It was not just the memory of the Chartists that survived long into the nineteenth century. It was the Chartists themselves. Young men in the 1830s & 1840s, they were still alive and kicking in the 1880s, some of them into the 1890s. In every town in the north of England in the last quarter of the nineteenth century there were men who would proudly proclaim that they were old Chartists. They were feted were these old democrats, particularly at times when it seemed their old programme was being implemented. At a reform demonstration in Sunderland in 1884 a special carriage was laid on for the old Chartists. How proud George Gamsby, the shipwright and writer of radical tracts, must have felt as he sat in that carriage. A life well-lived, a life in which he’d done his bit.
Whatever these men may have done later in their lives, it was, first and foremost, as Chartists that they were remembered …. & wanted to be remembered. John Watts of Loughborough had ‘by application to business … risen to comfortable circumstances’. But was it as the successful owner of a furniture warehouse that Watts wanted to be remembered? I doubt it. This man was a Chartist, a pioneer of the democratic reforms that were all the rage in the late nineteenth century, & he’d have taken great satisfaction from his brief obituary in the Leicestershire Mercury. ‘Death of an old Chartist’, it proclaimed, ‘John Watts took an important part locally in the Chartist agitation’.
‘Death of an old Chartist’ or perhaps ‘Famous Chartist Dead’. You see these headings in the columns of the provincial press of the late nineteenth century pretty regularly. These men were not the national leaders. These were the local men who had acted as branch secretaries, collected the signatures for the petitions, arranged the demonstrations, stuck up the placards. Men like John Pollard of Burnley. A block printer by trade, Pollard addressed his first Chartist meeting in 1838, aged only nineteen. He used to enjoy dressing up as Wat Tyler. He died from a cold caught after attending a political meeting in 1888. What a guy! Homage to John Pollard!
And then there’s William Waggott of Sunderland. He died in 1890: he spent many years looking after the finances of a local theatre but, more than that, he ‘continued to the end an unflinching and uncompromising radical’. And let’s not forget Mr Nieass, also of Sunderland. Like all of these men, he proudly carried on upholding his democratic principles, kept going to the meetings. His obituarist said he ‘must have walked thousands of miles to attend meetings to further human progress’. And a line or two for James Thubron, who worked for many years at the colliery in Wearmouth. He knew Feargus himself, and he named his son after the Chartist leader. Thomas Feargus O’Connor Thubron walked into the twentieth century, remembering what his father, & thousands like him, had done.
So once a Chartist, always a Chartist. These men looked back on their lives and were proud of what they had done. They were more than happy to call themselves old Chartists, more than happy to be remembered as the men who half a century earlier had fought the good fight. Today these are forgotten names. They shouldn’t be … & they won’t be.