The downturn in the European economy in 1847 led to the revival of revolution in Europe in 1848 with the possibility of renewed violence in Britain and Ireland. A revolutionary upheaval swept across the continent after the fall of the French monarchy in February 1848 and this seemed, at least initially, to promise as never before the realisation of the dream of a democratic and constitutional system of European government. Chartism had already begun to revive before the news from France was added impetus to the movement.
O’Connor was elected to the House of Commons in the general election of 1847 as one of the MPs for Nottingham and fear that his victory would be challenged reinvigorated the NCA in his support. The NCA launched a new National Petition in favour of the Charter and arranged mass meetings to whip up support. The movement was now centred on London where both the NCA and the Northern Star were now based. The first wave of rioting occurred in early March but there was little about this that was specifically ‘Chartist’. A demonstration on 6th March at Trafalgar Square to protest against the proposed rise in income tax (hardly an issue of immediate concern to most Chartists) was banned and led to rioting. It took the police, who were caught unprepared, three days to restore order. 127 rioters were arrested, two-thirds of whom were between sixteen and twenty-two.
However, elsewhere there were more serious threats to the authorities. In Glasgow, several thousand unemployed, reported to be mainly Irish, complained about the quality of food being provided by the Relief Committee and resorted to looting local shops including gunsmiths. A barricade was erected and three people were killed as soldiers fired to clear the threatening crowds. A similar though less violent riot took place in Edinburgh on 8th and 9th March. In Manchester, the unemployed rioted at the imposition of oakum picking by the poor law authorities but were dealt with by the police. On 17th March, the Chartists held a demonstration at Kennington Common that was followed by some looting in Camberwell. On the same day, a Chartist meeting in Salford voted a congratulatory address to the French people and a Chartist-Irish Confederate alliance was cemented. On both occasions, the authorities enrolled special constables.
The authorities were undoubtedly nervous as the day for the presentation of the Petition drew near. There were heightened expectations on both sides throughout the country and reports of Chartists arming and drilling on the moors anticipating the rejection of the Petition. The Chartist Convention met in London on 4th April and arranged to present the petition on 10th April. The plan was to hold a large demonstration at Kennington Commons after which the Petition would be taken in procession to the House of Commons. This was seen by the government as very intimidating and it was concerned to prevent London sliding into revolution as had already occurred in Paris. Initially, the government considered banning the meeting but recognised that this would probably be counter-productive but they did ban the procession and took massive precautions to prevent the Chartists crossing the river. 85,000 special constables were sworn in; many were workmen enrolled to defend their places of work and possibly to prevent them attending the meeting. 4,000 police were positioned on the bridges and in the vicinity of Parliament and 8,000 troops were held in reserve. Estimates of the number of Chartists ranged from the official 15,000 to O’Connor’s inflated 400,000 with historians today giving a figure of 150,000.
The Chartists had always intended the meeting and procession to be peaceful. The mythology of Kennington Common as a ‘fiasco’ was largely created in retrospect. This view needs revision in three important respects:
- Most people were not laughing until it was all over and this is extremely clear from diaries kept at the time by prominent figures. The build up to 10th April had been government policy partly to overawe and discredit the Chartists and partly to impress foreign governments that had shown themselves unable to cope with their own revolutionary crowds.
- The ‘fiasco’ effect was in part planned by the government to discredit the Chartists.
- From the point of view of revolutionary threat, the worst was still to come.
One of the advantages of the defeat of Chartism was its impact on the Irish. The major event on 13th April was not the discrediting of the Charter but the debate on the bill for ‘the more effectual repression of seditious and treasonable proceedings’ in Ireland. This Treason-Felony Act was followed by 22nd July by the suspension of Habeas Corpus in Ireland where the situation had deteriorated partly as a result of nationalist anger over the handling of the famine and the political realignment that followed O’Connell’s death.
The Nation was started in October 1842 by a group of romantic nationalists including Charles Gaven Duffy. They did not favour violence and were opposed to the Chartists. This moderation was maintained, even after the miseries of the famine had begun, by Duffy and William Smith O’Brien in secession in early 1847 from O’Connell’s Repeal Association, known as the Irish Confederation. A minority of the Confederates took up the cause of tenant rights and in early 1848 two of the group, John Mitchel and Thomas Devlin Reilly set up their own newspaper, the United Irishman in rivalry with the Nation. The news from France brought the two groups closer together. O’Brien called for the formation of a National Guard, for which he was tried but acquitted for sedition. The Confederates established a working relationship with the Chartists, something O’Connor had always wanted but which had been thwarted while O’Connell lived.
The old fear of a Franco-Irish alliance in revolution was revived and the government acted quickly to minimise it. By the end of March, Britain had already agreed a pact of mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs with the French Provisional Government. If the Irish were to rise successfully, they would have to look to their own resources and that meant looking to the Irish in Britain to cause a diversion and to North America for military support. The threat of a Chartist-Confederate alliance was considerable. By 1848, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford and smaller British towns like Barnsley and Ashton had considerable Irish minorities. In Bradford and Ashton, even in 1841, ten per cent of the population was Irish. In London, Confederate clubs had been spreading since the autumn of 1847 and on 4th April 1848 they came together with the Chartists at a meeting arranged by the Fraternal Democrats. In Glasgow, pikes were being manufactured at Anderston. In Liverpool, ships from North Americas were searched on entering British waters and the police in Dublin had ordered to arrest all returning immigrants and search them for treasonable papers. In Bradford, throughout April and May there were reports of drilling and pikes being made. The threat to the government had not evaporated after 10th April.
The impending trial of John Mitchel provided the background to mounting unrest in the early summer of 1848. He had been arrested on 22nd March for publishing seditious articles in the United Irishman and was to be tried under the new Treason-Felony Act. There was widespread fear of a rising should he be convicted. In London, the Chartist Convention had been replaced by a National Assembly on 1st May. A New Plan of Organisation had been agreed similar to that used by the United Irishmen in the late 1790s, with a basic unit of ten men to a class and ten classes to a ward. The structure was both flexible and opaque lending itself to conspiratorial organisations that in the localities easily merged with local Irish Confederate clubs. At the same time, regular outdoor meetings were held especially in East London. Chartism at this level was more active than ever. Mitchel was tried on 25th and 26th May and sentenced to death, though this was later commuted to fourteen years’ transportation. Meetings in his support were held at Clerkenwell Green during the trial and on 28th May between ten and twelve thousand people gathered on the Green.
The following evening several thousand gathered again and marched towards Trafalgar Square. They were joined by another 3,000 who had been listening to speeches by Ernest Jones and other Chartist leaders on Stepney Green. They marched through the West End and the crowd was estimated at between 50,000 and 60,000 strong. The main procession was peaceful but there was some marginal rioting and on 30th May the police banned all assemblies and processions in the capital. Meetings continued: on 31st May at Clerkenwell Green and in Bonner’s Fields on 4th June where Ernest Jones was the main speaker, troops stood by while police cleared the crowds. These and smaller meetings, often unannounced so reporters could not be present to collect evidence to man a prosecution, were gradually wearing down the police and demoralised property owners in the neighbourhood of the meetings. Finally, warrants were issued for the arrest of the leading speakers including Jones.
The culmination of these meetings came on Whit Monday, 12th June at Bonner’s Field. The government banned all meetings and called up over 5,000 troops and 4,000 police. David Goodway concluded that ‘The Chartist leadership would probably have welcomed the Bonner’s Fields demonstration developing into a rising’. However, the only member of the Chartist Executive left in London was Peter Murray McDouall. He sized up the situation and called the meeting off; bad weather did the rest. That evening, at the Albion beershop in Bethnel Green Road, McDouall planned an insurrection but it was called off two days later on the instructions of the Chartist Executive; spies had been detected. Nothing further happened until 10th July when the conspirators resumed their meetings independently of the Chartist Executive, though it soon came to know of the plot. On 20th July, a secret committee was formed to plan the day of insurrection planned for 16th August. Then, on 27th July, came the news that Smith O’Brien had attempted a rising in Ireland, that it had been a complete failure and that the leaders had all been arrested. Neither this, nor the realistic and justified fear of spies, deterred the conspirators.
The conspiracy was not just based in London, for events in London since April had been repeated elsewhere. The authorities were particularly concerned about Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford where the situation was seen as especially dangerous. Bradford had become a centre of the worsted trade and had only acquired its police force in 1847. This numbered 69 men or one to every 1,343 inhabitants. With such a small force, the mayor was powerless to stop Chartist activity. Isaac Jefferson, a blacksmith was one of the leading Chartists with a powerbase in Adelaide Street, off Manchester Road, an area densely packed with unemployed wool combers. On 13th May, the police attempted to arrest him but were beaten off by the inhabitants. The reluctance of the mayor to intervene was quite understandable. On 23rd May, McDouall made a seditious speech with impunity at a mass meeting in the town. At this point, the Home Office decided that action would have to be taken.
With a large Irish population and perhaps half the Chartists in Bradford were Irish, the Mitchel verdict was going to be very important. Magistrates were informed that the intention, as in Scotland, was to tie troops up and prevent them being sent to Ireland. On 27th May, extra troops arrived brining their numbers up to 800 and 1,500 special constables were sworn in. On Sunday 28th May, the magistrates finally decided to act and the following morning sent the police into Adelaide Street to arrest Jefferson and to search for arms. The police and specials got no further than the corner of Adelaide Street before being driven back by the inhabitants to the court house. The protestors then marched through the streets singing Chartist songs. Troops were sent for. The police were armed with cutlasses. Together with 1,000 special constables, 200 infantry with fixed bayonets and two troops of dragoons, the mob was pushed back into their homes. Nineteen arrests were made but the leaders escaped. The Chartists subsided but quickly resumed their meetings. Jefferson was arrested on 16th July but was rescued by the mob. On 15th August, the magistrates reported that pikes were being made as the Chartists waited for news from Manchester of the general rising. If the signal came, they had 4,000 men ready to take the town.
It was not until after Mitchel’s conviction that the number of Irish clubs in Liverpool grew under the direction of a central Club Council. This was similar to the New Plan of Organisation in London and provided a highly co-ordinated, secret organisation from which an insurrection could easily develop. The intention, as elsewhere, was to detain troops in England. With a quarter of the population of Liverpool Irish, this clearly presented the authorities with a major problem. The situation was worsened by reports from the United States where the Irish Republican Union had been formed to extend to Ireland the republican freedom enjoyed in the United States. This involved raising an Irish Brigade that would return home under the guise of disillusioned emigrants to fight for the Irish cause.
More troops were sent to the city after opposition hardened with Mitchel’s conviction. More police were appointed to what was the largest police force outside London and there were gunboats on the River Mersey. Unlike Bradford, there was very little Chartist involvement. The unrest in Liverpool was an extension of the Irish problem. On 25th July, the day Habeas Corpus was suspended in Ireland, a a thousand signature petition from Liverpool asked for the Suspension Act to apply to their city as well. Towards the end of July, the corporation was unable to pay for any more troops to be billeted and decisive action was taken by the police. The arrests that followed, the departure of Terence Bellew McManus, the leader of the protests for Ireland to join the rebellion and then news of its failure, enabled the magistrates to take control of what was potentially a dangerous situation.
The Irish adopted a club system in Manchester as they had done in Liverpool and again the rhythm of protest followed the history of the Mitchel trial with a mass meeting in Stevenson Square planned for 31st May and a call for a one-day strike. Magistrates banned the meeting and police and soldiers turned back contingents from Oldham and Ashton as they marched down the turnpikes to Manchester. There were some disturbances in the town but no serious rioting. On 6th June, Ernest Jones arrived to deliver the speech he had given two days earlier in London. Next morning, he was arrested. On Whit Monday, 12th June, in common with other towns, Manchester held a meeting to protest at Mitchel’s conviction and in support of the Charter but there was little disorder.
Magistrates now began to arrest leaders throughout the country but the more they arrested the more they drove the rest into desperate action. As in London, it was now that secret plotting for a rising began. On 18th July, a delegate meeting on Blackstone Edge, high in the Pennines between Halifax and Rochdale, decided that moral force had failed and that the time had come for direct action. The plan was for Lancashire to rise on 15th August, followed by Bradford the day after, the same day as the rising in London.
The government knew of the plans in advance through its system of informers. On the night of 14th August, seventy armed Chartists left Oldham for Manchester and at Ashton-under-Lyne the Chartists paraded with their arms just before midnight. One policeman was killed before the military arrived. In Hyde, a mob began drawing the boiler plugs. The following evening, 15th August, three hundred police simultaneously arrested the Chartist and Confederate leaders in Manchester. The rising was aborted so the signal was never sent to Bradford. On the next night, the metropolitan police raided the taverns where the London rising was about to begin. The revolution was over and the gaols were filled.
The conspiracy of 1848 was the last of the attempts at revolution that began in the 1790s. The violence was less widespread than in 1842 and nothing so spectacular as the Newport rising of 1839, but as a conspiracy it was probably the most serious since 1817 and 1819. With its French and especially Irish dimensions, it was comparable to the revolutionary plotting of the 1790s but this time the French were not interested and the Irish too affected by the famine to provide the lead their compatriots in exile looked for. The scale of the subversive activity has been all but expunged from historical memory. Chartism in 1848 increasingly came to be seen as the ‘fiasco’ of 10th April. As economic conditions improved in the 1850s and as working people were viewed as more ‘respectable’ in their economic and political aspirations, the notion that working people in Victorian Britain could threaten revolution became increasingly inconceivable and dropped out of the historical canon. It was not until historians began to look seriously at the events of 1848 and question the ‘grand narrative’ contrived by Gammage, Hovell and the rest that the significance and potential threat of revolution in 1848 was recognised.
 David Goodway London Chartism 1838-1848, Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 86.