Saturday, 29 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s -- Municipal Chartism

O’Connor reserved his venom for Knowledge, Church and Teetotal Chartists. In part his opposition was principled. They stood for a different brand of Chartism that was elitist, artisanal and exclusive. There might be, O’Connor declared[1] “washing and cleansing Chartists declaring that you were too dirty for enfranchisement.”  In part it was a question of personality and temperament. Above his hostility was about the necessity of a common front against the common enemy, those with the vote. O’Connor recognised that it was unlikely that Chartism could have survived the revival of LWMA elitism. It might have achieved more in the long run for working people, but it could never have bonded a mass movement together, nor could it have rivalled O’Connor’s championing of the ‘fustian coats’. However, even in areas where O’Connor had significant support, local Chartists turned to other strategies to achieve their objectives. These may have not have been as divisive and the elitism of Lovett and Vincent but they reflected the growing diversity of the movement.

In some provincial cities Chartists turned to municipal politics[2]. This grew out of the growing recognition that Parliament had to be persuaded rather than abused. The principal Chartist weapons – marches and petitions, conventions, delegations and public meetings – were evidence of the irresistible support for the Chartist cause. The less raucous variants were intended to convince the ‘ins’ that the ‘outs’ should be given the vote because of their moral responsibility. Taking part in local politics could also show this. Chartists were most active in the towns and the urban political structure allowed them scope in various local institutions. It was in Leeds that real efforts were made to make the Charter work in a local context[3].

Chartists in local government in Leeds

Chartist efforts in January 1840 in the election for improvement commissioners[4] were frustrated by an adverse legal decision. The following years they shared power with Liberals and in 1842 gained full control. The debate over the Leeds improvement bill in 1841 and 1842 raised important constitutional questions on where real municipal power lay. Three options were open. First, the improvement commission could inherit new powers and functions and, as a result, push the council into the background. Secondly, power could be spread among commissioners, councillors and magistrates. Finally, the council could take over all the powers of the improvement commission, an option which, not surprising, it supported strongly. The Leeds Chartist commissioners amended the hill to democratise local government. Powers were to be given to the commission but not to the council or magistrates. Ratepayers were to elect commissioners who would have to satisfy a residential but not a financial qualification. No expenditure over £500 would be possible without the direct consent of the ratepayers and meetings to seek their consent would be held in the evening rather than during the working day. Finally rates were to be levied progressively with houses under £10 being assessed at one-third the rate for houses over £50. The council and the magistrates opposed the bill. Property owners were lukewarm in their support and the legal representatives of the commissioners withdrew. Without financial, legal and political support the bill was withdrawn but the Chartist persuaded the vestry to resolve that no local bill was acceptable that did not contain agreed democratic arrangements. Despite this, the bill was revived, the democratic clauses removed and it was approved by Parliament. The Leeds Improvement Act 1842 vested all power in the Town Council with which the Improvement Commission was merged.

The Chartist moved their attention to other areas of urban government. In 1842, they secured the office of churchwarden, controlled by the Liberals since the 1820s, and held it for five years until defeated by the Tories in 1847. They also moved into the board of surveyors of highways and from 1843 until well after the national demise of Chartism, Chartist surveyors were elected. When a board of guardians was set up in late 1844 it was characteristic that Chartists stood. Three did so in 1844 and 1845 and in the 1846 election ten stood, though only one was elected. In Leeds during the 1840s Chartists were commissioners, churchwardens, surveyors and guardians. This was a Chartist vision of participation by ‘the people’ and if poor men could run local government why should they not be given the right to vote?

Leeds Chartists were not necessarily poor men. To stand for municipal office meant they had to be rated at £30 or £40. From 1842, it was the council that had the real power and, for a decade, Chartists either individually or as a body took part in municipal elections. Most of the Chartists were shopkeepers or artisans and they generally voted with the more radical Liberals. In fact the Chartists were not united and did not vote as a bloc especially on issues involving expenditure. John Jackson[5], a leading local Chartist, voted against a rate for drainage and a new sewerage system in 1844 but in favour of a larger courthouse and altering the market in 1845-6. George Robson[6], another Chartist, voted against Jackson on the former but supported the latter while William Brook[7] voted against Jackson on both issues. The Chartists were split on each of the six votes on the building of the town hall between January 1851 and May 1852. It was, however, Chartist who put forward some of the most important municipal innovations. Joshua Hobson[8] pressed for the creation of a new shopping street in 1845 to include a new town hall. He, along with Robson and Brook, argued for an effective drainage system. The Chartist guardian, John Ayrey, first suggested the building of an industrial school, the only major Poor Law building project in the West Riding in the 1840s.

What gave consistency to the Leeds Chartists was their belief in democratic control. Brook favoured municipal spending when the economy was prosperous but opposed it in 1848-9 when the economy slumped and he did not want to increase his constituents’ rates. Popular involvement and control can be seen in many of the other ideas expressed by municipal Chartists. There were attempts to ensure popular participation in the 1842 Improvement Bill. In education they favoured locally elected boards and rate-aided schools thirty years before the 1879 Elementary Education Act. They were strongly opposed to centralisation and in favour of locally controlled towns. As Fraser rightly says, this was[9] “Chartism in practice in the search for popular democracy in local government.”  The experience of Leeds was paralleled in other major towns; for example in Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Salford and Nottingham and especially Sheffield Chartists became embroiled in municipal politics.

Municipal Chartism and the Charter

Municipal elections clearly showed Chartist attitudes to the representative process, not least because Chartists were more successful in local government elections from the late 1830s through to the 1850s[10]. Generally, the early Victorian municipal electorate was less restrictive than the parliamentary electorate created in 1832. Some towns had open vestries were all parishioners had the vote and could, if they wished, vote by ballot. Newer boroughs, incorporated under the terms of the Municipal Corporations Act, had more restrictive conditions: longer residential requirements for voters and high property qualifications for councillors. However, the municipal electorate, unlike the parliamentary electorate, continued to expand through the 1840s and 1850s helped by the implementation of the Small Tenements Rating Act 1850 in many towns through which tenement dwellers gained the vote.

By the late 1840s, Chartists and ex-Chartists sat on town councils in Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Rochdale and Sheffield to name the better-documented examples. They secured control of the Police Commission in Salford and ran the Highway Commission in Sheffield. Municipal Chartists were often popular local figures like Robert Carter, Abel Heywood, Joshua Hobson, Thomas Livsey, James Moir and William Newton who remained faithful to the principles of the Charter after the 1840s and attempted their implementations in the council chamber and in local constituency associations wherever possible and, in the 1860s in the revived reform agitations that culminated in the campaigns of the Reform League.

The influence of the Chartists led to an attempted democratisation of municipal politics. They insisted on greater accountability by allowing the public into council meetings, outlawed all canvassing during municipal elections (as was attempted in Aberdeen), required those elected to give regular accounts of their activities and resigned if called on to do so by their constituents. In these ways, Chartists in local government sought to put into practice the representative principles of the Charter.

Was O’Connor right?

O’Connor faced major problems after he was released from York gaol in August 1841. The events of 1839 and early 1840 had deprived Chartism of its sense of urgency. The proliferation of ‘Chartisms’ in 1840 and 1841 reflected the inherent diversity of the working class. There was an almost unbridgeable gulf between skilled workers and the rest. Radical activity had always been diffuse and the recognition that universal suffrage was not imminent led to many radicals drifting into other forms of social protest and self-help activity. The unity of Chartism was sorely tested.

Historians have often seen the growing fragmentation of the movement in a negative light. They are, to a degree, right. O’Connor’s style of leadership often but unjustifiably criticised as undemocratic and ‘dictatorial’, was a major area of contention. His attempt to maintain a sense of working class unity at all costs was bound to rankle with other Chartist leaders and the independence of local associations. Bronterre O’Brien argued that[11] “Chartism has been wrecked – frittered away – all but annihilated by the attempt to force the whole Chartist body into one association.”

However, it is better to see the events of 1840 and 1841 more positively as a broadening of the cultural dimensions of Chartism. ‘Knowledge’ Chartism and Church and Teetotal Chartists, particularly at local level, can be seen not as diversions but as complementary to the movement’s more overt challenge in terms of national mass action. O’Connor’s attack in the spring of 1841 was not on education or temperance or religion but on those who used these issues to develop exclusive forms of working class activity. The division between ‘moral’ and ‘physical force’ Chartists, however neat it may have appeared to later historians, does not do justice to the complementary and complex nature of radical activities. Many of those who argued for co-operation, religion, education and temperance in 1840-41 were involved in mass class confrontation in 1842 and 1848. Circumstances rather than principles determined whether the ‘cultural’ or ‘confrontational’ dimensions of Chartism were to the fore.  O’Connor’s position as the pre-eminent Chartist leader was confirmed by the events of 1840-41 and his influence over the policy and direction of the movement was considerable. There were, however, limits to O’Connor’s ascendancy over the movement. Many Chartists may have deferred to O’Connor but there was a turbulent spirit of democracy in Chartist protest that he could not afford to ignore. His leadership was subjected to close scrutiny and criticism by local Chartists keen to show they were not his ‘dupes’. Those who saw O’Connor’s leadership as dictatorial neglect just how conditional it was.

[1] Northern Star, 13th March 1841.

[2] Derek Fraser Urban Politics in Victorian England, Leicester, 1976 and Power and Authority in the Victorian City, Oxford, 1979 provide the best contextual context. Derek Fraser (ed.) Municipal reform and the industrial city, Leicester, 1982 and R.J. Morris (ed.) Class, power and social structure in British nineteenth-century towns, Leicester, 1986 contain useful case studies. J.Garrard Leadership and Power in Victorian Industrial Towns 1830-1850, Manchester, 1983 consider the municipal context of Chartism in Rochdale, Bolton and Salford.

[3] J.F.C. Harrison ‘Chartism in Leeds’, in A. Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, London, 1959, pages 65-98 is a useful starting-point but, as Fraser Urban Politics in Victorian England, page 257 points out, his study is ‘marred by errors and omissions’. Derek Fraser (ed.) A History of Modern Leeds, Manchester 1980 is a broader study.

[4] From the mid-eighteenth century, towns had set up bodies for lighting and draining the streets and for scavenging and watching. These bodies were known as the improvement commission. They were the main agency for sanitary reform. In Leeds the ratepayers elected commissioners.

[5] John Jackson was the first successful candidate put forward by the Leeds Chartists at a municipal election and was elected an Improvement Commissioner in 1840 as part of a bloc of Whigs, Radicals and Chartists formed to defeat the Tories. Jackson, a corn miller from Holbeck, was successfully re-elected in 1841. He was to be elected a Leeds town councillor for the Holbeck ward in 1843, one of the first two successful candidates (with Hobson). Jackson lost his seat to the Liberals in 1846 and failed to regain it the following year.

[6] George Robson was elected as a Chartist candidate to Leeds town council in West Ward in 1844, he retained his seat in the election of 1847. Robson was a butcher.

[7] William Brook was Secretary of Leeds Charter Association and of the committee established to organise the first Chartist attempt to win seats on Leeds town council. Brook was a tobacconist and tea dealer in Kirkgate, who later set up a small nail-making business in Swinegate. He was elected as a Chartist candidate to the council in 1844 for Holbeck ward and retained his seat in the 1847 election.

[8] Joshua Hobson was a member of the provisional committee of the Leeds Working Men’s Association, founded in 1837, and chair of the meeting at which it was elected. Hobson had earlier been a prominent member of the Leeds Radical Association. Born in Huddersfield in 1810, he was apprenticed to a joiner but later worked at Oldham as a handloom weaver, where he wrote for radical papers as “the whistler at the loom”. Back in Huddersfield, he became involved in the local Short Time Committee set up to back moves to cut working hours, and was one of the working men who built an alliance with the factory reformer Richard Oastler. Hobson published Voice of the West Riding from 1833 and was jailed three times for selling an unstamped paper. In 1834 he moved to Leeds where he continued to publish radical material – including Feargus O’Connor’s Northern Star until its move to London in 1844 and Owen’s New Moral World. Hobson was among the first of the Chartist candidates to stand for local office when he unsuccessfully contested an election to be an Improvement Commissioner for Leeds, but was successful two years later when the Chartist list swept the board. He also chaired a municipal election committee set up to organise the Chartists’ first attempt to win seats on the town council, and stood unsuccessfully as a candidate in November 1842. He was elected to the council in 1843 representing the Holbeck ward (with Jackson).

[9] Derek Fraser (ed.) Municipal reform and the industrial city, Leicester, 1982, page 62.

[10] Miles Taylor ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in Owen Ashton, Robert Tyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 17-18 considers this issue.

[11] British Statesman, 5th November 1842.

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s -- 'Teetotal Chartism'

 Temperance and teetotal reformers offered another way of changing society and the temperance movement was a major cause of social reform in Victorian Britain[1]. It had long been an integral part of the radical ethos. John Fraser, who spent much of his life campaigning for temperance, went so far as to suggest that ‘Drinking radicalism is a contradiction in terms.’ It is not surprising that a temperance strand should have developed within Chartism or that this should be a cause of division in the movement. Radicals had been arguing about temperance as early as 1831 and drink and drink-sellers were so central to working class culture that these differences were almost inevitable.

The temperance movement: an overview

During the nineteenth century, the consumption of alcohol among working-class men began to be viewed as a wasteful and illicit form of entertainment that served no purpose, caused many problems and was scorned and fought against by the temperance movement. The temperance movement focused on the drinking habits of men, because men drank publicly and because the drinking habits of women were unknown. While its goals changed according to its respective leaders, it eventually achieved its goals of controlling drunkenness and changing Victorian England’s lenient treatment of alcohol abusers. The temperance movement’s main focus was working-class drinking and the movement was dominated by middle-class men who felt that by fighting intemperance they were helping the working class.

Representing the ideals of self-control and self-denial, the temperance movement epitomised middle-class Victorian values. Its values were shaped by the Evangelical movement that was concerned with salvation and the Utilitarian movement that was concerned with efficiency and valued self-control and self-denial. Joseph Kidd, a late-Victorian journalist for the Contemporary Review wrote, “To be able to rule self and transmit to children an organisation [society] accustomed to self-restraint and moderation in all things is one of the chief delights and aspirations to the moral nature of a true man.”[2] The temperance advocates believed that anyone under the influence of alcohol was no longer in control of him or herself.

Many Victorians thought that thrift and self-denial were essential to forming a “true man.” They argued that work was the key to success and that a “true man” was always willing to work hard. Leisure was distrusted because they believed that it perpetuated laziness. A man who indulged himself in leisure was not considered a “true man,” for a “true man” denied himself pleasure and practiced self-denial. Many of the temperance groups concerned with thrift encouraged working-class men in pubs to save their money rather than spend it on drink and also to avoid laziness and gluttony in order to be better workers.

The Victorians also valued the idea of self-help, claiming that an individual grows through personal effort. For example, the mayor of Chester during the 1830’s explained, “Self-help is of all help, the best because it brings with it mainly satisfaction of difficulties subdued.”[3]  Individuals who did not make a conscious effort to redeem themselves from lowly social stature, to improve their education and personal development, were labelled failures. Members of the working class were blamed for their own inability to succeed because they remained in an undesirable position in society without striving to better themselves. Temperance was seen as a way for these men to counter the claims that they were lazy, prove that they had self respect and cared about their social status.

The temperance movement did not consist of one cohesive group of non-drinkers who were in constant agreement and cooperated to achieve a common goal. The movement began in the 1830s when intemperance was beginning to be seen as a widespread problem. With the rise of industrialism, working hours became much more regulated than in the agricultural society and factory owners demanded punctual, alert and efficient factory workers. Previously, many working-class men had missed days of work due to their intoxication. However, as a result of industrialisation, this sort of behaviour was no longer acceptable because it hindered the work regimen of the factory.

The organised temperance movement was brought to Lancaster and Yorkshire, the northern industrial towns, in the 1830s, by the middle-class, who felt that they were fighting drunkenness out of Christian charity. The middle class saw intemperance as a problem solely in the working class, focused their efforts on eliminating hard liquor and sought to dramatically curb the widespread drunkenness that plagued society. They worked with clergymen and a few upper-class reformers to help working-class men control their drinking. Their goal was to enlist the help of those who drank only in moderation, to fight against drunkenness, rather than to cure drunkards. William Collins, a prominent temperance lobbyist, explained his group’s theory on membership by saying, “Drunkards we hold to be almost irreclaimable ... it is rather too late for men to become members, when they have become drunkards.”  The temperance leaders implored social drinkers not to take a drink between meals; however, some people facetiously complained that they would overeat as a result of this rule.[4]

Furthermore, in order to set an example for the members of the temperance groups and the community at large, those who worked for the temperance movement believed that they themselves should abstain from drinking any sort of alcoholic beverage.  This personal conviction was based on the message heralded by St Paul, that “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended or made weak.”  The strong Evangelical influence gave such Biblical references a strong and persuasive appeal. The main goal of the temperance workers was not to outlaw drinking, but to control it. Many working-class men were insulted by the temperance movement and believed that its leaders were hypocritical because they implied that the problem of drunkenness lay only in the working class.  They also complained that the temperance movement only diverted attention from the real problems of sanitation, overcrowding in housing developments and discontent in the workplace.[5]

During 1830, at the beginning of the temperance reformation, twenty temperance societies were founded, totalling between two and three thousand members. The inhabitants of urban communities in northern England were early supporters of the movement. Temperance societies held public meetings and invited only speakers whom they saw as nearly sinless to address their members and encourage them to avoid drunkenness. For example, the speech of a man invited to preach for the Leeds Temperance Society’s meeting held on March 9th, 1831, was so gripping that the audience did not disperse until late in the night.  Besides persuading them through exciting speeches, the temperance societies worked to attract members by publishing and distributing tracts, journals, and essays. They charged for these documents and this often made them unavailable to the poor working class, the very group of people whom they tried to address.

The temperance movement in the 1830s and 1840s focused on controlling drunkenness rather than abolishing all alcoholic beverages. It was believed that the promotion of beer, which they were convinced, was less intoxicating than the hard liquor of the working class, would provide for social drinking rather then public intoxication. The Beer Act of 1830 began forty years of the free trade of beer and enabled anyone who paid two guineas to receive a license to sell beer. It was believed that if beer was easily obtainable at an unlimited number of beer shops, people would choose to drink it rather than gin that was seen as more destructive and which was harder to obtain. In order to further encourage the sale of beer, in late 1830, the two guinea duty for the beer license was eliminated, making beer even more accessible. Many working class men procured the licenses so that they could profit from the sale of beer that was being so aggressively supported.

When it became clear that beer could be as equally intoxicating as the scorned drink, gin, temperance reformers realised that the Beer Act was a failure in controlling drunkenness and the second phase of the temperance movement began. Therefore, in 1832, those who fervently believed in the evil of alcohol called for an alcohol-free society and formed a group referring to themselves as “teetotallers.” This group sought to convince Victorians that any consumption of liquor was morally wrong. This alienated those of the middle-class who dominated the early temperance movement and believed in controlling drunkenness rather than abolishing liquor. While the temperance movement was founded by middle-class men seeking to improve the working class, the teetotal group was founded by seven working-class men under the leadership of Joseph Livesey.

Livesey and his teetotal group took a pledge, promising never to consume any alcoholic beverages. This pledge was considered the “cornerstone” of the teetotal movement. Labelled the “short pledge,” this pledge only required people to refrain from personal consumption. Later, the “long pledge” was introduced; this forbade anyone under the pledge oath from serving alcohol in his or her home. For the middle-class, this provided serious social problems because few socialites cared to dine in someone’s home and not drink wine. Also, the “long pledge” disallowed the giving or taking of sacramental wine.  As a result, many middle-class people who supported temperance but still wished to drink wine with their dinners, were not supportive of the teetotal movement. However, women at marrying age were encouraged by teetotallers and non-teetotallers alike to only marry men who were teetotal.[6]

The teetotallers’ goal was to create self-respect among the working class and encourage them to establish and strive for goals to improve their position in society and not remain idle. One working-class teetotaller, Thomas Whittaker spoke in reference to the middle-class value of the ideal “true man,” saying that teetotallers “made me feel that a man’s position and success did not, after all, depend so much on his birth and parentage than on his own efforts and perseverance.”  The “pledge” became a way for working-class men to decide their own fates by rebuilding their unions and involving themselves in the political process.

Many working-class men were more eager to join the group and take the pledge, because teetotallers were a group of the working-class men who sought the advancement of the working class. Several of these men found it encouraging that the members of these groups were obligated to trade (restrictive trading) only within their groups thereby promoting each other’s success and giving non-members the incentive to change their views and join a teetotal group. In order to enforce this policy, before each meeting, the secretary would read the names of each member and his job and skills to remind all members of whom to contact for their specific needs. Because of the Chartist movement’s concern for showing working-class respectability, many teetotallers quickly joined. Chartist groups were founded all over England in the early 1840s. One working-class temperance group, the East London Chartist Temperance Association, invited many speakers to address their members. One such speaker emphasised “the necessity of the working classes abstaining from all intoxicating drinks in order to assist themselves in obtaining their political rights.”

There was considerable resentment within the middle class because they wanted to be the leaders of the temperance movement. As a result, briefly, middle-class membership in the temperance movement declined. Joseph Kidd blamed the teetotallers for not recognising the temperance workers as partners in the same goal. In an article entitled “Temperance and Its Boundaries,” he wrote that, “The more vehement of the total abstinence orators try to brand the advocates of temperance as evil-doers, as half-hearted, as disguised enemies, if not false friends.” He claimed that if the teetotallers were not so adamant about the total abolishment of liquor, they would find more support. The teetotallers did not cease from insisting on the abolishment of liquor, however, and this led directly to their downfall. As problems such as lack of support and funding festered, the teetotallers’ movement dissipated. Due to mismanagement and lack of business skills, the working-class leaders found it difficult to keep all of the finances on track and the teetotal movement could no longer afford to continue. The frustrated leaders, unable to persuade society that drinking was immoral, disengaged their followers and sought to return to their private lives.  The Victorian journalist Charles Graham said he would[7] “give the compulsory abstinence party [teetotallers] ... the credit at least of good intentions,” after having labelled their efforts a failure saying that they were “doomed.”

 Temperance and political reform

The growth popularity of the temperance and total abstinence movements in the 1830s and 1840s encouraged some radicals to consider a ‘general union’ between temperance and political reformers. The National Charter Association argued for sobriety but consistently opposed calls to make total abstinence part of the Chartist programme. This made very good sense. Working men were divided on the temperance question. Some saw drink as an integral part of working class culture. A Trowbridge Chartist promised his audience ‘plenty of roast beef, plum pudding and strong beer for working three hours a day’ and public houses had long formed the focal point for radical activities. Ernest Jones repeatedly emphasised that ‘the Charter was not to be found at the bottom of a glass of water’. Many Chartist leaders disliked the temperance movement’s religious connections. Peter Murray McDouall[8] condemned the teetotal movement in 1842 as ‘more of a religious than a political body’[9]. Certainly for many middle class Nonconformists temperance was a religious and moral question, completely divorced from politics. The Aberdeen Teetotaller made this clear when it said ‘As an association we have as little to do with Chartism as the man in the moon’. In 1839, the Chartist delegates Robert Lowery[10] and Abram Duncan were opposed by the leaders of teetotalism in Cornwall. Chartist attitudes on religious grounds merged into objections on the grounds of class. Teetotallers were accused of narrow-mindedness and middle class pretensions and there was a real fear that that working class aspiration would be subordinated to the teetotal movement’s middle class leaders. It was this dilution of the movement that O’Connor feared.

Harrison argues that teetotal Chartism was ‘never a negligible force’ and that it ‘made no sharp break with previous radical attitudes’[11]. Sobriety made sound political sense. It stood well with public opinion, especially among the middle classes, and weakened government arguments about the irresponsibility of the working class. The links between Chartism and temperance were emphasised by some Chartists by the late 1830s. In early 1840 John Fraser described as ‘a revolting spectacle’ to see ‘pot-house politicians hiccuping for liberty’[12] Many Welsh and Scottish Working Men’s Associations followed the example of the London organisation and denied membership to drunken and immoral men. William Lovett in Chartism suggested the creation of drink-free district halls to encourage self-improvement and drink free entertainment. Many individuals campaigned for both temperance and the Charter and, in the early moths of 1841 when enthusiasm was at its height, Teetotal Chartist societies sprang up in London, the North and Midlands and in Scotland. The leading figure in this process was Henry Vincent[13]. Vincent had abstained since 1836 and had long argued for self-improvement and sobriety. Prison heightened his temperance and in December 1840, together with C.H. Neesom[14], Cleave, Hill and Hetherington, he signed as address, which argued that the aristocracy only ruled because of the vices of the poor, and that Chartists must therefore become teetotallers. The Morning Chronicle on 2nd December supported this stance maintaining that Chartist teetotalism was ‘a better pledge of the coming franchise than the loaded musket’[15]. Vincent’s manifesto reflected the growing division within Chartism and the search for an alternative social and political programme to the fundamentalism of O’Connor.

The appeal of Teetotal Chartism

What was the appeal of Teetotal Chartism? Many contemporary commentators, working as well as middle class, were concerned with the causes of poverty. The evils associated with drunkenness were obvious and this led many reformers to exaggerate its significance as the cause of poverty. Temperance was an expression of the dignity of class. There was also a widespread belief that drunkenness helped to explain the weakness of the Chartist movement in 1839 and 1840. The Northern Star[16] suggested in 1840 that “Teetotalism leads to knowledge – knowledge leads to thinking – thinking leads to discontent of things as they are, and then, as a matter of course, comes Chartism. This posed a direct assault on the ability of government to govern. At least a third of revenue came from drink taxes. Without this, some Chartist argued, government would not be able to pay its police or soldiers. Lord Brougham[17] described the non-payment of taxes as “…a thing utterly beyond all power of law – and even of force – and wholly impossible to be put down. This it is that makes it so formidable.”

Teetotalism was also a powerful means of redefining the working-middle class radical alliance. No argument against the extension of the franchise was aired more often than the allegation that drunkenness was widespread among working people. Vincent took middle class arguments against extending the franchise and tried to remove them[18]

“[Working people] should forsake the gin palace and so shew the aristocracy that they were a people worthy to be entrusted with the power they claimed.”

Teetotal Chartism advanced quickly in the spring of 1841. His teetotal tour took Vincent, during March and April, through Oxford, Banbury, Leicester, Nottingham, Cheltenham and Gloucester. His speeches promoted class harmony and co-operation and ended with pledge signing. O’Connor’s attack, in March and early April, was a stinging one. Teetotalism was divisive and a reflection of the London radicals whose influence he so despised. Vincent’s influence on the movement was declining – in late April he became a lecturer for the Complete Suffrage Union -- and the movement collapsed almost overnight. This rapid disintegration is, in some respects, deceiving. In some areas teetotalism remained a powerful adjunct to Chartism.

The rift between Vincent and O’Connor – Vincent branded O’Connor as ‘a fair and palpable mixture of knavery and folly’ in early May and O’Connor retaliated the following month calling Vincent ‘the political pedlar’ -- has been seen as a division between a moderate who blundered into a temperance backwater and a class-conscious repudiation of evangelising crusading. Such an interpretation, Harrison suggests, is wrong on three counts. First, Teetotal Chartism was only seemingly moderate. Lovett and Vincent were consistently anti-aristocratic and aware of the dignity of their class. In their earlier Chartist careers and in their ultimate objectives, they were at least as radical as O’Connor. Secondly, Lovett’s autobiography and Mark Hovell’s influential narrative were unwaveringly hostile to O’Connor and both give the impression that O’Connor was opposed to temperance. This was far from the case. O’Connor did not oppose teetotalism as a principle but to avoid embroiling Chartism with the cause of temperance[19]. He wrote in April 1841[20]

“Once make nonconformity grounds for exclusion and you establish sects and affiliations, instead of one universal corps of regenerators.”

This was a shrewd political judgement and there is ample evidence of the disunity Teetotal Chartism caused at national and local levels. Thirdly, the Lovett-Hovell interpretation ignored O’Connor’s later attitudes. His temperance views certainly influenced his practice in the Land Plan. He barred distillers, brewers and drink-sellers from his estates and in 1847 he urged the settlers on the Herongate estate to avoid the adjacent beershop. Temperance, he believed, was only possible when working people were no longer exploited. In 1846 he said[21]

“Ah! If I was monarch for twenty-four hours, I’d level every gin palace with the dust….and in less than a month I’d produce a wise representation of a sober and thoughtful national mind.”

Tactics not principle determined O’Connor’s attitude in 1841.

[1] Brian Harrison Drink and the Victorians, London, 1971, revised edition Keele, 1994 is the seminal work on the nineteenth century temperance movement. His ‘Teetotal Chartism’, History, volume 58, June 1973 provides the basis for this section and is reprinted in S. Roberts (ed.) The People’s Charter, Merlin, 2003, pages 35-63.

[2] Joseph Kidd, “Temperance and Its Boundaries,” Contemporary Review, volume 34 (January 1879), page 353.

[3] Lilian Lewis Shiman, Crusade Against Drink in Victorian England, St. Martin’s Press, 1988, page 9.

[4] R. H. Gretton, A Modem History of the English People 1880-1922, London, 1930, page 641.

[5] F. M. L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society, Cambridge, 1988, page 321.

[6] Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism, Macmillan, 1987, page 133.

[7] Charles Graham, “Beer and the Temperance Problem,” Contemporary Review, 30 (June 1877), page 73.

[8] Peter Murray McDouall (1814-54) was a surgeon who became involved with Chartism in 1838. He edited one of the movement’s best periodicals McDouall’s Chartist and Republican Journal (1841). Imprisoned in 1839-40 and 1848-50, he died in Australia. Owen R. Ashton and Paul A. Pickering Friends of the People, Merlin, 2003, pages 7-29 contain a useful biography of McDouall as does J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 2: 1830-1970, Brighton, 1984, pages 323-326.

[9] Northern Star, 30th April 1842.

[10] Brian Harrison and Patricia Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery Radical and Chartist, London, 1979 contains an annotated selection from Lowery’s writings. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 309-313 and J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume iv, 1977, pages 112-117 are shorter.

[11] Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 196.

[12] True Scotsman, 16th May 1840 quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 197.

[13] William Dorling Henry Vincent: A Biographical Sketch, London 1879 remains the only detailed study of his life. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 519-522 and in J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume i, Macmillan, 1972, pages 326-334 are more recent.

[14] See biography in J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 2: 1830-1970, Brighton, 1984, pages 367-369.

[15] Quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 198.

[16] Northern Star, 5th September 1840, quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 200.

[17] Letter to Lord Lyndhurst (?) quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 200.

[18] Northern Star, 6th March 1841.

[19] O’Connor was not alone in this. Richard Cobden took a similar line with the Anti-Corn Law League.

[20] Northern Star, 3rd April 1841.

[21] Northern Star, 10th October 1846.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s -- 'Church Chartism'

The National Association was not the only organisation that emerged in the early 1840s to challenge the supremacy of O’Connor. There was a vital and organic link between politics and religion in the nineteenth century. Chartism reflected this and used religious language and religious leaders. Protestant evangelicalism was at its height and many Christian Chartists gathered strength from their belief that they were truly the agents of God’s work. Peter Foden told his Chartist audience that[1] “Their cause was of God and whatever the hand of man might attempt to do, God was still on the side of the poor, and they were sure to prosper.”

Divisions on religious grounds

In part, especially in 1838 and 1839, battle lines were drawn on religious grounds. In some areas clerical attitudes to working class action appear to have been crucial. At least forty clergymen sympathised actively with the Chartist movement from the Unitarian Yeovil minister Henry Solly[2] and the Baptist Thomas Davies of Merthyr to the eloquent Congregationalist Alexander Duncanson. Their support came from lecturing, chairing meetings, loaning chapels and giving radicals books and money. They stood on the ‘moral’ wing of the movement but that did not stop their chapel invective from being fiery. J.R. Stephens gave an apocalyptic sermon on 3rd August 1839 before his trial at Chester. He warned of God’s ruin of unrighteous civilisations and proclaimed the Second Coming[3]

“We are now arrived at the period when God is saying to us for the last time, ‘How often – how often would I have gathered you as a nation, taken you under my especial protection, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but ye would not!’ God, in my judgement, is now giving England her last opportunity; we are now at the eleventh hour of the day of our salvation; we are now favoured with an opportunity of lighting our lamps, of following the bridegroom, of entering in to the marriage supper… All men are agreed in believing that we are on the eve of a change, and a very great change, a very awful change and perhaps a very sudden change.”

Some, like preachers in the West Riding, shared the lives of their congregations. Benjamin Rushton was a working handloom weaver, William Thornton a wool comber and John Arran variously a blacksmith, teacher and dealer in coffee and tea. Clerical support was strongest from the oldest and newest branches of Nonconformity and this raised hopes of an alliance between Chartism and Nonconformity over issues like education, the relationship between church and state and political reform.

The sentiment, expressed by George Binns[4] the dominant Chartist figure on the Durham coalfields at his open-air meetings with banner proclaiming ‘We are born again’ and ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’, runs through the Chartist movement. Binns’ speeches – Gammage wrote of their magical effect -- were full of the need for regeneration, the unchristian nature of their opponents and the final triumph of the numbers and energy of the people: ‘they may boast of their Wellingtons, but we have a God’. O’Connor may have distrusted Christian Chartists but William Hill[5], editor of his Northern Star, defended them vigorously. In the early summer of 1843 at the start of a lecturing tour Hill stated that his purpose was to show that[6]

“Every consistent Christian must be a Chartist and that all will be better Chartists for being Christians….I believe Christianity to be the soul of which Chartism is the body; and I cannot consent to separate them”

It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of religious radicalism. Even the NCA membership card carried the words: ‘This is Our Charter, God is Our Guide’. It was also evident in the frequent inclusion of some form of religious ceremony into Chartist rituals, from blessing the food at radical dinners, singing ‘Chartist Hymns’ to holding Chartist funerals. The NCA executive did not speak for all Chartists when it refused to agree to the creation of Christian Chartist Churches at the expense of political organisations[7]. Parish church demonstrations took place in at least thirty-one localities in the second half of 1839. The corrupted church was contrasted with the true church that was the property of the people. Tithes and compulsory church rates, the role of Anglican clergymen as magistrates, pew rents and the limited membership of the parish vestry were all causes of this assault. The attack on the established church must be seen in the context of the structure of Tory-Anglican power. It had opposed reform in 1832 and now opposed the Charter.

The Anglican Church and the orthodox Methodist churches led the attack on the atheism (‘infidelism’) and violence of working class radicals. Jabez Bunting, leader of the Wesleyan Methodists, had no qualms in expelling lay preachers or ministers who sympathised with or actively supported the Chartists. When Joseph Barker was expelled from the Methodist New Connection in 1841 he took twenty-nine churches with him, many of which became Chartist in spirit if not in name. In Cornwall and Denbighshire, preachers went further than invective by disrupting political meetings and visiting houses to warn people against signing national petitions.

Origins in Scotland

The men who established Chartism in Scotland in the late 1830s were almost all closely connected to the churches[8]. The Chartist movement was seen by many as part of the long struggle in Scotland for civil and religious liberties. The impetus to establish Chartist churches came in large part from the hostile response of the existing dissenting clergy of the United Secession Church and the Relief Synod. Wilson says that in February 1839 the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association petitioned 83 clergymen seeking their support and received one sympathetic reply. Roman Catholics who became involved with Chartism, meanwhile, had to reckon with expulsion from Catholic societies, as happened to Con Murray, a leading figure in the O'Connorite wing of the movement The Chartist Circular advised people to “Study the New Testament. It contains the elements of Chartism”. In the early stages of the movement Scottish Chartists, not surprisingly, looked to the Churches for support and leadership. Chartist committees quickly appointed deputations to meet the ministers of their parishes to seek their support. No co-operation was expected from the clergymen of the Established Church but the response of the Dissenting clergy was a profound disappointment. Their response was, in general, apathetic, a combination of diffidence in committing themselves to the Chartist cause and an innate prejudice against Christians ‘meddling in politics’. The important part played by the Reverend Patrick Brewster[9] of Paisley Abbey church and the Reverend Archibald Browning of Tillicountry in Chartism was the exception.

James Moir[10] had warned his fellow clergymen in April 1839 that their failure to support the Charter could lead to the development of a new religious denomination that would combine the principles of Christianity and Chartism. The following month, first in Hamilton and then Paisley, Chartists began conducting their own religious services. This spread quickly and by early 1840 Chartist Christian congregations had spread to at least thirty places. John Roger, president of the Bridgeton Radicals reported the success of his group's religious ventures to the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association on 24th September that year, recommending that the organisation open its hall on Sundays for public worship. Malcolm McFarlane, a cabinet-maker and vice-president of the Glasgow association, was among the first preachers. The association now set up a religious worship committee, one of whose members, Thomas Mair, reported on 22nd October that though the “a considerable amount of money” had been collected, just three of the six committee members had yet officiated. Preachers included both regular clergy, Rev Mr Calder and Rev Mr Percy, among them, and lay preachers. These included such popular preachers as Andrew Cassels of Partick, William Tait of Auchinearn, Charles McEwan of Gorbals, and Arthur O'Neill of Maryhill.Arthur O’Neill [11], the youngest member of the Universal Suffrage Central Committee for Scotland, a former student of theology and an inspiring lay preacher, reported in late 1839 that[12] “Chartist congregations to become general in every corner of the land [needed] only Chartist preachers – men who would tell the truth, and the whole truth, and who would not scruple to raise their voices against any voice, whether in Church or State.”

It became necessary to establish rules governing such matters as baptism and marriage, as well as questions of doctrine, and a new denomination, calling itself “the Christian Church” was founded. On 1st March 1840 at Glasgow, three sermons were preached, three baptisms held and 65 new members enrolled at the Mechanics Hall, Tontine Place. With upwards of 20 congregations now established, a number of Chartists found themselves in regular employment as preachers, among them John McCrae, William Thomasan and Abram Duncan, all of whom had been delegates to the 1839 Chartist Convention. Thomasan, McCrae and most of the other pastors also acted as school masters to the children of Chartist, and schools were established at Alexandria, Arbroath, Greenock, Gorbals, Strathaven and Hamilton

The intention was not to develop an alternative to the older forms of organised religion but to put pressure on hostile or diffident clergymen. This proved very successful and some clergymen, even the most hostile, began to adopt a more sympathetic or at least neutral attitude. The Reverend Harvey, for example, changed his mind about Chartism and moved from violent denunciation of the movement in late 1839 to lecturing on universal suffrage showing the Christian duty of the middle classes to assist working people in getting the vote by January 1841.

By March 1840, permanent congregations had been formed in some places and this formed the beginnings of the Christian Chartist Churches. The True Scotsman reported in January 1841 that “A Chartist place of worship is to be found on the Lord’s Day in almost every town of note from Aberdeen to Ayr”. Some Chartists thought that a Chartist Synod should be set up to embrace all the local Chartist churches. In January 1841 a delegate conference of all the Chartist churches in Scotland was held to consider how they could help each other and whether any central organisation was necessary. No further delegate conferences were held and after 1841 there appears to have been a steady decline in the number of localities where Chartist services were held[13]. Despite this, when Reverend William Hill, the editor of the Northern Star, toured Scotland in August 1842, he found that the Christian Chartist churches remained the main strength of Scottish Chartism.

O’Neill and the move into England

The focus for Church Chartism had already moved south into England. O’Neill had earned a considerable reputation for his work with the Lanarkshire Universal Suffrage Association. He preached to Chartist congregations on Sundays and built up the organisation during the week. He was appointed a delegate to the demonstration arranged for the release of John Collins and William Lovett from Warwick gaol in July 1840. His sincerity made a great impression on Birmingham Chartists. And, though he went back to Scotland for a short time, he returned to Birmingham, at Collins’ invitation, in late 1840 to give a series of lectures and sermons at the opening of a Chartist Church. The Birmingham Chartist Church was opened on 27th December 1840 at Newhall Street with O’Neill as its pastor. He believed that the true church could not remain aside from daily events but ‘must enter into the struggles of the people and guide them’. He made his position clear in late January 1841[14]

“The characteristics of members of a real Church was on the first day of the week to worship at their alter, and on the next to go out and mingle with the masses, on the third to stand at the bar of judgement, and on the fourth, perhaps to be in a dungeon. This was the case in the primitive Church and so it should be now.’

The Chartist Church was overtly political and its ideology and practice reflected the strengths and weakness of the Birmingham radical movement. O’Neill believed in the importance of links with the middle class. In August 1840 he had said that Birmingham Chartists should ‘go on steadily, avoiding all useless squabbles with the middle class’. His attitude to the middle class was not, however, uncritical. In the tract The Question: what good will the Charter do? He challenged the new industrial society criticising the middle class for its failure to fulfil the promises of the 1832 Reform Act and denouncing the inhumanity of both the New Poor Law and the factory system. Despite this, O’Neill always leaned, even in his most radical phases, towards the middle class alliance.

O’Connor saw the Chartist Church was a diversion from the ‘true’ aims of the movement. He opposed the Birmingham Church on particular as well as general grounds. He argued that it was objectionable to set up a church that barred Irish Catholics and his outlook were supported by George White[15], the leader of the NCA in Birmingham. O’Neill returned their antipathy by not allowing members of the Chartist Church to join the NCA. There were occasions when the two groups came together, for example in the joint petitioning for the release of Frost, Williams and Jones and their common opposition to the Anti-Corn Law League. However, the basic opposition of the Church to physical force and O’Neill’s support for a middle class alliance remained a serious obstacle to closer ties. Yet O’Neill remained a Chartist. He sided with the Chartist majority when Joseph Sturge and many of the middle class members of the Complete Suffrage Union withdrew from the December 1842 conference after the vote to endorse the Charter though the experience confirmed his fears about the Chartist leadership.

The rift with Sturge was short-lived. In January 1843, O’Neill attended a meeting of the council of the Complete Suffrage Union where his plans for strengthening its organisation were accepted. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in August 1843 and on his release returned to the Newhall Street Church declaring that he was ‘still a Chartist’. A Wesleyan minister, “who was no friend to Chartism”, described O'Neill’s preaching methods as follows[16]:

“O’Neill called himself a Christian Chartist and always began his discourse with a text, after the manner of a sermon; and some of our people went to hear him just to observe the proceedings and were shocked beyond description: there was unmeasured abuse of Her Majesty and the Constitution, about the public expenditure and complete radical doctrines of all kinds. They have a hymn-book of their own and affect to be a denomination of Christians. This is the way they gained converts here, by the name. There were very few political Chartists here, but Christian Chartist was a name that took. It is almost blasphemy to prostitute the name of Christian to such purposes.”

The context of Birmingham Chartism had, however, changed and no longer implied support for the national movement led by O’Connor. The revival of ‘harmonious co-operation’ between the classes was renewed and absorbed both the Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartist Church which dissolved respectively in December 1845 and the following year. This change in O’Neill’s attitude can be seen in 1848 when, as elsewhere, Chartism revived in Birmingham. With other former Christian Chartists O’Neill joined middle class radicals in forming a Reform League in the town supporting Joseph Hume’s agitation for the ‘Little Charter’. The League was short-lived but the alliance between working class artisans and middle class radicals survived.

Was Church Chartism a threat to the unity of the Chartist movement? It may have been strong in Scotland but in England its effect was more limited. The success of O’Neill in Birmingham was paralleled by James Scholefield[17] in Manchester and Benjamin Rushton in Halifax. Among the weaving communities Chartism often took the form of a holy war with all the trappings of revivalism. Wearmouth has identified over five hundred camp meetings in the early years of Chartism and in the late 1840s[18]. This certainly does not compare with the scale or the energy of the revivalism of the 1790s or after Peterloo. O’Connor’s concern was in part that the movement would be diluted by these ‘deviations’ but also that many of the leaders of Church Chartism had emerged from the crisis of 1839 as supporters of class-co-operation. For them politics was not simply about power but about moral regeneration. This O’Connor could not stomach.


[1] Quoted in Eileen Yeo ‘Christianity in Chartist Struggle 1838-1842’, Past and Present, volume 91, (1981), page 122.

[2] Owen R. Ashton and Paul A. Pickering Friends of the People, Merlin, 2003, pages 29-54 contain a useful biography of Henry Solly.

[3] Northern Star, 17th August 1839 quoted in Eileen Yeo ‘Christianity in Chartist Struggle 1838-1842’, Past and Present, volume 91, page 121

[4] George Binns (1815-47) composed a long poem called the Doom of Toil (1841). He formed a close political partnership with James Williams (1811-68) and the two ran a bookshop in Sunderland. This enabled Binns to travel as an agitator throughout the Durham coalfield. They were imprisoned in 1840 and Binns later went to New Zealand, where he died. Williams was a well-known figure in Sunderland all his life, working as a councillor and newspaper editor. See biography in J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 2: 1830-1970, Brighton, 1984, pages 61-64.

[5] William Hill (1806?-67) was a Swedenborgian minister and the first editor of the Northern Star (1839-41).

[6] Quoted in David Jones Chartism and the Chartists, 1975, page 50.

[7] H.U. Faulkner Chartism and the Churches: A Study in Democracy, New York, 1916 is still, despite its age, perhaps the best introduction to the subject. It should, however, be supplemented by more recent work especially E. Yeo ‘Christianity in Chartist Struggle 1838-1842’, Past and Present, volume 91, reprinted in S. Roberts (ed.) The People’s Charter, Merlin, 2003, pages 64-94 and Eileen Lyon Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism, Ashgate, 1999.

[8] On Chartist in Scotland see Alexander Wilson The Chartist Movement in Scotland, Manchester, 1970, especially chapter xi on Christian Chartism and Alexander Wilson ‘Chartism in Glasgow’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, London, 1959, pages 249-287. W.H. Fraser ‘The Scottish Context of Chartism’, in Terry Brotherstone (ed.) Covenant, Charter and Party: Traditions of Revolt and Protest in Modern Scottish History, Aberdeen, 1989 looks at the subject in the light of recent research.

[9] Patrick Brewster (1788-1859) was a Scottish minister and moderate Chartist associated with teetotalism and class collaboration. Well known as a public speaker, he debated with O’Connor in 1839 and 1841.

[10] James Moir (1806-60) was a supporter of the radical cause in Glasgow for many years. He lent his support to Christian Chartism, middle class reform organisations and eventually the Liberal Party.

[11] Valuable biographical information on Arthur O’Neill (1819-96) can be found in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography volume vi, London, 1982, pages 193-198.

[12] Scottish Patriot quoted in Wilson The Chartist Movement, page 145.

[13] In 1840-41, there were Chartist churches in Scotland in Alloa, Anderston, Arbroath, Bridgeton, Campsie, Cupar, Darvel, Dundee, Eaglesham, Glasgow (two), Greenock, Gorbals, Hamilton, Inverleven, Johnstone, Kilbarchan, Kilmarnock, Lanark, Leith, Linlithgow, Newburgh, Newmilns, Partick, Paisley, Pollockshaws, Shettleston and St Ninians, vale of Leven.

[14] Birmingham Journal, 23rd January 1841.

[15] George White (1812-68) fought for the suffrage all his adult life. An Irish wool comber active in Leeds, Birmingham and Bradford, he was imprisoned in 1840, 1843-4 and 1849. Very suspicious of middle-class radicals, he wrote a great deal including political pamphlets and verse.

[16] Parliamentary Papers, 1843, volume xiii, page cxxxii.

[17] Owen R. Ashton and Paul A. Pickering Friends of the People, Merlin, 2003, pages 101-126 contain a useful biography of James Scholefield.

[18] R.F. Wearmouth Methodism and the Working-Class Movements of England 1800-1850, London, 1937, pages 138-163.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s -- 'Knowledge Chartism'

Despite his more peaceful approach to reform, it was William Lovett rather than Feargus O’Connor who went to prison in the crackdown on Chartism that followed the rejection of the first petition. As secretary to the first Chartist Convention, Lovett’s name appeared on a series of resolutions that were to be printed and distributed around Birmingham condemning the use of the London police to suppress disturbances in the town in mid-1839. Lovett was arrested and held for five days, missing the end of the Convention before being released on bail. On 6th August 1839, he and John Collins, a leader of the Birmingham workers who had taken the resolutions to be printed, were brought to trial at Warwick Assizes and sentenced to one year in gaol.

William Lovett and John Collins spent an unpleasant and unhealthy year in Warwick prison and were finally released in July 1840[1]. Lovett’s intense dislike of O’Connor, still evident over thirty years later in his autobiography, and his disillusion with political agitation as well as his experience in prison helps explain his changing attitudes. Though both men had suffered badly in prison, they managed to write a small book, Chartism: A New Organisation for the People[2]. In fact, the book was almost certainly the work of Lovett alone. Published shortly after Lovett and Collins were released, its message was that Chartism now required a “new organisation of the people”, essentially a scheme for a national system of popular education and self-improvement that would be financed by popular subscription and provided independently of the state. This plan was to be effected though the creation of a National Association of the United Kingdom for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.

The leading ideas in Chartism evolved from his writings for the LWMA in 1837 and 1838 especially two addresses, To the Working Classes of America[3] and On Education[4] and a petition on national education. But the proposal sparked a storm within the Chartist movement, and provoked a torrent of abuse from O’Connor and his editor, William Hill. In his The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, Lovett recalls that the book “was no sooner issued than it was denounced by O’Connor and the writers in his paper, the Northern Star, as a ‘new move,’ concocted by Hume, Roebuck and O’Connell for destroying his power, and for subverting his plan – that of the ‘National Charter Association,’ and his land scheme”. Lovett goes on: “All who appended their names to it were condemned as ‘traitors, humbugs and miscreants,’ and myself in particular came in for a double portion of abuse. A number of those who, approving of the plan, had appended their signatures to it, bowed and cringed most basely under this storm of vituperation; and the only reward they got from the Star for withdrawing their names from our address was to obtain the designation of ‘rats escaping from the trap.’ Votes of censure and denunciations innumerable assailed us from every corner of the kingdom where O’Connor’s tools and dupes were found, but fortunately for me and my friends they had not power in proportion to their vindictiveness, or our lives would have been sacrificed to this frenzy. Among the most prominent of our assailants in London was a Mr J Watkins, a person of some talent, and I believe, of some property, who preached and published a sermon to show the justice of assassinating us.”[5]

From 1840, Lovett saw educational reform as a necessary sequel to political change and became a sponsor of moderate tactics. He advocated an alternative culture grounded in elite artisanal attitudes and on the ethos of self-help. He did not stop being a vigorous spokesperson for the poor but he did so in ways sufficiently moderate to make his views acceptable to middle class reformers. Lovett’s focus on liberal individualism and class collaboration rather than collectivism and the mass platform saw him become an increasingly marginalised, though not as David Goodway [6] suggests an insignificant, figure in Chartist politics. Lovett and Collins argued that too little had been achieved so far because of working class ignorance. What was needed was a grand scheme for moral and social reformation. Self-supporting schools should be established and adult education, a particular interest of Lovett’s, could prevent the development of ‘vicious and intoxicating habits’ and result in self-improvement. A National Association for Promoting the Improvement of the People was proposed as the means for putting these ideas into practice.

In March 1841, Lovett and seventy-three (and later eighty-seven) other reformers published an Address to the Political and Social Reformers[7] and the break became final. He was supported by Hetherington, initially by John Cleave (he soon defected to the NCA), James Watson[8], Moore and Henry Vincent. The Address put the case for the National Association in confident terms. O’Connor struck back immediately labelling Lovett and his supporters as ‘Knowledge Chartists’ especially when the scheme was supported by middle-class reform groups and by Daniel O’Connell, the arch-opponent of O’Connor’s Chartism. Lovett could not win against O’Connor numerically. The National Association[9] was launched in the autumn of 1841 and lasted till 1849 but its membership, never more than five hundred and most of them artisans, their wives and children, was dwarfed by the NCA. The struggle between Lovett and his supporters and O’Connor was an unequal one. O’Connor and his allies were able to drum up effective opposition, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire from which Lovett drew scant support. The danger for O’Connor was the increased possibility of co-operation between the National Association and the middle classes. He was not opposed to an alliance with the lower middle classes in principle but only if he controlled the political agenda. What concerned O’Connor most, and this was reflected in the vitriolic attacks on Lovett and the National Association in the Northern Star, was his deep-seated fear that Lovett’s actions would shatter the unity of the working class.

If it is useful to interpret Chartism after 1840 in the light of the distinction between physical and moral force, the NCA was closer to the former position. James Epstein makes it very clear that O’Connor had rational political objectives[10]. He, like Lovett, wanted to lead a unified working class movement. Both men endorsed the interests of the working class through their own organisations. But their tactics diverged. For O’Connor, the Charter could only be won by massing support and by a combination of effective organisation and platform oratory. For Lovett, success depended on working men who were committed to personal improvement as well as collective reform. It is not surprising that O’Connor saw Lovett’s arguments in Chartism as a threat to the unity of the movement. This situation was made worse by Lovett’s refusal to join the NCA. The antagonism between the two men was now irreconcilable.

After the short-lived alliance with O’Connor in late 1842 opposing the Complete Suffrage Union, Lovett, ceased to play a major role in Chartism. He and his supporters turned their attentions instead to the National Hall they had established in Holborn as a venue for public meetings, lectures, concerts and “classes of all kinds, to most of which the public were admitted on reasonable terms”. The hall also boasted coffee rooms and a library for the use of members. It had, however, cost the London Members £1,000 to repair and equip, and a debt of £400 not covered by subscriptions hung over them throughout the organisation's existence. Eventually, Lovett recalled, this “was one of the chief causes that led to the dissolution of the society”. Education now took priority over politics. Indeed, Lovett says that although efforts were made in “some few places” to form local bodies in support of the National Association, “they did not enrol sufficient numbers to make them effective”. Instead, in 1843 he established a Sunday school. “Free admission was given to all who came cleanly in clothing and person; the education given being reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and geography, with such other kinds of information as was in our power to bestow.”

In 1846, Lovett handed over the secretaryship of the National Association to Charles Neesom who was once considered so radical that he had trouble gaining admission to the London Working Men’s Association, but, since throwing in his lot with Lovett in 1841, a trusted ally. However, the National Association struggled on just until April 1849 before debts overwhelmed it. Lovett continued to devote himself to education. In May 1849, he gave evidence to a select committee of the House of Commons inquiring into the establishment of public libraries, a cause he heartily endorsed. And in March 1850, on the invitation of the Bishop of Oxford and of Henry Cole, later to be the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he agreed to become a member of the “Working Class Committee of the Great Exhibition” alongside Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Henry Vincent “and other well known personages”.

Disaster struck in 1857, however, when the school that Lovett had run in Holborn was evicted from the National Hall and the building converted “into a gin palace”. Lovett was to continue teaching elementary anatomy and physiology for a further 10 years, also writing books on astronomy and geology while inveighing against the teaching of religion. Always intellectually curious, Lovett’s autobiography also records his invention in later life of a “self registering ballot box” aimed at providing a cheap, just and efficient method of electing MPs.


[1] Joel Wiener William Lovett, Manchester, 1989, pages 76-95 is the clearest account of Lovett’s role between 1840 and 1842.

[2] William Lovett and John Collins Chartism: A New Organisation of the People, 1840, Leicester, 1969 with an introduction by Asa Briggs.

[3] William Lovett Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876, 1967, pages 107-111.

[4] Lovett Life and Struggles, pages 112-121.

[5] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, London, 1876, pages 250-251.

[6] David Goodway London Chartism 1838-1848, Cambridge, 1982, pages 40-42.

[7] Lovett Life and Struggles, pages 202-207.

[8] James Watson (1799-1874) was a London printer and publisher who worked closely with Lovett throughout the 1830s and 1840s. He published smaller Chartist periodicals including the Cause of the People (1848) and Cooper’s Journal in the 1850s. See biography in J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 1: 1770-1830, Brighton, 1979, pages 512-514.

[9] Lovett Life and Struggles, page 259 lists those “who took, more or less, an active part” in the National Association. They were: Henry Hetherington, the Owenite publisher of radical newspapers and founder of the LWMA; born 1792, died of cholera 1849; John Cleave, printer, bookseller and publisher of Cleave’s Weekly Police Gazette, also a founder member of the LWMA; born c1790, died 1847; Henry Vincent, London-born radical whose oratory was well received in the West Country and Wales, where he was a missionary for the LWMA; abandoned physical force Chartism and split with O’Connor over this and teetotalism; born 1813, died 1878; Henry Mitchell; James Watson, originally from Yorkshire, moved to London and became active in the campaign against stamp duty and in the National Union of the Working Classes; a founder member of the LWMA and later partner with G J Holyoake in publishing anti-Christian journal The Reasoner, born 1799, died 1874; John Collins; Richard Moore, founder member and committee member of the LWMA; one of six LWMA signatories to the original Charter; James Hoppy; Charles H Neesom, a tailor, originally from Yorkshire; joined the LWMA soon after its formation, but was considered a violent revolutionary; abandoned physical force and threw in his lot with Lovett; ran a booksellers’ business; James Savage; H B Marley; Joseph Turner; Arthur Dyson; Stephen Wade; R W Woodward; George Bennett; Isaac F Mollett; Charles Tapperell; C H Simmons; A Morton, founder member and one of six LWMA signatories to the original Charter; John Alexander; Charles Westerton; W J Linton, wood engraver and, in 1851, a member of the National Charter Association executive; born 1812, died 1897; Benjamin Huggett ; C H Elt; H Beal; J Peat; J Newton; J H Parry, editor of The National Association Gazette; William Statham; John Statham; William Saunders; Thomas Wilson; J Kesson; James Stansfield; Sidney M Hawkes; William Shaen; Henry Moore; John King; William Addiscott; R McKenzie; George Cox; Abram Hooper; Richard Spur; G Outtram; Thomas Scott; J Jenkinson; Thomas Lovick; W H Prideaux; Henry Mills; John Mottram; James Lawrence; John Lawrence; Capt. Walhouse; John Bainbridge; William Dell; John Parker; Henry Campkin; Thomas Donatty; J J West; J Dobson Collett; T Beggs; J Corfield; F Rickards; Charles M Schomberge; W H Ashurst; H Taylor; J Beasley; A Davenport; William Hyde; William Crate; and, J Tijoue

[10] James Epstein The Lion of Freedom. Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement 1832-1842, London, 1982, pages 236-249.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s

The strident, revolutionary Chartism of 1839 and early 1840 had failed. The Chartists assumed that government would be unable to resist weight of numbers as in 1831-2, move towards repressive policies and that this would be spark off an explosion of protest sufficient to engulf the forces of reaction. They were wrong. The government did not act as expected. Initially Russell used conciliatory tones giving the more extreme Chartists time to alienate middle class reformers and moderate opinion by their militant rhetoric. The initiative quickly moved to the government and the Chartists found themselves on the defensive caught between defeat and insurrection. By early 1840, with many of their leaders either imprisoned or awaiting trial, it was clear the Chartists could not defeat the state by force. Between 1840 and 1842 an intense and often ill tempered debate took place between those who embraced mass action and those who favoured a more exclusive form of organisation. This was reflected in O’Connor’s much publicised attack on[1]

‘Religious, Knowledge and Temperance Chartism HUMBUG: If Chartists you are, Chartists remain; you have work enough without entering into the new maze prepared for you…get your Charter, and I will answer for the religion, sobriety, knowledge and house, and a bit of land into the bargain…”

Had, as R.H. Tawney later suggested, ‘the brains had gone out of Chartism’? Chartism was a cultural as well as a political phenomenon. This too reflected the diversity of the experiences and aspirations of the working class. Divisions began to emerge between O’Connor’s insistence on democracy and the ‘new movers’ who denounced him and sought to reformulate the reform alliance. At the core of the problems facing Chartism was how it should proceed. The first Convention had been an organisational shambles. It lacked effective accountability and financial stability. O’Connor recognised that Chartism needed a permanent and centralised organisational structure with a national executive, weekly membership fees and elected officers. Yet he needed to preserve the broadly democratic and inclusive character of the mass platform. It was also necessary to recognise the reality of working class life particularly the limited amount the poorly paid and the casually employed workers could or would contribute to the movement when working. The National Charter Association (NCA), set up while O’Connor languished in prison, sought to resolve these contradictions and did so with a remarkable degree of success. The NCA held a broad appeal for many within the working class and O’Connor strongly approved of collective self-help within the democratic and inclusive framework of the organisation. For others in the movement the reassertion of the mass platform was increasingly unacceptable. It had failed in 1839 and 1840 and they believed new approaches were necessary if the Charter was to be achieved.

New moves

The ‘new movers’ wanted to revitalise the elite politics and ideological focus of the LWMA to take account of the important changes that were taking place in political culture and communication. They also reflected the deep divisions within the working class especially between skilled artisans and other industrial workers. A cultural shift towards greater ‘respectability’ in politics took place in the 1830s largely as a result of middle class enfranchisement in 1832 and the extra-parliamentary activities of the Anti-Corn Law League. The nature of politics changed as the older forms and rituals of open elections and the mass platform were challenged by more disciplined and organised forms of political expression, what D.A. Hamer called the ‘politics of electoral pressure’[2]. In addition, public order, threatened by the anarchic street theatre of popular protest, was more effectively policed and radical access to public space was increasingly restricted. Growing levels of working class literacy and a rapidly expanding press, especially after the virtual abolition of stamp duty in 1836, encouraged emergent political consciousness within confines of the home. The growing moralism of reforming politics, a fusion of middle class radicalism with Nonconformist conscience, appealed to many disillusioned Chartists. The development of respectability provided an alternative and more realistic means of achieving the Charter than the demagogic and increasingly arcane approach of O’Connor. For them the franchise was not simply a question of political rights but a test of character. The result was the emergence of new initiatives aimed at developing the ‘character’ necessary for the working class to be given the vote. It is hardly surprising that O’Connor was opposed to these initiatives. In O’Connor’s defence, it should be said that, though he has been condemned by later historian, O’Connor succeeded in keeping the disparate Chartist constituencies united for nearly a decade only by stamping hard on all initiatives that would divide Chartists against each other (as Christian Chartism and Temperance Chartism threatened to do) or to take it down avenues where it would lose focus (as was the case with Knowledge Chartism).


[1] Northern Star, 3rd April 1841.

[2] D.A. Hamer The Politics of Electoral Pressure. A Study in the history of Victorian Reform Agitations, Brighton, 1977, especially pages 9-37.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Evidence for rebellion 1839

Until the summer of 1839, Chartism was marked by its openness and its emphasis on constitutional agitation and organisation. The rejection of the Petition, the cancellation of the sacred month, the demise of the Convention and the physical force Toryism of the authorities led groups of Chartists to cross the threshold of violence and move towards rebellion. This poses major problems for historians since conspirators try not to leave incriminating evidence. The intelligence collected by the government is also problematic: good on what Chartists were actually doing but weaker on what their intentions were. There are also difficulties in tracing a clear line from the rhetoric of Chartist speeches to firm planning. For example, Vincent had mused on the taking of hostages in April 1839, a theme taken up by Frost in early June but there is no evidence that either intended to translate their words into action. Finally, the evidence that was produced after the rebellion was often hearsay, partisan and recriminatory and some was pure fabrication[1].

First, evidence for the planning of a rebellion in the latter days of the Convention is based primarily on the testimony of William Ashton, a veteran Barnsley radical[2]. Imprisoned for two years in March 1840 for his part in events in Barnsley in August 1839, on his release he made allegations against O’Connor at a meeting and was howled down by his fellow Chartists. In early 1845, he detailed his charges in private correspondence that was published in the Northern Star[3]. He claimed that, at a secret meeting, which included Frost, Taylor, Bussey and Cardo, held on the day the Convention was dissolved, the night of 3rd November was fixed for a coordinated rising though he may have added this detail from hindsight. Frost was to lead a rebellion in South Wales and Bussey in West Yorkshire. However, on their journey north to Yorkshire, Ashton became increasingly uncertain about Bussey’s ability or willingness to organise rebellion. Just before briefly escaping to France, he shared his suspicions about the lack of enthusiasm among provincial leaders for the proposed rising with William Hill, editor of the Northern Star who said he would inform O’Connor and warn Frost of the potential lack of support. However, Hill delayed telling O’Connor until he returned from Ireland on 3rd November, by which time it was too late to prevent events in Newport. There are difficulties with the story, not least the fact that Frost appears never to have abandoned his friendship with O’Connor and so could hardly have felt betrayed in the way Ashton suggested. However, Ashton’s view of events is supported by at least three other Chartists. In December 1840, a prison inspector was told by Joseph Crabtree of Barnsley[4] ‘I heard of the expected rise at Newport and that there was to be a rise elsewhere...’ while in 1889, a Carlisle weaver[5] wrote that the events at Newport ‘were not isolated and insignificant affairs which many supposed. They were certainly well known beforehand in Carlisle and if successful might have been imitated...’ In 1856, Robert Lowery[6] recollected how Dundee’s Convention delegate William Burns told him how ‘shortly after the Convention dissolved, some of our leading men...had met to concoct a rising...I observed that it was F O’Connor’s scheme...[but] He answered that they did not let him into their secret, for they did not think he was to be trusted.’

How much O’Connor knew about the secret plotting is difficult to judge. He had always opposed this sort of action arguing that united national action could only be satisfied by open constitutional procedures. He was in Ireland from 5th October to 2nd November. His reasons for going to Ireland given almost four years later – that, facing prison, he wanted to see friends and put his affairs in order – are not entirely convincing. More plausible was the difficulty he faced in giving the movement direction and he may have recognised that Chartist frustration might boil over into confrontation and found it expedient to absent himself. Whatever the explanation may be, his absence was eminently convenient but it left a political vacuum when his personal authority was needed to hold the movement together. James Epstein commented this ‘stands out as the only period during a long career of radical leadership when O’Connor appears to have voluntarily removed himself from the centre of national agitation’[7]. David Williams[8] and A.J. Peacock[9] acquitted O’Connor of the charge of betraying Frost and the Newport Rising though O’Connor always claimed that had he known of the plans he would have done all in his power to call them off. Whether O’Connor knew about the plans for direct action or not, he cannot escape some responsibility for creating the atmosphere in which they developed. While his commitment to open national protest must be stressed, his position on defensive arming was fundamentally ambiguous. He urged the need for arming for self-defence but also seems to have recognised the case for spontaneous direct action. Successful revolution required effective co-ordination, nationwide organisation and efficient communication and in 1839, as the abortive risings demonstrated, this was clearly not the case. O’Connor asserted the need for another convention. In the Northern Star a few days after the rebellion, he wrote ‘for if we looked at the occurrences of the day, we see that it is only organised bodies that can act with effect’. He also counselled against over-exaggerating the strength of the movement: ‘I caution you, again and again, against those who give exaggerated accounts of the spirit of one locality to the people of another locality’ and that ‘Our enemies cannot openly beat us, but our friends may secretly do it’[10].

Alexander Somerville, who had served with the British Legion in the Spanish Civil War of 1835-1837[11], provided a further insight a decade after the rebellion[12]. He claimed that he was asked by the Chartist ‘Secret Committee of War’ to advise on military matters but refused and that his series of pamphlets entitled Warnings to the People on Street Warfare[13] were decisive in preventing revolution counteracting Macerone’s Defensive Instructions on Street Warfare on which the ‘Secret Committee’ appeared to place undue reliance. He also said that rebellion in Wales was ‘to have taken place several times during several months before it was actually begun’. He later specified who the members of the ‘Secret Committee’ were[14]: McDouall (delegate for Ashton-under-Lyme) and Taylor (delegate for Newcastle, Carlisle and elsewhere)[15] and R.J. Richardson (delegate for Manchester) and the Polish émigré and a leading LDA member Major Bartlomiej Beniowski[16]. The main difficulty with Somerville’s testimony is that there is no evidence to corroborate what he wrote and, as he admitted, he learned nothing of the detailed plans for rebellion.

Claims made by David Urquhart[17] in 1856 have greater credence largely because they are partly corroborated. In 1839, Urquhart was seeking to become the Tory parliamentary candidate for Marylebone in London and after some Chartist heckling at his public meetings, he met William Cardo, Marylebone’s Convention delegate. Cardo was impressed by Urquhart introducing him to certain other delegates (John Warden from Bolton, Lowery and possibly O’Brien) who shared with him ‘a plan for simultaneous outbreaks in the long nights before Christmas’ in which ‘a Polish emigrant’ directed ‘military organisation...and was to have command in the mountains of Wales.’ The Polish emigrant was Beniowski who had deserted the Russian army for the Polish resistance in 1830 and who went into exile in France and Egypt before settling in England around 1836. Urquhart said that he and a few confidants quickly toured Chartist centres and successfully dissuaded local leaders from taking part in the rebellion. Urquhart was critical figure in fanning fears of Russian aggression and it is possible that these meetings were largely held to promote his ideas on foreign policy. Cardo, Lowery and Warden formed the core of a Chartist ‘foreign policy’ group and it gained the support of the Northern Liberator[18]. Although Urquhart’s claims only surfaced in the 1850s, reference to a meeting between unnamed Chartists and Urquhart is made in a letter to his friend Pringle Taylor dated 22nd September 1839. The problem with Urquhart is that rebellion and foreign policy issues merged especially as he was convinced that Russian agents were seeking to undermine Britain. Cardo, probably at Urquhart’s instigation, went to Newport ten days after the rebellion where he was arrested on 15th November and, because no intention to make mischief could be shown, he was put on the London mail coach the following day. Local magistrates were clearly puzzled when Cardo informed them that the rebellion was the result of ‘Russian agency’ and identified Beniowski , who they had never heard of, as the agent. Although there may have been talk of sending him to Wales because of his military experience in urban warfare, there is no evidence Beniowski was involved in Newport although there were vague reports of a foreigner on the coalfield in September and October.

William Lovett provided further evidence in his autobiography published in 1876 though it appears to have been written, using several unnamed sources soon after he was released from prison in August 1840[19]. He maintained that Frost and several delegates from the Convention agreed to coordinate risings in Wales and the north. The Welsh would rescue Vincent and the English would rise for the Charter. At a meeting at Heckmondwike of some forty Yorkshire leaders to share the plan, someone agreed to inform O’Connor a week before the rising and enlist him to lead it. Lovett gave the impression that O’Connor was agreeable, however, he soon sent George White to dissuade the northern Chartists from rebellion since he said Wales would not rise. He also sent Charles Jones, the Montgomeryshire delegate to South Wales to tell them there would be no rising in England and that it was a government plot. However, Jones arrived in Wales too late to prevent the attempt to release Vincent. There are major problems with Lovett’s account but despite this, it remains popular with some historians. First, O’Connor was out of the country at the crucial time, something Lovett himself noted but said that O’Connor did not return until after ‘most of the foolish outbreaks were over’.[20] Here Lovett is mistaken as O’Connor returned from Ireland on 2nd November two days before the rebellion. Secondly, Lovett is emphatic that Heckmondwike was the location of the crucial meeting and where regular meetings of the West Yorkshire delegates were usually held on the third or fourth Monday each month. If the meeting Lovett referred to was on 21st October that was attended by thirteen not forty delegates, then what he says about O’Connor is clearly flawed. However, if it was an earlier meeting, then what Lovett wrote is plausible. The difficulty is that he did not give a date and the agreement to inform O’Connor ‘a week before’ the rising suggests October rather than September. His narrative placed O’Connor in a less than favourable light in relation to the rebellion and contained very little on the rising itself and it seems likely that Lovett’s testimony was motivated more by his antipathy to O’Connor than with a clear explanation of events.

Chartists may have been unconvinced by Cardo’s grand theories of Russian involvement; however, they were far better disposed to his suggestion that the Whig government was implicated in the rebellion. Harney, Lowery, William Pattison and other leading radicals told meetings in the winter of 1839-1840 that the rebellion was part of a government conspiracy to impose unpopular legislation and remove ‘piece by piece the last vestige of [our] freedom’[21]. This claim, similar in content and reasoning to Patriote assertions in Lower Canada after its failed rebellion in 1837, was a reflection of the Chartist view of history and their antagonism to central government and its policies. O’Connor[22] was quick to label the rebellion ‘a Whig trick’ and warn of the danger of agent provocateurs and spies, a theme he revived in 1842 and 1848 when rebellion was again in the air. It is easy to understand why Chartists, who lived on rumours and suspicion and were threatened by a coercive state, could be persuaded that the government was involved: it was yet another ‘betrayal’. It was also very convenient for the Chartist leaders who were being criticised for failure and yet were unable to explain why they had failed. It was much easier to blame the spy, the foreigner or the informer.

Is there evidence of an intended general rebellion in November 1839? The major problem is that most of the evidence is ambiguous, produced after the rebellion in South Wales and marred by personal animosity. There is evidence that rebellion was considered by a small group consisting largely of Convention delegates during the late summer. However, there is no clear agreement on the extent of the plans. There was also widespread awareness in West Yorkshire and, to a lesser degree in Tyneside and Carlisle of an intended Welsh rebellion and some agreement to act in concert with events there. Chartist arming and the rhetoric of violence were widespread but, while these are a necessary feature of rebellion, they are not sufficient to demonstrate rebellious intent.


[1] For discussion of the problems of evidence see, Ivor Wilks South Wales and the Rising of 1839, London, 1984, pages 162-164, David J.V. Jones The Last Rising. The Newport Insurrection of 1839, Oxford, 1985, pages 199-208 and Malcolm Chase Chartism: A New History, Manchester University Press, 2007, pages 107-109.

[2] The major sources for William Ashton are D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984, pages 219-221 and J. H. Burland Annals of Barnsley, c.1881.

[3] Northern Star, 3rd May 1845.

[4] HO 20/10, interview with W.J. Williams, 23rd December 1840.

[5] W. Farish The Autobiography of William Farish, 1889, page 40.

[6] R. Lowery Passages in the Life of a Temperance Lecturer reprinted in B. Harrison and P. Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery: Radical and Chartist, London, 1979, page 155.

[7] James Epstein The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement 1832-1842, Croom Helm, 1982, page 196.

[8] David Williams John Frost: A Study in Chartism, University of Wales Press, 1939, pages 201-203.

[9] A.J. Peacock Bradford Chartism 1838-1840, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, 1969, page 30.

[10] Northern Star, 7th December 1839.

[11] Alexander Somerville The Autobiography of a Working Man, 1848, Appendix 2, pages 428-449.

[12] Alexander Somerville The Autobiography of a Working Man, 1848, Appendix 1, pages 422-424, 441-442

[13] Somerville’s Warnings to the People on Street Warfare was published in mid-1839 and was advertised in the Northern Star on 25th May and 1st June. This would place the ‘approach’ by the ‘Secret Committee’ to earlier in the year. Somerville provided no information on the precise date.

[14] Alexander Somerville Cobdenic Policy: The Internal Enemy of England, London: Hardwicke, 1854, pages 28-30.

[15] Either of these individuals could be the ‘Doctor’ he wrote about in 1848.

[16] On Beniowski, P. Brock ‘Polish democrats and English radicals 1832-1862: A Chapter in the History of Anglo-Polish Relations’, Journal of Modern History, volume 25, (1953), pages 146-147 and more generally Iowerth Prothero ‘Chartists and Political Refugees’, Sabine Freitag (ed.) Exiles from European Revolutions: Refugees in Mid-Victorian England, Berghahn Books, 2003, pages 209-233.

[17] On Urquhart, see the elegant essay by A.J.P. Taylor ‘Dissenting Rivals: Urquhart and Cobden’, in his The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy 1792-1939, London, 1957, pages 37-61. Richard Shannon ‘David Urquhart and the Foreign Affairs Committees’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 239-261 and Miles Taylor ‘The old radicalism and the new : David Urquhart and the politics of opposition, 1832-1867’ in Eugenio F Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds.) Currents of radicalism: popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914, Cambridge, 1991, pages 23-43 are useful essays. Gertrude Robinson David Urquhart: Victorian Knight Errant, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1920, pages 81-103 looks at his links to Chartism. J.H. Gleason The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Public Opinion, Harvard University Press, 1950 provides a more general overview of attitudes.

[18] Joan Hugman ‘A Small Drop of Ink: Tyneside Chartism and the Northern Liberator, in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 24-47 is a useful study of the impact of this newspaper.

[19] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, London: Trübner & Co, 1876, pages 238-241.

[20] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, London: Trübner & Co, 1876, page 241.

[21] Northern Liberator, 16th November 1839, Northern Star, 9th November 1839.

[22] Northern Star, 7th December 1839.