Sunday, 9 December 2007

Sources for Chartism: Hovell on 1842

Chartism stood helpless when the combination of Whigs and Tories had thrown out of Parliament the National Petition of 1842. The autocrat of Chartism [Feargus O’Connor] had staked everything on a false move. Once more “moral force” had failed to convince the representatives of the middle-class electorate. Once more there only remained the trial of “physical force.” But, however much he might bluster, O’Connor was neither willing nor able to fall back upon the alternative policy of the hot-bloods whom he had so often denounced. And O’Connor still dominated the movement to such an extent that a course of action of which he disapproved was condemned to futility. Hence the tameness with which organised Chartism bore the destruction of its hopes. Hence the weakness and incoherence of the measures by which the stalwarts of the party strove to maintain the Chartist cause after the failure of the Petition. Hence, too, their eagerness to adopt as their own any passing wave of discontent and claim the storm as the result of their own agitation.

The collapse of the Petition was followed by a few protests, much violent language in the Northern Star, and a few public meetings, notably in Lancashire, where the speaking was even more unrestrained than were the leading articles of the Chartist organ. A notable instance of these assemblies was the great gathering held on Enfield Moor, near Blackburn, on Sunday, June 5th. Its business was “to consider the next steps to be taken to obtain the People’s Charter.” Marsden of Bolton put before the crowd the fatuous proposal that the people should collect arms and march in their thousands on Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen refuses our just demands, we shall know what to do with our weapons.” But nothing came of this or any other similar manifestations of Chartist statesmanship. It looked as if the leaders could no longer carry on an effective agitation.

The outbreak of a widespread strike in August added a real element of seriousness to the situation in the North. Here again Lancashire was the storm-centre, but the strike movement broke out simultaneously in other districts, ranging from Glasgow and Tyneside to the Midlands, where the colliers in the Potteries and in the South Staffordshire coal-field went out. It is very doubtful whether the strike had much directly to do with Chartism. Its immediate cause was a threatened reduction of wages, which was answered by the workmen in the Lancashire mills drawing the plugs so as to make work impossible. For this reason the operatives’ resistance to the employers’ action was called in Lancashire the Plug Plot.

Whatever the origin of the strike, the Chartist leaders eagerly made capital out of it. They attributed the proposed reduction to the malice of the Anti-Corn Law manufacturers, anxious to drive the people to desperation, and thus foment disturbances that would paralyse the action of the Protectionist Government. In a few days the country was ablaze from the Ribble to the confines of Birmingham. At a great meeting of the Lancashire and Cheshire strikers on Mottram Moor on August 7th it was resolved that “all labour should cease until the People’s Charter became the law of the land.” A similar resolution was passed at Manchester and in nearly all the great towns of Lancashire. On August 15th, the same resolution was passed at a meeting on Crown Bank at Hanley, at which Thomas Cooper presided. Despite his exhortations to observe peace and order, serious rioting broke out.

The Chartists’ leaders now gathered together at Manchester, where the Executive Council of the National Charter Association was joined by delegates from the Manchester and West Riding areas. It first assembled on August 12th, but members came in by slow degrees. It met in Schofield’s chapel[1] and was dignified by the Northern Star with the name of a conference. In this McDouall took the lead, and was not displaced from it even when O’Connor, Campbell the Secretary, and Thomas Cooper, hot from his stormy experiences in the Potteries, joined the gathering. Cooper has left a vivid account of his escape from Hanley by night and of his vacillation between his desire to stay with his comrades in the Potteries and his wish to be in Manchester, where he rightly felt the real control of the movement lay. He trudged along the dark roads from Hanley to Crewe, a prey to various tumultuous and conflicting thoughts. But he was sustained by the noble confidence that O’Connor would be at Manchester and would tell everybody what to do. At Crewe he took the train and found Campbell the Secretary in it. Campbell, now resident in London, was anxious to be back in his old home and see how things were going there. As soon as “the city of long chimneys” came in sight and every chimney was beheld smokeless, Campbell’s face changed, and with an oath he said, “Not a single mill at work! Something must come out of this and something serious too!”

The conference speedily resolved that the strikers should be exhorted to remain out until the Charter became law. To procure this end, McDouall issued on behalf of the Executive a fierce manifesto appealing to the God of battles and declaring in favour of a general strike as the best weapon for winning the Charter. But divided counsels now once more rent asunder the party and made all decisive action hopeless. Even in the delegates’ meeting it had been necessary to negative an amendment denying any connection between the existing strike and Chartism. At Ashton-under-Lyne the strikers declared that they had no concern with any political questions.

The fatal blow came from O’Connor, to whom simple men like Thomas Cooper had gone as to an oracle for guidance. Even in the Convention his puppets had supported dilatory tactics. In a few days O’Connor fiercely attacked McDouall in the Northern Star, for “breathing a wild strain of recklessness most dangerous to the cause.” Good Chartists were advised to retire from a hopeless contest, reserving their energies for some later season when their organisation should have been perfected. The strike, far from being a weapon of Chartism, was a crafty device of the mill-owners of the Anti-Corn Law League to reduce wages and divert men’s minds from the Charter.

Riots and disturbances further complicated the situation. Cooper had fled from the burning houses of Hanley and the fusillade of soldiers shooting men dead in the streets. Now the trouble spread northwards into Lancashire and the West Riding. Shops were looted, gas-works attacked, trains were stopped, two policemen were killed in the streets of Manchester. Troops were rapidly poured into the disaffected districts. There were over two thousand soldiers with six pieces of artillery in Manchester alone. At Preston and Blackburn the soldiers fired on the crowd; Halifax was attacked by a mob from Todmorden. Widespread alarm was created, but there is little evidence that the disorders were really dangerous. O’Connor strongly urged peaceable methods in a public letter. “Let us,” he said, “set an example to the world of what moral power is capable of effecting.” His violent pacifism was largely attributed to lack of personal courage.

The vigorous action of the Government soon re-established order. Then came the turn of the leaders to pay the penalty. The panic-stricken authorities put into gaol both those who had advocated rebellion and those who had spoken strongly for peaceful methods. O’Connor himself was apprehended in London, while William Hill, the editor of the Northern Star, was taken into custody at Leeds. Cooper was arrested soon after his return home to Leicester. But there was long delay before the trials were concluded, and many were released on bail, among them Cooper and O’Connor. The most guilty of all, McDouall, evaded, by escape to France, the consequences of his firebrand manifesto. In the course of September the strike wore itself out. The workmen went back to the mills and coal-mines without any assurances as to their future wages. The economic situation was as black as was the course of politics. With a falling market, with employers at their wits’ end how to sell their products, there was no chance of a successful strike. The appeal from the Commons to the people had proved a sorry failure. Once more the Chartists had mismanaged their opportunities through divided counsels and conflicting ideals.

The discomfited remnant that was still free fiercely quarrelled over the apportionment of the blame for the recent failure. There was a strong outcry against the old Executive. It was denounced for insolence, despotism, slackness, wastefulness, and malversation. A warm welcome was given to a proposal of Cooper’s that the Association should receive a new constitution which dispensed with a paid Executive. As a result of an investigation at a delegates’ meeting towards the end of the year, the Executive either resigned or was suspended.

McDouall was made the scapegoat of the failure. He it was who had given the worst shock to the credit of Chartism. How many tracts might have been published and distributed with the money lavished upon McDouall. In great disgust the exile renounced his membership of the Association. However, he came back to England in 1844, and at once made a bid for restitution. His first plan was to drive home the old attack on O’Connor by an attempt to set up a separate Chartist organisation for Scotland independent of the English society. At the same time he denounced O’Connor for his ungenerous exploitation of his pecuniary obligations to him in the hope of binding him to him and gagging him. It was O’Connor, too, who had advised him to run away in 1842 in order to throw upon him the whole responsibility for the Plug Riots. Both accusations are only too credible, but no trust can be given to McDouall’s statements. His veracity and good faith are more than disputable, and his constant change of policy was at least as much due to self-interest as to instability. He was one of the least attractive as well as most violent of the Chartist champions. It is startling after all this to find that in 1844 O’Connor was welcoming McDouall back to the orthodox fold and that the Glasgow Chartists raised the chief difficulties in the way of the ostentatiously repentant sinner. There was no finality in the loves and hates of men of the calibre of O’Connor and McDouall.

Though its prospects were increasingly unhopeful the Complete Suffrage agitation was not yet dead. At Sturge’s suggestion a new attempt was made to bridge over the gulf between Suffragists and Chartists, which was found impossible to traverse at the Birmingham Conference. With this object a second Conference met on December 27th, 1842, also at Birmingham. Sturge once more presided over a gathering which included representatives of both parties. The Suffragists were now willing to accept the Chartist programme, but they were as inveterate as ever against the use of the Chartist name. To the old Chartists the Charter was a sacred thing which it was a point of honour to maintain. Harney thus puts their attitude:

“Give up the Charter! The Charter for which O’Connor and hundreds of brave men were dungeoned in felons’ cells, the Charter for which John Frost was doomed to a life of heart-withering woe! . . . What, to suit the whim, to please the caprice, or to serve the selfish ends of mouthing priests, political traffickers, sugar-weighing, tape-measuring shopocrats. Never! By the memories of the illustrious dead, by the sufferings of widows and the tears of orphans he would adjure them to stand by the Charter.”

The Conference was carefully packed by the O’Connorites, but there was more than O’Connorism behind the pious enthusiasm that clung to the party tradition. Nor can the Sturgeites be acquitted of recourse to astute tactics to outwit their opponents. Knowing that they were likely to be in a minority, they got two lawyers in London to draft a new Bill of Rights which they laid before the conference in such a way that they burked all discussion of the Charter in its old form. The New Bill of Rights embodied all the “six points” of the Charter, but the old Chartists bitterly resented the tactics which gave priority to this new-fangled scheme. Lovett came out of his retirement to move that the Charter and not the Bill of Rights should be the basis of the movement. He sternly reproached the Sturgeites for their lack of faith. O’Connor himself seconded Lovett’s proposal and strove, though with little effect, to conciliate with his blandishments the stubborn spirit of his old adversary. But even their momentary agreement on a common policy united for the time the old Chartist forces. In the hot debate that followed, the doctrinaire tactlessness of the Sturgeite leaders added fuel to the flames of Chartist wrath. “We will espouse your principles, but we will not have your leaders,” said Lawrence Heyworth, the most offensive of the Sturgeite orators. Years afterwards Thomas Cooper voiced the general Chartist feeling when he declared “there was no attempt to bring about a union--no effort for conciliation--no generous offer of the right hand of fellowship. We soon found that it was determined to keep the poor Chartists at arm’s length.”

In the end Lovett’s resolution was carried by more than two to one. Thereupon Sturge and his friends retired, and the Conference broke up into two antagonistic sections, neither of which could accomplish anything that mattered. The failure practically put an end to the Complete Suffrage Movement, which was soon submerged in the general current of Radicalism. No doubt the dispute in the form in which it arose was one of words rather than things, but it was no mere question of words that brought Chartists of all sorts into a momentary forgetfulness of their ancient feuds to resist the attempt to wipe out the history of their sect. The split of the Conference arose from the essential incompatibility of the smug ideals of the respectable middle-class Radical, and the vague aspirations of the angry hot-headed workman, bitterly resenting the sufferings of his grievous lot and especially intolerant of the employing class from which Sturge and his friends came. The gulf between the Complete Suffragist and the Chartist is symbolised in the extreme contrast between the journalism of the Nonconformist and that of the Northern Star.

The Birmingham failure was another triumph for O’Connor. He had dragged even Lovett into his wake and could now pose more than ever as the one practical leader of Chartism. It was to little purpose that Lovett, shocked at the result of his momentary reappearance on the same platform as his enemy, withdrew, with his friend Parry, from the O’Connorite Conference. The remnant went to a smaller room and finished up their business to their own liking. If Chartism henceforth meant O’Connorism, it was because O’Connor, with all his faults, could upon occasion give a lead, and still more because, lead or no lead, it was O’Connor only whom the average Chartist would follow.

The failure of this last effort at conciliation was the more tragic since it was quickly followed by the conclusion of the long-drawn-out trials of the Chartists, accused of complicity in the abortive revolt of the summer of 1842. Some of the accused persons, notably Cooper and O’Connor, were still on bail at the Conference and went back to meet their fate. Their cases were dealt with by special commissions which had most to do in Staffordshire and Lancashire. The Staffordshire commission had got to work as early as October, and had in all 274 cases brought before it. Thomas Cooper was the most conspicuous of the prisoners it dealt with. Acquitted on one count, he was released on bail before being arraigned on another charge. He finally received a sentence of two years’ imprisonment, which he spent in Stafford Gaol. In prison he wrote his Purgatory of Suicides, a poetical idealisation of the Chartist programme, which won for him substantial literary recognition. Most of the Staffordshire sentences were much more severe than that of Cooper, fifty-four being condemned to long periods of transportation. In Lancashire and Cheshire the special commission was presided over by Lord Abinger, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, whose indiscreet language gave occasion for a futile attack on him by the Radicals in Parliament. But the actual trials do not seem to have been unfairly conducted, and the victims were much less numerous than in Staffordshire. O’Connor was found guilty, but his conviction, with that of others, was overruled on technical grounds. His good fortune in escaping scot-free, while other Chartist leaders languished in gaol or in exile, still further increased his hold over the party. It was another reason why O’Connorism henceforth meant Chartism...

Mark Hovell, The Chartist Movement, 2nd ed., Manchester University Press, 1918; 1925; re-print edition, 1963, pages 259-67.


[1] James Schofield was the leader of the ‘Church Chartists’ in Manchester.

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