Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: London 1

London was not a centre of new industry but a centre of traditional domestic and craft industries: glass, pottery, furniture, silks, and handloom weaving and so on[1]. Chartism in London reflected traditional English radicalism dating back to Cartwright in the 1770s and the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s[2]. Apart from the building trades and the brewing industry, much of London’s employment was in small units, geographically dispersed in small workshops. There were over four hundred different trades requiring different skills and offering different rates of pay. London was the world of declining craft industries. Artisans were the backbone of London Chartism[3]. Silk handloom weavers were the largest single group but other artisans were also involved. There were no factory hands in London. The plight of the silk weavers in Spitalfields played a part in London Chartism. O’Connor called them, “the originators, the prop and support of the Chartist movement”.

A radical tradition existed in London by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

  • In the 1760s and 1770s, John Wilkes and the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights (SSBR) argued for radical parliamentary reform.
  • Major Cartwright published his Take Your Choice in 1776 calling for political reform.
  • Artisan radicalism played a central role in the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s and in the mass platform after 1815[4].
  • In the early 1830s, London was the most important centre of reforms, with experienced leaders[5].
  • Newspapers, like The Times with a national readership were published in London.

Distress certainly existed in London in the 1830s.  There was increasing competition from the Lancashire cotton industry.  There was widespread and increasing mechanisation and an influx of cheap Irish labour. Both threatened the existing trades with ‘dilution’ (loss of wages and, more importantly, loss of status).  Wages in some trades had fallen from 25/- per week in 1800 to 5/- per week in 1838.  Politicians saw Chartism as nothing new but merely a continuation of the radical tradition in a time of distress. On 20th January 1840, the Morning Chronicle said, “The Chartists are composed principally of shoe-makers, a few tailors, and carpenters”.

The London Working Men’s Association (LWMA)

William Lovett, Francis Place and Henry Hetherington formed the LWMA. It continued the eighteenth and early nineteenth century tradition of philosophical radicalism and they believed in constitutional reform as the answer for all social and economic ills. Reason was to rule all arguments and actions. They were moral force men.  They were concerned about the skilled artisan, not the factory masses and appealed to the “intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country”. Many members of the LWMA wanted reform before the Charter was drafted and so movements in the trade cycle did not influence them. Factory workers dismissed the London Chartists as ‘middle-class agitators’. Certainly, the respectability of artisans, often were associated with Nonconformity, helped them in their dealings with the middle classes but hindered their dealings with the factory workers. They did not understand factories or factory hands and so had nothing in common with the north of England. The artisans objected to machines per se, which made it difficult to create a sense of unity between artisans, domestic outworkers and factory hands.

London was not so active in the first and second phases of Chartist for two main reasons.

  • Because levels of employment in London were not subject to violent fluctuations in the economy as towns were in the north. Not all trades prospered or were depressed at the same time; hence, there never was one great mass of people suffering hardship at the same time.
  • Because of its size. In 1841, the population of London was about two million. London’s working population was too big to act as a unity. In addition, it was divided into different areas by local government and geography. In reality, London was a number of towns, not one. Delegates from the provinces who attended the 1839 Convention were disappointed at the lukewarm atmosphere in London.

The LWMA supported optimistic Owenite Socialism. They had a strong belief in education and self-help and believed that the talents of working class men would surface, given the chance. Perhaps they were too optimistic and over-estimated the abilities of the working classes but their approach indicates the literacy of the membership of the LWMA. Henry Hetherington was a London printer who believed in cheap literature, especially newspapers. In 1821, he became involved with the first Owenites and in 1824 was associated with the founding of the London Mechanics’ Institute. He was also a leading member, with William Lovett, of the British Association for the Promotion of Co-operative Knowledge and the Metropolitan Trades Union. During the Reform Act Crisis in 1831, he formed the National Union of the Working Classes with Francis Place to spearhead the working-class campaign for a real Reform Bill.

In 1819, the government strengthened the newspaper stamp law to suppress publications such as Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, Wooler’s Black Dwarf and Richard Carliles’s Republican. The result was to force up prices and restrict legal circulation but actually encouraged an ‘underground’ press. In 1830, several publishers led by John Doherty in Manchester and William Carpenter[6] in London openly challenged the law by publishing cheap unstamped papers. On 31st July 1831, Hetherington followed suit by printing the 1d Poor Man’s Guardian. At its peak, the Poor Man’s Guardian sold 16,000 copies a week and had a wider readership. It has been estimated that for every paper published, at least twenty-five people read it, or had it read to them. The unstamped press flourished in London and the provinces. It gave working class radicalism a sense of purpose and fostered organisations, besides establishing a common sense of purpose by buying an unstamped (and therefore illegal) newspaper, contributing pennies to support those imprisoned for selling it or volunteering to go to prison

In 1834, a London jury declared the Poor Man’s Guardian to be legal but a slightly improved economic position undercut the impact of the paper in any case. In 1835, the Stamp Duty was cut from the 4d (set in 1815) to 1d. This allowed the ‘respectable’ press to compete with the working class press. Edward Royle comments, “The extraordinary thing about the Chartists is that they did manage to support one such paper, the Northern Star, against all the odds”.  James Bronterre O’Brien who became the editor of the Poor Man’s Guardian soon joined Hetherington. O’Brien established himself as the foremost theorist of working-class radicalism; he preached class-consciousness and political and economic rights for the workingman. He also tried to put the class struggle into its European context. The LWMA developed from the earlier activities of its leaders. Lovett was its secretary. Hetherington was the treasurer. The LWMA was intended to be exclusively for London working class men. The 1799 Corresponding Societies Act prevented the LWMA from setting up branch associations, so the newly formed, nationwide local associations were independent of the LWMA, although they were often founded because of the LWMA’s missionaries and propaganda.

The history of London’s working-class movements is to be sought in its trade societies and in the world of taverns, clubs and friendly societies[7]. Chartism in London grew out of the richness of artisan club life, not out of a ready-made mass movement for factory reform or the abolition of the Poor Law Amendment Act. London’s organisation peaked in 1842: by 1848 with the accession of Irish support, London produced more energy and posed more of a threat to government than it had in 1839.

London was essential to the success of Chartism because it was there that the government was centred. The disappointing level of the Chartist response in London was widely discussed during the 1839 Convention. “Unless the metropolis be set working, all agitation elsewhere is useless. ...A demonstration in the streets of London comes before the very eyes of those who make the laws. An atmosphere of agitation here does not dissipate without first involving the two houses of legislation in its influence. A hundred demonstrations in the country are only heard of through the newspapers.”  Lovett tried to liaise with radical MPs like Hume and Burdett, to gain parliamentary support: a rare example of Chartists trying to link with middle and upper class men. However, radical MPs opposed trade unions although they supported parliamentary reform. This created a split between London and northern Chartists because it seemed that the LWMA also opposed trade unions. Lovett was open to severe criticism for this from, for example, Feargus O’Connor. Lovett was not concerned because he was more interested in individual self-help, which was less popular in the north. His attitude did lose northern support for the LWMA because the north was keen on trade unions. O’Connor exploited northern fears that trade union activity could become secondary to political activity.

The LWMA’s philosophy was limited because it was the end of the eighteenth century radical tradition and had little in common with the north or northern Chartists. The LWMA leaned consistently to a policy of working with men of any class who were prepared to help them to achieve the People’s Charter. The LWMA was established in 1836 because of two things.  The ‘betrayal’ of 1832 taught the artisans to be independent of middle-class leaders.  The collapse of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union in 1834 left an opening for a political movement, if it emphasised the necessity of making basic political reforms (with which the working classes agreed) rather than social reforms and theories (upon which they differed). The LWMA intended to concentrate its energies on securing political reform and appealed to public opinion. The LWMA was extremely small. The total number of members admitted between June 1836 and 1838 was only 279. Its object was to agitate for four things.

  • Parliamentary reform
  • Freedom of the press
  • A system of education
  • The collection and publication of information on social and industrial problems

 

Year

Date Event

1836

26th June

LWMA founded
 

October

LWMA had already adopted resolutions containing five of the six points of the Charter

1837

24th January All six points were embodied in a Charter prepared for submission to the Commons
  January

East London Democratic Association was founded by Harney

  28th February First LWMA meeting
 

March

LWMA missionary activity began. By the end of the year, they had founded over 100 Associations. Worsening of the economic situation
  31st May/ 7th June Statement of the six points was issued by a meeting of 6 LWMA members and 6 radical MPs

1838

April

The LDA was reconstituted in opposition to the LWMA

 

May

The People’s Charter was published

1839

27th January Charter newspaper was published in London
  4th February General Convention met in London
  13th April

Democrat newspaper was published by Harney in London

  10th July

The Convention returned to London from Birmingham

1842

12th April

National Convention met in London

 

Francis Place, the Charing Cross tailor, was also heavily involved in the LWMA. He kept a radical bookshop in the back room of his workshop. He had successfully worked for the repeal of the Combination Acts (1824). He set up the National Association for the Protection of Labour, an attempt at a trade union to help the working class men to help themselves. He campaigned for the 1832 Reform Act hoping that the working class would get something from it.


[1] Two recent studies of London provide the necessary context: Roy Porter London: A Social History, Penguin, 1996, especially pages 239-278 and Francis Shepherd London: A History, Oxford University Press, 1998, pages 250-320.

[2] On the radical history of London see, John Stevenson (ed.) London in the Age of Reform, Blackwell, 1977.

[3] David Goodway London Chartism 1838-1848, Cambridge University Press, 1982 is a major study of London.

[4] J. Ann Hone For the Cause of Truth: Radicalism in London 1796-1821, Oxford University Press, 1982 supports the view of continuity between working class radicalism in the 1790s, during the French wars and after 1815.

[5] D.J. Rowe ‘London Radicalism in the Era of the Great Reform Bill’, in John Stevenson (ed.) London in the Age of Reform, Blackwell, 1977, pages 149-176 is useful on this issue. D.J. Rowe (ed.) London Radicalism 1830-43, London, 1970 is a valuable collection of primary materials from the Place Manuscripts.

[6] William Carpenter was born in 1797 in London. He was a printer/editor, an ‘unstamped press agitator and later a ‘moral force’ Chartist. He was the editor of The Charter, in 1839-40. He left London for New York in 1850s but returned home after short stay ‘with hard luck stories for the London press’. He died in London in 1874.

[7] Peter Clark British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World, Oxford University Press, 2000 contains a massive amount on the development of societies in London.

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