Monday, 3 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The reaction of government

Lord Melbourne’s ministry: 1835-1841

The Whigs were traditionally the party of ‘liberty’ and so were not anxious to set out on a repressive course of action against popular movements until necessary. Lord John Russell as Home Secretary (18th April 1835 to 30th August 1839) and the Marquess of Normanby (30th August 1839 to 6th September 1841) were responsible for dealing with Chartism in its early stages. Russell was devoted to the idea of liberty and wanted to allow freedom of discussion on political issues. Unfortunately, he was not sufficiently aware of the depth of working-class discontent. Anti-Poor Law agitation in the north was treated with great toleration, very much an example of advanced thinking for the time. On 18th September 1838, Russell said “So long as mere violence of language is employed without effect, it is better, I believe, not to add to the importance of these mob leaders by prosecutions”.

Russell intended to deal with developing Chartism as he had dealt with earlier agitation. In the winter of 1838-39, Chartist activity peaked. Melbourne had taken charge, and he had a reputation for severity. Repressive measures led to more violence. Russell decided in early in 1839 that there was little danger of insurrection, so he adopted less severe tactics. He was criticised for being ‘soft’ on Chartism. His attitude stiffened in April 1839 as the Chartists began to arm and drill. When Birmingham needed police in 1839, controversially Russell sent down a force of metropolitan policemen on the train. However, from the middle of 1839, increasing numbers of Chartist leaders were arrested including Feargus O’Connor and William Lovett and hundreds of local Chartists were hounded and arrested in the months that followed. Short prison sentences removed Chartist leaders from circulation. The Newport Rising in November 1839 and the abortive insurrections in January 1840 in Sheffield, Bradford and Newcastle were easily dealt with by either by regular troops or local authorities with transportation to Australia rather than the noose as the chosen punishment. Neither short terms of imprisonment or transportation created political martyrs.

Sir Charles Napier was the commander of troops in the Northern District, based on Nottingham, between 1839 and 1841. In April 1839, Napier, who came from the West Country, was put in charge of 6,000 troops in the Northern District. He was sympathetic to the Chartist cause. Napier knew that the people were discontented because they were hungry, and made this plain in his reports. He blamed “Tory injustice and Whig imbecility” for the problem -- in private. He pitied, rather than feared them and attributed much of the trouble to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act: in his Journal in 1839, he said, “An anonymous letter comes, with a Chartist plan. Poor creatures, their threats of attack are miserable. With half a cartridge, and half a pike, with no money, no discipline, no skilful leaders, they would attack men with leaders, money and discipline, well armed and having 60 rounds a man. Poor men! A republic! What good did a republic ever do? What good will it ever do?” His fear was not revolution, but widespread disturbances. He sought to prevent these by concentrating his forces to limit the risk of conflict and overawing his opponents, because prevention was better than cure. He wished to avoid deaths among rioters that would occur if widespread disturbances broke out. Napier out-thought the Chartists rather than out-fought them.

Sir Robert Peel’s ministry: 1841-46

Sir James Graham was Home Secretary (6th September 1841 to 6th July 1846). Chartism had been reviving since 1840 and gathered strength in the bad winter of 1841-42. By spring 1842, the depression had reached its worst point. As strikes and turnouts spread (including the Plug Plots), so the violence grew. Graham took a more serious view of threats of disorder than Russell had done in 1839. Napier’s approach suited Russell and Normanby, both of whom paid insufficient attention to detail. Graham was different. Napier was sent to India in September 1841; and during the summer of 1842, both the Northern and Midland District was put under the overall command of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Arbuthnot, based in Manchester.

He still showed discretion and propriety in dealing with the disturbances. When it became clear that law and order was breaking down, Graham acted with great administrative efficiency, a feature of the new Conservative Party. However, the strike movement had two negative effects on the Chartists. First, the effort made by some to organise the strikes for their own ends allowed Peel and Sir James Graham, to blame them for the strikes. There was a wave of arrests in September. Harsh sentences were handed out: in Staffordshire, for example, of 274 cases tried, 154 men were imprisoned and five men transported for life[1]. By early 1843, there was less need for harsh treatment, as the strikes were over and unrest had quietened. Peel and Graham recognised, as Russell had done in 1839-40, that pushing repression too far was counterproductive, alienating public opinion and creating public sympathy. Secondly, trade union disillusion with Chartism probably increased. To unionists the issue was economic not political and, for them, the strikes were, in part successful.

In April 1839, when General Napier wished to put the yeomanry on permanent duty, both Melbourne and Russell declined to do so. Sir James Graham continued this preference for regular troops. His reasons were financial: the yeomanry were paid only when they were called out but regular troops had to be paid anyway. There were also political considerations. He appreciated the need not to call out farmers at harvest time. There were also tactical reasons. Graham knew that the yeomanry was hated and its appearance would be as likely to cause a riot as prevent one.

Lord John Russell’s ministry: 1846-52

In 1848, Chartism was closely linked to Irish discontent. Ireland was in the grip of the Famine at the time Whig treatment of Chartism was little different to 1839 although there were genuine fears of revolution. Elaborate plans were made for keeping the peace at Kennington Common. By the 1840s, the government recognised that the strength of justice tempered with mercy. In the wake of the Chartist disturbances of 1848, most sentences passed were of between six months and two years. This avoided making martyrs, but took troublemakers out of circulation for long enough to ensure the forces of law and order would prevail. Moderation and restraint by the authorities deprived would be revolutionaries of their moral case for rebellion.

By 1848, the position of the forces of law and order was considerably greater than in 1839 and 1842. First, the small number of troops had been made more effective by the establishment of the railway network. Already by 1839, Napier was able to move some troops by train, but when the national network was established, the logistical situation was transformed. The second development was the London police. Their handling of crowds in the late 1830s had been poor and ineffective but by 1848, they had learned a great deal about crowd control. Not only were they able to confront the peaceful demonstration on 10th April with firmness and without provocation, but they also survived the must more testing time during the summer evenings of May, June and July.


[1] J. F. Ariouat Rethinking Partisanship in the Conduct of the Chartist Trials, 1839-1848’, Albion, volume 29, (1997), pages 600-615.

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