Saturday, 13 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: O'Connorite radicalism 1843-45, a Chartist rump?

By the end of 1842, O’Connor’s pre-eminence over the Chartist movement was complete. The attempted alliance between the CSU and Chartism had failed. Even Lovett, with his known sympathy for class collaboration, was unable to accept the dropping of the Charter that he had so long advocated. It was his motion that led, on 28th December, to the secession of the majority of the CSU delegates from the Birmingham conference[1]. By 31st December, only thirty-seven delegates remained and they were again divided. Thomas Cooper called successfully, at least for the moment, for an annual convention that would elect a five-man executive with only a regularly paid secretary. However, George White opposed suggestions from J.H. Parry for continued co-operation with the CSU. Many Chartists left the conference to await their trials. Real or potential rivals to O’Connor were either, like Lovett, involved in alternative working class self-help schemes or, like the increasingly sceptical Cooper, about to be imprisoned. An increasingly negative view of O’Connor, actively sponsored by Lovett and Vincent and reiterated by Gammage in the 1850s, began to emerge and this view found expression in much historical writing until quite recently. Ward, for example, said[2] “What was left of organised Chartism was now controlled by the megalomaniac Irishman.” However, that he “was now the monarch of a declining kingdom.” In many respects, it is difficult to disagree with this. O’Connor had converted the Chartist rump into a personal following in ways that was not the case before 1842[3].

Repositioning Chartism

The Land Plan dominated the nest four years. O’Connor had hinted at it as early as July 1840 and he raised it again, somewhat vaguely, at the 1842 Convention. However, in early 1843 he faced other problems. O’Connor and fifty-eight Northern Chartists and strike leaders were tried for seditious conspiracy in April 1843. The results were something of a triumph for the movement. Although sixteen men were convicting of threatening language and a further fifteen, including O’Connor, found guilty of encouraging a strike, they were released on a legal technicality[4]. O’Connor now turned to repositioning Chartism. There was a growing shift in the political and economic agendas that shaped radical discourse. The mass platform, the core of the older radical critique, was based on the political division between the privileged and the people and sought to eliminate this by establishing universal suffrage. The tradition remained strong but its importance was increasingly eclipsed by an economic critique based on the division between capital and labour. The ‘Labour Question’ appealed to the lived experience of the working class. The Charter was increasingly displaced from its pre-eminent position at the centre of agitation. In 1844, O’Connor said that[5]

“It has been asserted that poverty was the parent of Chartism. I admit it, no man could with truth deny it…Seeing the vast array of wealth, of power, and of control opposed to you, you appear to hold your lives upon sufferance, and are satisfied to exist upon toleration.”

Substantial owners of capital, and especially factory owners, became increasingly subject to attack in the pages of the Star. The language used by O’Connor and other Chartists such as ‘the steam aristocracy’ or ‘the aristocracy of capital’ reflected more traditional rhetoric but the focus of the Chartist argument was changing. John Belchem[6] argues that the rigidity and obsolescence of its public political language undermined Chartism far more than the changing social and economic conditions. The Charter alone offered working people real protection against uncontrolled capitalism. The call for a return to the land, O’Connor argued, would increase agricultural productivity and extend workers’ personal independence. Above all, it might counter the growing dominance of machinery and appeal to his declining working class constituency[7]. Chartism, in all its diversity, contained a distinctive anti-machinery element and rhetoric. O’Connor claimed that[8]

“Machinery has hitherto had the same effect on operatives as the railways had on horses sold to the knackers for their flesh.”

The Land Plan expressed his passionate dislike not for technological innovations as such but of the results of the Industrial Revolution for working people. He saw in the[9]

“restoration of the land to its natural legitimate and original purpose….the only means of making machinery and all other national improvements and properties man’s holiday instead of man’s curse.”

It was now necessary to convince the NCA.

A gentle decline 1843-45

NCA activity, together with Northern Star circulation, was declining during 1843. The Star attacked opposition to Graham’s Factory Bill. Some Chartists, led by Harney[10], Doyle and West[11], maintained their calls to link Chartism with O’Connell’s campaign to repeal the Union. A convention, planned for April, finally met in Birmingham in early September. Its thirty members met for four days to reconstruct the NCA. O’Connor dominated proceedings and the outcome was much as he suggested. The Association committed itself to moral force. Members should pay subscriptions of 1d weekly. Branches would be arranged in districts. There should be an annual convention, which would elect an executive committee of twenty-eight members. Those elected, for example, Bairstow[12], Thomas Clark[13], Doyle[14], Harney, Philip McGrath and David Morrison were closely associated with O’Connor who himself became treasurer. The reorganised NCA unsurprisingly accepted O’Connor’s Land Plan. Gammage was strongly opposed to this arguing[15]

“The adoption of the Land Plan, illegal in its very foundation, and therefore destitute of that one essential where large funds are employed, security – was the next great folly which was to contribute to the disgrace of the Chartist movement.”

The post of NCA general secretary was offered to Lovett in a vain attempt to reunite the movement. He bluntly declined. The gulf between O’Connor – “the chief marplot of our movement in favour of the Charter” – and him was unbridgeable. After the convention, O’Connor headed north to revitalise Chartist ardour. He found the movement in a parlous state. Scottish Chartism was disintegrating. Some Chartist churches remained but radicals were now more concerned with causes like temperance, sanitary reform, factory reform and poor relief. Scottish interest in the Land Plan and on unity based on the NCA flickered but little more. Only the Dumfries WMA joined the NCA. The Glasgow Charter Association held aloof till the following year.

Chartism appeared sluggish during 1844. The economy continued to improve draining support from the movement. The final form of the NCA was agreed at a convention in Manchester in April. Subscriptions were fixed at 3d on entry and 1d weekly. An annual convention would elect the executive (O’Connor, Clark, McGrath, Doyle and Wheeler were reappointed) and the executive would nominate a general council. However, it refused to ratify the Land Plan with most members arguing for separation between the NCA and the scheme. The ailing Star was kept alive by moving it to London. The haemorrhage of Chartists from the national movement continued. Many turned to other forms of working class activity. In Lancashire, Yorkshire and Scotland, a new ‘Ten Hour’ agitation attracted considerable Chartist support. These men did not, Ward argues[16], “desert Chartism, but preferred to seek immediate ends”. Other Chartists looked elsewhere. In East Anglia, declining rural conditions led some labourers to take direct action. Widespread arson attacks took place[17]. Temperance organisations continued to dominate in Scotland and in Wales there was a renewal of the Rebecca movement[18]. The revival of trade unions attracted Chartists and in Lancashire, anti-poor law activity remained strong. Chartist involvement in local government continued to grow weakening their commitment to the national movement. O’Connor’s belief that[19] “1843 was the year of slumber, 1844 the year of waking and thought” was, to say the least, over-optimistic.

O’Connor’s optimism was not without foundation. He was determined to press on with the land scheme and he hoped for an alliance with the trade unions. Many of the early Chartists had come to the movement with a trade union background but their support had been short-lived. Sir James Graham’s fear, in 1842, that the Manchester ‘delegates’ would form a link between unionism and Chartism proved to be without foundation. The strikes represented not an endorsement but a rejection of Chartist methods. O’Connor’s attitude to unions in the early 1840s was ambivalent. He had little faith in unions that had so regularly rejected his leadership and had lacked interest in the fate of the leaders of the Newport rising. However, by 1845, he needed allies and this led to a short-lived change of attitude reflected in his new journal The Northern Star and National Trades Journal. O’Connor hoped that the journal would[20]

“be the means of rallying the proper machinery for conducting the Registration Movement, the Land Movement, the National Trades’ Movement, the Labour Movement and the Charter Movement.”

And invited Chartists to

“Attend to their [union] meetings, swell their numbers and give them your sympathy; but upon no account interpose the Charter as an obstacle to their proceedings. All labour and labourers must unite; and they will speedily discover that the Charter is the only standard under which they can successfully rally…”

Some miners’ groups supported the move and O’Connor’s friend, the MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe[21], was made president of the National Association of United Trades for the Protection of Labour when it was formed in March 1845[22]. Most unions, however, remained aloof, largely because of the exclusive craft nature of the organisation with its programme of “self-reliance, self-respect and self-helpfulness” and O’Connor quickly reverted to his old attitude to unions. He stated in November 1845 that[23]

“The pompous trades and proud mechanics were now willing forgers of their own fetters.”

The alliance failed because the appeal of Chartism was already undermined by the shift towards ‘respectability’. There was a growing pluralism and increasing competition between ‘new model’ forms of working class associational culture. O’Connor and the NCA were unable to prevent seepage to exclusive and more secure forms of self-help. Affiliated friendly societies amalgamated trade unions, retail co-operative societies had what the NCA lacked, public approval and legal recognition[24]. The Land Plan was an attempt to reverse this process.

The 1845 convention met at the London Parthenium on 21st April. Only fourteen delegates attended. When O’Connor unveiled his land scheme the following day, they were enthusiastic. They resolved to set up a Chartist Land Society, eventually founded on 19th May. O’Connor may have been deluded about the financial viability and ultimate practicality of the scheme but his judgement on its potential appeal was flawless. Thomas Cooper, released from Stafford Gaol in May, begged him to[25]

“give the scheme up, for I felt sure it would bring ruin and disappointment upon himself and all who entered into it…

Bronterre O’Brien was sceptical. Nevertheless, support grew. Enthusiasm was greatest in the Lancashire cotton towns. Support was growing in London, the north-east, the Midlands and in Yorkshire. Only Scotland and Wales proved difficult to rouse. In December, a convention was held in Manchester solely to consider the land scheme and O’Connor dropped his long-standing opposition to the Anti-Corn Law League.


[1] The CSU ‘New Bill of Rights’ was rejected by Parliament by 101 votes to 32 on 18th May 1843. This, according to Ward Chartism, page 167, ‘cut [the CSU] down to its appropriate size’.

[2] Ward Chartism, page 167.

[3] In his The Lion of Freedom, London, 1982, James Epstein relegates O’Connor’s role after 1842 to a short three page postscript. It would be interesting to speculate why this is the case. Epstein suggests on page 310, that by the mid-1840s ‘the working-class movement had…begun the process of separating into its constituent parts…Chartists played key role in all these various forms of working-class activity, but it became more difficult to sustain the highly integrated movement of the early 1840s’. Yet, he also argues two pages later that ‘O’Connor and the Star offered a redirection for Chartism’.

[4] The Trial of Feargus O’Connor and 58 Others at Lancaster, Manchester, 1843 is the most accessible, if partisan, contemporary account while F.C. Mather Public Order in the Age of the Chartists, Manchester, 1959, provides a broader context.

[5] Northern Star, 27th July 1844.

[6] John Belchem Popular Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain, London, 1996, page 87.

[7] On the radical critique of machinery see Maxine Berg The machinery question and the making of political economy 1815-1848, Cambridge, 1980, pages 269-290, especially pages 287-289.

[8] Northern Star, 7th May 1842.

[9] Feargus O’Connor ‘The Land and the Charter’, The Labourer, I, London, 1847, page 82.

[10] A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: a Portrait of George Julian Harney, London, 1958 is an outstanding biography of this seminal leader.

[11] John West (1811-87) was one of the most determined of the Chartist lecturers. He was Irish and was imprisoned in 1848-8.

[12] Jonathan Bairstow (dates unknown) was an energetic and effective lecturer and editor of the Chartist Pilot in 1843-44. He became involved in quarrels with Thomas Cooper and eventually vanished from sight.

[13] Thomas Clark (1821?-57) or ‘Paddy’ Clark began his Chartist career in Stockport and became a close associate of Feargus O’Connor. He was elected to the executive of the NCA in 1843 and later managed the affairs of the Land Company. A powerful lecturer, he repeatedly urged the Chartists and the Irish repealers to make common cause. His support for an alliance with middle-class reformers after 1848 eventually led to rows with other Chartist leaders, including O’Connor. See J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume vi, London, 1982, pages 55-59

[14] Christopher Doyle (1811-?) made his name as a Chartist lecturer and later worked full-time as a director of the Land Company. He was a close friend of fellow Irishman, Thomas Clark, eventually supporting his breach with O’Connor.

[15] R.C. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, 1894 edition, page 249.

[16] Ward Chartism, page 175.

[17] David Jones ‘Arson and the rural community: East Anglia in the mid nineteenth century’, in David Jones Crime, protest, community and police in nineteenth-century Britain, London 1982, pages 33-61 and A.J. Peacock ‘Village Radicalism in East Anglia 1800-1850’, in J.P.D. Dunbabin Rural Discontent in Nineteenth Century Britain, London, 1974, pages 27-61 provide a useful summary of the nature and causes of rural radicalism in this decade.

[18] David Jones Rebecca’s Children: A Study of Rural Protest, Crime and Protest, Oxford, 1989 is the most recent study.

[19] Northern Star, 28th December 1844.

[20] Ward Chartism, page 117.

[21] Thomas Slingsby Duncombe (1796-1861) was Radical MP for Finsbury. He presented the Chartist petition of 1842 to the House of Commons and took up the cause of imprisoned Chartists.

[22] The problem of an alliance between radical organisations and trade unions is best approach in John Belchem ‘Chartism and the Trades 1848-1850’, English Historical Review, volume 98 (1983). It examines the development of the National Association of Organised Trades for the Industrial, Social and Political Emancipation of Labour (NAOT), an organisation of depressed trades encouraged by the Charter-Socialists and its rejection of the craft exclusiveness of the National Association of United Trades.

[23] Northern Star, 1st November 1845.

[24] On this process see Eric Hopkins Working-Class Self-Help in nineteenth-century England, London, 1995, especially, pages 27-52, 95-118 and 203-222.

[25] John Saville (ed.) The Life of Thomas Cooper, 1872, Leicester, 1971, pages 273-4.

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