Author Archives: Stephen Roberts

The voter who refused to vote …

When I was out leafleting for the Labour Party during the general election of 2015, I was well aware that a lot of the people whose garden paths I purposefully strode up would not bother to vote.  I’d put a leaflet through a letter box, the candidate beaming at any voter who cared to look, the key pledges prominently on display.  How many were given a quick shufti and then immediately binned?  Most of them, I suspect.  We live in an age of voter disillusionment, of disengagement with politicians.  It is becoming increasingly clear that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed this, whatever his supporters might have said about how he was the man to reconnect with those who had chosen to opt out of voting.  When I speak to voters I still hear the same thing … that so familiar mantra … “they’re all the same”.

Choosing not to use your vote is not a new thing.  James Arthur was a voter who categorically refused to vote.  He owned a bookshop in Carlisle in the 1830s and 1840s and he was enfranchised under the terms of the 1832 Reform Act.  He voted just once … in the election that followed the passing of the Reform Act and thereafter refused to ever vote again.  Was it because he thought “they’re all the same”?  Was it apathy?  Was it because he had better things to do?   It wasn’t any of these things, as you doubtless guessed.  James Arthur had a deep interest in politics.  He was the agent for the Northern Star and for the Northern Liberator in Carlisle. He printed Chartist handbills and posters.  He chaired Chartist meetings.  He was arrested in 1842 and spent some time in the nick.  He was, in the words of his friend Joseph Broom Hanson,  a ‘pure and honest patriot.’

Joseph Arthur refused to vote because he believed in manhood suffrage.  Whilst the electoral system locked out working men he would not take part in it.  And this continued until his death in 1877.  General elections came and general elections went and James Arthur did not use his vote.  He attended hustings for sure, where he’d conduct a chorus of hooting and yelling by the unenfranchised.  The 1867 Reform Act, which gave the vote to  working men who lived in towns, did not soften him.  James Arthur was a whole hogger, a first principle Chartist: ‘A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.’  James Arthur had been forty-one years dead by the time this came about.

But this wasn’t the only principle James Arthur adhered to.  He refused to buy salt because the government derived revenue from its sale.  It was ‘a habit contracted in order to make the government bankrupt’.  Of course, James Arthur’s efforts didn’t result in emptying the coffers of the government.  He was called eccentric by some of his neighbours.  Or perhaps principled is a better description.

James Arthur will feature in a forthcoming volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

The Hunt for Wat Tyler

In the fevered summer of 1848 – just after the great petition for manhood suffrage had been burnt in the ovens of the House of Commons – it wasn’t just in the capitals of Europe that men’s minds turned to rebellion.   A revolutionary spirit certainly stalked the West Riding.  In a blacksmith’s shop just off the Manchester Road in the Chartist stronghold of Bradford a burly, bearded man was hard at work.  The sweat poured from his brow as he hammered.  This man was thirty-five year old Isaac Jefferson.  Isaac wasn’t making spades.  Isaac was making pikes.   His neighbours called him Wat Tyler.

And so it was that one Sunday morning about fifty wool combers assembled on the moors outside Bradford.  Wat was at their head.  David Lightfowler, wearing a green shirt and a green cap, was giving the orders.”To the left”, he barked. “March”.  “Stop, lads.”  This was a risky enterprise.  There was a good chance that one of those fifty men wasn’t what he seemed.  Wasn’t a good Chartist at all; was in fact an informer for the magistrates.

These men were, of course, betrayed.  Now these men knew that, even with their pikes, the odds were very much against them if they came up against trained soldiers with rifles.   They were angry at their poverty, at the injustice of their situation, at the intransigence of the mill owners, the magistrates, the ministers far away in London.  They marched like soldiers, a few armed with pikes, others with bludgeons; but they were caught up in the moment, they were venting their frustration … they didn’t expect to be storming the court house in Bradford anytime soon.

The magistrates were alarmed.  Over their port that talked about how what had happened in Paris might well happen in Bradford. These men they agreed in no time at all had to be dealt with.  That Wat Tyler and his dangerous comrade Lightfowler must be apprehended.  And so a few days later 100 special constables were sent into Manchester Road to bring out the two wanted men.  Wat and Dave expected this and had made themselves scarce.  They were nowhere to be found.  The specials now got into a lot of trouble.  The working people of the Manchester Road fought back.  Women hurled abuse at them. Stones were thrown. Pokers were wielded.  Hemmed in by these furious people, it must have been a very alarming experience for the shopkeepers who had enlisted as volunteer police constables.

Where Wat and Dave were, the authorities did not know.  Word reached them about a month later that Wat had returned home.  This time they decided to tiptoe in.  A couple of police constables at Wat’s front door, another at the back and he was quickly apprehended. Now came an unforeseen difficulty.  Wat’s wrists were too thick to accomodate the handcuffs.  Still they marched him down the Manchester Road to the lock-up.  This was not a sight that his neighbours would accept.  The constables were surrounded by a huge crowd.  One woman called Mary Patchett kicked out at them, knocked their hats off and encouraged others to do the same.  Stones were thrown.  In the melee Wat’s wife Ann and his daughter Hannah managed to free him.  Wat Tyler did a runner.

For the next few months the magistrates hunted for Wat.  Every night the constables were out; but this working class community closed round him.  Wat was moved from place to place.  Wherever the constables went, he had already left.  It was not until September that the finally got their hands on him.  And it was in the middle of the night.  They found Wat fast asleep in a pub in a Pennine village on the outskirts of Bradford.  He was not armed and did not resist arrest.  He’d had enough of being on the run.

Isaac Jefferson got four months in the nick for drilling on the moor.  Mind you,he had already spent three months in York Castle before his trial.  He lived until 1874 and to the end of his days he remained proud of his involvement in the great Chartist Movement back in ’48.

Isaac Jefferson will appear in a forthcoming volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

‘Poor, harmless’ Frank Mirfield takes a cheap trip to Van Diemen’s Land

On 3 October 1831 the ‘Elizabeth’ set sail for Australia.  On board were 220 men, all going to live in a new country but not through choice.   Amongst these men was a 29 year old weaver from Barnsley.  He was called Frank Mirfield.  Everyone called him Frank … that is apart from the Leeds Patriot and the authorities. To the former he was ‘poor, harmless Frank Mirfield’ and to the latter he was Francis.  Frank had spent eighteen months in a hulk at Sheerness before setting off on his enforced adventure.  He was later to recall how he had defended the weavers against wage cuts ‘and received a cheap trip to Van Diemen’s Land as my reward’.

What exactly had Frank done to deserve his reward?  In Barnsley in 1829 the masters were seeking to cut wage rates. Not good news at the best of times, very bad news when what you got already wasn’t enough.  Frank told the weavers to resist the wage cuts, or, as he put it, ‘to turn up their noses for there was no law against turning up noses.’  He urged them to stick together because that way they could prevail.  So Frank sought to instill hope and defiance into these men.  But these were hard times and these men were frustrated and angry.   That August the weavers turned to violent protest.   The windows of a house belonging to a mill owner were smashed and yarn belonging to men trying to undercut prices was shredded so that it could no longer be used.  Had Frank thrown the stones himself?  Of course not.  Had Frank urged the weavers to do this? Of course he hadn’t.  But inevitably there was an informer ready to help the ruling elite bang Frank up.   And so it was that Frank found himself on the high seas, with fourteen years in Van Diemen’s Land to look forward to.

Frank in fact came home earlier – after eight years.  The Barnsley weavers  did not forget the man who had been their champion.  They organised a petition to secure his return and stumped up the cash to pay for it.  At a celebration dinner at Union Inn in Barnsley  to mark his return in 1840 Frank typically had nothing to say about his experiences in Van Diemen’s Land. He talked instead about the continued injustices facing working people.  No egotist was Frank. What is remarkable about Frank Mirfield is that, in spite of his unpleasant punishment, he did not give up on the working class struggle.

To the end of his days – he was found dead in his bed in 1869 – Frank Mirfield championed the causes of fair wages for the weavers and the People’s Charter.  His loyalty to Feargus O’Connor was never broken. He led a number of strikes against wage cuts. He urged working men to join together in trade unions.  He also became a spokesman for his own people on local affairs, resisting rises in the price of meat and campaigning for a cleaner water supply. When he appeared at meetings at the end of his life, Frank was loudly cheered.  The people loved him.  Of course, they didn’t have the money to put up a statue to him.  But if they had had it, they would have.

Frank Mirfield will be appearing in a future volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

The Woes of the Revd. Hill

Ever heard of the Reverend William Hill?  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you haven’t. There is no biography of this man.  No entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  No entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography.  Even Wikipedia has forgotten about the Revd. Hill.  You could be forgiven for thinking that he was a Victorian Nonconformist minister who did his duty on the preaching front and perhaps penned the odd theological pamphlet … and, er,  that was it.  Well, he was a minister for sure … but in the late 1830s and early 1840s he was also one of the most influential men in the country. Many thousands read or heard his words.  For the Revd. Hill, you see, was the editor of the famous Northern Star, which, in summer 1839, was selling an astonishing 50,000 copies a week.

The Northern Star was one of Chartism’s great achievements.  It is the greatest working class newspaper in English history.  A bit over the top that, you might think …yes, you might have a point …  I’ll have a think about what I’ve just written …no, I’m sticking with that … the Northern Star is the greatest working class newspaper in English history.  The paper had everything … a confident, defiant letter from Feargus O’Connor on the front page, a column from hard-thinking Bronterre O’Brien, stirring reports of Chartist meetings ‘packed to suffocation’ from across the country, letters from itinerant lecturers about the excellent progress of the cause, poems … even jokes.  And each issue came with a lengthy editorial from William Hill.  These were cogently-argued, but they also revealed a deep depth of feeling for the cause and for the paper’s readers.  Working people, you see, when they read the good reverend’s editorials realised that here was a man on their side.

William Hill edited the Star from his office in Leeds for almost six years – from 1837 until 1843.  Of course, he made enemies.  The Leeds Mercury wasn’t a fan.  It was Whig, the Star was Chartist.  It sold diddly squat.  The Star sold shed loads.  But it got a scoop in 1841.  Hill had separated from his wife … or, as the Mercury had it, deserted her.   So William Hill had to endure a ‘ruthless invasion of the sanctities of my domestic misery’.  Being a Chartist leader meant there was always a price to pay.  With your colleagues it occasionally meant shutting up or getting embroiled in nasty rows.

William Hill wasn’t a man to shut up.  And so he got involved in a few nasty rows.  When the Chartists fell out with each other, it was only rarely about policy … often it was about money or personal position.  Now the Chartists tried to be scrupulous when it came to money.  The executive of the National Charter Association published its accounts in the Star.  Casting his eye over these on one occasion, Hill found himself concerned by payments to men like John Campbell, Jonathan Bairstow and Peter Murray McDouall. Looked like they were helping themselves to more than they should, he thought … and this is what he said in a blistering editorial in the Star.  A nasty row ensured.

Feargus and his editor never shared a drink.  This is because William Hill championed teetotalism – Feargus, enjoying a bottle of brandy a day, unsurprisingly didn’t.  For quite a few years they managed to rub along.   But eventually the rupture came.  It had been brewing for sometime.  This time it was actually over policy – too arcane to go into here but it concerned the NCA executive – but clearly there were personal antagonisms.  Feargus sacked his editor and called him ‘a knobstick parson’.  He was never to contribute to the newspaper he had edited so successfully ever again. A sad ending to a great partnership.

I am glad to say that the Revd. William Hill’s story will be told.  I have agreed to write it up for the DLB.

 

The Bleeding of Feargus O’Connor

Spring 1840 wasn’t really a great time for Feargus O’Connor.  The Lion of Freedom found himself in court in York, charged with seditious conspiracy.  Stuff had been published in his newspaper the Northern Star and now the ruling elite wanted to teach Feargus a lesson. Feargus,of course, was a barrister and he knew a thing or two about legal literature.  His speech in his own defence was all his supporters – who turned up in their droves – would have expected.  Utterly defiant, Feagrus kept going for almost five hours.  Needless to say it was to no avail.  In ten minutes the jury declared him guilty.  Feargus was to go to prison.  He now had to wait to find out for how long.

A few weeks later Feargus found himself in East Sussex.  He’d got a lot on his mind. So one evening he decided to go for a row on the river Rother.  As a young man Feargus had enjoyed strenuous physical exercise.  He’d hunted, he’d run, he’d walked … he’d even tried a bit of wrestling.  A couple of hours on the water seemed just the thing.  It didn’t turn out as well as Feargus hoped.  Feargus was no longer a young chap – he was in his mid-forties.  Soon after he succumbed to ‘an attack of rheumatism in the chest, brought on by imprudently taking too violent exercise.’   Despite this Feargus managed to get back to London, where he lived in Hammersmith, in a house with a garden.  Now, as we gardeners know all too well, gardens need a lot of watering.  Feargus didn’t want his plants to die and so out he went to water them. He was soon feeling very hot and so removed his coat.  The job done, he sat down in the garden for an hour.  Feargus was wearing just his shirt.  It turned out to be an unwise decision.

Feargus O’Connor regularly suffered breakdowns in health.  He certainly put an enormous strain on himself.  The long railway and coach journeys, the huge public meetings, writing a weekly letter for the Star, keeping his eye on what William Lovett was up to must all have taken it out of him.  Now, as he lay ill in his bed, Joshua Hobson, the publisher of the Northern Star, visited him; ‘he is worse than he was yesterday’, he reported to the paper’s editor William Hill.  Feargus’ doctor was summoned.  He did the things that early Victorian doctors did.  He drew blood into a cup from Feargus’ side.  He bled him in the arm. He applied a blister plaster to his chest.  These were remedies that it was thought would revitalize him.  Trouble was this is what Feargus’ doctor would have done in 1740 … even in 1640.  ‘He is worse than he was before’, Hobson informed Hill, ‘complaining of great pain arising from the original complaint itself and of the remedies that have been applied.’  Feargus then received the news that his doctor planned to causterise the inflammation caused by the blister plaster.

Despite the best efforts of his doctor, Feargus did recover.   He told the Chartists that he’d been ‘very ill.’  Later on he was to suffer from angina. Was the ‘rheumatism in the chest’ an early indication of this?  We’ll never know.  A few weeks later Feargus was sentenced to eighteen months in the nick.  Did it teach him a lesson?  Of course, it didn’t …

 

 

In Praise of Yuri Kovalev

When I was in my early teens, I collected Soccer Stars.  Every boy at school seemed to be collecting Soccer Stars.  It worked like this:  you persuaded your parents to buy you a sticker album, each week you invested 6d of your pocket money in a little packet of pictures of  footballers (available at all good  newsagents!) and you stuck them in your album club-by-club, carefully keeping the ones you already had to swap with your chums at school.  This way you slowly filled the album.  But it soon became clear that the picture of one footballer was very difficult to get – Jeff Astle, the WBA striker.  Weeks passed, months passed and still the space for Jeff remained unfilled in my sticker book.  And then one day I learned another boy had the Jeff sticker and, more importantly, he was willing to swap.  I can’t remember now how many of my spares I had to swap to get Jeff, but the other lad drove a hard bargain.

I recount this story because, when I began writing about the Chartists, I encountered a situation similar to my search for that Jeff sticker.  I first perused ‘An Anthology of Chartist Literature’, compiled by Yuri Kovalev, in Birmingham Reference Library.  The introduction was in Russian. I couldn’t read Russian … but I still wanted to own that book badly!  I had become very interested in the Chartist poets soon after I had become interested in Chartism.  I don’t mean Ernest Jones, still the best-known of the Chartist poets.  I mean the young men toiling away as shoemakers and framework knitters and then finding the time to make up a few stanzas about spring or the injustices of the class system.  Chaps like Benjamin Stott of Manchester,  Edwin Gill of Sheffield and James Vernon of South Molton.  Already I’d begun scouring the reprints of Chartist periodicals in Birmingham Reference Library in search of the work of these men.  And there was much to feast my eyes on!  As I copied down poem after poem two things happened:  (1) my handwriting, often commended at school, deteriorated from really being rather neat to a near-unreadable scrawl and (2)  I longed to buy a book that contained the poems written by the Chartists.  And then I came across ‘An Anthology of Chartism’ …

Now getting a second hand book you wanted in those pre-internet days wasn’t easy.  Often it was a matter of luck.  For example, I got my copy of Thomas Cooper’s ‘Purgatory of Suicides’ after a tip-off from a fellow research student that he’d seen a copy in a second hand book shop in Nottingham.  My search for Kovalev became rather like my search for that Jeff picture … ear to the ground, hoping for that lucky break.   As with Jeff, my persistence was rewarded.  There the book was one day in the catalogue of a second hand book dealer.  I snapped it up.

By now I was writing my first book about the Chartists – Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain (1993).  Without much hope of success, I decided to write to Yuri Kovalev at St. Petersburg University. It was a long shot. I didn’t hold out much hope of a reply.  He’d probably retired or moved, I thought.  I’d more or less forgotten about that letter when the parcel arrived.  Unwrapping it, I discovered a copy of ‘An Anthology of Chartist Literature’ and inside was an inscription: ‘To Mr Stephen Roberts, with best wishes of success in his Chartist studies from the compiler, Y. Kovalev, April, 1992’.  That parcel made my day, probably made my year.  I decided to replicate Yuri Kovalev’s example, and  gave my own copy of the book away to another scholar of Chartist poetry.

‘An Anthology of Chartist Literature’ was published in Moscow in 1956.  Amazingly 12,000 copies were printed – those were the days!  The importance of two books about Chartism released in that decade – A.R. Schoyen’s biography of julian Harney and the Asa Briggs-edited collection of local studies – is recognised, but I would suggest that this book should join that trilogy.  Very early on Kovalev – an historian not an Eng. Lit. specialist – recognised the important place played by verses and songs in the Chartist struggle.  He saw the need to make available that material to scholars and students and place it at the centre of any evaluation of the movement. He was a pioneer in this respect.  And, as his gift to me showed, he was also a generous and encouraging man.

I no longer have that sticker book with that much-sought after picture of Jeff.  I do, however, have that volume Yuri Kovalev sent me.  It sits besides me now on my desk as I type.

 

How The Chartist Cottage Was Saved …

Stroll around any of the five estates purchased under the Chartist Land Plan in the 1840s and you can play an entertaining game called ‘Spot the Chartist cottage’.  Some of the cottages, though extended and modified, are very visibly the products of that great scheme launched by Feargus O’Connor in 1845 to place working class families in their own, independent smallholdings.  Others are less obviously what they once were and you’ll end up scratching your head as you work out the Chartist bits.  Visit Dodford in Worcestershire, the last of the estates purchased by the Chartist Land Company, and you can gaze on the real deal – a Chartist cottage, preserved almost as it was when it was built in 1848.  This cottage was purchased by the National Trust in 1997, and is open to visitors.  That this happened at all is due to the efforts of six residents of the village.  I got to know them well.  They were passionate about their village’s part in the Chartist story. They talked about how the story of the Dodford estate should be researched and written up – and one of them Diana Poole went on to do exactly this – and about how one of the Chartist cottages should be preserved for posterity.

How often did I hear Gordon Long, who has died at the age of 95, tell me that one of the cottages must be saved!  Almost opposite his own lovely home Great Meadow was a Chartist cottage called Rosedene.  It was almost untouched, and then in 1997 it came up for auction. Gordon was determined to convince the National Trust to buy the property. He got on the blower, he put pen to paper, he made the case.  I was enlisted to support the campaign, but my contribution was minuscule.  The National Trust rang me up.  Should they bid for the Chartist cottage at the forthcoming auction?  Of course, I replied.  But I knew I was merely endorsing what had already been decided.  Gordon had set the arguments on their feet.  Thanks to the determination and vision of Gordon Long, supported and encouraged by the other Chartist enthusiasts in Dodford, the cottage was acquired.   Hearing the news that evening remains imprinted on my memory. People power at its best – the Chartists would have been proud of the Dodford campaigners.

Soon after the cottage had been bought Gordon, who was entrusted with the key by the National Trust, invited Dorothy Thompson and myself to look over it.  It was in a somewhat neglected state – electricity cables hung between the main cottage and the outbuildings – but it was an inspirational afternoon.  As we stood in that cottage we felt very close to the Chartists.  (I took a few photographs that day – they can be seen in the picture gallery of this website).  We heard from Gordon about the plans to restore the cottage to how it would have looked at the official opening of the estate – what was known as Location Day, which took place on 2 July 1849.  Result, as they say these days!

Two years later, on the 150th anniversary of Location Day, we moved Chartism Day from the University of Birmingham to Dodford.  It was a fantastic occasion.  We’d had attendances of about 30 people for this event at the University – this time hundreds of people came, local residents and scholars alike to celebrate the Chartists.  Again I took my camera – and a few photographs of the day can be found on this website.  I stayed with Gordon and his wife  Zoe that weekend … the next morning, as I ate some rather good marmalade on toast with them, we watched blue tits feeding on the bird table close to the window.  A delightful coda to a memorable weekend …

But Gordon was not done.  The Chartist cottage needed publicity.  He recruited Radio 3’s ‘Nightwaves’ to the cause.  And so there I was again, on a chilly March afternoon, in Rosedene, with a microphone under my nose … and BBC sandwiches to tempt me (I passed on them!)  Gordon talked about what it would have been like to have lived in the Dodford cottage in 1848 – I added some information about the Chartists and their Land Plan.  A modest, self-effacing man, Gordon never boasted that he and his friends had saved the Chartist cottage for future generations; but that is exactly what they had done.

Chartism Day continues … if not in Dodford then this year at the University of Chester.  More details from m.hugginschester.ac.uk

 

Asa Briggs & the Chartists

It is perhaps not surprising that the obituaries that appeared in the newspapers in the days after the death of Asa Briggs on 15 March 2016 made only passing reference to his work on the Chartists.  Briggs was after all a man who did so much & wrote so much.  There was more than enough to say about all those other books without delving into what he had had to say about Feargus, Bronterre, ‘Fat Peter’ & the rest of them.  So it is left to we historians of Chartism to recall his contribution to our field.  And what a contribution it was … in 1959 Briggs ushered into the world a book that changed everything.

That book was Chartist Studies. It collected together twelve freshly-minted essays on the movement, most of them local studies.  And from then on every last town and village in the British Isles was scoured for evidence of activity by the Chartists.  Through the 1960s and into the 1970s theses & articles looking at one place or another appeared.  The book Briggs had edited was the inspiration for all this.  And we’re still at it – Ashton-under-Lyne was not so long ago ticked off as another place where the working people had done their bit for the Chartist cause.  One omission from Briggs’ collection was E.P. Thompson’s essay on Halifax – left out, it seems, because of its length & its late presentation (on Leeds railway station, one unconfirmed account has it).  But even that has now been rectified – the glaring omission from Chartist Studies now appears in The Dignity of Chartism (2015).   What should be said about the essays that appeared in Chartist Studies was just how good they were – top-notch scholarship that has ensured that they are still essential reading.

Briggs’ interest in Chartism began early – he bought G.D.H. Cole’s Chartist Portraits on its release in 1941.  And, like so many of us, he was never able to shake it off – he brought out a short history of the movement in 1998.  When, I co-edited,with Owen Ashton and Robert Fyson, a festschrift for Dorothy Thompson in 1995 – The Duty of Discontent, it was called – Briggs reviewed the volume for the Times Higher.  This was the first time anything I had done had been reviewed in a national newspaper, as opposed to a scholarly journal.  And Briggs was so generous in his appraisal of the book.  He was especially nice about my own contribution which discussed the correspondents to the Northern Star … observing that the Chartists themselves would have enjoyed reading it.  I still remember reading that review outside the newsagents & being deeply touched by what he said … it was the nicest thing anybody had ever said about my work, indeed the nicest thing that could have been said.  I will always remember Asa Briggs for those kind words.

A few years later Ashton, Fyson & myself embarked on our own edited collection of essays, The Chartist Legacy (1999).  With not a little apprehension, I wrote to Asa & asked if he’d write a foreword.  He’d be delighted to, he responded.  And the preface came … written in the hours before leaving for his holiday home in Portugal, he told me.  It was handwritten … Asa had had a think about what he wanted to say & then had just picked up his pen & written it. That’s the way to do it, I thought!  The foreword added some real colour to the book, & gave it a much-prized link with Chartist Studies.

So there we are … Asa Briggs & his ground-breaking Chartist Studies.  Best not get me started on his magnificent history of Victorian Brum …

 

 

The Tragedy of John Duncan

In early 1845 the Chartist lecturer John Duncan died.  He was just 35 years old.  Duncan was not a front-line Chartist.  He didn’t edit a periodical.  He didn’t do national tours.  He didn’t get many mentions in the Northern Star.  But John Duncan did his bit.   He was an Edinburgh man, a shoemaker.  In that place, and in other towns in Scotland, he began to appear on Chartist platforms.  He was an effective speaker.  When Feargus arrived in Scotland after his release from prison in 1840, John Duncan was his companion for part of his tour.

In summer 1842 John Duncan was having his say at big open-air Chartist meetings.  He wasn’t impressed by the rulers of the people, and he said it.  The politicians, the magistrates, the clergy, they were all as bad as each other as far as John Duncan was concerned.  He told the people that they had the right to strike for the Charter.  If they had no food, he advised them to get it from the fields full of potatoes.  It was defiant talk … and defiant talk from a man who did not possess the confidence and resilience of other Chartist speakers who were stirring up resistance at meetings across Britain in that fateful summer.  John Duncan knew what fate awaited him.   He was arrested, of course.

Many years later his friend Robert Kidd of Dundee recalled his story.  There had been a confrontation between the special constables and the people.  The Riot Act had been read … which pretty much brought things to a close. There was no riot.  John Duncan, Kidd tells us, was a quiet man, ‘a mild, gentlemanly, Christian creature’.  And he wasn’t present at the confrontation … he was ‘quietly at home, saw and knew nothing … until he read in the papers next morning an account of the proceedings’.   Home he might have been on that occasion, but John Duncan was not the sort of chap the magistrates wanted going around stirring things up. He was charged with inciting violence.

Robert Kidd was to remember the trial of John Duncan for the rest of his life:  ‘For the defence the best counsel were engaged and there was no proof to incriminate Duncan.  Judge of my surprise then when , in answer to the charge, he, in a dazed way, pleaded guilty.  Shocked at what he had done, I rushed forward to the dock, seized him and shook him, demanding that he should retract his plea.  He withdrew his plea.  Duncan was taken to jail and I never saw him again.’

The authorities dropped the case.  But for John Duncan it was all too late.  The strain of his arrest and of his trial destroyed him.  For the final months of his life, he was in severe mental distress.  KIdd informed the Northern Star, in late 1844, that Duncan didn’t even recognise his wife.  ‘A very sad end, was it not?’, he was to recall to a journalist almost half a century later.

Dundee Advertiser, 21 November 1891; W.Hamish Fraser, Chartism in Scotland (2010).

A Policeman Remembers …

Had any of us been present at the great Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common on Monday 10 April 1848, it would surely have been a day that we would not have forgotten.  For George Lowe the events of that dramatic day certainly remained lodged in his memory for the rest of his life.  Lowe was not a Chartist.  He was a police constable … but a police constable who had a close-up view of what unfolded.  A policeman for thirteen years when the Chartists gathered in London to present their great petition, bearing the names of millions of working people, to the House of Commons, Lowe was with the Police Commissioner Richard Mayne when he met Feargus O’Connor.  And, at the age of 92, Lowe finally told his story to a newspaper:

‘I was attending upon Sir Richard Mayne when fifteen to twenty thousand Chartists were marching up from Kennington Common.  We were the only two to represent the police force.  Sir Richard rode up to Feargus O’Connor, who asked:  “What do you intend to do, Sir Richard?” Sir Richard replied coolly, “What do you intend to do? Do you intend to go in procession.  For, if you do, I shall stop you by force if necessary.”  O’Connor was quite polite and wanted to shake hands.  He afterwards turned round to the crowd and shouted, “You are a lot of fools, all of you” and broke up the gathering.  I was afterwards put on duty in Trafalgar Square with some men to prevent people passing the horse statue and saw Napoleon, who was then a fugitive in this country, ride by.  He had been sworn as a special constable and carried a white staff.  Those Chartist times were abominable.  They gave us police no rest’.

Interesting that, but, of course, it is an old man at the end of his life remembering things as he wanted to remember them: Mayne is cool & Feargus calls his own people ‘fools’.  Hmm, hard to imagine that last one.   As I have written in an essay on Feargus’ later years, he should be seen on this day not as a frightened man but as a concerned man.  (The Chartist Legacy, pp. 102-118). I do like George Lowe’s final remark, though.  So much so that I think it is worth repeating:  ‘Those Chartist times were abominable.  They gave us police  no rest’.  The Chartists were indeed energetic, determined and resilient in their campaign to secure a say in law making for working people.

Another man present on that momentous day was James Crundall, who was sworn in as a special constable.  He also never forgot those exciting events.  He retained the staff he was issued with for the rest of his life & passed it on to his son.  Before the First World War it could be found hanging up in the office of Dover coal merchants, H & E Crundall.  Where it is now is anyone’s guess …

Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 19 June 1897; Dover Express, 25 August 1911.