Chartism & The Chartists

Musings, information & illustrations about the Chartists from Stephen Roberts


Les James, Render the Chartists Defenceless: John Frost's Voyage with Dr McKechnie to Van Diemen's Land in 1840 (Three Impostors, Newport, 2015).

Ah, the Newport Rising ... one of the key moments in the long years of the Chartist struggle. We will never really know all that happened in South Wales in the later months of 1839 - or indeed in that other great centre of Chartist organisation, the West Riding. Men planning insurrection don't write letters that might later incriminate them, or, if they do, they see that they are destroyed. So, in spite of such painstaking and thoughtful enquiries as that of David Jones, there will always be questions. Les James has immersed himself in these events, and his hard work and depth of knowledge are evident both in his writing and the public commemorations that he organizes in Newport. Though he more than once declared that he would write an autobiography, John Frost, transported along with William Jones and Zephaniah Williams, in the months of high drama that followed the rising, never told his side of the story. After his return he chose to talk publicly instead about the convict system, and his new interest in spiritualism. Disappointing for the historians of Chartism perhaps, but understandable from Frost's perspective.

Les James concentrates on Frost's voyage to Van Diemen's Land. Central to this story is Alexander McKechnie, the convict ship's doctor. At first McKechnie seemed to be sympathetic to the Chartist prisoners, but, as time passed, Frost was not so sure. I will not reveal all that I learned from this book because I think all of those who have an interest in Chartism should ensure they read it. I found it an absorbing read. It comes with a foreword from the actor Michael Sheen, who was drawn into the Chartist story after the destruction of the mural in Newport in 2013. Congratulations should also go to Three Imposters, the publishers. They have ensured that this splendid book is beautifully produced.

Richard Brown, Coping with Change: British Society 1780-1914 (Authoring History, 2013); and Before Chartism: Exclusion and Resistance (Authoring History, 2014).

Those who study, write and teach about Chartism will be familiar with the name of Richard Brown. His Chartism (1998) is one of a clutch of short histories of the movement; but, alongside that by Edward Royle, is the book that would top anyone's recommendations of where to begin when starting out on a study of the Chartists. Brown's contribution to our understanding of Chartism would be useful enough if he had written only that one book ... but he hasn't. Brown is in fact a prodigious writer. He does not, as a rule, delve deeply into primary sources in his writing. What Brown does is immerse himself in the relevant secondary sources; and 'immerse' is the correct verb because the range of Brown's reading takes in almost everything written on a subject and is truly astonishing.

Coping with Change is a door-stopper of a book. At 746 pages, it leaves no gaps - there are chapters devoted to industry, agriculture, transport, public health, education, crime, leisure, religion and so on. All that Brown has to say is thoroughly footnoted, ensuring the reader does not have to check library catalogues for further reading. Brown writes both authoritatively and clearly. With a detailed index, this is an easy book to use. I can pay it no greater tribute than by saying that I shall keep my copy within easy reach of my desk when I am writing.

Before Chartism offers a comprehensive examination of the radical movements and protests that came before the late 1830s. Chartism cannot be understood without knowing what immediately preceded it - the popular unrest that followed the end of the French wars in 1815, the great 'betrayal' of the 1832 Reform Act, the hated Poor Law of 1834, the agitation over the press in 1830s London and so on. I always thought that the introductory chapters of J.T. Ward's Chartism (1973) were useful, if not particularly sympathetic to the leaders of the people. But that book is long out-of-print and the reader seeking up-to-date and reflective writing on these themes needs to consult a range of different books. That is no longer the case. Brown provides, in a well-researched, sympathetic and readable volume, the stories of the campaigns that fed into Chartism. It is another valuable volume from the Brown writing factory.

D. Black & C. Ford, 1839: The Chartist Insurrection (Unkant Publishing, 2012).

I read this book in one sitting as I sheltered from the pouring rain at Bodnant Gardens in North Wales. Based on a wide range of secondary sources and easy to read, it provided a welcome way of spending a few hours whilst waiting for the weather to clear (it didn't!). The authors tell the story of a year when they assert the conditions for a working class revolution existed. Their account, almost entirely based on such secondary sources as the studies of the Newport Rising by David Jones and Ivor Wilks (but noticeably omitting recent books by Malcolm Chase and Paul Pickering) cannot be said to add to the scholarship, but is full of vigour and engagement. Black and Ford see Chartism in 1839 as 'a mass working class democratic movement with revolutionary and socialist tendencies'. So this is very much a political account from an avowedly Marxist stance. For the authors a hero of the Chartist story emerges ... George Julian Harney. And rightly so: Harney should be a hero to us all.

The following is a review of Chartism in Scotland by W. Hamish Fraser, published in Labour History Review 2011:

Chartism in Scotland

Volume 10 number 3 2010 of Llafur, the journal of Welsh labour history, includes three interesting essays on Chartism. Joe England in 'Engaged in a Righteous Cause: Chartism in Merthyr Tydfil' demonstrates that there is still much to be learned from local studies of the movement. He reflects at length on events in the town in 1839, concluding that the traumatic legacy of the rising of 1831, when more than twenty people were shot down by soldiers, explains the avoidance of confrontation in the town in that most tense of years. England also tells the stories of Merthyr's Chartist leaders - men like the talented Morgan Williams and David John Jr., who published their own Chartist journals. Owen Ashton in 'Chartism in Llanidloes: The "Riot" of 1839 Revisited' explores the clash between working people and special constables in the town in April 1839. This event was triggered by the arrest of three Chartists by constables sent specifically to perform the task from London. Ashton first cut his teeth as an historian forty years ago by writing about Chartism in mid-Wales and, in the careful and logical evaluation of primary and secondary sources that characterises his work, he reveals more about the specials, about the significance of the Chartist bugler Lewis Baxter and about the Chartist fugitive Charles Jones, who the police did not manage to capture. Finally, Malcolm Chase in 'Rethinking Welsh Chartism' offers some revisionist thoughts on the movement in Wales and indeed nationally. Welsh Chartism has, as Chase notes, been under-researched, with attention mostly focusing on the Newport Rising of 1839. Chase points to the links between Chartists in Wales and England, and re-states his view, first set out in his superb history of the movement, that there was an intention to link up risings in different parts of the country and that the rising in Newport should not be seen in isolation. As I indicated in a review of Chase's book (Labour History Review, 74, 2009), I believe that on the ground things were not quite like this. There is much else that is fascinating in this piece - Chase's comments on the presentation of the petition in 1848, the table of centres of Chartist support, for example - and it should be read by all those who teach Chartism at degree level. Chase produces stimulating essay after stimulating essay. The greatest wonder of all is where he finds the time to do all this. Does this man sleep?

David J. Harrison 'Monmouth & the Chartists' (2009, 32pp) retells the story of that most eventful of years, 1839. Intended for a popular audience, it adds no new detail - but is very readable. Harrison contends that, had Chartism not existed, there would still have been a rising in South Wales - not an interpretation everyone would agree with, but, if this pamphlet gets more people reading about Chartism, then so much the better.

A review of The Chartist Prisoners by Professor Chris Williams (Swansea University) appears in Midland History vol. 34 no. 1 (spring 2009). The following is an extract:

'This is a work of great empathy, enthusiasm, passion, commitment and scholarship that will be of interest to historians of Chartism and Victorian radicalism ... It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive treatment. Excerpts from Cooper's epic The Purgatory of Suicides do not, I am afraid, encourage me to seek out the original (O'Neill seems to have experienced a similar reaction), and it has to be said that, almost certainly driven by the relative absence of any papers relating to O'Neill, he comes alive to a much lesser degree in Stephen Roberts' hands than does his prolific friend ... (Nevertheless) a fine study'.

Labour History Review vol. 74 no.1 (April 2009) is a special issue devoted to Chartism. Edited by Joan Allen & Owen Ashton, this issue features six essays by well-known scholars of the movement. Allen & Ashton, both experts on radicalism in the north-east, kick things off with a helpful survey of recent work on Chartism. What then follows is a series of strong essays, based on careful research & reflection, on such issues as the agitation which preceded Chartism (Robert Poole), the links the Chartists made between democratic reform & everyday concerns such as food & family (Robert Hall), Chartist challenges at the polls (Malcolm Chase) & exclusive dealing (Peter Gurney). There are no duds here - these essays represent Chartist scholarship at its best. Two essays particularly interested me. No one knows more about working class history in the Potteries than Bob Fyson &, over the last thirty years, essays on key episodes & personalities in that region have been coaxed out of him by sympathetic colleagues. Fyson's work is always richly-detailed & thoughtful - & that is the certainly the case here in his excellent examination of late Chartism in the Potteries. Paul Pickering, writing in collaboration with Kate Bowan, examines Chartist singing & songs. This most enjoyable essay confirms Pickering's reputation as the historian of Chartism who most often breaks new ground. Pickering's essays on Chartism are scattered across various journals &, one hopes, will one day be collected together in a single volume - as indeed one hopes Fyson's work will be.

The reviews below of publications by M. Chase, K. Flett, W. Hamish Fraser, & A. Schepf appear in the current issue of Labour History Review.

Paul Pickering, Feargus O'Connor (2008). The publication of this book fills an important gap in the historiography of Chartism. Following the appearance of Malcolm Chase's magisterial narrative history of Chartism last year, we now have a biography of the movement's pre-eminent leader. Lovett, Harney, Jones all have their life-stories told in full - but Feargus has only Read & Glasgow's slim 1961 volume. Pickering has not had, as Lovett's biographer had, an autobiography to guide him - even if he had he lived into the 1870s or 1880s, it is hard to imagine Feargus finding the time to write his own life-story.

But Pickering has had the Northern Star , which meticulously documented Feargus' every move & every speech. This is a book to stand alongside the best of Chartist biographies - Schoyen on Harney & Taylor on Jones. It is a compelling story told even-handedly but with sympathy for Feargus at its heart. This study follows other important books & articles by Pickering. He must now surely be regarded as the leading historian of Chartism in the world. It is, however, a shame that Merlin could not have packaged the book more attractively: a figure as flamboyant as Feargus deserved better than this dull cover.

Stephen Roberts' reviews of Malcolm Chase, Chartism. A New History (2007); Keith Flett, Chartism after 1848 (2006); W. Hamish Fraser, Dr John Taylor, Chartist (2006) ;& Ariane Schnepf, Our Original Rights as a People (2006) will appear in Labour History Review during the course of 2008. LHR is the journal of the Society for the Study of Labour History & is published three times a year by Maney Publishing, Leeds.'

Christine Rider ed. Encylopedia of the Age of the Industrial Revolution (2 vols., 2007) includes useful essays on Chartism & the London Working Men's Association by Christopher Frank of the University of Manitoba. A review of these volumes by Stephen Roberts will appear shortly on H-Net'.

W. Hamish Fraser Dr John Taylor, Chartist, Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 2006, 112, £4

It is excellent news that local history societies are able to produce short, inexpensively priced books such as this. Hamish Fraser concedes that the material for a study of the theatrical but sincere John Taylor is meagre; he relies principally for information on newspapers such as the Northern Star and True Scotsman. Consequently, his book offers no new revelations about Taylor's story. Like Ernest Jones, Taylor probably invented or romanticized parts of his earlier life. What better credentials for a Chartist speaker than to claim he spent his twenty-first birthday in a French prison? Or invested his legacy in fitting out a ship to help the Greeks in their war against the Turks? Fraser is sceptical about these claims. His evaluation of Taylor is shrewd. He writes well about Taylor's emergence as Byronic revolutionary. And he is sympathetic. He explains convincingly in his final paragraphs why Taylor deserves his statue in Wallace town cemetery. Fraser has set down all we can possibly recover about Taylor's story and gets close to understanding him. Well done to him - and to AANHS for bringing out this useful book at such a good price.

Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People? England 1783 - 1846 (2006)

Ten pages of this six hundred page account of sixty years of English history (one of the volumes in the New Oxford History of England) are devoted to Chartism. Hilton's discussion of the movement is mostly accurate and comes to some firm conclusions. He plumps for the views that O'Connor was a talented popular leader (though, curiously, finds space for a long quotation from a long-dead Fabian); that much myth-making has taken place around the events of 1848; and that Chartism was a political movement and, far from being counter-cultural, accepted basic social norms. Hilton inaccurately tells us that there was a wave of strikes in 1839 and fails to describe the Newport Rising. He also puts a little too much emphasis on recruits to the Chartist cause being "hard pressed", "failed" or "bored" - some local leaders, like George Binns or Peter Murray McDouall, were optimistic and sacrificed likely future success to be part of the movement. However, this account of Chartism can be recommended - it is interesting, thoughtful and, unlike Norman Gash's assessment in Aristocracy and People (1979), largely written in sympathy with the Chartists.

Asa Briggs, Chartism (1999); Richard Brown, Chartism (1998); Harry Browne, Chartism (1999); John Charlton, The Chartists (1997); Eric Evans, Chartism (2000); Edward Royle, Chartism (1996); John K. Walton, Chartism (1999).

Perhaps the most surprising publishing development in Chartist studies during the last decade has been the appearance of a multitude of short histories of the movement. For many years Edward Royle's book held the fort. Readable, reliable, and judicious, it is in fact still the best concise study of Chartism. For Edexcel A2 students and undergraduates starting work on Chartism, it is essential reading. Based on an impressive reading of monographs and articles, Richard Brown's book is sound and accurate. It includes some documentary exercises - though some of the extracts chosen are rather dull. Harry Browne's book is also detailed and dependable, drawing on a range of specialist texts. John Charlton offers a defiantly Marxist account. In his account of class struggle, he devotes twenty pages to the strikes of 1842 - which Asa Briggs deals with in two sentences. The greater part of Briggs' elegantly written book is devoted to the early years of Chartism. He sees the movement much as he saw it when editing Chartist Studies (1959). Eric Evans is sceptical about recent scholarly interpretations, particularly with regard to O'Connor. Some of the illustrations in the book are not accurately identified e.g. Thomas Cooper. Finally, John K. Walton's book can be commended - it provides useful and uncomplicated summaries of scholarly debates.

Yorkshire Chartist Choir, Chartist Songs (2006)

I have often heard Roy and Pat Palmer sing radical songs from the past, and they made me a private recording of two Chartist songs, including George Binns' poignant 'Chartist Mother's Song', a few years ago. I also have an excellent CD by Chumbawamba which features a 'Chartist Anthem'. Now, with the acquisition of this CD, recorded by the 70-strong Yorkshire Chartist Choir, I feel even closer to the Chartists. The standard of singing is very good. The CD includes six songs, three of them written by Ernest Jones, though, surprisingly, not the most popular Chartist song of all, Thomas Cooper's 'Lion of Freedom'. Several of these songs have not been sung since the times they were written for; with eyes closed, it is very easy to imagine these stirring anthems been sung by gatherings of nineteenth century working people.