Knife and Fork Question
- The Chartist Movement in Britain 1838-50 edited by Gregory Claeys
Pickering & Chatto, £495.00, April 2001, ISBN 1 85196 330 8
Thomas Carlyle was quite fond of the Chartists – until they opened their mouths. In an essay on Chartism published in 1839, the Sage of Chelsea harangued the political establishment and spoke up for the stoic dignity of the English working man: ‘Chartism with its pikes, Swing with his tinder box,’ he wrote, ‘speak a most loud though inarticulate language.’ Eleven years later, however, as Britain and Europe reeled from the shock of the 1848 Revolutions, Carlyle was alarmed that the workers weren’t quite so silent after all. ‘Stump oratory’ had taken over, he observed in his Latter-Day Pamphlets: ‘tongues, platforms, parliaments, and fourth-estates; unfettered presses, periodical and stationary literatures: we are nearly all gone to tongue.’
Vol. 24 No. 1 · 3 January 2002
In 1838 the rejection by Parliament of the Charter organised by the London Working Men’s Association was met by bitter disappointment in Wales, and ‘physical force Chartism’ gained the upper hand. In November 1839 over five thousand armed Chartists led by John Frost, a former mayor of Newport, marched from the industrial centres in the Valleys in an attempt to capture Newport, in the hope, ultimately, of triggering a revolution that would put into effect the Chartist aim of political democracy. A combination of bad timing, bad weather, betrayal and confusion led to the defeat of the rising. The Chartists were ambushed in Newport by Government troops, and an unknown number were killed in an attack on the Westgate Hotel. Miles Taylor doesn’t discuss any of this in his review of The Chartist Movement in Britain 1838-50 (LRB, 29 November 2001), but in South Wales Chartism was a pike and musket question as well as a ‘knife and fork question’.