Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Forgotten Chartist

In March 1895 an elderly man was admitted to the hospital in Walsall. He did not survive for very long. This man was E.A. Scholey. He was a poor man and known locally as something of an eccentric. What his fellow inhabitants of Walsall did not know was this man had once been more than just an infirm and impoverished nonentity. He had once been a Chartist and on intimate terms with leading figures associated with the movement.

Scholey arrived in Walsall from Peterborough. He opened a coffee shop at his home which served as a hub for local radical activities. Working men were able to read books from Scholey’s own library as well as radical periodicals and to engage in discussions – the shop stayed open on Sunday evenings for this purpose. Scholey also sold second hand books as he scrapped together a living. When Ernest Jones was released from Tothill Fields Prison in London in July 1850, he saw a great deal of Scholey. It seems that Scholey was offering him advice on how to restore his health. Scholey also knew well two other men who had suffered in the Chartist cause – Thomas Cooper and Arthur O’Neill.

Scholey embraced not only the People’s Charter but also temperance and secularism. His coffee shop continued to display and sell secularist and republican literature into the 1880s. He became secretary of the Walsall Republican Society, and, in 1873, conducted the first secularist funeral in the town’s cemetery. It was recorded in 1878 that burglars entered Scholey’s home in George Street, making off with silver spoons and watches.

There is no doubt that we have here a remarkable working man who devoted his life to campaigning for the radical causes in which he believed. Yet Scholey is not mentioned by the secularist George Jacob Holyoake in his autobiography, nor does not appear in Miles Taylor’s biography of Ernest Jones or any of the histories of Chartism. I am sure that careful delving into local newspaper sources will reveal much more about Scholey. His story certainly does deserve to be told.

The Disappearance of Thomas Attwood

In June 2013 I had a letter published in the Literary Review. It was in response to a comment in the previous month’s issue by the Oxford historian Boyd Hilton that Thomas Attwood ‘died unacknowledged, even in Birmingham’. Unacknowledged, I thought … no, he wasn’t. They erected a huge statue of him in the middle of the town. For the rest of the century the political leaders of Victorian Birmingham subscribed to a man to the idea that Attwood’s Birmingham Political Union more or less brought about the 1832 Reform Act. And they hadn’t forgotten that it was Attwood, one Friday evening in July 1839, who urged MPs to consider the first great Chartist petition. So I wrote a letter to the Literary Review about all of this.

The statue of Attwood was unveiled on 7 June 1859 in front of several thousand Brummies. They’d got a top man in to do the job – John Thomas, whose work adorned the Houses of Parliament. Nine feet high, the marble statue depicted Attwood in full flow. (With its base, the statue reached a towering 22 feet). Attwood’s old colleague George Edmunds made the speech & local writer J.A. Langford added a poetic eulogy:

Look on him moulded here,
Look on him face-to-face,
The very linaments of him are here,
His living fire still animates the stone.

Later on a band turned up to play ‘Rule Britannia’ & ‘Auld Lang Syne’ & a really good day was had by all.

When Attwood’s bank collapsed in 1865, there were calls for the statue to be moved; but those who had subscribed the £800 to get the job done in the first place made their feelings about that idea pretty clear. And so Attwood stayed put … & stayed put for a very long time. He eventually found himself in Calthorpe Park in Birmingham. A park is perhaps not the best place to put a Victorian statue. Attwood got covered in spray paint.

When I was invited recently to give a talk on Thomas Attwood at the Library of Birmingham, I was asked where the statue was now. He certainly wasn’t in Calthorpe Park. I had to confess I didn’t know. So I consulted my old friend Professor Carl Chinn. And I learned that Attwood wasn’t now in any park. The city council had put him into storage and that is where he is likely to remain. Carl, in association with Honorary Alderman Matt Redmond, had pressed for the statue to restored to a public place, but had drawn a blank.

Now this is the fate that befell John Bright, the famous Victorian radical who represented Birmingham from 1859 until 1889. Bright was spending his days in a cage in Rowley Regis until Tory MP Bill Cash engineered his rescue. Who knows where the Attwood statue is now. Of course, we have the modern statue of him reclining over the steps in Chamberlain Square. But the Victorian statue has disappeared. It’s a crying shame. One wonders if this would happen in London to a statue of one of their most famous political sons …

Emanuel Lovekin – Shropshire Chartist

Last week I found myself in Shropshire – in Wrockwardine to be precise and then, shortly afterwards, on the slopes of the famous Wrekin.  I had been invited to join Prof. Emma Griffin of UEA to discuss – for a radio broadcast – the working class autobiographer Emanuel Lovekin.  This was Lovekin’s neck of the woods – he learned to read and write at the Primitive Methodist Sunday School in Wrockwardine and, in 1842, became involved in Chartism, attending the great meeting that took place on top of the Wrekin.   Emma has used artisan autobiographies to offer a new interpretation of the impact of industrialization on working people in her book Liberty’s Dawn – a book which has caused a bit of a stir – and the programme she is making about this subject will be broadcast on Radio 4 towards the end of April.

Now I like Lovekin’s autobiography a lot.  I first read it – or the part of it reprinted in John Burnett’s Useful Toil – twenty five years ago.  Over the years I have read a fair few of these working class autobiographies, and it has to be said that the earnestness of some of them can be a bit off putting.  But Lovekin’s autobiography isn’t like that at all.  It is a warm, very readable account by a man looking back on his life with great satisfaction.  He’d done well in business – he had risen to be a colliery manager – and enjoyed a long marriage which produced fourteen children.  Reading his reminiscences, you cannot help but like Lovekin.

So there I stood on the slopes of the Wrekin telling Emma and her producer Melissa how much I liked this man and his book.  And, of course, I remembered the great Chartist meeting that took place on top of the Wrekin.  Lovekin was one of those local organizers who were the lifeblood of Chartism – one of the men who collected funds and signatures for the petitions, posted placards, arranged venues, organized processions etc.  It was beautiful weather that Monday in May 1842 when thousands of working men and women clambered up the slopes to hear speeches by their leaders.  It had been rumoured that Feargus O’Connor himself would address the meeting, but in the event it was the regional leaders Joseph Linney from Dudley and John Mason from Birmingham.  The event was reported in detail in the Northern Star.  Mason, it has to be said, gave a quite superb speech, eloquently justifying the right of working men to a say in law-making.  It was said that 30,000 people attended this meeting and 1000 copies of the English Chartist Circular were sold.  How I’d have liked to have been there!

I am sure Lovekin was impressed by Mason’s speech and by the scale of support the Chartist cause conscripted in Shropshire.  But he did not remain involved in Chartism for very long.  During the strikes of the summer of 1842 he was arrested.  He was too important a local figure to ignore – but he wasn’t, in the end, brought to trial.

Emma Griffin’s book opens up an interesting and important discussion. When I have it,  I’ll post information in the news section of this website about the day and time this programme goes out on Radio 4.