Saturday, 15 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Barnsley Radicalism

In the spring and summer of 1838, delegations from the Birmingham Political Union toured Scotland and northern England to promote the Union’s famous ‘Petition’ for parliamentary reform. On 11th June, one of the delegations addressed a large public meeting in Barnsley. The Barnsley meeting unanimously adopted the petition and resolved to form a local association on the Birmingham model. A 24-man committee, consisting mainly of linen handloom weavers, was elected to collect local signatures for the petition. In its quest for local support, the committee later issued a 4000-word manifesto[1] addressed to their ‘fellow workmen’ of Barnsley and the neighbourhood.

The working class in the northern industrial districts largely responded to Chartism because of their economic plight. Unlike the men of London and Birmingham, whose pursuit for the Charter was based on noble ideals, the northern working classes acted according to the dictates of the stomach. The Barnsley Manifesto itself, which dwells on working class hunger, misery and exploitation, lends support to this. However, radicalism was deeply embedded in Barnsley, as in many other northern towns and its driving force transcended short-term economic hardships.

The Barnsley working class had been involved in serious radical politics for a long time. Two of the signatories to the manifesto, John Vallance and Arthur Collins, took part in the Grange Moor Insurrection of 1820, a climax of post Napoleonic war radicalism in Barnsley. In the early 1830s, many Barnsley workingmen took part in the Owenite co-operative movement, the trade union and Reform Bill agitation and the ‘war of the unstamped’. Joseph Lingard, father of one of the signatories to the manifesto, was the local distributor of unstamped papers. He opened a reading room where workingmen not only read the illegal literature but also held political discussions. It was an experience to which some of the radicals and Chartists owed ‘whatever knowledge they possessed in politics’. Local agitation for parliamentary reform was revived as early as 1835 when a local Radical Association was formed. The association worked closely with sister associations in such neighbouring towns as Leeds and Huddersfield, and with O’Connor’s Radical Association in London. The local association not only held annual dinners to celebrate Henry Hunt’s birthday but also petitioned for a reform of Parliament, and discussed issues such as ‘taxes on knowledge’, the relationship between church and state, and the New Poor Law. During 1837-8, the level of activity rose to a new pitch. In the following years, Barnsley was one of Feargus O’Connor’s strongholds.

The Barnsley Manifesto expresses mainstream Chartist thought. It appealed to working class poverty and suffering and the authors were well versed in exploitation theory. Labour was the creator of all wealth, but those who never worked siphoned off most of this wealth. The latter monopolised political power that they used to enact laws that were as partial as they were extortionate. According to this analysis, the ruling class used its monopoly of power to rob labour of the fruits of its own industry through heavy taxation. Because of its insatiable appetite for ‘sumptuous revellings’ and other forms of upper-class extravagance, the ruling class never ceased devising means of getting the larger share of whatever additional wealth labour produced. Thus, the exploitation of the poor lay not so much in the economic processes of production, distribution and exchange, as in the political process of law making. It was, therefore, logical to argue that the exploitation of the working class would end only when they gained admission into the political system. The Chartists do not seem to have questioned seriously the economic system that condemned them to the status of wage earners.

By the mid-1830s, the concept of the ‘industrious classes’ that recognised that both the working class and the industrial middle class were exploited producers of wealth, had completely broken down. The Barnsley Manifesto stated that ‘there is no wealth but what the working class creates’. The middle class was on the side of those who exploited industry. One Barnsley Chartist once referred to the middle class as ‘the aristocracy of pounds, shillings and pence’, who were ready to ‘starve the people and, if possible, would coin the people’s hearts’ blood to prolong their reign’. The Chartist platform defined the relationship between property and power, though not always clearly. The middle class came under attack less often for its conduct as the employers of labour than for its participation in such class legislation as the New Poor Law,

Other strands of Chartism are revealed in the document. Thomas Paine’s appeal to natural rights and liberty is an important element, as is the influence of religion. The manifesto condemned the religious intolerance of the Established Church and confronted the opinions of the local religious leaders who had delivered a barrage of theological invective against the Chartist movement from their pulpits. Finally, the Chartists believed that the working class was not only the source of wealth but also of power. The power of the ruling class lay only in the working-class submission to its authority. It was only by its own exertion that the working class would liberate itself. The angry language of the manifesto was aimed at arousing the Barnsley working class to the realisation of its potential strength.


[1] The Barnsley Manifesto is printed above.

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