Thursday, 31 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and Slavery 'distinction without difference' 3

‘Moral radicalism’

Contemporary reformers in and around Birmingham were convinced that the Birmingham Political Union had led the popular movement that brought about parliamentary reform in 1832. For Thomas Attwood and his supporters what made this possible was the union of middle and working classes in the town. This union of all classes was, the BPU argued, based on the unity of interest of all the ‘productive classes’, a shorthand term for both manufacturers and workers. Whether valid or not, the myth of class collaboration as a means of achieving reform was a powerful one in Birmingham and it is not surprising that later attempts to draw together middle class radical and the more respectable elements of Chartism drew its inspiration from the BPU[1].

The precise relationship between political, ideological and social factors was, however, more complex than this suggests. The BPU may have proclaimed the success of the alliance of the working and middle classes, but there was considerable dissatisfaction among working people with the 1832 settlement. This contributed to the re-emergence of the BPU between 1837 and 1839 and Attwood’s somewhat pragmatic conversion to the programme of universal suffrage he had previously opposed. In many respects, Attwood was responding to changes in the local economy towards the increasing factory production of various trades, downward pressure on wages and fear of unemployment and under-employment[2]. This had led to developing economic conflict with employers and resentment at the exclusion of working class representatives from a share in the leadership of the BPU. The notion of a ‘unity of interest’ looked increasingly precarious by the middle years of the 1830s and collapsed completely in 1838-39 with the incorporation of Birmingham in late 1838 and the decision by BPU leaders to call in detachments of the metropolitan police in mid-1839 to control rioting crowds in the Bull Ring.

One of the strengths of middle class radicalism in Birmingham up to the late 1830s was that although it was bankers, manufacturers and businessmen who took the lead, they were able to draw on the support of those exponents of ‘moral radicalism’ among the town’s middle class. The attitude of ‘moral radicals’ was explicitly shaped by non-Anglican religious loyalties and their conviction of the possibilities of class harmony through class collaboration. This perspective was not grounded in any socio-economic analysis and they had no evident attraction to Attwood’s currency theories, but their presence in the BPU does seem to have made a difference. Attwood and his supporters were abolitionists and maintained this position after 1833 and they found common ground with the religious reformers over factory regulation and opposition to the financial claims of the Established Church.

The ‘moral radicals’ shared a number of the specific objectives of the Attwood group and the more general aspiration to class collaboration. However, by 1835, their views on class collaboration began to diverge from the emphasis of the BPU. A more distinctive moral radicalism was given voice in a new weekly paper, the Reformer and in its successor, the Philanthropist. In addition to their opposition to West Indian apprenticeship, support for freer trade, the ballot and further franchise reform, the moral radicals directed their views at the aspiration to respectability among the working class by advocating temperance and what was later called ‘rational leisure’. There was also a strong element of patriotism in their thinking. The duty of Christian reformers was to end corruption and they believed in ‘reform of every abuse from the throne to the poor house’[3]. This led to increasing tension with the BPU and the Philanthropist concluded before the end of 1837 that the BPU not longer commanded the support it had in 1832 and lacked the influence to turn the Whig government out and was simply hoping for something better from the Tories[4]. With the collapse of the Attwood-working class alliance by 1839, the moral radicals were best placed to establish a new union of the classes. Sturge certainly saw himself as leading any such alliance. The result was the eventual creation of the Complete Suffrage Union in early 1842.

The Complete Suffrage Union: the high point of co-operation

Was Sturge being politically naïve in believing that a Parliament elected by the people could be trusted to legislate for the people? Francis Place certainly had worries on this score. Sturge had, however, taken the moral high-ground of the right to the vote just as he had accepted the right of slaves to freedom irrespective of how that right might be exercised. This was apparent in the ‘Declaration’ he drew up to be circulated for signature. It articulated the principle that taxation without representation was tyranny and that the right to a ‘full, free and fair’ franchise was based on both constitutional and Christian principles[5]. By 1842, a provisional committee based in Birmingham had begun preparations for a conference in April.

The Birmingham conference in April 1842 launched the Complete Suffrage Union[6] amid high hopes for a successful coalition. It recognised the natural right to the suffrage and demanded the vote for every male aged twenty-one regardless of property qualifications, called for a secret ballot, annual parliaments and the payment of MPs. This was all condensed into a resolution for Sharman Crawford to introduce in the House of Commons. Lord Brougham agreed to launch it to the House of Lords and to present the memorial to the Queen. This showed that there was awareness among middle class radicals of the need for conciliation on their part. They announced that it was wrong to assume that a memorial embodying principles agreed on the preliminary discussions was intended to defeat the Charter. Nonetheless, the imprint of the outlook of moral radicalism and anti-slavery was clear in the minutes and records of the conference. The language of ‘political slavery’ was used widely and a proposed pattern of operation through correspondents, lecturers and missionaries, tracts and pamphlets as well as propaganda in religious periodicals such as the Nonconformist and the Eclectic Review was reminiscent of anti-slavery campaigns.

Many abolitionists rallied to support Sturge. Nonconformist clergymen were among the most active as many were already sympathetic to the ‘Chartist churches’ established among the working people. In this groups were: Edward Miall, J.H. Hinton of London[7], J.P. Mursell of Leicester[8], J.W. Massie of Manchester[9], Doctor John Ritchie of Edinburgh[10], Thomas Swam of Birmingham[11] and Henry Solly of Yeovil[12]. The most noted organiser of Chartist churches, Arthur O’Neill, worked with Sturge in Birmingham. Influential abolitionist ministers of the established church included Patrick Brewster and Thomas Spencer of Bath[13]. Spencer and Solly had the most direct contact with the working class. Scottish abolitionist supporters of Sturge included James Moir, John Ure, James Turner and Andrew Paton from the Glasgow area, Baillie Turner and John Dunlop of Edinburgh. Support also came from the League especially from Archibald Prentice, P.A. Taylor and Dr John Bowring as well as from Lord Brougham and Daniel O’Connell, prominent anti-slavery politicians. The moral radicals were also encouraged by the emergence of ‘new move’ Chartism; this was just the kind of respectable radicalism that was most likely to appeal to Sturge and his religious friends. Leading Chartists, including William Lovett, Henry Vincent (as the leading exponent of teetotal Chartism his attendance was immediately encouraging to temperance reformers among the moral radicals), John Collins and Bronterre O’Brien[14] who were already committed to the anti-slavery cause also supported Sturge.

There were, however, notable absentees. Colonel T.P. Thompson was sceptical of Sturge’s approach believing that Chartism would drag the CSU down. Edward Baines did not accept that it was possible to unite such a disparate collection of reformers effectively. In addition, Baines believed that, after 1832, the middle class electorate had to be preserved from being overwhelmed by the uneducated masses and for many years was opposed to the complete suffrage proposals or even household suffrage. Joseph John Gurney, probably the leading figure of the evangelical Quakers, was hostile to Chartist politics. This was largely the consequence of his views on American democracy that he experienced first-hand in the late 1830s. He believed that democracy was no good unless it was also a theocracy and he especially disliked the habit of oppressive popular violence in the democratic system.

What made the Complete Suffrage Union different from earlier attempts at class reconciliation was its acceptance of universal suffrage as necessary to forge a cross-class alliance. This posed a real problem for O’Connor and throughout 1842, while expressing personal respect for Sturge he consistently resisted any Chartist alliance with the CSU. The Northern Star opposed the formation of the CSU in April 1842 on the grounds that two national associations committed to universal suffrage could not co-exist. It was never likely that the O’Connorite wing of Chartism would embrace the moral radicalism that informed the middle class leadership of the CSU. O’Connor’s attitude remained ambivalent. The CSU was too closely associated with free trade and the Anti-Corn Law League to be acceptable. O’Connor initially conducted a fierce campaign against the CSU, which was obliged to adopt the Charter in all but name, but recognised the tactical advantage of an accommodation with middle class radicals and came out in favour of class collaboration in July 1842. This strategy of infiltration led to widespread Chartist support for Sturge when he stood for the open and radical constituency of Nottingham at a by-election in the summer. Although the contest was close, Sturge lost. O’Connor did not seek an alliance with the CSU but rather the incorporation of a section of the middle class into the Chartist movement. He told a Chartist meeting at St Pancras in September 1842[15] “We will stand firm and united – We will listen to no coalition, no half measures. Mahomet must come to the mountain…We are the mountain – we are the people.”

The points of the Charter were accepted but they were tied to a repudiation of physical force and an exclusive reliance on ‘a moral agency’. Although the Chartist members of the conference did not dissent from this, signs of future difficulties did emerge. Lovett and his allies would not budge on the Charter itself. No alternative definition of complete suffrage was acceptable. He argued that acceptance of the principles of the Charter without its name made the unity of classes less likely since the Charter had become a symbolic statement for working people. Miall and Spencer voiced the unease of some of the middle class radicals that the Chartists were trying to dictate the terms of the alliance and, as a result, the decision on the status of the Charter was postponed until the autumn.

There was nothing inevitable about the failure of collaboration, at least between the kinds of working class radicals in Birmingham and those present at the April conference. By late April 1842, there were fifty local associations and the CSU presented a rival parliamentary petition to that of the National Charter Association: it too was heavily defeated. The April conference had adjourned with the intention of meeting again in the autumn. However, the summer of 1842 saw widespread unemployment followed by demonstrations and arrests and it was this, more than anything else that destroyed the substantial common ground between middle and working class radicals. Consequently, the meeting was postponed until December. By the autumn, under pressure from Chartist hard-liners and by his failure to attract substantial middle class converts, O’Connor reversed his position and again attacked the CSU as ‘a League job’. A conference to try to determine a common programme was called to take place in the saloon of the Mechanics Institution, New Hall Street, Birmingham from 27th to 30th December 1842. Weeks of jockeying for position followed, with each faction trying to send the most delegates. O’Connor and other representatives of the NCA stood in the election to nominate delegates. This proved successful and O’Connor was elected as one of the six delegates for Sturge’s home town of Birmingham. The result was a conference packed with Chartist delegates despite prior agreement.

The irony was that everyone who attended the December conference agreed on goals but it foundered on naming the document through which those aims should be publicised. The middle class radicals insisted on the adoption of a 96-clause ‘New Bill of Rights’ for universal suffrage instead of the emotive ‘Charter’. This was an attempt to disassociate middle class radicalism from the anarchic confusion associated with O’Connor and his supporters. Things did not start well. Thomas Beggs, a Nottingham delegate, presented a series of resolutions, supporting the six points of the Charter, asking that the conference support “such means only for obtaining the legislative recognition of them as are of a strictly just, peaceful, legal and constitutional character” and take as the basis for discussion a Bill of Rights prepared by the council of the Complete Suffrage Union. The two measures were largely identical as both parties to the conference admitted, but there was an absolute deadlock over the term ‘Chartist’. Lovett, as leader of the Chartist faction at the conference, proposed in the interests of harmony that both bills be withdrawn or that both be considered clause by clause. But all attempts at conciliation failed, Lovett was not prepared to accept this and tactically (and temporarily) joined with O’Connor in substituting ‘Charter’ for ‘Bill’ and this was carried by the decisive majority of 193 to 94. When it became clear that the Charter had the support of the majority of delegates, Joseph Sturge resigned from the chair and withdrew from the conference with many of his supporters. Further splits followed as the conference went on, and by its end, the 300 to 400 delegates present at its opening had fallen to just 37. Neither side would accept the other’s conditions for joint action. Class collaboration was ended, the CSU was allowed to wither and O’Connor’s grip of the movement was tightened. The Birmingham Journal provided an apt summary of events: it was the old story of marriage on Monday, quarrels on Tuesday and divorce on Wednesday. The two partners had agreed on their affections but could not agree on the name of their child and so strangled it[16].

A falling-off of support?

The experiment with the Complete Suffrage Union was the high point of abolitionist co-operation with Chartism from the viewpoint both of the level of support and the degree of public commitment. Though there was a falling-off of support was caused by a sense of disillusion among some abolitionists and anti-slavery organisations, a significant number of individual abolitionists carried on the agitation for suffrage reform. Sturge continued to tour the country speaking for reform and his newspaper, The Pilot, advocated the franchise as basic to other reforms and necessary even to obtain the repeal of the Corn Law. Abolitionist MPs sympathetic to Complete Suffrage or Chartism in the 1840s included John Bowring, C.P. Villiers, Edward Miall, William Johnson Fox[17], George Thompson and Sharman Crawford. Other abolitionists continued to work through local politics, lectures and publications. Of particular importance were James Silk Buckingham, W.H. Ashurst[18], Albert Albright and his nephew Charles Gilpin, William and Mary Howitt[19], W.J. Linton, F.R. Lees[20], W.E. Forster, Thomas Spencer, Henry Solly, Samuel Roberts of Wales[21], James Haughton of Dublin[22] and several Scots including Patrick Brewster, John Ritchie, James Moir and Alexander Duncannon[23]. The Complete Suffrage Union survived in Scotland after it had died out in other areas,

The increasing sensitivity of British abolitionists to the justice of Chartist demands is reflected in the degree to which visiting Americans were drawn into discussions on the similarities between slavery and working class exploitation and thus into arguments about where priorities should lie. James and Lucretia Mott, John A. Collins, Charles Redmond and William Lloyd Garrison were all influenced by what they saw of working class conditions in Britain. Collins, for example was persuaded that the anti-slavery movement had helped open eyes to other oppressive systems and saw British society was resting on a dangerous structure just as American society rested dangerously on slavery. The late 1840s and 1850s brought an increased flood of American abolitionists to Britain, among them many blacks who were often appalled by the conditions of the British poor. Frederick Douglass, most prominent of all black abolitionists, specifically called himself a Chartist and lectured to large crowds that included working class people. In 1846, Douglass, Garrison and Henry C. Wright, all committed to Chartist principle, worked closely with British abolitionists. They preached in Chartist churches and Complete Suffrage gatherings.

At the same time, several Chartist leaders, notably Lovett and Vincent, strengthened their links with organised anti-slavery groups. Both took part in the formation of George Thompson’s Anti-Slavery League in 1846 and were active in that group’s efforts to pressure the Evangelical Alliance to refuse fellowship to visiting pro-slavery American clergymen. This interest in black slavery continued within the Chartist movement into the 1850s and this is a clear indication of the degree to which the two causes influenced each other. The success of the abolitionists in winning their fight for emancipation and against the apprenticeship system persuaded some Chartists to use their strategy to gain support. More importantly, the Chartists adapted the arguments against slavery for use in their own cause capitalising on abolitionist success in heightening the British public’s awareness of oppression. By equating working class exploitation with slavery, the Chartists forced many abolitionists to extend their vision.

Conclusion

It is easy to exaggerate the significance of Chartist links with the abolitionists. The range of responses to Chartism exhibited by anti-slavery reformers underlines the conclusion that there was no single set of abolitionist answers to working class grievances. Mass support for abolitionism in the 1830s, though it died away after 1838, co-existed with sympathy, ambivalence and much hostility among abolitionists towards claims for greater autonomy and greater influence by the leaders of Chartism. Above all, efforts by abolitionists to work with Chartists achieved very little. However, the abolitionists in general and Sturge’s supporters in particular anticipated the development of the more harmonious society that developed in urban and industrial centres in the late 1840s and 1850s. They also accepted that, if collaboration was to work, it required acknowledgement by the middle class of an equality of esteem as well as rights of working people and meant acknowledging that collaboration did not simply mean middle class leadership. This does not alter the reality of co-operation, which worked best where there was some convergence in attitudes and values between middle and working class radicals. When Oastler said that the causes of anti-slavery and Chartism were ‘one and the same’, he recognised the mutual influence that they had over each other. This was the achievement of class collaboration.


[1] Carlos Flick The Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain 1830-1839, Folkestone, 1978 and Clive Behagg ‘An Alliance with the Middle Class: the Birmingham Political Union and Early Chartism’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture 1830-60, Macmillan, 1982, pages 60-61, 67.

[2] Clive Behagg Politics & Production in the Early Nineteenth Century, Routledge, 1990, especially pages 158-222 is an invaluable revisionist study that challenges the standard interpretation of the social relations of production in the workshop sector especially in Birmingham.

[3] Philanthropist, 4th February 1836.

[4] Philanthropist, 21st December 1837.

[5] The Northern Star, 19th May 1842 facetiously objected to Sturge’s principle that all who were not a burden on the state should have the vote. This, said the editor, would exclude all the clergy, the upper class and most of the middle class.

[6] On the Complete Suffrage Union, James Epstein The Lion of Freedom, Croom Helm, 1982, pages 286-302 is the best examination of Chartist responses. Alexander Wilson ‘The Suffrage Movement’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 80-104 considers the 1840s and the 1850s with a useful section on the CSU. Alex Tyrrell Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain, London, 1987 is the standard biography

[7] Hinton worked with Sturge in organising the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and was editor of the British Emancipator.

[8] Mursell was pastor of the Bond Street Independent Chapel in Leicester and was active in the Reform agitation and the Anti-Corn Law League.

[9] Massie was an Anti-Corn Law activist and helped organise the Anti-Slavery League.

[10] James Ritchie of the Secessionist church in Edinburgh had taken part in the Scottish abolition movement since the organisation of the Glasgow and Edinburgh societies in 1833.

[11] Thomas Swan was a Baptist minister. He was an active member of the Birmingham Anti-Slavery Society and a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1843.

[12] On Solly, see his autobiography These Eighty Years, Or The Story of an Unfortunate Life, 1893. He was a relative newcomer to the anti-slavery cause largely because of the publicity surrounding the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. He went to Yeovil on his first Unitarian pastorate and was challenged by John Bainbridge, the local Chartist leader to explain how he could preach Sunday after Sunday about Christ and yet did nothing to relieve the crushing oppression of the poor and was persuaded by the Chartist arguments. He spoke for the Charter at the ministers’ conference in 1841 and was an enthusiastic support of Sturge and the CSU but was one of the few abolitionists who voted with Lovett to retain the name of the Charter against Sturge who wanted to discard it.

[13] Spencer, like Brewster was outspoken against the established church’s failure to meet the needs of working people and insisted that it was a Christian’s duty to be political in the cause of the oppressed. He spoke in favour of the Ten Hours’ Bill, the unjust tax system, the standing army and other unjust state institutions.

[14] O’Brien had attacked the limited sympathies of abolitionists in the 1830s but seemed to have revised his attitude by 1842 to the worth of working with those of the middle class who were more acceptable because they were not Anglican but nonconformist in religion.

[15] Northern Star, 17th September 1842.

[16] Birmingham Journal, 31st December 1842. Bronterre O’Brien put the primary blame for failure to agree on Thomas Spencer, J. Ritchie, Patrick Brewster and Lawrence Heyworth in British Statesman, 31st December 1842.

[17] Fox was interested in extending educational opportunities, women’s rights and Chartism though he disliked O’Connor’s approach. After the Chartist failure of 1848, he wrote Counsels to the Working Class, in which he argued for the need for co-operation between middle and working classes.

[18] William Ashurst was a radical London solicitor who championed the cause of the poor, the Charter and equal rights for women.

[19] The Howitts took over The People’s Journal and continued it as People’s and Howitt’s Journal. They were active in the Co-operative League and on behalf of Mechanics’ Institutes.

[20] F.R. Lees, who joined the Chartists, published The Truthmaker in which he frequently reprinted anti-slavery as well as Chartist materials.

[21] Samuel Roberts of Llanbrynmair supported numerous reforms including anti-slavery, manhood suffrage and education, abolition of the death penalty and disestablishment of the church. In 1843, he founded a monthly magazine Y Cronicl.

[22] James Haughton was one of the main leaders of the Irish anti-slavery movement. He favoured the suffrage for men and women as long as they were literate and not on parish relief.

[23] Alexander Duncannon was pastor of a Congregational church in Falkirk and was active in the Scottish abolitionist movement. He wanted a fusion of all reform groups including Chartism, anti-slavery, temperance and anti-capital punishment.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Did women have an Enlightenment?

Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (eds.)

Women, Gender and Enlightenment

(Palgrave, 2007)

768pp., £22.99 paper, ISBN 978-0-230-51781-3

Did women have an Enlightenment? Historians have long excluded women from the Enlightenment orbit. But images of ‘Woman’ loomed large in Enlightenment thought, and women themselves - as scientists and salonnières, bluestockings and governesses, polemicists and novelists - contributed much to enlightened intellectual culture. From Edinburgh to Naples, from Paris to Philadelphia, innovative minds of both sexes challenged conventional assumptions about female nature and entitlements, and imagined new modes of relating between the sexes. Viewpoints competed, with feminists utilising enlightened principles to argue for women’s rights while defenders of masculine privilege developed new rationales for male dominance grounded in Enlightenment science. This very important collection of interdisciplinary papers by forty leading scholars is a product of a research project on ‘Feminism and the Enlightenment 1650-1850: a Comparative history’ that ran for three years across the millennium. It combines searching historiographical essays with scholarly discussions of specific authors and covers questions of sex, gender and politics as they emerged in Enlightenment France, England, Spain, Italy, Scotland and the American Colonies. Each section had an authoritative introduction and the two concluding essays weigh up the entire volume. The cumulative effect is dazzling, in part because the repetitions and contradictions highlight the different ways in which events, ideas and personalities can be interpreted, depending on the particular focus. The scale of Women, Gender and Enlightenment, with its thirty-five essays, section introductions and biographies clearly demonstrates both the variety of the subject matter, but also the variety of approaches to this material.

Women in the Economy: Introduction

Between 1830 and 1914 there were significant and radical changes in many areas of British economic and social life. The critical question is whether there were parallel changes in the world of women’s work. This section explores this issue from a variety of perspectives[1].

Some general questions about women’s work

There are three major issues that can be raised from the outset about women’s work, especially that of the working class. First, the idea and practice of the sexual division of labour was seminal. For the most part women did ‘women’s work’ defined in terms of low wages. For example, in the Glasgow tailoring industry in the 1890s men were paid 3/6d and women 9d for making the same garment. Women had a reproductive rather than a productive role and as this reproductive work was unpaid society regarded it as having no economic value. This perception was translated into the labour market and a gender hierarchy of labour developed whereby women’s work was given a lower social and economic value than that of men. The sexual division of labour therefore split the working class along lines of sex. It split the unity of that class and often the enmity between the two groups was seen in trade union activity.

Secondly, women were regarded as a cheap reserve pool of labour that could be brought in and out of the workforce to suit the requirements of capital and/or the state. Finally, the Industrial Revolution brought about a decisive separation between home and work. In pre-industrial society women were engaged in production at home. Industrialisation sifted production into the factories or workshops and many women became factory workers or ‘sweated labour’. Cheap labour is a fundamental element of the capitalist mode of production and female labour was and is cheap labour. By introducing machinery and low-paid women into factories, manufacturers sought to break down many specialist tasks into a series of mechanical operations and so keep wages low. Many women were tied to the home yet in need of money to support themselves and their family. Some form of outwork or homework was often their only option. This was, and still is, a particularly exploitative form of employment. Much of this work was brought to the public attention by The Sweated Industries Exhibition of 1906 and by the widely publicised action of the Cradley Heath chain makers’ strike of 1910.

Many aspects of women’s work were controversial. Women, married or unmarried had always worked. However, by the mid-nineteenth century working wives and mothers were regarded as unnatural, immoral and inadequate homemakers and parents. These criticisms arose from contemporary assumptions about women’s work and indeed about the inherent nature and functions of women themselves. The problem historians face is that these assumptions were not always clearly expressed, were not universally shared and which were ambivalent and contradictory.

It is clear that the upper and middle class critics of working class women did not object to work as such. Most objections arose from the matter of the location of work and when women were seen working away from their proper sphere; that is, their own, or someone else’s home. This domestic ideology affected attitudes to women’s work throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Initially observable among the middle classes, it spread to sections of all classes, and to members of both sexes. These ideas not only affected those from upper and middle classes who criticised working class women for working outside their homes; they also had an impact on the attitudes of many working class men and women.

Many women saw paid work, not as an alternative to housework, but as a way of enabling them better to fulfil their duty as wives, mothers and homemakers. In general, however, working class women did not regard full time paid work as something they would undertake for all of their adult lives. Married women who, for financial reasons, were compelled to work rarely continued to work when the financial crisis had ended. It was poverty that drove many working class women into wage-earning work and it was widespread poverty that to some extent helps to explain men’s defensive attitude against women working. E.H. Hunt wrote of the period 1850-1914[2] ‘Men believed that a limited amount of work was available and suspected that allowing women to share work would cause some families to be without pay as a consequence of other families taking more than their fair share.’

For working class women there could be no clear distinction between the public and private spheres, however much ideally they would have liked there to be one. This confusion between private and public spheres can be seen in a variety of ways: women taking in lodgers or selling food from their back kitchens or acting as a domestic servant.


[1] The classic works are I. Pinchbeck Women Workers in the Industrial Revolution, first published in 1930, but reprinted in 1985 by Virago with an introduction by Kerry Hamilton and B. Drake Women in Trade Unions, London, 1921 reprinted by Virago, 1984. D. Thompson Women in the Nineteenth Century, The Historical Association, 1990, J. Perkin Victorian Women, John Murray, 1993, J. Rendall Women in an Industrialising Society: England 1750-1880, Blackwell, 1990, Judy Lown With Free and Graceful Step? Women and industrialisation in nineteenth century England, Polity, 1987 and Paula Bartley The Changing Role of Women 1815-1914, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996 are good, short introductions to the background of the subject. Jane Purvis (ed.) Women’s History Britain 1850-1945: an introduction, UCL, 1995 is an outstanding collection of essays. They should be supplemented by E. Roberts Women’s Work 1840-1940, Macmillan, 1987 and E. Richards ‘Women in the British Economy since 1700’, History, volume 59, 1974. For the post-1850 period see Jane Lewis Women in England 1870-1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change, Harvester, 1984 is a good introduction. S. Rose Limited Livelihoods: Class and Gender in Nineteenth Century England, Routledge, 1992 is a major study of the relationship between capitalism and women. A.V. John (ed.) Unequal Opportunities: Women’s Employment in England 1800-1950, Blackwell, 1986 is a useful collection of papers.

[2] E.H. Hunt British Labour History 1815-1914, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981, page 24.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and Slavery 'distinction without difference 2

Emancipation as radical stimulus

The passage of the Emancipation Act in 1833 provided an ideal opportunity to contrast what was being done for black slaves with the neglect shown to ‘white slaves’. Two features of the Act provided Chartists with ammunition to attack the government: the payment of £20 million compensation to slave owners and the apprenticeship system set up to prepare slaves for full freedom. This let Chartists point out that the government was doing more for black slaves than for white workers and that what was being done for slaves was at the expense of British workers. The Whigs were the focus for their attack but the Chartists also accused anti-slavery societies and anti-slavery leaders of hypocrisy. As in the case of the Poor Law, the propaganda seemed to put Chartists and abolitionists on opposite sides of the argument.

As soon as the Emancipation Act was passed, the Poor Man’s Guardian declared that the compensation money would be ‘extracted from the bones of the white slaves’ of Britain[1]. J.R. Stephens took the view that it was the labouring children who were paying the £20 million compensation so that adult black apprentices in Jamaica could enjoy an eight-hour day. Abolitionists exerted themselves in seeking enforcement of the Emancipation Act but they were, in general, unwilling to limit the hours for working children at home. The radical press repeatedly pointed out the conditions in which British apprentices lived and worked; how men in the army and navy were flogged much as slaves were; and, that after 1833 West Indian slaves had the prospect of complete freedom but that British workers had no such expectation. The impact on Chartism is evident in the words of the National Petition in 1838: ‘Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship to liberty, which has aggravated the painful feelings of our social degradation, by adding to them the sickening of still deferred hope.’[2]

In their attacks on the Whigs for compensating slave owners, the Chartists found that they had many abolitionist allies who argued that it was the slaves not the slave owners who deserved compensation. Immediately after the passage of the Emancipation Act, a protest statement to this effect was signed by many prominent abolitionists including Joseph Sturge. In parliament, Daniel O’Connell objected to both compensation and apprenticeship. The Glasgow Emancipation Society passed a resolution saying that all parts of the act should be fully enforced before any compensation should be paid and there were similar expressions of opposition from anti-slavery societies across the country[3]. Abolitionists were as outspoken in their opposition to compensation as were Bronterre O’Brien, Richard Oastler and Henry Hetherington. It was clear on this issue at least that Chartists and many abolitionists shared common ground.

The widespread support for emancipation meant that Chartists could not go too far in attacking the anti-slavery movement‘s shortcomings since this invited the accusation of being pro-slavery. Their strategy was to outflank the abolitionists by demonstrating that they were opposed to all types of slavery everywhere. This was apparent in ‘A Hint to Mr Buxton MP’ that appeared in the London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer edited by Henry Hetherington and in the Northern Liberator where the editor said that he hated slavery as much as anyone and blasted the House of Commons for voting to continue it under the guise of apprenticeship. Bronterre O’Brien, in a letter to the editor of the Northern Star, commended Brougham’s stand on apprenticeship but went on the recommend that if his Lordship really wanted to end slavery, he needed to look closer to home[4]. The dilemma the Chartists faced was that to call for the immediate ending of apprenticeship meant diverting efforts away from demands for manhood suffrage: the Northern Star actually came close to apologising for this[5]. Chartist newspapers took much the same position in emphasising that the issue was not a choice between chattel and wage slavery: O’Brien put it well when he wrote that to contrast white and black slavery was to create a ‘distinction without a difference’[6].

Beyond emancipation

Once apprenticeship in the West Indies was ended, anti-slavery activists were free to champion a new cause, Chartists sought to gain their support. Richard Oastler’s appeal in the Northern Star called on abolitionists now to help British working men ‘our cause being one and the same—they must now help us’[7]. Oastler recognised that the political momentum of the emancipation movement should be capitalised on and that loosening the shackles of black slaves would inevitably help loosen the bonds of white workers. It was, however, Joseph Sturge, the Birmingham Quaker abolitionist and a central figure in the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society who was critical in moving the debate towards an alliance to try to attain the Chartist goal of manhood suffrage[8]. He, along with several other abolitionists, was at the centre of the political manoeuvring between 1838 and 1842.

It is important to recognise that many Chartists had long been abolitionists and like earlier radicals such as Cartwright and Cobbett were fully aware of the indivisible nature of the issues of black and white slavery. William Lovett and John Collins were among the first to spell out its meaning for Chartism. When Lovett spoke of ‘Tyrants [who] delight to crush the yielding, suppliant slave’, he conjured up in one sweeping phrase images of slaveholding planters, factory overseers and upper-class bureaucrats[9]. Lovett, along with Hetherington and others, organised the London Working Men’s Association in 1836 and its ‘Address to the Working Classes of Europe’ posed the question: ‘Where, but from the ranks of labour, have the despots of Europe raised their fighting slaves to keep their brother slaves in awe’.[10] While in its ‘Address to the working classes in the United States’, though bemoaning that democratic America could tolerate legal oppression, reasoned that ‘Surely, it cannot be for the interests of the Working Classes that these prejudices should be fostered—this degrading traffic be maintained.’[11] John Collins, speaking at a Chartist rally in Manchester, said that the one stain on the Star-Spangled Banner was slavery which, like the slavery of children in England, did not proceed from her democratic institutions but from vestiges of aristocratic rule, words that were to be repeated in his and Lovett’s Chartism: a New Organisation of the People published in 1841..

Other abolitionists appeared at meetings of the LWMA and as a result were connected with the beginnings of Chartism. Daniel O’Connell’s relationship with Chartism fluctuated. He certainly played a significant role in drawing up the Charter though he soon fell out with Lovett and Hetherington over his attitude to trade unionism and especially the Glasgow spinners prosecuted in 1837. Even so, O’Connell defended his credentials as a friend of Chartism and continued to speak and write on the issue of slavery. He wrote in the Northern Liberator, ‘Yes, you are slaves so long as the law allows a ‘master class’ to have political privileges’[12].

The Charter was published in May 1838 and then presented to public meetings to gain mass support. Newspaper accounts show that anti-slavery supporters attended and sometimes played a leading role in these meetings. For example, in Glasgow[13], the first Chartist meeting on 21st May 1838 was chaired by James Turner of Thrushgrove, a long-time anti-slavery advocate. James Moir and John Ure, both member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society were also involved in planning meetings in the city. In the Midlands, August 1st was deliberately chosen as the date for a local demonstration to coincide with Emancipation Day in the West Indies so that speakers could capitalise on the opportunity to denounce slavery at home. The main speech was given by Henry Vincent[14], another Chartist leader who ascribed his political motivation to early anti-slavery convictions. One of the most important Chartist meetings was held in London in September in Palace Yard opposite Westminster Hall where Parliament was sitting[15]. Apart from Lovett, other abolitionists including T. Perronet Thompson and the Sheffield poet Ebenezer Elliott[16] spoke in favour of the Charter. The meeting thrust George Julian Harney[17], another Chartist who had long been an abolitionist centre stage in the movement. His growing involvement coincided with the evolving debate between the ‘moral’ and ‘physical’ force wings of Chartism. Most abolitionists preferred the ‘moral force’ approach because of their strong religious feelings and this put them on a collision course with Feargus O’Connor and his supporters.

The religious sentiments of abolitionists were most clearly expressed by the Reverend Patrick Brewster of Paisley who, as early as 1820 had used his pulpit to proclaim his support for the working class and their political aspirations. In his Christian and Socialist Sermons, he revealed the sufferings of the poor and the power of the rich[18]. He declared that having dared to seek justice for African slaves in defiance of vested interests, it was equally the duty of the people to seek justice in their own country. He believed it was Christian influence that had banned both slavery and the slave trade and he denounced the British ruling class and the laws that maintained unfair privileges. The suffering of slaves, including the white slaves of ‘Christian autocrats’, was greater in total, he declared, than all the suffering that came from social convulsions and insurrections against despotism. Though suspended from his pulpit for a year, Brewster held Edinburgh Chartists to a ‘moral force’ position while Glasgow Chartists joined the camp of the Scottish O’Connorite, Doctor John Taylor. The ensuing contest for leadership left the Scottish Chartist hopelessly divided[19].

The O’Connorite wing of Chartism was increasingly concerned by the divisive effects of ‘Christian’ attitudes towards labour’s problems. They also began to interrupt Anti-Corn Law meetings. From the Chartist point of view, this was not interruption of a good cause but a method of carrying the cause further than the narrow platform of one issue. By 1840, their disruptive tactic was extended to all meetings that did not give priority to the Charter. The World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in the summer of 1840 offered an excellent prospect because it led to local anti-slavery societies holding numerous meetings. There were attempts to take over anti-slavery meetings in Newcastle[20] and Norwich[21]: in Newcastle confrontation between Chartists and abolitionists was only avoided when the gas lights were put out but in Norwich the Chartists failed to substitute a resolution against slavery at home for one against black slavery in America. The largest disturbance took place in Glasgow in August 1840 when Chartists tried to take over the annual meeting of the Glasgow Emancipation Society[22]. These disruptions have been cited by historians as evidence of rivalry and antagonism with abolitionists though in fact Chartist disruption was a planned tactic used at public meetings of every variety. Certainly, this tactic alienated some abolitionists but the ensuing debates did result in other anti-slavery activists re-examining their views on and definition of oppression. Levels of hostility or sympathy towards Chartism co-existed within anti-slavery societies and families. For example, after the disruption of the Norwich meeting, the archdeacon acknowledged the necessity for anti-slavery societies to be aware of the needs at home as well as those abroad[23] while Anna Gurney sought to counteract Chartist influence by distributing bibles in the town.

Many abolitionists were torn between the competing appeals of Chartism and the Corn Law repeal. The middle class was especially concerned about direct action by Chartists and even Francis Place criticised Chartists for raising false hopes as they operated under the delusion that threats could move the government. Many abolitionists preferred to support the League or at least use it as an excuse for not backing Chartism. Repeal had the advantage of seeming less radical and more easily attained and was therefore a reasonable first step. Although many Chartists also favoured repeal, their conviction was that it would be only a half-way measure. Genuine improvement in working class conditions, they believed, would only come with political emancipation through manhood suffrage. It was from this position that Joseph Sturge sought to forge an alliance between abolitionists, Anti-Corn Law Leaguers and Chartists because he had no more fear of giving the vote to the people than he had of giving freedom to the slaves[24]. In reaching this conclusion, Sturge was influenced by what he saw as the need to defuse the growing tensions between middle and working classes in the wake of the Birmingham riots and the Newport rising in 1839 and as a result of his visit to the United States in 1841 on an anti-slavery mission. There he noted the relative comfort and prosperity of workers (other than slaves) and concluded that[25] ‘it is quite evident that the statesmen who would elevate the moral standard of our working population, must begin by removing the physical depression and destitution in which a large proportion of them, without any fault of their own, are compelled to drag out a weary and almost hopeless existence’. Sturge was afforded the opportunity of putting his ideas into practice with the publication of a series of letters on the necessity of bringing the classes into cooperation by Edward Miall[26], the editor of the London Nonconformist in the autumn of 1841[27].

Sturge’s chief rival in the competing anti-slavery societies, George Thompson, also decided in favour of coalition with the Chartists. Thompson was the leader of the British wing of the Garrisonians[28], while Sturge was affiliated to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Their agreement in principle meant that both abolitionist factions were now influenced by sympathy for and cooperation with Chartism. It could be argued that Chartism was the catalyst bringing the two factions into a new, though temporary spirit of co-operation. Both Sturge and Thompson were members of the Anti-Corn Law League and, as early as 1839, Thompson had suggested that the three groups (the League, the anti-slavery societies and Chartism) were pursuing issues that were all part of a single larger question. By the autumn of 1841, the consensus of opinion was that the Anti-Corn Law League could not succeed without the working class though it was not until 1842 that Thompson, rather apologetically, publicly joined the Chartists. Both Sturge and Thompson recognised the importance of public opinion in pushing government reform and now, together with Richard Cobden and Charles Villiers agreed that they must now show the government ‘that the masses are with us, or they will defy and defeat us’[29]. The British Garrisonian radicals and many of Sturge’s supporters in the early 1840s had concluded that, whatever their personal anxieties, class legislation was a fundamental source of evil in society.


[1] Poor Man’s Guardian, 6th July 1833.

[2] Quoted in R.G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, 2nd ed., 1894, reprinted Augustus M. Kelley, 1969, page 88.

[3] British Emancipator, 3rd January 1838 and The Reformer, 19th June 1835 both contain details of opposition among anti-slavery societies to compensation.

[4] Chartist attitudes were expressed in Northern Liberator, 17th April 1838 but also in issues between April and June 1838 and in the Northern Star, 10th March and 14th April 1838 and 8th November 1839.

[5] Northern Star, 26th May 1838.

[6] Northern Liberator, 8th November 1838.

[7] Northern Star, 5th May 1838.

[8] Sturge became directly involved with Chartism in Birmingham in 1839. He strongly objected to the presence of Metropolitan police used in July to deal with the meetings in the Bull Ring and whose presence arguably led to rioting. Sturge’s public stand in support of Chartist rights made him the object of Home Office surveillance for the next four years.

[9] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett…, 1876, page 107. He had been involved in the anti-slavery movement from the mid-1820s.

[10] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett…, 1876, pages 129-134, reference to page 132.

[11] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett…, 1876, pages150-158, reference to page 152.

[12] Northern Liberator, 28th October 1837.

[13] Alex Wilson ‘Chartism in Glasgow’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 251-253.

[14] William Dorling Henry Vincent: A Biographical Sketch with a Preface by Mrs Vincent, James Clark, 1879, pages 66-69 details Vincent’s experience as a youth in Hull where he heard a lecture by George Thompson that filled him with a ‘holy zeal’ to fight slavery and the slave trade and aroused his sense of personal responsibility for reform.

[15] On 16th October 1834, most of the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire. Only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel and the cloisters survived the conflagration. A Royal Commission was appointed to study the rebuilding of the Palace. The Commission decided that the Palace should be rebuilt on the same site and in 1836, after studying 97 rival proposals, it chose Charles Barry’s plan for a Gothic style palace. The foundation stone was laid in 1840; the Lords’ Chamber was completed in 1847, and the Commons’ Chamber in 1852 (at which point Barry received a knighthood). Although most of the work had been carried out by 1860, construction was not finished until a decade afterwards.

[16] Sheffield Iris, 8th January 1839. Elliott later broke with the Chartists believing that repeal of the Corn Laws should have priority.

[17] On Harney’s anti-slavery credentials see A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: A Portrait of George Julian Harney, Heinemann, 1958, pages 3 and 8.

[18] Brewster’s references to slavery in his Christian and Socialist Sermons, 1844 are especially on pages 8-10, 20-21, 32-33, 48, 54 and 58.

[19] Bronterre O’Brien in The Operative, 14th December 1838 blamed Brewster for the split and O’Connor in the Northern Star, 12th January 1839 called him a ‘political priest’ whose actions had played into the hands of O’Connell and the ‘vile Whigs’.

[20] Northern Liberator, 15th August 1840. The paper described the Anti-Slavery Convention as a ‘grand meeting of humbug’ representing the cant and insincerity of the ‘slave squad’.

[21] Northern Star, 26th November 1840.

[22] Glasgow Argus, 12th, 13th August 1840.The paper described the meeting degenerating into a ‘constant howl’.

[23] Northern Star, 26th November 1840.

[24] Birmingham Journal, 1st February 1840.

[25] Joseph Sturge A Visit to the United States in 1841, London, 1842, pages 102-3 and 147.

[26] On Edward Miall, see David M. Thomson ‘The Liberation Society 1844-1868’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 210-238.

[27] The articles appeared in the Nonconformist 13th October-1st December 1841 and were collected together by Miall the following year in the pamphlet Reconciliation between the Middle and Labouring Classes, Birmingham, 1842 with an introduction by Sturge.

[28] Widespread rejection of the anti-slavery programme in the United States forced abolitionists to reconsider their moral persuasion strategy. Many followed the lead of the Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and abandoned the churches, believing them to be hopelessly corrupted by slavery. Garrisonians also counselled Northerners to refuse to vote as a way of expressing disapproval for the ‘pro-slavery’ Constitution. The Garrisonians also championed universal reform, including temperance, pacifism, and extension of women's rights. Under Garrisonian control, the American Anti-Slavery Society committed itself to non-resistant political protest and advocated the dissolution of the union with slaveholding states.

[29] John Rylands Library, Manchester: George Thompson Papers, Notebook, 7th October 1841.

Monday, 28 January 2008

The Decline of the Family?

The impact of the industrial revolution and the employment of women caused considerable pessimism among many contemporaries like Richard Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury. According to Peter Gaskell the transition from domestic to factory system was nothing less than catastrophic: ‘a violation of the sacred nature of the home’. Leaving aside the polemic, two points are clear. First, the pessimistic critique stems from a contrast of the impact of factories with the presumed conditions of family life under the domestic system. Secondly, critics rarely went outside the textile industry in making comparisons. The problem was that the textile industry was not typical of work in nineteenth century Britain. It was highly mechanised and firmly based on division of labour. This significantly weakens the pessimist’s case.

The domestic system was based on an integrated family unit of reproduction, production and consumption. Patriarchal control and moral guidance were exerted over both wives and children. In this context the advent of the factory affected the ‘independent’ economic status of the family. Engels argued that it destroyed the pride and status of the breadwinner, now dependent on the factory earnings of his wife and children. Women were no longer able to carry out their domestic functions effectively and the family’s dietary needs suffered. Daughters were not instructed in the family virtues and were exposed early to sexual activity. The contrast was drawn, by Marx and others, between the artisan as an independent seller of his own labour and the slave-trader selling his own and his wife’s and children’s labour in the factory. Neil Smelser in his Social Change in the Industrial Revolution [1959] challenged this view of the breakdown of the family. He argued, on the basis of the Lancashire cotton industry, first that the separation of working class children from their families did not really begin until after the 1820s with the introduction of powered weaving. Secondly, technological changes between 1820 and 1840, especially the introduction of the self-acting mule[1] led to a redefinition of the economic functions of the textile family and sharply differentiated the roles of its members. Finally, mule spinning was very much a family affair with operative spinners hiring their own relatives as scavengers and piercers. This was codified in many early spinners’ trade union rules that attempted to limit recruitment to the kinship unit. As a result traditional family values were perpetuated. Smelser has not been without his critics but he raised an alternative view of the question of the family to the contemporary pessimism.

Assembling the basic features of family structure for this period may appear to be a straightforward task. There is much information in published census reports, social surveys and in descriptive and literary sources. The problem is that these sources do not always allow historians to answer the questions they want to ask. For example, we know that marriage was far more central to the matrix of family life than it had been in the early nineteenth century but we do not know why. We know that the average number of children born to each marriage between 1870 and the 1900s fell from just under six to just over three but we do not know precisely how far contemporary views of ‘the family’ were limited to parents and children[2].

Census information often equated ‘family’ with ‘household’. The number of household rose from just over 5 million in 1871 to fewer than 8 million in 1911. Average household size was about 4.75 persons, rising slightly between 1871 and 1891 and falling to 4.4 persons by 1911. At each census nearly 70 per cent of the population lived in medium-sized households of between three and six people. One-person households were rare throughout the period, though their number arose in the 1900s reflecting partly the new phenomenon of metropolitan ‘bedsitterland’ and partly the flight of younger people from the countryside. By 1914 nearly half the population lived in households where there was one occupant per room or less giving rise to the notion of ‘a room of one’s own’ as one of the touchstones of ideal family life.

Legitimate fertility
Census year

Per thousand women 15-44

1871 289
1881 281
1891 283
1901 221
1911 182
1921 126

 

Average family size

Census year

Family Size

1901

3.3

1911

2.98
1921 2.63

 

Working class family size remained high throughout the period. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century working class wives have often been characterised as fatalistic in their attitudes towards childbirth. The few working class women who have left a record of their conscious decision to limit their families usually mention the plight of their mothers as the decisive factor. It is not, however, sufficient to interpret the failure to limit fertility entirely to fatalism. The letters published by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1915[3] make it very clear that women with large families bitterly regretted it, chiefly because of the hard work necessary to sustain a large family. What comes across in the letters is an overwhelming ignorance about female physiology and sexuality; the difficulties of gaining access to information about contraception and family planning; and, a lack of privacy in their homes that would have made the use of female methods of birth control extremely difficult. The social taboo place on discussion of birth control and sexuality meant that little information was likely to be obtained by women.

Abortion was probably the most important female initiative in family limitation in this period, particularly among the very poor. In the 1890s and early 1900s the British Medical Journal traced the diffusion of abortion involving the use of lead plaster from Leicester to Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and though some of the larger Yorkshire towns. By 1914 abortion was common in 26 out of the 104 registration districts north of the Humber. Among northern textile workers poverty and the need to work probably played the most important part in the decision to seek an abortion, but it is also important to recognise that working class women saw abortion as a natural and permissible strategy. Withdrawal was undoubtedly the main method by which the decline in working class fertility was achieved. One of the main reasons for this was the cost of sheaths: 2/- to 3/- for a dozen when the average weekly wage for labourers did not rise above 20/- a week. Withdrawal was a cheaper method. It also raises the issue of women’s sexual dependency and that some degree of male co-operation was necessary.

If there was a reduction in fertility caused by the introduction of successful methods of family limitation, was it the result of initiatives by men or women or through co-operation between them? J.A.Banks in Victorian Values. Secularism and the Size of Families [1981] rejected the argument that fertility controls resulted from economically rational behaviour. The introduction of compulsory elementary education following the 1870 and Education 1880 Acts may have led to a re-evaluation of the cost of children. This legislation seriously reduced the contribution children could make to the family budget. Generally, however, there is little evidence of a link between male wage levels and fertility. For example, the size of agricultural labourers’ families, one of the poorest paid occupational groups, remained high. Banks stresses the importance of the development of a meritocratic career pattern for men and a resulting future-time perspective on the part of all the mainly middle class occupational groups whose fertility rates fell fastest during the late nineteenth century. The fertility rate of railway workers declined rapidly following the expansion of promotion hierarchies after 1880.

Research suggests that it was the occupational status and attitudes of the husband that was the dominant factor. Sidney Webb observed in 1905 that the thrifty of all classes were limiting their families. However, in attributing prime importance to male decision-making on birth control, Banks is dismissive of the part women may have played. It is perfectly possible to accept that male co-operation was needed for fertility to fall, while also arguing that the opinions of wives may also have had an important effect on husbands. Precisely who made decisions within the family is difficult to investigate today, let alone in the past. Yet the process by which family size was negotiated by husband and wife is crucial, especially when evidence suggests that the couples who were most successful in controlling their fertility between the wars were those who discussed the issue and reached agreement. Diana Gittins concludes that couples, whose worlds increasingly centred on the home rather than on the culture of the workplace or on the spouses’ respective circles of friends, most frequently achieved their ideal family size. The critical factor in limiting fertility appears to have been role-relationships within marriage. Where role-relationships were segregated, fertility rates tended to be high. However, where role-relationships were more integrated and the husband spent a significant part of his non-working hours with his wife and children, fertility was negotiated and consequently lower.

Middle class women found themselves in a less favourable position. At least working class women engaged in paid employment and there was ambivalence on the part of politicians and policy makers as to their behaviour in this respect. The separation of spheres was much more rigid for middle class women. Lydia Becker, a leading Victorian feminist, compared the position of middle class women unfavourably with that of working class women: ‘What I most desire, is to see married women of the middle classes stand on the same terms of equality as prevail in the working classes and the highest aristocracy. A great ladies or factory women were independent persons, the women of the middle classes are nobodies, and if they act for themselves they lose caste.’ The comparison failed to take account of the burden borne by working class women but Becker was rebelling against the notion that middle class women should be ‘kept’ by their husbands or fathers, brothers or other male relatives.

The home was the centre of the middle class woman’s world and she bore sole responsibility for its management. The interests and concerns of middle class men and women were often profoundly different. Both lived in their own insulated worlds, segregated from the other: the breakfast- or morning-room served as the ladies’ sitting room and the drawing room was where ladies received calls and took tea; the library, the study and the billiard room were male territory. Nor only were their worlds separate they were also profoundly unequal for the majority of middle class women were financially dependent in their husbands. The domination of the Victorian husband was reflected in law, and in emotional and sexual relations.

The vast majority of middle class Victorian women led an isolated and limited existence within a tightly knit family circle. By the 1890s the isolation of suburban life was beginning to become a characteristic feature of middle class women. It is difficult to build an accurate picture of what middle class women did in their homes. The notion of the perfect Victorian lady certainly did not apply to most middle class women who needed to pay great attention to household budgeting and routine to survive on between £100 and £300 per year. Much was sacrificed, even in the less well off households, to provide the domestic help necessary to achieve a certain degree of gentility. Middle class couples began to limit their families in the 1860s but whether this was a decision by the husband or wife is a matter of some debate. Patricia Branca maintains that middle class women were asserting control over their lives both by seeking the assistance of doctors and by deciding to use birth control. J.A. Banks, by contrast, suggests that the lead in fertility control was taken by men in professional occupations who were concerned not about the burden of childbearing but about the cost of childrearing. It is unlikely that middle class women would have been able to procure birth control literature on their own initiative. Nor was the middle class woman’s ready access to doctors likely to be of use in the search for birth control information, as many doctors believed that it led to serious illness.

Clergymen, expressing public outrage during the trials of birth control propagandists in the 1880s, were nevertheless clearly limiting their own numbers of children. The motivation of middle class family planning was complicated. The age of marriage remained high as couples waited to amass resources to sustain the ‘paraphernalia of gentility’. It was the births in the later years of marriage, which seem to have been curtailed in particular. Concern with the health of wives was one factor. The growing cost of running a middle class household was another, making it difficult to afford large families. With the rise of corporate business there was less need for large numbers of sons and nephews who now required expensive schooling rather than informal apprenticeship in the family firm.


[1] The ‘mule’ is a spinning machine. Samuel Crompton invented it in 1779-1780. It was called the ‘mule’ because it combined elements of two previous machines – James Hargreaves’ ‘jenny’ and Richard Arkwright’s ‘water frame’. It was, however, not until the early 1820s that Richard Roberts improved the efficiency and reliability of the mule.

[2] Jane Lewis (ed.) Labour and Love: Women’s experience of home and family 1850-1940, Blackwell, 1986 is a good starting-point on the experience of home and family. Penny Lane Victorian Families in Fact and Fiction, London, 1997 provides a novel analysis of the issues. Rosemary O’Day The Family and Family Relationships 1500-1900, Macmillan, 1995 takes a longer perspective. P. Branca Silent Sisterhood: Middle-class women in the Victorian home, Croom Helm, 1977 is an excellent study of middle class attitudes. J.A. Banks Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England, Liverpool University Press, 1964 and Angus McLaren Birth Control in Nineteenth Century England, Croom Helm, 1978 are valuable studies on this contentious issue. J.A. Banks Victorian Value: Secularism and the Size of Families, Routledge, 1981 is concerned with the implications of changing gender-ratios in the late nineteenth century and continues the argument about birth control. J.R. Gillis For Better, For Worse; British marriages, 1600 to the present, OUP, 1985, Constance Rover Love, Morals and the Feminists, Routledge, 1970, and in Pat Jalland Women, Marriage and Politics 1860-1914, OUP, 1986. Carol Dyhouse Feminism and the Family in England 1880-1939, CUP, 1991 looks at the politics of the family.

[3] M. Llewelyn Davies Maternity Letters from Working Women, 1915, Virago, 1978 demonstrated the strain of repeated pregnancies on women’s health and lives.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and Slavery 'distinction without a difference' 1

In the 1820s and 1830s, working class newspapers and journals were highly critical of members of the anti-slavery societies who were dedicated to freeing black slaves in the colonies and yet were blindly insensitive to the exploitation of white workers at home. It was difficult for many middle class abolitionists to equate wage slavery with chattel slavery. Yet the more they publicised the appalling conditions of slavery, the more likely it was that British workers would see themselves as caught in similar conditions. By the early 1830s, the leaders of working class radicalism recognised that it would be to their advantage to capitalise on the achievement of the abolitionists in awakening sympathies for the downtrodden and to do this by copying abolitionist strategies. Workers’ cries of enslavement, in turn, forced abolitionist attention to miseries at home. Since the late 1960s, studies[1] of the anti-slavery movement have increasingly demonstrated the extent to which abolitionists and supporters of reform for workers recognised their causes to be philosophically and pragmatically inseparable. However, there is little that considers Chartism and anti-slavery[2]. It is with this issue that this chapter is concerned.

From hostility to sympathy

The response of middle class abolitionists to the political claims of Chartism and to the plight of workers in the 1830s was as varied as the attitudes of working class radicals towards them. Some remained unsympathetic; others were concerned but did little concrete; and, many were involved in extending charity to the poor. Yet a surprising number of abolitionists went much further than this even though their analyses of the causes of and solutions to working class distress varied considerably. Some abolitionists were confirmed Malthusians concerned with reducing over-population; other advocated assisted emigration and home colonies to make the surplus population self-sustaining on the land; while many were supporters of the repeal of the Corn Laws that, they believed, favoured producers over consumers. There were few prominent abolitionists who did not favour increasing educational opportunities for the working class. The most radical position for abolitionists was publicly to endorse the Chartist programme and a significant number adopted this stance. Chartism created a political climate in which the developing arguments about the relationship between black slavery and white wage slavery came to a head. There was even a national debate about whether a slave or a factory worker was more oppressed. The immediate result was an intensification of the hostility and rivalry between abolitionists and Chartists and there were many attempts by Chartists to disrupt anti-slavery meetings. However, it was out of these spirited and often hostile exchanges that sympathies and a sense of common purpose slowly, if temporarily developed.

This process was aided by abolitionists and Chartists sharing some common political roots. Around 1800, many of the active members of the society to abolish the slave trade were also involved in calls for parliamentary reform and an extension of the franchise. Granville Sharp, for example, was well aware of the connection between black slavery in America and white slavery at home. He argued that as long as slavery remained in the West Indies, working people in general ‘would inevitably be involved by degrees in the same horrid slavery and depression; for that is always the base whenever slavery is tolerated[3]. His fear was that black slaves brought to England might create an unemployment problem that would threaten the jobs of free labourers that were already ‘approaching slavery’ because arbitrary legislation had gradually elevated property rights over personal rights[4]. Major John Cartwright was equally convinced that slavery in any form violated and degraded all humanity, a view expressed in a letter to Samuel Whitbread in 1814[5]: ‘Why the people of England should not stand forward with as much unanimity in defence of their own freedoms as that of the negroes, I must be slow to believe. It does not accord with my own experience and is contrary to reason’. Between the 1790s and the early 1830s, abolitionists had some success in obtaining support from the working class, largely though petitions and boycott campaigns and this provided a useful basis for cooperation between abolitionists and Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s.

Although radical writers such as William Cobbett talked of society in terms of ‘Masters and Slaves’ in the years after the end of the wars with France, it was not until the 1830s that ‘anti-slavery’ became a central feature of radical discourse. Richard Oastler[6] used the image of ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ when he confronted the issue of child labour in 1830: ‘The very streets which receive the droppings of an ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled (not by the cart-whip of the negro slave-driver) but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the over-looker….The nation is now most resolutely determined that negroes shall be free. Let them, however, not forget that Britons have common rights with Afric’s sons…’ The subsequent campaign for reform gained widespread support among working class radicals and among middle class humanitarians who recognised contradictions between calls for the end to slavery and the conditions under which many working people laboured. For example, on 6th October 1831, the Huddersfield Short Time Committee sent out a circular to all trade unions, sick-benefit clubs and friendly societies in the district: ‘Is it not a shame and disgrace that, in a land called “the land of the Bibles”, children of a tender age should be torn from their beds by six in the morning, and confined, in pestiferous factories, till eight in the evening? Ten hours a day, with eight on Saturdays, is our motto - may it be yours. Gentlemen, let us rouse ourselves from lethargy and carelessness, and rally round the principles of humanity, with an irresistible voice, demand the immediate curtailment of the hours of factory labour.’

Brougham, Martineau and the 1834 Poor Law: fighting for and against

However, it was the agitation against the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act that provided a rallying point for those who believed that working people were indeed slaves and no better off than the slaves in the West Indies or the United States. One of the central arguments against the institution of slavery was that it allowed families to be torn apart. This was not lost on the opponents of the 1834 Act with its segregation of husbands, wives and children in separate wards in the workhouse. English workers, like slaves lost control over their own family life, an analogy that spokesmen for the working class used to considerable effect. At a meeting in Manchester in 1836, Joseph Rayner Stephens waved a document that, he said, illustrated the revival of slavery in Great Britain: a bill of sale for a whole family forced to move from their home to work in a factory, a situation only made possible by the Poor Law[7]. The Operative reported that a ‘Children’s Friend Society’ had taken English children to South Africa for sale[8]. The Birmingham Journal satirised the ‘liberty’ of an English labourer as the privilege of migrating from a parish where he was barely provided for to one where he would starve[9]. Michael Sadler pleaded with his fellow MPs to give English children at least as much consideration as they gave to adult West Indian slaves. At a public meeting in support of Sadler’s Ten Hours Bill, people carried placards with such slogans as ‘No white slavery’ and ‘Sadler and the abolition of slavery at home and abroad’[10].

Radical anger turned particularly on those anti-slavery leaders who were members of the Whig government and had a hand in creating the new Poor Law. Henry Brougham[11] as Lord Chancellor and Nassau Senior who had a major role in drafting the law, were prime targets along with Harriet Martineau who J.R. Stephens called ‘their female assistant’. As well as being abolitionists, all were well-known Malthusians who believed that the working class must limit its numbers if conditions were too improve and it seemed to many radicals that the decision to segregate men and women in the workhouse was an inept attempt to enforce birth control. Certainly it was Senior[12] who advised Brougham that conditions in the workhouses should be as disagreeable as possible and it was small wonder that they were promptly dubbed ‘Brougham’s Bastilles’. The Northern Star thundered that Brougham had now joined the ranks of those peers who lived on the venality and prostitution of the country[13]. The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, published by Henry Hetherington included a striking cartoon of the greedy Brougham eating a bowl of squirming little people, one of them impaled on the fork he lifted to his mouth[14]. There was little here to suggest any middle way between the anti-slavery movement and the growing power of Chartism and no doubt that the close association of well-known emancipationists with the passage and defence of the Poor Law did little to improve the abolitionist image in the eyes of working class radicals.

This is unfortunate since Brougham and especially Martineau saw more good in Chartism than they have generally been given credit for. Brougham had a long association with radical causes: his long support for working class education, his defence of civil liberties, attacks on the Corn Laws, opposition to flogging in the army and navy, his support for Queen Caroline in 1820 as well as his record of opposition to black slavery need to be seen in relation to his support for the Poor Laws. Harriet Martineau privately questioned the genuineness of his populist sympathies and pointed to his inconsistency on many issues. Yet on several occasions, Brougham gave the Chartists cause to be grateful. In 1838 and 1839, when the agitation for the Charter was at its height, Brougham was praised by the editors of The Charter and The Operative[15] for backing suffrage extension and the ballot and he did support their National Petition. He also submitted petitions for leniency on at least two occasions: one for the Glasgow spinners sentenced to transportation in 1837 and another for the Chartists arrested in the riots in 1839. However, on other occasions, Brougham’s opinion was more half-hearted and equivocal.

Ironically, the same thinking that led Harriet Martineau[16] to defend the Poor Law formed the basis of his Chartist sympathies. Her goal had always been to help the poor to help themselves, especially through education. Her Malthusianism was rooted in optimism that once the working class recognised that their fundamental problem was over-population and surplus labour, they would limit their own numbers[17]. This underpinned her support for the Poor Law. However, since many families were dependent on child labour to stay above the poverty line, she argued that the only way to end this situation was to pay men higher wages. Though unwilling to declare that English workers were slaves, Martineau’s attitude to their plight was much influenced by her growing involvement in the American abolitionist movement. She concluded that slaves could only be taught to use their freedom if they were actually free and similarly concluded that British workers could only become independent and self-respecting if they were allowed to exercise their own judgement. Given her views, it is not surprising that she saw Chartism as a legitimate protest movement, one that demanded reform if Britain was to escape violent social revolution. From her viewpoint, it was not O’Conner and the Chartists, who were to be feared but Whigs and Tories with their political complacency and unwillingness to countenance further reform. But while approving Chartist goals, she deplored the demagogy of such ‘Tory agitators’ as O’Conner, J.R. Stephens and Richard Oastler and the actions of those Chartists who led the Newport rising.

The attitudes of Brougham and Martineau to Chartism were grounded in support for the aims of the movement while opposing the worse excesses of those Chartists who saw direct action as the only effective means of achieving their goals. Neither was prepared to approve of threats to public order and to property. When Brougham characterised himself as a one-step-at-a-time reformer, he was restating the abolitionist position that the emancipation of the slaves would take time and, by extension that achieving the demands of the Chartists would also take time. In that respect, he had more in common with the artisanal radicalism of Francis Place and William Lovett than the proletarian, ‘mass platform’ radicalism of O’Connor.

There were, however, other prominent emancipationists who, using the slave comparison joined the Chartists in attacking the Poor Law. Edward Baines, editor of the Leeds Mercury attacked the separation of husbands and wives in workhouses. Samuel Roberts, one of the anti-slavery leaders in the Sheffield area asked, in letters to the editor of the Sheffield Iris wrote: ‘And is England come to this? Now is there a country in the world where SLAVERY like this was ever submitted to?’[18] Lord Morpeth’s campaign for election to Parliament from the West Riding included promises to amend the Poor Law (something radicals later criticised him for not doing) and once elected he presented a petition from Bradford spinners that asked for a reduction in working hours. Richard Oastler was the most prominent abolitionist fighting the Poor Law. His anti-slavery dated back to his youth and by the 1820s he joined the drive for complete emancipation in the West Indies. It led directly into his growing awareness that, when he pleaded for the far-off slave, similar evils existed on his own doorstep. Oastler was never officially a Chartist and Samuel Roberts and Edward Baines remained stubbornly anti-Chartist but their involvement in campaigns against parliamentary bills and government policies helped to build up public interest in what Chartism had to offer.


[1] Howard Temperley British Antislavery 1833-1870, University of South Carolina Press, 1972 and Christine Bolt The Anti-Slavery Movement and Reconstruction: A study of Anglo-American Cooperation 1833-1877, Oxford University Press, 1969 mention that some abolitionists, notably Joseph Sturge, were not insensitive to working class interests but the relationship had yet to be studied in detail. Patricia Hollis ‘Anti-Slavery and British Working-Class Radicalism in the Years of Reform’, in Christine Bolt and Seymour Drescher (eds.) Anti-Slavery, Religion and Reform, Dawson Press, 1980, pages 294-315 restates the traditional argument of working class antipathy to the anti-slavery movement. David Turley The Culture of English Antislavery 1780-1860, Routledge, 1991, pages 182-187 and 190-194 makes clear links with Chartism

[2] G.D.H. Cole Chartist Portraits, Macmillan, 1940 included a portrait of Joseph Sturge in his biographies.

[3] Letter from Sharp to Mr Lloyd (Gray’s Inn) for Dr Drummond, the Archbishop of York, 30th July 1772, Granville Sharp Letterbook, York Minster

[4] This view was expressed in Granville Sharp An Appendix to the Second Edition of Mr Lofft’s Observations on a Late Publication entitles “A Dialogue on the Actual State of Parliaments”’, 1783 and The Legal Means of Political Reformation, 8th ed., 1797.

[5] Cartwright to Samuel Whitbread, 30th August 1814, printed in Frances D, Cartwright (ed.) The Life and Correspondence of Major Cartwright, two volumes, 1826, volume II, pages 80-83.

[6] Cecil Driver Tory Radical: A Life of Richard Oastler, OUP, 1946, pages 36-48. J.T. Ward  The Factory Movement 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1962 is the most detailed study though it has, in part, been superseded by R. Gray The Factory Question and Industrial England 1830-1860, Cambridge University Press, 1996

[7] Alfred [Samuel H.G. Kydd] The History of the Factory Movement from the Year 1802, to the Enactment of the Ten Hours’ Bill in 1847, two volumes, 1857, reprinted August M. Kelley, 1966, volume 2, pages 67-72 and 88-89.

[8] The Operative, 5th May 1839.

[9] Birmingham Journal, 13th January 1838.

[10] Alfred [Samuel H.G. Kydd] The History of the Factory Movement from the Year 1802, to the Enactment of the Ten Hours’ Bill in 1847, two volumes, 1857, reprinted August M. Kelley, 1966, volume 1, pages 198-199 and 254-255 and volume 2, pages 60-61.

[11] Brougham has been ill-served by biographers and historians have to rely on Brougham’s posthumous autobiography The Life and Times of Henry, Lord Brougham, Written by Himself and edited by his son, three volumes, London 1871-72. Chester New The Life of Henry Brougham to 1830, Oxford University Press, 1961 and Ronald K. Huch Henry, Lord Brougham: the later years, 1830-1868: the ‘great actor’, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993 are of variable quality. E.P. Thompson in his The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz, 1963, page 604 saw Brougham as playing a ‘ritual role’ in the radicalism of the period.

[12] ‘Letter of 14th September 1832, to Lord Chancellor Brougham on Poor Law Reform’, in Leon S. Levy Nassau W. Senior 1790-1864, David & Charles, 1970, Appendix X, pages 247-254.

[13] Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 31st March 1838.

[14] London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, 23rd April 1837.

[15] The Chartist, 19th May 1839; The Operative, 23rd December 1838 and 30th June 1839.

[16] On Martineau, see Vera Wheatley The Life and Work of Harriet Martineau, Fairtown, New Jersey, 1957, pages 103-105 and R.K. Webb Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian, Heinemann, 1960, pages 130-132.

[17] On this issue see: Elaine Freedgood ‘Banishing panic: Harriet Martineau and the popularization of political economy’, Victorian Studies, volume 39, (1995), pages 33-53.

[18] Sheffield Iris, 4th September 1838 and 11th December 1838.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Working-class Women

The extent to which the nature of work for labouring women changed has two dimensions that are historically and ideologically important. First, to what extent were changes in the nature of work, especially the development of the factory system, if significance in allowing women into the labour market as independent wage earners? Secondly, how far did this employment alter women’s role in the ‘domestic sphere’ and what impact did this have on the family?

Opportunities or marginalisation?

Ivy Pinchbeck, in her classic study of women workers first published in 1930, argued that economic changes between 1750 and 1850 transformed women’s employment opportunities. There was an increase in the availability of employment outside the home, improving women’s status and conditions and acting as a vital element in the destruction of the notion of the ‘family wage’. Valuable though Pinchbeck still is, several qualifications can be made to her basic thesis. The notion that the industrial revolution increased the participation of women in general outside the home is difficult to sustain. After 1820 female participation rates in the productive economy declined. In rural areas participation rates probably declined even earlier. The replacement of the sickle with the scythe played an important part in this process. The scythe was never used by women and led to them being reduced to the lower-status, lower-paid jobs of weeding or stone picking. The long-term depression in farming after 1815 and the high levels of male unemployment or under-employment exacerbated this situation. By contrast, however, in pastoral areas women’s participation did not decline and there may even have been an increase in real wages for women specialising in livestock, dairying or hay-making. In the north-eastern coalfields women ceased to work underground in the eighteenth century and none had worked below ground in Staffordshire, Shropshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire for some time before they were forbidden to do so by the Mines Act of 1842.

Levels of female activity varied according to area and occupation. The wives and daughters of migrant Scottish farmers astonished East Anglians in the 1880s by doing work that had been done exclusively by men there for almost a century. But few women found themselves emancipated in terms of having sufficient income to make themselves independent of either their parents or husbands. Contemporaries may have been impressed by the ‘freedom’ of the lasses of the mill towns who secured a reputation for flashy dressing and an undeserved one for sexual promiscuity. But they were not typical. In 1851 domestic service accounted for 37.3 per cent of female occupations [aged 15 or over], textiles 18.5, dressmaking 18 and farming 7.7 per cent. Most of these occurred in the home where constraints on emancipation were very real and where women’s wages were at a level that was assumed to be supplementary.

Male attitudes

Male exclusiveness largely explains why changes in social attitudes to women’s employment had remained largely unaltered by 1850. Traditionally, manufacturing skill had been associated with men and this had created a sense of male solidarity that extended beyond the workplace into community and home. Men’s struggles to maintain their skilled place in the workforce against machinery and against the encroachment of unskilled women was an important part of their efforts to maintain their social status within the community and their families. The sexual division of labour was a familial, customary and social construct rather than one largely determined by technical considerations. It was part of the social hierarchy established among activities: in male dominated society women’s tasks were considered inferior simply because they were carried out by women. The division of labour was an effect of the social hierarchy dominated by men, not its cause.

This patriarchal ideology was used to justify keeping women away from the new technology, as in a petition from the Staffordshire potters in 1845: ‘To maidens, mothers and wives we say machinery is your deadliest enemy ... It will destroy your natural claims to home and domestic duties....’ It also limited men’s incomes, as cotton spinner pleaded in 1824: ‘The women, in nine cases out of ten, have only themselves to support, while the men generally have families ... The women can afford their labour for less than men.... Keep them at home to look after their families.’ These contemporary criticisms of working women were based on an ideological consideration of a proper women’s sphere, not on a proper investigation of actual working conditions. With the exception of skilled artisans, whose status generally ensured an income sufficient to support a wife and family, most women in the working class worked not merely to ‘top up’ the family budget but to ensure basic levels of family subsistence.