Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Writing Reconsidering Chartism

When I retired it was my intention to write a book on Chartism…one volume that distilled much of my teaching of the subject into a narrative history of the movement. That was ten years ago and it’s only now that I have managed to complete what started as one volume into a series of six books.  The reason for the delay was that I side-tracked myself into other projects that were to inform my later volumes on Chartism.  So a book that looked at rebellions in Canada, South Wales and Australia, my Three Rebellions grew into the Rebellion Trilogy with the addition of Famine, Fenians and Freedom 1840-1882 and Resistance and Rebellion in the British Empire, 1600-1980 that were finished by 2011 though the final volume was not published until early 2013.  These books in turn were in 2012 and 2013 expanded into Rebellion in Canada 1837-1885, ‘A Peaceable Kingdom’: Essays on Nineteenth Century Canada and Settler Australia, 1780-1880. Parallel to this I had been working on six Kindle books on Nineteenth Century British Society and a synoptic volume Coping with Change: British Society, 1780-1914 and Sex, Work and Politics: Women in Britain, 1830-1914 and a second edition covering 1780-1945, on translations and commentaries of some medieval texts and Breaking the Habit: A Life of History, a book combining some autobiographical musing with essays on history in education.  Never one to use one word when I can use a paragraph—according to one of my students—these are substantial pieces of work;  Coping with Change, for instance, comes in at over 700 pages.   Some of this work represented a break from Chartism, an interlude in a project that lasted nearly four years from beginning to end. 

The delay in getting down to the Chartism series actually proved to be advantageous.  Researching and writing the other series meant that I allowed myself time to think about how best to approach the movement.  My conclusion was that it needed four volumes.  One of my major concerns about existing books on Chartism was that its context was, at best, condensed into an opening, often short, chapter.  So, yes there needed to be a contextual volume.  Since I had been involved in the early 1970s in the Local History Classroom project, an innovative and very early project on using computers in the classroom, I had developed a view of history as a continuum from local to national to global—what I called ‘a micro-macro approach’ and this view called for three volumes on Chartism from local, national and global perspectives.  That was the plan which, for a variety of reasons, was modified as the research and writing progressed.  Four volumes became six and 850,000 words.

31 December 2013:
100,339 words
22 May 2014: 177,875 words
9 July 2015: 141,158 words
13 December 2015: 143,452 words
10 January 2016: 241,015 words
1 July 2016: 134,879 words

Having worked out what I planned to do, the next step was to make decisions about research approaches.  Getting to research libraries and archives proved an impossibility as I was the sole carer 24/7 for my wife.  This meant that I had to rely on material on the Internet that I could access at home such as the British Newspaper Archives, the National Archives online, EthOS, Google Books and so on.  Fortunately, I have an extensive collection of material on Chartism that I have accumulated over several decades. 

I started writing the first volume in May 2013 so it has taken just over three years to complete.  There was little problem with the first two volumes but it was the volume on Chartism from a local perspective that proved most challenging.  My decision to include discussion of the nature of radical politics in the decades before Chartism was established in each chapter meant that a single volume would have been too long.  So I divided the subject into two--the first dealing with London and the South; the second on The North, Scotland, Wales and Ireland—and then produced an abridged version The Chartists, Regions and Economies.  The final volume effectively examines the global impact of Chartism and also considers some of the themes than run through the remainder of the series—the historiography of the movement, Chartist leadership, women, radicalism and Chartism, the state and Chartism and how Chartism has been memorialised. 

This volume completes the Reconsidering Chartism series. What began as a plan for four books—context, national narrative, local narrative and global history—expanded into six volumes . While these books, in their printed and Kindle manifestations, form my most considered examination of Chartism, whether they are my last word on the subject is possible but I suspect unlikely. I keep being drawn back to the issues raised by O’Connor, Lovett and the like and by the political challenges faced by the working-classes in the decades round the mid-nineteenth century.

Monday, 20 June 2016

A final thrust

In the light of the tragic murder of Jo Cox, today’s recall of Parliament to pay tribute and the break in the referendum campaign should have given politicians and the rest of us time to ponder the direction in which we want our politics to go.  Whether her death will have a lasting effect on the way that we ‘do’ politics is, I suspect, unlikely.  MPs will still have close and personal links with their constituents that will inevitably make them vulnerable; social media will continue to pile bile on politicians in ways that are often offensive and threatening; we will continue to hold politicians in considerable contempt even though the overwhelming majority are good public servants; and, though the language of debate may be temporarily muffled it will soon return to its vibrant, confrontational best.  It’s easy for us all to say, after this we must do things better and I’m certain that’s what we believe but past experience suggests that we soon return to our good or bad old ways.

It will, however, have an impact on the butt-end of the referendum campaign and I think that is a good thing.  The intensive campaign has lasted for three months with politicians from both sides making their pitches for your vote on what is billed as an existential question, a generational response to whether Britain should remain in the EU or not.  I do not use the term ‘member’ as our membership has always been conditional and tentative…we have never been enthusiastic Europhiles and were we voting on whether to join or not on Thursday I think there would be a resounding ‘Non’.  Jo’s death has led to a softening in both Remain’s and Leave’s campaigns…both sides are still fighting for every vote but now making the case with vigour rather than just using ‘fear’ as their political tool of choice.  One thing that has been thrown up during the campaign is the profound distrust people have for ‘experts’ especially those seeming to support the establishment’s position.  In his debate on BBC last night David Cameron sought to defend ‘experts’ by arguing that if a mechanic said that your car needed repairs before you went on a long journey, you would undoubtedly take her advice.  Well of course you would especially if the alternative was being wrapped round the central reservation of the M25.  But this misses the point.  The problem is that economists—the group trusted least I think—have difficulty predicting what will happen to the economy next week, let alone next month or next year.  The IMF had to apologise to the British government when it got its predictions wrong.  You should certainly listen to employers as they are in the forefront of the economy and know what they’re talking about…but then you could argue ‘they would say that wouldn’t they.’  

Why, you may wonder, is the result still on a knife-edge?  Why are many people, despite the doom and gloom peddled by Remain, still prepared to vote for Leave?  For many people what is crucial is the question of ‘control’ and taking back control to govern our own country, make our own choices and so on and, if we don’t like them, have the right to boot out the politicians whose policies we dislike.  For them, these cannot be present as long as we are members of an undemocratic and unaccountable EU.  These are views—whether they be right or wrong—that Remain has largely failed to dent.  As in 1975, the critical question for them has been the economy though, in a globalised world, this has less resonance with many people than forty years ago.  I have long been a supporter of the EU—though primarily as an economic institution than a political one—and remain so but it needs fundamental reform, something that appears not to be a priority for those in Brussels.  The EU has grown too quickly..nothing we can do about that…and the principles on which it is based are today less for for purpose that they were in 1957 or 1986.  Its tunnel vision and one-track approach is no longer acceptable to the peoples of Europe.  For me, the costly and completely unnecessary cycle of the European Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg epitomises the need for change and the problems of actually making changes that everyone thinks are needed.

So, with the polls finely poised, my prediction for the result of the referendum is as follows: Remain will win with 53 per cent of the vote. Let’s hope I’m right.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Planning the attack

The attack on the Eureka Stockade in the early hours of Sunday 3 December 1854 demonstrated the superiority of regular military forces against rebels. [1] By early December, there were 450 men in the Government Camp including 150 mounted men and their horses. Conditions were increasingly difficult. Contractors were reluctant to supply fresh water and food and the need to keep a constant vigil against attack meant that sleep was at a premium and troops slept on the ground next to their horses. A plan for defending the Camp had been developed in late October that included burning down adjacent building that could be used for cover by attacking rebels and turning the stone-built Bank of Victoria into a fortified outpost garrisoned by armed civilians.
On Saturday, the decision was finally made to assault the Stockade at a meeting between Robert Rede, Captain J. W. Thomas of the 40th Regiment, Captain Pasley and District Commissioner Amos. Amos, who had briefly been detained by the diggers and ‘robbed of his horse’, played a crucial role because of his intimate knowledge of the Eureka diggings and the Stockade. The construction of the Stockade with its implied threat to the Camp and to communications with Melbourne and the knowledge of the planned meeting of the Reform League on 3 December at which it was possible that the miners’ militant wing might emerge dominant increased the need for the authorities to suppress the rebellion quickly. Rede’s report of the attack suggested that Amos’ detention ‘decided us at once to put a stop to this state of anarchy and confusion’. [2] Once the military option had been decided, Rede had no further control over events. Captain Thomas assumed overall authority for suppressing the rebellion.
Thomas’ plan was deceptively simple. He would march his men under the cover of darkness across the diggings and surprise the rebels at dawn. The critical issue was how to get to the Stockade without rousing every miner in the area. This precluded a direct approach down the Melbourne Road but using Amos’ intimate knowledge of the diggings Thomas decided on an indirect approach that would keep any observers guessing as to the intention of the force. He would halt his forces behind Stockyard Hill to the north of the Stockade and would then advance against its north-western defences. It was also important for Thomas to reduce the number of defenders within the Stockade and he was able to exploit the rebels’ uncertainty about when Nickle’s column would arrive from Melbourne. The previous night two divisions of rebels had left the Stockade to confront the anticipated reinforcements. The Camp had made widespread use of spies and there is evidence that a false warning about Nickle’s column was delivered to the rebels. [3] Whether this was the reason why McGill left the Stockade with over a hundred of the best-armed rebels or whether McGill had other incentives to do so is unclear, but the outcome was the same, a depleted rebel force at Eureka.
Although Thomas advanced knowing that his men might have to fight, this was not inevitable. Police Magistrates Charles Hackett and George Webster were part of the force that marched out of the Camp suggesting that Thomas did not plan an unprovoked attack and considered that only police action might be needed. Hackett wrote immediately after the attack that he ‘had no opportunity of calling upon the people to disperse’. [4] Neither did Thomas order his men to fix bayonets when they deployed to advance; this did not occur until they closed with the rebels some ten minutes after the initial firing took place. Whatever Thomas’ intentions once hostilities broke out, what might have been a police action was transformed into a full-scale military engagement.

[1] See, ‘Fatal Collision at Ballaarat’, Argus, 4 December 1854, p. 5, ‘Further Particulars of the Ballaarat Affray’, Argus, 5 December 1854, pp. 4-5.
[2] Rede to Chief Gold Commissioner Wright, 3 December 1854: PROV, 1085/P Duplicate 162, Enclosure no. 9.
[3] Ibid, Blake, Gregory, To Pierce The Tyrant’s Heart: A Military History of The Battle for The Eureka Stockade 3 December 1854, pp. 105-107, examines the somewhat tenuous evidence for Thomas’ ruse.
[4] Charles Hackett to Charles MacMahon, 3 December 1854, PROV, 1085/P Unit 8, Duplicate 162, Enclosure no. 9.