Tracts of their time that chart their struggle

The Chartist Movement in Britain, 1838-1850
April 5, 2002

Dorothy Thompson looks at the serious history of the Chartist movement as told through the first-hand arguments of its supporters and of its opponents.

British Chartism held a unique place among the many movements for political reform that took place in Europe during the first half of the 19th century. Two factors set it apart from the revolutionary activity that disturbed the national and imperial structures of continental Europe. The first of these was the constitutional shift that in 1832 admitted significant sections of the commercial and professional classes into British politics, who in most parts of Europe still felt themselves to be excluded from political power and so often provided the programmes and articulated the grievances of all those beyond the constitutional pale. The second was the fact that Britain, a rapidly urbanising and a Protestant country, had a working population with a high level of literacy and habits of reading and discussing a wide range of texts.

When the 1832 Reform Act creamed off the main body of the politically discontented middle classes, the artisans and the labouring poor rebuilt their own reform movement from the strong-surviving tradition of lower-class radicalism and the long-standing traditions of nonconformist sects and communities, as well as from a lively culture of popular theatre and printed ballad sheets. The widespread movement whose membership and support lay almost entirely among the artisan and labouring portions of the community produced an enormous amount of published material of all kinds and was to a large degree held together organisationally by print and by the potential provided by the possession of a national newspaper. The circulation of this paper, the Northern Star , was among the highest of any paper in Britain. The sources for the recovery of the history of Chartism are therefore, to a much larger extent than with any earlier movement, printed sources.

Much of the material published during the Chartist years by the members of the movement, and by detractors and other commentators, has been made available to students during the past few decades. The publishers of the present set of six volumes have gone beyond the facsimile reproduction of texts and offer a series of tracts by Chartists and about Chartism with an introductory historical account and the identification, by footnotes and an index, of some of the people and events mentioned in the texts. It is a collection that makes easily available items that are of concern to any student of 19th-century radical thought and should certainly be part of any library offering research facilities in the field. There are 92 items in the contents list, some of which are series of tracts by the same authors and so make up an even larger number of individual items. All the items were originally published in the form of tracts or pamphlets, so there are no journals or manuscript materials among them. The items are not introduced separately, and the introduction does not introduce the texts but gives a brief general history of the movement. No indication is given of the status or the occupation of the authors of the tracts, nor of the significance of any of the items printed in the various discussions of tactics and programme with which they were connected. This is simply a large and varied collection of published material that will enable students who have read the standard histories and consulted the existing bibliographies, to make a first-hand acquaintance with material that would otherwise be stacked away in libraries all over the country. As such, it is to be welcomed by teachers and researchers.

It must be said, however, that the collection goes only part way towards defining the Chartist movement or extending the understanding of it. Universal suffrage, certainly universal male suffrage, had been the aspiration of democratic politicians and political movements since classical times, and it is now so much a part of the definition of political democracy that modern readers may be puzzled by the repetition of the case for it, or by the statement by Britain's leading Whig reformer, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in the House of Commons in 1842, that universal suffrage was "incompatible with the very essence of civilisation". Fear of granting the right to vote to men of no property was widespread even among advanced liberals in 1838, so the arguments that many of the tracts in these volumes make, which are addressed primarily to an educated middle-class readership, were seen to be necessary and are indeed taken by the editor to indicate support for Chartism. The Chartist movement, however, was not defined primarily by its programme but, as Miles Taylor has recently argued, by the precise form in which it was presented at different times during the 1830s and 1840s, and also by the nature and extent of its support. Chartism was a political programme supported by a nationwide popular movement, demonstrated in massive gatherings, petitions whose signatories amounted to millions and a national press that was undoubtedly read by more people than any other in the country. The founding in some districts of Chartist educational and cultural institutions have been seen by some historians as forming the basis for an alternative kind of community life. The movement was not simply asking for change and improvement but was also defending traditional and customary rights and practices. Thus Richard Oastler, factory reformer, high churchman and opponent of universal suffrage was more popular with the Chartist crowd and more sympathetically treated in the Chartist press than Joseph Sturge or Richard Cobden, who favoured political reforms not far from the Chartist programme.

Many of the tracts in this collection were written by men who were not part of the Chartist movement, although they supported the main points of the Charter. Moreover, some of those writers who were important in the early days, including William Lovett and Bronterre O'Brien are represented here not only by Chartist writing but by material that was written in years in which they actively opposed mainstream Chartism. The National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People was set up as an alternative to the National Charter Association at a time when Lovett was moving towards his later position of support for an educational qualification for the vote. There is no evidence that the National Association or its publications were ever supported by the movement or any part of it. The arguments put forward by Lovett after his imprisonment for Chartist activities, or by O'Brien in his later alternative organisation or in his support for the Complete Suffrage Union (CSU) of Sturge - from which even Lovett, by then very much opposed to Feargus O'Connor and the mainstream of the movement withdrew - may have been better arguments than those of O'Connor, George Julian Harney, Peter Murray M'Douall and the others. It was these latter, however, who carried on the movement, organised the collection of signatures and the presentation of the petitions, who arranged and spoke at the demonstrations and who in 1848 went to prison in the last big round-up of seditious leaders during the year of European revolutions.

Probably the most divisive moment in Chartism's history was the Welsh rising in winter 1839 followed by the trial and sentences on the Welsh leaders in early 1840. Surprisingly, these events get almost no mention in this collection. It was surely at this point that the division between those who feared the escalation of violence - here referred to as a "moral force party" - and those who, although rarely, if ever advocating violent revolution continued to support a programme of a massive demonstration of numbers (here misleadingly described as being in favour of "physical force") took place. Sturge, a sincere supporter of the extension of the franchise and of religious toleration, was prepared to work only with selected leaders of the Chartists and under a name other than Chartist. This was the issue over which Lovett withdrew from collaboration with the CSU, and over which O'Brien - who never joined the National Charter Association - lost most of his following. The introduction here seems to underestimate the power of loyalty to leaders who were seen as being unquestionably committed to the movement and to have made sacrifices for it. This was a power that Colonel Napier, the commander of the North in the Chartist years, recognised when he welcomed the commutation of the death sentences on the Welsh leaders, since his experience in Ireland had taught him a lot about the charisma of martyrdom.

The introduction also misplaces the Chartist Land Company, and thereby fails to understand the power and energy that fuelled the movement. Unlike the Anti-Corn Law League's programme of settling supporters on freehold land, the Chartist plan did not create freeholds. Some of those who drew allotments may have had entitlement to vote by holding other freehold property, but the Chartist allotments were not freehold, nor was the gaining of the vote a motivation in the plan. O'Connor's idea, and that of his followers, were the creation of an alternative way of life by which industrial work and wages could be measured. Like most Irishmen of his time, O'Connor had a strong attachment to the land and to an agrarian way of life, and the plan was to provide an escape from the traps set by the factory system and the 1834 Poor Law. A reading of Ernest Jones's journal, The Labourer , makes this clear and shows the powerful emotional and imaginative appeal that the plan inspired. Again, it may well be argued that the idea was mistaken, but it was never a cold calculation of the achievement of a 40-shilling franchise.

There are many important texts in these six volumes, although every Chartist scholar would have made his or her own selection. The original Charter, published in 1838 in the form of a detailed act to be presented to the House of Commons, is an essential text and appears early in volume one. This was not, however, the form in which the first petition was eventually presented, when the demands did not include equal electoral districts, to which some of the liberal supporters objected because of the possible massive influence of the Irish peasantry. This later version is not published here. It would have been interesting to compare it with the petitions of 1842 - in which the repeal of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the Act of Union with Ireland were added to the programme - and that of 1848, which was the only one to state the six points alone and to be supported in Parliament by a Chartist MP.

The full report is published in volume three of the first Birmingham conference held, in April 1842, to found the Complete Suffrage Union. This gives readers the opportunity to study in some detail the problems of definition and rhetoric that students of Chartism face. Here a group of well-intentioned free-trade advocates, most of them clergymen, set out to bring together the better parts of Chartism and the free-trade movement. It is clear throughout the recorded discussions that tensions between the various speakers often expressed themselves in attitudes towards specific terms. John Collins, for example, who turned towards somewhat quietist Christianity after his imprisonment, spoke early in the discussion: "And now sir, you will allow me to observe that I think too much has been said against the class of which I have the honour to be one (I mean the working class) by those from whom better things might have been expected." The question was taken up later by John Adam of Aberdeen who "thought the reference to 'classes' injudicious. It should be their wish to put an end to that division into classes which had so much interfered with the progress of reform."

Here we have encapsulated one of the divisions in the movement that had as much resonance at many important moments as the physical force-moral force dichotomy. The second Birmingham conference was to provide a dramatic illustration of the power of words when Lovett, already in disagreement with O'Connor and most of the other Chartist leaders, refused to relinquish the name Chartist, a name for which he and Collins had served terms of imprisonment. The tracts in these volumes enable readers to follow some of these differences of language and of narrative that can give many insights into the dynamics of the movement.

Unfortunately, the editing gives very little guidance to the identification of the speakers and contributors. We are told that the reference by a "Mr Steele" to "Lord Byron" referred to "George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), romantic poet and champion of Greek independence", but not the origin or occupation of the speaker, John Steele of Aberdeen. The footnoting and indexing are idiosyncratic in the extreme. A Joseph Skelton, butcher, appears in the index, having contributed a single introductory speech at a Bolton tea party given after his Chartist period to the Reverend Joseph Barker, but there is no information or index reference for John Skelton, who signed a number of the London Working Men's Association documents here printed and who remained a staunch Chartist for the whole of the Chartist period, moving from his trade as a London shoemaker to the practice of alternative medicine in the north of England in the post-Chartist years.

The small list of biographical information added to the index gives little information about actual Chartists, even those whose written contributions are included. For example, the very interesting and rare series of Tracts for the Times written by three Kirkdale prisoners and published in 1849, of which five are included in volume five, are rightly attributed to James Leach, John White and John West. We are told in an earlier note that Leach was a weaver, author and bookseller and West signs an earlier document as "silk weaver". We are not told, however, that these were three Irishmen who had worked and grown up mainly in England, that Leach was a powerloom weaver turned newsagent and bookseller, that West was a weaver, a full-time lecturer who turned down the offer of a paid job lecturing for the Anti-Corn Law League and later became a comber and that White, an able and prolific writer during the Chartist years, returned to his trade as a woolcomber and died in poverty in a workhouse.

The volumes are full of important and interesting material, but because it is restricted to tracts, it does not include examples of the most lively Chartist statements that are still to be found in the newspapers, broadsides and reports of speeches - sympathetic reports in their own journals and hostile ones in London and provincial papers and in police and spies' reports. The plays, the jokes, comic songs and hymns that gave life and colour to the movement are not to be found here, nor much in the way of personal accounts that were to appear later in the century. It is a collection that stresses the serious side of the movement, the problems that middle-class sympathisers had with supporting its programme and, above all, the continuing argument for adult male suffrage aimed at those former reformers who agreed with Lord John Russell ("Finality Jack" to the Chartists) - that the 1832 act had signified the finality of parliamentary reform.

Dorothy Thompson is the author of The Chartists and Queen Victoria : Gender and Power .

The Chartist Movement in Britain, 1838-1850

Editor - Gregory Claeys
ISBN - 1 85196 330 8
Publisher - Pickering and Chatto
Price - £495.00
Pages - 2,871 (six volumes)

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