Monday, 1 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The National Charter Association--a working class party?


In its early stages, the Chartist movement consisted entirely of local groups with no central co-ordination. In 1839, the main co-ordinating force for Chartism had been the National Convention. Though this represented a breakthrough in radical structures, it proved organisationally and financially weak and this, combined with perceived lack of unity among the leadership, helps explain the defeat of the movement in 1839-40. O’Connor and other Chartists recognised that reorganisation was essential if Chartism was to survive. Following the failure of the first Charter petition and a series of arrests up and down the country, many of these local groups had become disorganised. Despite this diversity, a significant degree of unity and national organisation was provided by the National Charter Association (NCA) formed on 20th July 1840 at the Griffin Tavern in Manchester.

Establishing the NCA

At local and district levels this process began in the spring of 1840. For example, the Northern Political Union was reformed by the Newcastle Chartists, a Radical Association was revived in Carlisle and the Durham Charter Association was formed by Sunderland Chartists. Birmingham Chartists regrouped and an unsuccessful attempt was made to unite all London Chartists in the Metropolitan Charter Union. There is no doubting its vitality though, as Mark Hovell noted[1], it “was much more localised than in 1839 but within its narrow bounds it was stronger and healthier”. This provided the impetus for national reorganisation and during the late spring and summer the Chartist press was filled with calls and plans for a parallel national process. O’Connor, now in prison, monitored developments closely and supported moves for a national delegate conference in Manchester in July. The problem, as O’Connor rightly recognised, was not the creation of a permanent Chartist national executive but how this should be funded. Various schemes were discussed when the twenty-three delegates[2] met on 20th July at the Griffin Tavern in Manchester and the organisation established signified the desire of the movement’s leadership and grass roots to move towards a permanent, national, centralised organisation.

Organisation: national and local

A NCA Executive Council, consisting of seven full-time, paid members, was responsible for the co-ordination of the national Chartist movement.

  • The general secretary was to be paid £2 a week, and members of the executive were to receive 30 shillings a week while they were sitting.
  • The Executive Council was to be elected annually by a ballot of all NCA members with each county being able to nominate one candidate.
  • Members of the NCA had to sign a declaration agreeing to the Association’s principles and buy a 2d quarterly membership card. Where possible members were organised locally into classes of ten under a class leader who was responsible for collecting each member’s 1d subscription.

Classes were grouped into wards or divisions and monthly ward meetings heard reports from class leaders.

  • There was to be a ‘collector’ for each ward responsible for forwarding subscriptions to the National Executive.
  • The membership was divided into classes of ten, whose leaders fed into was, town, ‘county and riding’ that had its own councils with officers elected democratically.
  • There were to be local branches, and an annually elected general council and an executive.
  • Half of the money collected by local branches was to be at the disposal of the executive and plans were formulated to stand Chartist candidates at the next general election.

The success in establishing this local structure was variable. This pioneering structure took democratic, mass party organisation into new areas of political life. It sought to address the problems posed by funding political organisations and recognised the need to accommodate local and occupational diversity within a national framework[3].

The NCA remained the major national organisation for the next decade, though its membership and influence declined after 1842, and some historians have seen it as the first independent working class political party. Epstein argues that[4] “…the NCA, together with the leadership of O’Connor and the Northern Star, provided an essential source of radical working-class radical unity and direction. There can be no doubt that the establishment and growth of the NCA marked a major qualitative advance in working-class organisation and leadership.”

The NCA was not, however, a unique organisation. Working class voluntary organisations were becoming increasingly sophisticated and the NCA drew from their experience. The Methodists had used class organisation for evangelism and collecting subscriptions within a national framework for half a century. The Owenite movement, reorganised from 1835, had a system of districts, paid national officials and subscriptions. Attempts to form national trade unions, especially the Miners’ Association in 1842, had organisational parallels with the NCA. The major difference between these bodies and the NCA was that they tended to be exclusive organisations while the NCA sought inclusiveness.

There is disagreement among historians as to whether this system owed more to trade union, Methodist or parish government and precedent. John Charlton[5] argues the model was a trade union one but without any direct supporting evidence, though it did have certain affinities with trade union modes of organisation with which many Chartists were familiar. However, many Chartists also had experienced Methodist ways of organising[6]: “Class meetings, weekly subscriptions, hymns, camp meetings and Love Feasts were all employed by the Chartists.” Eileen Yeo[7] puts this in perspective by showing that Chartism, unlike Wesleyan Methodism, safeguarded popular control through the election of class leaders. She also pointed out that links could be drawn between Chartist organisation and the parish system of local government, where the quarterly meeting of the vestry had been attracting increasing popular participation in the early nineteenth century. This was a commonsense way of organising and was reflected in parallel developments in Owenism, friendly societies and trade unions at about the same time and perhaps historians should not read too much into these competing explanations of the roots of the NCA.

Expansion and difficulties

The NCA grew gradually during 1840. By the end of the year, fewer than 70 local associations had affiliated. These were concentrated in Lancashire and Yorkshire, the Nottinghamshire-Derby area and in London. Birmingham and the West Midlands and Scotland showed little interest. Count and district organisations were established in Lancashire, the West Riding, the East Midlands, Durham and Gloucester and full-time NCA missionaries had been employed in each of these areas apart from Gloucester. Some Chartists hesitated. There were three main reasons for this.

  • First, some Chartists opposed the principle of centralisation and the loss of local independence and control. It was though dangerous to[8] “Give such monstrous powers into the hands of a set of reckless politicians, sitting in Manchester to determine the fate of any agitation that may be honestly and assiduously taken up by the people?” There was also some concern that keeping a central register of members provided the authorities with the opportunity of playing the illegality card.
  • Secondly, they objected to the appointment of paid itinerant orators or men ‘making a trade of politics’.
  • Finally, there was the question of the legality of NCA activities especially correspondence between NCA secretaries[9]. This was addressed at a delegate meeting in late February 1841 that adopted a new plan of organisation. The major change was to stress that all NCA members belonged to one society. This, it was hoped, would get round the law by having all correspondence within one national organisation rather than between affiliated branches and localities. This appears to have calmed Chartist fears but despite this prominent Chartists like William Lovett and John Collins stayed out of the NCA.

After a slow start, which probably owed something to these reservations, the NCA grew rapidly and spread outwards from its original heartland in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. During 1841, local Chartist and Working Men’s Associations were drawn into the NCA and from February 1841 to the end of the year, the NCA grew from eighty associations to 282 with twenty thousand members. NCA election results from eighty-three localities in June 1841 suggested about 5,000 active participants but the petitioning campaign for the return of Frost from transportation had already generated two million signatures and too much should not be read into the limited electoral involvement. By June 1842, there were over four hundred local associations and fifty thousand members and by the autumn of 1842, when the NCA reached its peak, some seventy thousand membership cards had been issued.

On the basis of membership cards taken out between March 1841 and October 1842, the NCA’s strongholds were

  • In the Lancashire cotton towns.
  • The West Riding textile district around Leeds and especially Bradford.
  • The centres of the footwear and hosiery trades in the East Midlands from Sutton-in-Ashfield to Northampton.
  • The Staffordshire Potteries.
  • The Black Country in the West Midlands.
  • The north-eastern coalfield around Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
  • The South Wales valleys.
  • The towns in the West Country from Gloucester to Trowbridge where there were also declining craft industries, including footwear in Bath, that shared with Cheltenham and Brighton the unexpected distinction of combining a high-class resort and residential economy with a strong and ensuring Chartist presence.

There was also a growing presence in London where eight thousand membership cards were issued. Scotland did not embrace the NCA having developed a different set of institutions of its own. The membership figures formed only the tip of the iceberg with many committed Chartists being unable to afford or to keep up the small subscriptions or holding themselves aloof from the increasingly O’Connorite politics of the NCA or simply scornful of this system of organisation, preferring to celebrate spontaneity and independence.

The defeat of the mass strikes of 1842, concerns surrounding the NCA’s accounts ferociously attacked in the columns of the Northern Star, attacks on the leadership in 1842 and 1843 as well as the general decrease in radical activity seriously affected further growth and its influence declined. Reorganised again in 1843, it moved its base to London. Nevertheless, the NCA offered a structure and organisational framework that had previously been lacking in Chartism. John Belchem[10] argues that “The NCA was the cornerstone of a democratic, counter-culture of Chartist schools, stores, chapels, burial clubs, temperance societies and other facilities for education, recreation and the celebration of radical anniversaries.”

It has been claimed that the NCA was the first working class political party. It deserves at least as much attention as the Anti-Corn Law League in studies of extra-parliamentary organisation, especially given the difficult legal and financial circumstances in which it operated. There are some aspects of the organisation of the NCA that had some of the characteristics of modern political parties: it had a centralised and bureaucratic structure; it linked centre and localities; and it had a clear ideological stance. However the NCA is labelled, it was certainly an important and perhaps path-breaking organisation.

O’Connor’s ‘party’?

The NCA was very much O’Connor’s organisation and was often denounced as ‘O’Connor’s party’. He believed that the Charter could only be achieved by a united working class organised in an independent, national party. The NCA was established as a model of democratic leadership and O’Connor defended it vigorously. This led to significant personal opposition. Many Chartists, including Lovett, refused to join[11]. O’Connor feared, not without foundation, the movement would fragment. Lovett’s association had considerable middle-class backing and the success of Chartist municipal candidates in Leeds owed something to the efforts being made to re-forge a Chartist-Radical alliance. O’Connor took the view that the Anti-Corn Law League offered working people minimum support to achieve its own ends but the winter of 1841-2 saw agreement reached in several cities between Chartists and Corn Law repealers. However, his relationship with the NCA was highly ambiguous: for example, he remained off the executive council until September 1843. His status and the legitimacy of his leadership came from being an independent gentleman very much in the Hunt and Cobbett tradition. This older tradition of the ‘platform’ coexisted with the newer and more formally organised forms of radical protest characterised by the NCA. In this process of transition O’Connor’s role was pivotal.

[1] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester, 2nd. ed., 1925, page 196.

[2] The names of the delegates to the Manchester conference according to R.G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement, 1837-1854, 1894, page 183 were: John Arran and Joseph Hatfield, West Riding of Yorkshire; James Leach and James Taylor, South Lancashire; J.Deegan, Staleybridge and Liverpool; David John, Merthyr Tydvil and Monmouth; J.B. Hanson, Carlisle; William Tillman, Manchester; George Halton, Preston; Samuel Lees, Stockport; Richard Littler, Salford; Mr Andrew, Glossop; Mr Lowe, Bolton; Samuel Royse, Hyde; William Morgan, Bristol, Bath and Cheltenham; James Cooke, Leigh; George Black, Nottingham; James Williams, Sunderland; Thomas Raynor Smart, Leicester and Northampton; James Taylor, Loughborough; Richard Spurr, London and Richard Hartley, Colne

[3] Epstein The Lion of Freedom, page 225 suggests that political historians have tended to see the Anti-Corn Law League as the model of Victorian extra-parliamentary political organisation and have tended to ignore the considerable and ‘much more ambitious’ achievement of the NCA. He makes a compelling case. However, he neglects to mention the seminal role of the anti-slavery movement from which all extra-parliamentary pressure groups drew inspiration.

[4] Epstein The Lion of Freedom, page 220.

[5] John Charlton The Chartists: the First National Workers’ Movement, Pluto, 1997, page 28.

[6] David Hempton Methodism and Politics in British Society 1750-1850, Hutchinson, 1974, page 211.

[7] E. Yeo ‘Some Practices and Problems of Chartist Democracy’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, Macmillan, 1982, pages 345-380, especially 353-60.

[8] The Chartist Mayall Beaumont in Northern Liberator, 28th November 1840.

[9] The Corresponding Societies Act 1799 provided the basis for this concern. Albert Goodwin The Friends of Liberty, London, 1979, pages 451-499 provides the context.

[10] John Belchem Industrialization and the Working Class, Aldershot, 1990, page 114.

[11] Dorothy Thompson ‘Who were ‘the People’ in 1842?’, in Malcolm Chase and Ian Dyck (eds.) Living and Learning: Essays in Honour of J.F.C. Harrison, Scholar Pres, 1996, pages 118-132 is a valuable discussion of who the Chartists were in the second phase.

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