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 …