The Clapham area of Lambeth is well known for two things: the base of the anti-slavery Clapham Sect and ‘The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’. Over the years of researching aspects of the histories of the areas covered by today’s Boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth I have accumulated lots of notes about Clapham, which I put together for a talk ‘Radical Clapham’ on 20 September at Clapham Library as part of the Lambeth Heritage Festival.
I discussed the Clapham Sect – radical in relation to slavery – with William Wilberforce backing the repressive legislation on freedom of speech and organisation the Government led by William Pitt trying to keep the lid on the support for radical and Jacobin ideas associated with Thomas Paine and the French Revolution.
While I have found no information of radical/Jacobin activity in Clapham, a number of residents along with those of Battersea, published a joint declaration proclaiming that every effort would be made to seek out and prosecute anyone associated with sedition. They sent a copy to John Reeves who had organised the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Levellers and Republicans.
An important piece of that legislation was the Friendly Societies Act of 1793 which required relevant organisations to register with the local magistrates giving them legal status and legitimacy. The first Clapham friendly society I have found, is the Friendly Benefit Society at the Plough Inn registered in 1804. Later registrations include the Union Society at the Sun (1824), the Clapham Benefit Society (1825), and the Friendly Samaritan Society (1831).
While most friendly societies cannot be defined as radical politically, they were radical socially because so many of them were mutual self-help organisations run by their members, who therefore developed experience in democratic processes, while not having a vote in elections until much later in the 19thC.
The first real evidence of radical activity comes in March 1831 when Richard Carlile’s The Prompter newspaper published a list of over 80 people in Battersea and Clapham who subscribed to the fund to support him and his wife while he was in prison for seditious libel for supporting agricultural workers campaigning against wage cuts. In September he published the names of 57 subscribers to the fund for Rev. Robert Taylor, the freethinker imprisoned for blasphemy. Some of those subscribing called themselves ‘an enemy of priestcraft’, ‘a real reformer’, ‘a republican’, ‘an advocate of free discussion’. It published a letter reporting that three building workers had been sacked by their employer for supporting Taylor.
Between 1832 and 1836 supporters of the National Union of the Working Classes in Battersea and Clapham were regularly meeting. The Poorman’s Guardian newspaper records that a Reeve(s) sold radical newspapers at the Cock Inn in Clapham - he may have been the W. Reeve(s) who had subscribed to both Carlile and Taylor. H. Levi and 5 Republicans in Clapham donated 6/- to the fund for victims of the Six Acts, a further series of repressive laws following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the Cato St Conspiracy of 1820. A man named Simpson collected 6/8d at the Duke of York on Larkhall Lane. There is further mention of fundraising in Clapham in April 1833.
At a meeting that month Reeve was one of the speakers at the Duke of York objecting to an MP’s attempt to ban secular work on Sundays. In 1834 money was collected for the Derby silk workers who first went on strike and then were locked out. A number of collectors were appointed by the NUWC ‘branch’ at a public meeting at Mr. Bowes’ workshop, which may have been near the Plough at Clapham. One of the collectors was Reeve. The Clapham Independent Lodge of Operative Cordwainers also contributed money. Later on money was collected for the Tolpuddle Martyrs including at The Cock. In 1836, the year Martyrs were pardoned, money was collected at the Dorset Arms in Clapham Rd and passed to the Surrey District Committee of the Dorchester Committee that had been established to fundraise.
1836 saw the change of the NUWC to the London Workingmen’s Association. In 1838 it launched the People’s Charter for Parliamentary reform and suffrage. A local Wandsworth and Clapham Association was set up. It mainly met in pubs in Wandsworth Town. In those days people were prepared to walk long distances, so this would not necessarily have deterred supporters living in Clapham.
Its meeting discussed such subjects as the principles of the Charter, the nature of and relationship between capital and labour, abuses of public charities like hospitals, and issued an address to the men of Surrey to support the Charter.
In the early 1840s John Watkins a Chartist activist moved into Upper Marsh in Lambeth. He wrote regularly for the Chartist newspaper The Northern Star, was a supporter of teetotalism, was the London Chartists full-time paid lecturer. As well as writing plays on themes of the struggle for democracy and rights such as Magna Carta and Wat Tyler, he wrote an influential Address to the Women of England. In 1842 he moved into Battersea. When his father-in law died, he published The Life, Poetry and Letters of Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn-Law Rhymer. The couple later moved into Grover Court, Clapham Rise (later RD), where he died in December 1857 or January 1858.
Clapham in this period was part of East Surrey for Parliamentary election purposes. Under the Poor Law Act the Board of Guardians that was created for the area was named Wandsworth & Clapham.