Thursday, 4 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The strikes of 1842 -- Chartist involvement and historians

 There was little agreement among contemporaries and subsequently between historians. It is clear that many of those who spoke at the NCA Manchester meeting in August were Chartists who had no connection with the textile trades but at local level much of the leadership of the strike was Chartist. In Lancashire, for example, it was local Chartist leaders such as Richard Pilling[1] and William Aitken[2] who linked the call for fair wages to demands for a general strike to achieve the Charter. Nationally, Chartist leaders seem to have been caught unawares by the strikes but soon exploited the situation for their own ends. O’Connor supported extending the strikes but deplored the use of violent language and the belief that they were the forerunners of revolution. The series of regional trade conferences in August gave an opportunity for Chartist intervention and there was a widespread adoption of the Charter as one of the strike’s main aims. In Manchester, Glasgow and London, there was some convergence of Chartist and trade union activity. The extent to which Chartists were involved varied regionally. In Yorkshire, for example, where trade unions were weaker and less widespread than in Lancashire, local Chartists exercised strong influence over tactics but generally Chartist leaders were too divided to take full advantage of the strike movement.

The unions themselves had little central machinery capable of co-ordinating the strikes and the different attitudes of Chartists prevented the NCA from taking on this role. Chartists were reacting to a situation rather than playing a central part in determining that situation. Tension eased in September partly as a result of improving economic conditions. The 1842 harvest was good and trade was already reviving leading to employers agreeing to cancel wage reductions. However, the strike movement had two negative effects on the Chartists. First, the effort made by some to organise the strikes for their own ends allowed Peel and his Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, to blame them for the strikes. There was a wave of arrests in September. Perhaps 1,500 people were brought before the lower courts and special commissions. Harsh sentences were handed out: in Staffordshire, for example, of 274 cases tried, 154 men were imprisoned and five men transported for life. In addition, the government planned a show trial for treasonable conspiracy aiming to catch O’Connor and the trade union leaders in the same net. Significantly, it then retreated from this position, trying O’Connor and fifty-eight others (including several members of the NCA executive) on the lesser charge of seditious conspiracy at Lancaster in March 1843. The thirty-one people found guilty on one or two of the five counts in the indictment were released without sentence because of a mistake in drawing up the charges. By early 1843, there was less need for harsh treatment, as the strikes were over and unrest had quietened. Peel and Graham recognised, as Russell had done in 1839-40, that pushing repression too far was counterproductive, alienating public opinion and creating public sympathy. Secondly, though this was by no means a universal reaction, trade union disillusion with Chartism probably increased. To trade unionists the issue was primarily economic rather than political and, for them, the strikes were not entirely unsuccessful. Wage cuts were restored and in some places increased to the 1840 levels and in the cotton districts trade unionism emerged on a more organised and confident basis.

There is convincing evidence that the strike was well-organised, with well-defined targets and a clear agenda, especially in the Manchester area. Although older forms of protest, like pulling down houses, were current in the Staffordshire area, in and around Manchester magistrates testified to the orderliness of the crowds and most factory workers joined voluntarily. Simply to emphasis the strike as the ‘Plug Plot’ tends to trivialise what was a serious movement that was sustained for nearly two months in the face of severe economic hardship and that the political nature of support for the Charter was there from the outset. Many of the organisers were both trade unionists and Chartists and it was where the strike was most ‘political’ that it was most orderly. It marked, perhaps, the high watermark of active popular support for the Charter.

Historiographical debate

The earlier accounts (Peel, Hovell, Ward) tend to see the movement as essentially a response to wage-reductions which then gets caught up in politics, either by the attempted exploitation by the Anti-Corn Law League or, more importantly, by the Chartists. This political direction is seen (Peel) as misguided. Hovell is critical of the Chartist leadership, especially Feargus O’Connor who is seen as someone who allows, through his bluster, a political build-up but then backs off from the challenge. At the other end of the spectrum Jenkins sees the general strike as a class-conscious political action which fails partly because of defects of leadership and in the face of repression. Mather occupies a rather different position stressing (like Jenkins) the scale and significance of the actions and the involvement of Chartists from an early stage, though he argues that the demand for the Charter was only central at the brief high-point of the movement in mid-August. Thompson goes a bit further towards Jenkins, arguing that demands for the Charter already were important at the beginning of the movement. Stedman-Jones also stresses the way in which radical/Chartist leaders could only see strike action in political terms - above all because they thought that only political change could really secure workers’ interests. In this sense, making the strike general and political was not regarded as subverting its original objectives but directing the strike into the only course of action which gave it a chance of realising those objectives. Thompson and Stedman-Jones also think that the middle-classes and the government did not respond as quickly or effectively as they might have done. When they did respond, most agree that it was in terms of repression rather than offering any concessions.

The trend amongst historians has been to take political ideas and objectives more and more seriously and also the role of local leaders. The two things go together. The focus on local leadership shows that many were Chartists and often came from outside the major industries in which strikes had begun. This suggests a political element from the outset. On the other hand, local Chartists may well have had different views from national leaders such as O’Connor, the kind of figure on whom Hovell concentrates. And it may well be that these local Chartist leaders were turned to less because they were Chartists and more because they were the people best fitted to lead. Only a more detailed look at local action can show us the role of Chartist demands in this popular action.

The distinction between spontaneous and planned action does not seem very helpful. From a very early stage, local leaders, many of them Chartists, were making plans to spread the protest beyond their particular locality. But they “planned” as local leaders; when a procession of strikers reached another place, their impact mainly depended upon workers in that place, and their leaders, deciding to join in. From a national point of view there was no overall plan; from a local point of view there was a good deal of organising and planning.

Clearly there is a difference between seeking to reverse a wage-reduction and demanding the implementation of the People’s Charter. However, that does not make them completely separate issues. Many of those who led and participated in the general strike made a close connection between the two. In bad economic times, following on from earlier strike failures, it was plausible to argue that only a general strike (both in the sense of geographical spread and of engaging a large range of occupations) had any chance of success. Chartists themselves had argued that workers had to act together to get what they wanted. So for many local leaders who were also Chartists it was quite natural to think in terms of spreading the strike beyond particular wage-grievances. Once one did that, then political issues were bound to be raised. More important, though very difficult to judge, is how far people raised those political issues mainly as a way of advancing wage-demands.

The local studies and documents reveal many other facets of the subject. The idea, for example, that national Chartist leaders may well have been thinking in more cautious and reformist terms than local leaders who helped organise the general strike (Sykes) provides a different explanation of the equivocation of O'Connor than that offered by Hovell. It also shows us that we must be alert to problems with our evidence. Sykes argues that at an early stage of the strike it may have been calculated that raising Chartist demands would push employers into economic concessions. Thompson points out that once the movement was collapsing, and especially in the period of repression, it was natural for participants to deny that they had been pursuing political change. These claims cannot be taken at face value. One thing makes Britain stand out at this time. That was that it was the industrial districts and workers who formed the heart of a lower-class popular action. This is not the case in many parts of Europe.

The collapse of the Plug Plot riots brought to a temporary end both concerted economic or political protest in mainland Britain. Chartist leaders turned to the build-up of organisation and emphasised other ways forward such as land schemes or educational reform. The authorities contemplated ways in which, without granting the demands of the Chartists, reforms of some benefit to workers could be made, such as the Ten Hours Act. The Irish famine of 1845-6 demonstrated that desperate situations inhibit rather than promote mass political protest. However, it also changed the political framework by helping usher in the repeal of the Corn Laws and the break-up of the Conservative party. Arguably all these things weakened the kind of unified challenge workers could pose to the authorities. There would be no formidable mass movement to challenge authority in Britain in 1848, even if in 1842 Britain had demonstrated that popular politics were far better and more extensively organised than on the continent.

Confrontational tactics had failed in 1839-40 and in 1842. Mass arrests and imprisonment sapped the strength of the movement and the relative economic prosperity of the years between 1842 and 1848 helped to dampen the enthusiasm of the rank and file. The agreement between Lovett and O’Connor in late 1842 over the CSU proposals was short-lived. He had no intention of working with O’Connor and gradually he and others of like mind withdrew to pursue their objectives by non-confrontational agitation. O’Connor emerged firmly in control of the formal Chartist movement which he promptly led off in entirely new directions.


[1] J. Bellamy and J. Saville (ed.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume vi, London, 1982, pages 216-223 is a useful biography.

[2] William Aitken (1814?-69) was a schoolmaster active in the militant ‘physical force’ centre of Ashton-under-Lyne. He spent most of 1840 in prison and, after the collapse of the strikes of 1842 emigrated briefly to America. He published verse and later became an uneasy supporter of the Liberal Party. He committed suicide during the writing of his autobiography. R.G. Hall and S. Roberts (eds.) William Aitken: The Writings of a Nineteenth century Working Man, Tameside, 1996 reprints his major works.

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