Friday, 31 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Francis Place 2

The 1820s

Despite the defeat of 1819, Place’s reputation as an organizer and a repository of information on social issues grew. His political influence, his practical experience of business, and his wide reading gave him a new status among the theorists. In 1808 he had met and befriended Jeremy Bentham and through him encountered James Mill, who in turn introduced him to the economist David Ricardo. In 1810 Place befriended his old mentor Godwin, now a chronically insolvent figure, who seems to have expected him to contribute regularly to his maintenance. Place had a horror of debt and the two men disagreed. Already attracted to the doctrines of Bentham and Mill, because they seemed to offer a firm theoretical foundation for popular education and a safe principle for the extension of the franchise, Place began to shed the utopian radicalism he had absorbed in the 1790s. A visit to Bentham at Ford Abbey in 1817 confirmed his membership of the utilitarian circle. Place accepted Bentham’s jurisprudence, Malthus’s principle of population, and Ricardo’s doctrine of the wages fund, but when Godwin published a defence of his position against Malthus in 1820, he wrote a lengthy reply called Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population (1822). In this Place criticised Malthus for his ignorance of the conditions in which the poor lived and Godwin for giving up all hope for their improvement. If Godwin was too despondent, Malthus was too naïve to suppose that working men would be persuaded to avoid hardship by marrying later in life. Place himself thought that the poor could be persuaded to avoid the burden of large families only if they were encouraged to use contraception, and his frank propaganda for this lost him many friends.

Place tried to stay loyal to his artisan origins, and he never wavered in his dislike of aristocratic society, but his new allegiances affected, and in some ways compromised, his claim to speak for the poor. He was abused by leaders of popular radicalism: Cobbett disliked him as a utilitarian and a Malthusian. He retaliated by calling Cobbett ‘an unprincipled cowardly bully’, and by using all his influence to keep him out of the representation of Westminster. He also distrusted the radical agitator Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. He thought such men owed their popularity to their readiness to deceive simple people into believing in easy solutions to complex social problems. After some disillusioning experiences with the educational schemes of Joseph Lancaster, who disagreed with him over his ‘infidel’ opinions (Baker, 377), Place was inclined to follow the utilitarian policy of James Mill, who, by conveying the main texts of his political creed in simple, accessible treatises, sought to form a new democratic public of candid, self-reliant, and rational individuals who would teach by their example. But utilitarian theories never commanded a wide popular following. Meek converts such as Rowland Detrosier could prove ineffectual; but able and original ones such as Thomas Hodgskin might turn heretic.

More effective than such proselytism was the policy of lobbying sympathetic people in power on insulated issues. Here Place’s mastery of detail was more effective than his grasp of theory. His greatest success came in 1824, when he helped the radical MP Joseph Hume first to effect the repeal of the combination laws, and then to stave off the threat of their reintroduction by the government the following year. His motive was not to make trade unions a part of the social fabric; he thought they were brought into being in response to employers’ combining to lower wages, and that they would wither away when the legislation against them had been repealed. Working men, once convinced that they could control their own numbers, would not need any other contrivance for raising wages. Place was not, as later historians claimed, pioneering a new form of objective parliamentary investigation. Managing committees and priming witnesses were devices his opponents could use against him, as he discovered in his efforts against the evangelically inspired select committee on drunkenness in 1834. What he most disliked were restrictions on the power of the working man to make his own choices. In union organisation as in the temperance movement, he thought well-meaning interference worse than the faults it sought to cure.

From 1830

Place’s commitment to free contract and self-help made him a staunch defender of capital honestly earned. What made him radical was his hatred of what he regarded as the unearned wealth of the landed classes. But when the Whigs came to power in 1830 he supported all their reforms. The first Reform Bill surprised him by its thoroughness, and though he deplored the fact that the £10 household franchise deprived many Westminster electors of their votes, he approved the bill as a whole. When in October 1831, the Lords rejected it, he helped form the moderate National Political Union to support ministers and to counter the more extremist National Union of the Working Classes, which met at the Rotunda in Blackfriars Bridge Road. His aim was to prevent the middle classes from deserting their poorer allies in alarm at threats to property and order. In the ‘days of May’ in 1832, when Grey’s resignation raised the prospect of a Wellington ministry, Place claimed that his placard urging a run on the banks (‘To Stop the Duke, Go for Gold’) had deterred the duke and reinstated Grey. Place said that the Reform Act, when finally passed, was valuable as a start of the destruction of ‘the old rotten system’ of representation, and at first he wrote as if further reforms leading to a republic were a mere matter of time, given a strong popular demand. He supported the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and the reform of municipal corporations in 1835, and collaborated with Joseph Parkes over the framing of the latter. But he was not prepared for the rapid disintegration of the reforming majority in parliament, and he could not understand why his friends there became more and more reluctant to propose further radical measures or support a government which declared the Reform Act a final measure. By then his own reputation as a radical was also compromised. After 1836, the popular radicalism he had wanted to revive developed ideas of which he disapproved. In 1838, he helped draft the Peoples’ Charter in a gathering of the London Working Men’s Association. But the Chartist movement was soon captured by currency reformers, Owenite socialists, and advocates of ‘physical force’. Its political aims were discredited by the violence of its meetings, and Place became disillusioned. He opposed factory reform and supported the Anti-Corn Law League without apparently realizing that these attitudes associated him with the enemies of the working man. Despairing of influencing events, he turned more to arranging his recollections and accumulating the records with which he hoped to write a social history of his time.

Place’s private life had meanwhile undergone a change which he ironically called ‘my own revolution’. On 19th October 1827, Elizabeth Place had died, to his great grief. In February 1830, he married Louisa Chatterley, an actress twenty-six years his junior. Her first husband had died of drink, and her second partner had been transported. To a man of Place’s antecedents these were not objections, but his son called the marriage ‘a terrible falling off from his former rigidly virtuous life’. It is not clear if she was the cause of his financial losses which he suffered in 1833 and which led him to leave Charing Cross and settle at Brompton. By the move he ceased to enjoy the close contacts he had had with politicians and reformers in the library above his shop. He also lost status. He would have liked to be offered a post on one of the many commissions instituted by the Grey government, but was passed over. This vindicated his bitter criticisms of the system, but it meant that he had never any direct experience of the responsibilities of government, and remained a critic on the margin. Readers of Place’s voluminous papers, now one of the chief nineteenth-century collections in the British Library, cannot be surprised at this. Place’s doctrinaire outlook, together with the dogmatism of the autodidact, made him a difficult colleague in any public business. He tended to decide in advance what course should be followed and to attribute all subsequent difficulties to the fact that his advice had not been taken. His papers are full of bullying interviews with humble men, brutally candid appraisals of the shortcomings of colleagues, and hectoring letters of advice to MPs and officials. James Mill once tried to cure him of his habit of ‘raving’ and it may be that in later life Place indulged this habit in the long drafts of letters which, if sent at all, could only have caused offence. His advice to the Chartist Henry Vincent when he announced his intention of standing as a candidate for Banbury is characteristic: ‘Become a man of business for the next ten years. You may perhaps at the end of that time be in a condition to do some public service. You will be quite in time for enacting the Charter, or for doing any other great national good.’

The obverse of this dogmatism was an impulse to collect evidence, at first probably to illustrate his own rectitude, but later to document the larger movements of his time. From 1898, when Graham Wallas published the first biography, until our own day, the Place papers, including his autobiography, have provided one of the richest sources for the history of radical reforming movements in the period covered by his life, from the LCS to the Chartists. In 1844 Place suffered a stroke which left him partially disabled. In 1851 he separated from his second wife, and went to live with his daughter Annie. He died in her house in Hammersmith on 1st January 1854. The editor of The Times, J. T. Delane, told Joseph Parkes on 4th January that he would be glad to publish his memoir of Place, ‘but can’t you get him into one column? A column used to be enough for a hero; it ought to suffice for a tailor—even a Radical tailor’.

Chartist Lives: Francis Place 1

Place[1] was born on 3rd November 1771, the illegitimate son of Simon Place and Mary Gray.

Background and early life
Simon Place was by trade a baker who had become the keeper of a ‘sponging house’, or debtors’ prison, in Vinegar Yard, near Drury Lane Theatre in London, where Francis was born. Such places were made illegal in 1779 and he became an innkeeper. He was a violent, erratic man of strong character. Francis had some schooling from 1775 to 1785, the last two years in a school kept by a Mr Bowis, whom he remembered for his kindness and learning. In 1785, Simon Place impulsively apprenticed his son to a breeches-maker called France, in Bell Yard, Temple Bar, a man whose three daughters lived on immoral earnings and who was himself to die in a workhouse.

Place’s upbringing had been rough, and much of his education had been in the streets, but he was literate and he soon showed more business acumen than the small tradesmen struggling around him. He prospered enough to marry in March 1791, at Lambeth, Elizabeth Chadd. She was sixteen, while he was only three years older. A slump in the breeches trade in 1791–2 caused them great distress, and when early in 1791 he joined and led a strike of breeches-makers which collapsed, they came close to starvation. For six months Place could get no work, until relief came from a former employer and he and his wife were able to buy back the possessions they had pawned. These years left a permanent mark on Place’s outlook. From his father he had learned how great assets could be lost by impulsiveness and folly, ‘keeping a blood horse and high company’. On the other side, the misfortunes of his fellow artisans showed the disastrous effects of ignorance and improvidence. He saw that his education, for all its shortcomings, had saved him from both.

But Place too had given hostages to fortune. Elizabeth Place was to bear fifteen children; only eight reached adulthood. The second, but the first to survive, also called Elizabeth, was born in April 1794. In January 1796, a second daughter, Annie, was born, followed in June 1798 by a son, Francis. His growing family did not turn Place away from radicalism, but it helps explain the turn his radicalism took.

Paine, Godwin, and the London Corresponding Society
In April 1794, Place read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason and was so pleased by it that he decided in June to join the London Corresponding Society (LCS). He was probably too innocent of foreign politics to know how dangerous a move it was. In Paris the reign of terror was at its height and in the same month Robespierre inaugurated the cult of the Supreme Being. The LCS was known for its French sympathies and its meetings were watched and often infiltrated by spies. In 1794, one of its founders, Thomas Hardy, and two leaders of the more respectable Society for Constitutional Information, Horne Tooke and John Thelwall, were arrested; tried for seditious activities, they were acquitted in November.

The government followed this reverse with two acts defining treason and restricting political meetings. Place was active in supporting prisoners in Newgate who were charged with treason, and he was and remained a friend of Hardy. But on the LCS he seems to have been a moderating influence. He chaired its general committee from September 1795 to February 1796 and was assistant secretary from May 1796 to early 1797. He opposed the policy of calling provocative meetings and the publication of a magazine which would only lose money. He also deprecated attacks on Christianity: not that he had any religious convictions, though he has been claimed as a professed atheist. But he moved from the agrarian radicalism of Paine to the philosophic anarchism of William Godwin, and while remaining a republican he repudiated the revolutionary doctrines of natural rights and the social contract, and embraced the ideals of independence, absolute sincerity, and the gradual elimination of injustice through the spread of philosophic reason. He was not an abstract thinker. He adopted and professed those doctrines which confirmed his own experiences. Godwin repudiated violence and revolutionary agitation. Place saw that they did not bring work in a country at war with revolutionary France. He left the LCS in June 1797.

In March 1799, Place entered a partnership with Richard Wild and they opened a shop at 29 Charing Cross. Wild sought to buy Place out in the following year, but Place borrowed enough money to set up on his own at 16 Charing Cross. Within a few years he had become a prosperous man. In 1815, he was making an annual profit of £2500 and two years later he handed over a prosperous business to be managed by his son Francis. He was not alone in this prosperity. The war economy was good for the London shopkeeper, especially one so centrally situated. In 1820, Place attended a dinner to commemorate Thomas Hardy’s acquittal and noted that of the company twenty were former members of the LCS and all prosperous men. For the first time in his life he had leisure to elaborate his views with reading and reflection and to apply them in everyday politics. His Jacobin connections, his friendships with men such as the Irishman Father James O’Coigley and Colonel Despard (both executed for revolutionary activities), made him a natural confidant of radical politicians of every sort. His practical experience and his ready sympathy with people in distress made many poor people seek his advice. He was also consulted by a new class of theorists, planners, and philanthropists who, in the unreformed political system, could not find the information they wanted from official sources. To them all Place, as a good Godwinian, gave shrewd practical advice with a dash of unpalatable candour.

Westminster elections, 1807–1820
What gave Place’s advice weight was his growing authority in the elections in Westminster. The borough’s scot and lot franchise gave the vote, in effect, to ratepayers and until 1807 its elections had been heavily influenced by the owners of large London estates such as the duke of Bedford and the duke of Northumberland, who dictated the voting of their many tenants. The size of the electorate—about 15,000—made standing for election expensive, but the meetings in Covent Garden attracted such crowds that Westminster elections took on the air of a national plebiscite. In times of popular unrest candidates for the two main parties could each ask for one of an elector’s two votes, and in this way keep out a radical candidate. In the general election of 1806 James Paull, the radical candidate, had been defeated in this way. Another general election followed in May 1807, and Paull claimed to be standing in alliance with Sir Francis Burdett. The two men quarrelled and fought a duel, and Place and his friends decided to drop Paull and back Burdett, despite the fact that he had been wounded and could not appear at the hustings. This time they won, and their victory gave Westminster at least one radical member for the next twenty-eight years. As Place kept meticulous records of Westminster elections, he has often been credited with ‘masterminding’ them. In fact he was the most literate and systematic member of a committee of like-minded men, several quite as wealthy, who had hit upon a new way of marshalling the popular vote. By asking each elector to subscribe what he could to meet the expenses of the poll, they secured a core of loyal voters while increasing the expense for any competitor, and by organizing their following through committees in every parish of the borough, co-ordinated by a central committee, they were able to choose a candidate and guarantee him a substantial following before a rival could appear. They had invented the first constituency caucus. Their slogan, ‘Westminster and Purity of Election’, implied that they had done away with landlordism and intimidation. It did not mean that they secured obedient democrats as MPs.

Place quarrelled with Burdett in 1812, and withdrew from Westminster elections until 1818. In the general election of that year his old friends begged him to help and he relented only when the election had already begun. His help was sorely needed: Burdett’s seat was secured but he was second on the poll to the Whig lawyer Sir Samuel Romilly. Romilly’s suicide in November 1818 caused a by-election, and Place tried to secure the return of J. C. Hobhouse. But on the eve of the poll he rashly published a paper abusing the Whigs as a ‘corrupt and profligate faction’. They retaliated by starting their own candidate, George Lamb, who won the seat in an election of unusual violence. It was only after the radical outcry over the Peterloo massacre in 1819, in which Burdett and Hobhouse joined, each sealing his popularity with a short prison sentence that both men were returned at the general election of 1820. Before long, however, Place was highly critical of their attitude to radical causes, calling them ‘little if any better than mere drawling Whigs’. J. C. Hobhouse went on to become a Whig minister. Burdett joined the Tories in 1834 but still retained his Westminster seat.


[1] Sources: G. Wallas The life of Francis Place, revised edition, 1918, The autobiography of Francis Place, 1771–1854, ed. M. Thale, 1972, M. Thale (ed.) Selections from the papers of the London Corresponding Society, 1792–1799, 1983, London radicalism, 1830–1843: a selection from the papers of Francis Place, ed. D. J. Rowe, London Record Society, volume 5, 1970, W. E. S. Thomas ‘Francis Place and working class history’, Historical Journal, volume 5, (1962), pages 61–70, W. Thomas The philosophic radicals: nine studies in theory and practice, 1817–1841, 1979, chapters 1, 2, D. J. Rowe ‘Francis Place and the historian’, Historical Journal, volume 16 (1973), pages 45–63 and D. Miles, Francis Place, 1771–1854: the life of a remarkable radical, 1988. Archives: British Library correspondence and papers, press cuttings, Add. MSS 27789–27859; 35142–35154; 36623–36628; 37949–37950; 57841A, B.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Thomas Phillips

Phillips[1], a local politician and writer on education, was born at Llanelli, Brecknockshire, the eldest son of Thomas Phillips and his wife, Ann, eldest daughter of Benjamin James of Llangattock, Crickhowell, Brecknockshire. He was articled to a solicitor in Newport, Thomas Prothero, becoming in 1824 a partner in the practice. Phillips and Prothero took a leading part in political life in Newport, and on 9th November 1838 Phillips became its mayor. Towards the end of his tenure of the mayoralty, he had to deal with the Chartist insurrection of 1839 in Newport[2] and in the attack on the Westgate Hotel on 4th November Phillips was wounded, seriously in the arm and slightly in the hip. Following the defeat of the Chartists, he was invited by Queen Victoria to stay at Windsor Castle, where he was knighted on 9 December. The grateful citizens of Newport presented him with a testimonial for over £800, a service of plate, and his portrait. He was voted the freedom of the City of London on 26th February 1840.

On 10th June 1842, Phillips, having given up his practice as a solicitor in January 1840, was called to the bar at the Inner Temple. His career as a barrister, specialising in chancery work, was distinguished and he was named a queen’s counsel on 17th February 1865. He acquired considerable wealth from his legal work and he bought coalmines in South Wales. He took a leading role in educational endeavours: as a governor of King’s College, London, as a supporter of the National Society, and as a benefactor of Trinity College in Carmarthen, Howell’s School in Cardiff, and Christ College in Brecon. His deep commitment to the Church of England led him to serve as a member of the Church Institution, a governor of the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy, and a tireless contributor to the Church Extension Society in the diocese of Llandaff. He was also chairman of the Society of Arts.

Phillips felt keenly that the so-called blue books (the reports of the commissioners on education in Wales, published in 1847) were a serious misrepresentation of social conditions in Wales, and in 1849, after travelling all over Wales to collect material, he produced a magisterial work entitled Wales: the language, social condition, moral character, and religious opinions of the people, considered in their relation to education: with some account of the provision made for education in other parts of the kingdom. The following year he published The Life of James Davies, a Village Schoolmaster, an illustrated account of a pioneer of education in rural Wales. Phillips was struck with paralysis immediately after addressing a committee of the House of Commons and died five days later, on 26th May 1867, at his London home, 77 Gloucester Place, Portman Square. He was buried at Llanelen, Monmouthshire. He was unmarried, but his example of public service was followed by his sister’s son, Thomas Phillips Price, MP for the northern division of Monmouthshire between 1885 and 1895.


[1] Sources: J. Morgan Four biographical sketches, 1892, Law Times, 1st June 1867, pages 48, 110, The Times, 28th May 1867 and D. J. V. Jones The last rising: the Newport insurrection of 1839, 1985. Archives: Bodleian. Oxford: correspondence with Sir Thomas Phillips; and, National Library of Wales: letters to W. Addams-Williams

[2] Chris Williams ‘The great hero of the Newport Rising’: Thomas Phillips, Reform and Chartism’, Welsh History Review, volume 21, (2003) and ‘Sir Thomas Phillips and the Problem of “Class-Antagonism”’, in Michael J. Turner (ed.), Reform and Reformers in Victorian Britain, Sunderland University Press, 2002 provide valuable information on Phillips and his role at Newport.

Chartist Lives: Robert Philp

Philp[1], a Chartist and compiler of reference works, was born in Falmouth on 14th June 1819, the son of Henry Philp (1793–1836). His grandfather, Robert Kemp Philp (1769–1850), was the Unitarian minister of Falmouth and one of the earliest supporters of ragged schools.

Philp was apprenticed in 1835 to a printer in Bristol, and afterwards settled as a newsvendor in Bath, where he was once fined for selling a Sunday newspaper; on refusing to pay, he was condemned to the stocks for two hours. He became a well-known Chartist, regularly contributing to the movement’s journals and editing, with Henry Vincent, the National Vindicator, a Bath weekly newspaper, which appeared in 1841–2. Prominently involved in the campaign on behalf of the leader of the Newport rising, John Frost, he was arrested in early 1840, but charges were dropped. Philp’s prominence was confirmed by his election in mid-1841 to the executive committee of the National Charter Association. A supporter of a cross-class alliance, in the spring of 1842 he signed the declaration drawn up by Joseph Sturge and was appointed a delegate to the conference called by Sturge in Birmingham in December 1842. Philp did not believe he was abandoning his Chartist principles. He was a member of the National Convention which sat in London in April 1842, and is credited with having drawn up the second Chartist petition, signed by 3,317,752 persons. His support for Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union, however, resulted in a bitter row with Feargus O’Connor and his removal from the Chartist executive.

No longer a Chartist, Philp moved to Fetter Lane in London in 1845 and began a career as a publisher of popular literature. He was sub-editor of the People’s Journal from 1846 to 1848 and then launched the Family Friend, successively a monthly, fortnightly, and weekly periodical; he was its editor from 1849 to 1852. It had an enormous sale. Similar serials followed: the Family Tutor (1851–3), the Home Companion (1852–6), and the Family Treasury (1853–4). Philp then began to compile cheap practical handbooks; in many cases these were issued in monthly numbers at 2d. The most popular, Enquire Within upon Everything, appeared in 1856; a sixty-fifth edition followed in 1882, and by 1888 over a million copies had been sold. Another best-seller from 1856 was The Reason Why, which sought to answer common queries. This compilation heralded a Reason Why series of volumes dealing with such topics as domestic science (1857), the Bible (1859), natural history (1860), Christian denominations (1860), the garden and the farm (1860), and physical geography and geology (1863). His dictionaries of daily wants (1859), of useful knowledge (1858–62; issued in monthly parts), and of medical and surgical knowledge (1862–4; issued in monthly parts), and The Lady’s Every-day Book (1873) were also popular.

In addition to Philp’s various dictionaries, he also compiled travel guides, notably a series in the 1870s for the various railway companies. Finally, at least five songs by him were set to music, and he wrote poetry and a comedy in two acts, The Successful Candidate (1852). Philp died at 21 Claremont Square, Islington, on 30th November 1882, aged sixty-three, and was buried at Highgate. He left an only son.


[1] Sources: R. B. Pugh ‘Chartism in Somerset and Wiltshire’, Chartist Studies, ed. A. Briggs, 1959, pages 174–219, The Academy, 23rd December 1882, pages 451–2 and The Times, 23rd December 1882.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Arthur O'Neill

O’Neill[1], a reformer and minister of religion, was born in Chelmsford, Essex, in September 1819. His father, Arthur O’Neill, a coach maker, was an Irish protestant refugee, and his mother, Ann, claimed descent from John Rogers, a protestant martyr in Mary Tudor’s reign. The father died three months before Arthur’s birth, and the mother married an army quartermaster named Cooper. Destined for the army, O’Neill was employed by the 73rd regiment as a hospital dresser and compounder, during which time he attended the University of Malta and the college at Corfu. In 1835, he entered Glasgow University to study medicine but experienced a religious conversion and took up divinity.

As a student, O’Neill was influenced by J. A. Roebuck’s defence of the Canadians who rebelled in 1837; in his own words, he became ‘a peace man and a Chartist unchanged through nearly half a century’[2]. During the late 1830s, he supported himself as a public lecturer and Chartist lay preacher. He was one of the leaders of the Christian Chartist movement which developed in Scotland. In 1840, he settled in Birmingham as the minister of a Christian Chartist chapel in Newhall Street. O’Neill’s insistence that Christianity should be ‘the sole standard of government, commerce, education, and of every other pursuit of man’[3] offended many Chartists. William Lovett attacked his ‘cant and sentimentality’ and Feargus O’Connor denounced Christian Chartism as a divisive force. His closest collaborators were John Collins and Henry Vincent, who shared his religiosity. He co-operated with Joseph Sturge and the ‘moral radical’ dissenters who devised a complete suffrage bill that incorporated the six points of the People’s Charter. After Lovett and O’Connor rejected the bill at a conference in Birmingham in December 1842, O’Neill continued to associate with Sturge and was increasingly identified with him. In the meanwhile, O’Neill had become involved in the strikes that swept across the midlands in mid-1842. He was prosecuted for sedition and conspiracy, tried in August 1843, and gaoled for nearly twelve months.

Imprisonment deepened O’Neill’s religious commitment and he wrote that henceforward he would work for ‘the speedy appearance of the kingdom of Christ’[4], as revealed by scripture prophecy. On his release he resumed his Christian Chartist ministry in Birmingham, but the development of his religious beliefs convinced him of the need for adult baptism by immersion, and in 1846 he became a Baptist minister. The new status did not abate his political fervour. He had joined the Peace Society before his imprisonment and from the mid-1840s, together with Joseph Sturge, Henry Richard, Elihu Burritt and Richard Cobden, he promoted arbitration as a means of resolving international disputes. Late in life, he attended peace congresses in European cities between 1889 and 1893. True to the ideals that had led to his imprisonment, he helped to set up trade unions and became a member of the Reform League during the 1860s. Towards the end of his life, he was calling, not only for the full implementation of the People’s Charter, but also for parliamentary suffrage for women ratepayers and a version of home rule that would devolve legislative powers on parliaments elected in all the regions of the British Isles including the midlands. He also opposed slavery, the Contagious Diseases Acts, and the regulations governing the religious aspects of public education. As a teetotaller for over half a century, he advocated temperance as part of a programme of working-class self-help.

A strong, burly man, O’Neill had ‘soft and tender-looking blue eyes’ and a mellifluous voice. Until very late in life he enjoyed excellent health. He married on 17th June 1845 Esther Piddock Fallows, who predeceased him by sixteen years. O’Neill died at his home, 55 Hall Road, Handsworth, Staffordshire, on 14th May 1896 of ‘a valvular trouble of the heart and a serious liver disorder’[5] and was buried in Handsworth Old Church beside his wife. Two daughters and a son survived him.


[1] Sources: Handsworth Herald and North Birmingham News, 16th May 1896, Birmingham Faces and Places, volume 2, (1889–90), pages 152–5, National Association Gazette, 8th January 1842, National Association Gazette, 12th February 1842, National Association Gazette, 18th June 1842, A. Wilson Scottish chartist portraits, 1965, A. Wilson The chartist movement in Scotland, 1970 and A. Tyrrell Joseph Sturge and the ‘moral radical party’ in early Victorian Britain, 1987.

[2] Birmingham Post, 24th November 1885.

[3] National Association Gazette, 18th June 1842.

[4] Letter from A. G. O’Neill, 3rd February 1844, Sturge MSS.

[5] Handsworth Herald and North Birmingham News, 16th May 1896.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Feargus O'Connor

Feargus O’Connor[1] was the son of Roger O’Connor (1762-1834) and his second wife, Wilhelmina Bowen, of Connorville in the parish of Kinneigh, co. Cork, was born at Connorville, probably on 18th July 1796. Feargus had three brothers and three sisters as well as a half-brother and half-sister from his father’s earlier marriage. He came from a family of wealthy protestant landowners, although both his father and uncle changed their surnames from Conner to O’Connor and became United Irishmen. Feargus first attended school in London after his father’s exile from Ireland in 1801 and was subsequently educated at several schools near Dublin. He probably went to Trinity College, Dublin, but did not take a degree. He lived on his father’s Dangan Castle estate, co. Meath, where Roger O’Connor was allowed to return in 1803 and where as a young man Feargus pursued a keen interest in horse-racing. Around 1819, he was admitted to the King’s Inns, Dublin, and in 1826 joined Gray’s Inn, London; in 1830 he was admitted to the Irish bar, but he practised law only briefly. Around 1820 Feargus inherited the estate of Fort Robert, co. Cork, from his uncle Robert Conner. O’Connor was a reforming landlord and later claimed that he took part in Whiteboy activity. In 1822, he published his first political tract, A State of Ireland, in which he denounced corruption in local government. O’Connor did not participate in the movement for Catholic emancipation, but during the reform agitation of 1831–2 came forward as an advocate of Irish rights and democratic political reform. At this time his extraordinary talents as a public speaker first became evident.

After the passing of the Reform Bill, O’Connor stormed the country organising the registration of the new electorate. In the general election of December 1832, he was returned as a repealer at the head of the poll for co. Cork. As a member of Daniel O’Connell’s repeal party, O’Connor was an outspoken critic of the Whig government’s policies in both Ireland and England. He soon allied himself with London’s popular radicals and was involved in various radical campaigns, including those for press freedom and the return of the transported Dorchester labourers. In summer 1833, O’Connor clashed with O’Connell over the ‘Liberator’s’ refusal to move a motion for the repeal of the union. O’Connell’s faith in laissez-faire political economy and hostility towards trade unionism further alienated O’Connor. He fully detailed his differences with O’Connell in his Series of Letters…to Daniel O’Connell, published in October 1836. O’Connor was re-elected for co. Cork in 1835, but was unseated in June 1835 owing to his lack of the necessary freehold property qualification. The same month, he offered himself as a radical candidate for the seat at Oldham vacated by William Cobbett’s death, and although he withdrew early on the first day’s polling, his thirty-two votes were enough to secure victory for the Tory candidate over Cobbett’s son. O’Connor now embarked on a career primarily as a leader of English popular radicalism, although he continued to bring Irish issues to the fore.

As an independent agitator O’Connor did more than any single leader to lay the groundwork for Chartism. Having founded the Marylebone Radical Association in September 1835, he toured the industrial north as its missionary in 1835 and 1836, establishing radical associations and campaigning for universal male suffrage, repeal of the newspaper stamp, abolition of the new poor law, and shorter factory hours. In November 1836, he became an honorary member of the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), and in March 1838 he supported the formation of the London Democratic Association, an ultra-radical rival to the LWMA. However, O’Connor increasingly turned his attention to the industrial districts of England and Scotland. Most significantly, in 1837 he established the Northern Star, a weekly newspaper published at Leeds. Within four weeks of the paper’s first number on 18th November 1837, the paper was returning a profit and within a year it was the most widely circulated provincial paper in the land. The Northern Star became, in effect, Chartism’s official journal, publishing not only O’Connor’s weekly letter addressed to the ‘unshaved chins, blistered hands, and fustian jackets’, but a wide range of local Chartist news. In the columns of O’Connor’s paper, adherents became aware of the movement’s national scope. The establishment of the Star coincided with the height of the anti-poor law agitation in which O’Connor joined Richard Oastler and the Revd J. R. Stephens at large rallies characterised by violent rhetoric. O’Connor’s influence was crucial during the spring of 1838 in committing the forces of northern working-class radicalism to the Birmingham Political Union’s national petition, the People’s Charter drawn up by the LWMA, and plans for a national convention. He attended nearly all the ‘monster’ demonstrations from the late summer through the winter of 1838 that elected delegates to the convention. He assumed the role of national leader, co-ordinating and unifying the agitation. But O’Connor’s close identification with the lawless tone of northern radicalism, his presence at torchlight meetings, and his refusal to dissociate himself from Stephens and from recommendations for popular arming, alarmed moderate leaders in Birmingham, London, and Scotland. O’Connor openly confronted his critics in their own districts, where he won overwhelming approval from the local rank and file.

At the Chartist convention that assembled on 4th February 1839, O’Connor was from the beginning the chief figure, declaring the body to be ‘the only constituted authority representing the people of this country’[2]. The convention faltered over the question of what to do once parliament rejected the petition. O’Connor continually pressed the convention to take decisive action in conformity with his own strategy for attaining the Charter through intimidation and the mere threat of violent conflict. In July 1839, however, after the convention had committed the movement to a ‘national holiday’, O’Connor’s opposition was crucial in reversing this decision on the grounds that Chartists were unprepared for a showdown with government authorities and in substituting a token three-day strike. O’Connor probably knew something of the secret plans afoot for armed insurrection in autumn 1839, although he left for Ireland on 5th October and did not return to England until 2nd November. He was not involved in the preparations for the Newport rising on 4th November and warned Chartists against clandestine associations. On 17th March 1840, O’Connor was found guilty at York assizes of seditious libel for speeches—his own and those of others—published in the Northern Star, and on 11th May he was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment in York Castle. From prison he continued to write for the Northern Star. Despite his relatively good treatment in prison, he fully exploited the popular image of the patriot martyr. In July 1840 the National Charter Association (NCA), Chartism’s most important national association, was established. O’Connor strove to make it the party of all Chartists. He first joined the NCA executive in September 1843 as treasurer and was re-elected annually until 1851. On 30th August 1841 O’Connor was released from prison. Ever the populist showman, he emerged wearing a suit of working man’s fustian to signal his allegiance to the people.

Until after 1848, O’Connor had no real rivals for the loyalty and active support of Chartism’s rank and file, who regarded his leadership as crucial to maintaining national unity. During the early 1840s, however, O’Connor clashed with various radical leaders over Chartism’s direction. In spring 1841 he condemned ‘Church Chartism, Teetotal Chartism, Knowledge Chartism, and Household Suffrage Chartism’[3] based on his fears that such tendencies could lead to sectarianism or compromise the movement. More serious was the split over the Complete Suffrage Union (CSU), a middle-class initiative launched by the Birmingham Liberal Joseph Sturge and aimed at uniting middle-class and working-class reformers. During 1842, various leaders, including William Lovett and James Bronterre O’Brien, welcomed the CSU. While O’Connor anticipated winning the ‘industrious portion’ of the middle class (principally shopkeepers) to Chartism, he viewed the complete suffrage move as an attempt to undermine his own leadership and Chartism’s independence as a working-class movement. O’Connor again faced trial on 1st March 1843 at Lancaster, along with fifty-eight others, on charges of seditious conspiracy arising from the Chartist strikes that swept the industrial districts of the north and midlands in August 1842. O’Connor supported these strikes, although he held factory owners belonging to the Anti-Corn Law League responsible for their instigation. Convicted on one count of endeavouring to excite disaffection by unlawfully encouraging a stoppage of labour, O’Connor was never brought up for sentencing owing to a procedural error.

As Chartism waned during the years 1843–7, O’Connor kept the suffrage demand to the fore, although he encouraged causes he deemed complementary. He supported Lord Ashley’s factory bill, backed O’Connell’s final push for repeal of the Act of Union, and rallied support for trade unionism. He opposed the Anti-Corn Law League, and in August 1844 he engaged Richard Cobden in public debate at Northampton. Increasingly, however, O’Connor stressed the importance of working people’s alienation from the land. As early as 1841 he declared: ‘Lock-up the land to-morrow, and I would not give you two pence for the Charter the next day’[4]. In 1843, an NCA conference at Birmingham approved his proposal for establishing Chartist land communities, although it was not until April 1845 that the Chartist Co-operative Land Society was established. His scheme was to buy agricultural estates, divide them into small-holdings, and let the holdings by ballot. O’Connor elaborated his agrarian vision in his book A Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms, published in 1843, in the Northern Star, and in The Labourer (4 volumes, 1847–8), a monthly journal that he co-edited with Ernest Jones. The land plan is best understood in terms of long-standing popular radical interest in and ideas on the land and notions of collective self-reliance. After 1845, much of O’Connor’s energy was absorbed by the land plan, raising money, trying to register the company as a friendly society, buying land, and supervising the building of cottages. On May Day 1847, settlers moved into O’Connorville, an estate near Watford, the first of five Chartist settlements (Charterville at Minster Lovell, near Oxford, survives largely intact). At the general election of July 1847, O’Connor was returned at Nottingham, becoming Chartism’s first and only MP.

In 1848, inspired in part by the revolution in France and bolstered by co-operation with Irish nationalists, Chartism again mobilised large numbers with O’Connor at its head. A third national petition was organised and a convention sat to co-ordinate Chartist strategy. O’Connor presided at the great Kennington Common demonstration on 10th April 1848 and managed to persuade the people to abandon the proposed procession to the House of Commons to present the petition, thus avoiding a violent confrontation with government troops, police, and a large middle-class force enrolled as special constables. That evening, O’Connor presented the national petition to the Commons, claiming that it contained 5,706,000 signatures. O’Connor was greatly embarrassed when the committee on petitions reported that the total came to 1,975,496, a figure that included many bogus signatures. In summer 1848 a select committee of the House of Commons reported that the land company was illegal, although O’Connor was found to have sunk £3400 of his own money in the company. In fact, the company’s legal problems arose directly from the refusal of parliament and the law courts to allow for a popularly owned and controlled association of small-holders. After 1848, Chartism went into sharp decline, although O’Connor remained a prominent leader, offering radical redirection without sanctioning socialism. Some time in 1851, O’Connor suffered the onset of serious mental illness, perhaps the final stage of syphilis. There is no indication that he was possessed of anything but fully sound mind before this. On his return from a visit to the United States in 1852, he struck two fellow members in the Commons and was arrested and confined in the Palace of Westminster. In June 1852, he was admitted to Dr Harrington Tuke’s asylum at Chiswick, where he remained until just before his death. O’Connor died on 30th August 1855 at his sister Harriet’s home, 18 Albert Terrace, Notting Hill, in London. Fifty thousand persons were reported to have attended his funeral on 10th September at Kensal Green. O’Connor never married, although in the 1830s it was rumoured that he and Louisa Nisbett, a celebrated actress, were lovers. He fathered several illegitimate children. Through much of his Chartist career he lived in Hammersmith, having leased his Irish estate, he died a poor man. His claim that he exhausted his personal wealth in the cause of radicalism is probably true.

Physically imposing, possessed of enormous energy and gentlemanly bearing, O’Connor fitted the popular image of the gentleman orator. Although he wrote profusely for the Northern Star and other Chartist journals and published over twenty political tracts, O’Connor was an activist rather than a theoretician. The early histories of Chartism portrayed him as vainglorious and irresponsible, a rabble-rouser who wrecked the work of Lovett and a small band of enlightened artisans. Recent studies, however, stress O’Connor’s efforts to impart national unity, organisational coherence, and direction to a diverse political movement and recognise his extraordinary ascendancy over almost all sections of the movement as well as the degree to which he was held accountable to his followers.


[1] D. Read and E. Glasgow Feargus O’Connor: Irishman and chartist, 1961, J. Epstein The lion of freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the chartist movement, 1832–1842, 1982, F. O’Connor ‘Life and adventures of Feargus O’Connor’, National Instructor, 1850, T. M. Wheeler A brief memoir of the late Feargus O’Connor, 1855, W. J. O’Neill Daunt A life spent for Ireland: being selections from the journals of the late W. J. O’Neill Daunt, 1896, W. J. O’Neill Daunt Eighty-five years of Irish history, 1800–1885, 2 volumes, 1886, T. Cooper The life of Thomas Cooper, written by himself, 1872 and R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edition, 1894; reprinted with introduction by J. Saville, 1969.

[2] Charter, 24th February 1839.

[3] Northern Star, 3rd April 1841

[4] Northern Star, 24th July 1841.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Bronterre O'Brien

O’Brien[1] was born at Granard, co. Longford, Ireland, in early February 1804, the second son of Daniel O’Brien and his wife, Mary Kearney. His father, who was a wine and spirit merchant and a tobacco manufacturer in co. Longford, failed in business during O’Brien’s childhood, and died soon after. O’Brien was educated at the local parochial school and then at Edgeworthstown School, which had been promoted by Richard Lovell Edgeworth. He then went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated BA in 1829. He entered the King’s Inns, Dublin, and then went to London, where he was admitted as a law student at Gray’s Inn in March 1830. In London he met Henry Hunt and William Cobbett.
In 1831, Henry Hetherington started up and edited the Poor Man’s Guardian, but O’Brien became its effective editor and also contributed to Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Conservative. He signed his articles ‘Bronterre’, and from this moment called himself James Bronterre O’Brien. At first O’Brien adopted many of William Cobbett’s views on the national debt and the currency, but soon he began to develop his own ideas. He read widely in the literature of the French Revolution, and visited France on three occasions in 1837–8. In 1836, his translated edition of Buonarotti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy was published and in 1838 the first volume of his eulogistic Life of Robespierre appeared. By this time, O’Brien’s own opinions were insurrectionary and socialistic. In 1837, he began Bronterre’s National Reformer, but it soon failed and in 1838 The Operative that ended publication in July 1839. He had, meanwhile, married in the mid-1830s (the name of his wife is not known); he had four children.

From the beginning of the Chartist movement, O’Brien was one of its most prominent figures. He was a member of the original London Working Man’s Association, and was a delegate to the Chartist meeting in Palace Yard (17th September 1838) which opened the campaign in London. In 1838, he joined Feargus O’Connor at the Northern Star, and toured the country as a ‘missionary’ lecturer. Although regarded as a physical-force advocate, O’Brien was careful not to overstep the limits of the law. As he put it in the draft of the Chartist convention’s address (8th May 1839), ‘it was his intention to tell the people to arm without saying so in so many words’. He represented the Chartists of Manchester at the Chartist convention in the spring of 1839, and opposed the plan for a general strike.

As a result of the Newport rising of November 1839, a number of trials for sedition took place in the spring of 1840. O’Brien acted in his own defence and was acquitted at Newcastle in February on a charge of conspiracy, but was found guilty at Liverpool in April of seditious speaking. He was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. Towards the end of his sentence, O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor both began to communicate with the press, and carried on a controversy with one another as to the best policy for Chartists to pursue at the general election of 1841. O’Connor advocated an active alliance with the Conservatives, while O’Brien opposed this. Although still in prison, O’Brien stood as a Chartist candidate at Newcastle upon Tyne in the general election.

Released in September 1841, O’Brien continued the series of bitter personal quarrels with O’Connor, whom he later called ‘the Dictator’. O’Connor in turn nicknamed him the ‘Starved Viper’. O’Brien resumed his journalistic career, using various editorships to put forward his views on currency reform and continue his attack on O’Connor. He edited the British Statesman between June and December 1842, and in 1845 became editor of the National Reformer. During the Chartist campaign against the Anti-Corn Law League, O’Brien argued that free trade would lower prices, and so increase the proportion of the national wealth that landlords and owners of stock were able to appropriate. In the National Reformer he advocated ‘symbolic money’ and ‘banks of credit accessible to all classes’[2]. He opposed O’Connor’s land scheme, and joined in with the moderate reform programme of the National Complete Suffrage Union.

O’Brien was one of the delegates at the Chartist convention which met on 4th April 1848. He spoke strongly against physical force. However, on 9th April, he withdrew from the convention on the grounds that the convention was likely to ‘go too fast’[3] and collide with the government. After the failure of the Chartist petition in 1848, O’Brien worked with G. W. M. Reynolds on Reynolds’ Political Instructor and Reynolds’ Weekly News. In October 1849, he used the former journal to launch his National Reform League, which advocated nationalization of the land and the monetary system. During the 1850s, O’Brien lived on his lecturing at the Eclectic Institute in Denmark Street, Soho, but never gave up the hope of more regular journalistic employment. His own weekly paper, the Power of the Pence, ran for five months during the winter and early spring of 1848–9, and during the following decade he hoped for work on papers as diverse as those of Reynolds, the Cobdenite Morning Star, and The Empire. O’Brien also remained politically active during the 1850s. He wrote several pamphlets on Lord Palmerston, Lord Overstone, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Robespierre. He was a member of the Stop-the-War-League during the Crimean War, travelled to Tiverton in April 1857 with the intention of contesting Lord Palmerston’s seat (he later withdrew), and in May 1858 established the National Political Union, which reiterated the call for the Charter. O’Brien’s later years were beset with poverty and alcohol-related illness. On several occasions, his books were seized for debt and in February 1862, Charles Bradlaugh lectured for the ‘Bronterre O’Brien testimonial fund’.

O’Brien died at his home in Pentonville, London, on 23rd December 1864. His wife survived him. In 1885, several of his followers published a series of his newspaper articles in book form, under the title of The Rise, Progress, and Phases of Human Slavery. As Graham Wallas noted, O’Brien was one of the few Chartists whose radicalism was the product of an original mind. Posterity has treated him unkindly. His alcoholism and embittered personal relationships leave the impression of a rancorous and impracticable politician. But he was one of the few non-Utopian socialists in England. He developed a vision of an alternative society which was based on a definitive programme of nationalisation of the land and of the monetary system. He was also probably the only Chartist who had any conception of popular insurrection and the means by which the labouring classes might appropriate power through a temporary dictatorship. For all his failings and idiosyncrasies O’Brien was a powerful character. He gained a large personal following among the artisans of Soho, who, in the aftermath of his death, became involved in both the Reform League and the First International.


[1] R. G. Gammage The history of the Chartist movement, from its commencement down to the present time, 1854, A. Plummer Bronterre: a political biography of Bronterre O’Brien, 1804–1864, 1971, S. Shipley Club life and socialism in mid-Victorian London, 1971 and M. Taylor The decline of British radicalism, 1847–1860, 1995.

[2] R. G. Gammage The history of the Chartist movement, from its commencement down to the present time, 1854, page 280.

[3] A. Plummer Bronterre: a political biography of Bronterre O’Brien, 1804–1864, 1971, page 191.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

GCSEs and the usual stink!

GCSEs have improved, yet again. So it's very clear that standards have fallen. I can't see why every year we have the ritual of this person or that appearing on the television castigating the examination system for producing better results. I think we must be the only country in the world that beats itself up every year over what we should be celebrating as a major success. Yes, there are fewer students studying Modern Languages, at least French and German but rather more taking languages such as Polish (as consequence of immigration in the EU perhaps), Chinese and Japanese. We do have a deplorable record in studying Modern Languages...what a difference the twenty-two miles between Dover and Calais makes! Making them optional at Key Stage 4 was always going to result in falling numbers..even the idiots in the educational department in London must have recognised that. Is it surprising that schools, beset by league tables, 'persuade' their students to take GNVQs that are equivalent to five GCSEs that compel them to take more difficult options.

Instead of this annual period of collective angst around GCSEs and A Levels,perhaps it would be better if we were asking whether the examination system is 'fit for purpose'? Whether it provides the skills and knowledge needed for the emerging global society of the twenty-first century? What is clear is that while many students are successful in the examinations, there are huge numbers of people who are not. They leave school without even the basics in English and Maths, without any understanding of their role in their communities (however construed). They are educationally disfranchised from the start and it is little wonder that they become socially and politically disfranchised as well. They are today's 'underclass' not necessarily economically because many can earn good wages in the 'black' and legitimate economies but culturally because they have little or not connection to a society that, they may feel, provides them with little of worth. So for them the whole educational system provides them with little of value.

We have always had an educational system in which there is built-in failure. Whether payment by results in the nineteenth century or league tables today, there have always been a proportion of young people who fail and they fail even earlier now with Key Stage 1 and 2 tests. Is it any wonder than many turn away from society towards the attractive belonging of gang culture that provides a welcoming home for those society has deemed to have failed. This provides a status that the educational system clearly fails to provide. In a perverse way, it provides a sense of self-worth and 'dignity' that schools fail to provide despite all their efforts. Yes we should welcome the success of those students who have done well in the public examinations but we must also recognise the wasted potential of those who, for whatever reason, feel that schools have nothing to offer them.

Chartist Lives: Gerald Massey

Gerald Massey[1] was born in a hut at Gamble wharf on the canal near Tring, Hertfordshire, on 29th May 1828, was the son of William Massey, a canal boatman, and his wife, Mary. His father brought up a large family on a weekly wage of some 10s. in circumstances of extreme poverty and hardship. Massey said of himself that he ‘had no childhood’. After occasional attendance at the national school at Tring at the age of eight, he was put to work in a silk mill there. His hours were from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., and he earned from 9d. to 1s. 3d. a week. He then tried straw-plaiting, but the marshy districts of Buckinghamshire induced ague. He later recalled that it was his mother who supplemented his meagre education by acquiring for him the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Wesleyan tracts.

At fifteen, Massey went to London and worked as a clerk and later as an errand-boy. He read voraciously, devoting his leisure to a study of Cobbett’s French without a Master and of books by Tom Paine, the comte de Volney, and William Howitt. His first verses, on the sufferings of the poor and the power of knowledge to redeem these people, were published in provincial papers. In 1848, they were collected in his first volume, Poems and Chansons, at Tring, and he sold some 250 copies at 1s each to his fellow townsfolk. He became involved in the radical working-class politics of the day and joined the Chartists in February 1848. With John Bedford Leno, a Chartist printer from Uxbridge, he edited in 1849, at twenty-one, a paper written by working men called The spirit of freedom. The following year, he contributed some forcible verse to Cooper’s Journal, a venture of the Chartist Thomas Cooper. But Massey’s sympathies veered to the religious side of the reforming movement, and in the same year he associated himself with the Christian socialists under the leadership of Frederick Denison Maurice, who wrote of him at the time to Charles Kingsley as ‘not quite an Alton Locke’ but with ‘some real stuff in him’[2]. Massey acted as secretary of the Christian Socialist Board and contributed verse to its periodical, the Christian Socialist. Also in 1850, he brought out a second volume of verse, Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love, which showed genuine poetic feeling, though the style was rough and undisciplined. On 8th July 1850, he married Rosina Jane Knowles (d. March 1866); they had three daughters and a son.

Massey fully established his position as a poet of liberty, labour, and the people with his third volume, The Ballad of Babe Christabel and other Poems, which appeared in February 1854 and which was welcomed by a storm of critical acclaim. The book, which dealt with conjugal and parental affection as well as with democratic aspirations, passed through five editions within a year and was reprinted in New York, where Massey’s position was soon better assured than in London. Despite obvious signs of defective education and taste, his poetry deserved its welcome. Hepworth Dixon in The Athenaeum (4th February 1854) called him ‘a genuine songster’. Alexander Smith likened him to Robert Burns, and Walter Savage Landor in the Morning Advertiser compared him with John Keats, Hafiz, and Shakespeare as a sonneteer. Ruskin regarded Massey’s work ‘as a helpful and precious gift to the working classes’. Sydney Dobell, a warm admirer, became a close personal friend, and Massey named his first born son after him.

Babe Christabel was succeeded by five further volumes of verse: War Waits (1855, two editions), poems on the Crimean War; Craigcrook Castle (1856); Robert Burns, a Song, and other Lyrics (1859); Havelock’s March (1860), poems on the Indian mutiny; and A Tale of Eternity and other Poems (1869). Many of Massey’s ballads have intense martial and patriotic ardour, such as ‘Sir Richard Grenville’s Last Fight’ and his tribute to England’s command of the sea in ‘Sea Kings’. His narrative verse embodies mystical speculation and was less successful; his range and copiousness suffered from laxity of technique; but his reputation endured both in England and in the United States. In 1857, Ticknor and Field of Boston published his Complete Poetical Works, with a biographical sketch, and in 1861 a similar collection appeared in London with illustrations and a memoir by Samuel Smiles. In Self-Help (1859), Smiles set Massey high among his working-class heroes. After 1860, Massey gradually abandoned poetry for other interests which he came to deem more important, and his vogue as a poet declined. In 1899, his eldest daughter, Christabel, collected his chief poems in two volumes under the title of My Lyrical Life.

Massey had long sought a livelihood from journalism. For a time he worked with the publisher John Chapman, and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) who was also in Chapman’s employ (1851–3) afterwards based some features of her novel Felix Holt—the Radical (1866) on Massey’s career. From 1854, on the invitation of the editor, Hepworth Dixon, Massey wrote poetry reviews for The Athenaeum. He was also a contributor to The Leader, edited by Thornton Leigh Hunt. Charles Dickens accepted verse from him for All the Year Round, and he sent a poem on Giuseppe Garibaldi to the first number of Good Words in 1860. He also wrote for Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts and Hugh Miller’s The Witness in Edinburgh.

Despite his popularity and his industry, Massey found it no easy task to bring up a family on the proceeds of his pen. With a view to improving his position, he had in 1854 left London for Edinburgh, where he lectured at literary institutes on poetry, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Christian socialism. His earnestness drew large audiences. In 1857, he moved from Edinburgh to Monk’s Green, Hertfordshire, and then to Brantwood, near Coniston in the Lake District, which was at the time the property of a friend, William James Linton; it was acquired by Ruskin in 1871. During four years’ subsequent residence at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, Massey found a helpful admirer in Lady Marian Alford, who resided with her son, the second Earl Brownlow, at Ashridge Park, Berkhamsted. In 1862, Lord Brownlow provided him with a house on his estate, called Ward’s Hurst, near Little Gaddesden. In 1863, on Lord Palmerston’s recommendation, Massey received a civil-list pension of £70, which was augmented by Lord Salisbury in 1887. Lord Brownlow died in 1867, and his brother and successor married the following year; both episodes were commemorated by Massey in privately printed volumes of verse. In January 1868, two years after the death of his first wife, Massey married Eva Byron; they had four daughters and a son. While at Ward’s Hurst he closely studied Shakespeare’s sonnets. In his article to the Quarterly Review (April 1864), he argued that Shakespeare wrote most of his sonnets for his patron, the third earl of Southampton. He amplified his view in 1866 in a somewhat idiosyncratic volume called Shakespeare’s Sonnets Never before Interpreted, later rewritten as The Secret Drama of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1888).

At Ward’s Hurst, Massey also developed an absorbing interest in psychic phenomena, especially after the death of his first wife who had been a professional clairvoyant. In 1871, he issued a somewhat credulous book on spiritualism which he afterwards withdrew. Subsequently he made three lecturing tours through North America. The first tour (September 1873 to May 1874) included California and Canada, where he gained unenviable notoriety by the delivery of a lecture, ‘Why does not God kill the Devil?’ The second (October 1883 to November 1885) encompassed Australia and New Zealand as well. The third American tour began in September 1888, but the fatal illness of one of his daughters, brought it to an early close. His lectures dealt with many branches of poetry and art, but they were chiefly concerned with mesmerism, spiritualism, and mystical interpretation of the Bible. He printed privately many of his discourses. His faith in spiritualistic phenomena was lasting and monopolised most of his later years.

His last years were devoted to a study of the ancient Egyptian civilization, in which he thought to trace psychic and spiritualistic problems to their source and to find their true solution. A Book of the Beginnings, in two massive quarto volumes, appeared in 1881, and a sequel of the same dimensions, The Natural Genesis, appeared in 1883. His final publication was Ancient Egypt the Light of the World, in Twelve Books (1907), which he saw as ‘a work of reclamation and restitution’. In the preface he described this as the ‘exceptional labour which has made my life worth living’. Massey died on 29th October 1907 at his home Redcot, South Norwood Hill, South Norwood, London, and was buried in Southgate cemetery, Middlesex. Two daughters of each marriage survived their father.


[1] S. Smiles ‘Memoir’, in Massey’s poetical works, 1861, a biographical sketch of G. Massey, The ballad of babe Christabel: with other lyrical poems, 5th edition, 1855, The Times, 30th October 1907, C. Knight (ed.) The English cyclopaedia: biography, 6 volumes, 1856–8, supplement, 1872, Men of the time, 1856, Men of the time, 1875, J. C. Collins Studies in poetry and criticism, 1905, pages 42–67, The Athenaeum, 2nd November 1907, page 553, A. H. Miles (ed.) The poets and poetry of the century, 10 volumes, 1891–7, A. T. C. Pratt (ed.) People of the period: being a collection of the biographies of upwards of six thousand living celebrities, 2 volumes, 1897, The life of Frederick Denison Maurice, ed. F. Maurice, 2 volumes, 1884, Review of Reviews, volume 36, (1907), pages 576–7 and Book Monthly (September 1907). Archives: Huntingdon Library: letters mainly to James Thomas Fields; and, Royal Literary Fund, London: letters to the Royal Literary Fund.

[2] The life of Frederick Denison Maurice, ed. F. Maurice, 2 volumes, 1884, volume 2, page 236.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Peter McDouall

He[1] was born in Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire, the son of Andrew M’Douall. He served an apprenticeship with a surgeon in his home town, studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh, and in summer 1835 was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. He subsequently moved to Lancashire, where he first managed a Burnley practice and then built up his own extensive and prosperous practice in the small cotton town of Ramsbottom. There he developed an intense interest in the medical effects of the factory system (he gave a British Association paper on the subject) and became involved in the ten-hour agitation. After his own arrest in December 1838, Joseph Rayner Stephens recommended M’Douall should take his place in the forthcoming Chartist convention as delegate for Ashton under Lyne, the militant Chartist centre with which M’Douall was to be closely associated for the rest of his life.

In the first convention in 1839, M’Douall was a foremost advocate of physical force and, later, of the ‘sacred month’. He was arrested in July 1839 while attempting to calm the crowd in the Birmingham Bull Ring, and the following month was sentenced at Chester assizes to twelve months’ imprisonment for sedition and attending an illegal meeting at Hyde in April. According to Gammage, he was ‘of an ardent fiery temperament, and though naturally possessing strong reflective powers, was impulsive to the last degree, and by no means deficient in the quality of courage’. ‘In stature M’Douall was rather short … in personal appearance he was decidedly handsome … his hair which was light, approaching to sandy … was parted in the centre, and hung in long graceful curls behind his ears, and his whole appearance was highly interesting’[2]. For Adams he was a ‘picturesque figure … whose long cloak and general style helped to give him the appearance of a hero of melodrama’[3].

On his release in August 1840, M’Douall was fêted as he toured the north of England and Scotland; that year, or the following, while in Glasgow, he married Mary Ann, the daughter of a warder at Chester Castle, where he had served his sentence. An advocate of the organisation of Chartism in occupational groups, M’Douall played a prominent role in the recently formed National Charter Association, and headed the poll for the executive in both 1841 and 1842; he also published his own Chartist and Republican Journal in 1841. He stood for parliament at Northampton in June 1841 as a Chartist, but came bottom of the poll. After representing Ashton in the convention of April 1842, he was (with Thomas Cooper) the principal supporter of the general strike movement in August and it was he who drafted the executive’s very forceful address to the people. The government offered a £100 reward for his apprehension, but he escaped to France, where, sustained by Chartist collections, he lived for the next two years.

He was able to return to Britain without prosecution during 1844 and resumed the life of a Chartist agitator, publishing The Charter: What It Means! The Chartists: What They Want! (1845) and unsuccessfully contesting the parliamentary seat of Carlisle in June 1848. In 1848, he was a member of the national assembly and, once more elected to the executive, was at the heart of the first insurrectionary conspiracy of the summer. During the two years’ hard labour at Kirkdale gaol to which he was sentenced in August for his part in a meeting at Ashton, great hardship was suffered by his wife and children, the eldest of whom, a ten-year-old girl, actually died; and after release in 1850 his efforts to publish McDouall’s Manchester Journal and to establish a medical practice in Ashton both failed. The Northern Star had observed in 1848: ‘When he came among you he had good property in Scotland, a profession and a practice, which realized him several hundred pounds annually, besides a large sum of accumulated money in the bank. All of which has been spent long ago in the advocacy of the rights of the people.’[4]

In the summer of 1853, M’Douall emigrated to Australia but he died shortly after arrival in ‘about May, 1854’[5]. One apparently misleading story of several that circulated was that he had drowned in a shipwreck. After his death, M’Douall’s family returned to an uncertain future in England. As Harney was to recall, ‘no man in the Chartist movement was better known than Dr McDouall’. He was one of the half-dozen outstanding leaders of Chartism.


[1] P. Pickering and S. Roberts ‘Pills, pamphlets and politics: the career of Peter Murray McDouall (1814–54)’, Manchester Region History Review, volume 11, (1997), pages 34-43, R. Challinor ‘Peter Murray McDouall and “physical force Chartism”‘, International Socialism, volume 12, (spring 1981), pages 53-84 · P. M. M’Douall The charter: what it means! The chartists: what they want!, 1845, ‘Portraits of delegates, no. 6’, The Charter, 7th April 1839, R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edition, 1894, ‘Vicissitudes of a chartist leader’s family’, Daily News, 5th August 1856, Q., letter, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 8th March 1884, W. E. Adams Memoirs of a social atom, 2 volumes, 1903, W. H. Maehl, (ed.) Robert Gammage: reminiscences of a chartist, 1983, G. J. Harney, ‘Acknowledgements’, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 27th February 1897 and ‘Dr. P. M. M’Douall’, Star of Freedom, 17th July 1852

[2] R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edition, 1894, pages 66-67.

[3] W. E. Adams Memoirs of a social atom, 2 volumes, 1903, volume 1, pages 211-212.

[4] Quoted in R. Challinor ‘Peter Murray McDouall and “physical force Chartism”‘, International Socialism, volume 12, (spring 1981), pages 80-81.

[5] Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 8th March 1884.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Richard Marsden

Richard Marsden[1] was born in humble circumstances in or near Manchester in 1802 or 1803. Nothing is known about his early life, but he was a hand-loom weaver by trade. He left Manchester in search of work during the slump of 1829 and settled with his family in the weaving township of Bamber Bridge, near Preston. Marsden became the most prominent representative of the Preston Chartists, and played a significant role in the national movement for democratic reform in the late 1830s and 1840s. He was secretary of the Preston committee that submitted evidence to the royal commission on hand-loom weavers and was the principal witness before Commissioner Muggeridge during the latter’s visit to Preston in May 1838. He chaired the first Chartist demonstration in the town in November of that year, when he introduced Feargus O’Connor to a large and enthusiastic audience. After making a fiery speech supporting the Charter, Marsden was elected to represent north Lancashire at the national convention in London. He was a consistent and unyielding advocate of ‘ulterior measures’, urging the need to prepare direct action for the day when the Chartist petition would be rejected by parliament. During the spring of 1839, Marsden travelled as an official ‘missionary’ for the convention in Sussex and the Welsh borders, toured Ireland on his own initiative and made a speaking tour of north Lancashire, continually asserting the people’s right to armed self-defence.

Although he became known nationally as a spokesman for ‘physical force’ Chartism, Marsden seems to have believed that its use would never be necessary. In August 1839, he returned to Preston for the unsuccessful general strike in support of the Charter, vanishing almost immediately to avoid arrest on a warrant relating to a violent speech he had made in Newcastle earlier in the month. Marsden was in Bradford during the abortive Chartist rising in January 1840 and then moved to Bolton, where he lived under an assumed name and worked at his trade. Arrested there in July, he was soon released, and eventually returned to Preston as a full-time itinerant lecturer for the Chartists. He was again arrested in a confrontation between strikers and the military just outside Preston in August 1842, but this time no charges were laid against him. In the mid-1840s he rarely left Preston, but remained an active Chartist and exerted a wider influence through a series of letters to the Northern Star.

Unlike many more prominent regional figures, Marsden became less liberal and more vigorously anti-capitalist after 1839, coming increasingly to stress that Chartism was a class movement aiming at the emancipation of working people and opposed to all middle-class involvement. He took an active part in the Ten Hours movement, in the campaign of 1844 against proposed changes to the master and servant laws, and in promoting trade unionism in the cotton mills. At the end of 1845, he was appointed secretary of the newly established Preston Powerloom Weavers’ Union, and in 1847 moved to Blackburn to take charge of the weavers’ union there. Chosen again to represent north Lancashire at the Chartist national convention of 1848, Marsden was sent out once more as a missionary to the north-east and the midlands. His speeches were now subdued and pessimistic, in keeping with the dismal prospects for the Chartist movement as a whole. With its virtually complete collapse in north Lancashire after April 1848, Marsden’s withdrawal from political life was immediate and almost total. There is no further record of his presence at public meetings, and his flow of letters to the local press ceased. Unlike many old Chartists, Marsden played no part in the great Preston strike of 1853–4. He died in obscurity, from chronic bronchitis, at 16 Club Street, Bamber Bridge, on 28th January 1858; he was fifty-five. Nothing is known of his private life; the mark of Jane Moss, who was present at his death, is on his death certificate.


[1] J. E. King Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837–1848, 1981 and People’s Paper, 27th February 1858.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Robert Lowery

Lowery[1] was born on 14th October 1809 at North Shields, was the eldest of a sailor’s four sons; his mother was the daughter of a local master shoemaker. Educated at North Shields, Banff, and Peterhead until aged nine, he took a pithead job when illness threw his father out of work. His mother, who opened a school for girls, encouraged ambition in a son who was mischievous as a child but alert and inquisitive as a teenager. Lowery was thirteen when his father died and got himself apprenticed as a sailor, but within two years a rheumatic illness had lamed him for life.

Long convalescence brought wide reading, which was carried further with the encouragement of his wife, a cousin whom Lowery married at eighteen. With two daughters before he was twenty-one, he was apprenticed to a Newcastle tailor, trained himself in public speaking, and became secretary to the North Shields Political Union. An active trade unionist, he was secretary to the tailors’ branch of the Consolidated Trades’ Union, lost his job, and was at times very poor, but published his pamphlet State Churches Destructive of Christianity and Subversive to the Liberties of Man in 1837.

After being elected Newcastle delegate to the Chartists’ Palace Yard meeting of 17th September 1838, he became a Chartist lecturer. Over-optimistic and somewhat stagy in style, he displayed the provincial Chartist’s jaunty irreverence and delight in taunting authority. Fascinated by history and admiring the seventeenth-century puritans, he was proud of his class. As Newcastle delegate to the Chartist convention at Christmas 1838, his actions were more moderate than his speeches. His autobiography (penetrating on the art of oratory and alert to regional contrasts) vividly describes a Chartist missionary’s experience in Cornwall and Dublin. In 1839, his published address recommended exclusive dealing and he opposed physical force during the Frost rising and at the Chartist convention’s second session in 1839–40. He relished Scottish intelligence and religiosity and lectured there, managing to evade arrest.

Serious illness in 1839-40 launched Lowery on religious conversion, political quietism, and commitment to moral reform. Urquhartites, influential in Newcastle, with a programme that required class harmony, helped him through this personal crisis and sent him on a Russophobe mission to Paris in autumn 1840. Defeated as radical candidate at Edinburgh and Aberdeen in the general election of 1841, he was persuaded by Aberdeen teetotallers to take the pledge and temperance lecturing became his new route to respectability. He supported the Complete Suffrage Union in 1842 and drifted away from Chartism via Lovett’s moralistic and gradualist ‘new move’. In 1848, he was first secretary to Lovett’s People’s League, which aimed to head off revolution through a wider franchise and lower taxes. Less prominent as a temperance reformer than as a Chartist, Lowery was a respected lecturer for several temperance organisations until rheumatism and a failing voice compelled him to retire in 1862. With a public subscription raised for his support, he emigrated in September to his daughter Sarah Edwards in Canada and died at Woodstock, Ontario, on 4th August 1863. He was buried in the Baptist cemetery there, together with his daughter, son-in-law William Edwards, and some of his grandchildren.

In his public life, Lowery was neither as distinctive nor as prominent as some, but no Chartist published an autobiography of such quality so soon after the event. Vivid, evocative, and reflective, the thirty-three anonymous instalments of his ‘Passages in the life of a temperance lecturer … by one of their order’ in the Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement for 1856–7 recount his life up to 1841. Somewhat wistful in tone, his autobiography shows zest for dramatic scenery, historic events, and the Romantic poets, and displays shrewd insight into personality. Lowery’s taste for anecdotes, his ear for dialect, and his fine visual memory reveal an attractive personality who consistently pursued the Chartist aim of justifying his own class to society at large, fair-mindedly and without apology. Chartism, he insisted, was a respectable movement and its supporters’ actions should be judged in contemporary context. But his career fitted awkwardly into the pedigree that led from Chartism to socialism and the Labour Party, so he sank from public view until he was rediscovered in the 1960s.


[1] B. Harrison and P. Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery, radical and chartist, 1979, B. Harrison and P. Hollis ‘Chartism, liberalism and the life of Robert Lowery’, English Historical Review, volume 82, (1967), pages 503–35 and B. Harrison and P. Hollis ‘Lowery, Robert’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 4.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Chartist Lives: William Lovett

William Lovett[1] was born in Newlyn, Cornwall, on 8th May 1800, the son of William Lovett, captain of a small trading vessel and a native of Hull, who was drowned before Lovett’s birth. His mother, Kezia (c.1778–1852), raised Lovett and his four siblings with the help of her family and by her own efforts, which included selling fish in Penzance market. He was sent to the local dame-schools, but he was always to regret the limitations of this education and of the reading materials available during his youth, inadequacies accentuated by his strict Methodist upbringing. After serving seven years’ apprenticeship to a rope maker, he was unable to secure employment at the trade and turned instead to his natural skills as a woodworker. When, in June 1821, he left Cornwall for London he was to learn a second trade of cabinet-making by working for ‘a trade-working master’ in Somers Town[2]. Within a few years, he was able to serve a qualifying period at a respectable shop and eventually gain admittance to the élite West End Cabinet-makers’ Society, of which he was later elected president.

It was as a young man in London that Lovett was able to indulge his passion for the pursuit of knowledge, by joining several mutual improvement societies and attending lectures, as he recalled, at the recently opened mechanics’ institute, as well as frequenting the radical coffee houses, where he was influenced by such speakers as John Gale Jones, Richard Carlile, and the Revd Robert Taylor. On 3rd June 1826 at All Souls, Langham Place, he married Mary Solly, a lady’s maid from Pegwell, Kent, who was to be his unobtrusive, uncomplaining support. Of their two daughters, Kezia died from an accident in infancy, and the other, also Mary, was at the end of Lovett’s life attempting to make a living in the theatre. The Lovetts proceeded to open a confectioner’s shop off St Martin’s Lane, but this was the first of several failed business ventures. By now an advocate of Owenism, Lovett had joined the First London Co-operative Trading Association and, having given up the shop, he took over from James Watson as storekeeper at the close of 1829. This position too did not provide a livelihood and he was for much of 1831 secretary of the nationally important British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge, launched after the First London Association had hived off its propagandist functions. By the late 1820s, in addition to Watson, Lovett had also got to know his other principal lifelong radical associates Henry Hetherington and John Cleave. This key grouping, which was to provide a highly visible leadership within metropolitan working-class radicalism for most of the 1830s, differed from Owen himself in considering political reform to be as important as the transforming powers of co-operation, and they engaged in both activities concurrently.

The first political society to which Lovett belonged was Henry Hunt’s Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty of 1827. Two years later, this was renamed the Radical Reform Association, with a programme of universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, and the ballot, and held weekly meetings at the Rotunda amid the excitement occasioned by the French revolution of July 1830 and Wellington’s cancellation in November of the king’s annual visit to the City for fear of insurrection. Lovett’s traditional reputation as an uncompromised proponent of moral force, while entirely valid for the Chartist period, is out of kilter with his outspoken militancy during the years of the reform agitation. An experienced police spy described him as ‘a dangerous man’ for advocating arming and declaring ‘he for one would fight’ against the aristocracy[3]; and Lovett vehemently opposed Hunt’s efforts to prohibit the display of the tricolour at meetings and to purge Gale Jones, Carlile’s supporters, and other revolutionaries when the Radical Reform Association disintegrated in December 1830.

Although Lovett was also a member of the councils of both the Metropolitan Political Union and the National Political Union, these were organisations created by the middle-class reformers—at the inaugural mass meeting of the latter, after Cleave was howled down for seconding his amendment in favour of universal suffrage, he denounced the middle class for wanting to make the working class ‘tools of their purposes’[4] and it was the National Union of the Working Classes, founded in April 1831, that was the ultra-radical successor to the Radical Reform Association. Despite joining the union belatedly, in September 1831, he rapidly became a member of its committee and one of the twenty-four class leaders, as well as drafting with Watson the rules, including the widely circulated ‘Declaration of the National Union of the Working Classes’. The union’s most successful demonstration was against the national fast day of 21st March 1832, proclaimed by the Whig government in expiation of the outbreak of cholera, when tens of thousands attempted to march from Finsbury Square to Westminster. Lovett, Watson, and William Benbow were arrested but acquitted, amid acclamation, of the charge of causing a riot. The previous year, on refusing as a non-voter either to serve in the militia or to find a substitute, Lovett had had, to great publicity, his household goods distrained and auctioned; balloting for the militia was thereafter discontinued. His intensive activity of these years also included a significant contribution to the campaign for an unstamped press, for whose victim fund, in operation from July 1831, he acted as sub-treasurer and secretary.

Lovett was ‘a tall, gentlemanly-looking man with a high and ample forehead, a pale, contemplative cast of countenance, dark-brown hair, and … a very prepossessing exterior, in manner quiet, modest and unassuming, speaking seldom, but when he does so always with the best effect’, although for Place ‘his is a spirit misplaced’, being ‘in ill-health’, and ‘somewhat hypochondriacal’; ‘a man of melancholy temperament, soured with the perplexities of the world’[5]. From 1832, the Lovetts took over the former Hatton Garden premises of the First London Co-operative Trading Association and ran them as a coffee house and discussion centre, with a reading-room and library. While financially unsuccessful, these two years marked a transition for Lovett, in the aftermath of the failure of both co-operative trading and radical parliamentary reform. He began to allot education a major role in the attainment of political and social change, and to move towards his ultimate repudiation of Owenism. He was shortly to enter into collaboration with the middle-class reformers Dr James Roberts Black and Francis Place.

The outcome of these developments was the foundation on 16th June 1836 of the (London) Working Men’s Association (LWMA), with Lovett as secretary, whose membership, costing 1s. monthly, was further restricted to ‘persons of a good moral character among the industrious classes’[6] over three years only 318 were admitted, although honorary members could be elected from the middle class. During its first year the working men listened receptively to lectures on, and discussed, orthodox political economy. In February 1837, a public meeting was held at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand to petition parliament for what were to become known as the ‘six points’ of the People’s Charter. Meetings in May and June between the working men and radical members of parliament led to a committee of six from each group, and then (probably in December) to Lovett and J. A. Roebuck alone being appointed to draw up a parliamentary bill incorporating the Crown and Anchor petition. When Roebuck withdrew from the task it was Place who provided the drafting expertise. The writing of the Charter was therefore the combined work of Lovett and Place, although suggestions of the committee of twelve and of the LWMA did result in revisions to the original document. The People’s Charter was published on 8th May 1838 and adopted by the Birmingham Political Union, but was also taken up by the very different movement which was mobilising in the north and the midlands and increasingly under the influence of Feargus O’Connor and his Northern Star. Already the LWMA had been wrong-footed when in the winter of 1837–8, during the trial—ending in the transportation—of the five Glasgow cotton spinners, Daniel O’Connell, one of its parliamentary coadjutors, made his extreme hostility to trade unions explicit and was successful in instituting a select committee to investigate them. In February O’Connor’s attack on the LWMA was answered by Lovett’s denunciation of him as ‘the great “I AM” of politics, the great personification of Radicalism’[7]. Open conflict between its two opposing wings had broken out even before the new movement of Chartism had emerged. The LWMA was still able to control events in the capital sufficiently to fix the election of its eight candidates, including Lovett, at the New Palace Yard meeting of September as London’s delegates to the first Chartist convention, which when it met in February 1839 unanimously appointed him as its secretary; but both the LWMA and its leading member, Lovett, were now relegated to the sidelines, never to recover their former influence.

After the convention had moved to Birmingham, Lovett, as the signatory of its resolutions condemning the Metropolitan Police’s dispersal of the Bull Ring meetings, was arrested on 6th July and sentenced four weeks later at Warwick assizes to twelve months’ imprisonment for seditious libel. On his release from Warwick gaol in July 1840, he declined to join the newly established National Charter Association, which he condemned as an illegal organisation; and, after publishing the short book Chartism: a New Organisation of the People (1840), which he had written in prison with John Collins, he proceeded to launch in 1841 in London only the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, which it had proposed. This ambitious vision of a network of halls, schools, and libraries was denounced as ‘knowledge Chartism’ and a ‘new move’ by the National Charter Association and the Northern Star, and all who wished to participate were compelled to isolate themselves from mainstream Chartism. Financial support was barely enough for a national hall to be opened in High Holborn in 1842; W. J. Linton, himself a member, provided a damning assessment: ‘Lovett was impracticable; and his new association, after obtaining a few hundred members, dwindled into a debating club, and their hall became a dancing academy, let occasionally for unobjectionable public meetings’[8]. Lovett’s espousal of class collaboration made him a natural supporter of the Complete Suffrage Union, of which he became a council member; yet at its second conference, in December 1842, he rejected a proposed ‘bill of rights’ in place of the Charter and, seconded by O’Connor, his resolution was carried overwhelmingly. This caused the exodus of the middle-class delegates but, equally, Lovett spurned the detested O’Connor’s offer of reconciliation.

For the remainder of his career Lovett scraped a living as a teacher in various schools and published two textbooks, one on Elementary Anatomy and Physiology (1851); but in old age he was reduced to poverty, dependent on the charity of friends: ‘Perhaps few persons have worked harder, or laboured more earnestly, than I have; but somehow I was never destined to make money’[9]. Although he had begun his memoirs as early as 1840, not until the year before his death at his home, 137 Euston Road, London (long since a deist inclining to Christianity), on 8th August 1877, did he publish The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, in his Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom. It is one of the outstanding working-class autobiographies, but in it Lovett underplays the importance of his early political activities and excises their extremism, distortions that have been followed until recently by most historians. He was buried in Highgate cemetery. Lovett was a creative leader of metropolitan artisan radicalism in the late 1820s and early 1830s, he was joint author of the Charter, and he was the perfect political secretary. He also became a respectable Victorian Liberal and thereby estranged himself from the great and turbulent movement of Chartism which he had helped to create.


[1] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, ‘William Lovett’, Howitt’s Journal, 8th May 1847, J. Wiener William Lovett, 1989. D. Large ‘Lovett, William’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume. 6, D. Large ‘William Lovett’, Pressure from without in early Victorian England, ed. P. Hollis, 1974, pages 105–30, I. J. Prothero Artisans and politics in early nineteenth-century London: John Gast and his times, 1979, D. Goodway London Chartism, 1838–1848, 1982, M. Hovell The chartist movement, 2nd edition, 1925, B. Harrison ‘“Kindness and reason”: William Lovett and education’, Victorian values, ed. G. Marsden, 1990, pages 13–28 · E. J. Yeo ‘Will the real Mary Lovett please stand up?’, Living and learning, ed. M. Chase and I. Dyck, 1996, pages 163–81 and G. D. H. Cole Chartist portraits, 1941.

[2] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, page 28.

[3] D. Large ‘William Lovett’, Pressure from without in early Victorian England, ed. P. Hollis, 1974, page 116.

[4] D. Large ‘Lovett, William’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume. 6, page 167.

[5] M. Hovell The chartist movement, 2nd edition, 1925, pages 55-56.

[6] D. Goodway London Chartism, 1838–1848, 1982, page 22.

[7] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, page 161.

[8] D. Goodway London Chartism, 1838–1848, 1982, page 41.

[9] The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom, 1876, page 400.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Chartist Lives: William Linton

Linton[1], a wood-engraver, polemicist, and poet, was born on 7th December 1812 in Ireland’s Row at Mile End in London, probably the second among four children of William Linton, a provision broker in the London docks and his second wife, Mary (née Stephenson), apparently of a ‘superior’ shop keeping background. The family moved to the village of Stratford, Essex, in 1818, and the young William was sent to the grammar school in Chigwell, a distinguished early seventeenth-century foundation attended by sons of the Essex and City of London middle classes. With the advantage of a rounded education, William seemed destined for the world of London commerce, but persuaded his father to pay for drawing lessons, and in 1828 was bound apprentice to the engraver George Wilmot Bonner (1796–1836) in Kennington in south London. With this declaration of Romantic belief in the superiority of a life of art over that of the counting-house, Linton signalled the future direction of his whole career: a life driven by the conviction that he had much to tell the world, yet held back by his unworldliness. Not that the decision to become an engraver was itself unworldly: engraving was the principal means of mass visual communication in the early nineteenth century and, for a young man without capital, could promise good wages and the possibility of an independent establishment in a market certain to expand. This was doubtless why William Linton senior allowed his younger son, Henry Duff Linton (1816–1899), to enter the same trade and Henry, less prudent even than his brother, also found the mobility of his trade a valuable resource in later life.

On 21st October 1837, Linton married Laura Wade (1809–1838), who was well educated and freethinking and belonged to a family of independent if insufficient means. Fulfilling another Romantic stereotype, she had been a governess and died of consumption six months after her marriage. Linton never ceased to mourn for her, and some of his late poems (Love-lore, 1887) look back to this tragic moment. By about 1839, he was living with Laura’s sister Emily and a child registered later as William Wade Linton (d. 1892), known as Willie, was evidently born soon afterwards. At this time, Linton publicly advocated an end to all state interference in marriage, with partners associating as consenting equals, free if they wished to use contraception. Since 1835, the biblical prohibition against marrying a deceased wife’s sister had been incorporated into English law, so there was never a formal marriage, and Emily simply assumed the name Linton, bearing some seven children: three boys (Willie, Lancelot, who died in December 1863, and Edmund) and four girls (Emily, Margaret, Ellen, and Eliza, who died in December 1857), the youngest of whom was born in July 1854. Emily died, also of consumption, in December 1856.

On 24th March 1858, at St Pancras Church, Linton married Eliza Lynn (1822–1898), the writer and moralist. His marriage to Eliza was childless and unhappy. She soon began to dislike his distinctive clothing, the peculiar cut of his long-waisted coat, which lacked the two buttons at the junction of the skirts at the back—Linton seeing these, according to Walter Crane, as ‘superfluous reminders of gentlemanly, militaristic dress’. She found him ‘ungraceful—careless in the matter of dress and generally unkempt—with unstarched collars and long hair’, adding: ‘I could not convince him of the need of method, regularity, foresight, or any other economic virtue. He was sweet in word and acquiescent in manner; smiled, promised compliance and indeed did much that I wished because I wished it. But I never touched the core.’ The couple grew steadily apart during the early 1860s, separating informally but finally in 1867 when he emigrated to the United States.

The craft that Linton learned from George Bonner was not that of the woodcut, which had been historically the cheapest means of image-making and the mainstay of popular religious and topical publications well into the eighteenth century. Linton was a wood-engraver and his was the craft which, more than any other nineteenth-century printmaking technique, pushed forward the illustration of books, periodicals, newspapers, and ephemeral publications and transformed visual awareness in all advanced societies. Wood-engraving was the first of the major printmaking media to exploit photography, and it was partly as a reaction against the effects of lithography and photo-mechanical printing that the so-called original printmaking media of etching and engraving were re-invented in the second half of the nineteenth century as a major vehicle of artistic expression. Linton’s career spans these developments, in craft terms linking Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) to Walter Crane (1845)–1915 (Crane was Linton’s apprentice from 1858 to 1862) and linking the world of art to that of the Illustrated London News and the pictorial advertisement boom of the last quarter of the century. In his own practice, Linton increasingly found the personal independence and control over the means of production associated with the ideology of the arts and crafts movement by operating his own small private press.

No one was more aware than Linton of the large professional and social issues involved in these developments. He wrote extensively on the technical aspects of his craft (Specimens of a New Process of Engraving for Surface Printing, 1861), on the inherent tension between the artistic and the artisanal aspects of printmaking (‘Art in engraving on wood’, Atlantic Monthly, volume 43, June 1879), on the history of the craft in Britain and America (History of Wood Engraving in America, 1882; Masters of Wood Engraving, 1889), and on his own life (Three Score and Ten Years?, New York, 1894; published in London as Memories, 1895). As a reproductive engraver, he participated in many of the most important publishing projects of the epoch, including Moxon’s edition of Tennyson and George Eliot’s Romola, on which he and his brother worked after designs by Frederic Leighton. Beyond his vast output of relatively ephemeral material, Linton’s most important works are the botanical studies for his own Ferns of the Lake District (1864), and the views and other subjects for Eliza Lynn Linton’s The Lake Country (1864) and for Harriet Martineau’s The English Lakes (1858). A considerable group of his flower drawings, probably intended for another botanical work on the Lake District, was presented by Kineton Parkes to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938.

Linton ‘discovered’ the Lake District during a walking tour of 1846. He acquired the lease of a house at Miteside in Eskdale, where he installed his family in April 1849. In March 1852, they moved to Brantwood, on Coniston, which Linton then managed to buy outright by means of mortgages. At Brantwood he set up his first private press, using it with help from a group of intense young radical printers to produce a stream of pamphlets on English and European politics, mostly written by Linton himself.

From his earliest years in London, Linton had been heavily involved in fringe republican and Liberal nationalist circles, becoming acquainted with Giuseppe Mazzini about 1842 and regarding himself as the leading English agent and interpreter of the master’s views. Within the Chartist movement Linton tended to take his own line. He strongly opposed O’Connor and in 1848 backed the People’s Charter Union, which favoured collaboration between middle and working classes. In the 1840s, he had regularly composed anti-odes on royal birthdays and he now proposed the sovereignty of a single legislative chamber, elected by universal adult suffrage, its laws subject to referendum. At the general election of 1852, however, he toyed with the idea of standing as a Chartist candidate at Carlisle, but found that he lacked adequate support.

The Chartist failure in 1848 led Linton and other radicals increasingly to find their inspiration in European nationalism: ‘for true civilization, for the free growth of national peculiarities of character; for the unlimited development of the boundless resources of varied clime and country … that every man may have the opportunity of placing himself in that sphere to which his energies may be turned in the best account for the public service … We claim for every People the right to choose their own constitutions, to determine their own way of life.’ Italy, Poland, Switzerland, France, and Ireland successively and simultaneously aroused Linton’s journalistic intervention during the 1850s and 1860s, and it was in this cause that he launched his own most important contribution to this ferment of constitutionalist debate in early January 1851. This was the English Republic, published weekly and monthly until April 1855, virtually all of whose copy and illustrations Linton himself supplied. The English Republic’s programme involved individual self-realisation under the law providing ‘opportunity for growth even for the least and weakest’. A leading function of the state was to provide education for all, to cultivate the ‘perceptive faculties’ of children, and to teach the ‘broad facts of Nature and God in relation to [their] position in the Universe’. Later the curriculum would include geology and botany, with gardening as the principal out-of-school activity. This was the curriculum experienced by his own children at Brantwood, the family being packed into the house together with Emily’s mother, four bachelor printing assistants, the Polish carbonaro Karl Stolzman (1793–1854) and his wife, and Agnes, the servant. The children were all dressed in shifts of blue flannel, and all had shoulder-length hair and wide hats. Their food was home-grown by Linton, and in winter consisted largely of porridge.

Emily’s death at the end of 1856 signalled the beginning of the difficult but, in terms of literary stimulus, not unfruitful relationship with Eliza Lynn. In 1865, Linton published Claribel and other Poems, illustrated with engravings after his own designs. They reflect his stoical acceptance of private adversity and their lyrical style shows the influence of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. But his financial circumstances reached a decisive crisis, and in November 1866 he set off to reconnoitre prospects in New York. Armed with introductions from Mazzini to the American enthusiasts for European national self-determination, he quickly made contact with the Cooper Union and the Society of Wood Engravers of New York, and secured a salaried appointment as artistic director of the local equivalent of the Illustrated London News. This enabled him briefly to return early in 1867 to London, where he began collecting material for his history of wood-engraving, gathered up his younger son Edmund, and (his wife having declined to accompany him) set sail again for the New World. Linton’s old life of financial deficits was now transformation into one of surplus and social acceptance in the liberal republic of the United States. His artistic and literary reputation secured election to the Century Club, the self-electing élite of artistic New York and he was honoured by the high-minded liberal intellectuals of New England society as an authentic voice of European radicalism. Not that this stopped him, as a journalist, from castigating various aspects of American life, social organisation, and foreign policy including the sentimental Fenianism of the New England Irish and the Monroe doctrine’s implementation in Spanish America nor from maintaining his voice in European affairs with a passionate but un-American advocacy of the Paris communards in 1870–71.

In 1870, Linton moved out of New York and acquired a farmstead at Hamden, near New Haven, Connecticut, which became his home for the rest of his life. Threatened with bankruptcy proceedings in the English courts, he suggested to Willie, who was looking after the house at Brantwood, that he should contact Ruskin and offer him the property at a nominal discount, for £1500. The sale was completed in May 1871, and was in many ways a serendipitous event, for the characteristic Ruskin works of the Brantwood years, apart from his own increasing interest in fine printing and book illustration, were the radical Fors Clavigera addressed to the workmen of Britain, Deucalion, and Proserpina, the last two respectively his reformulations of field geology and botany for the education of the young. Linton invested proceeds from the Brantwood sale in a new press for the house at Hamden, named Appledore, and again the tireless voice rang out, identifying significant long-term issues such as the corruptions of Tammany Hall politics and the anti-competitive practices of big business and finance. The family was now more or less gathered round him at Appledore, with the exception of his wife, Willie—who worked as a printer in London—and his eldest daughter, Emily, who was partially paralysed and was looked after in an asylum in Dumfries, Scotland. Margaret, the second daughter, was married locally to an engineer at Yale, Thomas Mather, and Ellen helped her father as amanuensis and typesetter. Edmund helped his father in growing vegetables for the house and, again as at Brantwood, in botanising.

Proximity to Yale’s libraries as well as his literary acquaintances encouraged Linton to publish in 1878 a volume of selected American verse, Poetry of America, followed by a limited edition of an anthology of English verses showing an exceptional knowledge for this period of the metaphysical poets, The Golden Apples of Hesperus (1882); another limited edition, Rare Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1882); and, with R. H. Stoddard, the five volumes of English Verse (1884). Alongside his genuine editorialising of early seventeenth-century verse, there is evidence that he flirted with producing forged pamphlets, probably, like some art forgers, to mock the scholarship of ‘experts’. But he himself was now an increasingly respected figure in the English-speaking world of art and letters. In 1882, he was elected to the American National Academy of Arts, and on his occasional trips to England he became a figure more familiar in the libraries and print rooms of London than on the radical fringes of politics. He particularly loathed W. E. Gladstone, however, regarding him as the betrayer of the old radical vision of land reform and universal suffrage, and he backed Disraeli during the Bulgarian atrocities controversy of 1876. On the last of his English trips in 1889, he brought his magnum opus—Masters of Wood Engraving, printed by hand at Appledore in only three copies—for reproduction in two limited folio editions at the Chiswick Press. In 1891, he was awarded an honorary MA degree of Yale University. Linton’s late books are mostly memoirs: European Republicans: Recollections of Mazzini and his Friends (1893), a Life of Whittier (1893), and his own Memories (1895). A further volume of his own verses, Poems, was published in the same year.

During the 1890s, Linton’s prodigious energies declined, and by autumn 1897 he was unable to continue to operate the press at Appledore. He died at his daughter’s house in New Haven on 29th December 1897 and was survived briefly by Eliza Lynn, who died in July 1898. His papers, the basis for F. B. Smith’s scholarly biography Radical Artisan: William James Linton, 1812–97 (1973) are preserved in three main collections: the Istituto Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in Milan, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Smith reproduces photographs of him in his forties as international agitator with long brown hair, and in his eighties as the benign patriarch, with a cloud of white hair and deep smile-lines around his eyes. The modern view, largely influenced by Smith, is increasingly to see Linton as a significant figure in the non-socialist tradition of European radicalism. He has benefited also from art historians’ changed valuation of ‘reproductive’ printmaking, and from the recognition of his own ‘original’ work as a designer of images, illustrator, and poet. His integrity, courage, and moral stature are beyond doubt.


[1] G. White English illustrators of the sixties, 1897, W. Linton Specimens of a new process of engraving for surface printing, 1861, W. Linton Three score and ten years?, New York, 1894, published in London as Memories, 1895, J. Murdoch The discovery of the Lake District: a northern Arcadia and its uses, 1984 and F. B. Smith Radical artisan: William James Linton, 1812–97, 1973. Archives: Instituto Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Milan: correspondence and papers; National Australian Library, Canberra: papers; Yale University, Beinecke Library: correspondence, notebooks, journals, literary MSS; Bishopsgate Institute, London: correspondence with Charles Bradlaugh and J. G. Crawford: Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester, Co-operative Union archive: letters, mostly to G. J. Holyoake; Harvard University, Houghton Library: letters to W. E. Adams; and, John Rylands Library: letters to J. H. Nodal.