Sunday, 8 July 2018

From Peace to Victory: Amiens to Waterloo 1802-1815

The Peace of Amiens, negotiated by Hawkesbury (later Lord Liverpool) and Cornwallis and ratified by Parliament in May 1802, received a poor press from contemporaries and subsequently from historians. The surren­der of Austria deprived Britain of any leverage in Europe and Addington accepted terms which recognised French predominance on the continent and agreed to the abandonment of all overseas conquests. Grenville and Windham regarded these concessions as a disgrace and refused to give the ministry further support. This opened a split between them and Pitt, who was still prepared to give Addington assistance. Viewed simply in territorial terms Amiens was disastrous but Addington and his ministers saw it as a truce, not a final solution. Britain had been at war for nine years and Addington, previously Speaker of the House of Commons, was fully aware of growing pressures from MPs and from the nation at large for peace. Canning, one of the most vehement critics of the Peace, willingly admitted that MPs were in no mood to subject its terms to detailed scrutiny and that they would have ratified almost anything.

NPG 5774; Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth


Amiens to Trafalgar 1802-1805

In the twelve months between Amiens and the inevitable renewal of the war, Addington made military and fiscal preparations that placed Britain in a far stronger position than it had been in 1793. British naval and military strength was not run down. The remobilisation of the fleet pro­ceeded well in 1803. Addington retained a regular army of over 130,000 men of which 50,000 were left in the West Indies to facilitate the prompt occupation of the islands given back in 1802 when the need arose. 81,000 men were left in Britain that, with a militia of about 50,000, provided a garrison far larger than anything Napoleon could mount for invasion in 1803. The 1803 Army of Reserve Act produced an additional 30,000 men. He revived the Volunteers, backed by legislation giving him powers to raise a levy en masse. This raised 380,000 men in Britain and 70,000 in Ireland and by 1804, they were an effective auxiliary force. Reforms by the Duke of York improved the quality of officers and in 1802, the Royal Military College was set up. Addington improved Pitt’s fiscal management of the war in his budgets of 1803 and 1804 by deducting income tax at source. This was initially set at a shilling and raised by Pitt in 1805 at 1/3d, in the pound on all income over £150. Fox, who bitterly denounced Pitt’s 25 per cent increase in 1805, had now to defend a further 60 per cent increase the following year. Once war was renewed in 1803, Addington adopted a simple strategy of blockading French ports. The navy swept French commerce from the seas. Colonies recently returned to France and her allies were reoccupied. He sought allies on the continent who were willing to resist French expansion.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: Death of Nelson

Continuity of strategy

From 1803 until about 1810, there was little difference in Britain’s strategy to that employed in the 1790s or its level of success. Addington gave way to Pitt in April 1804. Napoleon recognised that final victory depended on the conquest of Britain and during early 1805, preparations were made for an invasion. To succeed he needed to control the Channel and to prevent the formation of a European coalition against France. He failed on both counts. The destruction of a combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in October 1805 denied Napoleon naval supremacy and the hesitant moves of Russia and Austria against him meant that troops intended for invasion had to be diverted. Between late 1805 and 1807, France confirmed its military control of mainland Europe. The Third Coalition was quickly overwhelmed in 1806 and 1807. Austria was defeated at Ulm and Austerlitz in October and December 1805 respectively and in January 1806 Austria made peace at Pressburg. Prussia, which had remained neutral in 1805, attempted to take on France single-handed and was defeated at Jena in October 1806; Russia, after its defeat at Friedland, made peace at Tilsit in 1807. Britain once again stood alone.

‘Economic warfare’

With the prospect of successful invasion receding as a means of defeating Britain, Napoleon turned to economic warfare. The Berlin Decree (November 1807) threatened to close all Europe to British trade. This was not new. Both Pitt and the Directory had issued decrees aimed at dislocating enemy trade and food imports. The difference between Napoleon’s continental system and the attempts in the 1790s was one of scale. Between 1807 and 1812, France’s unprecedented control of mainland Europe meant that British shipping could be excluded from the continent. In practice, however, there were major flaws in Napoleon’s policy. It was impossible to seal off Europe completely from British shipping. Parts of the Baltic and Portugal remained open and in 1810 Russian ports were reopened to British commerce. In the face of French agricultural interests, Napoleon did not ban the export of wines and brandies to Britain and during the harvest shortages of 1808-1810, he allowed the export of French and German wheat under license. Most importantly, he had no control over Britain’s trade with the rest of the world and it was to this that Britain increasingly looked. Though the Continental System and particularly Britain’s Orders in Council were blamed for economic crisis in 1811-1812 by both manufacturers and the Whigs, it has been suggested that a better explanation can be found in industrial overproduction and speculation in untried world markets. Napoleon failed to achieve an economic stranglehold because he did not have naval supremacy and because Britain’s economic expansion was directed at non-European markets. The British blockade inflicted far more harm on France, whose customs receipts fell by 80 per cent between 1807 and 1809 than exclusion from Europe ever did to Britain.

The British response to the creation of the Continental System came in the form of Orders in Council. In January 1807, the ‘Ministry of all the Talents’ banned any sea borne trade between ports under French control from which British shipping was excluded. To avoid unduly antagonising the United States trade by neutral shipping from the New World to French-controlled ports was unaffected. The Portland ministry took a harder line. Under pressure from Spencer Perceval, the Chancellor of the Exchequer far more strict Orders were issued in November and December 1807. This extended exclusion to all shipping from French-controlled ports, paying transit duties in the process. The major purpose of the Orders was to dislocate European commerce and as a result create discontent with the Napoleonic regime. Success was achieved at the cost of further deterioration in relations with the United States. Demand for British goods meant that trade was largely uninterrupted until America passed a Non-Importation Act in 1811. British exports to her largest single market plummeted from £7.8 million in 1810 to £1.4 million in 1811. There was a corresponding reduction in imports of raw cotton, which was 45 per cent lower in 1812-1814 than in 1809-1811. The Anglo-American war of 1812-1814 was fought largely about the Great Lakes, since the primary objective of the American ‘hawks’ was the conquest of Upper Canada. The New England states opposed the war vigorously and had the Orders in Council been withdrawn a few weeks earlier it would probably not have been approved by Congress. Little was achieved militarily and the most famous incident of the war, the repulse of a British attack on New Orleans, was fought a month after the war ended but before news of the Peace of Ghent reached America. The peace settled nothing. None of the original causes of the war, for example, the boundaries between the United States and Canada or maritime rights, received any mention.

Total victory 1808-1815

The final phase of the war began in 1808 when Napoleon attempted to exchange influences for domination in the Iberian Peninsula. Nationalist risings in Spain against the installation of Napoleon’s brother Joseph as king and anti-French hostility in Portugal, which had been annexed the previous autumn, prompted Castlereagh, Secretary of War for the Colonies, to send 15,000 troops in support. This approach conformed to the strategy used since 1793 of offering limited armed support to the opponents of France. In the next five years, British troops, at no time more than 60,000 strong, led by Arthur Wellesley (created Viscount Wel­lington in 1809) and his Portuguese and Spanish allies fought a tenacious war with limited resources. Wellington’s victory at Vimeiro in August 1808 was followed by the Convention of Cintra, negotiated by his superior, which repatriated the French troops and set Portugal free. By the time, Wellington returned to the Peninsula in April 1809, it seemed that this campaign was to be no more successful than the Walcheren expedition to the Low Countries was to prove later that year.


The Peninsula campaign drained Napoleon’s supply of troops that he had to divert from central Europe. Calling the war the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ was no understatement. Wellington gradually wore down French military power and it was from the Peninsula that France was first invaded when Wellington crossed the Pyrenees after his decisive victory at Vitoria in August 1813. Napoleon’s position in Europe was weakened by the unsuccessful and costly Russian campaign of 1812 and by the spring of 1813, the British government was absorbed in creating a further anti-French coalition. The Treaty of Reichenbach provided subsidies for Prussia and Russia. Separ­ately negotiated treaties, usually under French military duress, had been a major problem of the three previous attempts at concerted allied action. Castlereagh, now foreign secretary, saw keeping the allies together long enough to achieve the total defeat of France as one of his primary objec­tives. Austria was at first unwilling to enter the coalition, fearing the aggressive aspirations of Russia as much as those of France. Castlereagh knew that a general European settlement was impossible without total victory. When he arrived in Basle in February 1814 French troops were everywhere in retreat--Napoleon had been defeated in the three-day ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig the previous October and Wellington had invaded south-west France--but the allies were no more trusting of each other’s motives. Castlereagh demonstrated his skills as a negotiator and achieved the Treaty of Chaumont in March by which the allies pledged to keep 150,000 men each under arms and not to make a separate peace with France. Napoleon’s abdication and exile to Elba in 1814 allowed Castlereagh to implement his second objective: the redrawing of the map of Europe to satisfy the territorial integrity of all nations, including France. The Congress of Vienna of 1814-1815, within limits, achieved this. Napo­leon’s final flourish in 1815 that ended at Waterloo made no real difference.


Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Is leaving now really an option?

Let me be clear from the outset that I was one of the 48 per cent who voted remain in the referendum almost two years ago.  I was also one of those who was not surprised by the outcome of the referendum…the remain side were complacent, thought no one in their right mind would vote to leave and have spent the last two years moaning about the result and desperately seeking ways to overturn it without really providing an alternative.  I also was prepared to accept the result of the referendum even though I did not agree because that’s what democracy is.
However, two years later I am beginning to change my view.  To say that the ways in which the government and opposition have approached Brexit has been inconsistent, shambolic and a bit like the blind leading the blind is an understatement and that the way the EU negotiating team is reminiscent of Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s…non, non, non…with you give us the money and we might consider a trade deal if not, then it’s back to the dialogue of the deaf.  The problem is that the British government does not appear to have, or has yet to articulate it, a clear idea of what it wants from Brexit while the Labour Party has dithered vacillating from a softish Brexit to a decidedly softish Brexit, its current position.  So both the EU and the UK have no clear idea about what the outcome of negotiations will be. 
Now I’m not in favour of a second ‘People’s Vote’ on the outcomes of the negotiation at all…chances are it would have the some outcome as there’s little indication that there has been a significant shift in public opinion in the last two years and another referendum campaign will simply reinforce existing positions.  What I am in favour of is the Government and Opposition acting in the interests of the nation rather than on party lines to satisfy the inconsistent and incompatible demands of their own MPs and party members.  If there was ever a need for statesmanship, this is the time.  Within Parliament there is—on a free vote--a clear majority in favour of membership of the EU.  There is also a broad consensus that leaving the EU will have challenging economic, social, cultural and political consequences.  I’m not one of those who believes that if we left the EU the heavens would descend and the UK would enter a new ‘Dark Ages’.  The issue, and it’s always been the issue, is what do we gain by leaving the EU.  If you take the two issues that dominated the referendum campaign—the question of sovereignty and control over immigration from the EU—the last two years has seen important shifts within Europe that would I think make it perfectly possible to negotiate a revised relationship with the EU on these issues.
There are people who are opposed to membership of the EU root and branch and their views are not going to change whatever happens but, I would suggest most people—including many of those who voted to leave in 2016—have a more pragmatic view of things.  It isn’t a case of voting to be poorer in 2016 but, as Gordon Brown pointed out yesterday, the failure (and nothing has really changed in the last two years) to challenge the gaping inequalities between London and its environs and the rest of the country that needs to be addressed and Brexit simply does not do this.  That was the true meaning of the outcome of the referendum---an almighty kick in the teeth for the Establishment.  What a statesmanlike government would do is say: we’re going to stop the Brexit process and we’re going to focus our substantial resources on dealing with the problems in our own country.  Brexit is essentially an irrelevance in that…it’s done its job in highlighting the real issues facing the UK.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Why did Britain not win the war with France 1793 and 1802?

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was initially welcomed by most politicians. The Whigs saw it as the dawn of liberty. For Pitt, the revolution would be a useful distraction for Britain’s major rival. Edmund Burke found in 1791 that ‘there was no moving ministers from their neutrality’. Attitudes were slow to change. In his budget in early 1792, Pitt planned to reduce defence spending. It is important to see Pitt’s actions not with hindsight but in the context of traditions of non-interference in the affairs of European powers unless there was a direct threat to British interests. Pitt did not participate in the war for ideological considerations. No action was taken when first Prussia and then Austria declared war on revolutionary France in 1792. It was the French victory over Austrian forces at Jemappes in November 1792 followed by the fall of Antwerp and the opening of the Scheldt estuary in defiance of treaty to all shipping that upset the balance of Britain’s diplomacy. In addition, the French showed themselves willing to export their revolutionary ideas by assisting all people seeking to break the yoke of monarchy and tyranny.
In two important respects France now posed a potent threat to what Pitt perceived as Britain’s ‘security’ and once France declared war in February 1793 he could justify his actions as self-defence. From November 1792 Pitt and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville showed themselves willing to let France resolve her own internal problems if she withdrew her forces from Belgium and renounced interference with the internal government of other countries. Pitt’s objective was to restore the balance of power in the Low Countries and remove the French threat from the United Provinces. French domination of the entire coastline of north-west Europe was a threat both to Britain’s domestic security and trade and it was to contest the ambitions of France in an area sensitive to British interests that Pitt went to war. France also posed a threat to the stability of Britain’s constitution through its revolutionary ideology. In 1792, Pitt had failed to predict that war with France was inevitable. He was now astonishingly wrong about its nature believing that the war would be quickly over.
Fighting France 1793-1802
Pitt and Henry Dundas, his Secretary of War, thought of war in a tra­ditional eighteenth-century way. This entailed a three-pronged approach. The first two had been used against France earlier in the century. The third strategy was something new. The ‘blue-water’ maritime strategy was employed with the Royal Navy blockading the French coast and picking up enemy colonies especially in the Caribbean. Attacks on her colonies weakened France’s commercial base and could later be used as bargaining counters in subsequent peace negotiations. A continental war was also fought using small units of British forces, paid mercenaries and subsidised allies. Finally, Pitt supported opponents of the revolution inside France especially in the west where there was considerable opposition to revolutionary change. Broadly the first part of this strategy was successful, the others less so.
The major problem facing Pitt in the summer of 1793 was which of the various conflicting war aims to pursue. Should he concentrate his energies in securing the Low Countries against French aggression? Should he aid counter-revolutionary forces within France to destabilise the revolutionary regime, as urged by Burke and Windham? Should the main thrust of the campaign be against French colonies? The first and third options reflected the approach used throughout the century. It was the second option that was different and brought to the war an ideological element. Both sides could see their actions in crusading terms, for and against revolutionary and republican dogmas. The conflict between the two options--peace either through military and naval victory or through the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy--was reflected within the coalition ministry. Pitt and Dundas supported the former while Burke and Windham saw the war as the means of eliminating the revolutionary threat.
The First Coalition 1793-1797
Britain could not defeat revolutionary France, with its new armies, a ‘nation in arms’ led by generals using unorthodox and mobile tactics, alone. The British army was too small and poorly trained to provide an effective continental force. Of the 50,000-strong army, half were needed for police and garrison duties in Britain and the rest were scattered abroad. The government therefore turned to German allies for mercenaries: 14,000 Hanoverians and 8,000 Hessians were taken into pay. Britain could only raise 7,000 men under the Duke of York for the Flanders campaign that began in April. The result was the creation of the First Coalition.[1]
Pitt believed that he could successful defeat the revolution from within France. Support for French royalists in the Vendée and in Toulon were both inadequate and too late. A plan to land French émigré troops in southern Brittany in mid-1795 was also unsuccessful. The revolutionary forces were better prepared than expected and their earlier successes gave them higher morale. In addition, Pitt failed to grasp the power of French patriotism in the 1790s. Many people in France preferred the revolutionary to the Bourbon government. They certainly favoured any French government to the restoration of monarchy engineered by Britain, the national enemy.
The anti-French coalition proved very fragile. The campaign in Flanders continued in 1794 but it was increasingly clear that Prussia and Austria were more concerned with the affairs of Poland than with the west. Austrian defeat at Fleurus compelled York to retreat across Holland, though he evacuated most of his force from Bremen in April 1795. Between 1795 and 1797, the First Coalition collapsed. Prussia made peace at Basle in April 1795. Holland, which had a strong pro-French party, was taken over in January 1795 and declared war on Britain in May 1795. Prussia made peace with France in April 1795. Spain followed suit in July and made a defensive-offensive alliance with France. The utter defeat of Austria in 1796 and 1797 led to peace at Campo Formio. The collapse of the Coalition changed the basis of British strategy. It imposed constraints from which successive governments were unable to escape. Britain had lost her bridgeheads into western Europe. Holland and Belgium were now in French hands. This left Britain to fight on alone. A Second Coalition[2] was created at the end of 1798 but also collapsed within a few years.
Colonial and naval success 1793-1801
What gains Britain made between 1793 and 1801 were either colonial conquests or naval victories. Sea power cut the French off from their overseas empire. French and later Spanish and Dutch colonies were occupied. French settlements at Pondicherry and Chandernagore in India were secured in 1793 though French influence remained, especially in Mysore.[3] In the West Indies Britain took Tobago in 1793 and supported a rebellion in Santo Domingo. Control was extended over the French islands of Martinique, St Lucia and Guadeloupe in 1794, though it had abandoned the last two by the end of the year. Haiti, rich in coffee, sugar and cotton, seemed to have been wrested from France and Spain when the coastal towns were captured in 1794 but it was never secured.[4] With 40,000 men killed and a similar number incapacitated by disease, Britain lost more men in the West Indies than Wellington was to lose in the Peninsular campaigns after 1808. The Franco-Dutch alliance of 1795 led to Britain’s seizure of Dutch colonies at the Cape of Good Hope, in Ceylon and in the West Indies. From the British point of view, even before the Austrians made peace, the war was reaching a stalemate. British trade and empire had been maintained and extended through military operations backed by naval supremacy.
Nevertheless, French mastery of western Europe seemed complete. Two attempts were made to make peace in 1796-1797: in October 1796 Lord Malmesbury was sent to Paris and this was followed by a second series of negotiations the following July at Lille. French resolve was hardened by the coup d’etat of 18 Fructidor that marked the reassertion of Jacobin influence in the Directory government of France and negotiations foun­dered on demands that Britain should surrender all her conquests while France should keep all hers. Events became increasingly unfavourable to Britain. From late-1796, Pitt faced what was perhaps the greatest threat to national security between 1588 and 1940. The external threat of invasion was made worse by problems in Ireland, which France was willing to exploit, naval mutinies, high prices and inflation. Naval victories over the Spanish at Cape St. Vincent and the Dutch at Camperdown in February and October 1797 ended French hopes of invasion.
The Battle of Cape St. Vincent 14 February 1797
Napoleon Bonaparte persuaded the Directory of the merits of an attack on British power in India and in early 1798, French agents began to intrigue with the East India Company’s greatest enemy in southern India, Tipu of Mysore.[5] Napoleon invaded Rome and extinguished the freedom of Switzerland and, using his naval control of the Mediterranean, took Malta and defeated the rulers of Egypt. The military advantage that he had gained was eliminated by the destruction of the French fleet by Nelson[6] at Aboukir Bay (Battle of the Nile) in August 1798.
Battle of the Pyramids
The implications of Nelson’s victory were far-reaching. The French lost their naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and their army was stranded, though not actually defeated until 1801. Tipu was defeated and killed at Seringapatam in 1799 and the territorial power of the East India Company extended. In Europe, the failure of the Egyptian expedition encouraged those states with grievances to show their hand. The Ottoman Empire declared war on the invaders of their Egyptian province.
Tipu Sultan of Mysore
The Second Coalition 1798-1801
Coalition warfare was the only way to achieve outright victory and end French expansion. The experience of the First Coalition showed how difficult this was going to be. Lord Grenville reassembled a Second Coalition against France. As with the First Coalition, early limited success was followed by disunity and defeat. Austria was defeated at Marengo and Hohenlinden in 1800 and made peace at Lunéville in 1801. Russia withdrew her support and during 1800. France cultivated good relations with Russia, Prussia and Denmark with a view to closing northern Europe to British trade. These moves threatened Britain’s domestic stability since poor harvests increased the importance of imports of Baltic grain. Retribution for the formation of the ‘Armed Neutrality of the North’ and the invasion of Hanover by Danish and Prussian troops was swift. In March 1801, the Danish fleet was destroyed by Nelson at anchor at Copenhagen, invading troops were withdrawn from Hanover and relations between Britain and Russia thawed. The consequences of the formation of the First and Second Coalitions were similar. In both 1797 and 1801, Britain was left isolated after France had successfully defeated the coalition armies and countries that lacked trust in each other. France’s grip on Europe had been gradually tightened. The British Navy had saved Britain from invasion in 1797 and had successfully defeated the navies of France, Spain, Holland and Denmark. It had secured Britain’s colonial possessions and enabled the conquest of enemy colonies in the West Indies, Africa, India and Ceylon. However, it could not defeat Napoleon in Europe and its success encouraged France to concen­trate more on its armies, thus increasing pressure on Britain’s allies. Sea power and land power had fought each other to a standstill, each dominant in its own sphere. A compromise peace was a logical option in 1801-1802 to give both sides breathing space.
Battle of Copenhagen 1801
Was Pitt a good war leader?
Pitt had left office before the Treaty of Amiens of 1802. He fought the French between 1793 and 1801 much as his father would have done, using Britain’s naval supremacy to blockade Europe and pick off enemy colonies while subsidising allies to fight the land war. Yet, he has been dismissed as a ‘disastrous’ war leader. How true is this? In two respects, Pitt proved successful. He put national finances on a wartime footing through direct taxation rather than loans. He also showed considerable tenacity in pursuing the war. This was evident in 1797 when the First Coalition collapsed and Britain was alone. His actions established a sense of national purpose and raised levels of patriotism to new heights.
In other respects, he was much less successful. In 1793, Britain was unprepared for war and Pitt did not understand the need for more military and naval training. It took Pitt until 1795 to appreciate that this was going to be a long war. Pitt has been unjustly critici­sed for an indiscriminate and poor use of subsidies. Of the £66 million paid in subsidies between 1793 and 1815, only £9.2 million was provided before 1802. The lack of military success, which these bought, was a conse­quence of several things. Pitt’s concern to keep the Low Countries out of French control was not shared by members of the two coalitions, both of which were loose federations of distrusting states. Prussia was more interested in the Baltic than the North Sea and looked to the partition of Poland to pick up more territory. Austria wished to sever her connections with Belgium and consolidate her position in central Europe.
In addition, the French had superior armies, generals and tactics. The British commanders of the 1790s were, with notable exceptions like Nelson not particularly able and the British army was in no position to sustain a long continental campaign. In Europe, reliance on others was unavoidable. This led to the coalitions and they were very fragile. Pitt also faced conflicting advice from his chief ministers. Dundas favoured the colonial strategy. Grenville wanted a continental policy believing that France could only be defeated in France. Pitt could see the advantage of both strategies and failed to decide decisively between them. Pitt’s success as Prime Minister between 1783 and 1793 came largely from his control of events. This allowed him to take decisive, quick decisions. After 1793, his ability to control events was more limited and he often failed to give decisive leadership. He misjudged the military capacity of revolutionary France in 1793. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Pitt’s leadership is that at least Britain had not been defeated by 1802.
The cost of war
The war was expensive for Britain and ended Pitt’s economic reforms. He was hesitant about pushing up taxes and relied heavily on borrowing to finance the war that increased from £4.5 million in 1793 to £44 million by 1797. The effect was inflationary and in 1797, following a run on the banks occasioned by the French landing at Fishguard, the government authorised the Bank of England to suspend cash payments and to issue notes for small denominations (£1 and £2). Inadvertently Pitt had stumbled upon one aspect of successful wartime fiscal policy. It was not until he announced his proposals for an income tax in 1798 and its collection in 1799 that Pitt pursued other aspects of wartime fiscal policy. This graduated tax was a logical, if unpopular, solution and was only accepted on the understanding that it was a temporary wartime expedient. It raised about half the £10 million Pitt had hoped to raise annually and one explanation of the support for the negotiations leading to the Peace of Amiens between 1801 and 1802 was the belief that income tax would be abolished. Wartime ministers, especially if they do not provide outright victory, have rarely been seen as successful. Pitt may well fall into this category. However, to condemn him outright as inadequate fails to acknowledge his appreciation of the commercial implications of the war, the advantages that colonial conquests were to bring and the naval supremacy for which his reforms in the 1780s and early 1790s had laid the foundations. War was a necessity forced upon Pitt, who needed to make commerce and constitution secure.
[1] The First Coalition against France was signed in February 1793. It consisted of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Holland. Spain and Sardinia also entered the coalition strengthening Pitt’s belief that the war would not last long.[2] The Second Coalition consisted of Britain, Russia, Austria, Turkey, Portugal and Naples and proved to have even fewer unifying features than the first.[3] Britain had fought a long war with France for dominance in India culminating in the battle of Plassey in 1757 when Robert Clive defeated a combined Indian-French army. Some French settlements remained though they were quickly taken in 1793-1794.[4] The Caribbean was always a graveyard of troops and seamen largely from malaria and yellow fever. Between 1793 and 1801, the British army sent 89,000 men to the Caribbean and lost 70 per cent of them. The total loss for army, navy and transport crew was probably over 100,000.[5] Tipu ‘the Lion’ of Mysore was the cruel, yet enlightened ruler of Mysore. He was strongly pro-French.[6] Horatio, Lord Nelson (1759-1805) was the most successful and popular naval figure during the war. His victories at Aboukir Bay in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801 and Trafalgar in 1805 played a central role in preserving British freedom. His death at Trafalgar achieved mythic proportions.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Recollections of Victorian Birmingham


This book offers readers an absorbing portrait of Birmingham’s nineteenth century. It provides eyewitness accounts of the main events and personalities of the time. These twenty-five autobiographical articles were originally published in the Birmingham Gazette and Express in 1907-9, but have been long forgotten. In bringing them back to attention, the editor provides fascinating glimpses into life in Victorian Birmingham. Who knew that the town famous for brass bedsteads, buttons and glass produced a prize-winning strawberry? Or that a leading politician, wounded at being described as the ugliest man in Birmingham, set out to find a man who was even uglier?

‘Stephen Roberts is an indefatigable and dedicated researcher of Victorian Birmingham. His knowledge is deep and wide-ranging yet he succeeds in sharing his expertise in an accessible and engaging way through his engrossing books and lively talks.’ – Carl Chinn.

Monday, 7 May 2018

What were British foreign interests between 1793 and 1841?

In the fifty-four years before 1793, Britain had fought three major wars with France lasting some twenty-three years. Britain could not ignore France and the threat to European security posed by the expansion of the French Revolution. Lord Auckland declared in Parliament in 1799: ‘The security of Europe is essential to the security of the British Empire’.

What strategies underpinned British foreign policies between 1793 and 1841? Contemporaries identified blue-water or maritime and continental policies. Colonial expansion was in Britain’s economic interest and colonial wars were fought largely for wealth, raw materials and markets. Britain lost the American colonies in 1783 but had already gained Canada and Newfoundland with their furs and fisheries. She was dominant in the Caribbean with its sugar and cotton and in India and was opening trade links with China. However, the key to Britain’s security lay in its continental policies.

Since the loss of Calais in 1558, Britain had no realistic territorial ambitions on the continent. However, her security from invasion and her continental markets meant that Britain needed allies in Europe and be prepared to aid them with subsidies and with force. By doing this, she prevented French expansion especially into the Low Countries where Britain had important interests. The Low Countries provided routes and markets for her exports and the harbours of the Scheldt estuary provided an enemy with invasion bases north of the Straits of Dover. For Pitt, continental markets seemed especially threatened and it was to save Holland that the British government entered the war in January 1793. A balance of power in Europe was central to British foreign policy. It was a necessary for expansion overseas and trade in Europe, and for security at home including security from subversive ideas.

There were important respects in which Britain’s history in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries differed from continental experiences. By the 1790s, Britain was already well advanced industrially and commercially. Economic and population growth meant that Britain was increasingly dependent on international trade for both food and industrial raw materials. Britain had no large army but to protect trade routes Britain felt that she must be supreme at sea. What Britain regarded as the pursuit of a vigorous trading position was seen differently by foreigners. To them it was downright aggressive.

Economic change in Britain had resulted in social transformation, in particular the emergence of an articulate middle-class public opinion. Castlereagh recognised as early as 1820 that public opinion could not be ignored. Canning and Palmerston made conscious efforts to woo and direct public opinion by the publication of the documents explaining their policies and by a judicious use of the press. Public opinion was, however, frequently uninformed, prejudiced and xenophobic. It was firmly convinced of the superiority of Britain and its institutions to other countries in the world. This enabled both Canning and Palmerston to appeal to public sympathy when acting in defence of ‘constitutional states’.

Contemporaries liked to see Britain as the greatest power in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is clearly an overestimation. Commercial interests often compelled Britain to assume a role in the world which politicians did not always seek but in terms of the continent she was always only one among five great powers: Britain, France Aus­tria, Prussia and Russia.[1] It was the ‘balance’ between these five powers that dominated much of Britain’s foreign policies. This ‘Concert of Europe’ became an important concept in the course of the nineteenth century. Initially it meant the coalition against Napoleonic France but gradually it came to define the permanent relationship between the great powers.

Its development and acceptance was, however a slow process. It frequently reverted to being a coalition for specific purposes. In the 1820s, when the government of most Euro­pean countries was in the hands of conservatives, the Concert tended to be the means through which the status quo was maintained. This attitude brought it into conflict with the growth of nationalism. Austria, Russia and Prussia certainly had a more interventionist view of the Concert that Britain. They wished to use it as the basis for the defence of the whole existing structure of society and of ‘legitimate’, by which they meant ‘Conservative’ authority. Britain could agree with this position when it came to the containment of France and was quite prepared to support the Bourbon restoration in 1814. However, the principle of legitimacy did not have the same ideological appeal to the British government as it did to the other European powers. In fact, all the great powers were prepared to depart from the principle when it conflicted with other national interests or ambitions. British statesmen believed that the Congress of Vienna had created a desirable territorial ‘balance of power’[2] in Europe and that peace could be preserved as long as no power threatened it. Conse­quently, there were no permanent blocs of power in this period. France sided with the Eastern Powers over Spain in 1822 but with Britain twelve years later. Britain sided with Russia over the Eastern Question in 1840 but with France against Russia in 1854. All British governments found it inconvenient to seek allies. It was more flexible and more valuable to support a ‘balance of power’ policy in Europe and participate only when that balance seemed threatened by an actual or potential aggressor from among the Great Powers. Pragmatism and the specific interests of the great powers rather than adherence to a particular ideology marked foreign relations after Waterloo.

As far as Britain was concerned, the Congress of Vienna defined the limits of her continental ambitions and, while a general peace was maintained, British trade could expand unhindered. Britain was quite prepared to see the Vienna Settlement altered if its basic aims were still fulfilled. In the 1830s, Britain was prepared to see an independent Belgium as long as its neutrality was guaranteed. Palmerston would have liked to see Austrian influence removed from Italy so long as French ambitions did not fill the political vacuum. By 1841, he clearly regarded some parts of the 1814-1815 Settlement as obsolete but he, like his predecessors at the Foreign Office, did not adopt a ‘revisionist’ approach to European affairs.

British foreign policy throughout the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been criticised for being pragmatic, as it was not based on any long-term ideological or systematic considerations. It is, however, possible to identify two gene­ral principles that did underlie the actions of successive Foreign Secretaries: security and trade. These tended to be implicit in policies, underlining and on occasions determining action. Pitt, Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston all accepted that they had a responsibility for ensuring that British trade could be carried on throughout as much of the world as possible without interference. Free trade was not simply an economic dogma. It was also seen as a means of achieving international peace. Destructive economic competition--a prime cause of war--would be replaced by trade for mutual advantage.

There was an essential continuity between Britain’s foreign policy before and after 1815. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars did not induce Britain to abandon the balance of power, though it sought to eliminate melding and ineffectiveness. William Pitt provided the foundations for this development in the plans he made for peace, guidelines put into practice by Castlereagh and Canning. Pitt planned for a concert among the Powers to provide a more effective system of European security, with a new distribution of power in order to contain future French aggression and a guarantee between the Powers to maintain it.

[1] The ‘Great Powers’. These were regarded as Britain and France (the ‘Western powers’ with their systems of government based on constitutional monarchies) and Russia, Austria and Prussia (the ‘Eastern powers’ with systems of government based on the absolute power of the ruler).

[2] Balance of power. Contemporaries believed that if the power of the leading states in Europe was ‘balanced’ then expensive and unnecessary wars could be avoided and peace maintained.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

170th Anniversary of Kennington Common meeting 10 April 1848

The National Charter Association (NCA) Executive, its funds depleted, had little control over the events in early March and found itself having to improvise to keep up with the popular mood. On 18 March, it announced that the National Petition would be presented to Parliament on 10 April, a month earlier than it originally intended. This left the Convention, already called for 4 April, less than a week to arrange for its submission. This was very different from 1839 when there was four months between the opening of the Convention and submitting the Petition and three weeks in 1842 when the NCA had an effective regional and national structure. O’Connor’s focus had already changed with his responsibilities as an MP and the Land Plan now taking up the bulk of his time resulting in his notable absence from all but one meeting outside London—at Oldham Edge and then he arrived late and left early.[1] Chartist rhetoric of varying hues proliferated during March and early April and talk of violence took on a greater resonance in the wake of the events in Paris but both were froth and melodrama lacking the insurrectionary substance of similar talk in 1839 and 1842. They did, however, provide justification for the massive retaliatory over-reaction of government on 10 April and after.

The Convention now became the key to success. Could it provide central co-ordination and leadership? In short, no. The NEC Executive may have seen it as the high point of constitutional protest but it was unclear whether they hoped to trigger a disturbance that would lead Chartists in the provinces to rise in support. [2] Forty-nine delegates met in London on 4 April. [3] Much of 4 April and the morning of 5 April were given over to hearing reports from the delegates on the state of Chartism in their localities. The two sessions on 6 April were concerned with how the movement should react if the Petition was rejected. Some delegates like G. W. M. Reynolds and William Cuffay[4] were bellicose at least in their rhetoric proposing on 6 April that the Convention, in the event of the rejection of the Petition, ‘should declare its sitting permanent and declare the Charter the law of the land.’ This, they suggested, would provide clear direction for extra-parliamentary pressure and allow the Convention to retain the initiative as the agitation intensified. Most delegates were more moderate in tone and after a heated debate, the relatively moderate programme agreed by the NCA Executive was passed unanimously. If the Petition were rejected, on 5 April the Convention would address a memorial to the Queen. In the interim, the Convention was to be dissolved. This was to be followed by widespread agitation throughout the country leading to the formation of a more fully representative Convention or, taking their lead from events in France, a National Assembly.

‘1st – That in the event of the National Petition being rejected by the House of Commons, this Convention prepare a National Memorial to the Queen to dissolve the present Parliament, and call to her council such ministers only as will make the People’s Charter a cabinet measure.

‘2nd – That this Convention agree to the convocation of a National Assembly, to consist of delegates appointed at public meetings, to present the National Memorial to the Queen, and to continue permanently sitting until the Charter is the law of the land.

‘3rd – That this Convention call upon the country to hold simultaneous meetings on Good Friday, April 21st, for the purpose of adopting the National Memorial, and electing delegates to the National Assembly.

‘4th – That the National Assembly meet in London on April 24th.

‘5th – That the present Convention shall continue its sittings until the meeting of the National Assembly.’ [5]

Parallel to the Convention, there were a series of meetings, at which some delegates spoke, that took a more radical stance. The Fraternal Democrats, for instance, met the evening of 4 April with Ernest Jones in the chair and Harney proposing a resolution calling for the ‘people of Great Britain and Ireland to take other and efficient means to enforce compliance with their just demands.’ [6]

kennington 1

The authorities were undoubtedly nervous, concerned to prevent London sliding into revolution as had already occurred in Paris. There were heightened expectations on both sides throughout the country with reports of Chartists arming and drilling on the moors in anticipation of the Petition’s rejection. The Convention arranged to present the Petition, which O’Connor hoped would contain five million signatures, to Parliament on 10 April. The plan, largely a decision by Reynolds with the outcomes of the meeting of 6 March in mind, was to hold a large demonstration at Kennington Commons south of the river after which the Petition would be taken in procession across Westminster Bridge to the House of Commons, something Lord John Russell was initially prepared to allow. [7] He was, however, persuaded by ‘a friend of mine, of great experience and acknowledged sagacity’ to prevent the ‘expected crowd from crossing the bridges’. [8] The Chartist decision to move south of the river made the authorities’ task on 10 April far easier for as long as they could hold the bridges, they could contain the demonstration.

Public opinion was firmly behind the Whigs and they exploited this to the full. The Crown and Government Security Bill was rushed through Parliament introducing a new charge of felonious sedition, a charge that extended to ‘open and advised speaking’. [9] Seventeenth century legislation against ‘tumultuous petitioning’ was revived to prevent any mass procession through the streets. Strong precautionary measures were taken by the authorities for whom the Chartist threat was very real and on 8 April, the Queen travelled with the Court to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The government considered banning the meeting but recognised that this would probably be counter-productive—the banning of the reform banquet in Paris had provoked revolution. On 3 April, magistrates were told to swear in special constables and Sir Charles Rowan and Sir Richard Mayne, the Commissioners of Police, asked to draw up a plan for dealing with the meeting and demonstration. On 6 April, the government banned the procession and took massive precautions to prevent Chartists crossing the river.[10] The Convention, however, was in no mood to back down and when it debated the proclamation the following day a motion that it should go ahead with its public meeting ‘notwithstanding the foolish proclamation of the Government’ was carried unanimously. The plans for the meeting and for escorting the Petition to the House of Commons was finalised by the Convention on Saturday 8 April and then adjourned until 8.00 am on 10 April.

Kennington 2

Government preparations were extensive, preparations for a full-scale insurrection that was never the Chartists’ intention. Over 4,000 police were positioned on the London bridges and in Kennington and Westminster. Over 3,000 troops were moved to the capital and its garrison was effectively doubled though they were deliberately kept in reserve so not to antagonise protestors. Twelve guns were brought from Woolwich. On the morning of 10 April, an additional 450 troops and two additional guns were dispatched from Gosport. 85,000 special constables, including William Gladstone and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, were sworn in--some were workmen enrolled to defend their places of work and possibly to prevent them attending the meeting—and 1,231 pensioners were mobilised. [11] Public buildings, especially the Bank of England, were barricaded and protected by armed employees. A letter cited by Alexander Bain, a civil servant, explained the preparations:

In our office and all the other offices of Government, the windows of the ground floors were fitted with iron bars running up and down, like a lunatic asylum; there were, besides, barricades of deal boxes full of papers built up at each window to be a protection to the people within while firing out at the mob through narrow openings between the sides of the boxes. Each man in the office mustered between eight and nine in the morning, and had a musket given to him with twenty rounds of ball cartridge in a belt going round the middle...On the Friday after, all the officials of all the offices mustered in the Treasury Room and Lord John Russell gave us a speech of thanks for our readiness to take up arms on the occasion.[12]

The authorities may have been prepared, temporarily, to abdicate control of the streets to the Chartists but, learning from what had happened in Paris, they were unwilling to allow Chartists to occupy any buildings that might act as a centre for prolonged insurrection.[13] What was important about this extensive mobilisation was that the middle-classes allied itself to the ruling classes against the threat to property posed by a potential working-class rebellion. The Nonconformist correctly saw this as ‘a counter-demonstration on the part of the middle classes.’ [14]

Initially the Convention was not bowed by this massive response informing Grey that they were still resolved that the Petition would be carried to Parliament by a procession from Kennington Common. The issue was whether the meeting should proceed. Bronterre O’Brien had grave doubts recognising the determination of the government but also the likely effect on public opinion if the meeting went ahead and resigned as a delegate on 9 April. [15] Harney called for the meeting and procession to be abandoned at secret gatherings with delegates on 8 and 9 April. McGrath, as chairman of the Convention, sought a compromise with the Commissioners of Police suggesting that the procession could cross Blackfriars Bridge and move along Holborn and Oxford Street to Edgware Road while the Petition would be sent to Westminster, unaccompanied by the crowd, from Regent’s Circus. McGrath and Doyle, the Secretary, was informed by Mayne at 8.30 am on 10 April that his proposal had been rejected. The movement had reached an impasse.[16]

Kennington 3

The Convention finally met at 9.00 am when O’Connor ‘labouring’ he said, ‘under severe illness’ and concerned that ’preparations had been made for shooting…on the leaders of the movement’, urged the quiet dispersal of the meeting at Kennington and abandoning the procession but other delegates disputed this. [17] The government may have banned the procession but it was prepared to accept the right of public assembly; in fact, it had little option with crowds already streaming across the river from Russell Square, Clerkenwell Green and Finsbury Square and Stepney Green. There are various estimates of the numbers present. O’Connor optimistically said three quarters of a million people, Gammage[18] more accurately put the number between 150,000 and 170,000 while Russell thought between 12,000 and 15,000. Shortly after arriving at Kennington, O’Connor and McGrath agreed with Sir Richard Mayne that the Petition would be taken to Parliament in a fleet of hansom cabs. O’Connor was at the Home Office at 1 pm where he informed Grey that the Kennington Common meeting had unanimously agreed to give up the procession and disperse quietly though this was unpopular with large sections of the crowd and many blamed O’Connor personally for the decision:

You will not walk in procession. You must go peacefully to your homes and to show that I am careful of the lives of all here, as these horses will not be allowed to cross the bridges, I will give them a gala day and ley them sleep to-night at Greenwich (Cheers and laughter) [19]

This was largely achieved without violence although there was confrontation with the police near Blackfriars Bridge, what the Northern Star called ‘treacherous conduct’, and this spilled over into skirmishes in the streets leading off Blackfriars Road. More significant in dispersing the crowds, many contemporaries believed, was the weather: by 3.00 pm, it was raining heavily. Three hours later, Grey had stood down those magistrates allocated to the detachments of troops and those in attendance at the Police Courts. The crisis had passed without serious incident. [20] The resolve of government, the authorities argued, was sufficient to ‘frighten’ O’Connor into asking his supporters not to confront the authorities and to disperse peacefully but this neglects that his intention was always that the meeting and the procession should be peaceful. The Petition was carried by O’Connor, Doyle, McGrath, Jones, Wheeler and Harney in three cabs, first to Kennington Common and then on to Westminster.

The meeting was immediately mocked by many as a ‘fiasco’ and two days later O’Connor faced further criticism when the five ton Petition was found to weight barely a quarter of a ton and contain less than two million genuine signatures. [21] This was ‘the real ‘fiasco’ of 1848’. In fact, O’Connor saw the meeting as a decisive moral victory. He had insisted that the meeting went ahead and had ensured that it was peaceful and had been able to call off the procession without any dissent. As Belchem rightly concludes that he was able to ‘extricate the movement from the difficulty posed by the intractability of the government’. The constitutional right of assembly was maintained and violence largely avoided. [22]

‘Fiasco’ or not?

Contemporaries interpreted the events of 10 April in two different ways. The establishment declared that it was a ‘fiasco’ and that Britain had been saved by popular support from those who were loyal to the Crown. The other interpretation, held largely by Chartists saw a proper moral force demonstration facing an overwhelming counter demonstration of the government’s physical powers. Of these two views, the first was the orthodox position until the 1960s. In recent decades, historians have revived the Chartist interpretation and helped demolish some of the myths of 10 April.

Not all Chartists shared the contemporary Chartist views and anti-O’Connorite feeling spewed out in the aftermath of 10 April. Lovett blamed O’Connor and his ‘boasting physical force followers’ for allowing the Whigs to have their ‘triumph’. April 10 was a ‘blundering demonstration’.[23] Gammage complained of the ‘boasting’ and how O’Connor had encouraged the ‘empty braggarts’ to think that the procession to the House of Commons would take place. However, he did think that O’Connor was right to abandon the procession but that his tactics caused disunion in the movement.[24] Lovett and Gammage proved very influential for many writers and their denunciation of O’Connor on 10 April helped reinforce the establishment’s interpretation as the orthodox account.

George Jacob Holyoake initially set out the Chartist interpretation in Bygones Worth Remembering, in which he denounced the establishment position as a ‘myth’ and ‘had become historic, and passes as authentic’ showing ‘the wild way’ in which history could be written. There had been no revolutionary plans, no disorder was threatened and ‘no a man was armed’ on 10 April. [25] He was furious about the ‘utterly groundless and incredible representations’ of 10 April in Charles Kingsley’s novel Alton Locke:

I have promised to say little about the Tenth of April, for indeed I have no heart to do so…We had arrayed against us, by our own dread folly, the very physical force to which we had appealed. The dread of general plunder and outrage by the savages of London, the national hatred of that French and Irish interference of which we had boasted, armed against us thousands of special constables, who had in the abstract little or no objection to our political opinions…Above all, the people would not rise…they did not care to show themselves. And the futility after futility exposed itself. The meeting which was to have been counted by hundreds of thousands, numbered hardly in tens of thousands…O’Connor’s courage failed him, after all. He contrived to be called away, at the critical moment, by some problematic superintendent of police. Poor Cuffy, the honestest, if not the wisest speaker there, leapt off the waggon, exclaiming that we were all ‘humbugged and betrayed’’ and the meeting broke up pitiably, piecemeal, drenched and cowed, body and soul, by pouring rain all the way home – for the very heavens mercifully helped to quench our folly -- while the monster petition crawled ludicrously away in a back cab, to be dragged to the floor of the House of Commons amid roars of laughter.[26]

Holyoake was convinced that the government knew the truth about the confrontations because it had been engaged in ‘political imposture’ in order to gain advantage from posing as ‘the deliverers of England’. This view was widespread among Chartists and appeared in whole or in part in numerous speeches and Northern Star editorials. The Chartist interpretation also had more extreme explanations. One of these was that a great victory had been gained on 10 April because the Chartists held their meeting and showed their resolute moral power. Writing in 1850, Ernest Jones thought the great display of government power was a

...homage paid to our power, and a tactic admission…that the bulk of the popular feeling was against the government. [27]

Another extreme explanation was that a victory had been won because the people were heroically resolute in their restraint, depriving the government of its opportunity to use its powers of coercion. According to Reynolds’ Political Instructor on 10 April:

...the people were goaded by insults and injury to expose themselves…unarmed and unprepared [to] murder…by the bayonets, sabres and muskets’ amassed by the government.[28]

The orthodox interpretation was created in the euphoric atmosphere immediately after 10 April. The cartoon in Punch lampooning a physical force Chartist was published a few days after the Kennington meeting; it may have reflected attitudes after 10 April with comical relief but it was certainly not how the metropolitan elite saw the Chartists in the days leading up to the demonstration. It was enshrined in the popular histories of the nineteenth century and has been so pervasive that even historians of aspects of the British working-class movement have incorporated it uncritically into their accounts. Hovell described the event as a ‘tragic fiasco’, the day ‘the government finally laid the Chartist spectre’ low. [29] More recently, Rowe has written of the ‘farcical official conclusion of the movement in the Kennington Common meeting’[30] while Leventhal called the meeting ‘pathetic’.[31] An alternative interpretation can be found in the writings of the Communist historian Reg Groves who saw the ‘ignominious surrender’ of 10 April as a disaster stemming from the ‘centrism’ of O’Connor who appeared to ‘advocate mass action, leads the workers almost to the point of struggle and then falls back into confusion and defeat’. [32]

Other historians have reasserted the fundamental Chartist interpretation beginning in the 1950s with the seminal article by John Saville.[33] He vigorously attacked the ‘commonplace’ account of the fiasco of 10 April that he found ‘almost always the same’. He reiterated the view that the demonstration of was ‘never intended to be anything more than a demonstration’ and that the press and the government exaggerated it into something else. Building on Saville’s views, Stevenson,[34] Large[35] and Goodway[36] emphasised the peaceful nature of the mass demonstration. Royle points out that the attempt to portray 10 April as a fiasco is ‘as much ideological as historical’ [37] while for Goodway if ‘there was a ‘fiasco’…it lay not with the Chartists’ holding their meeting…but in the massive over-reaction of their opponents.’ [38]

Quinault argues that the peaceful outcome of the Kennington Common meeting ‘soon induced a public mood of cautious reformism rather than complacent conservatism.’ [39] This was clearly evident in the press with The Times arguing:

...upon the Government and the metropolis the wisdom of an over powering and conclusive display against the threaters of the brand and the sword, we were careful to observe…that every point of ‘the Charter’ was a fair subject of discussion…England will always be a reforming nation. [40]

The discrediting of the Chartist leadership in April enabled parliamentary radicals to reassert their own popular authority. Just as in 1842 when Joseph Hume founded the NCSU on the wreck of the Second Petition, radicals quickly stepped into the void left by the failure of the Third. [41] Less than a week after the Kennington meetings, middle-class radicals launched their own campaign for parliamentary reform when, on 13 April, a group of fifty Liberal MPs led by Joseph Hume signed a requisition in favour of extending the franchise. It achieved its objective of a debate on the constitution on 20 June with a motion calling for household suffrage, secret ballot, more equal electoral districts and triennial parliaments. [42]

The mythology of Kennington Common as a ‘fiasco’ was largely created in retrospect. This view needs revision in three important respects. Most people were not laughing until it was all over and this is clear from diaries kept at the time by prominent figures. The build up to 10 April had been government policy partly to overawe and discredit the Chartists and partly to impress foreign governments that had shown themselves unable to cope with their own revolutionary crowds. The ‘fiasco’ effect was in part planned by the government to discredit the Chartists.

The result is a caricature of the whole affair into self-congratulatory farce in which an elephant of order crushes a mouse of rebellion. [43]

From the point of view of revolutionary threat, worse was still to come.

[1] Northern Star, 25 March 1848.

[2] Chase, Chartism, p. 299.

[3] ‘The National Convention’, Northern Star, 8 April 1848, pp, 1, 8, 33, reports the sessions from Tuesday 4 April to Friday 7 April.

[4] Hoyles, Martin, William Cuffay: The Life & Times of a Chartist Leader, (Hansib Publications Ltd.), 2013, Gossman, N., ‘William Cuffay: London's Black Chartist’, Phylon, Vol. 44, (1), 1983, pp. 56-65, and DLB, Vol. 6, pp. 77-80, are useful biographies. See also, Gregory, M., ‘William Cuffay in Tasmania’, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Vol. 58, (1), 2011, pp. 61-77.

[5] Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, p. 309.

[6] ‘The National Petition’, Northern Star, 8 April 1848, p. 5.

[7] John, Earl Russell, Recollections and Suggestions, 1815-1873, (Longman, Green and Co.), 1875, pp. 252-253.

[8] Russell, nonetheless made it clear that ‘a petition so numerously signed as the hon. Gentleman has declared the petition he has to present will be, should not be received, and meet with every consideration from the House’: Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 7 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc4-5.

[9] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 7 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc20-59.

[10] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 6 April 1848, Vol. 97, cc1353-1355. Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, ‘directed a notice to be issued, which, I trust, will be published in half an hour throughout the streets of London, and circulated over the country, pointing out that by the statute and common law of these realms this intended procession is illegal, and warning all loyal and peaceable subjects of Her Majesty to abstain from taking part in such procession..’ For the second reading of the Crown and Government Security Bill, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 10 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc73-135; it went into committee, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 12 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc223-259, 14 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc340-379; and then to the Lords, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 19 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc485-507, 20 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc534-537.

[11] The problematic nature of using workers as special constables is illustrated by a meeting of workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company on 23 March: ‘The Working Class as Special Constable’, Northern Star, 25 March 1848, p. 3. The meeting passed three resolutions: the first, objected to the ‘abrupt manner’ in which the authorities called on them to act as special constables; the second, accepted that it was the duty of ‘all classes to protect life and property’ pledging to do so if ‘the middle class pledges themselves to protect our capital, namely our labour’; and finally, that existing distress was caused by ‘class legislation’ and that this would not be resolved ‘until the working classes are fully and fairly represented in the Commons’ House of Parliament…’

[12] Bain, Alexander, Autobiography, (Longmans, Green, and Co.), 1904, p. 206.

[13] Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, pp. 76-77, provides a lucid account of the sequence of events on 10 April.

[14] Nonconformist, 12 April 1848.

[15] ‘Meeting at Lambeth. Resignation of Bronterre O’Brien’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, p. 6.

[16] Presentation of the National Petition. Great Chartist Demonstration’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, p. 7, includes the proceedings of the Convention on 10 April, ‘The Chartist Demonstration’, Morning Chronicle, 11 April 1848, p. 5, ‘Preservation of the Peace of the Metropolis’, Morning Chronicle, 11 April 1848, p. 6.

[17] ‘Presentation of the National Petition. Great Chartist Demonstration’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, pp. 7-8, provides a detailed account of preparations for the meeting and the meeting itself. Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, pp. 69-70.

[18] Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, p. 314.

[19] Presentation of the National Petition. Great Chartist Demonstration’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, p. 8.

[20] This should be compared with the similar way in which the Provisional Government in France dealt with the workers’ demonstration in Paris on 16 April and the demonstration on 15 May when a radical procession invaded the National Assembly in an attempt to overthrow the government. Traugott, Mark, Armies of the Poor: Determinants of Working-Class Participation in the Parisian Insurrection of June 1848, (Princeton University Press), 1985, pp. 21-22, Lignereux, Aurélien, La France rébellionnaire: Les résistances a la gendarmerie, (1800-1859), (Presses Universitaires de Rennes), 2008, pp. 187-196.

[21] ‘The Prostitute Press’, Northern Star, 22 April 1848, p. 2, printed extracts from the ‘infamous press’ of the ‘lies and calumnies directed against the Chartists’.

[22] Ibid, Belchem, John, ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein, and Thompson, (eds.), The Chartist Experience, p. 282.

[23] Lovett, Life and Struggles, 1876, p. 285.

[24] Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, pp. 331-332.

[25] Holyoake, G. J., Bygones Worth Remembering, 2 Vols. (E. P. Dutton and Company)., 1905, Vol. 1, pp. 73-81.

[26] Ibid, Kingsley, Charles, Alton Locke, pp. 309-310.

[27] Saville, John, Ernest Jones, (Lawrence & Wishart), 1952, pp. 109-111, where he cites an open letter in the Northern Star, 9 July 1850.

[28] Reynolds’ Political Instructor, 23 March 1850.

[29] Hovell, The Chartist Movement, pp. 292, 343.

[30] Rowe, D. J., ‘The Failure of London Chartism’, Historical Journal, Vol. xi, (1968), p. 482.

[31] Leventhal, F. M., Respectable Radical: Howell, George, and Victorian Working Class Politics, London, 1971, p. 22.

[32] Groves, Reg, ‘The Class Leadership of Chartism’, The Labour Monthly, Vol. 2, (April 1929), p. 128.

[33] Saville, John, ‘Chartism in the Year of Revolution, The Modern Quarterly, (Winter 1952-1953), later extended into his 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement.

[34] Stevenson, John, Popular Disturbances in England 1700-1870, (Longman), 1979, p. 268.

[35] Large, David, ‘London in the Year of Revolution’, in Stevenson, John, (ed.), London in the Age of Reform, (Basil Blackwell), 1977, pp. 177-203.

[36] Ibid, Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, p. 74.

[37] Royle, Edward, Chartism, (Longman), 1980, p. 43.

[38] Ibid, Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, p. 77.

[39] Quinault, Roland, ‘1848 and Parliamentary Reform’, Historical Journal, Vol. 31, (4), (1988), pp. 836-837.

[40] The Times, 17 April 1848.

[41] Ibid, Saunders, Robert, ‘Chartism from above: British elites and the interpretation of Chartism’, p. 480.

[42] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 20 June 1848, Vol. 99, cc879-966.

[43] Ibid, Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, p. 78.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

What were the social and economic effects of the Famine?

The ‘Great Famine’ began unexpectedly in the late summer of 1845. By September, potatoes were rotting in the ground and within a month blight was spreading rapidly. Three-quarters of the country’s crop, the chief food for some three million people was wiped out. The following year blight caused a total crop failure. In 1847, the blight was less virulent but in 1848 a poor grain harvest aggravated the situation further. 1848 proved to be the worst year in terms of distress and death during the whole history of the Great Famine. Both 1849 and 1850 saw blight, substantial in some counties, sporadic in others.

Why was there famine?

Famine caused by potato blight was nothing new to Ireland. There had been failures in 1739, 1741, 1801, 1817 and 1821. In 1741, perhaps 400,000 people died because of famine. The Great Famine in the 1840s was only one demographic crisis among many but most historians regard it as a real turning point in Irish history. It was simply a disaster beyond all expectations and imagination.

Chap 1 Famine2

Contemporaries and historians have considerable difficulty in explaining why the Famine took place. It is, however, generally agreed that the structure of the Irish economy and especially its system of land tenure played a significant part. Most of the cultivated land in Ireland in the 1840s was in the hands of Protestant landowners. Estates were regarded as sources of income for these landowners, many of them absentees in England rather than long-term investments. This led to a failure to invest in Irish farming. Tenants were unable to invest in their land because of high rents. Where improvement in farming did occur in Ireland, it proved very profitable. Irish agriculture promised returns of between 15 and 20 per cent compared to 5 to 10 per cent yields in England. There was insufficient land available to satisfy demand, despite the conclusion of the Devon Commission that over 1.5 million acres of land suitable for tillage was uncultivated. This led to the division and sub-division of land. By 1845, a quarter of all holdings were between one and five acres, 40 per cent were between five and fifteen acres and only seven per cent over thirty acres. This created under-employment and forced many of the labourers to become migrant workers in England for part of the year. They became navvies for road building, canal digging and railway construction. Many turned seasonal migration into permanent settlement and were largely involved in work English people found dirty, disreputable or otherwise disagreeable--jobs like petty trading, keeping lodging-houses and beer-houses. Inadequate investment meant that Irish industrialisation could not provide the employment necessary to absorb its growing population.

Chap 1 Famine1

The potato made the division and sub-division of land possible. It was easy to grow even in poor soil and produced high yields. Two acres of land could provide enough potatoes for a family of five or six to live on for a year. Potatoes could also be used to feed pigs and poultry. Subsistence on the potato allowed tenants to grow wheat and oats to pay their rent. The precise relationship between the potato and population growth in Ireland is difficult to establish. It is clear that there was a dramatic rise in Irish population in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The high birth rate and the early age of marriage were largely responsible for dramatic growth. Between 1780 and 1841, Ireland’s population increased from about five million to over eight million people, despite the emigration of one and a half million people in the decades after Union. This placed even greater pressure on land and greater reliance on the potato.

How did the British government react?

Peel’s response was rapid and, within limits, imaginative. The crisis convinced him finally of the necessity for dismantling the Corn Laws but he realised that this would, because of its contentious nature, take time. Immediate solutions were needed. In November 1845, a Special Commission was established to co-ordinate relief efforts. It did two things. First, work was needed so that labourers could afford to buy food. The government established public work schemes but on a much larger scale than before. These were the boom years of Irish railway construction. Food had also to be kept at a level that prevented profiteering. £185,000 was spent on supplies, chiefly Indian meal. These measures, however, only met the immediate crisis. Lord John Russell succeeded Peel in mid-1846 but he lacked Peel’s Irish experience. Economy and efficiency replaced Peel’s more humane policy. The full extent of the Famine was seriously under­estimated in official circles. The problem, however, was not the shortage of food in Ireland--between September 1846 and July 1847 five times as much grain was imported as was exported--but of ensuring that those in need had access to that food. The failure was one of awareness, not compassion.

What were the consequences of the Famine?

Between 1841 and 1851, the population of Ireland fell from over 8 million to some 6.5 million. Emigration accounted for perhaps 1.5 million and became an accepted part of Irish life. This leaves about a million deaths as a result of the Famine. Actual starvation rarely caused death but weakened people sufficiently for dis­eases like typhus and fever to take their toll. In early 1849, a serious outbreak of cholera added to the problem. The impact of famine was felt differently in both regional and social terms. Western and south-western counties were hardest hit. Counties on the east coast, where food could be more easily imported, were least affected. The north-east did not suffer a crisis, despite its high density of population, because of the more industrial nature of its economy. But it was not unaffected. Many disease-ridden migrants crowded into Belfast, where poor living conditions helped spread disease, but this was a public health not an economic problem.

Chap 1 Deverall_The_Irish_Vagrants_1853

Labourers and small farmers were the chief victims of the Famine. In 1841, 71.5 per cent of holdings were less than 15 acres but by 1851 the figure was 49.1 per cent. There was a consequent increase in the number of holdings over 15 acres from 18.5 to 50.9 per cent. Livestock farming expanded encouraged by attractive prices in Britain and by reductions in transport costs. In 1851, the agricultural economy was apparently still in a state of crisis: the potato had lost its potency, low agricultural prices gave little promise of recovery to those who had survived, and slightly larger holdings hardly made up for increased Poor Law rates. But from the 1850s change was rapid. Livestock increased in value and numbers, arable farming declined slowly and tenant farmers, whose numbers remained relatively stable for the next fifty years, enjoyed some prosperity.

The Famine marked a watershed in the political history of modern Ireland. The Repeal Association of O’Connell was dead. Young Ireland made their separatist gesture in the abortive rising of 1848. A sense of desolation, growing sectarian divisions, the rhetoric of genocide and the re-emergence of some form of national consciousness eventually led to the emergence of a movement dedicated to the independence of Ireland from English rule.