Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Did Chartism affect Government policies?

The extent to which the activities of the Chartists affected government policies between 1838 and 1850 is a matter of degree. The problem is establishing causal links. Was policy-making a response to Chartism? At the level of public order, both Whig and Conservative governments did respond to the threat from the movement. In other areas, for example economic and social policies it is more difficult to establish such close connections. The coincidence of policies with particular Chartist activities does not mean that they were a response to the perceived threat from the movement.

  • There were no concessions to the Chartists’ six points while Chartism lasted. Government was prepared to negotiate with the Chartists and where negotiations did take place, as for example over the 10th April 1848 demonstration the government was in the stronger position.
  • Chartism merely determined the Whigs and Conservatives to resist further constitutional reform. The question here is whether further constitutional reform was ever a policy option in the late 1830s and 1840s. Russell had made the Whig position clear in his ‘Finality’ speech in November 1837 and the Conservatives never envisaged further constitutional reform as part of their political programme between 1841 and 1846.
  • Governments did try to improve working class conditions. The problem with this point is that reform did not coincide with Chartist activity. However, by 1840, some Whigs and Conservatives recognised either that something needed to be done to improve working class conditions either as a means of preventing public disorder or because it was right to do so.
  • The 1848 phase of Chartism was two years after the repeal of the Corn Laws. Again, historians have failed to establish whether there was any connection between these two events.
  • Conservative reaction to Chartism was much more rigorous than the reaction of the Whigs. It may have strengthened the Conservative determination to better conditions for the working classes by socio-economic methods.

The notion that there was a ‘softening’ of the attitudes of the state after 1843 and that it began to make legislative and administrative concessions to Chartist grievances remains a useful way of approaching an explanation for the decline of Chartism. Stedman Jones[1] argues that Chartist rhetoric in its early years was directed against a state that recognised and protected all kinds of property but those of labour and skill and that seemed to be waging war on working-class living standards through a series of measures that excluded working people from local and national political processes and threatened them with oppression and control through the new Poor Law and the new police. Chartism inherited and deployed the assumption that the state was irredeemably corrupt and that under the current political system all legislation would be turned to the advantage of the landed aristocracy and financiers (the ‘moneyocracy’) and used for further exploitation and repression of the wage-earning and taxpaying majority.

Stedman Jones argues that developments in the early and mid-1840s undermined these assumptions. The new Poor Law proved to be less threatening in practice than the rhetoric of its introduction suggested especially in the northern factory districts where it took a long time for new workhouses to be built and new officials to be appointed[2]. The Andover workhouse scandal[3] from 1844-5 led to a substantial review of the operation of the system and the 1847 Poor Law Act swept away the unpopular and increasingly ineffectual Poor Law Commission replacing in with a Poor Law Board accountable to parliament. The burden of taxation began to shift from necessary consumables to property and substantial incomes, especially as local graduated property taxes took up the burden of urban improvement as well as poor relief and the reintroduction of income taxes from 1842 moved national taxation irrevocably away from indirect taxes on goods and services. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, a symbolic victory for the middle classes even if it did not result in dramatic reductions in the price of bread. Movement began on the issue of factory reform with legislation regulating the employment of women and children in mines in 1842, an extension of the principles of the 1833 Factory Act in 1844 and with the ‘Ten Hour Bill’ visibly becoming attainable by mid-decade with legislation in 1847 and 1850 bringing it in[4].

By the mid-1840s, many Chartists acknowledged the benefits of the new, more benign attitude of the state. Reformism became credible because reforms were being introduced even if this did not include the Charter. The state may have softened its attitude on areas of social and economic policy but it continued to build up the police force, barracks and telegraph network and other technologies of control that were to make it easier to suppress the last Chartist upsurge in 1848. Chartism became popular as a conduit of popular grievances against an array of legislation that interfered with working class institutions and survival strategies in the 1830s. It began to decline once these abuses began to be remedied. What is remarkable is how little it took to dampen the impetus from the movement. The state gave ground only where there was scope to do so without undermining the possession and protection of property. The extension of the police force, also a working class grievance was not dealt with and in fact was essential to the repression that played a central part in Chartism’s decline. It was the combination of flexibility and strength that proved very effective in stabilising the constitution and proved sufficient reforms to counter many of the Chartist grievances about living and working conditions while maintaining state control through the legal system, systematic policing and military discipline.


[1] Gareth Stedman Jones ‘The Language of Chartism’, James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The  Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture 1830-1860, Macmillan, 1982, pages 3-58 and in an extended version as ‘Rethinking Chartism’, in his Languages of class: Studies in English working class history 1832-1982, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pages 90-178.

[2] P. Wood Poverty and the Workhouse in Victorian England, Alan Sutton, 1991 is a useful book on the introduction and operation of the 'new' poor  law

[3] The Andover scandal was not unique but it was highly publicised and used by those critical of or opposed to the new system. Bone crushing was used in some workhouses as a ‘useful’ occupation for paupers. The Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, disapproved of it as a means of employing the poor but Commissioner George Nicholls was a great enthusiast and a second Commissioner, Sir George Cornewall Lewis vacillating in his attitude. Andover was regarded, from the Commissioners’ point of view, as a model union. All outdoor relief was stopped as soon as the workhouse was opened and it was one of the few unions not to relax this rule during the ‘great freeze’ of January 1838. The Board’s ruthlessness shocked even the Rev. Thomas Mozeley, a convinced opponent of the old system.

At Andover, the work was hard, the discipline strict and the diet scanty. No little indulgences were allowed to creep in. This was due to the choice of ex-sergeant Colin M’Dougal, a veteran of Waterloo, as workhouse master and his wife, Mary Ann, as matron. The local Guardians acknowledged that even this admirable couple had their faults but were only too ready to leave the management of the union’s affairs to their domineering chairman. Attempts to end bone crushing at Andover in December 1844 were voted down by the chairman and his supporters. However, during the next few months ugly rumours began to circulate about what went on in the bone-yard in terms of inmates eating the marrow from the decomposing bones. The Guardians took no action, apart from suspending bone crushing during hot weather. Hugh Mundy, a local farmer frequently at odds with his colleagues whom he infuriated by paying his labourers ten shillings a week, two shillings more than his fellow landowners, went public. He turned to Thomas Wakley, who on Friday 1st August 1845, rose to ask the Home Secretary about paupers eating bone marrow at Andover. Sir James Graham replied that he could not believe this situation but promised to institute an enquiry. The following day Henry Parker, the Assistant Commissioner responsible for Andover, was dispatched to ascertain the facts.

His enquiry began on Monday 4th August 1845 and by the next day he was able to report back to London that the charges were true. On 14th August Parker was instructed to investigate any alleged ‘neglect or misconduct on the part of the Master or officers of the workhouse. M’Dougal offered his resignation on 29 September but when Parker, now summoned back to London, suggested consulting the Commission’s solicitors about prosecution the lawyers advised against it. The Commission was left with a hostile press, a critical Parliament, a seriously alarmed public and no scapegoat. Parker now found himself cast in this role. When he drafted a letter from the Board to the Andover Guardians he was accused of trying to throw the blame on the Commissioners. On 16th October Parker was called upon to resign and his only reward for years of devoted service was a suggestion that he should seek work with one of the expanding railway companies. If the Commissioners felt that they had saved themselves by dismissing Parker, they were mistaken. The former Assistant Commissioner published a long pamphlet in his own defence, which indicted his recent superiors, and his case was rapidly taken up by a group of anti-Poor Law MPs.

The public were unhappy about Parker’s dismissal and provided too valuable an opportunity for Edwin Chadwick, still bitter about his treatment by the Commission, who encouraged MPs to keep the issue alive. On 8th November 1845 the Poor Law Commissioners tacitly acknowledged the justice of the attacks made on bone crushing by issuing a General Order forbidding it. This came too late. Public opinion was now seriously alarmed and the government bowed to it. On 5th March 1846 a Select Committee of the House of Commons was established to investigate the Andover scandal, the conduct of the Poor Law Commissioners and the circumstances surrounding Parker’s resignation. The fifteen members of the ‘Andover committee’ included three well-known opponents of the workhouse, John Fielden, Thomas Wakley and Benjamin Disraeli and began work two weeks later. For the next three and a half months, they heard evidence from witnesses and their words were reported at length in the press. The New Poor Law, the Whigs who had created it and the gentry who administered it were on trial.  The Report was published in August 1846. It filled two large volumes totalling several thousand pages and contained a scathing indictment of everyone involved. The government announced that it proposed to take no action but it had privately decided that the Commission must go, partly to placate public opinion but also because it had done its work. The poor rates had been cut; outdoor relief for the able-bodied had all but ceased and almost the whole country had been unionised. The time had come when ‘the three kings of Somerset House’, as the Poor Law Commissioners had been nicknamed by their critics, could safely be replaced by a body with fewer dictatorial powers and directly responsible to Parliament.

[4] Northern rejoicing was still premature. From 1848 there were reports of evasions in Lancashire and of masters’ campaigns to repeal the Act. Several employers resorted to the relay system that meant that hours of work could not be enforced: the 15 hours per day clause in the 1844 Act had not been repealed. Gradually, a new campaign emerged to protect the Act but it was increasingly obvious that the Factory Movement was divided: Ashley Cooper and a ‘liberal’ group were prepared to accept some compromise while Oastler was not. A test case on the illegality of the relay system -- Ryder v Mills -- was heard in early 1850 and failed. The Factory Act 1850 increased weekly hours from 58 to 60 hours in return for banning relays by establishing a working day between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Attempts to include children in the standard day failed and, as a result, men might work 15 hours, aided by relays of children beyond the hours allowed for women and young persons. Children only received their fixed day in the 1853 Factory Act and Disraeli only restored the ‘10 hours’ in 1874. In the meantime, however, similar legislation had been extended to a wide range of workers.

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