Spring 1840 wasn’t really a great time for Feargus O’Connor. The Lion of Freedom found himself in court in York, charged with seditious conspiracy. Stuff had been published in his newspaper the Northern Star and now the ruling elite wanted to teach Feargus a lesson. Feargus,of course, was a barrister and he knew a thing or two about legal literature. His speech in his own defence was all his supporters – who turned up in their droves – would have expected. Utterly defiant, Feagrus kept going for almost five hours. Needless to say it was to no avail. In ten minutes the jury declared him guilty. Feargus was to go to prison. He now had to wait to find out for how long.
A few weeks later Feargus found himself in East Sussex. He’d got a lot on his mind. So one evening he decided to go for a row on the river Rother. As a young man Feargus had enjoyed strenuous physical exercise. He’d hunted, he’d run, he’d walked … he’d even tried a bit of wrestling. A couple of hours on the water seemed just the thing. It didn’t turn out as well as Feargus hoped. Feargus was no longer a young chap – he was in his mid-forties. Soon after he succumbed to ‘an attack of rheumatism in the chest, brought on by imprudently taking too violent exercise.’ Despite this Feargus managed to get back to London, where he lived in Hammersmith, in a house with a garden. Now, as we gardeners know all too well, gardens need a lot of watering. Feargus didn’t want his plants to die and so out he went to water them. He was soon feeling very hot and so removed his coat. The job done, he sat down in the garden for an hour. Feargus was wearing just his shirt. It turned out to be an unwise decision.
Feargus O’Connor regularly suffered breakdowns in health. He certainly put an enormous strain on himself. The long railway and coach journeys, the huge public meetings, writing a weekly letter for the Star, keeping his eye on what William Lovett was up to must all have taken it out of him. Now, as he lay ill in his bed, Joshua Hobson, the publisher of the Northern Star, visited him; ‘he is worse than he was yesterday’, he reported to the paper’s editor William Hill. Feargus’ doctor was summoned. He did the things that early Victorian doctors did. He drew blood into a cup from Feargus’ side. He bled him in the arm. He applied a blister plaster to his chest. These were remedies that it was thought would revitalize him. Trouble was this is what Feargus’ doctor would have done in 1740 … even in 1640. ‘He is worse than he was before’, Hobson informed Hill, ‘complaining of great pain arising from the original complaint itself and of the remedies that have been applied.’ Feargus then received the news that his doctor planned to causterise the inflammation caused by the blister plaster.
Despite the best efforts of his doctor, Feargus did recover. He told the Chartists that he’d been ‘very ill.’ Later on he was to suffer from angina. Was the ‘rheumatism in the chest’ an early indication of this? We’ll never know. A few weeks later Feargus was sentenced to eighteen months in the nick. Did it teach him a lesson? Of course, it didn’t …