Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: The West Country

This was an agricultural/rural area where there was a cloth trade and cottage industry elements. The development of technology meant some job losses, so poverty existed in many areas. Bath, an eighteenth century spa town, was the centre of a declining tourist industry.

In March 1834, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were convicted under the 1797 Illegal Oaths Act and were sentenced to seven years’ transportation. In August 1837, Samuel and George Morse-Bartlett and Anthony Phillips founded the Bath Working Men’s Association[1]. It advocated universal manhood suffrage and a secret ballot. In 1838, the Bath WMA adopted the Charter. In November 1839, a torch light meeting attended by 3,000 people was held in Trowbridge and on 1st April 1840, Vincent addressed a large meeting at Devizes. The Charter and National Petition were adopted. Four thousand people attended, but a hostile group set upon the Chartists with stones and bludgeons. Vincent was knocked senseless and the anti-Chartist mob seized the Chartists’ banners. The Chartists barely escaped alive. This violence effectively put a stop to public meetings of Chartists in this area but some Chartists then armed themselves and rioting occurred: many Chartist leaders were arrested.

George Morse-Bartlett was a reporter, dogmatic speaker, convinced democrat, republican and mainly a moral force man. William Young, a Bath jeweller and pawnbroker; was a physical force man. John Moore was “as determined a Chartist as any in the West” and bridged the gulf between the physical and moral force elements. He was treasurer of the Trowbridge Working Men’s Association in 1838 and became sub-treasurer of the National Charter Association in April 1841.

During its ten years of activity, Chartism gained hardly any hold in the rural areas of Somerset and Wiltshire[2]. The amount of activity was limited because of a “deep suspicion of the urban mob by countrymen.” Where Chartism did exist, cloth was manufactured and a technological revolution was in progress that caused distress to some workers. Chartists were a very mixed bunch: farmers, lawyers, clerks, handloom weavers, and parsons. Chartism started in a phase of violence and depression but became more stable and highly organised later. Women attended early Chartist meetings and a Female Radical Association was set up in 1840. Many Chartist chapels were also set up in this part of the world. Vincent came to Bath and started a stamped Chartist newspaper, the National Vindicator.


[1] R.S. Neale Bath 1650-1850: A Social History Routledge, 1981, pages 367-380 examines Chartism in the town.

[2] R.B. Pugh ‘Chartism in Somerset and Wiltshire’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartism Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 174-219 examines developments in this area. Roger Wells ‘Southern Chartism’, Rural History 2, 1991 reprinted in John Rule and Roger Wells Crime, Protest and Popular Politics in Southern England 1740-1850, Hambledon, 1997, pages 127-152 is a valuable corrective.

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