Like all historians of Chartism, I feel a great deal of warmth & affection for the 20 or so elderly gentlemen who attended the Chartist reunion dinner at Maude’s Temperance Hotel in Halifax in July 1885. Here were the old stalwarts – Ben Wilson, George Webber & the rest of them – gathered for one last time to celebrate the Reform Act of 1884 and how they had been right all along. Imagine therefore my delight to discover that this was not the only reunion of one-time Chartists that year. Tucked away in the Birmingham Daily Post in January 1885, I came across a letter from James Whateley. Now I knew who Whateley was. He was a long-serving Liberal councillor who identified himself as a former Chartist. What I did not know was anything about his Chartist career. But before I did that, I wanted to know more about this Chartist reunion.
Whateley’s letter invited former members of Birmingham’s famous Chartist Church – just about the only one that really got going outside Scotland – to a reunion at the New Street Coffee House at 8 o’clock on Friday 23 January 1885. It was over forty years since the Church had shut its doors & many of the congregation would have been dead. In the event the gathering was put off until the Saturday evening, but ‘a number of friends’ did turn up. We can’t be sure what that phrase means, but I suspect that that the attendance was in single figures. What prompted Whateley to organise this reunion? Arthur O’Neill, the minister at the Chartist Church and subsequently at a Baptist chapel, was still around. He had begun recalling in the press the struggles of the Chartists for a say in law-making. It doesn’t seem as if O’Neill attended this reunion himself because the former Chartists – just like in the good old days – passed a resolution urging him to continue with his efforts. It was very important for these coffee-drinking, ageing democrats that young men knew the sacrifices that had once been made.
James Whateley joined the Chartist Church in Newhall Street when it opened in December 1840. He became Arthur O’Neill’s right-hand man. There was a printing press at the Church &, handily enough, O’Neill knew a thing or two about printing. So the Chartist printing press churned out tens of thousands of posters and O’Neill & Whateley, assisted by a few others, pasted them to walls across the town. No sooner had they done this than the police tore them down. And what did Whateley & his fellow Chartists do? They went out & stuck them back up again!
O’Neill lived long enough – he didn’t die until 1896 – to speak at the funerals of many former Chartists. At Whateley’s funeral in November 1893, he remembered ‘a fine specimen of the simple, zealous, earnest, brave working man’ who optimistically believed ‘everything he wished for would be accomplished in about seven years’.
I knew nothing really about James Whateley when I wrote a dual biography of Arthur O’Neill and his friend Thomas Cooper a few years ago. He deserved more than the two passing mentions he gets in the book. But that is always the way … you write a book & then discover something you wished you had put in it. But I shall rectify this. James Whateley was a Chartist in my own town. I intend to tell his story.