Friday, 5 October 2007

How likely was revolution in 1842?


The Chartist movement that imprisoned Chartists rejoined on their release from gaol between 1840 and 1842 was superficially the same as in 1838 and 1839 but in important respects it was quite different.  The broad alliance of reforming movements and leaders that had come together in 1838 was now shattered. Some early leaders, like Oastler and Stephens had never been Chartists as such. The same can be said of Thomas Attwood and the BPU contingent that had left the Convention over ulterior measures. Moderates like John Collins and William Lovett increasingly followed their own ‘moral force’ route away from the mainstream and were joined by former extremists such as Robert Lowery and Henry Vincent. Others, like John Frost were in Australia, while others such as Peter Bussey were in voluntary exile in the United States.  Mainstream Chartism was more closely than ever identified with Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star. As such it was likely to be demagogic but peaceful, appealing to the moral force of peaceful mass support, constitutional methods and, if armed, then constitutionally armed.  It was also better organised with the formation of the NCA in Manchester in July 1840. Increasingly Chartism looked like a modern mass political party with a membership, a bureaucracy and a certain amount of internal discipline. Meetings were more like party rallies and the annual Convention a regulated party conference at which policy was developed and dissidents expelled.

If the lesson of 1839-40 had been the futility of physical force, that lesson had been learned.  The release of prisoners and the general election of 1841 led to a new and better-organised drive for a second National Petition. Signatures were collected against a background of poor economic conditions, increasing unemployment and rising bread prices. Middle class radicals offered an alternative in the Anti-Corn Law League and, in 1842 the Complete Suffrage Union. Again, as in 1839, a National Convention met in London and on 2nd May again the House of Commons rejected the Petition. The next few months saw protests on an unprecedented scale, far exceeding those of 1839. Were these strikes political as well as economic and how far was this activity connected with Chartism?

One problem is the meanings that can be attached to the different terms used to describe these protests. The ‘Plug Plot’ suggests a conspiracy while ‘General Strike’ describes widespread industrial action perhaps also with a political purpose. ‘Riot’ suggests localised and undirected violence while to one contemporary in Accrington[1], the disturbances of 1842 seemed “more like a revolution than anything else”. Certainly the strike came closer to the ideal of a simultaneous rising than any other disturbances in the 1830s and 1840s: within a few weeks, fifteen English and eight Scottish counties were affected and London experienced disturbances at the same time. Local forces for maintaining order were unable to cope and the deployment of troops was stretched by the geographical scale of the protest.

Initially both the Chartist leadership and the government believed the strikes were an Anti-Corn Law League plot, consistent with the way middle class reformers had used the threat of working class violence to further their own ends in 1832. This was plausible at least superficially. Most factories in the textile districts at the heart of the strike were already working short-time and there would have been little to lose economically by a shut-down. The manufacturers and the newspapers that supported them, however, thought it was a Chartist plot. The Leeds Mercury referred to events on 20th August 1842 as both ‘The Holiday Insurrection’ and ‘The Chartist Insurrection’. However, the Chartist leaders meeting in Manchester to commemorate the Peterloo massacre on 16th August appeared surprised by events that they followed rather than led. What is clear is that local Chartists were closely involved in the strikes, that there was some co-ordinated leadership and that there was a groundswell of local Chartism that used its position within the striking communities to turn industrial action into a strike for the Charter.

The strikes of 1842 were more than just industrial actions and the riots were not only spontaneous outbursts of popular anger or distress, though they doubtless were for some of the participants. There was a conspiracy to the extent that local Chartist leaders provided organisation and co-ordination and directed the strikes to a political end. This degree of co-ordination and organisation combined with the controlled use of violence posed a very real threat to the authorities. This was particularly the case when there appeared to be a real prospect of the strikes spreading to London. A large open-air meeting was held in the capital on 16th August and further meetings followed on Clerkenwell Green, Bethnal Green, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and other open spaces. Meetings on 22nd August at Kennington Common and Paddington Green were dispersed by large numbers of police supported by troops.

To the authorities, whether locally or nationally, the danger from the strikers seemed real enough while the protests lasted. In retrospect, historians recognise that the authorities could hold out longer than the strikers and in that sense a strike until the Charter was granted was unrealistic. In many respects, the act of striking for the Charter was a constitutional rather than revolutionary one. The paradox of the strikes of 1842, as an editorial in the Leeds Mercury pointed out, was that the cause of their success was also the reason for their failure[2]: “Their entire want of cohesion; their going without weapons and their abstinence from all but one act of violence at each mill, enable them often to elude the soldiery and the police, and to get into towns and into mills unaware; they also prevent the masters from having any great apparent interest in resisting the further; they blind the workmen to the real danger of this lawless movement. But that same want of cohesion, that want of any tangible and visible forms of insurrection, render their operations as evanescent as they were surprising…If the turn-outs were to change in their character, and to form a rebel army, no sooner would they be thus brought to a head than they would be utterly demolished…for the masters who submit quietly to the driving in of a boiler plug, would act in a very different manner if their property was threatened with serious and extensive mischief.”

The editor may here have been trying to allay the fears of his, largely middle class readers but he was right to emphasise the unusually peaceful nature of the ‘insurrection’. The Chartists had learned how to use organised and peaceful mass protest to put pressure on the authorities. This made the movement more, not less of a challenge to the established order and represented an important development in the character of working class politics.

[1] W. Hutchinson of Accrington to W.L. Mabberley, 17th August 1842, Public Record Office, HO45/249.

[2] Leeds Mercury, 20th August 1842.

No comments: