Asa Briggs & the Chartists

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 …



The Tragedy of John Duncan

In early 1845 the Chartist lecturer John Duncan died.  He was just 35 years old.  Duncan was not a front-line Chartist.  He didn’t edit a periodical.  He didn’t do national tours.  He didn’t get many mentions in the Northern Star.  But John Duncan did his bit.   He was an Edinburgh man, a shoemaker.  In that place, and in other towns in Scotland, he began to appear on Chartist platforms.  He was an effective speaker.  When Feargus arrived in Scotland after his release from prison in 1840, John Duncan was his companion for part of his tour.

In summer 1842 John Duncan was having his say at big open-air Chartist meetings.  He wasn’t impressed by the rulers of the people, and he said it.  The politicians, the magistrates, the clergy, they were all as bad as each other as far as John Duncan was concerned.  He told the people that they had the right to strike for the Charter.  If they had no food, he advised them to get it from the fields full of potatoes.  It was defiant talk … and defiant talk from a man who did not possess the confidence and resilience of other Chartist speakers who were stirring up resistance at meetings across Britain in that fateful summer.  John Duncan knew what fate awaited him.   He was arrested, of course.

Many years later his friend Robert Kidd of Dundee recalled his story.  There had been a confrontation between the special constables and the people.  The Riot Act had been read … which pretty much brought things to a close. There was no riot.  John Duncan, Kidd tells us, was a quiet man, ‘a mild, gentlemanly, Christian creature’.  And he wasn’t present at the confrontation … he was ‘quietly at home, saw and knew nothing … until he read in the papers next morning an account of the proceedings’.   Home he might have been on that occasion, but John Duncan was not the sort of chap the magistrates wanted going around stirring things up. He was charged with inciting violence.

Robert Kidd was to remember the trial of John Duncan for the rest of his life:  ‘For the defence the best counsel were engaged and there was no proof to incriminate Duncan.  Judge of my surprise then when , in answer to the charge, he, in a dazed way, pleaded guilty.  Shocked at what he had done, I rushed forward to the dock, seized him and shook him, demanding that he should retract his plea.  He withdrew his plea.  Duncan was taken to jail and I never saw him again.’

The authorities dropped the case.  But for John Duncan it was all too late.  The strain of his arrest and of his trial destroyed him.  For the final months of his life, he was in severe mental distress.  KIdd informed the Northern Star, in late 1844, that Duncan didn’t even recognise his wife.  ‘A very sad end, was it not?’, he was to recall to a journalist almost half a century later.

Dundee Advertiser, 21 November 1891; W.Hamish Fraser, Chartism in Scotland (2010).

A Policeman Remembers …

Had any of us been present at the great Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common on Monday 10 April 1848, it would surely have been a day that we would not have forgotten.  For George Lowe the events of that dramatic day certainly remained lodged in his memory for the rest of his life.  Lowe was not a Chartist.  He was a police constable … but a police constable who had a close-up view of what unfolded.  A policeman for thirteen years when the Chartists gathered in London to present their great petition, bearing the names of millions of working people, to the House of Commons, Lowe was with the Police Commissioner Richard Mayne when he met Feargus O’Connor.  And, at the age of 92, Lowe finally told his story to a newspaper:

‘I was attending upon Sir Richard Mayne when fifteen to twenty thousand Chartists were marching up from Kennington Common.  We were the only two to represent the police force.  Sir Richard rode up to Feargus O’Connor, who asked:  “What do you intend to do, Sir Richard?” Sir Richard replied coolly, “What do you intend to do? Do you intend to go in procession.  For, if you do, I shall stop you by force if necessary.”  O’Connor was quite polite and wanted to shake hands.  He afterwards turned round to the crowd and shouted, “You are a lot of fools, all of you” and broke up the gathering.  I was afterwards put on duty in Trafalgar Square with some men to prevent people passing the horse statue and saw Napoleon, who was then a fugitive in this country, ride by.  He had been sworn as a special constable and carried a white staff.  Those Chartist times were abominable.  They gave us police no rest’.

Interesting that, but, of course, it is an old man at the end of his life remembering things as he wanted to remember them: Mayne is cool & Feargus calls his own people ‘fools’.  Hmm, hard to imagine that last one.   As I have written in an essay on Feargus’ later years, he should be seen on this day not as a frightened man but as a concerned man.  (The Chartist Legacy, pp. 102-118). I do like George Lowe’s final remark, though.  So much so that I think it is worth repeating:  ‘Those Chartist times were abominable.  They gave us police  no rest’.  The Chartists were indeed energetic, determined and resilient in their campaign to secure a say in law making for working people.

Another man present on that momentous day was James Crundall, who was sworn in as a special constable.  He also never forgot those exciting events.  He retained the staff he was issued with for the rest of his life & passed it on to his son.  Before the First World War it could be found hanging up in the office of Dover coal merchants, H & E Crundall.  Where it is now is anyone’s guess …

Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 19 June 1897; Dover Express, 25 August 1911.



Once a Chartist, Always a Chartist

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.

A Chartist For A Day

Ever felt like pretending to be a Chartist for a day?  Of course you have!  It’s not the easiest thing to pull off, though, is it?  To start with where are you going to find a fustian jacket?  And the Northern Star, you may have noticed, is no longer published in half-a-dozen editions each Saturday. Let’s not forget, too, that torchlight meetings on the moors accompanied by the crack of pistol shots into the night air don’t seem to get organised much any more.  So you’re stumped in your quest to be a Chartist for a day.  Or are you?

In fact you’re not stumped at all.  On 21 September in London you can get can pretty close to finding out what it was like to actually be a Chartist.  OK so you won’t be wearing a fustian jacket – though you are invited to dress up in any Victorian gear you happen to have lying around – and you won’t be marching twenty miles to any desolate moors in the middle of London … but you will be visiting pubs in the St. Pancras/Tottenham Court Road/Soho area where reports of Chartist meetings held in those places will be read aloud and you’ll end up at the famous Chartist pub the Red Lion, where they’ll be food and a re-enactment of a Chartist meeting.  Sounds like a rather good way to spend a day.

The day begins at 12.30 in the Foyle Suite, Centre of Conservation, in the British Library.  Once you’ve had your lunch, they’ll be talks from Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire), Matthew Sangster (University of Birmingham) and Ian Haywood (Roehampton University).  And then the walk begins.  It might, of course, rain.   The Chartists didn’t have umbrellas and used to just get wet; but you are advised to bring an umbrella.

This event is being organised by Katrina Navickas in association with the British Library.  Katrina is one of the rising young stars of Chartist scholarship.  Her work in locating and linking together the places and spaces where the Chartists met is important.  If you are interested in the Chartists, you’ll learn much from this day – and you’ll have fun!

If you’d like to know more, I suggest you contact katrina at


The Sad Demise of Robert Peddie, the Chartist Insurrectionist.

Few people will have heard of Robert Peddie.  He is today an almost entirely forgotten figure.  But, in the early months of 1840, most readers of the newspapers knew who Peddie was.  He was one of those Chartists, and one of the worst kind too … a madman who tried to launch a national uprising.  Robert Peddie was a Scotsman, an Edinburgh staymaker, a married man & doing quite well.  He was also, quite genuinely, a man of radical opinions and, benefitting from a good education, able to speak eloquently at public meetings.  But Peddie was also a romantic.  He dreamed of Britain transformed by revolution.  And he dreamed of Peddie leading that transformation.  But Peddie did more than just dream.  He actually tried to lead an insurrection in the West Riding in the early hours of Monday, 27 January 1840.  So Robert Peddie was one of those men identified by Dorothy Thompson as a true Chartist insurrectionist – a man who, armed with a pistol and a dagger, actually tried to start a revolution.

The problem for Peddie and the small band of men that he led out into the market square on that fateful night was that the magistrates knew all about their plans.  An informer had been blabbing to them.  This man was called James Harrison; he was later to go to prison himself for horse-stealing.  But, at this moment, Harrison, with £80 of magistrates’ money in his pocket, was able to spill the beans about everything he had learned at the meetings Peddie had called to plan the rising.  That night the Chartists were quickly rounded up by special constables, and Peddie went on the run.  He escaped the clutches of the law for just five days.  In March Peddie stood trial for sedition, conspiracy and riot.  To no one’s surprise, he went down.  Three years hard labour in the prison at Beverley.  The hard labour meant the treadwheel.  Peddie refused to do this.  He was thrown into ‘the black hole’, with only bread and water to survive on.  And, if that wasn’t enough, his piles were really playing him up.

When Peddie eventually got out of prison, armed like a few other Chartist prisoners with a book of poems to publish, he was determined that all that suffering wouldn’t have been for nothing.  The poems got published as The Dungeon Harp.  They’re all very Robert Burnsy.  If he never wrote another poem, Peddie certainly made another speech.  Lots of them in fact.  He did lecture tours in Scotland.  He spoke on platforms in Newcastle in 1848.  He was still at it in Newcastle in 1854, proclaiming his support for the People’s Charter.  And then he disappeared.

When I wrote about Robert Peddie more than twenty years ago, I hadn’t got a clue what had happened to him.  From time-to-time, I wondered; but I didn’t think I’d find out.  And then yesterday, I did … thanks to digitized newspapers.  I made a search in the Newcastle Guardian for Robert Peddie.  I wasn’t optimistic.  But the Newcastle Guardian was on my side, determined to give up its secrets.  Within five minutes I had discovered what happened to Robert Peddie, the Bradford insurrectionist.

Robert Peddie, I knew, earned his living as an auctioneer.  And, on 7 July 1866, the Newcastle Guardian reported the death of an auctioneer called Robert Peddie.  How did I know that this was the same man?  Because his doctor was none other than … R.G. Gammage, the author of the first history of Chartism.  So what had caused Peddie to expire?  It’s a particularly sad story.  Robert Peddie died suddenly in his lodgings in Spring Garden Lane in Sunderland after a heavy drinking session.  Dr Gammage was sent for when he became unwell, but could do nothing to save him.  The cause of death was given as apolexy.

Spare a thought for Robert Peddie.  Misguided he may have been, but he was a poet and a true Chartist.  Whilst William Cuffay is celebrated today and the subject of much interest, Peddie is a forgotten man.  Let’s remember, too,  the Chartist who died alone in his lodgings after a drinking spree.

Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain: The Voices of Six Chartist Leaders (1993), pp. 59-75 tells Peddie’s story.

The Escaped Chartist

When 22 former Chartists met at Maude’s Temperance Hotel in Halifax in July 1885 to remember the old days, they had some stories to tell … & none more so than 62 year old George Webber who, in autumn 1848, had been a Chartist-on-the-run.  Webber, a woolcomber, did not become actively involved in the movement until the late-1840s.  But he was soon one of the most confident & defiant of local speakers.  When, in the excited month of April 1848, rumours spread that the West Riding delegate to the Chartist Convention Ernest Jones had been shot, Webber declared to a huge meeting that ‘if a drop of Ernest Jones’ blood were spilt, the men of Halifax would avenge it.’  ‘We will! We will!’, the crowd replied.  Such a man could not escape the attentions of local magistrates.  Soon Webber was a guest of Wakefield Penitentiary.  His stay here appears to have been relatively short.  If the authorities thought that a spell in a cold, damp cell would cause Webber to change his ways, they were to be sorely disappointed.  By summer 1848 he was involved in nightly drilling on the moors that surrounded Halifax .  And so it was back to the nick for George Webber … but he was not to remain incarcerated in York Castle for long … because George ESCAPED!  We don’t know how he did this, but we do know it happened.  In ‘Chartist Recollections: A Bradfordian’s Reminiscences’, Charles Henberry McCarthy tells us that, in September 1848, he was arrested in Manchester with Webber, on the run from York Castle, and another West Riding stalwart George White.  This was certainly a story to tell at the reunion dinner of Halifax Chartists in 1885, but perhaps not one to write down … it was chaps like William Lovett who wrote their autobiographies in the  these years, not those like Webber who had been involved in the militant wing of Chartism.

George Webber became a respectable figure in his later years.  His route to respectability began with his involvement in the co-operative movement in Halifax. But he also remained utterly committed to manhood suffrage.  When the Reform League was founded in 1865, Webber became the first secretary of the Halifax branch.  In the general election of 1868 he did not – unlike another former West Riding Chartist John Snowden – endorse the Liberal candidate, but instead lent support to an advocate of the vote for all men as their right.

Today the escaped Chartist prisoner George Webber is long forgotten … as indeed are so many of the local men who made the Chartist challenge the potent force that it was.  For all the work that has been done on Chartism, there are still important stories to be told if we look hard enough.

Everyone has a favourite Chartist

Everyone has a favourite Chartist.  For Dorothy Thompson, it was Feargus, always Feargus … though she always retained a soft spot for Ernest Jones.  For Bob Fyson, it is those brave Potteries lads who were convicted on dodgy evidence & thrown into the nick in 1842 or, worse still, sent off as convicts to Van Dieman’s Land … chaps like ‘Daddy’ Richards & William Ellis.  For Owen Ashton, it’s the journalist W.E. Adams.  There are two things Owen likes to do when we meet up for one of our periodic Chartist chats in Lichfield … quoff a cup of good coffee & have a chat about Adams, &, if both can be done at the same time, all the better. Adams was the first Chartist  Owen wrote about (W.E. Adams: Chartist, Radical and Journalist, 1991) & that is probably why he is his favourite.  That’s certainly the case with me.  Thomas Cooper, the Leicester firebrand, was the first Chartist I wrote about.  He became my favourite Chartist by accident. In 1979 I was an undergraduate at Birmingham University, & armed with a reading list for Dorothy Thompson’s special subject on Chartism.  In my encounters with it, the cataloguing system in the UL generally got the better of me.  I couldn’t find any of the books on the reading list.  Well, I could find one … The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself, 1872.  So that would have to do.  I sat down on a large pile of cushions that I used as a chair, put Wings’ new album ‘Back to the egg’ on the stereo & opened the only book I’d been able to get my hands on.  Within 10 minutes I was hooked.  The opening chapters describing Cooper’s early years as an earnest autodidact in Lincolnshire are just so good.  I gave a seminar paper on Cooper.  I wrote an essay on him in my finals.  I wrote a 100,000 thousand word thesis on him.  Surely, I was done with Cooper?  i was not.  He continued to look over my shoulder, demanding I write a book about him.  I tried to fob him off by sticking a picture of him on the front of a book he wasn’t in (The Victorian Working Class Writer, 1999; with O. Ashton).  It did no good.  I had to write that book.  29 years after I first met Thomas Cooper I released his biography.  The last chapter of The Chartist Prisoners (2008) is the best thing I have written, or probably ever will.  Thomas Cooper coaxed it out of me.

So I know what it is like to have a favourite Chartist.  The Marxist historian David Black certainly has a favourite Chartist who he can’t shake off.  That Chartist is Helen Macfarlane, who contributed to the Chartist press for just one year, 1850.  Black has just released a collection of Helen Macfarlane’s journalism (Helen Macfarlane: Red Republican, 2014).  This isn’t his first book about this undeniably interesting figure.  And it won’t be his last.  A full-length biography is under way.  What we have for now, though, is an anthology of Macfarlane’s writings for Julian Harney’s journals, the Democratic Review (April-September 1850) and the Red Republican (June-November 1850).  Reprints of these journals appeared in the 1960s, but aren’t that easy to find these days.  So Black has done those who want to read Macfarlane’s contributions a favour.  And they are so much easier to read than the original columns (Black thanks Keith Fisher who undertook the laborious task of typing them out).  Be in no doubt, Black is a fan … ‘her words jumped off the page at me’, he writes, ‘no one had ever before written like this in the English language’

So who was Helen Macfarlane?  She was undeniably a remarkable woman.  Born into a well-to-do Glasgow family of calico-printers, she became a governess after the family business was ruined in 1842.  She appears to have been radicalized whilst living in Vienna in 1848 &, back to London, came into the orbit of Marx.  She translated the Communist Manifesto & sent her own political writings to Harney for publication.  Black is certainly  right about the quality of her work.  What Macfarlane wrote is a cut above a lot of the material that appeared in late Chartist journals.  Read ‘Fine Words (Household or Otherwise)  Butter No Parsnips’ (reptd. here pp. 53-8) and you’ll see what I mean.  We don’t know over what, but Macfarlane and Harney fell out.  Macfarlane’s extraordinary story was far from over, though.  She emigrated, with her daughter, to Natal, but her husband mysteriously didn’t join her. Both the husband & the daughter died. Back in England,  Macfarlane re-married to … & here’s another surprise – an Anglican vicar. But he seems to have been a rather radically-minded vicar, not a Tory-voting fox hunter.  Four years later, at the age of 41, Macfarlane was dead.

This is a fascinating story & certainly  whets the appetite for the full-length biography Black promises.  Meanwhile, any nominations for your favourite Chartist are very welcome …


In Search of Feargus’ Letters

1982 was the year I got to know London well.  Never keen on using the tube, I trusted instead to a photocopied map & my sturdy pair of Doc Martins.  I spent many hours on foot that year walking from Euston to various libraries.  The walk from Euston to the Bishopsgate Institute would take me over an hour.  Worth it when I got there, but still a long walk. Thankfully the walk from Euston to the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane took little more than half an hour. During those walks  I remember seeing the newspaper placards announcing the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina.  I also remember the dance studios, the vegetarian restaurants & the shared gardens with railings around them …these were not things you commonly saw in Birmingham.  I was a keen young graduate student in search of information about the Chartists, & with a particular interest in Thomas Cooper of Leicester.

I spent days at Chancery Lane perusing an absorbing collection of material discovered by my friend Bob Fyson.  No breaks for lunch or coffee. No breaks for anything apart from emptying my bladder & sharpening my pencil.  I pored over letter after letter & soon filled up the thick exercise book I had  bought at Woolworths.  The letters had been sent to Thomas Cooper in 1841-2 & had survived only because they had been confiscated by magistrates at the time of his arrest.  There were many hundreds of them.  And it was like a roll-call of who was who in the Chartist Movement … Julian Harney, James Leach, George White, Thomas Clark, Peter Murray McDouall, William Hill, they were all present & correct.  But there was one thing bothering me … where were the letters from Feargus?  “I say Bob”, I observed to Fyson when I next saw him.  “There are no letters from Feargus.  He was Cooper’s hero.  You’d expect there to be letters, but there are none.”  “Yes”, replied Bob, sagely.  “Cooper probably valued them so much, he kept them separately.  Up the chimney or somewhere.”

Well, whether Feargus’ letters to Cooper were kept up the chimney in the little shop in Church Street in Leicester we’ll never know.  What we do know is that only a very small number of Feargus’ letters have survived.  You’d expect there to be a paper trail to the ‘Lion of Freedom’ … but there isn’t.  A small collection – 20 or so – to Thomas Allsop can be found in the British Library & there are other odd ones here & there … but that is it.  Extraordinary.

One Sunday afternoon twenty years later I found myself in Dodford in Worcestershire with Dorothy Thompson. The National Trust had recently bought one of the cottages which was pretty much as it was when it had been erected on the Chartist land estate in 1849.  Jokingly I told Dorothy that, after all these years, our quest would end triumphantly that afternoon.  It was here, concealed behind a loose brick or in the roof, that we would at last find those missing Feargus letters.  We spent a most interesting afternoon poking around the cottage.  I peered at the grate.  I tapped the walls. I looked for a floor board that looked if it had been regularly lifted. I found nothing.  There were no Feargus letters anywhere to be found … just the reminders of hard lives lived in that cottage for over 150 years.

Feargus may have left very few letters & so we cannot get at his private thoughts.  But perhaps that’s just as well.  We’ll never get to read any mean-spirited observations, written late at night as he finished off his daily bottle of brandy.  Instead we’ll think of Feargus as we should think of him …  a popular leader of  resilience, courage, humour &  generosity of heart.

You’re nicked!

So what were the Chartists doing when the constables – or ‘the raw lobsters’, as the lads liked to call them – managed to catch up with them?  A few actually tried to resist arrest.  William Jones was one of those who thought about this option … for all of twenty seconds.  On the run after the Newport Rising of November 1839 had ended so disastrously, he’d retreated to a wood.  He drew a pistol as his pursuers closed in on him, but then decided  that there had been enough heroic deaths at Newport.  George White certainly wasn’t prepared to go quietly after a warrant was issued for his arrest in Birmingham in August 1842.  There was a punch up by a canal one night, one of the constables actually ending up in the canal.  The next morning White was cornered &, though he & his bodyguards put up a stiff fight, he was nicked.  He was then chucked into Warwick Jail, where the authorities kept him out of the way for 11 weeks by repeatedly refusing bail.  If they thought this would teach George a lesson, they were wrong: at his trial he demanded a sandwich & a glass of wine & informed the judge – quite rightly – that being a Chartist ‘was no crime at all’.

The magistrates of Bradford were very keen to get their hands on Robert Peddie in January 1840.  Peddie – who, let’s be honest, was not really the sort of chap to lead any sort of  insurrection  – fled from Bradford, where the Chartist rising had spluttered to a halt soon after it had begun, to Leeds & claimed to be a Scottish travelling salesman called McGregor.  It  worked … but only for five days.  William Jones of Newport also succeeded in keeping going for several days.  He was eventually found concealed on a ship about to set sail for Portugal.  Sadly he never got to see Oporto, but he did get to know Australia very well. Sometimes the wanted man played a very successful game of cat-&-mouse with the constables. The Newcastle Chartists were specialists at this.  Several of them would dress up to fit the wanted man’s description … with the result that joy would turn to bitter disappointment for the magistrates when they discovered that their chaps had hauled in the wrong man.  The Bradford publican Peter Bussey might well have been known as ‘Fat Peter’, but this didn’t stop him doing a runner all the way to America in January 1840.  He didn’t come back for 14 years.

Both J.R. Stephens – in 1838 – & Arthur O’Neill – in 1842 – were arrested in pubs.  Stephens had been strolling along the road when he turned to enter the Bush Inn in Ashton-under-Lyne.  Two constables followed him in, waving a warrant issued just ten minutes earlier. Arthur O’Neill spurned alcohol & coffee & drank only water, but nevertheless it was in the Woodman pub in the Black Country that he felt the long arm of the law.  Like his friend Thomas Cooper – arrested in his shop in Leicester – he was amazed by all the soldiers needed to escort him around.  The authorities, of course, were showing off … they’d got their hands on another ‘dangerous’ Chartist & the people needed to see him in irons & surrounded by soldiers.

Perhaps the most civilized arrest took place at the Mosley Arms Hotel in Manchester.  It was here one morning in June 1848, just as he was tucking into his breakfast, that two detectives caught up with Ernest Jones.  Jones put down his knife & fork, wiped his chin with his napkin & went quietly.  He was always a cool chap was Ernest Jones.