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.

The story told in Iain McCalman’s Radical Underground is told perforce from the outside. There are no personal records to give an inner logic and life to the careers of the early 19th-century English revolutionaries that Dr McCalman writes about. Everything has to be done by combing through a strange variety of difficult-to-interpret documents in a spirit both painstaking and opportunistic. Dr McCalman has done this, as far as I can judge, with brilliant success. His subject is an underworld within an underworld: certain followers of the proto-socialist Thomas Spence as they pursued their aims from the period of anti-Jacobin governmental action of the late 1790s, through Spa Fields, Peterloo and Cato Street, to the early years of Chartism. These men were not centre-stage in any of these events, nor were they in the prompter’s box with Francis Place. They did attract the attention of Home Office spies, who had infiltrated all such groups, and Home Office records together with other classes of government document are among Dr McCalman’s main sources. For the rest he mainly draws on a range of obscure and ephemeral periodicals, pamphlets and sheets, many of them not easily locatable today, which tend to be thoroughly embedded in the political culture of their time and to demand sophisticated decoding.

The result is a triple portrait, of three ‘Spen-sonians’ whose lives are reconstructed only partially but (when they do come into focus out of the historical blur) often with great vividness. The three men, Thomas Evans, Robert Wedderburn and George Cannon, were affiliated with ultra-radicalism and Spence before the letter’s death in 1814 – though Cannon, almost a generation younger than the others, was a late arrival. The first part of Dr McCalman’s study looks at the preparatory stages of the men’s careers; the bulk of it is given over to their various attempts to keep Spencean socialism alive after 1814. Evans, aided by a politically energetic wife and son, was the Moses who led the Spenceans out of the wilderness of the Napoleonic wars, in McCalman’s account. He first organised a group of tavern-based branches of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists but, after a year in gaol without trial in 1817, he changed tactics and took out a licence to operate a Dissenting chapel – a device for political organisation anticipated by other Spenceans – and his grouping became the religious sect of ‘Christian Philanthropists’. His efforts were destroyed by the defection of the rough mulatto ex-Methodist, ex-criminal and ex-sailor Robert Wedderburn, who seems to have steered the Spenceans, from his chapel in Soho, much closer to violent insurrection and the Cato Street conspirators than Evans would have wished. Wedderburn was imprisoned for two years in 1820. Although he subsequently returned, apparently, to his vein of uncouthly subversive chapel-based politics, Dr McCalman’s attention shifts to the publisher George Cannon, who took over Wedderburn’s chapel for a short time and ghosted free-thought tracts under the letter’s name while he was in prison. Cannon is offered as a specimen of the decline of a certain vein of political subversion, partly nurtured in the Queen Caroline affair of 1820-1, into simple illicitness, as he became a full-time publisher of pornography in the 1830s.

Cannon’s links with the orthodox Spenceans and the breakaway group under Wedderburn, though apparently definite, are not given in any detail. It is at this point that Dr McCalman’s subject becomes most confessedly a minor one, in the sense intended at the beginning of this review. His book is not a history of London political extremism in the early 19th century, or even of Spenceanism, but rather a threading of one narrow path through these histories. The choice of subject has been determined by the availability of un-used historical evidence, but also by certain possibilities of seeing it as diagnostic of bigger changes than are directly studied, ‘as a case-study’, in the author’s words, ‘for exploring a range of other issues pertinent to 19th-century radicalism and English popular culture’. These ‘issues’ lead immediately to Francis Place, and it is part of the odd contrast between the two books under review that Dr McCalman’s adds something to our understanding of Place’s importance which the biography of Place does not quite register. Place’s political example looms over Radical Underworld; the three revolutionaries studied are all more or less explicitly brought before a Placean tribunal. Dr McCalman has things to say in their defence, but seems to grant that the final verdict must go against them.

Francis Place approved of Spence’s views. He became his friend and associate through the London Corresponding Society, and much later in life collected materials (including recollections from George Cannon) for a life of Spence. He called him ‘one of that class of extraordinary men from whom the greatest changes in society have proceeded’. As the phrase suggests, Spence struck the chord of intense political idealism in Place. Spencean socialism was a programme of common land ownership, whereby ‘all the land shall belong to all the people’ (as Place put it when he reiterated his belief in Spence in 1839), and, to an extent that some writers have not acknowledged, politics for Place meant simply the promotion of working-class interests by every possible means. He told the Chartist William Lovett: ‘I would neither stir hand nor foot to promote any public matter whatever which did not tend to their advantage.’ He expressed the emotional roots of this attitude in a letter to Samuel Rogers, in three sentences with a stirring cadence such as he seldom used (and a possible Shakespearean echo):

I saw amongst them, much merit – much patient suffering – wonderful endurance – industry – care and desire to be and to appear respectable. I saw also the oppression of the laws as well as of most of their employers, and that also which in its immediate effect is even more intolerable, the contumely with which all who thought themselves above them treated them. I not only saw all this but I felt it also, and I resolved never to abandon the working people and I never will.

‘Care and desire to be and to appear respectable’ – there is the rub. Place’s emphasis on respectability, especially on a respectability which is so candidly a matter of appearance, has stuck in the throat of many as the worst kind of Victorianism, and inconsistent with true radical belief. Conversely, it seems to have had much to do with Place’s dislike for various revolutionaries – including Spenceans, despite his approval of Spence. His disparagement of these men is almost always a disparagement of their morals and manners, while he likes to extol radical colleagues for steadiness, sobriety and so forth. However, it must be said that the left wing in Place’s day did have some virtually and actually criminal members (such as ‘Jew’ King and Patrick Duffin), and some exceptionally dissolute ones (such as ‘Dr’ Watson, Thomas Preston and Thistlewood). Place probably knew that Spence’s social vision included working-class ‘feasts of hospitality and love’ complete with ‘cheering beverage’ and ‘strong drink’, so he was not opposed (as Hardy and, later, Lovett probably were) to all mellowness in radical affairs. Was there not in Place’s emphasis on ‘respectability’ nevertheless something irrelevant and even inimical to the advance of the working class? And was there not a tradition more faithful to working-class interests which was ‘non-respectable’ (even intrinsically so), but which Place in an unconscious alliance with the Victorian middle class helped to kill?

These, or something like these, are the questions which Dr McCalman wants to bring forward. His own answers, though uttered on behalf of the Spenceans, tend to acquit Place. Roughly speaking, Dr McCalman argues that one of his subjects (Thomas Evans) was essentially respectable, despite Place’s strictures, and that the non-respectability of the other two (Wedderburn and Cannon) had its points. Place said that Evans and his wife earned a living at one stage by colouring dirty prints: Dr McCalman objects that this could have been a respectable line of business by the standards of the day, and emphasises the stability of the Evans family (Evans’s son became a radical of a more Placean stamp, and actually a protégé of Place’s). Wedderburn cannot possibly be rescued for respectability, though we must be grateful to Dr McCalman for rescuing him for the modern reader. He gives a memorable account of this strange figure, who even in The Making of the English Working Class only receives one mention (‘one of the last Spenceans, a coloured tailor called Robert Wedderburn’). His ‘services’ were an extraordinary farrago of rant, ribaldry and play-acting, all delivered in an unashamedly lower-class fashion. Wedderburn was black, stout, a flamboyant physical presence, and probably not fully literate. He often shared the floor with the impish dwarf Samuel Waddington, another radical tailor, famous for his blasphemous, obscene clowning. In 1830 Wedderburn received another two-year sentence, for running a brothel.

Dr McCalman praises his non-respectable revolutionaries for maintaining ‘a tradition of plebeian unrespectability and irreverence in the face of powerful countervailing forces’; they ‘carried into Victorian society a ribald, saturnalian anti-establishment culture which we might call populist in both its positive and negative senses’. The rather puzzling last phrase may be designed to cover the case of George Cannon, who in his later career became a straightforward pornographer – and understandably loses the advocacy of Dr McCalman. There were a few journalists and publishers in the 1830s and after who continued to combine obscenity and radicalism, but my impression of their radicalism is that it is fairly tongue-in-check. Cases in point are John Joseph Stockdale and ‘Baron’ Renton Nicholson. Dr McCalman touches only on the latter, but he promises a sequel to Radical Underworld, to deal with the Victorian period: this, to judge by his present achievement, will be a study of quite exceptional interest.

One cannot rule out the possibility that there would have been a John Wilkes of Victorian radicalism – gracing the back-benches instead of Roebuck or Mill – but it seems clear that the tide of events was strongly against this, and moreover that the Placean tendency towards respectability arose within the working class as a spontaneous accompaniment of working-class self-assertion. This creates problems for the orthodox explanations of Victorian respectability which historians have not really confronted. Sometimes the unsatisfactoriness of the situation is acknowledged, but no more, with judicious quotation-marks, such as are used by Mr Miles: ‘Place ... had to adopt the “Victorian” values of respectability ... (which pre-dated Victoria’s reign by forty years).’ But this ‘pre-dating’ cannot be just a funny chronological slippage, a case of history forgetting to put the clocks forward. On the matter of autonomous working-class respectability there is of course a lively historical debate about the reality and extent of a Victorian ‘labour aristocracy’, and on one wing of the debate the respectable values of this group are held to have been spontaneous and widely influential.

It is extremely hard to assess the morals and manners of the Victorian working class. There is a great deal of comment on the question available from the period, but this is almost without exception partisan – on one side of the case or the other – and focused predominantly on the factory workers and their families. But the partisan comment, judiciously treated, a scattering of less loaded descriptions, and some demographic evidence, does suggest that there were at least pockets – factories within districts, areas of cities, even streets within neighbourhoods where the working-class inhabitants were consciously, energetically, and autonomously respectable.

It is admittedly a different matter to prove that this was in any sense Placean. Several awkward hiatuses have to be negotiated between working-class respectability as celebrated and enacted by Francis Place and the working-class respectability that may or may not be discernible in Manchester, Staffordshire or the West Riding in the 1840s. Dorothy George, perhaps the first historian to use the Place papers as historical evidence, accepted his picture of the London workers but saw him as living at the end of a phase of improvement in London standards which had started in John Fielding’s time, and which was neither duplicated elsewhere nor protracted in London. Several historians have claimed a deterioration in London working-class conditions as the 19th century unfolded, particularly in respect of housing (though they have themselves perhaps been rather Victorian in their assumption that bad housing means bad morals, and in doing their arithmetic only on the worst areas – thus tautologically proving the existence of slums). In writing about working-class respectability in London, Place did not see himself as merely selecting a geographical area: he believed that his observations did not apply to the industrial towns. ‘I would,’ he said memorably, ‘rather be hanged here in London, than be compelled to live in one of our large industrial towns.’ He accepted the view of those who claimed that factory life undermined sexual morals, at least in respect of the cotton mills of the North-West. On the other hand, this was certainly a case where Place did not obey his own excellent rule of sticking to first-hand observation, which might contradict preconceptions. He uttered some nonsense about the puniness induced in those who start having sexual intercourse at the age of 12.

Another bridge which it is tempting, but not unproblematic, to throw between Francis Place and Victorian respectability could anchor itself on the story that Place conducted John Stuart Mill’s political education. In contrast to the debate about working-class respectability, there is no doubt as to the fact in this instance of a large and influential outcropping of respectability. It is also one which has been strangely underrated by historians. John Stuart Mill, atheist, progressive, feminist, and so forth, was as ‘Victorian’ on sexual questions as any well-known Victorian: prepared to advocate and practise postponement of marriage, and abstinence from intercourse within marriage, inclined to bend his libertarian legal philosophy in the solitary instance of brothel-keepers, generally of the view that human sexuality was a despicable lower function. His father, he tells us, also took the last of these positions. Arthur Quiller-Couch believed that the publication of The Way of All Flesh in 1903 was the ‘virus’ which produced anti-Victorianism. Butler’s novel is certainly a text which established a stereotype of Victorian paternal sexual tyranny: Christian moralist father versus less Christian, less moralistic son. Its effect in occluding other (non-fictional) reminiscences of Victorian fathers and their teachings on sex has been unfortunate. In addition to the non-Christian Mill Junior assenting to the non-Christian Mill Senior’s anti-sensualism there is the non-Christian Austin Harrison dissenting from his father the non-Christian, ‘positivist’ Frederic Harrison’s disgust about sex. According to the father, ‘a man who cannot learn self-control is a cad ... A loose man is a foul man ... Positivism ... takes the theological view about morality.’

The Victorians called it the ‘theological’ view, but it was endemic with those who were non-theological in the strongest sense: not the first-generation ex-Low Churchers like Macaulay and George Eliot, but committed, untroubled secularists from Godwin onwards. They may not often have been commanding figures, but they were usually vanguard figures. Anti-sensualism was the brave, groundbreaking moral position in the English 19th century. By contrast the ‘theological’ camp put up a poor show on sexuality. By mid-century no one with any brains or influence regarded the Evangelical group as other than an unfortunate throwback: the one thrust against sexual licence undertaken by Wilber – force’s party, the Vice Society, was universally execrated from the start and always seriously short of subscriptions. Church of England severity on sex was compromised by the reports of ex-Evangelical Henry James Prince performing ritual copulation at his Agapemone in Somerset, an episode which was not as completely out of tune with current theology as it may seem. Edward Irving was the most fashionable London preacher of the 1820s, whose notorious theological innovation was to hint at the non-virginity of the mother of Christ and her son. A French visitor of the day reported that la théologie anglicane parait être tirée, sinon de celle d’Ovide dans les Métamorphoses, au moins de son art d’Aimer.

Francis Place might appear to be very different in his sexual moralism from a Mill or a Holyoake or a Spencer. For example, with characteristic courage and intellectual honesty he launched the world’s first campaign for birth control by artificial means (Mill did follow in his footstops for a while but then nervously and mendaciously repudiated the cause: thereafter no Englishman resident in England argued the case for birth control until George Drysdale in 1855). Place was certainly by temperament much more of a pro-sensualist than Mill, but he also on the face of it firmly believed that marriage was the proper arena for sex. One must of course be cautious of accepting Place’s public utterances about this as a true reflection of his private views: he could not have addressed his two birth-control sheets to other than ‘The Married of Both Sexes’, and Mr Miles, whose discussion of the obscure sequence of events involving the whole birth-control issue in the 1820s is excellent, has a quotation from a letter to Carlyle which decisively proves Place’s acceptance of ‘free’ sexual intercourse in a ‘better state of society’.

Place was less an opponent of extra-marital sex than an enthusiast for the marital variety. His birth-control propaganda was intended for the literally married when it exclaimed that ‘marriage in early life, is the only truly happy state.’ Place was intensely uxorious, so that he both rushed into remarriage after the death of his first wife and retained an undying tenderness for her memory: ‘If ever I were to wish for a heaven, it would be that I might meet Elizabeth again there ... I love my present wife dearly, but there is something about me in relation to my first wife, the wife of my youth, who grew up with me.’

This is also Victorian, perhaps more so than the stereotypically ‘Victorian’ low voltage of Mill’s matrimonial drive. Early and Mid-Victorians probably married sooner and in larger proportions than any recorded generation of English men and women. They thought about it a great deal, and prepared for it with intense and intimate courtships. Though there was some brave talk about the matter, most people thought it was a physical disaster for a woman not to get married. Non-marital relationships increasingly took the form of stable concubinage rather than extra-marital flings and mistresses, or pre-marital visits to prostitutes (the population of full-time, streetwalking prostitutes in London declined from the 1840s). Marriage was very much about having children, and when divorce became a generally available option, childlessness seems to have been the motive for many divorces. But conception meant sexual enjoyment: most couples retained the ancient belief that sexual arousal in the woman was necessary for conception, and doctors who were well aware that this was an exploded view still told their patients there was something in it.

By 1913 George Bernard Shaw couldn’t endure the eroticism of conventional marriage (as opposed to ‘the real modern marriage of sentiment’); it was a ‘lifelong honeymoon’, a ‘sanctuary for pleasure’, ‘stewing in love’; sexual excess in marriage caused more disease than libertinism; ‘respectable men’ were un-respectable to think it natural that ‘out of every twenty-four hours of their lives they should pass eight shut up in one room with their wives alone, and this, not birdlike, for the mating season, but all the year round and every year’. But perhaps the attitude expressed here, the ideal of ‘birdlike’ sex (splendidly eccentric, but a recognisable Fabian descendant of the temper that ousted the Robert Wedderburns from 19th-century radicalism), is more historically instructive about Victorian sexuality than the picture of insistently cuddling spouses. It is natural to think that the attitude and the picture can’t both apply, but they may in fact be compatible. Put together, with suitable adjustment for Shavian exaggeration, they suggest a model for Victorian sexuality that makes sense: of eroticism confined by new standards of progressive, rational anti-sensualism, but confined within matrimony, so that there is a raised intensity of married sex – or of ‘married love’, as Marie Stopes was to dub it five years later.