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.
JAMES WHATELEY AND THE SURVIVAL OF CHARTISM CAN BE ORDERED FROM AMAZON, PRICED AT £4.99.