Everyone has a favourite Chartist. For Dorothy Thompson, it was Feargus, always Feargus … though she always retained a soft spot for Ernest Jones. For Bob Fyson, it is those brave Potteries lads who were convicted on dodgy evidence & thrown into the nick in 1842 or, worse still, sent off as convicts to Van Dieman’s Land … chaps like ‘Daddy’ Richards & William Ellis. For Owen Ashton, it’s the journalist W.E. Adams. There are two things Owen likes to do when we meet up for one of our periodic Chartist chats in Lichfield … quoff a cup of good coffee & have a chat about Adams, &, if both can be done at the same time, all the better. Adams was the first Chartist Owen wrote about (W.E. Adams: Chartist, Radical and Journalist, 1991) & that is probably why he is his favourite. That’s certainly the case with me. Thomas Cooper, the Leicester firebrand, was the first Chartist I wrote about. He became my favourite Chartist by accident. In 1979 I was an undergraduate at Birmingham University, & armed with a reading list for Dorothy Thompson’s special subject on Chartism. In my encounters with it, the cataloguing system in the UL generally got the better of me. I couldn’t find any of the books on the reading list. Well, I could find one … The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself, 1872. So that would have to do. I sat down on a large pile of cushions that I used as a chair, put Wings’ new album ‘Back to the egg’ on the stereo & opened the only book I’d been able to get my hands on. Within 10 minutes I was hooked. The opening chapters describing Cooper’s early years as an earnest autodidact in Lincolnshire are just so good. I gave a seminar paper on Cooper. I wrote an essay on him in my finals. I wrote a 100,000 thousand word thesis on him. Surely, I was done with Cooper? i was not. He continued to look over my shoulder, demanding I write a book about him. I tried to fob him off by sticking a picture of him on the front of a book he wasn’t in (The Victorian Working Class Writer, 1999; with O. Ashton). It did no good. I had to write that book. 29 years after I first met Thomas Cooper I released his biography. The last chapter of The Chartist Prisoners (2008) is the best thing I have written, or probably ever will. Thomas Cooper coaxed it out of me.
So I know what it is like to have a favourite Chartist. The Marxist historian David Black certainly has a favourite Chartist who he can’t shake off. That Chartist is Helen Macfarlane, who contributed to the Chartist press for just one year, 1850. Black has just released a collection of Helen Macfarlane’s journalism (Helen Macfarlane: Red Republican, 2014). This isn’t his first book about this undeniably interesting figure. And it won’t be his last. A full-length biography is under way. What we have for now, though, is an anthology of Macfarlane’s writings for Julian Harney’s journals, the Democratic Review (April-September 1850) and the Red Republican (June-November 1850). Reprints of these journals appeared in the 1960s, but aren’t that easy to find these days. So Black has done those who want to read Macfarlane’s contributions a favour. And they are so much easier to read than the original columns (Black thanks Keith Fisher who undertook the laborious task of typing them out). Be in no doubt, Black is a fan … ‘her words jumped off the page at me’, he writes, ‘no one had ever before written like this in the English language’
So who was Helen Macfarlane? She was undeniably a remarkable woman. Born into a well-to-do Glasgow family of calico-printers, she became a governess after the family business was ruined in 1842. She appears to have been radicalized whilst living in Vienna in 1848 &, back to London, came into the orbit of Marx. She translated the Communist Manifesto & sent her own political writings to Harney for publication. Black is certainly right about the quality of her work. What Macfarlane wrote is a cut above a lot of the material that appeared in late Chartist journals. Read ‘Fine Words (Household or Otherwise) Butter No Parsnips’ (reptd. here pp. 53-8) and you’ll see what I mean. We don’t know over what, but Macfarlane and Harney fell out. Macfarlane’s extraordinary story was far from over, though. She emigrated, with her daughter, to Natal, but her husband mysteriously didn’t join her. Both the husband & the daughter died. Back in England, Macfarlane re-married to … & here’s another surprise – an Anglican vicar. But he seems to have been a rather radically-minded vicar, not a Tory-voting fox hunter. Four years later, at the age of 41, Macfarlane was dead.
This is a fascinating story & certainly whets the appetite for the full-length biography Black promises. Meanwhile, any nominations for your favourite Chartist are very welcome …
DAVID BLACK, HELEN MACFARLANE: RED REPUBLICAN. ESSAYS, ARTICLES AND HER TRANSLATION OF THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (UNKANT PUBLISHERS, 2014)