Thursday, 8 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Beyond Kennington Common

The Convention continued to sit undaunted by the rejection of the petition. It organised more mass meetings preparatory to the summoning of a National Assembly that would call upon the Queen to dissolve Parliament and accept only a government prepared to implement the Charter. 6,000 people in Aberdeen voted to form a National Guard, while in Manchester 100,000 people were said to have pledged their support to the Convention in any emergency. On Monday 17th April the Convention met again, and for the first time delegates acknowledged that a number of the signatories to the petition might well be far less than claimed. Internal disagreement, mutual suspicion and recriminations increasingly paralysed the work of the Convention. O’Connor attacked its handling of the petition. On Clark’s motion, the meeting of the National Assembly was postponed to 1st May, but the mood remained defiant. In the following week, the first delegates were elected as further public meetings took place. At this point, O’Connor chose to claim that the National Assembly would be an illegal gathering.

Delegates began to leave to seek guidance in their localities. The Convention, though not actually dissolved, as Jones feared, was rapidly losing the initiative. His hopes that pressure could be maintained through the National Assembly that met in May, were shattered when O’Connor came out against it. William Dixon (Norwich) was appointed chairman and James Shirron (Aberdeen) secretary. At first concern was expressed that the Assembly was illegal because it contained more than 49 people. O’Connor came in for criticism, not least from Shirron, who complained that no trust could be placed in the word of a man who had first declared the event legal and subsequently illegal. It soon became evident that most delegates were opposed to physical force, though Shaw of London, Sharp, Ernest Jones, McLean, C.B. Henry (Aberdeen), Shirron, McIntosh (Newcastle-on-Tyne) and T. Jones (Liverpool) said their constituents would fight if necessary. The Assembly resolved that its programme should be to give increased vigour to the movement, to deal with the organisation and policy of the Chartist body, to organise the presentation of the Memorial to the Queen, and to find the best practical method of making the Charter law.

The split between O’Connor and the Chartist body became irretrievable as O’Connor condemned the Assembly as unlawful, and the Assembly charged his Northern Star newspaper with unfair reporting. Edward Jones resigned his position on the paper. The Assembly went on to adopt a new scheme of organisation dividing the country into districts, localities and sections. There was to be a five-strong Executive and 10 Commissioners, with district and local officers appointed by their localities. The Executive’s members were to have £2 each week, and when travelling a further 2s 6d plus their second class fare. A liberty fund of £10,000 was to be raised by voluntary subscription and an office taken in London. A provisional Executive was appointed consisting of J. McCrae (Dundee), Jones, Samuel Kydd (Oldham), Leach and McDouall (Nottingham). This marked the end of Chartist efforts to use traditional mass platform to obtain the Charter. Meanwhile, the Assembly was setting out a policy agenda that went far beyond the Charter. On a motion from West it voted to repeal the union between Great Britain and Ireland; it backed Carver’s call to sever the connection between Church and State; it carried Kydd’s motion advocating the employment of the poor on public lands; and on a motion from Jones it recommended the people to arm. All sense of reality now gone, the Assembly adjourned for six weeks to take the debate back to their constituents. It did not meet again. However, on 2nd June, The Times concluded that “Chartism is neither dead nor sleeping. The snake was scotched not killed on the 10th of April. The advancing spring has brought with it warmth, vigour and renovation.”

The spring and summer of 1848 saw a great deal of activity, arrests and trials and several riots, against the background of imminent revolution in Ireland. There was a notable toughening of views among calling for physical confrontation with the forces of law and order. Was there the potential for a Chartist rising? The focal points of government concern during the summer were the Bradford, Manchester and Liverpool districts and London. Activity in Manchester began to increase from the middle of May. The cause was the arrest and subsequent transportation of John Mitchel, editor of the United Irishman and first victim of the Treason-Felony Act. This led to a call by Irish Confederates for a mass demonstration in Stevenson Square at noon on Wednesday 31st May. Local magistrates banned it. However, it went ahead anyway with minor disturbances. The most serious problems facing the government in late May and early June, however, came from the Bradford district and Liverpool. Open drilling spread to Leeds and Bingley. Halifax Chartists attended meeting with ‘glistening pikes flashing in the sun’. Matters came to a head to 29th May with the botched arrest of two local Chartist leaders. Street violence followed which the Bradford police eventually brought under control. The Times grudgingly reported that[1] “if fighting with luck against Special Constables and the police could make a revolution, those who fought at Bradford ought to have succeeded.”

It is unclear whether a rising was planned at Bradford at the end of May. Whether it was or not, it is clear that any co-ordinated Chartist action was unlikely. There were different levels of preparation in different towns. Liverpool had remained relatively quiet in April despite its potential for violence. Its links with the movement in the rest of the country were weak. Its large Irish population appears to have been politically inactive. During May political activity increased with growing activity by Irish radicals. Religious divisions sharpened politics in Liverpool. Social tensions increased in June and July. Newcastle commented in his diary[2]

[June 1] “The Chartist meetings are becoming very troublesome not that we know any thing of them in this part of the Town for they meet in Clerkenwell to the amount of some thousands - but they require much watching both by police & soldiers. At Bradford there has been a very serious affair, & the rioters were very difficult to beat.  [2 June] In the H of Lords notice was taken of the tumultuous assemblies holden every night in the eastern parts of this metropolis - disturbance of the peace, good order, & mercantile transactions of the inhabitants. The Police, special constables & soldiers have been out every night of the week - amongst only Peers the D of Wellington called upon ministers to put down this nuisance, & suggested two modes either to prevent assemblage by dispersion before meeting, or else to make the ring leaders personally responsible for all damage done & for all delinquency either by word or deed. Ld Lansdowne promised that the evil should be put down. It is time that it should, the citizens complain of it bitterly.  [3 June] The Chartists have been out every night this week & today (being Sunday) they were out by ten o’clock & continued to hold meetings throughout the day in various parts of the town. The Police had to be on the alert throughout the day & had some very sharp affrays with them. On one occasion they broke all the windows of a Church. Their conduct has been very scandalous & they give out that they shall go on until they have worn out the authorities & shall have carried their point. The desecration of the Sabbath is a new practice in English outrage. They say openly that in Whitsun week they shall make such a dramatic time throughout the Kingdom as the like has never been seen before.”

Street meetings and violence increased. However, vigorous action by the police rapidly restored order and by early August, Liverpool was completely under the control of the forces of law and order. In London, the police broke up meetings in the East End on 4th June and the provisional executive of the National Assembly called a day of protest on 12th June. The government responded with a heavy display of force at the Bishop Bonner’s Fields meeting. It was determined to rush what remained of the Chartist threat. The hostility of the press and the willingness of the courts to convict Chartist leaders, as well as the rank and file, eased the gradual repression of the movement. Newcastle finally[3] [7 June] “A man of the name of Jones, a Chartist orator & firebrand, & anothers have been arrested. Their language has been so outrageous that there can be but little doubt that they will soon follow to the penal Colonies. Yesterday & the day before these miscreants have not shewn themselves as they announced, possibly they may think it advisable not to meet the police until they may be better organised & prepared.  [8 June] Several more of these miscreant Chartist leaders & orators have been arrested. They are all upon their guard just now & since the beginning of this week have been very quiet - but I suspect that they are now waiting for any opportunity, it is expected that on the 12th they will show themselves in many places. Great preparations are making to meet them whenever they may appear - for the first time they are secret as to their intentions - which appears the more like earnest.  [10 June] It is intimated to us that the Govt & the Vestry are very desirous that special constables should be made & sworn in - & that we should send our Servants for that purpose, also go ourselves if we do not object to it. I sent many of my servants & they went with great good will & alacrity. I myself went to the office & enquired of the magistrate whether if I were to be sworn in I could be excused from ordinary work, & might only be called upon when danger threatened & there was a foe to meet. He told me that he thought no exceptions could be made & that I could not be excused if others were called out. He mentioned a report that tomorrow (Sunday) the Specials would be called upon to do the duty of the Police who were to have rest to better able to undergo the probable fatigues of Whit Monday. This scared me & I retired telling that if on Monday (12th) I found that there was really likely to be a great stir, I should probably call upon him to be sworn a special constable. I will do so if occasion requires, but I have no taste for acting Police watchman in the streets.  [12 June] I am now writing at past 7 o’clock. I have heard of no disturbances anywhere, & I was told today that telegraphic accounts had been received from all the great northern [towns] there had been meetings, but all had gone off quietly & the mobs had dispersed. A meeting was conducting near Mr. O'Neil's by Westbourne Grove, but since 10 o’clock it has so absolutely poured with rain that no mob would like to be washed by it.  [13 June] Not the slightest disturbance or appearance of disturbance occurred yesterday & today every where all has been equally quiet. The Chartists have taken us in most completely - & if they ever intend to do anything, it will now not be attempted except when we may be entirely off our guard.”

Chartism soon began to lose its major leaders. Jones was convicted for his speech at Bishop Bonner’s Fields. McDouall was brought to trial in late June. Harney summed up the procedures used in court throughout the second half of 1848 in the following way[4] “Place Fustian in the dock, let Silk Gown charge the culprit with being a ‘physical force Chartist’ and insinuate that he is not exactly free from the taint of ‘Communism’, and forthwith Broad Cloth in the jury box will bellow out GUILTY.”

Gradually the noose of repression was tightened but at a cost. There was an increased commitment to violence from the Chartists who remained. News from Ireland impelled some of the Chartists towards revolution. First, Mitchel was convicted, and then Habeas Corpus was suspended in Ireland in late July and finally Smith O’Brien’s abortive rising. Very little of the activity of late July was reported in the Star. However, two new papers appeared in Lancashire. The hope was to direct outrage at the treatment of Ireland into disciplined organisation. The Truth Teller called for ‘full and perfect organisation’ and opposed any idea of planned violence. The English Patriot and Irish Repealer, edited by James Leach[5] a leading Manchester Chartist, put forward a more radical agenda. It called for all Irishmen living in England to join the Irish League. Informers were pessimistic. They detected moves to greater secrecy in Irish and Chartist circles and reported that northern England would rise if there was insurrection, even if unsuccessful, in Ireland. The result was the August ‘conspiracy’. In London, a government informer infiltrated the local groups and its leaders were arrested on 16th August. Provincial involvement is more difficult to assess. There is evidence of disagreement between local Chartists and Irish over the use of violence. However, there is much to suggest that Manchester was intended as the centre of co-ordinated action on either 15th or 16th August. In the event, local magistrates struck first and in the pre-emptive strike arrested fifteen Chartist and Confederate leaders on the night of 15th August.

Was the Chartist threat real in 1848? To those in authority it certainly was. They saw the daily meetings and riots[6]. They received reports of drilling and military style marches from the provinces. The events of 10th April were not seen at the time as marking the end of the movement, nor was it a decisive date and nor was it the demoralising fiasco that the mainstream media sought to maintain. Perhaps the end of the year has a greater claim. By then, the leaders of the movement were in prison. The Land Company was in difficulty and the ‘year of revolutions’ in Europe had ended not with the creation of just and democratic societies but with the reassertion of traditional authority. As in 1838 and 1842, Chartism was contained from without and critically weakened from within. Yet, Kennington Common and the June riots are only ‘fiascos’ in retrospect. The revival of 1848 was limited in geographical scale. Of the 1,009 places where evidence for Chartist organisations can be found between 1839 and 1849, only 207 were active in the third phase of which only 42 had emerged since 1845. Chartism’s failure in 1848 was not one of ideas but of will. The united ‘mass platform’, already weakened, disintegrated. Chartism as a mass movement was over.


[1] The Times, 31st May 1848.

[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] 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.

[4] ‘L’Ami du Peuple’, Northern Star, 2nd December 1848 quoted in John Belchem ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein and Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, page 299.

[5] James Leach (1806-69) was a well-known Manchester Chartist who was imprisoned in 1848. As a pamphleteer, he wrote about the factory system and the need for a middle-class alliance.

[6] M. Finn ‘A vent which has conveyed our principles: English radical patriotism in the aftermath of 1848’, Journal of Modern History, volume 64 (1992), pages 637-659 is essential on this issue.

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