Thursday, 10 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: London 2

In January 1837, George Julian Harney[1] started the East London Democratic Association (ELDA) in opposition to the LWMA. Harney and James Bronterre O’Brien[2] were alienated from the LWMA by its middle-class links, especially with Daniel O’Connell. The ELDA formed around Harney, O’Brien and O’Connor. In January 1837, with help from the veteran Spencean, Allen Davenport[3] and the radical tailor Charles Neesom[4], Harney began the ELDA to appeal to the depressed London trades. Its strength came from Spitalfields silk-weavers and East End dockers, the poor. The ELDA began to promote its moral and political position by disseminating the principles advocated by Thomas Paine. Like the LWMA, the ELDA developed out of the National Union of the Working Class[5].

For a time, relations with the LWMA were amicable, although their social compositions and areas of support were different. The ELDA claimed a membership of over 3,000 at the end of 1838. It had branches in the City, Tower Hamlets and Southwark. They met in public houses. The turning point seems to have been the Glasgow spinners’ strike, over which the Northern Star sided with the ELDA against O’Connell and the LWMA. O’Brien and Harney were physical force men who distrusted Place and the classical economists who appeared hostile to trades associations.

George Julian Harney was born in 1817, a cabin boy turned potboy. He was brought up in poverty. He was a bitter man with a desire for knowledge as a means of progress, thus he was involved with Hetherington and the unstamped press. He dressed like Marat[6]; his views were extreme republican; he was a militant ‘socialist’, almost a Jacobin. He said of the ELDA, “The Jacobin Club again lives and flourishes”. Harney advocated a revolution: “Your whole system requires revolution ... your commercial system requires revolution and nothing short of actual convulsion will effect a cure. Establish the Peoples’ Charter tomorrow, and the working man will not have one difficulty the less to contend with”.

He was certainly a pre-Marxist, internationally minded and wanted to create an international workers’ union. He was a friend of Engels. He organised Chartism in Sheffield, undertook lecture tours, and effectively was editor of the Northern Star between 1843 and 1850. He saw radicalism as a class struggle. In 1845 he founded the Fraternal Democrats, a European organisation. He also developed close ties between the LDA and Polish refugees.

James Bronterre O’Brien read for the Bar at Trinity College, Dublin. He was much influenced by Rousseau, Babeuf and Robespierre[7]. He reported for the Northern Star from London. With Harney and Ernest Jones, O’Brien sought an intellectual foundation for Chartism as a class struggle. He greatly influenced Harney, who was not born at the time of the French Wars and who was only fifteen in 1832 when the Reform Act Crisis was taking place.

In April 1838, the ELDA was reconstituted as the London Democratic Association (LDA) with an eight-point resolution covering the Charter and more. The LDA demanded the six points of the Charter as a right and the association attracted all kinds of people. It allied with the northern Chartists because the members of the LDA had little in common with the LWMA. There was thus a division in London Chartism because the aims, tactics and memberships of the LWMA and LDA were very different[8].


[1] A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: a Portrait of George Julian Harney, London, 1958 remains the best biography. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 227-233 is a useful, brief biography.

[2] Alfred Plummer Bronterre: A Political Biography of Bronterre O’ Brien 1804-1864, London, 1971 is the standard work on this enigmatic figure. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 375-383.

[3] On Allan Davenport (1775-1846), see Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 1: 1770-1830, Brighton, 1979, pages 111-113.

[4] For Charles Neesom (1785-1861), see Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 367-369.

[5] Jennifer Bennett ‘The London Democratic Association 1837-41: a Study in London Radicalism’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, Macmillan, 1982, pages 87-119 is the best study.

[6] Marat was an important leader during the French Revolution. He was assassinated by Charlottle Corday in 1793.

[7] Gwynne Lewis ‘Robespierre through the Chartist looking-glass’, in Colin Haydon and William Doyle (eds.) Robespierre, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pages 194-211 examines O’Brien and Robespierre in detail.

[8] David Large ‘London in the Year of Revolutions, 1848’, in John Stevenson (ed.) London in the Age of Reform, Blackwell, 1977, pages 177-211 assesses the strength of metropolitan Chartism and the responses of the authorities throughout 1848.

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