Friday, 21 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Leeds 2

The first phase, 1837-39

Leeds Chartism stood out from that of other towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire for its moderation, and its success in contesting municipal elections. For more than a decade, Chartist candidates fought and won elections to the town’s Improvement Commission and subsequently to the town council itself. But what pushed the working class radicals of Leeds down such a route while just a few miles up the road the Bradford and Sheffield Chartists were preparing for armed insurrection?   J.F.C. Harrison argued in Chartist Studies that this wholly different approach could be accounted for by three factors. The history of middle class radicalism in the town which gave middle class sympathisers an alternative home, and gave them the strength to stand apart from the Chartists.  The different types of employment on offer to people locally in the woollen industry, where the economic distress of the late 1830s and early 1840s was not as keenly felt as in the cotton industry.  The relocation, by Feargus O’Connor of his Northern Star newspaper from Leeds to London, depriving the town of some of its key activists and moving the centre of gravity away from what had always been a key centre of the movement.

On 23rd September 1837, the first meeting of the Leeds WMA took place, following the meeting on Woodhouse Moor in late August. Bray, the treasurer, gave the address. The Leeds WMA contented itself throughout with lectures, addresses and the occasional protest meeting in an attempt to gloss over the divisions in the leadership. This failed in January 1838 at a meeting of the Leeds WMA where the speakers were Augustus Hardin Beaumont[1] (later briefly the editor of the Northern Liberator), O’Connor, Dr. John Taylor[2] and Sharman Crawford, MP. Their differences became apparent very quickly. Beaumont declared himself a physical force man and was received with groans. He then denounced “the dulcet tones of the very moderate Radicalism of Leeds”.

During the winter of 1837-38, militants were strengthened by four things.  There was a struggle against the new Poor Law in the West Riding. The Commissioners had arrived in northern England late in 1836 to set up Unions even though the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act actually was intended to solve the problems of agrarian, rural poverty that mainly was found in the south.  The trial of the Glasgow cotton spinners whose strike leaders were sentenced to transportation.  There was a general trade depression.  Finally, the Northern Star turned out to be a phenomenal success.

The Northern Star is Leeds’s claim to Chartist fame. It began as a Barnsley paper for working men, advocating the abolition of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and a renewal of the Trade Union and Ten-Hour movements but was taken over by O’Connor and moved to Leeds in 1837. Within four months of its establishment, it was selling 10,000 copies a week. The idea of a popular newspaper for the West Riding came from Joshua Hobson and William Hill. Hill, the son of a Barnsley handloom weaver, became a teacher, phrenologist and then pastor of Hull’s New Jerusalem Church. O’Connor had the money to start the Northern Star in Leeds. The paper was important because it made the most powerful Chartist voice available to local Chartism. The paper gave detailed reports of any radical meetings anywhere in Yorkshire and became an institution of working class gatherings. It was widely read and public readings extended its audience considerably. It was socially educative and directed attention to burning social issues.  It gave Feargus O’Connor a personal dominance over Chartism in the north. His followers had press backing and physical force dominated the Leeds WMA.

By May 1838, the Leeds WMA was no longer appropriate for the agitation wanted by O’Connor. Bray and the Owenites dropped out of the Association in 1838 and Nicoll died of tuberculosis in December 1838. In addition, the Leeds Times, under its new editor, became critical of O’Connor. In June 1838, the Great Northern Union replaced the Leeds WMA. Its inaugural meeting was held on Hunslett Moor; the speakers were O’Connor, White, Rider, and John Collins from Birmingham. They spoke for outright measures: physical force. O’Connor hoped that the GNU would unite all the reform associations in the area. The national Chartist movement directed its efforts towards electing delegates to the national Convention after August 1838 and the GNU organised meetings in support of the Charter throughout the West Riding.  On 15th October 1838, a monster meeting was held on Hartshead Moor, Leeds. The site was chosen because it was equidistant from all the main towns in the West Riding and was a natural amphitheatre able to hold large numbers. It was set up like a fair; food and drink were available and families attended. People came from Bradford, Huddersfield and Halifax in thousands, each group with its band playing and banners flying. Two hundred attended from Leeds. The people elected O’Connor, Rider and Lawrence Pitkeithly[3] as the West Riding delegates to the National Convention. Physical force was popular with West Riding Chartists.

In the winter of 1838-1839, vast torchlight meetings were held; speeches and schemes became more violent and inflammatory. Even ‘moderate’ Leeds managed a 3,000 strong meeting on St. Peter’s Hill in February 1839 to hear George White speak. In 1839, the O’Connorites tried to set the pace of Leeds Chartism and Leeds had no movement to rival O’Connor’s pre-eminence. Also, Leeds was central to the area and there was a good deal of material to work on in the West Riding. Manchester was of little use to O’Connor because the Anti-Corn Law League was a rival to Chartism. The O’Connorites did not get the support they hoped for, and criticised the luke-warmness of Leeds men. 1st April 1839 was Easter Monday. O’Connor, Hill, White, Rider and Dr Taylor addressed an open-air meeting in Leeds. There was much emphasis on physical force. White said he “was not so much a radical as a revolutionist [and] they would never get anything until they were able to take it by force”. Rider said, “The citadel of corruption cannot be taken by paper bullets. There is a crew ... called physical force men who are trying for something more than argument. It is this that makes the Whigs and Tories tremble”. He urged men to arm and do more than petition. Rider believed that the petition would do little good, so he resigned from the National Convention. He then tried to retake his seat and was thrown out.

On 21st May 1839, another meeting was held on Hartshead Moor (then known as Peep Green), and it was a model of peaceful organisation. No liquor was sold and the meeting was opened with prayers. Bronterre O’Brien said that the people were determined to have the Charter, “peaceably if they could, and forcibly if they must”. Also in May, Leeds’ magistrates enrolled special constables and assembled the yeomanry cavalry ‘in case’ there was trouble, although the town proverbially was peaceful. Chartist leaders feared arrest because this was happening to other leaders elsewhere. By this time, physical force men dominated the Leeds Northern Union: Rider, White, Jones and Charles Connor. Joseph Jones was a shoemaker and chair of the Leeds Northern Union; Connor was an Irishman who said he was a ‘revolutionist’ and condemned the “sham radicalism” of the Leeds Times. The talk now was of ‘ulterior measures’ to secure the Charter: withdrawal of cash from the banks, abstention from all taxable luxury goods, exclusive dealing and the ‘national holiday’

In this atmosphere of rising tension, White was arrested in August for extortion by threats. He had been appointed by the Great Northern Union to collect subscriptions for the ‘National Rent in Leeds. He visited shopkeepers and traders with two books, a subscription book and a “Black Book”. If no cash was forthcoming, the trader’s name was written in the “Black Book” and ‘hints’ were dropped concerning bloodshed. The magistrates committed him to the York Assizes in April 1840 and he was refused bail. White verbally attacked “Whig justice” from the dock and got his bail. He was free in Leeds during the winter of 1839-40 and was active in the Chartist movement. The winter 1839-1840 saw the end of the first period of Chartism in the West Riding with a series of risings in Sheffield, Bradford and Dewsbury. The familiar pattern of unemployment, police spies and clashes with soldiers and subsequent arrests was to be found. In Leeds there was no rising.

In March 1840, White was sentenced to six months in prison and served a particularly rigorous sentence of hard labour, rigid discipline and no visitors. He became ill and fell off the treadmill twice. On his release from Wakefield gaol, White went to Birmingham as the correspondent for the Northern Star. In May 1840, Feargus O’Connor was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment for seditious libel. The collapse of the physical force wing was virtually complete and the Leeds Northern Union quietly disappeared.

The Chartist revival, 1840-41

The Chartist revival in Leeds was different from elsewhere. New leaders, a new policy and new methods were evident. More significant was the new form of organisation. The reformed movement was called the Leeds Radical Universal Suffrage Association. Membership was open to all wanting the Charter and using moral and lawful methods. The entrance fee was 2d and 1d per week in subscriptions and the Association used the Methodist ‘class’ idea for every twenty members. Officers were elected by ballot every two months. There is nothing new here: it was a revival of pre-Chartist radicalism and was very moderate. The physical force men lost all influence. By July 1840, the Leeds RUSA was flourishing and even Jones and O’Connor were allowed to join. In the autumn of that year, its name was changed to the Leeds branch of the National Charter Association. This was only a change of name, however: its policies and personnel remained the same. The new temper of Chartism is reflected in the direction of Chartist energies in Leeds: a variety of societies were set up with Chartist backing.  These included: Leeds Total Abstinence Charter Association (January 1841); Hounslow Union Sunday School, conducted by teetotallers and Chartists; Leeds Charter Debating Society; lectures, addresses and discussions replaced processions and demonstrations; and public speaking was practised on Sunday afternoons.

The Leeds Charter Association reported that the meetings, “get ever more respectable, are better conducted, less uproarious, and partake more of the reasoning and intellectual qualities”. The Leeds Chartists failed to get a mass following either because of, or in spite of their policy. Leeds Chartists remained a small group of able, intelligent enthusiasts: a general staff without an army. They were unable to ally themselves with moderate traditional radicalism or with the middle-classes. Neither the extreme nor the moderate Chartists could ally with the middle-classes because there was no common ground between them.  In January 1839, Samuel Smiles[4] became the editor of the Leeds Times, which then took a distinct turn to the right. Under Nicoll, it had identified with Chartism in principle but this ended in mid-1840. Smiles became secretary of the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association that advocated household suffrage. The paper also abandoned support of the Short-Time Committees in favour of the Anti Corn Law League.

Leeds Chartists feared competition from the Anti-Corn Law League in the winter of 1838-39 so they ‘captured’ or broke up Anti-Corn Law League meetings. There was no real objection to the repeal of the Corn Laws; the Chartists merely feared a rival group. From early 1841, opposition to the Anti Corn Law League revived, because the Chartists said the anti-Corn Law agitation was an attempt to shelve the struggle for the Charter. Apparently, this was plausible because the Anti Corn Law League in Leeds declared for household suffrage. The Anti-Corn Law League tried to win working-class support and militant Chartists attempted to prevent it, trying hard to discredit the Anti Corn Law League and middle-class radicals, especially the “pigmy doctor”, Smiles.  In 1841, the Conservatives under Peel won the general election, thus strengthening the case for a middle and working class alliance for repeal of the Corn Laws and fiscal reform. The Chartists had opposed the Whigs and let the Tories in, but militant Chartism in the West Riding was primarily a struggle against the middle class, making an alliance impossible. The obstacle was over universal suffrage. The middle-classes and Chartists all saw that political democracy eventually would lead to social democracy. If co-operation was to be achieved, it would not be in national politics. In Leeds, the opening for co-operation was found in local government.


[1] Augustus Hardin Beaumont (1798-1838) is the subject of a short biography in Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 46-48.

[2] Dr John Taylor (1805-42) can be examined in Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 495-497.

[3] Lawrence Pitkeithly (1800?-1858) is examined in Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 411-412. Pitkeithly was born in 1801 in Huddersfield. He was a weaver and ‘physical force’ Chartist following his work in Ten Hours Movement. He became a delegate to National Chartist Association meeting in Manchester. July 1840. He wrote to Dr. John Smyles (relative of Samuel Smiles), a former radical resident in Rochester, NY, about prospects in America, leaving Britain in 1842 for New York, contacted Bussey (and Devyr?) and SmyIes, but moved on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He wrote articles on his trip in Northern Star but returned home in 1843. Pitkeithly died in Manchester in 1858.

[4] On Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), see Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 455-460. Alexander Tyrell ‘Class Consciousness in Early Victorian Britain: Samuel Smiles, Leeds Politics and the Self-Help Creed’, in Journal of British Studies, volume ix, (1970), pages 102-115 is more specific. Smiles was the editor of the Leeds Times from 1839. He condemned the government for using force to put down Chartism, but dissociated himself from physical force Chartists. Smiles proclaimed himself a Chartist in principle, and regarded the movement as principally “a knowledge agitation”, but few Chartists were prepared to work with him. Smiles later dropped even this dalliance, becoming secretary of the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, which advocated household suffrage, and moving his paper to the right by abandoning its support for shorter factory working hours.

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