Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Chartist Lives: The Binns family

They were drapers[1], originated with George Binns (1781-1836), born at Crawshawbooth, Lancashire, on 8th March 1781, the fourth son of David Binns, a clogger, and his wife, Ann Robinson. The Binns family were Quakers who had extensive links with other Quaker families throughout the north of England. David and Ann, along with their eldest children, began a drapery and later grocery shop in which George learned his craft. The family soon entered the expanding cotton trade, putting out work to local hand-loom weavers and selling finished calicoes in Manchester. After George’s marriage on 30th January 1807 to Margaret, the daughter of Joshua and Rachel Watson of Staindrop, co. Durham, he began to look for an opening near by.

In 1811, he purchased the woollen drapery and linen shop of Thomas Ellerbury at 176 High Street, Bishopwearmouth, a part of Sunderland, co. Durham, which employed a journeyman and three apprentices. His nephew David Binns, the son of his elder brother Richard, came as apprentice in 1814 and was quickly entrusted with buying for the shop in the Manchester market and travelling around the local mining villages to sell goods. David left in 1822 to manage another drapery business for his uncle at Staindrop and was replaced by George’s eldest son, Henry Binns. In addition to Henry, there were seven other children, including George Binns (1815–1847), a prominent Wearside Chartist. The whole family were radicals and maintained close associations with local Quaker families such as the Grimshaws, the Richardsons, and the Robsons. The elder George Binns died in Sunderland on 19th February 1836 and the shop was left to Henry.

George Binns 1815-1847

Born in Sunderland on 6th December 1815, George Binns was one of 15 children. His father (also George) was a Quaker and successful draper, and the young George worked in the family business before he and James Williams opened a bookshop in 1837. The following November, the partners founded the Sunderland Chartist Association, and their bookshop became a centre of radical activity in the town. In July 1839, after the failure of the first Chartist petition, both men were arrested for sedition. Tried at Durham the following August, they were convicted and sent to prison for six months. A huge gathering greeted Binns on his return to Sunderland after his release in January 1841, and he was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association.

After an unsuccessful attempt to re-enter the drapery business, Binns emigrated in August 1842 to New Zealand. He got work supervising a whaling establishment in Nelson, but was sacked after becoming embroiled in a public row over the sale of short-weight bread. Defending himself against accusations that he was “a Chartist ringleader”, Binns wrote to the Nelson Examiner: “When I came to New Zealand, it was after I had suffered imprisonment, sacrificed my business, and lost the good-will of relations, in an endeavour to free my country; and I was and now am desirous of atoning, in some measure, for my past hostilities, by a life of "peace and good-will" here. I did not expect the word Chartist would be employed against me as a term of reproach in a distant land like this. We are all united here by a community of interests, and though I am not ashamed of my principles, yet I should never render myself obnoxious by their intrusion upon others. I have nothing to do with Chartism in New Zealand, and my past enthusiasm might have been forgotten where there is no grievance to redress and no enemy to our weal.” Although he had hoped to return to England, Binns was left in serious financial difficulties by the collapse of the whaling business in 1844. Although he subsequently found work as a baker, he died of consumption on 5th April 1847, aged just 31. An obituary in the Northern Star of 5th February 1848 remembered him as “a handsome high-spirited, talented, true-hearted man - every inch a Democrat”.

Henry Binns 1810-1880

He was born in Sunderland on 19th June 1810, was a deeply committed Quaker and an active member of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. He advertised his refusal to sell ‘any goods manufactured from cotton not warranted to be free labour grown’, giving his customers the opportunity to strike an ‘effectual blow to the traffic so opposed to the services of religion and humanity’. Nevertheless, the business prospered and moved to larger premises on the other side of Bishopwearmouth’s high street in 1844. Binns’s opposition to slavery was a reflection not just of his religious principles but also of his political views, which embraced further constitutional reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Through Quaker circles in Newcastle upon Tyne he knew John Bright before the Anti-Corn Law Association was founded in 1839, and he and his brother George were involved in the growing protest movement, helping to form the Durham branch of the National Charter Association in 1838. George and James Taylor, his partner in a local bookshop, were the most active, printing tracts, handbills, and posters and speaking throughout the north-east. Both were arrested in 1839 along with other Chartist leaders, but they continued their activities until their trial in summer 1840. George Binns was imprisoned for six months, and Henry himself was briefly detained with Bright but was not put on trial. After his release George was elected to the executive of the National Charter Association in June 1841, coming fifth in the poll.

George Binns’s health had suffered during his time in prison and he left Sunderland for Port Nelson, New Zealand, in August 1842; he died there of tuberculosis on 5th April 1847. Henry Binns was involved in Bright’s attempt to stand against Lord Dungannon for the Durham parliamentary seat in March 1843, his bid to be nominated for the Sunderland seat, and his eventual election for Durham in July. Unlike some Quakers, Binns did not break with Bright over his opposition to the Anti-Slavery Society’s call for tariffs on goods produced by slave labour.

Henry Binns married Elizabeth Bowron, probably in 1836. They had ten children, the eldest of whom, Sir Henry Binns (1837-1899), emigrated to Natal in 1858. Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1855 and Henry retired in 1865 to Croydon, Surrey, where the following year he married Emma Andrews, the widow of John Grimshaw. She died in 1868; Henry died at his home, 62 Lansdowne Road, Croydon, on 17th January 1880.

[1] M. Moss and A. Turton A legend of retailing: House of Fraser, 1989 and Binns papers, University of Glasgow, Archives and Business Records Centre, House of Fraser archives

Chartist Lives: The Biggs family

He[1] was a hosier and political reformer, born at Leicester, first of the seven children of John Biggs (1774–1827), hosier, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Heggs (1780–1862), of Arnesby, Leicestershire. By the time his father died in 1827 the firm of John Biggs & Sons was firmly established and his family were worshipping among the dissenting élite at the Unitarian Great Meeting. John made his father’s firm one of the largest in Leicester, noted for its export trade to North America and Australia, and its innovations in fancy hosiery and glove-making. In 1859, when he invested heavily in equipping a steam-powered factory, it became one of the most modern. Respected even by Chartists as a model employer, he exposed the malpractices to which the framework-knitters were commonly subjected, welcomed a bill to abolish frame-rent, the source of most abuses, and demanded greater regulation of children’s employment.


From 1826, Biggs participated vigorously in the local reform agitation, helped found the Political Union and Reform Society, and liberally supported the anti-corn law campaign. In 1846, he and a fellow hosier were publicly acclaimed as ‘the Cobden and Bright of the Midland Counties’. Meanwhile Biggs was among the leaders of the reformed corporation of Leicester, mayor in 1840, 1847, and 1856 and borough magistrate from 1840. His hopes that reform would initiate a municipal renaissance were soon frustrated when his modest proposals for street-widening and a new town hall were rejected in 1845 by the Improvement committee in an ill-tempered squabble between ‘expenders’ and ‘economists’.


Disillusioned with the Reform Society and having quarrelled with the MPs it supported, Biggs began in 1847 an ultra-radical crusade, aiming to win control of its electoral machine, to obtain the election of genuinely radical MPs and to agitate for a truly popular franchise. The success of his initial coup, which secured control of the Reform Society, ejected the sitting MPs, and won the election of his two radical candidates, provoked a fifteen-year-long battle between the factions. Biggs was himself elected MP for Leicester in 1856. At this point, he dominated the scene like a political boss, the electoral machine at his command and the radical newspaper at his disposal. To his opponents he was the ‘Dictator’, leader of a ‘Chartist clique’. It was a precarious dictatorship, however, maintained by his uncompromising commitment to total victory, and his audacity in facing one setback after another. Finally a by-election in 1861 produced the setback from which he could not recover a Conservative victory. The only answer was Liberal reunion; the only way was by compromise. Biggs would not oppose it; but he would not take part in it. In 1862, he gave up his parliamentary seat, resigned from the municipality and withdrew completely and finally from politics. Political failure coincided with financial failure, possibly the result of slack trade, costly new machinery, and political expenses. In 1862 his house, used as security for a debt of £10,086, had to be sold, including his collection of allegedly ‘old master’ paintings. The business was sold to another firm as a going concern. At the same time, Biggs suffered severe personal loss within his household. In the space of a few months his mother, his sister, and her husband, J. F. Hollings, editor of the radical Leicestershire Mercury, historian and luminary of the Literary and Philosophical Society, all died; the last by his own hand.


For the rest of his life, Biggs lived in a terrace house, 46 West Street, near the prison. After he died there, unmarried, on 4th June 1871, his estate was valued at ‘under £1000’. He was buried on 8th June at Welford Road cemetery. The service was conducted by the Revd C. C. Coe, minister of the Great Meeting, whose sermon was afterwards published. Biggs was not forgotten by the public. A subscription, intended to provide a memorial over his tomb, received such support that a public statue was decided upon. Among the donations was a sum contributed by Leicester men who had emigrated to Philadelphia, USA. The statue, created by G. F. Lawson, was of Shap granite, 7 feet tall and mounted on a plinth. It presented Biggs in dignified maturity, upright, sturdy, and benign. Erected in Welford Place, it was later replaced by a bronze cast and set up facing in a different direction.


Unpretentious and generous in prosperity, dignified in adversity, John Biggs won a unique place in the affections of the Leicester public. He was less successful in the House of Commons. He addressed it seven times in his first year as MP, but his ‘homely style’[2] seems to have failed to earn more than patronising respect for his integrity. After that he was a silent member. A judgement on Biggs must include events after his death. Within five years Leicester was at last dignified by a new town hall. Frame-rent was abolished in 1875. The Education Acts helped to end the evils of children’s employment. His radical campaign rescued the local Liberals from their inertia, and after 1867 the reunited party profited from his cultivation of the popular forces when the non-electors he had rallied became the electors of the new order.


William Biggs 1805-1881

He[3] was a hosier and political reformer, was born in Leicester on 18th January 1805, the third child of John Biggs and Elizabeth Heggs. On 26th May 1837, he married Mary Deborah, daughter of John Worthington, yarn merchant, of Leicester. This allied him with a family of distinguished Unitarian ministers; and in her he found a wife who, the few surviving letters suggest, shared the excitement of his political career, and communicated it to their children.

An active partner in the family firm, William, like his brother John, also pursued a political career. Elected to Leicester town council in 1836, he served it continuously for thirty years, was elected mayor in 1842, 1848, and 1859, and appointed JP in 1850. In July 1852, he was elected MP for Newport, Isle of Wight and represented it until his resignation in December 1856. As a councillor, Biggs got rid of the old corporation’s historic regalia, organized the police force, and supported John’s proposals for extensive improvements. As mayor in 1859, he welcomed the volunteer movement and secured the formation of a company of the rifle corps in Leicester.

William Biggs’s speech to the 1841 Derby commercial convention won him a regional reputation; and although his midland counties charter of 1842 failed to rally Chartists to his middle-class leadership, his initiative helped secure the invitation to stand for Newport. He spoke twenty times in the house, mostly in support of progressive or charitable causes, notably the Homes for Penitent Females, the Leicester branch of which he had helped to found; but his didactic style did not please.

The sale of the family firm forced William Biggs’s sons to seek careers elsewhere. After 1866 he followed three of them to Liverpool. He died there on 8th October 1881 at his house in Upper Parliament Street. He was buried in Welford Road cemetery, Leicester, beside his brother John. Biggs was survived by his wife, daughter, and four sons, of whom the third, Arthur Worthington Biggs, was knighted in 1906.

Joseph Biggs 1809-1895

He was a hosier and supporter of Italian independence, born in Leicester, the fourth son of John Biggs and Elizabeth Heggs. Co-partner in the family firm, he managed the glove department and gave evidence to Muggeridge’s inquiry for the royal commission on framework-knitters. In 1837, he married Matilda, daughter of W. H. Ashurst, solicitor, of London and, by 1852, had moved to Barden Park, Tonbridge.

Through the Ashursts, Biggs was introduced to an extensive circle of progressive friends, including the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, with whom Matilda maintained an intimate correspondence until her death on 15th October 1866. Mazzini visited Matilda, possibly at Leicester, certainly at Barden Park. Although Biggs at first showed an understandable reserve, he, with his children, became warmly attached to him, and subscribed to his cause. In 1852, after a prolonged visit to Italy, he wrote an indignant letter about its rulers and in 1854 drew up a paper on British policy, which Mazzini highly commended. Although privately complaining of a lack of spontaneity in Biggs, Mazzini continued to give him warm greetings and send Christmas presents to his daughters. After Matilda’s death, Biggs moved to Notting Hill Square, London. By 1893, he was living in St John’s Wood. He died there in 1895 at his home, 3 Alexandra Road. He was survived by three of his four daughters one of whom, Maude Ashurst Biggs, posthumously published extracts from her father’s American diary, To America in Thirty-Nine Days: before Steamships Crossed the Atlantic (1927).

[1] R. H. Evans ‘The Biggs family of Leicester’, Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, volume 48, (1972–3), pages 29–58, R. H. Evans ‘John Biggs of Leicester, 1801–1871’, Clio, volume 3, (1971), C. Ashworth ‘Hosiery manufacture’, Victoria County History: Leicestershire, volume 4, pages 303–13, R. A. McKinley and C. T. Smith ‘Social and administrative history since 1815’, Victoria County History: Leicestershire, volume 4, pages 251–302, R. H. Evans, ‘Parliamentary representation since 1835’, Victoria County History: Leicestershire, volume 4, pages 201–50, A. Temple Patterson Radical Leicester: a history of Leicester, 1780–1850, 1954, C. C. Coe Sermon preached in memory of John Biggs, 1871, Mazzini’s letters to an English family, ed. E. F. Richards, 3 volumes, 1920–22, Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury, 10th June 1871, private information, 2004 William Biggs memorandum book in possession of Mrs Wendy Fraser (née Biggs), Leicestershire Trade Protection Society Directory of Leicester, December 1870 and Leicester Journal, 16th June 1871.
[2] Leicester Journal, 28th February 1862
[3] Archives: Leicestershire Record Office, William Biggs, ‘Scrapbook’, LM 5D61

Chartist Lives: John Goodwyn Barmby

He was born at Yoxford in Suffolk and was baptised on 12th November 1820. His father, John, a solicitor, married to Julia, died when he was fourteen years old. Goodwyn, he never used his first Christian name had no formal school education but read widely. He eschewed the professions and followed a career of social and political radicalism, reputedly addressing small audiences of agricultural labourers when aged sixteen[1].

Barmby claimed credit for founding the East Suffolk and Yarmouth Chartist council in September 1839. In December he was elected delegate to the Chartist convention and in 1840 and 1841 he was re-elected, though alienated from political radicalism by this time. Already a correspondent of the Owenites’ New Moral World (writing on language reform and Charles Fourier), in 1840 he visited Paris with a letter of introduction from Owen. There he studied French social organisation and claimed by this to have originated the English term ‘communism’. He married at Marylebone on 4th October 1841 Catherine Isabella Watkins (1816/17–1853), who, under the signature of Kate, contributed to the New Moral World. They had a son, Moreville, and a daughter. On 13th October 1841, Barmby founded the Communist Propaganda Society and designated 1841 Year 1 of the new communist calendar. The Universal Communitarian Association followed, promoted by the monthly Educational Circular and Communist Apostle. In 1842, he founded and almost single-handedly wrote the monthly Promethean, or, Communitarian Apostle, which also promoted rational marriage and universal suffrage, and lectured at the ‘communist temple’ at Marylebone Circus, Marylebone, Middlesex. Out of this activity and through his contact with James Pierrepont Greaves (with whom he published the New Age, or, Concordian Gazette, the journal of Greaves’s own Ham Common community), Barmby established the Moreville Communitorium at Hanwell in 1842. The following year, he issued his Communist Miscellany, a series of tracts written by himself and his wife, and founded the weekly Communist Chronicle, which also supported the German communist Wilhelm Weitling.

Thomas Frost described Barmby at this time as ‘a young man of gentlemanly manners and soft persuasive voice, wearing his light brown hair parted in the middle after the fashion of the Concordist brethren, and a collar and necktie à la Byron’[2]. With the Communitorium renamed the Communist Church by 1844, Barmby began his move towards sectarianism; he conducted a propaganda tour in the north and midlands in the winter of 1845–6 and forged links with the Dublin sect of White Quakers. In 1845 he combined with Frost to revive the Communist Chronicle, for which he translated some of Reybaud’s ‘Sketches of French socialists’, and wrote a philosophical romance entitled The Book of Platonopolis, which sought to fuse utopian fiction and modern science. However, Frost soon tired of Barmby’s sectarianism and separated from him in 1846, to establish the Communist Journal.

Frost’s competition with Barmby destroyed both journals but Barmby continued to proselytize in Howitt’s Journal, and contributed to the People’s Journal, Tait’s Magazine, Chambers’s Journal, and other periodicals. In 1847, he lectured at the Farringdon Hall, Poplar, London, and in July he convened a meeting at the John Street Institute in support of the Icarian settlements in Texas. It was probably to his friendship with W. J. Fox MP that Barmby owed his introduction to Unitarianism, following his post-1848 disillusionment with communism. After his return from revolutionary Paris, where he had gone in 1848 as Howitt’s representative and as the envoy of the Communist Church, he was successively minister at Southampton, Topsham, Lympstone, Lancaster, and Wakefield. He was one of the best-known ministers in the West Riding of Yorkshire and held his post in Wakefield for twenty-one years from 1858, leading the Wakefield congregation which included the industrialist Henry Briggs. He was also secretary of the West Riding Unitarian mission. On 20th July 1861, Barmby married his second wife, Ada Marianne Shepherd, daughter of the governor of Wakefield gaol, with whom he had a daughter.
Barmby always retained his liberal political convictions, and was closely involved in the Wakefield Liberal Association from 1859: he chaired its North Westgate ward committee that year and the full town committee in 1860. In 1867, he organised a large public meeting there in support of parliamentary reform and joined the National Association for Women’s Suffrage. Barmby was a member of the council of Mazzini’s International League and also supported Polish, Italian, and Hungarian freedom. Barmby wrote several volumes of pastoral poetry: The Poetry of Home and Childhood (1853), Scenes of Spring (1860), and The Return of the Swallow (1864). His devotional works included Aids to Devotion (1865), the Wakefield Band of Faith Messenger (1871–9), committed to the advance of theological liberalism, and a large number of hymns and tracts.

In 1879, Barmby’s health deteriorated. He retired to Yoxford but continued to hold intensely devotional private services. He died there on 18th October 1881, and was buried at the cemetery of Framlingham, Suffolk. His second wife survived him.

[1] A. L. Morton The English utopia, 1952, pages 132–8, W. H. G. Armytage Heavens below: utopian experiments in England, 1560–1960, 1961, pages 196–207, The Inquirer, 29th October 1881, page 721, W. Blazeby Unitarian Herald, 9th November 1881, page 358, G. J. Holyoake The history of co-operation, volume 1, 1875, pages 228–30 and T. Frost Forty years’ recollections, 1880.
[2] T. Frost Forty years’ recollections, 1880, page 57.

Chartist Lives: Joseph Baker

Joseph Barker[1] was born on 11th May 1806 at Bramley, near Leeds. His ancestors, originally of Keighley, had been settled in this area for several generations as farmers and manufacturers. The identity of his parents has not been discovered, though it is known that his father was employed in woollen manufacture and served for some time in the militia, and that Joseph was the fifth child and the fourth son in a family of eleven. Barker’s autobiographical works, written late in life, emphasise the great deprivation and hardships of his childhood: he remarked that long hours at the spinning jenny resulted in physical disability and general weakness, but did afford him the opportunity to read as he worked. His early education was obtained largely through Sunday school; his parents were devout Wesleyan Methodists, and in 1822 he joined the church, though admitting that ‘my determination to yield was not quite full’[2]. He was involved in regular prayer meetings and became an occasional preacher. He furthered his education during this time with the help of Joseph Sutcliffe, a Wesleyan travelling preacher, who assisted him with his reading and grammar. Joseph Hill, a schoolmaster at Bramley and a local preacher, instructed him in Latin and Greek. When his family’s financial circumstances improved, he was sent to the Methodist school run by James Sigston in Leeds.

About a year after joining the Wesleyans, Barker was encouraged to preach more regularly and ‘put on the plan’ as a home missionary and exhorter, and later as a local preacher in spite of questions about his views on the atonement. He proved popular, but was unable to offer himself as a travelling preacher because he was unwilling to serve abroad (those wishing to become travelling preachers were required to indicate a willingness to be sent anywhere by the conference). However, a much larger issue was the requirement to subscribe to the doctrine of the eternal sonship as taught by Richard Watson and Jabez Bunting, in opposition to Adam Clarke. This was a test to which Barker could not bring himself to subscribe. Reflection on these questions led Barker to scrutinise other aspects of the Wesleyan communion. He began to feel that the old connexion was wrong on other issues as well, and looked to the preachers of the Methodist New Connexion. He proclaimed that her ‘doctrines were almost all expressed in Scripture language, and plainly designed to allow of considerable variety of opinion’[3].

Barker joined the ministry of the Methodist New Connexion and went to Nottingham to assist John Henshaw, who was ill, and then to Liverpool as a supply preacher. Barker was appointed as a travelling preacher on trial to the Hanley circuit in Staffordshire, from 1829 to 1830, and to the Halifax circuit in Yorkshire from 1830 to 1831. During the latter appointment, in 1830 he married Francis Salt of Betley, in Staffordshire. They had at least two sons and a daughter. Conference rules forbade a travelling preacher to marry while on probation, and as a penalty Barker lost one year of his probationary term. In addition to this, a disciplinary migration sent him to Blyth, in the Newcastle upon Tyne circuit (1831–2), from whence he proceeded to Durham for service in the Sunderland circuit for six months (1832–3). In Newcastle, he benefited greatly from the vast library of Dr Tomlinson of St Nicholas’s Church. One effect of his reading was a resolution to be free of the restrictions the connexion had placed upon him.

Despite his tremendous popularity, Barker feared that he would have difficulty being received into full connexion: while his abilities and labour were deemed satisfactory, a number of questions arose about his theological opinions, but he was none the less admitted into full connexion in 1833 and appointed to the Sheffield circuit. Here he became involved in various educational enterprises for young people and ministers, and also entered into the controversy with ‘unbelievers’ in the area, offering a course of public lectures and publishing The Character and Tendency of Christianity (1833). These activities further strengthened his resolve to become ‘an evangelical or a theological reformer’[4]. He became a teetotaller while in Sheffield and quickly became a zealous lecturer on the topic of abstinence both in Sheffield and afterwards in the Chester circuit (1835–7). The further radicalisation of Barker’s views was evident from his decision to give up tobacco, tea, and coffee for a time in 1835. From Chester, Barker moved to the Mossley circuit in 1837. There he began a weekly periodical called the Christian Investigator and Evangelical Reformer, which explored a range of issues including temperance, marriage, trade, and education. The freedom of expression which Barker sought soon brought him difficulties. He held unorthodox opinions on child baptism and the Lord’s Supper; his views were deemed by some to be heretical. At the conference of 1839 he was moved to Gateshead, a comparatively new circuit. It was here that he became a prominent lecturer against Owenite socialism. He published a number of pamphlets, tracts, and sermons on this subject in addition to materials in the Evangelical Reformer.

In the final issue of the Reformer (1840), Barker restated some of the theological views which had created controversy, and his case was brought before the conference of the Methodist New Connexion. Meeting at Halifax in 1841, it expelled Barker on the ground that he ‘had denied the divine appointment of baptism, and refused to administer the ordinance’[5]. His expulsion was followed by a loss to the connexion of ‘29 societies and 4,348 members’, among them a congregation in Newcastle upon Tyne, of which Barker became the pastor. He was determined to model his new church as closely as possible on New Testament principles, but later admitted to the impracticable nature of such plans and to the gradual dispersal of his followers, who were known as Barkerites. In his chapel Barker delivered many lectures and encouraged free discussion on a range of topics. He also worked as a printer, and in addition to other publications began to issue a periodical called The Christian. During this period his views were in a state of flux, first inclining towards Quakerism, and afterwards to Unitarianism. In 1845, he preached in Unitarian chapels both in London and elsewhere. The Unitarians enabled him to start a printing establishment on a larger scale at Wortley, a suburb of Leeds: on 6th July 1846 Dr John Bowring presented him with a steam printing press, purchased at a cost of some £600 with money specially raised for the purpose. Some months previously Barker had issued a ‘proposal for a new library of three hundred volumes, the cheapest collection of works ever published’[6]. He issued books on a range of theological, philosophical, and ethical topics which were bound in cloth and priced at between 1s and 1s. 3d each.

By 1846, Barker’s political interests had become more radical. He advocated republicanism for England, repeal of the Act of Union for Ireland, and the nationalisation of land. These views were presented in a weekly periodical called The People, which sought to ‘wage unsparing war with every thing that stands in the way of the people’s rights, the people’s liberties, the people’s improvement, and the people’s prosperity’[7]. At the height of its popularity it sold more than 20,000 copies each week. In 1847, Barker went on a six months’ tour in America and became interested in various emigration schemes for the working classes. Back in England, he was a delegate to the Chartist convention in 1848. He professed to be a peaceful advocate of the Charter, but found himself arrested for seditious libel along with a number of other political agitators following the Liverpool summer assizes of 1848. While on bail Barker went to Bolton, where he was elected MP for the borough at a by-election by popular acclaim, though he never sat in parliament. He also offered himself as a candidate for the town council of Leeds as a representative of the Holbeck ward and was elected by a considerable majority.

The charges against Barker were dropped at the winter assizes, and he made another trip to the United States in 1849. His impression of the States was so favourable that he determined to leave England with his family and settle there. In 1851, they moved to Knox County, Ohio, a location not too distant from Barker’s brothers. Immediately he thrust his energies into the anti-slavery movement, travelling to many meetings in the north-eastern states from 1852 to 1854. The influence of the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Henry C. Wright helped to accelerate Barker’s growing religious scepticism. The belief that the Bible sanctioned slavery led him to become a deist, and his lectures became marked by a strong secularist anti-slavery agenda. He was effectively driven from rural Ohio by other settlers who found his trenchant secularism and radical opinions intolerable. In 1854, Barker returned to England, where his interest in the labour movement was reawakened. He believed that he must advance the case of the slaves and the English and Irish workers in tandem. During his lecture tour he encountered further difficulties as a result of his religious opinions, and returned to Ohio in the spring of 1855. After one or two temporary relocations, he eventually settled in Nebraska in 1856. In the summer of 1857, he began a long tour in Philadelphia, where he lectured every Sunday for eight months. After spending a few weeks with his family in Nebraska, he returned to Philadelphia in August 1858 to undertake another eight-month course of lectures, but completed only two months of the engagement. Having concluded that ‘war with Christianity was not the way to promote the virtue and happiness of mankind’[8], he resolved to return to England, where he thought he might be able to distance himself from men of extreme views on religion and politics and feel free to pursue whatever path he believed to be true. Accordingly, he sailed from Boston on 11th January 1860, and his wife and children followed him in August of the same year.

In April 1860, Barker agreed to become one of the editors of the National Reformer, a secularist paper. He insisted on complete control over half of the paper, but soon found himself in conflict with his co-editor, Charles Bradlaugh. A turning point seems to have come when Barker was sent for review a secularist book which, in his view, undermined marriage and licensed extramarital sexual indulgence. He resigned the post in August 1861 and immediately began his own paper, Barker’s Review of Politics, Literature, Religion, and Morals, and Journal of Education, Science and Co-operation. Around this time he was ‘overpowered and reconverted by re-reading the Scriptures’[9], and began to retrace his steps back to Methodism via Unitarianism. In 1862, he became lecturer to a congregation of an eclectic kind of ‘unbelievers’ at Burnley, where he lived and laboured for more than a year, enforcing the precepts of morality and often taking occasion to speak favourably of the Bible and Christianity. As Barker returned to the fold, he considered seeking ordination in the Church of England, having dropped his objections to the state church. However, he recognised that his past and age were against him. He was formally reconciled to his old religious belief, and afterwards preached, at their invitation, to the Methodist reformers of Wolverhampton. After accepting like invitations from the Primitive Methodists of Bilston and Tunstall, he joined their community as a local preacher, and held the office until 1868. He was profoundly affected by the death of his wife in 1871, by which time his own health was failing. He returned to the United States, where he spent the winters in Philadelphia lecturing and printing Christian tracts and sermons. In the summers he joined his family in Nebraska. He died of dropsy and jaundice in Omaha on 15th September 1875, and was buried there. A few days before his death he solemnly declared that he died ‘in the firm and full belief of Jesus Christ, and in the faith and love of His religion as revealed in His life and works, as described in the New Testament’[10].

[1] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, J. Barker, diary, 1865–75, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska, Barker collection, The Christian (1844–8), The People (1848–9), B. Fladeland Abolitionists and working class problems in the age of industrialization, 1984, chapter 7, W. Baggaly A digest of the minutes…of the Methodist New Connexion, 1862, O. A. Beckerlegge ‘Barker, Joseph’, The Blackwell dictionary of evangelical biography, 1730–1860, ed. D. M. Lewis, 1995.
[2] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, pages 40-41.
[3] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 106.
[4] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, pages 175-6.
[5] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 260.
[6] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 285.
[7] The People, 1/1, 1846
[8] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 341.
[9] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, pages 346-7.
[10] The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 385

Monday, 30 July 2007

Tallinn

'Maiden Tower'
Kiek in de Kök

Medieval walls

Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin is the main Lutheran church in Estonia and one of three functioning medieval churches

Floods and Trains

The last time I travelled to London by train it was a far from pleasant experience: I had to stand all the way, the carriage was dirty and the journey was delayed by railworks. What should have taken forty minutes took well over an hour and, of course, the train was late in the first place. The return journey was little better. Yesterday, the government announced its plans for the rail network for the next decades. All well and good but who will have to pay....the passengers of course. In our market-oriented economy that should have come as no surprise to anyone. But what's the alternative...presumably the car or other forms of public transport (or should we now be saying private transport as it's clearly no longer owned by 'the public'). Now the double whammy! Rail fares will go up at above inflation for the forseeable future but if car pricing is introduced nationwide (still a major possibility) then drivers will soon be priced off the road. In fact, in the decade I can see driving a car as being almost as unacceptable as smoking! I probably have travelled more by train on the continent in the last few years and there the prices are reasonable, the service generally efficient and safe and the trains modern. If France and Germany can have a cheap rail network, I've often wondered why Britain can't subsidise fares (now that would really get people out of their cars).

The floods justifibly have taken up columns of newsprint and hours of television in the past few weeks though interestingly it didn't take the media as long to latch on to the problems in Gloucester as those in Hull. Is it all to do with global warming? Scientists and other 'experts' appears to be putting the blame on that benighted phenomenon; in fact, any weather than appears not to be the 'norm' is trumpeted as further evidence of the coming cataclysm. But there have always been floods during the summer and it should always be remembered that, despite the hot summers of recent years, that Britain is a wet place. In my my grandmother's family bible, there are dates of important events and under 1912 for August the ominous 'in this month the fens drowned', then there was the 'year with no summer' in 1815 (its cause a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Asia) and there were a series of bad summers in the 1840s, 1910s and 1950s. And all this long before cheap air-flights, a depleted ozone layer and carbon footprints. Flooding in the summer is not as unusual as some people are making out though that's small comfort if your house has been flooded and your possessions destroyed. What is perhaps more worrying is that the flooding of one water treatment work or one electricity sub-station has such devastating consequences.

The vital point about both rail and flood is that they raise fundamental questions about our decaying infrastructure. Whether it's water treatment or sewers or electricity or railways, it appears that they are now approaching saturation point (if you excuse the pun) after decades of neglect. We appear to be very good at tinkering with things to keep them going but are less well disposed to making and paying for the improvements that are essential if the whole system is not inexorably to break down. But then, they're not 'sexy': you don't think about sewers until they break down or water until you don't get it through your taps. You just expect them to be there. Perhaps it is time we stopped playing such a global role and embarking on foreign 'adventures' of dubious legality and focussed our attention rather more on improving the quality of life for our own citizens.

Chartist Lives: William Ashton

He was born in the Yorkshire linen-weaving and coal-mining town of Barnsley about 1806. His father was an Englishman, and a linen weaver, and his mother was an Irish Catholic. Ashton[1] always identified strongly with his mother’s nation and faith and often spoke of himself as an Irishman.

Although linen weaving was still a hand trade, the number of workers coming from other branches of textile manufacture and from the declining Irish industry, as well as the continual pressure to lower prices, led to a series of conflicts between weavers and employers on questions of prices, wages, and working practices. By his early twenties, Ashton was among the leaders of the weavers and was arrested for his part in a strike and in a series of riots in 1829. At the York assizes in August 1830, he and another young weaver, Francis Mirfield, were sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation and were sent to a penal colony in Australia. A memorial for their release was organised in Barnsley, and after seven years both men were released and returned to England, their fares having been raised by the Barnsley people.
Ashton and Mirfield arrived back in the spring of 1838 and were immediately involved in the local Chartist movement. Barnsley had one of the earliest and most active Chartist groups in the country, and Ashton soon became a prominent leader. In the troubled summer of 1839, he escaped briefly to France, but returned after a few months and was arrested in the autumn of 1839. At the York assize of March 1840, he and two other Barnsley Chartists were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for sedition.

Ashton gave an account of the Newport rising of November 1839, and of the various plots which undoubtedly existed in other parts of the country, which has been taken seriously by some historians; but the events have never been entirely elucidated. Ashton claimed, in letters and at a public meeting held after his release from prison, that he had acquired advance information about the lack of enthusiasm among provincial leaders for the proposed rising, and sent a message to Feargus O’Connor asking him to warn John Frost of the potential lack of support. The message was never delivered to Frost, who was taken and sentenced to death. There are many problems with the story, not least the fact that Frost appears never to have relinquished his friendship with O’Connor, and so could hardly have felt betrayed in the way Ashton suggested. At the public meeting, Ashton was howled down by his fellow Chartists and left immediately afterwards with his family for the United States, financed on his journey by the government, who were offering imprisoned Chartists assisted passages on their release. Ashton did not settle in the United States, however, but returned to Barnsley after less than a year away and soon became active again in Barnsley politics.

In spite of the controversy aroused by his accusations against O’Connor, which he renewed in a letter to the Northern Star newspaper on 3rd May 1845, Ashton seems to have continued to be an active and leading member of the Barnsley Chartists and he represented them at the 1848 Chartist convention. Soon after this, however, about 1850, Ashton again emigrated with his family, this time to Australia. He spent the rest of his life there, dying at Craigie, Victoria, on 26th September 1877. He made his living in Australia mainly as a shopkeeper, but still wrote regularly to the Barnsley Chronicle about Australian life, as well as recounting his memories of the Chartist movement. Like many Chartist emigrants, he was disappointed by the experience of life in a more democratic system, commenting in a letter of March 1866 that ‘The same system prevails here as is the general rule at home; the rich get richer whilst the poor get poorer’.

[1] The major sources for William Ashton are: D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984 and J. H. Burland Annals of Barnsley, c.1881

Chartist Lives: Sir Thomas Arbuthnot

He was the fifth son of John Arbuthnot (1729–1797) of Rockfleet, co. Mayo, inspector-general of the linen board, and his wife, Anne (d. 1782), the only daughter of Richard Stone, a London banker. Charles Arbuthnot and Sir Robert Arbuthnot were his brothers. He entered the army as an ensign in the 29th foot in 1794, and after serving in that and other regiments joined the staff corps under Sir John Moore in 1803. He subsequently served as quartermaster-general at the Cape of Good Hope, before he joined the army in the Peninsula in 1808, and was appointed assistant quartermaster-general to General Picton’s division for the greater part of the war. He was twice wounded, once in the West Indies and during one of the later actions in the Peninsula.

Arbuthnot[1] was appointed an aide-de-camp to the prince regent in 1814, and a KCB in January 1815. Promoted major-general in 1825, he was sent the following year to Portugal as a brigade commander. He then commanded a district in Ireland, attaining the rank of lieutenant-general in 1838. In August 1842, at the height of the Chartist crisis, he was appointed to a newly constituted command, with headquarters at Manchester, of both the northern and midland districts, giving unity of control over the extensive disturbed areas. The army was the mainstay of public order; Arbuthnot had a crucial role, and was used by Sir James Graham, the home secretary to implement his policy against the Chartists. Arbuthnot retained the post until his death. He died, aged seventy-two, at Salford on 26th January 1849; his funeral was at St Philip’s Church, Salford. Arbuthnot had a considerable military reputation. He was highly regarded by Sir Thomas Picton, while the duke of Wellington admired his judgement and efficiency to the extent that he selected him for the crucial command during the Chartist crisis.

[1] Sources: J. Haydn The book of dignities: containing rolls of the official personages of the British Empire, 1851, Annual Register (1849) and F. C. Mather Public order in the age of the Chartists, 1959

History in the Balance

The publication of the Ofsted report on history teaching and learning provides an excellent summary of the state of history teaching in schools today. The report evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of history in primary and secondary schools. It does so at a time of changing contexts and lively debate on the future of the subject. The Every Child Matters agenda to maximise pupils' potential raises significant questions about what is taught and how. There is also much public and political interest in issues of citizenship, the understanding of British values and social cohesion. In reflecting on evidence from inspection, the report considers how history teaching might respond to these challenges.

The critical question is where is history in schools actually going? Concerns that it is being squeezed in primary schools are nothing new but there seems to be a growing trend to condense Key Stage 3 into two years. History should be savoured not force-fed! There also seems to be a revival in the issue of the relevance of the subject to the world today. If that means providing a historical context for things that are going on now, then that's not a problem and is something history teachers have been doing for centuries. If, on the other hand, it means joining the 'political correctness brigade' and accepting all the ideas expressed by that benighted corp, then that flies in the face of history as a critical consideration of past and, by extension current events. Take, for example, global warming. Should historians be considering it in their lessons? Certainly. Should we be looking critically at the science and whether global waarming is a result of our actions or merely a change in weather patterns similar to others that have occurred over time? Definately. While scientists may be right about the causes of global warming, there are individuals who disagree and, as history teachers we should be examining this. We should be doing what all good history teachers do: consider the evidence critically before coming to a conclusion and recognise that conclusions in history are, by their very nature, tentative.

Chartist Lives: Thomas Allsop


He was born on 10th April 1795 and baptised on 20th November 1795 at Wirksworth, Derbyshire, the son of William Allsop, farmer, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Harding, of Stainsborough Hall, near Wirksworth, a property which belonged to his grandfather. Allsop was educated at Wirksworth grammar school, and though originally intended to follow his father’s profession, a desire to see more of the world led him to abandon farming for the experience of London. At the age of seventeen he entered the large silk mercery establishment of his uncle Mr Harding at Waterloo House, Pall Mall, where he remained some years. Ultimately he left for the stock exchange, where he made a fair amount of money during the early years of railway construction.

Allsop attended Coleridge’s 1818 lectures, and was so impressed that he addressed a letter to him. Coleridge found it so ‘manly, simple, and correct’, that he asked to meet Allsop, and consequently established a friendship that lasted all the life of the poet, Coleridge becoming a frequent guest at Allsop’s house. On the poet’s death, in 1836 Allsop published his most considerable work, entitled the Letters, Conversations and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge. The collection’s main virtue, that it was a product of an editor greatly devoted to and friendly with Coleridge, is also its main defect, as Allsop interpreted many of Coleridge’s comments in light of his own character, and his edition therefore ran counter to the general impression of the poet. This was seized on by the reviewers of the time and the finer points of Allsop’s recollections went unremarked. It is impossible, however, to read Coleridge’s letters and not perceive the personal value that he set on Allsop’s companionship.

Allsop included other literary figures in his social circle; his wife worked to make their home attractive to her husband’s friends, and it became a favourite resort of Charles Lamb, Barry Cornwall, and William Hazlitt, among others. Lamb’s letters and Thomas Talfourd’s Memorials of Lamb record a high personal estimation of Allsop, reflected in the fact that Lamb asked Allsop to be an executor of his will, in a letter dated 9th August 1823. Other visitors to his home included men as dissimilar as William Cobbett, Giuseppe Mazzini, and the emperor of Brazil, who, after a visit to Coleridge’s grave, sent Allsop an expensive silver urn engraved with words of personal regard.

Allsop’s foresight in the area of public affairs, as well as on intellectual matters, was demonstrated in his Budget of Two Taxes Only, addressed to the then chancellor of the exchequer in 1848. His last work was California and its Gold Mines in 1852–3, mines which he during two years personally explored. The book consists of letters addressed to his son Robert, after the manner of his friend Cobbett’s letters to his son James. While Allsop’s letters display remarkable practical judgement, similar to that of Cobbett, there is a brightness and vivacity of philosophic reflection in them without parallel in commercial reports.

Allsop’s political sympathies were radical; when Feargus O’Connor was elected member for Nottingham, Allsop gave him his property qualification of £300 p.a. in land, then necessary by law, that Chartism might be represented in parliament. When on a grand jury about 1836, Allsop startled London by informing the commissioners at the Old Bailey that he should think it unjust ‘to convict for offences having their origin in misgovernment’, since society had made the crime, and he considered the state culpably insensitive to the condition of the people. He despaired of amelioration from the influence of the clergy, and, when needing a house in the country, stated in an advertisement that preference would be given to one situated where no church or clergyman was to be found within five miles.

Deploring the suppression of France under Napoleon III, Allsop, like Landor, entertained and showed sympathy for Orsini. On the trial of Dr Bernard for being concerned in what was called the ‘attempt of Orsini’, it transpired that the shells employed were ordered by Allsop in Birmingham; but as he used no concealment of any kind and gave his name and address openly, it did not appear that he had any other knowledge than that the shells were intended as an improvement in a weapon of military warfare. The government offered a reward of £500 for his apprehension, when George Jacob Holyoake and Dr Langley had an interview with the home secretary, and brought an offer from Allsop immediately to surrender himself if the reward was paid to them to be applied for the necessary expenses of his defence, as he did not at all object to be tried, but objected to be put to expense without just reason. The reward was withdrawn and Allsop returned to England. By reason of his friendships, his social position, and his boldness, he was one of the unseen forces of revolution in his day, and his sentiments are instructive. His favourite ideal was the man who was ‘thorough’, who saw the end he aimed at, and who knew the means and meant their employment. He had a perfect scorn for propitiation when a wrong had to be arrested. Without expecting much from violence, he thought it was merited when there was no other remedy.

On the night before the Chartist demonstration on 10th April 1848, Allsop, being the most trusted adviser of Feargus O’Connor, wrote to him as follows from the Bull and Mouth Hotel, St Martin’s-le-Grand, London: ‘Nothing rashly. The government must be met with calm and firm defiance. Violence may be overcome with violence, but a resolute determination not to submit cannot be overcome. To remain in front, en face of the government, to watch it, to take advantage of its blunders, is the part of an old general who will not be guided like a fish by its tail. Precipitate nothing, yield nothing. Aim not alone to destroy the government, but to render a class government impossible. No hesitation, no rash impulse, no egotism; but an earnest, serious, unyielding progress. Nothing for self, nothing even for fame, present or posthumous. All for the cause. Upon the elevation of your course for the moment will depend the estimation in which you will henceforth be held; and the position you may attain and retain will be second to none of the reformers who have gone before you.’

Yet in these seemingly revolutionary fervours Allsop was none the less in many ways still a conservative, and only sought the establishment of right and justice. He adopted no opinion which he had not himself well thought over, and he expressed none of the truth and relevance of which he was not well assured in his own mind. Allsop died on 12th April 1880 at Castle Park Gardens, Exmouth, and his body was removed for burial on 17th April to Brookwood cemetery, Woking, in order that Holyoake, to whom he left autobiographical papers, might speak at his grave, which could only be done on unconsecrated ground.

The major sources for Allsop are: T. Allsop Letters, conversations and recollections of S. T. Coleridge, 2 volumes, 1836, P. Fitzgerald (ed.), The life, letters and writings of Charles Lamb, 1876, volume 3, pages 79–102, G. J. Holyoake Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens, 1881, pages 189–90, T. N. Talfourd Memoirs of Charles Lamb, ed. P. Fitzgerald, 1892, notes page 228n, T. Allsop California and its gold mines, ed. R. Allsop, 1853 and J. M. Wheeler A biographical dictionary of freethinkers of all ages and nations, 1889

Chartist Lives: W.E. Adams

He was born in humble circumstances in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 11th February 1832, the son of John Adams, a tramping plasterer, and his wife, Sarah, née Wells. He was raised by his widowed maternal grandmother, Anne Wells, and her three unmarried daughters, all of a radical political persuasion, at 250 High Street, from which dwelling they worked as washerwomen to Cheltenham’s wealthy residents. He was educated briefly and intermittently at a dame-school, a private seminary (Gardner’s academy) paid for by doing laundry work, and then, towards the end of 1844, at a Wesleyan day and Sunday school in Cheltenham; he was not religious later in life. In adult years, he attended evening classes of the London and Manchester branches of the Working Men’s College[1].

Adams started work as a bookseller’s errand boy, but in 1846 was apprenticed for seven years as a printer to the proprietor of the Cheltenham Journal. Before completing his indentures, he was chairing branch meetings of the National Charter Association, the Fraternal Democrats, and the People’s Institute, a literary and debating society that he founded. Apart from the works of Thomas Paine, the greatest political influence on him was the republican internationalism of Giuseppi Mazzini, whom he long afterwards spoke of as ‘the greatest teacher since Christ’. In 1851, he founded the Cheltenham Republican Association, came into close contact with the leading English disciple of Mazzini, the Chartist W. J. Linton, and raised funds to assist European refugees.

In 1854, Adams went to work as a printer on the production of Linton’s English Republic at Brantwood, a mansion beside Lake Coniston and future home of John Ruskin. When that journal ceased in 1855, he tramped to London, where he found work on the Illustrated London News and became active in Chartist–radical circles and debating clubs; here he participated in discussions that formed the basis of his pamphlet Tyrannicide: is it Justifiable?, which appeared on 13th February 1858. A spirited defence of Felice Orsini’s vain attempt to assassinate Napoleon III a month earlier, the pamphlet contributed to the hostile political climate that led to the fall of Palmerston’s government on 19th February 1858. The prosecution of the publisher of the pamphlet, Edward Truelove, caused a controversy about the extent of freedom of political discussion. John Stuart Mill, one of Adams’s supporters, made the affair the subject of a note in his second chapter of On Liberty in 1859.

Adams’s talents were recognised both by the secularist Charles Bradlaugh, for whose National Reformer he wrote radical–republican and anti-slavery articles between 1861 and 1863 under the pseudonym Caractacus, and then by Joseph Cowen jun., the Tyneside radical, industrialist, and newspaper proprietor, who employed him as editor of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle from 1864 until his retirement in 1900. Under Adams’s editorship, the Weekly Chronicle was transformed. Politically, the paper’s advanced radicalism, support for trade union rights, co-operatives, ‘Lib-Labism’ and internationalism, exemplified by Adams’s series of articles signed Ironside, earned it a reputation as the ‘Pit-men’s bible’. More generally, Adams succeeded in creating a family newspaper and magazine in one by including a range of special interests such as a ‘literary supplement’, antiquarian features, a ‘ladies’ column’, and a very large ‘children’s corner’ run by Adams himself as the avuncular Uncle Toby and centred on the ‘Dicky Bird Society’. Adams married Elizabeth Jane Owen Smith in London on 25th May 1858; they had two sons and five daughters.

As a lifelong radical and Mazzinian internationalist who laid stress on duties rather than rights, Adams came to deplore the emergence of socialism in the 1880s. Following serious illness and a tour of the north-east USA, the experiences of which were serialised in the Weekly Chronicle and then published as a travelogue entitled Our American Cousins, 1883; reprinted 1992, Adams largely abandoned politics. Instead, he used his editorial power to concentrate on a range of local cultural concerns and conservation interests. He was a founder member of the Newcastle Tree Planting Society, a campaigner for the spread of bowling greens for working men and parks for the people, a committee member and benefactor of the Newcastle Free Library (1880), and a tireless supporter of the preservation and collection of north-east folk music and literature. In June 1893, at a public ceremony in recognition of his public-spiritedness, Novocastrians presented him with a cheque for 450 guineas. Bad health forced him during the English winters to the warmer climes of Funchal, Madeira, where he wrote his Memoirs of a Social Atom, 1903. He died at the Bella Vista Hotel, Funchal, Madeira, on 13th May 1906 and was buried there. On the first anniversary of his death, a marble bust was unveiled in Newcastle Public Library by the miners’ leader Thomas Burt MP.

[1] Sources: Adams wrote an autobiography late in life: W. E. Adams Memoirs of a social atom, 2 volumes, 1903; reprinted with introduction by J. Saville, 1968. Further biographical information can be found in O. R. Ashton W. E. Adams: chartist, radical and journalist, 1832–1906, 1991, N. Todd The militant democracy: Joseph Cowen and Victorian radicalism, 1991, M. Milne Newspapers of Northumberland and Durham, 1971, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 15th May 1906 and Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 19th May 1906.

Chartist Lives: Introduction

One of the major problems facing historians of Chartism is precisely who they were[1]. Although we know a considerable amount about some Chartists, especially the regional and national leaders and some important biographical research has been published either as monographs or articles[2], there is still nothing approximating to a ‘collective biography’ of the Chartist movement[3]. This material[4] is not really an attempt to do this. It simply provides a set of unconnected biographies of key figures or at least some of those individuals for whom it is possible to produce a biography that goes further than a name, occupation or location.

Many of the leading Chartists wrote their own, frequently self-justifying autobiographies[5]. Though these often contain valuable information, their analysis of events is far from objective and, in some cases decidedly misleading. It is, however, important to recognise that memoirs and autobiographies may give inaccurate or jaundiced versions of events and people, and that they need to be used with caution and an open mind. The authors may well be unrepresentative of the membership as a whole, being more radical, committed, better educated or better off than the average member of the rank and file, most of whom would have had little if any education, and therefore been unable to leave any written evidence of their involvement in the movement. Nevertheless, Chartist reminiscences do have a place in the recording of the movement’s history. E. P. Thompson talks of ‘secret’ oral traditions emerging in the 1850s, when the last vestiges of ‘physical force’ Chartism was dying down[6]. This ‘secret history’, relying on memory and sentimentalism, and drawn on heavily by later nineteenth century historians like Frank Peel, can be useful in identifying local Chartists but, again, needs to be used with caution.

What do these biographies show? For Carlyle, heroes were set apart by their strength of character that let them shape events rather than simply react to them. This gave them a moral superiority capable of uniting people and acting as role models in a divisive society. William Lovett in his autobiography published in the 1870s reflected Carlyle when he wrote that[7] “They [the working classes] were always looking up to leadership of one description of another; were being swayed to and fro in opinion and action by the idol of their choice, and were rent and divided when some popular breath had blown that idol from its pedestal. In fact the masses, in their political organisations, were taught to look up to ‘great men’ (or to men professing greatness) rather than to great principles.” James Vernon argues that[8] “In a world devoid of the ‘stars’ of mass entertainment and organised sport, [political leaders] occupied a (possibly the) central place in popular culture, at once revered and reviled, loved and loathed.”

Political leaders quickly learned that they needed to present themselves in different ways to different people. They needed a sense of audience. The working class in the nineteenth century venerated their leaders as heroes and as potent icons. Birthday anniversaries, prison releases or simply a local visit were all sufficient reason for a celebration to honour the hero and shower him with gifts. A sense of devotion, commemoration and awe can also be seen in the ballads and songs. Oratory too encouraged the glorification of leaders. As James Vernon puts it [9] “Those blessed with the gift of the gab appeared natural leaders, their commanding presence on a platform, their ability to keep audiences enthralled, conveyed the impression of men in control of their own destinies, shaping, not reacting to the course of events.”

Marketing leaders was also important and this meant access to and ideally control of, their own newspaper or journal. Bronterre O’Brien, O’Connor and Ernest Jones all used their newspapers to get their particular messages across as well as to report their sufferings and successes to an absorbent national audience. This allowed a strong sense of personal familiarity to develop between leaders and the masses. The political memorabilia of the day – portraits, statuettes and figurines – illustrates the popularity of leaders as well as their iconic importance. This was the nineteenth century equivalent of today’s poster and it was often highly personal. The Morning Chronicle in 1849 that in Lancashire[10] “the people have a fancy for christening their children after the hero of the minute. A generation or so back, Henry Hunts were as common as blackberries – a crop of Feargus O’ Connors replaced them, and latterly there have been a few green sprouts labelled Ernest Jones.”

Yet leadership is an elusive and controversial concept[11]. Political leadership is something many today view with cynicism. Certainly the historiography of Chartism is saturated with historians who took a hostile view of the nature of Chartist leadership. O’Connor was, for example, at worst a demagogue, at best a democrat; Lovett a conciliator acting pragmatically to achieve his objectives. Yet the Chartist leader at whatever level was central to the development of the movement.

How can the historian characterise the Chartist ‘leader’? The archetypal leader was a ‘politician’ who sought the will and the welfare of ‘the people’. He saw himself as spokesman and leader of a social group from which he drew his energy and moral authority. He had faith in the integrity of the group he represented. He fed on group approval. Drama was essential. Roles must be played out. The task of the Chartist leader was easiest when agreement was clear, difficult when agreement was unclear and most difficult when that unanimity appeared compromised. In relation to this, image was of primary importance. The Chartist leader must maintain the group’s recognition of his authority, on this his credibility depended and ultimately his power and legitimacy as a leader. Different images of the leader – the father, the martyr, the fighter, the hero – were presented as and when necessary. Above all, the Chartist leader needed to ingratiate himself with his supporting constituency. He was, in part, a charismatic figure. He could not be completely charismatic, for the man of charisma imposes his values on the group rather than the other way round. However, his popularity was bound up in perceptions of the accuracy of his interpretation of the group’s values and aspirations. But the chemistry of group support was notoriously fickle and the actions of leaders could easily be misread. It followed that the Chartist leader was necessarily committed to a heavy schedule of personal contact with his supporters. He could not afford to neglect this nor could he afford to be aloof. He must be busily engaged in a continuous series of personal contacts. He must maintain and sustain consensus. This could prove difficult. The line between seeking and manipulating consensus was often difficult to draw. Group membership fluctuated and group values formed short-lasting unity. Better economic conditions, alternative social groups, fragmented ideology all contributed to the decline of support.

Classifying the leadership patterns within the Chartist movement is essential if the archetypal framework is to have real meaning. It is possible to see Chartist leaders in three major ways. First, there was an important geographical dimension. Leaders tended to be national, regional or local in their appeal to the working class. O’Connor is the classic example of a national figure pulling together the diverse elements in the movement. Regional leaders were significant within particular areas of the country with their own social and economic structures and political traditions. Joseph Rayner Stephens was primarily concerned with the north of England, William Lovett is perhaps best understood in relation to London, while Henry Vincent was characterised as the ‘Demosthenes of the West’ in 1839. Local leaders pose the greatest problem for historians. Some like Thomas Cooper in Leicester were their own publicists or like John Frost ex-mayor of Newport became national celebrities but most are little known. Yet, in their day, individuals like Joshua Hobson of Leeds played a major part in the development of the movement. Hobson had links with Richard Oastler with Robert Owen and with O’Connor. His Voice of the West Riding helps explain much in the Northern Star. Indeed, he was the main publisher of the Northern Star from its beginnings in 1837 until it was moved to London in 1844.
Secondly, it is possible to consider them in relation to particular leadership characteristics. It is important to recognise from the outset that these ‘types’ are not all-inclusive. An individual may straddle two or more of the different categories. It is possible to identify four main leadership characteristics in Chartism:

  • Ideologues. These individuals provided the theoretical foundation on which Chartism was built. Three are particularly important: Bronterre O’ Brien, George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones. O’Brien and Harney both based their theorising on the achievements of the French Revolution and saw the mission of the working class as the working-out of the logical completion of the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. O’Brien took Robespierre as his model while Harney opted for Marat. O’Brien translated Buonarotti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiration des Égaux; Harney called himself the ‘Ami du Peuple’ and sported the ‘bonnet rouge’. O’Brien supported the nationalisation of land and, by extending the principle to all monopolies of capital as well as land, became a pioneer of collectivism. Harney became a leading exponent of internationalism on a proletarian basis and published the first English edition of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Ernest Jones took a Socialist route, at least in the 1850s when he became the white-headed boy of British Marxism.
  • Activists. Those individuals who were good at the type of organisation required for handing a local or regional group. Their talent lay in organising things in a practical rather than theoretical way. They were able to take into account the realities of human nature and fluctuating enthusiasm. They were determined to keep things going and, in addition, were sensitive to the way things were going.
  • Communicators. Those who were good at communicating with others either face-to-face or through some other medium. Henry Hetherington, James Watson and George Jacob Holyoake fell into this broad category.
  • Leaders. Those who like taking responsibility and making decisions. Those who found leadership a natural role rather than an opportunity to exert a power they felt they needed. In many respects leaders are good at making things happen providing the direction and determination to get things done as well as the skill to overcome obstacles. It is a personality skill more than an intellectual one. What Walter Bagehot wrote of the character of Sir Robert Peel, “the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man” applies equally to Chartist leaders. Reynolds Miscellany proclaimed as late as 1848 that “Feargus is irresistible. He has great declaratory powers but he is wholly destitute of original ability. He declaims admirably; but he would not do for debate. He has vast energy…and energy always tells well in a speaker, especially a popular speaker.”

Finally leadership and membership were fluid in the Chartist movement. They changed over time. There were significant differences between who were the leaders and members of Chartism in 1839, 1842 and 1848. Though some individual leaders, like O’Connor, were involved in all three phases, others like Attwood had passed from the scene and most were involved in only one or two of the movement. This lack of political continuity, rather than the quality of management itself, may help to explain some of the inadequacies of leadership during the course of the movement.


[1] The most extensive general discussion of the question ‘who were the Chartists?’ is to be found in Dorothy Thompson The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution, Aldershot, 1984, pages 91-236. Christopher Godfrey Chartist Lives: The Anatomy of a Working-Class Movement, New York, 1987 is a more detailed study. I have included a brief discussion of some of the methodological problems faced by historians in my Broadening horizons: Chartism and the colonies, volume 2, chapter 15.
[2] The major monographs include the following. On William Lovett see, David Large ‘William Lovett’ in Patricia Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, Edward Arnold, 1974 and Joel Wiener William Lovett, Manchester University Press, 1989, the best modern biography. O’Connor died in 1855 before he could write his own account of events. Contemporaries from Lovett onwards and historians from the first study by Gammage have been overwhelmingly hostile to O’Connor’s achievement. James Epstein The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement 1832-1842, Croom Helm, 1982 sought to redress the balance. Alfred Plummer Bronterre: A Political Biography of Bronterre O’ Brien 1804-1864, London, 1971 is the standard work on this enigmatic figure. A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: a Portrait of George Julian Harney, London, 1958 remains the best biography. Ambrose G. Barker Henry Hetherington 1792-1849, London, 1938 remains the only modern biography. Michael S. Edwards Purge This Realm. A Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens, London, 1994, pages 38-106 deals with Stephens ‘Chartist years’. William Dorling Henry Vincent: A Biographical Sketch, London 1879 remains the only detailed but dated study of his life. Stephen Roberts Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain, Lampeter, 1993 provides an excellent study of Robert Peddie, a leading figure in the Bradford rising. David Williams John Frost: A Study in Chartism, Cardiff, 1939, reprinted New York, 1969 is a key biography from a historiographical perspective. John Saville Ernest Jones: Chartist, London, 1952, Miles Taylor Ernest Jones, Oxford University Press, 2003 and Owen R Ashton W. E. Adams: Chartist, Radical and Journalist, Bewick Press, 1991 are the most valuable biographies of later Chartists. Raymond Challinor A Radical Lawyer in Victorian England: W. P. Roberts and the struggle for workers’ rights, I. B. Tauris, 1990 provides an interesting middle class perspective. Paul Pickering and Owen Ashton Friends of the People: Uneasy Radicals in the Age of the Chartists, Merlin Press, 2002 contains biographies of six radical leaders including Peter McDouall and Henry Solly.
[3] There are two reference works that have proved invaluable: Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, 11 volumes, Macmillan, 1972-2005 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 1 1770-1830, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1979 and volume 2 1830-1870, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1984.
[4] This material has been put together gradually over the last decade, though it has been thoroughly revised in the past few months to take account of material in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 60 volumes, Oxford University Press, 2004.
[5] Three important autobiographies are: first, William Lovett Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876 is Lovett’s autobiography. The 1967 edition prefaced by R.H. Tawney is an edited version. Secondly, Thomas Cooper The Life of Thomas Cooper, 1872, reprinted with an introduction by John Saville, Leicester University Press, 1971 is a major autobiography by a key player in 1842. Finally, Brian Harrison and Patricia Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery Radical and Chartist, London, 1979 introduce an annotated selection from Lowery’s writings.
[6] Frank Peel The Risings of the Luddites, Chartists and Plugdrawers, Cass, 1968 reprint of 1895 edition, page xiv.
[7] William Lovett Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876, references to 1967 edition prefaced by R.H. Tawney, page 75.
[8] James Vernon Politics and the People, Cambridge, 1993, page 251.
[9] Vernon Politics and the People, Cambridge, 1993, page 253.
[10] Quoted in Dorothy Thompson ‘Women and Nineteenth-Century Radical Politics’: a Lost Dimension, in Juliet Mitchell and Anne Oakley (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, London, 1976, page 122.
[11] Christopher Hodgkinson The Philosophy of Leadership, Oxford, 1983 is a valuable study of the principles underpinning leadership.

One Year On

It's a year to the day since I retired from teaching. Thirty-four years in front of countless students teaching them History and latterly Citizenship as well. Did I enjoy it? Well, surprisingly given the press coverage of the number of teachers wanting to leave the profession, yes...every day. Do I miss it? I expected to as I always enjoyed it so much, but no. The transition from working to retirement can be difficult but I am enjoying retirement so much and have so many things to do (now when I want to do them) that being in front of a class seems a lifetime away. Certainly I miss talking with my fellow teachers, the debate on educational issues and even some of the students but I don't miss the job. As a friend said to me at her retirement party last week 'we've had our time' and I think I agree. Not that teaching has changed, it's still about getting students interested in your subject and through that developing their ability to learn (about themselves, their lives, priorities and choices as well as the subject itself). Not that league tables and regular inspections have restricted my ability to educate students as well as teaching what they need to get through. Not even the increasingly pointless dictats from central government about how to teach. It's just that being a teacher used to be a vocation, a way of making things better for generations of students and now it's a profession, a job just like everything else. This must sound as if I'm opposed to change...far from it. What we need is not the tinkering of cosmetic change and the bleatings of successive Education Secretaries about this week's initiative or that but radical change.

So why start a blog now? I've been thinking about it for long enough and thought it was time I 'bit the bullet'! The focus will be on History though I expect I'll comment on current affairs as well...there's some much to comment on! It will also give me a platform for developing ideas about History and especially my particular interests (Chartism and the Normans) and extend the materials contained on my website: http://uk.geocities.com/richardjohnbr@btopenworld.com/

So I hope you find it useful!