Dressed up to sing and rebel

November 2, 2007

It has been a long wait for a narrative history of Chartism. The movement had not long subsided when in 1854 one of its followers, Robert Gammage, offered an instant and personal account of the struggle for the six points of the Charter. Since then, however, and notwithstanding the huge revival of interest in the movement stimulated by Asa Briggs's Chartist Studies of 1959, no one has attempted to tell the whole story of Chartism.

Rival camps of historians have interpreted its meaning; the major events of the Chartist era - the Newport rising, the Land Plan and 1848 - have all been the subject of fine monographs; and the Chartist leadership has received its biographical due. But Malcolm Chase's mammoth, meticulous and moving new study is the first since Gammage to capture Chartism in all its regional, social and political diversity.

Veterans of Chartist historiography may be surprised to find Chase adhering so rigorously to a chronological rather than a thematic analysis of Chartism. They need not worry, for the pace is fast, the action exciting and the reflective commentary throughout thoughtful and dryly suggestive. Chase guides us expertly through the two decades of British history dominated by the spectre of Chartism: from the conventions in London and Birmingham during 1838-39, through the torch-lit and pike-laden meetings of 1840-42 when the threat posed by Chartism was at its height.

The sheer scale of mass protest is brilliantly illustrated - monster meetings of 250,000 were frequent - and the signatures on the Chartist petition of 1842 were so numerous that the document had to be rolled cylinder-style into the House of Commons. Chase provides a brilliant reconstruction of the Newport rising of 1839 and its aftermath and shows how rival strategies of physical and moral force agonised the Chartist leadership at all times, but especially in the hungry early 1840s. He takes us over the disputed tactical ground fought out within the National Charter Association and the Chartist Land Company and steers us through the complexities of Chartist electioneering in 1841 and 1847.

Chase provides a masterful analysis of the climax of Chartism in 1848, showing how the fraudulent signatures on the Chartist petition to Parliament fatally undermined the constitutional righteousness so integral to the movement.

Chartism: A New History also brings to life the many colourful personalities and ordinary individuals caught up in the movement. Each chapter closes with mini-biographies of the working-class men and women and the many sacrifices and small acts of bravery that their political activism involved. Here Chase is at his archival best, piecing together from scanty written sources and hazy memories the contribution of unsung foot soldiers of Chartism.

Elsewhere, it is the household names of the Chartist leadership - and in particular Feargus O'Connor - who supply plot and drama for page after page. With his aristocratic demeanour, relentless energy, charismatic speaking and command of the Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star , O'Connor emerges as the flawed hero of this book. In a remarkable piece of detective work, Chase has unearthed correspondence from 1843 between Feargus and his elder brother, Frank (by then a general in the revolutionary army of Simon Bolivar) - a letter that reveals O'Connor's high regard for Sir Robert Peel, whose tax reforms did so much to draw the sting from Chartism.

Above all, Chase shows us how Chartism was interwoven in the culture of early Victorian Britain. This was no vanguard of the English factory proletariat ready to deliver class warfare, any more than it was a backward-looking protest movement trying to stop industrial modernity in its tracks. Chartists lived and breathed the spirit of the age. They embraced religion, often attending church to make their protests. They deployed melodramatic song, verse and dress. They embraced temperance and showed respect for and a canny understanding of the law. Women played a part in Chartism, but the sexual division of labour ensured it was a limited one. And although Chartists became involved in various co- operative schemes, theirs was always a penny capitalism - exemplified in the Chartist Land Plan based on small proprietorship.

In these ways, as Malcolm Chase's magnificent book describes, Chartism was not so much the making of the British working class as its finest hour.

Miles Taylor is professor of modern history at York University.

Chartism: A New History

Author - Malcolm Chase
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 464
Price - £60.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 9780719060861 and 60878

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