Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Chartists

Above is a fascinating early photograph depicting the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common, 10 April, 1848.

There are some useful web sites on Chartism.

In 1839 Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet Chartism stated,
‘a feeling very generally exists that the condition and disposition of the working classes is rather ominous at present; that something ought to be said and something ought to be done, in regard to it.’
The Chartist movement was the first radical working-class (as opposed to artisan) movement in Britain. It was born out of several factors:
  • The tradition of articulate politically conscious artisan radicalism in London with the encouragement of radicals among the higher classes. This can be dated back to the agitations of the 1770s and was greatly reinforced in the 1790s with the foundation of the London Corresponding Society, the publication of Rights of Man and radical post-war publications such as the Black Dwarf.
  • The increase in radical agitation in the 1820 and 30s. In 1824 a group of working men founded the London Mechanics Institute. These included Henry Hetherington (1792-1849) a radical printer and Owenite socialist and the Cornish cabinet-maker William Lovett (right) (1800-1877). At the height of the Reform Bill agitation in 1831 they founded the National Union of the Working Classes to spearhead the working-class campaign for a real reform bill.
  • The war of the unstamped. Hetherington’s most famous publication was the Poor Man’s Guardian, issued from 31 July 1831 as a periodical in defiance of the Stamp Act (thereby risking imprisonment). Shortly afterwards he was joined by a young Irish lawyer James Bronterre (‘Inebriate’) O’Brien who edited the paper and rapidly established himself as the foremost theorist of working-class radicalism. Led by the Guardian, the unstamped press flourished in London and the provinces, feeding working-class radicalism. In 1835 the stamp was reduced to 1d - this was still too expensive for working-class pockets. The battle over the stamp led to the setting up of a network of organizations and a chain of command that could be revived when the occasion required it.
  • The industrial revolution and the economic and social problems of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. The heartland of Chartism was not London (the site of much previous radicalism) but industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire, though it was a movement of industrial outworkers rather than factory operatives.
  • The ‘great Whig betrayal’. The post-1832 borough franchise disenfranchised many who had previously had the right to vote under the very varied borough franchises of the old system. Along with this went resentment at practically everything the Whigs did between 1830 and 1841, in particular the Poor Law Amendment Act.
The most important aspect of the legacy of the 1830s to Chartism was the sense of unity and purpose built up by a multiplicity of grievances that created a new, radicalized working class presence in the industrial areas. It was symbolized in the formation in June 1836 of the 'London Working Men’s Association for benefiting ... the useful classes’. Behind it lay the belief that social evils were due to bad legislation and were curable by parliamentary reform. In 1836 the LWMA published The Rotten House of Commons, being an exposition of the present state of the Franchise. Bronterre O’Brien argued:
'Knaves will tell you that it is because you have no property that you are unrepresented. I tell you on the contrary, it is because you are unrepresented that you have no property. Your poverty is the result not the cause of your being unrepresented.’

The Peoples’ Charter

The idea of a people’s ‘Charter’ was rooted in the myth of Magna Carta which was held to have been a statement of popular rights against the arbitrary authority of the king. It also referred to the French Constitution of 1814. In May 1838 the People’s Charter was published, primarily the work of William Lovett and the radical tailor, Francis Place. It contained the Six Points

  1. manhood suffrage
  2. annual parliaments
  3. the ballot
  4. payment of MPs
  5. equal electoral districts
  6. the abolition of property qualifications for parliament
At a great rally in Birmingham on 6 August 1838 these arrangements were formally adopted. Similar meetings were held throughout the country. The movement also had a newspaper, the Northern Star (founded 1837), published in Leeds and edited by the demagogue Feargus O’Connor (left), a new voice in the Chartist movement. By the end of 1838 the Northern Star (priced 4½d) was selling 50,000 copies a week.

It is evident that the peaks of activity coincided with troughs in the economy. The harvest of 1838 was the third bad one in succession. Wheat prices were 64% higher than they had been in 1835. The first major outdoor meeting in the North met at Kersal Moor near Manchester on 24 September. The ostensible purpose was to enable the people to elect their delegates to a National Convention to be held in London early the following year, and the work of the winter was directed towards this end, with further mass meetings and lecture tours. The aim of the Convention was to organize the National Petition and see it through Parliament. With tactics based on those of the Birmingham Political Union, lecturers toured the country stirring up support for the petition.

Methodism played a major part in Chartism. A number of the Chartist leaders were Methodists or had been reared in Methodist homes. They included Thomas Cooper: journalist and Sunday school teacher; John Skeffington, Leicestershire Chartist: a Primitive Methodist itinerant preacher; George Russell of Warwick: a Chartist hymn writer and temperance advocate. Meetings were held in Methodist chapels and Chartist crowds were addressed by Methodist ministers. The movement had hymns such as ‘The Charter springs from Zion’s hill’ and 'The Chartist's Song'. The movement also had a secular, Owenite wing, but Methodism was probably predominant.

The National Convention

About 50 delegates finally assembled at the British Hotel, Cockspur Street (London) on 4 February 1839 for the National Convention of the Industrious Classes (calling itself the People’s Parliament). By far the largest contingent represented the industrial North. Only one, George Loveless, one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, was named for an agricultural district (he never took his seat).

After two days, the Convention moved to Bolt Court, Fleet Street. In the discussions on the nature of the Petition, deep divisions emerged. It became apparent that delegates were united on the Charter but little else. Some speakers advocated violence; others wore the red cap of liberty. The rest urged moderation. The Chartist movement never resolved the dilemma of whether to rely on ‘moral force ‘or to contemplate physical force. And it had no strategy about what to do next if Parliament rejected the Petition.

On 7 May the National Petition was ready to be presented: it was three miles long and contained 1,280,000 signatures. But it coincided with Melbourne’s resignation and the ‘Bedchamber Crisis’. Fearing arrests from a Conservative government, the Convention transferred to Birmingham in August, where Charles Darwin, attending the meeting of the British Association found the city surrounded by troops and almost under martial law. Mass meetings were held in various parts of the North and many Chartists were arrested. Some of the Chartist leaders feared that the movement was succumbing to violent demagogues.

On 1 July the Convention reassembled in Birmingham but on 4 July a demonstration in the Bull Ring was broken up by a posse of police brought up from London. The police clashed with the crowd, a riot broke out and two leaders were arrested.

In July the Petition was finally presented to the Commons but Thomas Attwood’s motion that the House should go into committee to consider it failed 235/46. The Chartists’ bluff was now called. In September the Convention disbanded.

The Newport Rising

A confused period now followed, with much talk of fighting. Speakers, newspapers and handbills called on the people to procure arms and be ready to march when the signal was given. There is evidence of pikes being manufactured and small stores of arms accumulated.

On the night of 3/4 November some 7,000 colliers and ironworkers, led by John Frost, a draper, ex-mayor and ex-magistrate, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones led an armed march on Newport, a monster demonstration against the arrest of Henry Vincent, a popular Chartist leader in Wales and the West. But the march was mismanaged and the attack on the town did not take place until after daybreak. The Chartists were fired on by a company of the 45th Foot. 24 people were killed or died from their injuries (more than twice the death toll at Peterloo) - this made it ‘the most celebrated armed rebellion in nineteenth-century Britain’. 125 were arrested and 21 were charged with high treason. Frost and the other leaders were sentenced to death. However as a result of a series of meetings and demonstrations throughout the country, the death sentences were commuted to transportation for life.

After the Newport rising the attitude of the government hardened. Police powers were reinforced and more troops sent in. Between June 1839 and June 1840 at least 543 Chartists were detained for periods of between a few weeks and a few years.

The second phase of Chartism

In spite of the failure of the early years Chartism did not die. New leaders and new forms of organization appeared to continue the struggle. On 20 July 1840 a conference of 23 delegates gathered in Manchester to form a new Chartist organization for England. The outcome was the National Charter Association. By the end of 1841 there were 282 localities with 13,000 members. In August 1841 Feargus O’Connor, ‘the lion of freedom’ came out of his gaol at York Castle. He toured the country in triumph addressing public meetings. Through sheer force of personality and through the influence of the Northern Star, he displaced Lovett from the leadership of the movement. The NCA centralized the leadership, provided machinery for collecting subscriptions (1d per week) and mobilized support in the smallest units of the association – wards and ‘classes’ of ten (modelled on the Methodists).

Chartist militancy was helped by the economic climate. 1842 was the worst year of the century, with the new poor law unable to cope. 20 % of the population of Leeds were on poor relief, ‘a state more lamentable than the oldest inhabitant can remember’. In Paisley, 17,000 people were said to be dying of slow starvation.

On 2 May 1842 a second Chartist petition, six miles long, was presented to the Commons with what were claimed to be 3.3m. signatures. The House voted 287/49 not to consider it. Roebuck called O’Connor a ‘malignant and cowardly demagogue’; Macaulay said that universal suffrage would be
‘fatal for the purposes for which government exists’
‘utterly incompatible with the existence of civilization’.
The summer of 1842 saw a wave of strikes sweep the industrial districts. In Lancashire and Yorkshire gangs of workless men went about armed with sticks and iron bars demanding relief. There were attacks on shops and clashes with the police and yeomanry - though it is not clear how far any of this was associated with Chartism. In the summer the Plug Plot (so-called because the strikers pulled out the boiler plugs) was a general strike mainly affecting the Potteries. Were these strikes purely industrial? There was considerable support for Chartism among the strikers, even among those who preferred to keep political and economic issues apart. Many of the local leaders have been identified as Chartists. During 1842 membership of the NCA grew to 50,000.

With an improved harvest in 1842 some of the greatest misery eased. Meanwhile in the summer the authorities rounded up the leading strikers and brought them to trial. Chartism was once more defeated, but it did not die.

The third phase of Chartism

1847 was a general election year and the Chartists turned once more to politics. Feargus O’Connor became the first and last pure Chartist MP. In February1848 Louis Philippe fell and the French proclaimed the Second Republic. This in turn sparked off revolutions in Vienna, Berlin, Poland, Spain, Italy and Hungary. These events were followed closely by the leading Chartists and Chartist orators once more addressed large and enthusiastic crowds in mass meetings. On the evening of 6 March after a meeting in Trafalgar Square a crowd marched to Buckingham Palace smashing lamps and windows on the way. On the same day similar disturbances occurred in Glasgow and in Manchester the following day.

The following week a crowd of possibly 20,000 people gathered on Kennington Common, along with some 4,000 police in order to hear Chartist leaders. On St Patrick’s Day a fraternal meeting of Chartists and Irish addressed by O’Connor filled the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

On 4 April the Chartist Convention, widely seen as a counter-Parliament, began to sit. A peaceful rally was planned for Kennington Common on 10 April, followed by a procession to present the Petition to the Commons. Public opinion in London was now very tense and property owners genuinely feared that the revolutions now convulsing Europe were about to spread to Britain. Appeals to the middle classes produced 10,000 special constables.

On 10 April crowds from all over London assembled behind banners and marched to Kennington where they were addressed by O’Connor. O’Connor claimed, with great exaggeration, that 5.7 million signatures had been appended to the Petition. (However, the actual figure, of c. 2m. was very impressive.) It was loaded into three cabs and taken to Parliament. But by 2pm the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, was able to inform the Queen (who was at Osborne) that the crisis was safely over. Faced with 4,000 police and 85,000 volunteer special constables the demonstrators dispersed. But Russell was wrong to assume that Chartism was finished. In May there were serious disturbances in London in June, with even more serious ones in Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford. For the Bradford disturbances extra regiments had to be drafted in from Lancashire in order to keep the population under control. But the ‘constitutional’ Chartists had been wrong-footed, and when Parliament rejected the Petition, it was difficult for them to decide on tactics.

In June the radicals of the Second Republic in France were crushed. The authorities noted that middle-class opinion in Britain had turned against radicalism and moved to arrest some leading Chartists. The movement was finished, having proved powerless against the forces of the state. Feargus O’Connor’s Land Plan for the resettlement of urban workers on small plots of land was wound up in 1851.

The importance of Chartism

  • Chartism did not present an immediate threat to the political status quo, but it was an important stage in the political education of the working classes. Most of its leaders believed it to be a class movement with two enemies: the tax-consuming rich and the perfidious middle classes who had betrayed them over parliamentary reform and the new Poor Law.
  • Chartism had its own associations and rituals which created a distinctive Chartist culture. Many Chartists were also Sunday school teachers, temperance workers or members of benefit clubs. There were Chartist hymns, sermons, libraries, discussion groups, choirs and sports teams.
  • Women played a significant role in Chartism. In many of the textile districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire they comprised a majority of the work force and their political organisations contributed substantially to the development of Chartism. The Chartist Elizabeth Neeson pointed out the anomaly of a constitution which allowed a woman to inherit the throne but denied them political rights. However many Chartists were embarrassed by the issue of female suffrage and were worried at the thought that women might steal men’s jobs.
  • Chartism culminates the long process whereby radical leadership moved north to the major centres of productive industry. London Chartism was relatively unimportant. The northern Chartists were prepared to use the language of violence. The Methodist minister of Ashton-under-Lyne was disowned by the Methodist Conference when he urged working-class men to defend their constitutional rights against the violence of authority.
  • Chartism was a mass movement only in times of depression. Peaks of activity coincided with troughs in the economy. However, Chartism could not be reduced to the simple assertion that it was ‘a knife and fork question, a bread and cheese question’. The effects of the depressions of 1837-39, 1841-42 and 1847-48 were not uniform in a fragmented economy and not all the active centres of Chartism were in depressed areas.
  • Nevertheless the heartland of Chartism was industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire. Broadly the movement appealed more to industrial outworkers than to factory operatives and more to textile operators, especially weavers, than to others. Among the outworkers, the ‘aristocrats’ of labour, a strong tradition of political literacy persisted.
  • These workers were the strongest advocates of ‘moral force Chartism’. Lovett had been appalled by the violence at Newport. He wanted to continue links with middle-class reformers and to promote education and temperance movements. Some ‘physical force’ Chartists such as Engels’s friend Julian Harney, turned to socialism. Bronterre O’Brien wished Chartism to become the agency whereby workers extracted their full ‘labour value’ from masters.
  • Fundamentally, however, the demagogery of O’Connor was going to fail. His rhetoric encouraged aspirations that his organization could not meet. His mob oratory suggested a revolutionary potential that did not exist.
  • Chartist ideals survived into the second half of the century. Chartism gave its adherents a cultural identity and a strong sense that things would improve for working people.