Friday, 16 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Final Phase 2

Soon after the mass meeting held at Kennington Common on 10th April 1848 Ernest Jones addressed these hopeful words to his Chartist supporters [1]. “Chartists, what is your duty? It is to organise. I tell you we are on the very verge of triumph. The Government are without funds – their expenditure is increasing…the middle class mistrust them – the working class despise them…”  They proved sadly misplaced. In March 1863, Richard Cobden observed, somewhat dispiritedly to his friend William Hargreaves[2] “I suppose it is the reaction from the follies of Chartism which keeps the present generation so quiet.”  In similar vein John Snowden wrote to Ernest Jones about the Halifax area[3] “Many of those that were once active Chartists have emigrated. And others, though residing here as usual, have become so thoroughly disgusted at the indifference and utter inattention of the multitude to their best interests that they too are resolved to make no more sacrifices in a public cause.”

To both government and employers dissatisfied working people posed both a problem and a threat. Repressive laws and vigorous policing could control their activities but it was their political attitudes that had been confronted, and defeated, in 1848. Yet their presence in British society after the 1840s could not be ignored. Constraining working class aspirations was possible but it proved more effective to gain their consent to what was, after 1850, a remarkably conservative establishment. The result was an unquestionable change in the nature of working class action so fundamental that it gave the labour movement a reformist character of some permanence[4]. What was the character of this change and why did it occur? How did it affect Chartism?

The growing prosperity of the economy played a central role in this development[5]. In the early 1840s economic depression had been exceptionally severe. It was, however, succeeded by high levels of investment, a boom in railway building and banking and commercial reforms. These led to a vigorous upswing in the economy. Unemployment increased significantly in the last quarter of 1847 and the first half of 1848 as the economy was hit by a quite serious economic crisis. Had it not been for the European revolutions the return to upward growth would have occurred earlier. Business and commercial activity ran more smoothly in the third quarter of the century than earlier. Employment generally improved though full employment was only achieved in exceptional years. William Gladstone in his 1863 Budget indicated the scale of growth. He stated that the national income had increased by twenty per cent between 1853 and 1861 and that the real wealth of the working class had grown to an extent previously unparalleled in Britain or abroad.

It would be economic determinism to suggest that changes in the political attitudes of working people were brought about solely because of greater regularity of work and rising living standards. While there may be something in the oft-quoted words of William Cobbett, ‘I defy you to agitate a fellow with a full stomach’, as John Saville says[6] “These were without doubt important contributory factors, but there is no simple causative analysis that can be offered for the historic fracture in working-class political consciousness which followed 1848.”

Many of the features of working class reformism that dominated the decades after 1848 can be seen before the mid-century. Before 1850 there was already a significant growth of working class organisations that Saville calls defensive’[7]. Friendly societies and trade unions found an increasing role among skilled workers. Co-operative activity developed after 1844. Owenite and more fully-fledged Chartists activities did not so much relinquish their ideals in the 1850s and 1860s they found themselves increasingly less applicable to the personal situations of working people. Class conflict did not suddenly become a thing of the past as the 1852 lockout in the engineering industry and the Preston textile strike in 1854 demonstrated. However, the political and social reforms of the 1830s and 1840s brought the traditional ruling class and the owners of capital into different degrees of accommodation with the working class. It was the continued diversity of the working population that played a dominant role in this process. Britain was a long way from having a factory-based proletariat. The skilled artisan in the workshop setting remained the predominant working-class figure. This can be seen, for example, in mid-century Birmingham and Sheffield, both hives of small-scale producers. Such working conditions did not lend themselves to mass movements united in the cause of radical social change. More important were issues of self-respect, individual reliance and self-help. Status within diverse communities was more relevant than social class. Engels[8] was not alone in complaining that ‘the British working class is becoming more and more bourgeois’.

The establishment had some success by using different forms of ‘social control’ for maintaining its dominance over the working population. The influence of Nonconformity tended to encourage quietism in political terms and the influence of religion and moral campaigns like temperance on many groups and occupations in the 1840s and 1850s should not be underestimated. It can be argued that the mid-Victorian working class was subjected to a ceaseless barrage of propaganda from both public and private agencies on behalf of a value system that supported capitalism and the ideas of self-help, laissez-faire, sobriety, respectability and the mutual interests of labour and capital. Recreation became increasingly ‘rational’. Direct action was taken to stamp out gambling, working class blood sports, illicit drinking and overt prostitution. Constant surveillance from the police was normally sufficient to drive social undesirable activities off the streets and into remote rural areas or behind closed doors. Heavy drinking was another activity, which came under attack. More respectable alternatives were developed. When Henry Solly[9], previously a Chartist leader, founded the Club and Institute Union in 1862, he said in his letter of appeal for funds that[10] “It would be as reasonable to expect the heathen world to convert itself to Christianity as to expect the great bulk of the working men to give up the public house and establish private Clubs, without some impulse and guidance from those above them.”

There was considerable middle class support and involvement in Solly’s movement and 1867 he had set some three hundred clubs up, all of them temperance. Mechanics institutes, established as early as 1823, played an important role in educational and recreational activities as well as being a medium for transmitting middle class values. Many of the 1200 institutes that existed by 1860 had significant middle class assistance. The Volunteer Force, founded in 1859 to protect Britain from foreign invasion and with a largely working class membership of 200,000 by the 1870s, was a further form of social control. These organisations inculcated important standards of self-discipline and led, many contemporaries believed, to a moderation of political extremism.

Social control, however, was not simply a matter of channelling working class behaviour as it also involved a fundamental ideological dimension. The growing press, religion and education played a central part in spreading the values of contemporary bourgeois society. Periodicals like Charles Dickens’ Household Words and Chamber’s Journal addressed the elite of the labouring community. They attacked political agitation, immorality and industrial strikes and described the benefits of social co-operation. Literature for adults mirrored what was being read in schools. Their content may have been less overtly religious but their purpose and tone had changed little. The idea of ‘taming the working classes with education’[11] can be traced back to 1842 and the Minutes of the Committee of the Council on Education in 1846 demonstrate a similar concern with social stability[12] “Supervised by its trusty teacher, surrounded by its playground wall, the school was to raise a new race of working people – respectful, cheerful, hard-working, loyal, pacific and religious.”

The evidence presented to the Newcastle Commission on Elementary Education in 1861 stressed the success of schools in transforming working class children into model citizens. Working class radicals like Lovett recognised the importance of education as a means of ultimately achieving the franchise. Victorian religion provided a sober alternative to the public house as a centre of fellowship and general recreational activity. Both church and chapel continued to expound political and social values. People should accept their station in life and submission and obedience to authority were the central Christian duties. Christian hymns certainly stressed the virtues of middle class values.

There are, however, serious objections to the ideas that social harmony after 1850s was the product simply of social control. Whatever the merits of the mechanics’ institutes and the Volunteers, their attraction was strictly limited. Neither appears to have appealed directly to ordinary working men. By the early 1850s, in Lancashire and Cheshire, most members of their thirty-two institutes were either professionals or from the middle classes. There were over two million children on school registers in 1861 but schooling ended relatively young for most children and there was no compulsion to attend. The Religious Census of 1851 revealed the full extent of the churches’ failure to attract the mass of the population. Improving literature also appears to have had limited appeal. The limits of the success of the temperance movement can be gauged by the fact that beer consumption reached an all-time peak in 1876 of 34.4 gallons a head consumed annually. Finally many working men despised bodies like the Lord’s Day Observance Society, the main instrument of Sabbatarianism.

There was working class support for the institutions of social control but it came primarily from the skilled artisans. The attack on the traditional habits and values of the working class is best seen not as an attempt by the middle classes to impose their values on the working class but as a conflict between two distinct value systems. This conflict cut across class boundaries and united working and middle class ‘respectables’ against the idle rich and the undeserving and idle poor. This too has its problems. The respectability of many working men was marked by a considerable amount of calculation and self-interest. Sunday school attendance increased in the months before the annual treat. Attendance at church might be motivated by the possibility of playing football for the church team. In this respect the ‘respectable’ working class was not merely a middle class cipher. ‘Respectability’ did not have one meaning in the 1850s and 1860s[13]. To the middle classes, it implied deference to one’s betters, recognition of their superior virtues and attempts to copy them. To the artisan, however, it entailed a rejection of patronage and an assertion of their independence. This was clearly evident in their support of Chartism in the 1830s and 1840s and general dislike of the poor law and charity. Independence for working people did not mean the self-help philosophy preached by the middle classes and popularised by Samuel Smiles but the mutual assistance of the trade union and the co-operative society.

The extent to which the working class accepted middle class values of respectability is difficult to measure with any degree of accuracy. Neither is it possible to assess the real impact of different methods of social control or of improvements in working and living conditions. In this respect[14] “The stabilisation of social relations was thus many-sided and gradual. It did not signal an end to class conflict or the emergence of untroubled middle-class rule…. The shared economic experiences of workers across a wide range of trades, subjected to threats to their status and security, ensure the presence in the second quarter of the century of a working-class consciousness based on common struggles against excessive competition and the inequalities of capitalist market relations…. The working class did not suddenly become liberalised or reformist…The mid-Victorian consensus represented a process of social stabilisation rather than class harmonisation.”

Perhaps the growing sense of co-operation and harmony in the 1850s and 1860s can best be explained by the passage of time. By the 1860s there were fewer people who had direct experience of the turmoil that characterised the industrial revolution. Urbanisation, industrialisation and technological change had a long way to go but as processes they were familiar to working people[15]. People appear to have accepted that change was there to stay and instead of attempting to turn the clock back came to an uneasy accommodation with it. The strategies of Chartism lost their relevance to the experience of ordinary working people.


[1] John Saville Ernest Jones: Chartist, London, 1952, page 106.

[2] F.M. Leventhal Respectable Radical: George Howell and Victorian Working Class Politics, London, 1974, page 43.

[3] Saville Ernest Jones: Chartist, page 74.

[4] The literature on the changing or more accommodating attitude of the working class in the 1850s and 1860s is a subject of considerable debate. The following books are worth consulting. The standard text is F.E. Gillespie Labor and Politics in England 1850-67, Durham, 1927. This should be complemented, if not superseded, by Margot Finn After Chartism: Class and Nation in English Radical Politics, 1848-1874, Cambridge, 1993, Neville Kirk The Growth of Working-Class Reformism in Mid-Victorian England, London, 1985, a study based on Lancashire and Trygve Tholfsen Working-Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England, London, 1976. E.F. Biagini and A.J. Reid (eds.) Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain 1850-1914, Cambridge, 1991 forcibly stresses continuity of attitudes across the 1850 divide.

[5] On the economy of the 1850s and 1860s see R.A. Church The Great Victorian Boom 1850-1873, London, 1975, a valuable bibliographical corrective to the view that these decades were, in some ways, exceptional.

[6] John Saville The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800-1850, London, 1994, page 80.

[7] I take ‘defensive’ to mean that these organisations protected the interests of working people within the context of an increasingly capitalist economy.

[8] Engels to Marx, 7th October 1858, quoted in K. Marx and F. Engels Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1956, page 133.

[9] Henry Solly (1813-1903) was a Somerset Unitarian minister who supported Chartism and the Complete Suffrage Union. He wrote a great deal including two volumes of interesting memoirs (1893). Owen R. Ashton and Paul A. Pickering Friends of the People, Merlin, 2003, pages 29-54 contains a useful biography

[10] Quoted in J. Taylor ‘From self-help to glamour: the working man’s club 1860-1972’, History Workshop Pamphlet, volume 7, (1972), page 2.

[11] James Kay-Shuttleworth, secretary of the Committee for Education, certainly saw education in the light of social control.

[12] Quoted in R. Johnson ‘Educational policy and social control in the mid-nineteenth century’, Past and Present, volume 73 (1970), page 119.

[13] Adrian Jarvis Samuel Smiles and the Construction of Victorian Values, Stroud, 1997 considers the issue of respectability from a revisionist perspective.

[14] Peter Taylor Popular Politics in Early Industrial Britain. Bolton 1825-1850, Keele, 1995, page 223.

[15] Martin Hewitt The Emergence of Stability in the Industrial City: Manchester 1832-1867, Aldershot, 1996 is a useful case study.

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