Stroll around any of the five estates purchased under the Chartist Land Plan in the 1840s and you can play an entertaining game called ‘Spot the Chartist cottage’. Some of the cottages, though extended and modified, are very visibly the products of that great scheme launched by Feargus O’Connor in 1845 to place working class families in their own, independent smallholdings. Others are less obviously what they once were and you’ll end up scratching your head as you work out the Chartist bits. Visit Dodford in Worcestershire, the last of the estates purchased by the Chartist Land Company, and you can gaze on the real deal – a Chartist cottage, preserved almost as it was when it was built in 1848. This cottage was purchased by the National Trust in 1997, and is open to visitors. That this happened at all is due to the efforts of six residents of the village. I got to know them well. They were passionate about their village’s part in the Chartist story. They talked about how the story of the Dodford estate should be researched and written up – and one of them Diana Poole went on to do exactly this – and about how one of the Chartist cottages should be preserved for posterity.
How often did I hear Gordon Long, who has died at the age of 95, tell me that one of the cottages must be saved! Almost opposite his own lovely home Great Meadow was a Chartist cottage called Rosedene. It was almost untouched, and then in 1997 it came up for auction. Gordon was determined to convince the National Trust to buy the property. He got on the blower, he put pen to paper, he made the case. I was enlisted to support the campaign, but my contribution was minuscule. The National Trust rang me up. Should they bid for the Chartist cottage at the forthcoming auction? Of course, I replied. But I knew I was merely endorsing what had already been decided. Gordon had set the arguments on their feet. Thanks to the determination and vision of Gordon Long, supported and encouraged by the other Chartist enthusiasts in Dodford, the cottage was acquired. Hearing the news that evening remains imprinted on my memory. People power at its best – the Chartists would have been proud of the Dodford campaigners.
Soon after the cottage had been bought Gordon, who was entrusted with the key by the National Trust, invited Dorothy Thompson and myself to look over it. It was in a somewhat neglected state – electricity cables hung between the main cottage and the outbuildings – but it was an inspirational afternoon. As we stood in that cottage we felt very close to the Chartists. (I took a few photographs that day – they can be seen in the picture gallery of this website). We heard from Gordon about the plans to restore the cottage to how it would have looked at the official opening of the estate – what was known as Location Day, which took place on 2 July 1849. Result, as they say these days!
Two years later, on the 150th anniversary of Location Day, we moved Chartism Day from the University of Birmingham to Dodford. It was a fantastic occasion. We’d had attendances of about 30 people for this event at the University – this time hundreds of people came, local residents and scholars alike to celebrate the Chartists. Again I took my camera – and a few photographs of the day can be found on this website. I stayed with Gordon and his wife Zoe that weekend … the next morning, as I ate some rather good marmalade on toast with them, we watched blue tits feeding on the bird table close to the window. A delightful coda to a memorable weekend …
But Gordon was not done. The Chartist cottage needed publicity. He recruited Radio 3’s ‘Nightwaves’ to the cause. And so there I was again, on a chilly March afternoon, in Rosedene, with a microphone under my nose … and BBC sandwiches to tempt me (I passed on them!) Gordon talked about what it would have been like to have lived in the Dodford cottage in 1848 – I added some information about the Chartists and their Land Plan. A modest, self-effacing man, Gordon never boasted that he and his friends had saved the Chartist cottage for future generations; but that is exactly what they had done.
Chartism Day continues … if not in Dodford then this year at the University of Chester. More details from m.hugginschester.ac.uk