Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Leicester

There was a remnant of Luddism, centred on Leicester and Loughborough and the craft industries. Its strength came from the economic plight of the hand frame knitters[1]. Domestic industry was unable to compete with the factories. Leicester Chartists had no sympathy for or with Yorkshire woollen or Lancashire cotton Chartists because they had nothing in common with them[2]. It was a small movement, more akin to the London silk-weavers. They objected to the industrial revolution per se. The problems came from mass-production and factories superseding crafts.

In 1836, the Leicester Radical Working Men’s Association was formed from several strands of discontent: political disillusionment from the 1832 Reform Act; the struggle for the unstamped press; fear of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act; and, economic depression.  The Association had a programme for universal suffrage, secret ballot and triennial parliaments.  In 1834, the framework knitters’ attempt to form a union failed, and wages continued to fall. By the spring of 1838, they could earn 7/- for a full week’s work. Stocking weavers could earn 4/6d.  In February 1838, it was decided to re-form the union because in 1837 the new workhouse to accommodate 500 paupers was begun in Leicester. The horrors of the workhouse were visible to thousands of framework knitters who were intermittently or permanently unemployed. Also in 1838, the People’s Charter was launched, providing the necessary inspiration for Leicester Chartism. In August of that year the Loughborough Political Union was formed. It was a traditional radical organisation, but by October had 7,000 members. The Leicester Political Union was formed in October 1838 based on the six points plus grievances over indirect taxes, Corn Laws, Poor Law and mistrust of the middle classes

They appear to have believed that gaining the Charter would solve all these problems. On 19th November 1838, the Charter was official adopted in Leicester. O’Connor was the star speaker, but it rained. Two thousand people attended, carrying banners displaying slogans such as

  • Peace, Law and Order.
  • Labour is the source of all wealth
  • It is better to perish by the sword than by hunger
  • No Poor Law Bill
  • Away with oppression and justice for Ireland
  • The rights of the people and nothing less
  • The restoration of Poland
  • Liberty and Prosperity

They had a real medley of causes and it is difficult to determine what “Chartism” here meant. Leicester Chartism was a mixture of practical working-class grievances, Socialism and non-conformist liberal Christianity but November 1838 marked a break with the middle-class liberals. During the winter of 1838-9, there was violent language against the middle-classes in Leicester. There were also reports that Loughborough framework knitters were buying arms and raising funds to sent delegates to the National Convention.

Leaders of Leicestershire Chartism

John Markham initially was a shoemaker, then an auctioneer and furniture broker. He was self-educated, shrewd and level-headed. He was probably the most statesmanlike of the Leicester Chartists. He was not violent, although he could be provoked into violent language.

Thomas Cooper[3] went to Leicester from Greenwich in November 1840 to work for the Leicester Mercury. At that point, he had scarcely heard of Chartism but was appalled at the plight of the stockingers. He rapidly identified himself with Chartism and wrote a few articles or the struggling Chartists paper, The Midlands Counties Illuminator. He was dismissed by the Leicester Mercury for this. Cooper took over the Illuminator and became secretary of the Leicester Chartist Association. He began to conduct open-air preaching, lecturing and moved into journalism. There was a marked increase in Chartist membership from 460 in October 1841 to 732 by December 1841. Cooper was a Baptist preacher and cobbler by trade and had an insatiable appetite for all kinds of reading. Initially he supported O’Connor and was verbally violent; an intellectual Luddite but too violent for Leicester and not violent enough for the National Charter Association. He set up the Shakespearean Association of Leicester Chartists, which met in the Shakespeare Rooms in Leicester. It had c. 3,000 members by the end of 1842. In August 1842, at the same time as the Plug Plots, there was a turnout of colliers. Cooper was arrested in Manchester; by the time, he returned to Leicester the Chartist organisation had collapsed. He left Leicester for good in March 1843; he broke with O’Connor in 1845 over the Land Plan and joined Lovett’s education scheme.

John Skevington was regarded as the natural leader of Chartists in Loughborough. He appears to have used his influence to prevent violence. He was arrested in August 1842 and was blamed for causing coal strikes. His arrest caused a clash between the police on the one hand and the miners and Chartists on the other. Skevington was a Methodist preacher and a democrat. He died in 1850.

Many Chartist leaders were framework knitters: Finn was prominent in 1838 with his plan for co-operation between workers and employers to regulate conditions in factories; Buckley was the most active Chartist leader after 1846. Even Chartist leaders who were not framework knitters were fully aware of and sympathetic to the demands of the stockingers.

Further Developments

In 1842, the Chartists were split between Markham and Cooper although in August 1842 the mass strikes and meetings which were attended by 5,000 to 6,000. The Riot Act was read and stones were thrown at the Yeomanry. This caused the ‘Battle of Mowmacre Hill’. The strikes collapsed within a week. Chartist activity in Leicester declined after 1842 as it did elsewhere. However, although the turnouts, demonstrations and anti-Poor Law riots ended, the organisation remained intact.

In 1844, a public meeting was held, addressed by White, and the Chartist Adult Sunday school was formed. In 1846, Thomas Wheeler was sent as the Leicester delegate to the National Convention in Leeds and was elected as the secretary to the Convention. In addition, Feargus O’Connor’s Land Plan got enthusiastic support. The divisions healed after Cooper left and new leaders emerged: Henry Green (a grocer) and George Buckby (the framework knitters’ leader).

In 1848, there was a Chartist revival, with a meeting of about 80,000 people all of whom seemed to support the Charter. Buckby was sent as their delegate to the National Convention but there was another split between Markham and Green who wanted an alliance with the middle classes while Buckby and Warner who wanted to follow an independent physical force line. George Bown, a veteran radical for over fifty years, published Physical Force in which he advised workers to “get arms”. Police began arresting the leaders. Chartism continued for another five years (to 1853) with meetings, agitations and so on. Chartists became involved in borough elections and turned their attention to other and potentially more fruitful activities.


There is a close connection between Chartism and the framework knitters. There seems to be a direct link between the strength of Chartism and the state of the hosiery trade. This explains the importance of Chartism in Leicester during the trade depression of the late 1830s and early 1840s.  Local Chartist leaders were framework knitters and Chartism appealed to framework knitters because other ways of remedying their depressed condition had failed.  Legislation passed by the Whigs had failed the working classes.  Opposition to the Poor Law provided a strong link between the distress of the stockingers and support for Chartism. Religion was a common denominator in Leicester. Many Chartists were Nonconformists and Markham, Skevington, Cooper and Finn were preachers. The Chartist leaders used the Methodist ‘class’ idea for their groups.

[1] William Felkin History of the Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufacturers, 1867; 2nd ed., with introduction by S.D. Chapman, David & Charles 1976 is the most useful near-contemporary history of hosiery. F.A. Wells The British Hosiery Trade, London, 1935; 2nd ed., revised and extended, London, 1972 is the best modern study.

[2] J.F.C. Harrison ‘Chartism in Leicester’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartism Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 99-146 remains the most detailed examination. The book by A. Temple Patterson Radical Leicester. A History of Leicester, 1770-1850, London, 1954 is broader.

[3] Thomas Cooper The Life of Thomas Cooper, 1872, reprinted with an introduction by John Saville, Leicester, 1971 is a major autobiography by a key player in 1842. Robert J. Conklin Thomas Cooper the Chartist (1805-1892), Manilla, 1935 is the most recent full-length biography. Stephen Roberts’ work on Cooper is the most recent and accurate: ‘Thomas Cooper in Leicester 1840-1843’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, volume 61, 1987, ‘Thomas Cooper: Radical and Poet, c.1830-1860’, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, volume 53 (1), 1988, ‘The Later Radical Career of Thomas Cooper, c.1845-1855’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, volume 64, 1990 and ‘Thomas Cooper: A Victorian Working Class Writer’, Our History Journal, volume 16, 1990. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 155-159 is shorter.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting my ancestors were frame work knitters during this period. Thanks for the post,

Ned Newitt said...

You might be interested in my online Who's Who of Radical Leicester.


I have tried to collect together biographies of prominent trade unionists, chartists, radicals, reformers, socialists and co-operators from the last 200 years.

Its George Bown not Brown