Friday, 19 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Land Plan

The Chartist Land Plan formed a central plank of Chartist activities during the mid and late 1840s. However, it has attracted little attention from recent historians[1]. The Land Plan appears to have passed revisionist historians by. Epstein’s biography stopped short of considering it though his discussion of O’Connor’s agrarian ideas is, according to Chase[2] “a notable exception in a historiographical pattern that has generally alternated between condescension and hostility”. Much modern thinking on the Land Plan has been coloured by contemporary hostility to O’Connor. The Select Committee on the National Land Company concluded in 1847-8 that it would have taken 115 years to settle the full membership on land. Gammage was damning in his critique of the Land Plan[3] and subsequent historians were quick to view it either as an irrelevance or as an unwarranted diversion from campaigning for the Charter[4]. Recent historians have scarcely been less charitable dismissing it as ‘unquestionably reactionary’ and ‘harebrained’[5], ‘utopian’, ‘nostalgic’ and ‘escapist’[6]. It is ironic that the only two considered accounts of the Plan were published abroad[7]. Chase rightly argues that the Land Plan has been the victim of the tendency to ‘Whig interpretation’. The Plan is dismissed as a cul-de-sac, a wrong turning that may have impaired the relentless forward march of labour.

One aspect of the Land Plan has, however, been subject to considerable revision in the last twenty years. O’Connor is now taken more seriously and viewed less critically[8]. While it is possible to look at Chartism without O’Connor, his role in the Land Plan was so fundamental that without him, as Chase[9] says, “the Land Plan would be inconceivable”. The Land Question had been at the heart of the radical critique since the late eighteenth century[10]. There were differences in radical emphasis. Some wanted the nationalisation of land, while others sought small, private ownership. The 1830s and 1840s saw a widespread interest in schemes designed to settle workers on the land. O’Connor consciously built on this. As early as 1839 he told Rochdale Chartists that “The labourers ought to possess the earth”[11]. O’Connor’s recognition of the importance of land contained two in part contradictory analyses. First, he wanted to re-establish a balance between industry and agriculture. In doing so, like William Cobbett, he drew an idealised and highly moralised portrait of a rural ‘golden age’ with its ‘cottage economy’. He was not opposed to machinery as such but to the consequence of their use in factories especially the displacement of workers and the unequal distribution of the wealth created[12].

“Formerly society was divided into small rural communities, so closely allied in interest, and so mutually dependent upon each other for companionship, as to make them resemble a large family…There were masters and men reciprocally depending upon each other for everything…Thus did the machinery work well and harmoniously and the little community was happy…”

More important than this pseudo-paternalist viewpoint, however, was O’Connor’s desire to establish communities based upon the independence of the worker. He saw the land as providing comfort and security for working people. This was based on a more general Chartist political critique of excessive wealth that was seen as the primary cause of economic and political inequalities. This went to the heart of Chartist demands and gave the movement renewed momentum after the debacle of 1842. The widening divisions in society, many believed, were driving it to the brink of disaster. O’Connor, as Epstein says[13], was not advancing any original economic or social ideas. They were found in Owenism. However, he did capture an “artisan consciousness concerned with the values of independence and self-reliance”. Whether Epstein is right that this was a “‘backward-looking’ ideal in the sense that it implied an arresting of the full development of the emergent forces of industrial capitalism” is, however, more debatable.

Local Chartists readily took up O’Connor’s call for ‘Chartist Land Associations’ as early as August 1840. Cirencester, a decaying textile centre, was the first locality to consider forming a land association. Local Chartists, who came from the radical agrarian tradition of the pre-Chartist years, like the Spencean and socialist Allen Davenport from London’s East End and William Beesley from north Lancashire, played a formative role in the development of O’Connor’s ideas. Two provincial leaders, both of whom were Owenites – James Hobson of Leeds and Thomas Martin Wheeler[14] of west London – were critical to O’Connor in the genesis of the Land Plan. Provincial support finally secured approval for the Land Plan at the Birmingham Convention in 1843. Certainly, the Land Plan revitalised the movement and O’Connor had provided detailed proposals in 1843 with the publication of his cheap The management of small farms that expounded his ideas on labour-intensive farming. Much of the success in mobilising in 1848 came from the underlying structure of the Plan that had taken off nationally the previous year. O’Connor recognised this. The 1848 Petition, symbolically, was carried on a wagon made from wood felled on the company’s estates.

The Land Plan provided a major outlet for frustrated Chartists. It proved immensely popular as well as an opportunity for further ridicule from their opponents. The idea was to raise capital for a land company from the purchase of shares at 3d or more a week. Land would then be bought and made into smallholdings. Shareholders, chosen by ballot, then rented the land. This income would allow further estates to be purchased. What marked the Land Plan out was its size. This had never been anticipated and helps explain its ultimate failure. At its peak, it attracted some 70,000 weekly subscribers. Initial support came from the industrial north and Midlands but enthusiasm soon spread south. The national list of subscribers for 1847-8 is an invaluable but neglected source on later Chartism. A sample of 171 Liverpool subscribers[15] shows that skilled workers, tailors and stonemasons, made up sixty per cent of that number with an almost complete absence of unskilled or semi-skilled workers like dockers, warehousemen and seamen.

Momentum gathered once O’Connor purchased his first site near Watford and on May Day 1847 the first tenants moved into O’Connorville. Subscriptions soared and the re-named National Co-operative Land Company bought further estates at Lowbands, Snigs End, Minster Lovell and Great Dodford. Over £100,000 was raised, though only 250 of the 70,000 subscribers ever settled on the two-acre allotments. However, the Company and its associated Land Bank were plagued by legal difficulties[16]. In May 1848, Parliament appointed a select committee to investigate the Land Company. Though there was no evidence for the rumours of fraud, the accounts were confused and inaccurate and this further weakened confidence in the scheme. O’Connor found that the flow of share capital was drying up and, after exploring alternative means of saving the scheme, he finally took the route recommended by the select committee and wound the company up in 1851.

It is not enough to blame the breakdown of O’Connor’s health and personal finances and his declining authority in the movement after 1848 for the collapse of the Land Plan. Government obstruction and the sheer impracticality of the scheme played their part. The collapse of the Land Plan may have marked the end of agrarian fundamentalism but the appeal of ‘back to the land’ remained strong[17]. Interest in the land question continued into the 1850s. The Chartist Convention of 1851 accepted land nationalisation as a central plank of its political programme. Ernest Jones[18] and his supporters embraced agrarian reform in the Labour Parliament of 1853-4. Popular belief in land reform as a way of ensuring the prosperity of the working class endured.


[1] Joy MacAskill ‘The Chartist Land Plan’, in Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, pages 304-341 and A.M. Hadfield The Chartist Land Company, Newton Abbot, 1970 remains the only extended discussion. Malcolm Chase ‘We Wish only to Work for Ourselves’: the Chartist Land Plan’ in Malcolm Chase and Ian Dyck (eds.) Living and Learning. Essays in Honour of J.F.C. Harrison, Aldershot, 1996, pages 133-148 is invaluable in bringing them up-to-date.

[2] Chase ‘We Wish only to Work for Ourselves: the Chartist Land Plan’, in Chase and Dyck (eds.) Living and Learning, page 133.

[3] Gammage History of the Chartist Movement, pages 249, 268, 276-8, 375.

[4] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester 1918 thought it was “not a real Chartist scheme” while A.L. Morton A People’s History of England, London, 1938 thought it “took up energy that might have been better spent”.

[5] R.K. Webb Modern England, London, 1980, page 262.

[6] Malcolm I. Thomis The Town Labourer and the Industrial Revolution, London, 1974, pages 99-100.

[7] Edouard Dolleans Le Chartisme, two volumes, Paris, 1912-13 and Fritz Bachmann Die Agrarreform in de Chartistenbewegung, Bern, 1928.

[8] James Epstein The Lion of Freedom, London, 1982, pages 249-257 provides an invaluable discussion of O’Connor’s attitude to the Land Question.

[9] Chase ‘We Wish only to Work for Ourselves: the Chartist Land Plan’, in Chase and Dyck (eds.) Living and Learning, page 135.

[10] Malcolm Chase ‘The People’s Farm’: English Radical Agrarianism, 1775-1840, Oxford, 1988 is the best general survey of this issue. More specific consideration of the issue can be found in Ian Dyck William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture, Cambridge, 1992, especially pages 107-152 and P.M. Ashraf The Life and Times of Thomas Spence, Gateshead, 1983, pages 120-145.

[11] Northern Star 13th July 1839.

[12] Northern Star, 16th May 1840.

[13] Epstein The Lion of Freedom, pages 256-7.

[14] Thomas Martin Wheeler (1811-62) worked closely with O’Connor and attended every Chartist convention between 1839 and 1851. He also served as secretary of the Land Company. Wheeler was probably responsible for a considerable share of O’Connor’s book Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms published London, 1843. On Wheeler, see J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume vi, London, 1982, pages 266-269.

[15] Alan Little ‘Liverpool Chartists: Subscribers to the National Land Company, 1847-8’ in John Belchem (ed.) Popular Politics, Riot and Labour. Essays in Liverpool History 1790-1940, Liverpool, 1992, pages 247-251.

[16] E. Yeo ‘Some Problems and Practices of Chartist Democracy’, in J. Epstein and D. Thompson The Chartist Experience, London, 1982, pages 368-372 provides an invaluable examination of the crippling legal obstacles to the registration of the Land Company as either a joint stock company or a Friendly Society.

[17] The Land Plan and its posthumous history is discussed in greater detail in volume 2, chapter 8.

[18] On Jones, see John Saville Ernest Jones, Chartist, London, 1952.

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