Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Birmingham 2

Chartism in Birmingham: the early phase 1838-1840

The conventional view of Chartism in Birmingham has been accepted by historians since R. G. Gammage[1]. Chartism, it is argued, grew directly from the revival of the BPU in 1837. This time, its middle class leadership was frightened off by the violent rhetoric of the national leadership, notable in the persons of Stephens and O’Connor. There followed a brief, and for Birmingham uncharacteristic, period of class conflict culminating in the Bull Ring riots of July 1839. The conflict allowed O’Neill’s Christian Chartists and Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union of 1842 to restate the essential unity of interests between masters and men.

There was initially no necessary connection between the Charter, published in May 1838 and the Petition. As the depression deepened, the BPU became more active. Early in 1838, R.K. Douglas (editor of the Birmingham Journal) drafted a National Petition setting out the demands of the BPU and Thomas Salt talked of collecting two million signatures in support of Chartist demands. P.H. Muntz worked out plans for a National Convention and Attwood planned a ‘sacred week’. Letters of encouragement were sent to other reformers and John Collins[2] was sent to Glasgow on a ‘missionary’ visit, followed in May be a deputation from Birmingham. It was here that the BPU made contact with the LWMA. On 14th May 1838, the LWMA adopted the national petition for reform and on 5th June 1838, the BPU council adopted the Charter. The LWMA had approached the BPU as early as June 1837 without result, but was the first to respond to the BPU. Ideas for a Charter and petition came together. On 17th July 1838, the BPU met and planned for a convention to elect delegates.

Tensions between working and middle class radicals appeared in the middle of 1838. On 6th August 1838, a rally was held on Newhall Hill, attended by about 200,000 people. Birmingham led the way and chose delegates for the national convention. Mark Hovell commented that the BPU[3] “died in giving birth to the Chartist movement”. At this meeting, working class radicals demanded the election of seven working men to the BPU Council and also the adoption of John Collins as one of the Chartist delegates. By November, tensions became increasingly evident when some of the working class councillors began to complain of the way the BPU council worked.  These tensions cannot be adequately explained as the clash between moral and physical force that it has been portrayed in the past. Arguably, the whole tenor of the BPU’s approach was one of physical force especially its support for a general strike (the ‘sacred month’) if the petition was rejected.  Nor were the tensions a result of the clash of personalities between O’Connor and the BPU leadership. The question of control of the movement was central, but it revolved around the level of participation allowed to the working class radicals. It was this that was the central issue. Middle and working class elements within the BPU had arrived at Chartist from two different positions. They certainly shared the same political programme but their conception of the emergent democratic form was very different. Working class aspirations within Chartism lay not only in obtaining political rights but using them effectively. The approach of the BPU was far more pragmatic and questioned the validity of the notion of equality of citizenship.

Tensions built up within the BPU on the second half of 1838 culminating in the resignation of Hadley, Muntz, Salt and Douglas from the Convention in March 1839. It is often suggested that it was the flagging interest of the BPU’s middle class radicals that created a local working class leadership in the spring of 1839. This is to confused cause and effect. It was the strength of working class leadership, in both its local and national forms, that convinced many middle class radicals that Chartism would not provide the kind of democracy they envisaged. To the Chartists, there was an inescapable correlation between the success of middle class radicals in the municipal elections of December 1838 and their gradual withdrawal from the Chartist movement.  Success in the local elections for key figures on the BPU council, transformed a mass-based agitation in which they took part into a problem of law and order. This was most clearly exemplified in the question of the meetings in the Bull Ring. From January 1839, under working class direction, these meetings demonstrated graphically the tension between working and middle class radicals in the town. On 10th May 1839, they were declared illegal by the magistrates now including P. H. Muntz: a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper.

In February 1839, the First Chartist Convention took place and on 7th May 1839, the National Petition was ready to be presented by John Fielden and Thomas Attwood. However, Attwood was unhappy at the idea that if the Charter became law, the Irish would get two hundred of the six hundred seats proposed for the new House of Commons. The “Bedchamber Crisis” intervened.  On 13th May 1839, the Convention reconvened in Birmingham at the Owenites’ Lawrence Street chapel. Birmingham Chartists had become more provocative since the demise of the BPU but neither the LWMA nor the BPU could work with the northern Chartists under O’Connor. A ‘Sacred Month’ or ‘national holiday’ was proposed for August 1839; in effect a general strike. It was even attempted in Bolton and two men (John Warden and George Lloyd) were tried at the Liverpool Assizes for riot. The proposal for a ‘Sacred Month’ shows the divisions in Chartism: London and some in Birmingham wanted a peaceful protest; O’Connor and the northerners wanted greater direct action.

The government used sixty London police to control the rioters and to arrest the leaders, which was less provocative than using troops. After the leaders had been arrested, the rank and file Chartists were temporarily disunited and dispersed. The events of 1839 were important because they resulted in moderate men abandoning Chartism because they disliked riots and social disorder.

Historians have tended to see a ‘collapse’ in the movement with the arrest of its leaders. Revival only occurred when these leaders began to return from prison. This is too stark a chronology and in Birmingham, there is ample evidence showing continuity between 1839 and 1841-2. During 1840, the major concern of Chartists in Birmingham was sustaining the families of imprisoned Chartists and discussions on the future of the movement. From August 1840, some Chartists leaders were being released. When William Lovett and John Collins were freed from Warwick gaol, their reception in Birmingham was tumultuous and perhaps marks the high point of working class radicalism in the town.

Most of the Chartist leaders were released in 1841 bringing with them differing thoughts about the organisation of Chartism. Some of these reflected in Birmingham. One centre of these differences was the Birmingham Christian Chartist Church formed by Arthur O’Neill in December 1840. Another complication arose in January 1841 with the creation of the Birmingham Total Abstinence Chartist Association. Parallel to these developments was the creation of the National Charter Association led by O’Connor. He was opposed to any dilution or compromising of working class Chartism by Christian, Teetotal, Education or any other middle class brand. His view was that such varieties were useful as long as their supporters adhered to the main NCA body. This, the minorities refused to do.

The first attempt to reconcile differing views was made in March 1841 by George White who had been made Northern Star correspondent for the Birmingham area. This initially proved successful, but divisions soon returned. The growth of Chartism from the beginning of 1841 was rapid. The movement was stirred by the death in prison of John Clayton, a Sheffield Chartist. The NCA continued to seek unity and criticise the separatists and channels of communication were kept open with the Christian Chartists and Owenite Socialists in the town.

Class collaboration revived

In 1842, the Birmingham Complete Suffrage Union (CSU) was formed[4]. This was an attempt by Joseph Sturge and Edward Miall[5] to unite moral and physical force Chartists. They tried to persuade Chartist leaders to go for only universal suffrage. The also tried to link Chartism to the Anti-Corn Law League. Joseph Sturge is a good example of a Utopian leader. He was a Quaker and pacifist, a close friend of Richard Cobden and John Bright and close ally and member of the Anti Corn Law League up to 1841. He opposed slavery, and stood against the Police Act of 1839. In November 1841, he proposed founding a movement for franchise extension at an Anti Corn Law League meeting, which got a mixed reception because the leaders of the ACLL were unwilling to become involved with political radicalism. Sturge did find support from among the Nonconformists and the Chartists who opposed O’Connor supported the Complete Suffrage Union.

On 5th April 1842, a conference was held in Birmingham attended by such men as O’Brien, Collins and Lovett. The Six Points were carried to Sturge’s surprise and the dispute between Chartists and the CSU was reduced to whether or not the CSU should commit itself to support the Charter in name. The middle class objected because Chartism was associated with violence. The Chartists thought the middle classes were lukewarm.  In December 1842, a further conference was held, attended by O’Connor and many of his followers. Once again, the meeting divided over the adoption of the ‘name’ of the Charter. Sturge was prepared to compromise because he had already decided that free trade should come after the Charter had been obtained. He had proposed prohibitive tariffs on slave-produced goods, which had caused him to break with the Anti Corn Law League. Sturge’s group was overwhelmingly defeated. At its peak, the CSU had had about sixty branches in different towns. The National Charter Association was strengthened because the moderates were divided and disillusioned. All of them abandoned Chartism and left it to O’Connor and the violent elements.

The Plug Plots also helped to divide Chartism, as did the failure of the second Petition. The moderates discovered that they had been too idealistic with regard to the working class and had not realised how gullible they were, nor how illiterate and uninformed. They had attributed too much ability to the working class man, who needed to be educated and informed before movements like Chartism could succeed. Lovett then began to devote his attention to his National Society for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, with Place and Hetherington: a London self-help organisation especially to educate the workers. Asa Briggs[6] comments that: “Lovett had lost faith; not in his doctrinaire principles, but in the men through whom alone they could be made actual”.

Sturge also abandoned Chartism. He had hoped to ally Chartism with the Anti Corn Law League but this was impossible because the middle and working classes had little common ground as evidenced by the 1832 Reform Act, the Ten-Hour Campaign, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the differing attitudes towards Trade Unions. The Chartists regarded any Chartist allying himself with the Anti-Corn Law League as a traitor. The Anti-Corn Law League could not guarantee better wages for the working classes and the Chartists believed that any profits from free trade would not benefit the workers. Thus, the Birmingham Chartists put their hopes on universal suffrage and left economic reform to the Anti-Corn Law League. Sturge promoted voluntary education schemes and world peace. He became President of the Peace Society. He was also a Birmingham philanthropist. As G.D.H. Cole[7] notes, Sturge was, indeed, from first to last, indefatigable in his pursuit of good causes. His weakness was that he looked much less at causes than at effects, and never penetrated below the surface ills of the society that he so ardently desired to reform…He had, in effect, the essential qualities of a great philanthropist, but he lacked those requisite for the successful political reformer.”


[1] R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement, 1894 edition, pages 83-4 and 107-135 saw O’Connor and ‘physical force’ as the major disruptive influence on an otherwise unified BPU, a view echoed by subsequent writers from Mark Hovell through to J. T. Ward.

[2] For John Collins (?-1850) see, Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 147-148.

[3] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester University Press, 1918, page 108.

[4] On the Complete Suffrage Union, Alexander Wilson ‘The Suffrage Movement’ in Patricia Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, Edward Arnold, 1974, pages 80-104 considers the 1840s and the 1850s with a useful section on the CSU. Alex Tyrrell Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain, Croom Helm, 1987 is the standard biography but a shorter biography is in Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 493-495.

[5] On Edward Miall (1809-1881) see, Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 343-349.

[6] In the 1965 introduction to G.D.H. Cole Chartist Portraits, page vii, quoting Cole in the 1941 edition, page 61.

[7] G.D.H. Cole Chartist Portraits, Macmillan, 1941, pages 185-186.

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