Saturday, 25 July 2015

‘Revolutionary Chartists – From Whom May Heaven Protect Us’

This is a review recently published by Stephen Roberts on his excellent Chartism & The Chartists website

‘Revolutionary Chartists – From Whom May Heaven Protect Us’  – Cambridge Independent Press, 12 January 1856.

If you had been alive in the Victorian period you would certainly have known who the Chartists were.  This was a national movement.  In towns and villages across Britain working people gathered to read the Northern Star, collect signatures for petitions, organise marches and tea parties, listen to speeches by ‘missionaries’, paste up posters. Almost nowhere was impervious to the Chartist campaign.  You couldn’t even travel on a railway train without a Chartist demanding the Northern Star from the newspaper seller.  Of course, you might have been one of these Chartists.  If you were a weaver or a frame worker knitter or a wool comber, chances are you were. The Chartists were everywhere, demanding a say in law-making for working men.  And long after they were gone, they will still remembered … and feared.  Little wonder that, as late as 1856, the editor of the Cambridge Independent was still shaking in his boots at a return of the Chartists.

The publication of Chartist Studies, edited by Asa Briggs, in 1959 launched a flurry of research into the Chartist localities.  Whatever William Lovett and his friends were up to in London was for the time being set aside.  What was going on in Sheffield, Norwich, Brighton and a host of other places was what mattered now.  In the Amateur Historian Dorothy Thompson issued a clarion call for local investigations, offering guidance on how to frame that research and on the sources  that could be consulted (That essay has recently been reprinted in THE DIGNITY OF CHARTISM).  And so articles in local history journals and M.A and Ph.D theses began to appear.  Small saplings soon became dense woods.  As the years passed, we learned more and more about Chartist activities in the localities.  The peak of all this local research was in the 1960s and 1970s, but it continued after that point until we reached the point where we now are:  there is no local Chartist stone undisturbed.

Anyone who wants to read all these articles and theses will need to lock themselves in the stacks of a university library for a fortnight and make very good use of inter-library loans.  The material is that scattered.  The good news is that such extreme measures are no longer necessary.  Happily, Richard Brown has embarked on a two-volume project to survey all the Chartist localities.  The first volume has just been published.  CHARTISM: LOCALITIES, SPACES AND PLACES, Volume 1 examines London, East Anglia, and the Midlands.  The rest of the country will be covered in the second volume, due next year.  The first thing to say about this first volume is that it is extremely detailed.  Anyone interested in what the Chartists in Suffolk or Worcestershire or Derbyshire will  almost certainly find the answers they seek.  A notable strength of Brown’s work is the depth of his research.  Whilst he has, of course, delved into the many essays that have been published about local Chartism, he has also returned to the primary sources, particularly newspapers.  This first volume is an extremely useful addition to the study of Chartism. It is thoroughly-researched, clearly-researched and, above all, very handy.

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