Like many people, I have traced my ancestors. And, like many people, I have discovered ordinary lives lived in obscurity, people known only to their neighbours, friends and employers. Nothing spectacular happened to my ancestors. No one invented anything or wrote anything or – phew! – ended up in the nick. They got on with their lives as small farmers, gardeners, publicans and sweet shop owners in Cheshire, Warwickshire and Herefordshire. They worked hard and they nearly all improved their lives, lifting themselves out of barely promising beginnings. I am proud of them, and I’m inspired by them.
For some people, however, investigating family histories reveals astonishing things. From time-to-time I get emails from people who have discovered that their ancestors were Chartists. Proudly they will write in their emails, ‘He was a Chartist’. No one has yet written to tell me that Feargus O’Connor or Bronterre O’Brien was their great-great-great grandfather, but I’ve had some interesting enquiries. A few years ago I was contacted by Margaret Chase. She was coming all the way from Arizona to Birmingham in pursuit of her ancestor. He was John Collins, the most important working class leader in a town where the local movement was initially led by middle class reformers like Thomas Attwood and T.C. Salt.
John Collins was a toolmaker (at the pen works of the famed Joseph Gillott). As a Chartist, he did it all – he spoke at huge meetings in Glasgow and Birmingham, did the lecturing tours, got himself arrested at the time of the Bull Ring riots, spent twelve months in the nick. During his incarceration he collaborated with William Lovett on a book with the very catchy title Chartism: A New Organisation of the People. Back in Brum he was instrumental in establishing a Chartist Church and became the first working man to be elected to the town council. No doubt about it … to working people, John Collins was a Birmingham celebrity.
Margaret was determined to find out all she could about her famous ancestor and to ensure that he got his due. Carefully she began to piece together his story, and now you can browse through the main events of this interesting man’s life. We don’t know where John Collins is buried in Brum, but we do now have a worthy website. Do visit it: www.chartistcollins.com