Monthly Archives: November 2015

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.