‘Re-evaluating Chartism’ emerged as the central theme of the Annual Chartism Day conference on Saturday 1 June held at Newcastle University.
- Chartism’s electoral strategy
- The legal system’s treatment of those imprisoned for their activities
- The apparent absence of support for Chartism among Yorkshire miners
- The continuation of female Chartism after 1842
- The diverse activities and contradictions of Chartist activists 1858 to 1867
- The development of working class conservatism including the influence of Richard Oastler’s Tory radicalism
A number of interesting questions and issues emerged from the papers and the discussion.
Chartism's electoral strategy and the bifurcation of Radicalism
Tom Scriven argued that ‘from its origins in the 1837 General Election, Chartism’s Parliamentary electoral strategy was an explicitly antagonistic and schismatic one designed to split Liberal MPs from the Whigs and force upon them extra-Parliamentary, working-class leadership. This was to be achieved through outright opposition or by radicalising Liberal candidates and MPs by agitating for them to adopt the People’s Charter. Chartist electioneering was therefore part of a deep-seated bifurcation between Chartism and Liberalism, which became expressed most clearly in distinctly different attitudes towards not only the extent of reform but also the use of electoral corruption, a neglected topic in Chartism studies but one of fundamental importance to the movement that is revealing of Chartism’s moral politics and intellectual culture. Furthermore, understanding the importance of this strategy, this moral politics, and this electoral and Parliamentary rivalry, is crucial for appreciating the real and lasting threat posed to Chartism by the Complete Suffrage Union (CSU), alongside the otherwise apparently inconsistent Chartist attitude towards the CSU at the hustings. All of this therefore questions the extent to which Chartism’s Parliamentary electioneering can neatly be placed in a Radical continuity.’
The paper raised questions about the dynamics of local politics in different constituencies and towns, especially in relation to Chartist opposition to Whigs who would not support universal manhood suffrage. (See Note below) A slide of the People’s Charter poster showing the polling machine equipment the Chartists proposed stimulated discussion about how it would work, which intrigued people even more after Robert Poole showed an image of Major Cartwright’s plans for a polling station published in 1817.
Revisiting the Regina vs Frost trial, with reference to Justice of the Peace and the Edmund Jones correspondence
The abstract of Joan Allen’s paper states: ‘Between 1838 and 1850 an estimated 500 Chartists were imprisoned and some 2,000 others were committed for trial but either freed on recognizance (payment of a substantial fine) or exonerated. Many of them were local Chartist leaders and rounded up in the state crackdown on dissident voices in 1839-40. Their encounters with the justice system has been carefully documented by Chartist historians and countless others who have mostly concluded that justice was dispensed in an arbitrary manner, arguing that in the ‘exercise of terror and mercy’ there was significant, prejudicial discretion in the way that the penal code was interpreted and punishment administered. A thorough analysis of Chartist trials was conducted by Jacqueline Ariouat in a fine 1995 doctoral thesis, followed by an incisive article in Albion in 1998. Her work refined some of the conclusions reached by Mick Jenkins and John Saville in the 1880s and brought considerable insight into the legal procedures and precedents at play during this period.’ She concluded that the ‘majority of sentences were not unduly severe’ and that Chartist trials were not conducted in an unduly partisan manner for their time’.’
Although in her paper Joan raised questions about some aspects of Ariouat’s findings she wanted ‘to fully acknowledge the contribution her scholarship has made to this aspect of Chartist studies.’ Her ‘brief consideration of aspects of the Regina vs Frost trial is part of a wider study which aims to examine the flourishing periodical press which specifically served the legal community during the Chartist years and which affords a new opportunity for us to consider not just the inner workings of the judicial system but the attitudes of those who were employed as barristers, lawyers and judges.’
William Parker: A Chartist Life
Mike Greatbatch discussed the life of William Parker, Ouseburn Chartist. The abstract states: ‘As Secretary of the Ouseburn Working Men’s Association and an elected representative to the Council of the Northern Political Union (NPU), William Parker was a vocal advocate of universal suffrage in Newcastle and parts of County Durham from the moment the NPU was re-launched as Tyneside’s principal agency of Chartist agitation in September 1838. He would later serve as Chairman of the Ouseburn Charter Association. The People’s Charter was just one of a number of causes that Parker championed over an almost twenty-year period. A widower with three teenage daughters by 1841, Parker was an unskilled labourer competing for work in one of Tyneside’s most competitive labour markets, a lowly status that appears to have strengthened his self-belief in the justice of his words and actions, and his unwavering commitment to his fellow workers.’ By presenting the biography of William Parker, Mike hoped to demonstrate ‘how Chartism in Newcastle could be an intellectual commitment, not just for the educated radical elite but also for the unskilled and the poor.’
Ouseburn was a river further along the Tyne from Newcastle which was heavily industrialised, The excellently designed power point presentation added a great deal to Mike’s talk. Of particular interest to me was the fact that Parker was born in Wandsworth c1790, joined the army in 1811 for life (21 years), fought in Spain, and then served in India 1817-19, until he was discharged as a lunatic having been charged with murder. This did not prevent him being on the Chelsea Pensioner roll. He was back in England in 1820, marrying in Gateshead in July 1821, was a store keeper in 1825, and then by 1828 a labourer at the Ridley glass works on the Ouseburn. Parker was an active Chartist speaker, organiser and also educator on other issues. He died in March 1860.
Some of Mike’s work on the Ouseburn has been published in North East History and available via the website www.nehl.net; his essay on Ouseburn Chartism is in Issue 44 (2013). He was also a volunteer in the North East Popular Politics Project 2010-13 working on the very rich documents collected by Thomas Wilson, the listings of which are on the project database: ppp.nelh.net
The Yorkshire Miners 1836-1842: Rethinking Trade Unionism and Popular Protest in the Chartist Years
In his paper Joe Stanley argued that ‘Historians have generally accepted that there was a growth in the scale and intensity of trade union action and popular protest in the mid-1830s. As Malcolm Chase has argued, an upturn in trade 'provided good ground' for more intensive trade union action. And yet, some historians have viewed trade union action in this period as a defensive mechanism to protect against wage reductions or the worsening of workers' standard of living. This paper, using a case study of the Yorkshire miners, will challenge this well-entrenched consensus and, will show that, far from being defensive, Yorkshire miners took offensive strike action in pursuit of higher wages. And, in many cases, the Yorkshire miners' trade union action fed into popular demands for the People's Charter. In the rapidly expanding Barnsley coalfield, for instance, there were a series of strikes across the summer of 1836 and 1837 for higher wages. And, in almost every case, the coalowners - anxious not to forgo profits or lose a foothold in the market - quickly conceded to the miners' demands. Similar demands were made across 1838-40 but, gradually, requests for wage increases by colliers began to be articulated along with broader demands for political reform; so much so that by 1842, Yorkshire miners' trade union action was seen by contemporaries as being synonymous with demands for the People's Charter. The general consensus in the historiography is that the relationship between Chartists and trade unionists was problematic before 1842: this paper will show that, in the Yorkshire miners' case, the two were much closer aligned before this date than historians have recognised. Drawing heavily on a range of neglected material, this paper will suggest that we need to rethink the relationship between trade unionism and Chartism in these prosperous years and take stock of earlier economic demands of trade unions in shaping and influencing their support for Chartism.’
Chartism’s legacy: the reform debate in Yorkshire, 1859-67
In his paper Mark Bennett argued that ‘The extension of the franchise to urban householders, twenty years after Kennington Common, represented only a very limited concession to Chartist aims. However, Chartism loomed large over the discussions about the merits and pitfalls of reform. On one hand, the ideology of Chartism represented one of the facets of democracy in the context of which measures of reform were proposed and opposed. On the other, former Chartists entered wholeheartedly into the key national debates of this period: from the immediate question of franchise extension, to associated controversies such as the implications of the American Civil War for popular government. To understand Chartism in its longer context, Mark examined ‘the evolution of the reform debate in the large, diverse and influential county of Yorkshire, between the abortive Conservative bill of 1859 and the successful Conservative bill of 1867.’ He explored ‘the involvement of former Chartists, from major figures like Sheffield’s Isaac Ironside, through Barnsley’s Frank Mirfield, to minor figures like the emigrant Joe Kay, and their contributions to the debate.’ He further considered ‘the way that Chartism specifically, and democracy more generally, contextualised and informed the debate over franchise extension, and their use by both supporters and opponents of reform.’ He concluded by broadening its consideration of working-class culture to the Working Men’s Conservative Associations which formed in the late 1860s, understanding these as both a continuation of the earlier Tory Radical movement and an implicit response to some Chartist critiques.’
Chartism, Women and Working-Class Feminism
Matt Roberts’ paper revisited ‘the relationship between women and Chartism. The opportunities for women to participate in Chartism were more varied, extensive and enduring than has often been suggested. Particular attention is paid to late Chartism (1843-52) by documenting in full for the first time the number of female Chartist bodies in existence and by focusing on the role played by Chartist women in 1848. It then offers a case study of the Women’s Rights Association, established in 1851 by a group of Sheffield Chartist women, to campaign for votes for women, which, it is argued here, represented the culmination of a feminist current within Chartism.’
Matt had found 150 female groups, of which 52 were in existence between 1843 and 1851. It is estimated that between 162,000 and 467,000 women signed the 1848 National Charter petition. In May that year the Police Superintendent of Leicestershire estimated that there were 1,764 Chartist women: one for every 3 men. The Bethnal Green Female Charter Association had 12,500 enrolled members in June 1848. His talk centred on the Sheffield Women’s Rights Association. It sent a petition for women’s suffrage to Parliament in 1851, the first such known petition. It was led by Abiah Higginbottam who was congratulated by a Dundee newspaper which suggested that a seventh point (Abiah Point) for women’s suffrage be added to the Charter.
It has been previously suggested that the WRA had been established on the initiative of Ann Knight and the local Owenite Isaac Ironside. Matt says that the plan to set up the group had started two months before Knight contacted Ironside to ask whether there were women who would set up a local female suffrage organisation. The women were motivated by their critical view of Ironside’s performance on the local Council. There is no evidence that any of the women were Owenites; they were largely Church of England. They met at the Democratic Temperance Hotel which was the main meeting place for the male Chartists, rather that the Owenite Hall. While they made Knight President, and she occasionally, visited, and they revered her, they ignored her advice to only concentrate on women’s suffrage. They advocated temperance, pacifism, rational dress, and the repeal of the knowledge taxes. They corresponded with radical women in the United States and France, and had a visiting American activist as a speaker. They were a working class group. The WRA disappears in 1852, and most of its members had died by the end of the 1850s. They were remembered in the Sheffield local press in 1919 and 1925 because it was from there that the first demand for women’s votes started. Matt suggested that the WRA represented the last phase of female radicalism based on the concept of ‘natural right’, which was not the basis of the new emerging middle-class ‘feminist’ activists.
It struck me that female radicals, like Knight, had and were involved in the anti-slavery movement. While many of the WRA members were probably too young to have been involved in that movement up to 1838, they may well have come from families that were. The Sheffield Ladies Anti-slavery Society had been formed in 1825 and was the first society to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves. It issued its Appeal of the Friends of the Negro to the British People in 1827. By 1838 it had become the Sheffield Ladies Association for the Universal Abolition of Slavery and had petitioned in April of that year for the ending of the apprenticeship scheme. An unnamed woman in Sheffield had written to the Newcastle Ladies’ Negro Friend & Emancipation Society in 1840, requesting it to support of a Female Normal School in Jamaica. The period when the WRA was active also sees the Newcastle anti-slavery women’s initiative to set up the Free Produce movement. Could the Sheffield female radicals after 1852 have become involved in such activity, especially given their links into the United States?
From Peterloo to the People’s Charter
The keynote talk was by Robert Poole. At the 2017 Chartism day he had ‘compared the 1817 petitioning campaign for reform (700 petitions, 750,000+ signatures) to the 1839 Chartist petition ((1.2 million signatures).’ This time he looked ‘at the 1819 mass platform campaign, with its focus on acclaiming ‘legislatorial attorneys’ and setting in motion John Cartwright’s practical plan for annual general elections. In moving from petitioning to mass action, the radicals of 1819 faced similar dilemmas over ‘ulterior measures’ to those that faced the Chartists.’
Robert summarised the background: the mass petitioning in 1817 with between 750,000 and 1m signatures, the march of the Blanketeers, the ‘riotous’ events in June 1817 in Huddersfield and Sheffield triggered by what Robert describes as failed and disappointed constitutionalism (what can be done when petitions are ignored). The invitation to speak in Manchester which Hunt accepted in January 1819 was one of several including from Shields on the Tyne. The Parliamentary lobbying tactic was a survival one incorporating economic, political and social demands. The move from petitioning to sending Remonstrances to the King or Regent was a tactical step up. The flags from the different towns displayed at Peterloo were a visual demonstration in citizenship.
Robert ended his talk with a slide of the engraving of the Newcastle Town Moor protest demonstration in October 2019. It was pointed out that the people depicted looked very middle class with top hats, as did the engraving of the 1848 Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common. The discussion suggested that this might have been the artists attempt to showed the respectability of the demonstrators. In Peterloo court case witnesses said that hats were not worn. Nor can the wearing of Sunday best be ruled out. It does raise an interesting question: what was the politics of hats?
Note: The Charter Our Right! Huddersfield Chartism Re-Considered
A book published last year which helps with the evaluation of Chartism different dynamics in different parts is The Charter Our Right! Huddersfield Chartism Re-Considered, a collection of essays exploring Chartism and popular radicalism in Huddersfield.
Edited with an introduction by John A. Hargearves, Alan Brooke writes on The Roots of Chartism in the Huddersfield Area. Matt Roberts on ‘God Save the Paddock Flag’: Anti-Corn Law and Chartist Banners, 1837-1844, Malcolm Chase on Chartism in Huddersfield, the cultural dimension, and John Halstead The Charter and Something More!’ The Politics of Joshua Hobson, 1810-1876.
Matt Roberts' article is particularly important given the illustration of the Skelmanthorp Banner produced as part of protest after the Peterloo Massacre, showing the image of the kneeling slave. It is also important because it sheds a different light on the usual labelling of Richard Oastler as a ‘Tory’. Here was a man prepared to be imprisoned and praise the armed defence of the Paddock Flag when the authorities tried to see it at a public meeting. John Halstead’s article examines the activities of one Chartism after the decline of Chartism, particularly his involvement in local government, as many other Chartists elsewhere did. Like so many others he ‘ever ceased to hate and do battle with intolerance or oppression wherever he found it’.
The book is well illustrated. Paperback - £9.95. ISBN 9780992984106.
Alan Brook is also joint author of Liberty or Death: Radicals, Republicans and Luddites, 1793-1823, published by the Society. It is reviewed at