Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and the State 2

The army

When the military acted in support of the civil power they were in theory, and in some important matters in practice, under the control of the civil authorities. At the Whitehall level, it was the Home Secretary who was responsible for the distribution of troops throughout the United Kingdom, although there was consultation with the War Office, and with the commanders of the military districts. When the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland requested another regiment, the decision would be taken by the Home Secretary, usually in consultation with the Prime Minister, sometimes with the Cabinet, and it was the Home Department which issued the instructions. There would normally always be consultations with the Commander-in-Chief or, in 1848, more likely with the Military Secretary, since the Duke of Wellington seems often to have been by-passed.

At the local level, it has often been assumed that the magistracy had the power to requisition the military forces that were within reach of the actual or threatened disorder. The practice had grown up during the eighteenth century of the Secretary of State issuing a general order authorising military commanders to give aid to the civil power; and magistrates became accustomed to call upon the military without a previous application to the central government. This precedent was accepted during the first half of the nineteenth century, but it was always possible for the officer in command to refuse a request if he considered the call for assistance had been made on insufficient grounds or he could refer the request to a superior officer. Most of Britain was divided into military districts. London, including Windsor, was directed from the Horse Guards, and there were quite a large number of rural counties not included in any military district which were also administered from Whitehall. The largest district was the Northern and Midland that from 1842 took in the whole of the north of England from the Scottish border south through Durham, Yorkshire and Lancashire down to Birmingham and the counties of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. The headquarters of the district were in Manchester, and the General Officer Commanding was Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Arbuthnot. He had taken command in mid August 1842. His senior officers were Major General Sir Willaim Warre, with headquarters at Chester, and responsibility for the North-West including the key town of Liverpool; and Major-General Thorn with his headquarters at York. The other districts were the South-West (Portsmouth); the Western (Devonport); Monmouth and South Wales (Carmarthen); Scotland (Edinburgh); and the Channel Islands, Jersey being separately administered from Guernsey and Alderney.

The military commanders were mostly veterans of the French Wars that ended in 1815, and in the main were able and efficient men. Sir Thomas Arbuthnot seems to have been quite outstanding, as interesting, although not so radical in political outlook, as Sir Charles Napier, but much less well known. He died in 1849 at the age of seventy-three. Both Graham and Sir George Grey used Arbuthnot for many services for which they judged the civilian authorities less competent; and his long reports to Grey during the troubled months of 1848 were intelligent, markedly shrewd and very informative. He was probably the most useful single source of intelligence during the spring and summer months of 1848 for the whole of the industrial North.

The military forces stationed in the United Kingdom were divided broadly between mainland Britain and Ireland: and the respective levels of order and disorder largely determined their distribution between these two main parts of the kingdom. In the late 1830s, for example, the Litchfield House compact between the Whigs and O’Connell, together with a Whig administration in Dublin Castle meant relative tranquillity in Ireland and the practicability of withdrawal of troops from Ireland to the mainland: a matter of considerable importance in the years 1839-40. In 1840 there were 26,845 troops (excluding officers and NCOs) in Britain and 13,112 in Ireland. It was indeed O’Connell’s boast that he had saved Britain from the Chartists. In 1848 the situation was quite different and the figures were 33,738 in Britain and 28,942 in Ireland. A large part of the army, it must be remembered, was overseas, and one of the favourable factors for the government in 1848 was the return of several regiments from overseas service. What helped the situation even more was the rapid extension of the railway network. The Quartermaster-General emphasised in evidence before a committee in 1844 how the railways[1] had enabled the army ‘to do the work of a very large one: you send a battalion of 1,000 men from London to Manchester in nine hours: that same battalion marching would take 17 days; and they arrive at the end of nine hours just as fresh, or nearly so, as when they started’.

The Yeomanry

In addition to the police, the special constables[2] and the army there were two other groups that could be used by those responsible for maintaining public order. The Yeomanry had been in existence since the 1790s. It was a volunteer force, made up in most counties from the better-off farmers and the lesser gentry. Certain of the metropolitan counties by the second quarter of the century were served by Yeomanry drawn from business and professional groups; but most of the Yeomanry forces were rural. They were the equivalent of a regular cavalry force, armed and to some extent trained. They had a standard six-day training each year and were inspected annually by a Field Officer of the regular army. On active service, under an Act of 1804, they were subject to military discipline, but their control was by the civil authorities. The Yeomanry were called out by the Lord Lieutenant or by the local magistrate but, as always in a period of crisis the chain of command could be superseded by Whitehall. The Home Secretary could authorise the Commanders of military districts to call out the Yeomanry and retain them under their command.

Governments never forgot the Peterloo ‘massacre’ of 1819 or the consequences of making martyrs; and during the Chartist years there was considerable reluctance to use the Yeomanry in the control of riot and disturbance. The Yeomanry were exceedingly unpopular, much more disliked than the army, and their presence might often worsen a difficult situation. The Whigs especially were critical of what Sir Charles Napier in his Memoirs described as the over-zealousness of the Yeomanry ‘for cutting and slashing’: and during his period as Home Secretary, Lord John Russell carried through a reduction in the numbers of the Yeomanry: ‘for his part he would rather that any force should be employed in case of local disturbance than the local corps of Yeomanry’. The cost of the Yeomanry was also a consideration, for they were paid during their days of service. They were mostly agriculturalists and farmers of one kind and another, and the seasonal round, especially harvesting, could be seriously interrupted. It was a matter that governments always tried to take into account. Opposition to the use of Yeomanry must not, however, be exaggerated. The Tories used the Yeomanry extensively in the difficult years of 1841 and 1842, and Whig scruples were never pushed beyond the real needs of internal security, as the events of the summer of 1848 clearly demonstrated.

Enrolled Pensioners

The last auxiliary group at the disposal of the law and order enforcers were the Enrolled Pensioners. Army pensioners had long been used in times of social unrest as special constables. In 1843, as a result of the massive turbulence of the previous year, retired soldiers were enrolled into local uniformed corps. They were given eight days training each year. The total number enrolled was not to exceed 10,000 and the normal age of retirement from the new corps was 55, although volunteers could be taken up to the age of 58. In 1846, a further Act brought in the naval pensioners. When called out on active service the Pensioners were armed with muskets and bayonets. The total number of Enrolled Pensioners in Britain in 1848 was 8,720; and a War Office memorandum listed the following numbers for certain towns in the industrial North: Bolton 211; Preston 141; Stockport 87; Liverpool 350; Manchester, First Division 378, Second Division 378; Halifax 157; Sheffield 175; Hull and York 130. The authority to call out the Enrolled Pensioners was vested in the Home Secretary, but he could, and often did, issue general warrants to selected persons that enabled Pensioners to be called out on local initiative. Warrants were normally issued to Lords Lieutenant and to the Mayors of incorporated boroughs. Again, as with the Yeomanry, in times of crisis the Enrolled Pensioners could be put directly under the commanders of the military districts. Enrolled Pensioners could be called out for twelve days in any one year under warrant; thereafter, only volunteers were available. In practice, because of the ‘high rates of pay’, there was never any difficulty in assembling sufficient numbers. The Enrolled Pensioners were highly cost-effective. In evidence before an 1850 Select Committee, Fox Maule, Secretary at War, reported that the cost of Pensioners for a normal year was about two pounds and ten shillings per head, exclusive of clothing that was issued once every five years.

By 1848, the coercive forces at the disposal of those acting on behalf of the Crown, and the administrative machinery of central and local government for their direction and control, were more efficiently organised than at any previous period. The growth of the great urban areas which went with industrialisation had created qualitatively new problems of social and political control for the governing classes. The definition of adequate security measures had become inextricably intertwined with the political problems of power sharing between the landed groups and the rapidly growing numbers of the middle class in the towns; and given that Ireland was always on a quite different level of social tension than the rest of Britain, it became the laboratory for experiment and exploration of new ways of dealing with insurgency. The much more urgent problems of law and order in Ireland provided patterns of control and coercion that could be applied, suitably adjusted and modified, to the rest of the United Kingdom. It was the emergence of mass movements, in both Ireland and Britain in the two decades before 1850 that forced Dublin Castle and the Home Office in Whitehall to improve the chain of command and increase the weight of coercive power that could quickly be applied to the areas of unrest and turbulence. In England the years 1839 to 1842 were crucial in these matters. What was new in 1848, compared with all previous years, was the stimulus to revolutionary action by the events in France at the same time as Ireland was apparently moving in parallel with the radical movement in Britain. For the first time the seemingly intractable problem of internal security in Ireland had now close links with radical activity in Britain. The coming together of Irish nationalists with English Chartists provided new dimensions to the security problem overall, and to contemporaries the conjuncture looked alarming and potentially highly dangerous. Revolutionary Paris, Irish insurgency and the Chartist mobilisation all came together to produce a situation in which the ranks of the propertied - the large and the small and the high and the low - joined in a striking demonstration of unity against what was felt to be a serious threat to the foundations of social life. The impressive response to the call for special constables in 1848 all over Britain exhibited the determination of the middle strata to preserve their economic and social positions. It was, for middle-class Britain, a levée en masse of quite remarkable proportions.


[1] The 1830s and especially the 1840s were great decades of railway building. By 1840, 1,500 miles of track were open, linking most of Britain’s large towns and cities with London. By 1850, 6,000 miles were open and a genuine railway network was in operation. This was important because it enabled the authorities to transport troops and police to trouble spots more easily than before. The railway companies could help this process. In 1848, for example, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company enrolled seven hundred of its workmen as special constables in anticipation of public disorder, despite many workmen’s reluctance.

[2] Special constables were recruited among the middle and working classes to support the regular police at times of crisis.

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