Rogue Socialists

Michael Mason

  • Francis Place, 1771-1854: The Life of a Remarkable Radical by Dudley Miles
    Harvester, 206 pp, £40.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 7108 1225 6
  • Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840 by Iain McCalman
    Cambridge, 338 pp, £27.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 521 30755 4

Iain McCalman has written a major book on a minor subject. It would not be fair to the considerable achievement of Dudley Miles in his life of Francis Place simply to invert this formula: but Place’s life is a major subject, and this treatment of it – the first in almost a hundred years – does leave a sense of possibilities not explored. The enterprise in any form, of course, involved a crushing weight of primary research: there are more than two hundred and ninety volumes of Francis Place papers in the British Museum. Mr Miles found working through them ‘arduous’ if ‘fascinating’. Because of their great bulk he took ten years to finish his biography (having, in a manner worthy of Place himself, worked simultaneously as a night security guard – even now his main employment is said to be ‘as a computer manager and commercial researcher’).

The British Museum material looms very large in Mr Miles’s text, with consequences for the kind of story he tells. His book is chiefly a dense narrative of Place’s political activity, for this is what the two hundred and ninety volumes above all record. There was plenty to fill them: committee-work for radical organisations in the 1790s, local politics in Westminster, campaigns for legislative change in areas such as trades unionism, projects of social innovation (notably on birth control and education), energetic and sometimes decisive contributions to the great national causes of Parliamentary reform and Chartism. Place’s personality, and personal life, are cordoned off in a short early section of Mr Miles’s book. Again Place’s own archive has provided the cue here: one very remarkable but limited portion of it is the Autobiography, a document whose emphases and interpretations concerning Place’s background, childhood and adult life (up to but not really including his puzzling second marriage) Mr Miles is very much ruled by. One particularly unsatisfactory effect of reliance on the archive is that Place’s published writings are for the most part only identified by their appearance in its volumes. There are frequent references to Place’s contributions to the periodical press, but these have not been looked at from the outside, so to speak. We are not told which organs they appeared in and when. One thing the first scholarly life of Place should have contained is a list of his known writings, done in such a way that other scholars can then find and use them.

The exterior view of Francis Place is indeed one that is crucial to maintain. Historians would have realised, even if there had never been a British Museum Place collection, that he was an important figure in radical and reforming politics in the years 1790-1850. But the traces of his activity would have been scattered and faint, and much would have needed to be surmised, because of Place’s deliberate avoidance of public notice. This strange invisibility had several causes. Place had a temperamental preference for manipulating rather than leading. It was also an intellectual preference: he thought political change should be grounded in rational conviction rather than blind loyalty. He also seems to have had a genuine ambivalence about politics, which I think sprang from his idealism (though it is not the normal way in which political idealism declares itself, and Place is seldom thought of as an idealist): he desired certain ends very strongly – most of them various kinds of justice for the working classes – and the tortuous path towards these goals offered by politics often displeased him. Place perceived the tortuousness of politics with unusual clarity and was thoroughgoing in embracing it, once he was embarked on a political project: some of his most striking successes (in directly influencing Parliamentary proceedings, for example) were achieved by ruses of an almost childish kind. There is a pattern in Place’s life of frequent declarations that he was done with politics, each belied by the adoption, at first wary but eventually deeply committed, of a fresh working-class cause. Finally, Place was inconspicuous for a good practical reason: class distinctions were still so insurmountable in his day that it was only by remaining anonymous that he would be used by socially more elevated politicians as an ally in their causes.

The record of his work which Place accumulated and which is now in the British Museum means that this otherwise almost invisible career can be known – by later historians at least – with extraordinary fullness. There is nothing to match the Place archive in the documentation of working-class politics of the period, and it is easy to lose sight of Francis Place as a phenomenon in his own world. But it is important to have a sense of how much his name and activity were known to contemporaries (Mr Miles has some interesting but scattered examples of abusive allusions to him by political opponents) and also of the full range of his objective acts (such as the journalism unsatisfactorily dealt with by Mr Miles). Above all, it is necessary to ask: what did Place achieve? Sometimes this means checking rather high estimates of his effectiveness offered by Place himself against the full historical picture. Mr Miles tries to arrive at this kind of verdict at least for the big issues: for example, he looks closely at Place’s influence in the closing stages of the struggle for the 1832 Reform Bill.

These are remarks about Place the political animal. Another aspect of his historical being, of course, is Place as son, lover, friend, husband, father, reader of books, playgoer, traveller (on short but observant trips). These are also matters from which the Place archive can distract his biographer, because it is mainly political, but they all seem to have taken an interesting turn. Outside his family life, the most important personal bonds for Place were probably with members of the Bentham circle. These seem to have been close, sometimes intimate. Typical of the imbalance in the evidence which Mr Miles has had to contend with, but which he has perhaps succumbed to more than he should, is the 1826 entry in Place’s diary to the effect that he did not record meetings with Bentham because the two men entered each other’s houses as freely as their own. Such intimacy is at least worth speculating about. What, for example, is the truth of the legend that James Mill entrusted John Stuart’s political education to Place? Mr Miles does not touch on it.

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