Tuesday, 6 November 2007

1848: the opening months

For contemporaries like W.E. Adams and for later historians 1848 was a watershed in the history of the Chartist movement[1]. It is certainly true that after 1848 Chartism lost whatever unity it had, with even O’Connor willing to accept household suffrage while leaders such as Jones and Harney moved towards socialism. The winter of 1847-8 was a severe one. The Northern Star talked of the ‘extreme prevalence’ of bronchitis, pneumonia, typhus, measles and scarlatina. Smallpox was also widespread. However, neither the commercial crisis nor the general election of 1847 at which O’Connor was elected to the Commons had led to a reinvigorated mass platform. The revival of Chartism pre-dated the French Revolution of February 1848. It was given greater strength by new links with Irish campaigners for the repeal of the Act of Union that brought new recruits to Chartism in places with substantial Irish populations in England, especially London and Liverpool as well as Ireland itself.

Historians debate how far this revived flagging Chartist spirits. Some see 1848 as an unnecessary epilogue for a movement that had already been defeated. Others view the years between 1848 and 1851 as necessary for the welcome infusion of continental social theories and thought. The authorities were, however, uneasy at the Chartist plans to present a third petition. There were fears that the revolutionary spirit sweeping Europe would infect Britain, especially as some Chartists had been in contact with European radicals. There were also fears that the measures proposed by the Convention which assembled in London in early April would tie down the army at a time when Irish radicals threatened rebellion. The numerous Irish connections of Chartism, not the least O’Connor’s own, added credibility to the fears of authority of a union between Irish nationalists and Chartists in England[2].

In reality, the mass platform creaked into motion before news of the French revolution reached London[3]. Chartism recruited a new generation of English activists, from Ernest Jones and G.W.M. Reynolds to a large number of local organisers and their radicalism was all the more outspoken because they had not been through the traumas and dangers of 1839 and 1842. The NCA arranged meetings to promote the new campaign for a further Petition in early January 1848. At the forefront of the campaign were Jones and Harney. Both recognised that effective organisation and preparation were essential if platform action was to succeed. Jones argued that moral and physical force positions were[4] “Twin cherries on the stalk…by showing a bold physical front, they would prevent the necessity for physical action.”  He told a meeting in Halifax on 24th January that there were two ways of using physical force[5] “…the one way is to be strong enough to strike – that is but a poor way and a wrong one. The other is: to be strong, that none dare strike you! Become so!”  Chartists, Jones argued, needed to develop an organisation that the government would not dare or be able to resist. Public opinion would triumph. This was mirrored in the colourful rhetoric of Peter McDouall and for action to be constitutional from Philip McGrath.

However, O’Connor’s leadership was unquestioned until the National Petition was rejected. He was determined to retain his leadership of the mass platform. He was also calling for ‘social regeneration’ and details of his programme appeared in the Northern Star in mid-March. In many respects, this marked the recognition of a redirection of radical activities. O’Connor insisted that the Charter and land were inseparable. The call was for the ‘regeneration’ of the country. This was, in part, a response to the new language of the ‘organisation of labour’ initiated by the revolution in France. It reflected his belief that the French approach to political and social change was unsuitable to England. What was needed, he argued, were practical plans that appealed, especially to the lower middle classes, rather than the idealistic experiments of the French experience. At the heart of his argument was his belief that the Land Plan would set “all the springs of industry at work”. The appeal to public opinion was a fatal flaw in the arguments of O’Connor and Jones and Harney. O’Connor overestimated middle class discontent with the Whig government. His appeal for social regeneration made as little impression on public opinion as McGrath’s call for moderate constitutional action. Belchem[6] argues that O’Connor never realised that the “contest for public opinion had been lost before Kennington Common, before indeed the publication of his ‘manifesto’.” Jones and Harney were unable to bring discipline and organisation to the platform to make it an effective voice for working class action. Above all, the attitude of the English press was overwhelmingly hostile to the revolution in France. Public opinion soon turned in defence of established authority.

News of the French Revolution filled the Chartists with hope. An address was adopted jointly by the National Charter Association, the Fraternal Democrats, the Chartist Delegate Council and a public meeting at the German Society’s Hall to be presented to the people of Paris. At the Circus of the National Baths in Lambeth on 2nd March, a large gathering took place addressed by Edward Jones, James Grassby, George Julian Harney, Szonakowski (a Pole), Clark, Dixon, O’Connor and others where a resolution was adopted warning the British Government against interfering in France. Jones, McGrath and Harney were appointed to go to Paris as a deputation to meet the Provisional Government.

London was in the vanguard of the movement. In March 1848, a middle class radical meeting in London, demanding the abolition of income tax led to three days of widespread disturbances after police tried to break up the demonstration. The Duke of Newcastle[7], a reactionary politician and aristocrat who was bitterly opposed to the Chartists, wrote in his diary[8] [9 March] “The mob has proceeded about the Town for two days breaking windows & lamps & breaking open & stealing from the shops. There were several affrays with the Police, who have always been victors. The Soldiers were not required. This business is nearly if not quite at an end now but a very large meeting is announced for Monday 13th on Kennington Common, when it is supposed that the rabble will endeavour under some paltry leaders, a Mr Reynolds & some others, to make a great demonstration. Doubtless they will give a good deal of trouble, but the well-disposed are so active that the rabble can effect nothing but temporary mischief.”

Similar disturbances took place in Glasgow and Manchester. In each case, though there was an important Chartist presence, the disorder, looting and crime was largely by petty criminals but Chartism was guilty by association in the eyes of the propertied. The NCA Executive sought to set the record straight but too little effect. Chartist calls for restraint and public order went unheeded. Outdoor meetings held in Trafalgar Square and, on 13th March, at Kennington Common were followed by ‘mob’ action. Newcastle commented that[9] [14 March] “The meeting at Kennington Common, from which so much was expected went off without any tumult up to the time of the post leaving. The reports say that there [were] not above 4000 people present. Mr Reynolds as before harangued the people but did not make much impression.”

The press did not distinguish Chartists from criminals or revolutionaries from rioters. Events outside London took a similar form. The Chartists were blamed for various riots in and around workhouses. The local leadership tried to keep its distance, condemning criminal behaviour. This further damaged the Chartists’ public image. Middle class opinion, which may have been sympathetic to Chartist calls for tax and poor law reform, polarised round the need to maintain public order. Those in the lower middle classes who O’Connor sought to appeal flocked to join the ranks of the special constabulary. The public perception of the movement was not helped by its increasing identification with Irish agitation. However, the Irish alliance intensified the Chartist challenge. It may even, as Belchem suggests, “have strengthened the mass platform”[10], but, at a cost. The Times saw Chartism as “a ramification of the Irish conspiracy”.[11] As the physical strength of the movement grew, its public support evaporated. Under such conditions, the Chartists stood little chance of establishing either the legality of their agitation or the fairness of their demands.


[1] Three important books have resulted in a thorough revision of how historians have viewed that climactic year: David Goodway London Chartism, Cambridge, 1982, Henry Weisser April 10: Challenge and Response in England in 1848, New York, 1983 and John Saville 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement, Cambridge, 1987

[2] A succinct discussion of the Irish and 1848 can be found in John Newsinger Fenianism in Mid-Victorian Britain, London, 1994, pages 4-21.

[3] John Belchem ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein and Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, pages 269-310 is the clearest account of these developments and I have drawn heavily on his analysis.

[4] Northern Star 15th January 1848.

[5] Northern Star 5th February 1848.

[6] Belchem ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein and Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, page 276.

[7] Henry Pelham-Clinton (1785-1851), the Fourth Duke of Newcastle, was, by all accounts, a thoroughly unpleasant man. Violently reactionary in his attitudes to political reform, he formed part of the Tory ‘Ultra’ group that stood to the right even of the Duke of Wellington and his supporters, and among other causes opposed Catholic emancipation and the reform of Parliament, where he controlled a number of seats. Newcastle was Lord Lieutenant of Nottingham and Steward of Sherwood Forest, but was not much loved by those over whom he held sway. In 1831, in the political turmoil that swept the country as the struggle for the Great Reform Act reached its climax, Nottingham Castle, which belonged to the Duke, was burnt to the ground. The work of Richard Gaunt is especially useful on Newcastle: Unhappy Reactionary: The Diaries of the Fourth Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne, 1822-50, Thoroton Society Record Series, 2003 and ‘Neighbours from Hell. The Fourth Duke of Newcastle and the People of Nottingham in the Early Nineteenth Century’, The Nottinghamshire History Lecture 2000, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, volume 104 (2000), pages 99-111.

[8] Extracts from the diaries of the fourth Duke of Newcastle, Archives Department of the University of Nottingham, published by Open University in Arts: A Third Level Course. The Revolutions of 1848, Unit 3, Document Collection, pages 108-09.

[9] Extracts from the diaries of the fourth Duke of Newcastle, Archives Department of the University of Nottingham, published by Open University in Arts: A Third Level Course. The Revolutions of 1848, Unit 3, Document Collection, pages 108-09.

[10] Belchem ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein and Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, page 279

[11] The Times, 10th April 1848.

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