Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: 10th April 1848

The Convention now became the key to success. Could it provide central co-ordination and leadership? In short, no. Forty-nine delegates met in London on 4th April. Some delegates like G.W.M. Reynolds and William Cuffay[1] were bellicose at least in their rhetoric. Most were not. After much heated debate, the programme agreed by the NCA Executive was relatively moderate. If the petition were rejected, the Convention would address a memorial to the Queen. In the interim, the Convention was to be dissolved. This was to be followed by widespread agitation throughout the country leading to the formation of a more fully representative convention or national assembly.

“1st – That in the event of the National Petition being rejected by the House of Commons, this Convention prepare a National Memorial to the Queen to dissolve the present Parliament, and call to her council such ministers only as will make the People’s Charter a cabinet measure.

“2nd – That this Convention agree to the convocation of a National Assembly, to consist of delegates appointed at public meetings, to present the National Memorial to the Queen, and to continue permanently sitting until the Charter is the law of the land.

“3rd – That this Convention call upon the country to hold simultaneous meetings on Good Friday, April 21st, for the purpose of adopting the National Memorial, and electing delegates to the National Assembly.

“4th – That the National Assembly meet in London on April 24th.

“5th – That the present Convention shall continue its sittings until the meeting of the National Assembly.”

This approach did not appeal to Chartists like Jones who believed that the Convention should immediately declare itself permanent. This would provide clear direction for extra-parliamentary pressure and allow the Convention to retain the initiative as the agitation intensified.

The Convention planned a peaceful demonstration at Kennington Common for 10th April followed by a procession to present the petition to Parliament. O’Connor hoped that the petition would contain five million signatures. The Government responded by issuing a proclamation that such a procession would be illegal. Despite the Convention’s protests that its plans were peaceful, special constables were sworn in, and the Government made detailed plans to deal with the Chartists should they defy it. The Convention was in no mood to back down, however. A motion from T.M. Wheeler that it should go ahead with its public meeting “notwithstanding the foolish proclamation of the Government” was carried unanimously with speeches in support by Cuffay, West, Child, Adams, Stevenson, Cochrane, Shaw, Bolwell, Watson, Wilkinson, O’Connor, Kydd, Ernest Jones, Mcarthy, Frances, Reynolds, Clark, Ashton, Buckby, Walter, Cumming and Tattersall. The government was determined to prevent this.

Public opinion and increasing hysteria was firmly behind the Whigs and they exploited this to the full. The Crown and Government Security Bill was rushed through Parliament. This introduced a new charge of felonious sedition, a charge that extended to ‘open and advised speaking’. Stuart legislation against tumultuous petitioning was revived to prevent any mass procession through the streets. Strong precautionary measures were taken by the authorities for whom the Chartist threat was very real. The 79-year old Duke of Wellington began to organise London’s defences: 150,000 Special Constables were sworn in (including William Gladstone and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) and the army was put on stand-by but was held in reserve. Eight thousand troops were drafted into the capital to support thousands of special constables. The government was utterly confident. It was unwilling to accede to any of the Chartist requests as a deputation from the Convention to the Home Office discovered. The issue increasingly was whether the meeting should proceed. Bronterre O’Brien had grave doubts. He recognised the determination of the government but also the likely effect on public opinion if the meeting went ahead. Harney called for the meeting and procession to be abandoned at secret gatherings with delegates on 8th and 9th April. McGrath, as chairman of the Convention, sought a last minute compromise with the Commissioners of Police. The movement had reached an impasse.

The procession was banned but the meeting went ahead. There are various estimates of the numbers present: O’Connor said three quarters of a million people attended. Gammage said there were between 150,000 and 170,000 in attendance; Russell put the number at between 12,000 and 15,000. The resolution of government, some have argued, was sufficient to ‘frighten’ O’Connor into asking his supporters not to confront the authorities and to disperse peacefully but it was always his intention that the meeting and the procession should be peaceful. The petition was carried in three cabs by O’Connor, Doyle, McGrath, Jones, Wheeler and Harney in a cab, first to Kennington Common and then on to Westminster. The crisis appeared to be over.

Newcastle’s diary provides an important indication of the attitudes and fears of the governing classes and he commented critically on the events[2] [7 April] “Ministers are acting well & vigorously, they have made extensive & well devized plans in preparation to meet any thing which may happen on the 10th at the great Chartist meeting. They have also brought in a bill for the better protection of the Crown & Govt of the United Kingdom & are showing the most praiseworthy determination to resist republicanism & disorganisation, & to secure order & tranquillity. [8 April] Charles has been hurried away from the society of his future bride & has been ordered up to London where he will arrive tomorrow to join his regiment - it is very hard upon him poor fellow as he had only been in Scotland 4 or 5 whole days. All the troops that are any where near to London have been ordered up in case of accident, altho’ after all there will not be above 10,000 men. But the great reliance will be on the Police & constabulary force which will be made to act in the first instance & if required aided by the military force. This is quite the right mode, & meets with the most strenuous support from all classes & has brought out the best & noblest feelings from all well thinking men. All have stepped forward & have been sworn Special Constables. Nobles, gentlemen, the middle-classes, professional men of all kinds, shopkeepers, working men, everybody. A most admirable spirit prevails & by God’s will we shall be secure. [9 April] The last weeks have made me think deeply & reflect upon the past & the future. For myself…I have come to the conclusion that tomorrow may decide the future fate of England & be indicative of God’s will towards us - as other Nations & Kings have been sacrificed to the first burst of popular action almost without a struggle so may we, if such be God’s decree, so that if we are respited that may be a warning to us & a token that we are not to be afflicted to the same degree as other nations. [10 April] This is Monday & no post from London. I had made arrangements to receive advices from all quarters if any thing were happening today within a circle of 30 miles around the place, but I am informed this evening that all is quiet up to 2 o’clock. A traveller brought an account to Worksop that at some station which he passed news had been received from London by telegraph that all was quiet at 12 o’clock. I shall most anxiously open the newspapers tomorrow morning. I was informed today that at Sutton in the neighbourhood of Mansfield, the wretches were so bent on mischief that they had bought from the pawnbrokers all the fire arms & other arms that they had by them, & would have bought more if procurable - lead they have taken wherever they could find it - ripping up the gutters & cisterns & every leaden thing for bullets. Hereabouts they will probably wait the issue of the proceedings in London & regulate themselves accordingly…If numbers shall be wanting I have determined to call together my tenantry & others, arm them as well as I can & instantly march at their head to succour or attack as circumstances may require. The most admirable spirit prevails here as elsewhere. [11 April] The boasted meeting which was to carry all before it has vanished, not into thin air perhaps, but into the smoky air of London. The Standard states that not above 10,000 at the utmost could have been present. Some inflammatory speeches were made by the leaders, when a Police Constable went up to O’Connor & spoke to him when O’Connor informed the people that he had been desired to desist, & advised the meeting to disperse quietly as resistance would be unwise as they were unarmed. At another time if they wished to resist the govt they must come armed. The crowd then dispersed & the petition which Mr Feargus O’Connor said was signed by more than 5,000,000 was rather unceremoniously taken from the stately van & 8 horses & bundled into 3 cabs & sent there to the H of Commons - where shortly after the knavish O’Connor presented it to the house - & there was an end of this grand bravado. Everything was quiet afterwards. O’Connor & the leaders are accused by the Chartists of treachery…In this county all went off quietly the same at Liverpool & Manchester & presumably elsewhere, but they talk of all meeting again in a few days. I hope that this will not be permitted & the absolute repression of them is called for by all, even by the Manchester people, who entertain a strange dislike to being robbed & plundered themselves altho’ they have no feeling for others. And now I thank God that he has disposed to avert mischief from our land, & may we be sensible of the inestimable blessing & so may we as a Nation so order ourselves that we may become an acceptable people in His sight & a glorious example of a righteous Nation - eschewing Evil & cleaving to what is good. [13 April] The Chartist petition to the H of Commons has been discovered to be a gross & insulting fraud upon the House. There are hundreds & thousands of pretended signatures in the names of various persons, such as the Queen, Prince Albert etc & then all sorts of low filthy & obscure words. In short this famed petition of 5 millions does not contain, such as they are, more than about 1½ millions & very many of them such as above described. By this all self respect has been forfeited, & I trust that on this account the petition will be indignantly rejected by the House.”

The meeting was ridiculed by many as a ‘fiasco’ and two days later O’Connor faced further criticism when his five ton petition was found to weight barely a quarter of a ton and contain less than two million genuine signatures. This was “the real ‘fiasco’ of 1848”.[3] In fact, O’Connor saw the meeting as a decisive moral victory. He had insisted that the meeting went ahead and had ensured that it was peaceful. He was able to call off the procession without any dissent. As Belchem rightly concludes that he was able to “extricate the movement from the difficulty posed by the intractability of the government”.[4] The constitutional right of assembly was maintained and violence avoided.

A historiographical perspective

Contemporaries interpreted the events of 10th April in two different ways. The establishment declared that it was a ‘fiasco’ and that England had been saved by popular support from those who were loyal to the Crown. The other interpretation, held largely by Chartists saw a proper moral force demonstration facing an overwhelming counter demonstration of the government’s physical powers. Of these two views, the first was the orthodox position until the 1960s. In recent decades, historians have revived the Chartist interpretation and helped demolish some of the myths of 10th April.

It is important to recognise that not all Chartists shared the Chartist interpretation. Strong anti-O’Connorite feeling spewed out in the aftermath of 10th April. Lovett[5] blamed O’Connor and his ‘boasting physical force followers’ for allowing the Whigs to have their ‘triumph’. April 10th was a ‘blundering demonstration’. Gammage[6] complained of the ‘boasting’ and how O’Connor had encouraged the ‘empty braggarts’ to think that the procession to the House of Commons would take place. However, he did think that O’Connor was right to abandon the procession but that his tactics caused disunion in the movement. Since Lovett and Gammage have been very influential for many writers, their denunciation of O’Connor on 10th April has helped reinforce the establishment’s interpretation as the orthodox account.

George Jacob Holyoake[7] initially set out the Chartist interpretation in Bygones Worth Remembering, in which he denounced the establishment position as a ‘myth’ and showed ‘the wild way’ in which history could be written. There had been no revolutionary plans, no disorder was threatened and ‘no a man was armed’ on 10th April. He was furious about the ‘utterly groundless and incredible representations’ of 10th April in Charles Kingsley’s novel Alton Locke and in Thomas Hughes’ introduction to the work. Holyoake was convinced that the government knew the truth about the confrontations because it had informers everywhere and that it had been engaged in ‘political imposture’ in order to gain advantage from posing as ‘the deliverers of England’. This view was widespread among Chartists in the mainstream of the movement and appeared in whole or in part in numerous speeches and Northern Star editorials. The Chartist interpretation also had its more extreme explanations. One of these was that a great victory had been gained on 10th April because the Chartists held their meeting and showed their resolute moral power. Writing in 1850, Ernest Jones[8] found the great display of government power a ‘homage paid to our power, and a tactic admission…that the bulk of the popular feeling was against the government’. Another extreme explanation was that a victory had been won because the people were heroically resolute in their restraint, depriving the government of its opportunity to use its powers of coercion. According to Reynolds’ Political Instructor on 23rd March 1850, on the 10th, ‘the people were goaded by insults and injury to expose themselves…unarmed and unprepared’ to ‘murder…by the bayonets, sabres and muskets’ amassed by the government.

The orthodox interpretation was created in the euphoric atmosphere immediately after 10th April. It was underlined by countless sources, enshrined in the cheap, popular histories of the nineteenth century and featured in textbooks. The myth of 10th April has been so pervasive that even historians of aspects of the British working class movement have incorporated it uncritically into their accounts. Mark Hovell[9] described the event as a ‘tragic fiasco’, the day ‘the government finally laid the Chartist spectre’ low. More recently, David Rowe[10] has written of the ‘farcical official conclusion of the movement in the Kennington Common meeting’ and F.M. Leventhal[11] in his biography of George Howell called the meeting ‘pathetic’. Another interpretation can be found in the writings of the Communist historian Reg Groves[12] who saw the ‘ignominious surrender’ of 10th April as a disaster stemming from the ‘centrism’ of O’Connor who appeared to ‘advocate mass action, leads the workers almost to the point of struggle and then falls back into confusion and defeat’.

Other historians have reasserted the fundamental Chartist Interpretation beginning in the 1950s with the seminal article by John Saville in 1952-3[13]. He vigorously attacked the ‘commonplace’ account of the fiasco of 10th April that he found ‘almost always the same’. He reasserted the view that the demonstration of 10th April was ‘never intended to be anything more than a demonstration’ and that the press and the government blew it up into something else. Historians have built on Saville’s views reasserting the Chartist interpretation. John Stevenson[14], David Large[15] and David Goodway[16] all assert that the Chartists never intended that 10th April to be anything more than a peaceable mass demonstration and Edward Royle[17] points out that the attempt to portray 10th April as a fiasco is ‘as much ideological as historical’.


[1] William Cuffay (1788-1870) was transported in 1848 and died in Australia. He was the son of a Caribbean clave and a prominent London Chartist. J. Bellamy and J. Saville (ed.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume vi, London, 1982, pages 77-80 contains a useful biography.

[2] 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.

[3] John Belchem ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein and Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, page 282.

[4] John Belchem ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein and Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, page 282.

[5] William Lovett Life and Struggles, 1876, page 285.

[6] R.G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement, 1854, page 331.

[7] G.J. Holyoake Bygones Worth Remembering, two volumes, London, 1905, volume 1, pages 73-81

[8] John Saville Ernest Jones, London, 1952, pages 109-111, where he quotes an open letter in the Northern Star dated 9th July 1850.

[9] M. Hovell The Chartist Movement, 1918, pages 292, 343.

[10] D.J. Rowe ‘The Failure of London Chartism’, Historical Journal, volume xi, (1968), page 482.

[11] F.M. Leventhal Respectable Radical: George Howell and Victorian Working Class Politics, London, 1971, page 22.

[12] Reg Groves ‘The Class Leadership of Chartism’, The Labour Monthly, volume 2 (April 1929), page 128.

[13] John Saville ‘Chartism in the Year of Revolution, The Modern Quarterly, (Winter 1952-3), later extended into his full-length book 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[14] John Stevenson Popular Disturbances in England 1700-1870, Longman, page 268.

[15] David Large ‘London in the Year of Revolution’, in John Stevenson (ed.) London in the Age of Reform, Oxford, 1977, pages 177-203.

[16] David Goodway London Chartism 1838-1848, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

[17] Edward Royle Chartism, 1st ed., Longman, 1980, page 43.

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