Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and the State 1


Relations between the government and Chartism were of mutual hostility[1]. Chartists denounced Whigs and Tories as ‘tyrannical plundering’ governments. Politicians of both parties saw Chartists as enemies of property and public order. In 1842, the Duke of Wellington said of the Chartists that: “Plunder is the object. Plunder likewise is the means”. Chartists had little political muscle and little education, and thus were powerless. Politically they were not dangerous. They were generally more conscious of the government than government was of them. The governments were firm but mostly fair and did not rush to turn out the troops. No martyrs were created, so there was no crusade. The police were much used. Government attitudes helped to defeat Chartism[2].

Coercive powers of the state

The county magistrates in England were appointed on the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenant. There were property qualifications to be met, set low enough for small landowners to be eligible, but the problems of recruitment were often serious. The county nobility often showed a marked reluctance to sit on the bench. One consequence of the selectiveness of Lords Lieutenant in their choice of magistrates and of the unwillingness of many of the gentry to serve was the large number of Anglican clergymen as Justices of the Peace: although by the 1840s the situation in most areas was beginning to change. Whig politicians were always concerned to reduce the Anglican element among the county magistracy and to increase middle-class representation. For one thing, the traditional authorities in rural areas were often troublesome to Whitehall, whatever the politics of the government. County magistrates often panicked about the seriousness of threats to public order and just as easily allowed their political prejudices to bias their magisterial judgements. Governments, especially Whig administrations, were constantly apprehensive in times of trouble about the reactions of the backwoods gentry and their Church allies, and they were conscious always of the social damage that could be inflicted. In late 1830s and the 1840s, however, it was not the rural areas but the industrial regions of the North, together with London, that were the main centres of radical agitation and unrest; and it was here that the most important structural changes in the character of authority had taken place.

The police

Outside London, the crucial legislation for the great towns of the provinces was the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. The incorporated towns were now free from the inconveniences of the county bench. The new places on the borough commissions were filled, in most places, by Liberals and Whigs who formed the majority parties. These magistrates were much superior to their predecessors who had often lived outside the town boundaries. They demonstrated energy and a vigour that was in sharp contrast with what was still the lethargy of magisterial practices in many of the unincorporated towns. These new justices had a direct interest in the preservation of law and order in their own urban areas: it was they who owned the mills and the warehouses and the shops. And they were also more sensitive to the social problems of their rapidly growing towns than the traditional county bench. Sympathy did not affect the toughness of their attitude towards disorder and turbulence, but many among the business classes understood that repression was a beginning and not an end: an appreciation that was certainly not pervasive among the old order of magistrates, whether lay or clerical.

The most important single consequence of the 1835 Act was the obligation it imposed upon the incorporated towns to establish a Watch Committee whose responsibility it was to appoint and maintain an adequately sized police force (the phrase was ‘a sufficient number’ of constables) to be financed out of local rates[3]. Progress in the country at large was uneven for there were many vested interests to be overcome and much opposition to professional policemen of the new type, but in most large towns by 1848 the size and the competence of the police forces proved to be more or less adequate for the special problems of that year. This was certainly true of Manchester and Liverpool. The metropolitan police of London[4], who came directly under the control of the Home Office, were by far the most efficient in the country; and their aid was at times requested by local authorities in other parts of the country. By contrast, the Home Office in London, except in times of crisis, had almost no influence over local police forces in the incorporated boroughs.

The 1835 Act obliged Watch Committees to send quarterly reports, with quite minimal information, to the Home Office, but these were not apparently used to improve those police forces that were backward. It was in the rural areas that the development of professional forces was most uneven. The Rural Police Act of 1839 was permissive, and the most important element in the many strands of opposition or reluctance to its adoption was the expense involved and the future burdens on the rates. It was to the Home Office that magistrates reported or requested advice, and it was the Home Office that issued instructions: either local, to a particular individual or bench, or, in times of national crisis, by means of circulars throughout the country. In times of stress the closeness of contact was impressive, and the Home Office was never slow to remind local benches and commissioners of the peace of their duties, including the obligation to keep Whitehall fully informed. There were occasions, in very critical periods, when a town mayor would write three times in one day to the Home Office and daily correspondence, both ways, was quite usual.

The magistrates

The magistrates had the responsibility of maintaining public order in the area of their jurisdiction. A disturbance that involved three or more people was in common law a riot, and if it led to an arrest, the prisoner would be charged with a misdemeanour, punishable by imprisonment or a fine. If, however, more than twelve persons were involved in a disturbance and refused to disperse, the Riot Act of 1715 could be read, and once read, the riot became a felony, allowing the authorities concerned to use force including the use of firearms. These matters were the responsibility of the magistracy. It was the duty of the local magistrates to gather a sufficient force and to lead it in person to the scene of the disturbance; and it was their decision whether the Riot Act was read and they alone could give the order to open fire. The magistrates had to rely in the first instance upon the local police force and if this proved insufficient, two or more magistrates were entitled to swear in special constables: or, if a disturbance was feared at some time in the future, special constables could be sworn in against that possibility. The magistrates could also require aid from the local military, or they could call out, on their own authority, the local Yeomanry. By 1848, they also had the power to summon a detachment of the Enrolled Military Pensioners[5] and request the Home Office to issue a warrant retrospectively to legalise their action. The police in Britain were not armed, but the magistracy could, and often did, apply to the Home Office for arms to be distributed. In almost all cases their requests were refused, but in the summer of 1848 sections of the metropolitan police, and the police forces in selected industrial towns of the North, were issued with cutlasses. Special constables, in spite of a good many requests, were never allowed arms by the Home Secretary at any time during the Chartist years.

[1] F. C. Mather Public Order in the Age of the Chartists, Manchester University Press, 1959 remains the standard text on the reaction of government to Chartism.

[2] This chapter extends my paper ‘Chartism and the State 1838-1848’ published in Modern History Review, November 2003.

[3] In Bolton with a population of 51,000 in 1841, there were only 10 police and 13 constables. Compare this with the city of Bath that had a similar population with 10 inspectors and 132 constables. In Manchester, the new incorporated borough created a police force of 48 officers and 295 constables but there was opposition to the levying of a police rate and the old police commissioners established a rival force of 240 men. Local politics prevented the creation of an effective police force. Birmingham also lacked a properly constituted civil force. For a population of 180,000, Birmingham had only 30 day street keepers, 170 night watchmen and 2,300 special constables for emergencies.

[4] The Metropolitan Police had been established by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 hence their nicknames ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’.

[5] Enrolled pensioners were men less than 55 years of age retired from active military duty. Many lived in working-class communities but threats to their pensions lowered any opposition to service they might have.

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