Friday, 14 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Local Dimension

The publication of Chartist Studies in 1959 altered the focus from leaders to the localities and resulted from the emergence of sociologically based regional and local studies of the Chartist movement in different parts of the British Isles. These studies underlined the diverse nature of the movement and the difficulty of making generalisations about Chartism as a whole. Briggs argued that Chartism was not merely a movement that meant different things in different parts of the country but also represented an attempt to create a sense of class unity among the three disparate groups that made up the working class.

Chartism may have won support among the superior craftsmen but the new-style craftsmen, like machine-builders were never prominent in the movement. Those whom William Lovett described as “the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country” were often converted to reform before the Charter and remained faithful supporters irrespective of the trade cycle. Nonconformity exercised a powerful influence on this group that facilitated any dealings withy middle class radicals but hindered them from reaching an accommodation with the manual working class. Factory operatives formed the second group and were concentrated in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire but were also found in parts of Cumberland, Derbyshire, Wales and the West Country and in the West of Scotland. This group was often severely affected by a transformation of methods of production. The support of factory operatives was dependent on the trade cycle and support ebbed and flowed with the economic tides. The third group were domestic outworkers, whether nail-makers from the West Midlands or hand-loom weavers from Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Country. Their plight was heightened by the advance in new technology that made their work obsolete. For them, Chartism was essentially a knife and fork issue. While they retained some hope of restoring their old position, they looked to Chartism to achieve it, but once their industry had been destroyed, they abandoned all hope and political agitation.

To Briggs, a diverse labour force produced a variety of responses to a working class movement that ordered its priorities according to region. This point was well made by Frank Mather in 1965[1] “Because Chartism was a product of diverse social forces, the movement itself lacked unity. The division in the Chartist ranks of which historians have been most acutely conscious is that between the advocates of rival methods of winning the Charter – moral force and physical force. This distinction has often been made to appear too clear-cut. What existed was not two schools, but a range of opinions which shaded into one another, and individual Chartists often shifted the emphasis of their views so markedly as to give the impression of having changed sides.”  The result of this was a more rounded but fragmented picture of the movement. This is evident in Dorothy Thompson’s The Chartists published in 1984. It is an analysis rather than a history of Chartism and provides a multi-dimensional account of its social composition and values.

By the late 1970s three types of writing about Chartism had clearly emerged -- the broadly narrative approach, biographical studies and studies of regional and local events – within two historiographical traditions: the broadly Fabian approach and Marxist analysis grounded particularly in the class dimension. These provided a picture of considerable richness and diversity. There were, however, important questions that had not been resolved satisfactorily. The emergence of local studies led historians to question how far Chartism was a movement. Mather quoted an American writer who described Chartism as “a series of responses, not a movement”. The unity of 1839, he suggested, did not endure and that the history of Chartism “must contain not one story, but several interwoven stories”. This kaleidoscopic view of Chartism is important in broadening understanding of what happened in particular areas of Britain and of the experience of Chartists in those areas, their concerns, their priorities and their particular political, social and economic agendas. However, it did pose a challenge to those who saw Chartism as a united campaign at the forefront of an emergent labour movement.

Why were there divisions within Chartism: the traditional model?

The subdivision of Chartism into “moral” and “physical” force is too simple a generalisation. Divisions between leaders at national level were repeated within each provincial centre. Not all were agreed on the objectives of Chartism, let alone the methods to be used to achieve those objectives. The main centres of provincial Chartism were the Yorkshire woollen and Lancashire cotton manufacturing areas -- home to the Northern Chartist Association and the area of long-standing working-class radicalism. These areas tended towards direct action. The woollen and cotton industries themselves were not only different but were in mutual competition. The workers in the mills were rivals and shared a rivalry with the hand-workers.

 

Artisan Chartism

Weaver Chartism

Moral force Physical force
Political and prosperous Economic ‘hunger’ Chartism

Peaceful, constitutional and educational (manifestos and committees)

Violent, conspiratorial (arming and drilling)

Southern: London and Birmingham

Northern industrial towns

Worked with the middle classes

Class-conscious

Potentially proto-liberal

Potentially proto-socialist
Leaders: Lovett, Place, Attwood, Sturge Leaders: O’Connor, Harney, Taylor, O’Brien

 

This view is too simplistic. Regional studies show that the divisions were not as clear-cut as the model suggests.

How far do studies of localities broaden historical understanding of Chartism?

  • They examine the particular social and economic conditions in different areas and the ways in which these affected the development of radical politics.
  • They provide explanations for the emergence of Chartist support in different localities.
  • They consider the diversity of working class radical experience during the late 1830s and 1840s. In particular, they look at the different approaches that the working classes adopted to Chartism.
  • They provide detailed analysis of the tensions between middle and working class radicalism and between those within the Chartist movement who called for physical action and those who opted for a persuasive approach.

[1] F.C. Mather Chartism, London, 1965, page 15.

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