Monday, 7 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Nottingham

During the middle of the eighteenth century, a large chartered hosiery company lost its privileges and a large amount of its trade went to Nottingham, which already was known for its production of both silk and cotton hosiery. Much of the labour was performed in domestic workshops. Between 1823 and 1849, the social and work situation of the handloom weavers and stockingers of Nottingham was reduced dramatically. Because of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the large-scale immigration of Irish workers who were moving in to English factories, there was mass pauperism among the people of Nottingham. Distress certainly existed and Sir Charles Napier blamed the Poor Law for the discontent in Nottingham in 1839. In the 1830s, the weavers and framework knitters tried to establish a union, which would put a halt to the decline in their earnings, but it was never an effective organisation[1].


The early leaders of Chartism in Nottingham were Dean Taylor, Henry Vincent, James Sweet and Charles Sulton. Dean Taylor and Henry Vincent were Chartist speakers who were said to have a “magical” effect and frequently they were interrupted by vociferous shouting. These two men played a vital role in creating a great popular feeling, a mixture of Christianity and Chartism.

James Sweet was a Nottingham shopkeeper and was a considerable asset to local Chartism and in fund-raising for the National Rent. Charles Sulton was the publisher of the Nottingham Review, which campaigned against the Corn Laws. He wrote of the ‘unparalleled mass of unrest, distress, privation and consequences among the poor’. Feargus O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham in the 1847 general election.

Development of Chartism

Taking their lead from the London Working Men’s Association, many Chartist organisations held weekly lectures and reading classes. In time some of these classes became separate debating societies whole others concentrated on building up extensive libraries and newsrooms with the help of donations from (Church) ministers, landowners and MPs. Nottingham Chartists developed educational provision[2].

Certain actions of the Nottingham Chartists could be seen as violent. On 18th January 1840, there was an attempt to seize the town hall, following the example set by Chartists in York. In 1842, it was reported that Nottingham Chartists were arming themselves. Rioting, resulting in four hundred arrests followed this. There was another side to Nottingham Chartists, for whenever money was needed for the National Rent, a fund set up to help supporters of Chartism who had fallen on hard times, or the ill, sick, victims and widows in need, there were considerable contributions from the town. The anti-Poor-Law campaign and the Anti-Corn Law campaign were often linked to Chartism and other radical movements in Nottingham. For example, an anti-Corn Law petition came from the ‘United Artisan and Mechanics of Nottingham’ in January 1838 although this organisation died out with the repeal of the Corn Laws.

[1] Malcolm Thomis Politics and Society in Nottingham 1785-1835, Blackwell, 1969 provides the necessary background.

[2] James Epstein ‘Some Organisational and Cultural Aspects of the Chartist Movement in Nottingham’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, Macmillan, 1982, pages 221-268 is a most useful paper.

1 comment:

christopher said...

Charles Sutton was editor of the Nottingham Review, but not during the chartist period. He was not a chartist.
Besides the men listed as notable chartists there were also Henry Dorman, William Lilley, James Woodhouse, Jonathan Barber etc,and women such as Martha Sweet, Eliza Blatherwick, Jane Abbott.
Malcolm Thomis should be balanced by the writing of Peter Wyncoll, the best local historical writer on Nottingham chartism.