], for example, was urged to stand for Leicester because of his known opposition to the Poor Laws. During the campaign, speeches against the Poor Law were made in several constituencies including Ipswich, Plymouth, Maidstone, Northampton, the City of London, North Northumberland and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Conservative candidates usually represented the Poor Law as a dangerous centralising tendency by concentrating too much power in the hands of the Poor Law Commission. The speech of Fitzroy Kelley at Ipswich (where he lost) was typical[8]: he condemned the Commission as ‘those three Inquisitors’ and called for a return of the administration of the Poor Law to local authorities.

The anti-Poor Law attitudes cultivated during the campaign contributed significantly to an electoral alliance between Conservatives and Chartists. By making it as electoral issue, the Conservative platform proved temporarily attractive to the Chartists, for whom opposition to the Poor Law was an important source of support. In addition, Chartist distaste for the Whig government had grown since 1839 with the attempted suppression of Chartism and the arrest of Chartist leaders. ‘Whig tyranny’ was a popular cry among Chartists, something that the Conservatives could and did exploit.

Anti-free trade attitudes

A further basis for co-operation between Conservatives and Chartists was their distrust of the growing free trade movement. To the Chartists, the Whig tariff revision scheme proposed by Francis Baring in April sounded suspiciously like the free trade ideology of the Anti-Corn Law League. Chartists believed that manufacturers’ support for Corn Law repeal was not based on a genuine impulse to provide cheaper food for workers, but on the assumption that cheaper brad would enable them to reduce labour costs by reducing wages. A pamphlet produced in 1833 by Henry Ashworth, a well known Lancashire cotton master had advocated cheap bread on precisely those lines[9]. Ashworth actively supported the League and served as director and president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce for several years and was a close friend of Richard Cobden and John Bright. It is therefore not surprising that many Chartists saw the League as an instrument of middle class exploitation and sought to disrupt its activities and meetings whenever possible.

Chartist disruption of free trade meetings had begun before the election. They were especially active in the Staffordshire potteries. At Hanley, for example, a local Chartist named Richards reportedly supported by hundreds of Chartists spoke against Corn Law abolition at a free trade meeting[10]. A similar free trade meeting at Wednesbury was taken over by a Chartist called Candy[11]. In Leicester, the Chartists set up a rival platform at a free trade meeting and attacked the proposed Whig tariff reductions as useless to working men[12]. At York, James Leach, a Chartist lecturer denounced anti-Corn Law statements: ‘the burden of the people ought first to be removed’, he said, ‘and then they may talk of free trade’[13]. The Chartist Charles Harris became co-chairman of a free trade meeting in Gloucestershire at Stroud simply by mounting the platform and seating himself next to the delegated chairman. Later in the meeting, Harris spoke of Chartist disappointment with the Whig government and of the real purpose of Corn Law reduction[14]: ‘He would tell the meeting what the gentlemen wanted who called for a repeal of the corn law—they did not want cheap bread—they wanted cheap labour’. The Chartists were able to counter the Whig electoral cry of ‘cheap bread’ with their own cry of ‘low wages’.

Chartists in the election

The Chartists sponsored a few candidates of their own: Peter McDouall stood for Northampton, Henry Vincent for Banbury and George Julian Harney and Lawrence Pitkeithly for the West Riding[15]. The Northampton election provides the clearest example of the Chartist-Conservative alliance. Weeks before the election, Northampton Chartists were already speaking out against the Whig government. The Conservative Northampton Herald encouraged this by opening its pages to Chartist letters and noted with approval Chartist speakers who ‘uttered sentiments with which we and every sound Conservative must cordially coincide’. The Chartist campaign was, however, unsuccessful. McDouall was last out of four and the Conservative Sir Henry Willoughby was third. However, the poll book demonstrates the impact of the Chartist-Conservative alliance. Of the 176 votes cast for McDouall, only 22 split with the Whig candidates while 149 split with Willoughby. Of these 149, it was said that 114 were well-known Conservatives[16]. A more successful alliance occurred in Bradford where the Conservative John Hardy headed the poll[17]. This was the climax of four years intensive Conservative electioneering among Bradford’s working men that began with the formation of the Operative Conservative Society in 1837. From 1837 to 1840, when technologically displaced handloom weavers formed the bulk of support for Bradford Chartism, the Conservatives maintained their efforts to win the working class constituency while the Whigs focussed on organising a local anti-Corn Law campaign. Conservative election overtures to the Chartists in 1841 assured Hardy of his victory[18].

Local Chartist leaders actively collaborated with the Conservatives elsewhere. At an election meeting in Leeds, a Chartist-Conservative called Parker pledged his support to the banker, William Becket. Becket was placed top of the poll at Leeds displacing one of the Whig incumbents.[19] Chartist speakers also appeared at the Norwich, Newcastle, Ipswich, Salford and Tower Hamlet elections. In Gloucester, Henry Vincent urged the electorate to vote for the Conservatives[20]: he ‘admitted that the Tories were bad enough in all conscience [but] they were possessed of more political honesty than their opponents, and have never evinced, even in the palmy days of Castlereagh and spies, such savage cruelty as the Whigs had done in their crusade against the Chartists.’

The Chartists looked on the Conservatives with hardly more favour than they regarded the Whigs. The alliance was purely a tactical move. They hoped to defeat the Whigs and then to force them to make political concessions to get Chartist support. O’Connor put the case simply[21]: the Chartists must ‘use the Tories for the purpose of beating the Whigs’. A Chartist in Leicester put it slightly more graphically[22]: they must make use of the Tories ‘in order to cut politically the throats of the Whigs, but when they had procured all that the people required, then they would turn round and cut the throats of all the Tories’. Conservative candidates were ambivalent in their attitude to the Chartists. Henry Halford shared the hustings with Chartists in his successful Conservative candidacy in South Leicestershire but confessed he felt himself to be in a ‘somewhat strange’ position and that he could only explain the Chartist preference for Conservatives as a preference given to ‘open and determined enemies, above treacherous and deceitful friends’[23]. Some Conservatives were more enthusiastic and openly embraced Chartist support. Edward Goulburn made a direct appeal to Chartists at the Carlisle election. In his pre-election address, he condemned the Whig prosecution of Chartist leaders. Though unsuccessful, Goulburn managed a respectable poll given that Conservatives had not contested the seat since 1832[24].

The Chartist-Conservative alliance thoroughly alarmed the Whigs. As early as the Nottingham by-election, they thought that an alliance was forming and the Whiggish Bristol Gazette had written of 22nd April of the ‘unholy alliance’ operating in Nottingham. The Leeds Mercury was equally concerned at the Nottingham result and hoped to discredit the Conservatives by linking them to disreputable individuals. It said, on 1st May, ‘It would both disgust our readers and the public to detail the arts which the Tory-Chartist-Revolutionary-Socialist-Infidel coalition resort to’. Even in Birmingham, where there had been significant co-operation between middle and working classes, the Whig majority was significantly reduced at the general election to such an extent that Thomas Attwood made a public statement deploring Chartist tactics[25].

1841: a Chartist success?

There were limits to Chartist influence on the 1841 election and it is important not to over-emphasise this. There was more talk than action and many Chartists could exert no direct influence since they remained unenfranchised. Neither was support for the Tories 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. Chartist leadership was notoriously weak, often divided and occasionally corrupt. For example, the Norwich Chartist named Dover apparently accepted a bribe to withdraw the name of a Chartist candidate for the borough. When the Chartist crowd discovered this deception of nomination day, they chased Dover from the public house where he lodged and he was in danger of his life when rescued by the borough police[26].

Several Chartist candidates stood, though none came close to winning. However, contemporaries were impressed by the disciplined way in which Chartist voters acted collectively in support of candidates who were 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[27] suggests that this was a continuation of the affinity between O’Connorite Chartism and Tory Radicalism that had been found in the factory reform and anti-poor law campaigns. James Epstein[28] 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 in 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. If Epstein is right, then it was a strategy that completely failed.

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. If Chartist influence was likely to be decisive, it was only in a few constituencies and then only where the electoral arithmetic was already leaning towards the Conservatives. However, it was another electoral blow that cost the Whigs the election. 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 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.


[1] There are three important papers on the 1841 election: R.H. Cameron ‘The Melbourne Administration, the Liberals, and the crisis of 1841’, Durham University Journal, volume 69, (1976), pages 83-102, B. Kemp ‘The General Election of 1841’, History, volume 37, (1952), pages 146-152 and B. Jaggard The 1841 British General Election: a Reconsideration’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, volume 30, (1984), pages 99-114.

[2] Detailed analysis of opposition to the introduction of the 1834 Act can be found in N. Edsall The Anti-Poor Law Movement 1833-1844, Manchester University Press, 1971 and J. Knott Popular Opposition to the 1834 Poor Law, Croom Helm, 1985

[3] It was 364 feet long with a roof reservoir providing hot and cold water and there was also a water closet on each floor. However, these amenities did little to allay the fears of working people.

[4] Nottingham Review, 2nd April 1841.

[5] Nottingham Mercury, 18th June 1841.

[6] An Alphabetical List of the Burgesses, Occupiers and Freeholders who poled at the election of a Burgess to Represent the Town of Nottingham….April 1841, Nottingham, no date shows that about twenty per cent of the Nottingham electorate who voted in the by-election were framework-knitters: 728 out of a total of 3,728. 366 voted for Walter and 362 for Larpent. This represented a significant shift in support by framework-knitters towards the Conservatives since the 1837 election.

[7] Hughenden MSS: B/1/B/6, 26th May 1841, C.H. Frewen MP to Disraeli.

[8] Ipswich Journal, 26th June 1841.

[9] Rhodes Boyson The Ashworth Cottob Enterprise: the Rise and Fall of a Family Firm 1818-1880, Oxford University Press, 1970, pages 170-171.

[10] Staffordshire Advertiser, 29th May 1841.

[11] North Staffordshire Mercury, 22nd May 1841.

[12] Leicester Mercury, 5th June 1841.

[13] York Herald, 26th June 1841.

[14] Bristol Gazette, 27th May 1841.

[15] Harney and Pitkeithly later withdrew their candidacy to avoid election costs: A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: A Portrait of George Julian Harney, 1958, pages 107-108.

[16] Northampton Mercury, 17th July 1841.

[17] A.J. Peacock Bradford Chartism 1838-1840, Borthwick Papers, number 36, York, 1969 and D.G. Wright ‘A Radical Borough: Parliamentary Politics in Bradford 1832-1841’, Northern History, volume iv, (1969), pages 132-166 provide the context.

[18] A report in the York Herald, 3rd July 1841 confirms the importance of the Chartist vote to Hardy,

[19] Leeds Mercury, 29th May 1841.

[20] Nottingham Review, 30th April 1841.

[21] Northern Star, 19th June 1841.

[22] Leicester Mercury, 29th May 1841.

[23] Leicester Mercury, 23rd July 1841.

[24] Carlisle Patriot, 26th June and 3rd July 1841.

[25] Birmingham Journal, 10th July 1841.

[26] Accounts of this can be found in the Norfolk Chronicle, 3rd July 1841 and the Norwich Mercury, 3rd July 1841.

[27] J.T. Ward Chartism, Batsford, 1972, pages 150-51, 156.

[28] James Epstein The Lion of Freedom, Croom Helm, 1982, pages 276-86.

No comments: