1982 was the year I got to know London well. Never keen on using the tube, I trusted instead to a photocopied map & my sturdy pair of Doc Martins. I spent many hours on foot that year walking from Euston to various libraries. The walk from Euston to the Bishopsgate Institute would take me over an hour. Worth it when I got there, but still a long walk. Thankfully the walk from Euston to the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane took little more than half an hour. During those walks I remember seeing the newspaper placards announcing the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. I also remember the dance studios, the vegetarian restaurants & the shared gardens with railings around them …these were not things you commonly saw in Birmingham. I was a keen young graduate student in search of information about the Chartists, & with a particular interest in Thomas Cooper of Leicester.
I spent days at Chancery Lane perusing an absorbing collection of material discovered by my friend Bob Fyson. No breaks for lunch or coffee. No breaks for anything apart from emptying my bladder & sharpening my pencil. I pored over letter after letter & soon filled up the thick exercise book I had bought at Woolworths. The letters had been sent to Thomas Cooper in 1841-2 & had survived only because they had been confiscated by magistrates at the time of his arrest. There were many hundreds of them. And it was like a roll-call of who was who in the Chartist Movement … Julian Harney, James Leach, George White, Thomas Clark, Peter Murray McDouall, William Hill, they were all present & correct. But there was one thing bothering me … where were the letters from Feargus? “I say Bob”, I observed to Fyson when I next saw him. “There are no letters from Feargus. He was Cooper’s hero. You’d expect there to be letters, but there are none.” “Yes”, replied Bob, sagely. “Cooper probably valued them so much, he kept them separately. Up the chimney or somewhere.”
Well, whether Feargus’ letters to Cooper were kept up the chimney in the little shop in Church Street in Leicester we’ll never know. What we do know is that only a very small number of Feargus’ letters have survived. You’d expect there to be a paper trail to the ‘Lion of Freedom’ … but there isn’t. A small collection – 20 or so – to Thomas Allsop can be found in the British Library & there are other odd ones here & there … but that is it. Extraordinary.
One Sunday afternoon twenty years later I found myself in Dodford in Worcestershire with Dorothy Thompson. The National Trust had recently bought one of the cottages which was pretty much as it was when it had been erected on the Chartist land estate in 1849. Jokingly I told Dorothy that, after all these years, our quest would end triumphantly that afternoon. It was here, concealed behind a loose brick or in the roof, that we would at last find those missing Feargus letters. We spent a most interesting afternoon poking around the cottage. I peered at the grate. I tapped the walls. I looked for a floor board that looked if it had been regularly lifted. I found nothing. There were no Feargus letters anywhere to be found … just the reminders of hard lives lived in that cottage for over 150 years.
Feargus may have left very few letters & so we cannot get at his private thoughts. But perhaps that’s just as well. We’ll never get to read any mean-spirited observations, written late at night as he finished off his daily bottle of brandy. Instead we’ll think of Feargus as we should think of him … a popular leader of resilience, courage, humour & generosity of heart.