Author Archives: Stephen Roberts

Frightened To Death … By The Chartists.

The Chartists could definitely be a scary lot.  They’d march through the streets, making the most dreadful racket.  They’d meet in market squares and then , one after another, their leaders would mount a wagon and start speechifying and waving their arms about.  They’d enter churches and nod off or smoke pipes during services.  They’d set up stalls and badger people passing by into signing their petitions.  And you’d read in the newspapers about how they were up on the moors, drilling and marching.  And then, even worse, they’d really go too far and start a riot …

This is how some contemporaries did indeed view the Chartists.  They were frightened of the power of the Chartists.  Mrs Sewell, the wife of a Bradford silversmith, had nightmares about them. One night, in summer 1839, she woke in terror, convinced that the Chartists were knocking at her door.  She took refuge in the cellar, and that is where she died.  Mary Ann Jones was the 21-year old daughter of a Newport butcher and her death was said to have been caused ‘by a fright during the late Chartist riots.’   And there was Theophilus Hall of Birmingham who ‘drowned himself through fright during the Chartist riots.’   It was not uncommon in the nineteenth century for coroner’s juries to attribute the cause of death, when nothing else presented itself, to fright.  It seems likely that the three individuals mentioned here did have first hand experience of violent confrontations between working people and soldiers.  Bradford was one of the most militant Chartist centres in the land, where a few streets were no-go areas for the police and where pikes were manufactured.  And Birmingham and Newport were, in 1839, the scenes of major clashes.  In Brum the disturbances lasted a fortnight, with shops set ablaze and mounted cavalry with swords drawn dispersing protesters.  In Newport  soldiers firing from the upper windows of the Westgate Hotel shot dead over 20 demonstrators.  It is perhaps little wonder that, living in these situations, people became alarmed … and that their deaths, when medical expertise could offer no other explanation, were attributed to fright.

When I was writing a book about the Birmingham Chartists I decided that, though I could find out nothing else about him, that Theophilus Hall should not be forgotten.  He’s part of the story too – I dedicated the book to him.


An A-Z of Chartism

Fancy a day in the company of Feargus O’Connor and his Chartist chums?  Ernest Jones will be there, scribbling away at his poetry … John Frost will be there, letting you into the secrets of the Newport Rising … Bronterre O’Brien will be there, having a good think about socialism … Thomas Cooper will be there, rowing with Feargus …

What a day it will be at the Birmingham & Midland Institute on Friday 26 October from 10.30  in the morning until 4 in the afternoon when we gather to think and talk about the Chartists.  In that six or so hours we plan to look at the whole story – why Chartism erupted, its leaders, its strategies, its journals, its poetry, the role of women and the key events from the strikes of summer 1842 to the great Kennington Common demonstration of 1848.

What a day it’ll be!  They’ll be letters and volumes of poetry signed by actual Chartists to peruse, newspapers, portraits & pamphlets to pass round,  readings of poetry, the singing of Chartist songs …

Sadly the planned appearance of Rebecca the Chartist cow won’t be taking place on account of the fact that she is no longer around … but other than that the day will be an A-Z of Chartism.

The Birmingham & Midland Institute is a beautiful late Victorian building located just 10 minutes walk from the city’s central railway station.  There is a cafe in the building where sandwich lunches & drinks  can be obtained.

The day will be led by Stephen Roberts, who has spent many years researching and writing about the Chartists.  Copies of his recent publication James Whateley and the Survival of Chartism will be available at 50% off for attendees … that is just £2,50!

This event costs £25 (£22 for members of the BMI)

Birmingham and Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, Birmingham B3 3BS

0121 236 3591

Bibliography of Chartism – Price Slashed!

What can you buy for a fiver?  A pint & a packet of crisps?   A latte & a copy of the Guardian?  A pair of nice red socks?

Yes, all of these things.  And now also …


which  can be ordered from Amazon for just £5.02.

That’s reduction of 35%!

With its attractive crimson cover, featuring the signature of Feargus O’Connor himself, this book will be an ornament on any book shelf.  But there’s an even better reason for ordering a copy … what you’ll find inside!

The new bibliography contains …

a listing of all new manuscript material discovered in the last two decades, including a mass of material relating to the Newport Rising and the papers of two Chartist leaders

details of the obituaries of c. 150 Chartists

every book, article and thesis written on the subject between 1995 & 2018

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY OF CHARTISM … £5.02 from Amazon.  That’s 35% off!  You know it makes sense!

He was a Chartist!

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:

The Survival of Chartism


£4.99 from Amazon

Hands up if you’ve heard of James Whateley.  So that’s, er, no one then.  So how about Ollie Whateley?  Ah, yes, there’s a hand at the back. You must have a read a few books on the history of Aston Villa.  Yes, Ollie Whateley wore the famous claret and blue.  In fact in the 1880s he was one of the Villa’s most reliable goalscorers.  He was known for hitting the ball with such force along the ground that it was almost unstoppable.  He even put one of his ‘daisycutters’ into the net for  England on his debut.  Olllie was the son of James Whateley.  And dad was a Chartist.  Two of my great interests – Chartism & the Villa – combined.  Well, I had to write a book about them, didn’t I?

The thing about James Whateley was that he never stopped being a Chartist.  Even when Chartism was over, he continued to agitate for universal suffrage.  Yes, universal suffrage, men and women .Whateley was one of those Chartists who believed that all working people were entitled to a say in law making.  He became a councillor in Brum and campaigned to make it easier for working people to use their votes – for example, by extending polling hours until late evening.  This was putting Chartist principles into action.  Feargus was dead, the Northern Star no longer published … but chaps like James Whateley continued to behave like Chartists.

James Whateley wasn’t on his own.  Across Britain former Chartists often  remained prominent in their local communities.  Quite a lot of them, especially in the north and in Scotland, were elected as councillors.  These were the men who sat on the baths and parks and library committees of town councils, determined that the lives of working people would be improved.  And then there were the Chartists who became journalists, editing with a radical hue provincial newspapers.  Anyone who picked up a copy of the Grimsby Observer in the 1880s was guaranteed to receive a good dose of radicalism.  The paper was edited Abel Hinchcliffe.  And Abel had, of course, been a Chartist.  A generation after the heyday of Chartism he continued to inject his Chartist beliefs into what he wrote.

The Chartists didn’t simply disappear when the movement was over.  These men had acquired the self confidence and the skills of writing and speaking and they put them to good use in the later decades of the nineteenth century.  Yes Chartism survived.  In my new book, which I am trying to flog here, I tell the story of one of them … James Whateley, a Chartist for a lifetime.

A New Bibliography of Chartism


£7.99 from Amazon

Hard to believe, but across the world enthusiastic researchers are beavering away trying to uncover yet more about the Chartists.  We might know a lot of stuff about them already but there’s more to know.  Already what has been found out about the Chartists has filled two volumes ,,, and now along comes another one.  This time rather than releasing the book as a pricey library hardback, it is coming out as an inexpensive paperback … in the hope that researchers will like the idea of investing in their own copy rather than having to trudge to the library.

What’s in this book?  Well, as before, there is a manuscript sources section.  The big find here has been correspondence & petitions concerning Frost, Williams & Jones, the three men transported after the Newport rising of 1839.  But that’s not all … yep, there’s more … diaries & letters from such keen Chartists as W.E. Adams, J.B. Leno & Thomas Cooper and sketches from Richard Doyle, of Punch fame.  There’s an entirely new section listing what can be found in the provincial newspapers of the late nineteenth century … including interviews with former Chartists, reports of the continued use of Chartist banners in reform demonstrations and many, many obituaries.  On top of all this, there is a complete listing of everything that has been written about the Chartists in the last quarter of a century … all the books, the articles & the theses … years of collective effort to recover the stories of British working people.

And all this for £7.99.  What can you get for £.7.99 these days?  You could get four copies of the Guardian … good idea.  You could get two pints of Guinness … another good idea.  You could get the bus & go & delve into the riches of the magnificent Library of Birmingham & then do the same thing the next day … also money well spent.  And for just £7.99 you can also order ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY OF CHARTISM 1995-2018 from Amazon … a handily-sized book to peruse on the bus, in bed, in the bath &, of course, in your study.

The Murdered Chartist

On Christmas eve 1886 a 78-year old man Samuel Osborn was bludgeoned to death at his home in Co-operative Square, Newland Street, Kettering.  The court took its name from a Co-operative butcher’s shop at the entrance, and Samuel’s home was modest – one room on top of the other.  Next door to Samuel lived two unmarried women, Rebecca Ruff and Betsey Branes. Rebecca had visited Samuel that evening, bringing him a glass of beer.  Neither she nor Betsey had heard anything, they declared.  In fact Betsey answered questions put to her at the inquest with ‘dogged ignorance’.

But someone had entered Samuel’s room, and battered him around the head with a hatchet. Why this had happened could not be explained.  Samuel had little money.  He subsisted on Poor Law relief of two shillings a week, which he topped up with a few pence from selling railway timetables and taking messages.  Not that the messages could be urgent – Samuel walked with two sticks.  He even put his flowing white beard to good use, offering his services as a model at the art school.  You’re getting to like Samuel a lot, aren’t you?

The police did in fact make an arrest.  John Sudborough, in his mid-thirties, had been seen in Co-operative Court late that evening.  As a relative of Betsey Branes, he was no stranger to the people who lived there.  However, blood stains on his clothes alerted the police to his possible involvement – a suspicion strengthened when blood stains were also found on the bed clothing in his lodgings.  Sudborough maintained that these were the result of a fight with his brother-in-law the previous week.  The police began a search for the murder weapon.  They found nothing in Samuel’s rooms.  Nothing in the house of Rebecca & Betsey.  They had no proof & could establish no motive.  Sudborough was let go.

At the inquest into his death, the coroner observed that Rebecca & Betsey ‘knew more about the murder than they had told the jury’.  But what it might have been was anybody’s guess.  Samuel’s body, which had remained where it had been found until the inquest was completed, was released to his son.  What had happened to his father, he was never to know.

Samuel had been a well-known figure in the streets of Kettering.  People who knew the white-bearded old man who shuffled along with two sticks well knew that forty years earlier he had been something else – a slik weaver who had been a thorough-going Chartist, a reader of the Northern Star, one of the millions who signed the great petitions, one of those who could always be relied on to turn out to hear the Chartist speakers …

Homage to Samuel Osborn.

Finding Feargus …

Feargus O’Connor, the most famous Chartist of them all … the most-travelled across the British Isles, for sure … tour after tour, speech after speech, lionized wherever he went, children named Feargus held aloft at his meetings …thousands upon thousands of working people inspired by his defiance, by his optimism, singing his song ‘The Lion of Freedom’ … Chartists gathered in the open air or in pubs to hear his weekly letter from the famous Star read aloud … working men and women in their cottages, no longer framework knitters or woolcombers but independent pig owners instead, at Heronsgate or Snig’s End … Feargus O’Connor, the most famous Chartist of them all …

Today Feargus can be found at Kensal Green, his inscription on his headstone now needing to be peered at.  He’s been a resident there since 1855.  It’s been 162 years since 50,000 people watched his funeral procession.  Feargus can also be found gazing from his plinth across the Arboretum in Nottingham, clutching the People’s Charter.  It’s a short cut across that park, many people have walked past that statue a hundred or more times and have never looked up at the figure standing there, waiting for them to say, “Well done, Feargus, you were some guy”.  Search for Feargus’ statue in the Arboretum on Trip Adviser and you’ll search in vain.

Is that all that’s left of the most famous Chartist of them all … a fading headstone and a statue no one takes any notice of?   There aren’t many surviving letters.  Why is bit of a mystery.  When the police arrested Thomas Cooper in Leicester, who was at the time Feargus fan no. 1, they searched his shop and house for incriminating letters.  And they carried off hundreds and hundreds of them.  But not a single letter from Feargus.  Clearly Cooper must have kept them separately.  Up the chimney or somewhere.

It seems you can buy almost anything on the internet these days.  I wanted a storage box for my DVDs … I was spoilt for choice.  A washing bag for socks?  There it was.  A gardening apron this morning?  Yes, I chose the third one I read about … couldn’t be bothered to look at the other two dozen options.  A letter from Feargus O’Connor to Thomas Cooper?  Fat chance.  A letter from Feargus O’Connor to anyone, even to Rebecca the famous Chartist cow?  Nope, none to be found.

And then, it happened .., the great discovery.  I  could become the owner of Feargus O’Connor’s signature!  Now I know Feargus could be boastful and ungracious, but, all in all, he was a good chap.  I had to have that autograph.  Feargus picked up that actual piece of paper and actually signed it. And now I own it.  Reader, how much do you think I had to pay to own the signature of the most famous Chartist of them all?  A ton?  A grand?  Rather less in fact … just £1.80!  So Feargus’  signature is worth less than the price of an ice cream.  But, of the two, I know what I’d rather have, even on this sweltering afternoon …

A Freebie in Feargus’ Nottingham

One afternoon in June 1995, after returning from having lunch at the Guildhall in Worcester, I sat with Dorothy Thompson in the music room of her country house, Wick Episcopi, situated on the outskirts of the city.    We had spent lunch talking about classical music, but now our attention moved to discussing how research on Chartism could be taken forward.  Dorothy suggested that a meeting of all those who were working in the field would be a good place to start.  And so that September about twenty five people met at the University of Birmingham for an event  which, remarkably, has continued to take place without a break for the past 22 years. This event is  known as Chartism Day – a title invented by one of those early attendees, Miles Taylor.  The other suggestion that Dorothy put forward that afternoon  was that a collection of contemporary pictures of the Chartists should be put together.  Dorothy had been collecting the portraits of Chartist leaders that were given away with the Northern Star for almost half a century – the first engraving she obtained had been glued to a Christmas card in 1950.  These portraits had been framed and hanged on the staircase at Wick Episcopi.  As you climbed the stairs you met the gazes of  Ernest Jones, Peter Murray McDouall, William Prowting Roberts and other Chartist stalwarts .  So there were a core of images to begin the project.  I then set about scouring Chartist and other early Victorian periodicals in search of other illustrations we could include.  It was a laborious task – there must, I thought, be better ways of spending a Saturday morning than peering at the Oddfellow on microfilm … until I found two fantastic cartoons in it!  But eventually 80 images were identified and Merlin Press  released Images of Chartism, with a wonderful illustration of a Chartist sampler on the front cover.  (Dorothy’ subsequently donated her personal collection to the People’s History Museum, where they are available to be seen).

In the twenty years since that book appeared interest in nineteenth century caricature and portraiture has grown.  A lot of this, it has to be said, has concentrated on the second quarter of the nineteenth century – see, for example, the interesting publications of Brian Maidment and Richard Gaunt.  Even so there have been some startling discoveries – in turning up all sorts of fascinating material relating to the Chartists, Ian Haywood came across a depiction by the Punch illustrator Richard Doyle of the Birmingham Bull Ring riots of 1839 which was so good that it was snapped up by the Times Literary Supplement.  My own interest in satirical art hadn’t lapsed, but had moved forward in time – to the late Victorian period. What brought this change of focus about was joining the Birmingham & Midland Institute … and getting access to the fabulous treasures of its library. (You can join, too … it’s only £40!).   There I found almost complete runs of Birmingham’s famous satirical magazines, the Dart and the Owl.  These weekly magazines featured a full page cartoon of leading political figures of the day – Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Randolph Churchill, Lord Salisbury, David Lloyd George and so on – drawn principally by two very talented (and overlooked) men, George Bernasconi and Ernest Chesmer Mountford.  Unlike the depictions of the Chartists in Punch in the 1840s, these cartoons weren’t cruel – but they still made powerful political points.  I was fascinated by these magazines. Completely forgotten, the cartoons deserved to be enjoyed in the 21st century. And so I co-edited a volume of them with Roger Ward, an authority on Joseph Chamberlain.  There are 60 cartoons in Mocking Men of Power, ranging over some 30 years and taking in such subjects as Irish Home Rule, the rise of Labour and the Boer War.

But, hang on, you ask, what’s all this got to do with a freebie in Nottingham?  Well, Mocking Men of Power does include a cartoon featuring the pudding-loving John Skirrow Wright, who was elected MP for Nottingham in 1880 but rather unfortunately hit the snooze button before he could take his seat. There’s Feargus O’Connor, of course, gazing across the Arboretum … you can see him for free. But the freebie I refer to is a symposium entitled ‘Graphic Satire and the UK in the Long Nineteenth Century’, which takes place at Nottingham University on Tuesday 5 September.  Richard Gaunt, an associate professor at the University, is one of the organizers, and he’s roped in eight speakers, including Brian Maidment.  It looks like it’ll be a very interesting day. And here’s the good news … it’s free!  So let the train take the strain, settle down with a copy of the remarkably inexpensive Mocking Men of Power, and head to Nottingham on 5 September!

Stephen Roberts and Roger Ward eds .Mocking Men of Power: Comic Art in Birmingham 1861-1911 (2014) is available from Amazon for the very satisfactory price of £8.99.

To register for the Nottingham symposium go to

Remembering the Halifax Chartists

I was recently sent photographs of the graves of three of the men who led the Chartist campaign in Halifax and the West Riding.  These men are buried in Lister Lane cemetery in Halifax:  you can see the images in the photo gallery of this website.  The headstones of Ben Rushton and John Culpan are still standing – that of Christopher Shackleton, who was buried alongside Rushton, has disappeared and has been replaced by a modern plaque. Rushton’s headstone is inscribed with lines written by Burns.

If you were to try to  create the ideal Chartist leader, you would very probably come up with Ben Rushton.  He was an almost faultless working class leader.  A big claim, you might think, possibly even a ridiculous claim.  But it’s difficult to come up with evidence to argue against the description from his own times that Ben was ‘as steady, fearless and honest a politician as ever stood on an English platform.’  To the end of his days Ben remained a handloom weaver.  No paid lecture tours for him, no flogging Chartist boot polish or bottles of Chartist jollop, no comfy editorial chair.  Ben ended his life as he had begun it:  in poverty.  What made him so revered in the West Riding?  Well, Ben was a stalwart, he stuck at it.  He wasn’t a here-today-gone-tomorrow working class politician.  He was calling for the political and economic rights of the handloom weavers before the People’s Charter was published in 1838 – and he only stopped advocated those rights  when he breathed his last.   Think of the problems that Ben could have caused himself – the police constables arriving at his door at 6 a.m., perjured evidence at a trial, the cold, damp prison cell, separation from his wife and children …  But, even though he was fully aware of these risks, Ben wasn’t a man to shut up.  He had things to say and he said them powerfully:

‘As he depicted in glowing language, the miseries of the poor man’s lot and the sin of those who lorded it so unjustly over him, the feelings of his audience were manifested by fervid ejaculations…until at last one, carried away by Mr Rushton’s strong denunciations of his oppressors, cried out “Ay damn them, damn them.”

Little wonder that Ben Rushton’s funeral in June 1853 was turned into a huge Chartist demonstration.  His friend Christopher Shackleton also died in that year.  It was fitting that the two men were buried side by side.  Kit Shackleton was also a handloom weaver, and throughout the 1840s was a key Chartist organizer and speaker in the West Riding.  There he is now addressing a meeting on Skircoat Moor, on the edge of Halifax, in April 1848.  The people listen intently, hang on to every word, of this inspiring, passionate self-educated man.  John Culpan long outlived Rushton and Shackleton, in fact living long enough to attend a Chartist reunion in Halifax in 1885.  Culpan did the heavy lifting for the Halifax Chartists.  For years he was the local secretary, writing reports for the Northern Star, getting the posters printed, distributing the petition forms, inviting lecturers to the West Riding.  He survived to see a partial implementation of the famous People’s Charter.  At that dinner he remembered Ben and Kit and all the rest of them and what they had achieved.

To read the full story of Halifax Chartism see The Dignity of Chartism:  Essays by Dorothy Thompson (Verso, 2015).