Saturday, 6 September 2008

Two more Chartist biographies!

Stephen Roberts The Chartist Prisoners: The Radical Lives of Thomas Cooper (1805-1892) and Arthur O'Neill (1819-1896), (Peter Lang), 2008

The publication of Paul Pickering's biography of Feargus O'Connor earlier this year has been followed by an important study of two neglected but nonetheless important figures within the Chartist movement whose association began as 'Chartist prisoners'.  Thomas Cooper and Arthur O'Neill came to Chartist from different directions: Cooper as a journalist and teacher horrified by working class conditions in Leicester and O'Neill through the emergence of Church Chartism in which he played a dominant role in Birmingham.  Both were imprisoned in Stafford Gaol for seditious offences in 1843 and the friendship forged between them lasted until Cooper's death nearly fifty years later.    Though remembered as Chartists, both Cooper and O'Neill made major contributions in other areas of Victorian life and culture.  Cooper was a journalist and writer of some distinction and his The Purgatory of Suicides is one of the most underrated of nineteenth century working class epic poems.  His religiosity, evident in his youth, soon resurrected itself after 1850 and later in life he became a lecturer in defence of Christianity.  O'Neill worked with Joseph Sturge and Henry Richard for peace and international arbitration and attended several international peace conferences.  We know more about Cooper's life than O'Neill's: Cooper wrote his autobiography and many other things while historians have less concrete material from O'Neill. 

Stephen Roberts, an authority on Cooper, has woven their lives together with consummate skill.  It also examines in detail artisanal literary activities, the Peace movement in the nineteenth century and the role of Christian apologetics in Victorian Britain.  Written with quiet authority and a detailed understanding of both sources and milieu, this is an important book that makes an important contribution of our understanding of Chartism and its varied aftermaths.

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