Knife and Fork Question

Miles Taylor

  • 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.’

Carlyle was right. The Hungry Forties quickly became one of the wordiest decades on record. Not content with being novelists, Dickens and Thackeray became journalists as well. Bored with running newspapers, G.W.M. Reynolds and Mark Lemon turned their hand to penny dreadfuls and comedies. The deregulation of the London stage in 1843 meant that actors, managers and playwrights competed for ever-growing theatrical audiences. And the great schism in the Scottish churches, the fall-out from the Tractarian movement in the Church of England and the wave of Irish Catholic immigration into the British mainland created a generation of itinerant preachers looking for flocks. The Chartists made a huge contribution to all this. They not only petitioned Parliament, but debated, lectured, sang and wrote verse, drama and novels in the name of the Six Points. During the great show trials of 1843 and 1848 they turned the courtroom into theatre, and during the general elections of 1841 and 1847 they commandeered hustings up and down the land, asserting the right of non-electors to voice their opinions and hurl abuse at candidates. Long before the mid-Victorian surge in cheap newspapers, the Chartists had the popular market cornered. More than 120 newspapers devoted to the cause were established between the mid-1830s and mid-1850s, extending from the Aberdeen Review to the Brighton Patriot and westwards to the Udgorn Cymru (‘Trumpet of Wales’). In London, the pubs and speakeasies of Clerkenwell, St Pancras and Lambeth, and the open air of Copenhagen Fields and Bishop Bonner’s Fields were turned into speakers’ corners, while in Lancashire and Yorkshire, the rocky Pennine moors became natural amphitheatres for latter-day tribunes, with tens of thousands assembling at places such as Blackstone Edge and Kirkstall Moor. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,’ proclaimed the banner at the head of the Chartist procession on Kennington Common on 10 April 1848. No wonder Carlyle was perturbed. The ‘dumb toiling mass’ which had aroused his pity in 1839 had turned into an army of noisy demagogues. The ‘soldiers of literature’, as he called them, were on the march.

Gregory Claeys’s edition of a hundred or so Chartist tracts, lectures and pamphlets easily surpasses in size (and in price) the principal older collections edited by F.C. Mather and Edward Royle, although for the hardy there remains a less easily available set put together by Dorothy Thompson, the doyenne of Chartist studies. Claeys is a past master of the art of compilation, having already produced similar collections of the writings of Thomas Paine and his contemporaries in the 1790s, John Thelwall, Robert Owen and the British Utopians, and the responsibility for producing a Chartist canon could not have fallen into better hands. Few scholars can match Claeys’s ability to render 19th-century radicalism and socialism coherent by locating ideas which have often seemed wacky, wild and wrong within wider traditions of intellectual history. It is clear from this collection that ideas and ideology are now being taken very seriously by historians of Chartism.

Claeys reveals first of all the range of the movement’s arguments and activities. Among them are the rather dour early pronouncements of the London Working Men’s Association, a body which called for ‘rational’ organic reform: so organic that William Lovett, its figurehead, later turned to writing manuals on physiology, diet and anatomy. Although they drafted the original People’s Charter, Lovett’s men were soon overtaken by the Chartist leaders of the Midlands and the North: men such as Humphrey Price, ‘the good parson of Needwood Forest’, and Joseph Rayner Stephens, the Wesleyan preacher. Stephens famously declared Chartism to be a ‘knife and fork question’. He also made a pass at Bronterre O’Brien’s sister-in-law and was hounded out of the movement as a result, although he continued his thundering attacks on the factory system.

With time, the mild-mannered London Chartism of the early years gave way to the magnetism of Feargus O’Connor, the ‘Lion of Freedom’. In his breeches and buckled shoes, fancy jackets and frills, O’Connor was the first shuttle politician of modern Britain, using the rapidly expanding railway network to mobilise support. He embarked on a whistle-stop speaking tour forty years before Gladstone made such things an integral part of British politics. During four tours lasting 16 weeks in 1838 and 1839, O’Connor addressed 147 meetings, and just about everywhere he spoke a Chartist association was formed. Critics said he was pursuing his lover, the comedy actress Louisa Nisbett, whose route through the repertory theatres of the English provinces seemed uncannily close to O’Connor’s own itinerary. Whether or not that was the case, O’Connor turned Chartism into a national campaign, and ruined his lungs in the process. At the beginning of 1839 he apologised to his followers when after one speech too many he coughed up a wine-glass of blood. ‘I was very sorry,’ the great Irishman explained, fearing the worst, ‘for I did wish to see universal suffrage.’

The moral-force and the physical-force wings of Chartism are well represented here. There are works by Robert Lowery, the temperance lecturer, who, along with a significant number of radicals, later fell in with the Russophobe, David Urquhart, and like most of Urquhart’s followers, became a devotee of the Turkish bath. (The mania for hydropathy or water-cures is a little-known coda to Chartism, and worthy of further study.) Included, too, is Joseph Barker, another Methodist preacher, and probably the only Chartist to have a steam printing-press in his living-room. Barker was a ‘rational’ Chartist – into phrenology and vegetarianism – whose support for universal suffrage knew few temporal or even spiritual limits. He advocated votes for spinsters and widows, as well as men, and as a Leeds town councillor in the 1850s campaigned hard for the building of more cemeteries. Even the dead had rights. The tough guys of Chartism are here as well. From Manchester there is the twice imprisoned James Leach, whose Stubborn Facts from the Factories was milked by Engels for his Condition of the Working Class in England (Leach ended up in the 1850s as a soda-water manufacturer). Also from Manchester is the argumentative Reginald Jones Richardson, another Chartist convict from 1840, whose faith in good old Saxon freedoms led him eventually to work for the Ancient Foot Paths Association. The wonderfully melodramatic Dr Peter McDouall, who urged on the General Strike in 1842, gets space, too. In his long black cape and with his dark tousled mane, McDouall – ‘the little doctor’ – seemed straight off the stage, although Victorians probably remembered him as the purveyor of ‘McDouall’s Florida medicine’. He married his jailer’s daughter and emigrated to Australia.

Some of the big names of Chartism don’t get as much coverage as they’re due. They include George Julian Harney, the nearest Chartism came to producing a true Jacobin; Bronterre O’Brien, the nearest Jacobinism came to producing a true Chartist; and Ernest Jones, the nearest Chartism and Jacobinism came to producing a great poet. There is a smattering of late Jones and late O’Brien, but, by this time, Jones had fallen on hard times and O’Brien, invariably drunk, kept falling over. Harney doesn’t get a word in at all, which will come as a surprise to aficionados of the East London Democratic Association, where the young Cockney Chartist made his name by talking his opponents into the ground. Their exclusion is perhaps predictable: all three were masters of the platform and devoted most of their energies to running newspapers, leaving little time to sit down and produce tomes or tracts, learned or otherwise, although O’Brien’s Ode to Lord Palmerston of 1856, a hilarious and altogether neglected satirical skit, is a reminder of a hidden talent. The neglect of oratory and the press throughout Claeys’s six volumes is a matter of regret, though it is understandable given the format of the series. It was largely thanks to the spoken word and the newspaper column that Chartism spread like wildfire through the early years of Victoria’s reign. And it was ‘this loud babbling’ which so terrified Carlyle.

On the other hand, Claeys’s volumes do capture what made Chartism threatening, and it wasn’t the Six Points. After all, the People’s Charter – a name probably adapted from Macaulay’s description of the 1831 Reform Bill as a new ‘Charter’ – was not so very novel: its claims had a pedigree dating back, as Chartists always pointed out, to the Duke of Richmond in 1780. Nor was it a question of size. Chartism was an unusually continuous working-class protest movement, but men of the Waterloo generation, as the opponents of Chartism all were – Napier and Wellington on horseback, Russell and Peel on the front bench – had seen how loyalism triumphed over revolution on a previous occasion. For the most part they slept more easily in 1848 than many historians of radicalism have suggested. What troubled many observers in the 1840s was that the Chartists were led by a bunch of charmers: men whose powers of oratory and performance could get their working-class audiences so worked up they’d have no control over their behaviour. These were days when mesmerism, phrenology and table-tapping were immensely popular; when farce was battling it out with light lyric drama for control of the London stage; and when a more sinister sense of realism was creeping in with the ‘syncretics’ and then with the melodrama of Dion Boucicault and the revival of Shakespearean tragedy. These were, in other words, transition years, when the periodical press was abandoning the historical tales beloved of Bulwer-Lytton and the ‘silver fork’ novellas of Catherine Gore, and going over to the serialised ‘sensation’ novels of Dickens and Reynolds with their modern settings. The line between fiction and fact, the real and the apparent was more blurred than ever, making Carlyle’s unthinking and inarticulate mass more liable to manipulation by clever speakers and racy journalists.

And that is precisely what the Chartist leaders were. Many years ago Asa Briggs noted how few of the original delegates to the Chartist Convention in 1839 were bona fide working men. Seldom have so many preachers, booksellers, printers, lawyers, newsagents, travelling lecturers, minor poets and dramatists gathered together in one political movement. Even the working-class Chartists such as Richardson and Leach included in this collection were artisans or factory workers only as young men. By the time they became Chartists, they had joined the milieu of newspapers and bookselling, signing up to a twilight world – ‘les nuits des prolétaires’ as Jacques Rancière described it in his study of French ‘worker’ newspapers of the 1830s – far removed from the toil of the workplace. Many of the better-heeled Chartist leaders hovered at the fringes of the literary establishment: Thomas Cooper, Jones and Reynolds all aspired to the republic of letters as much as to the republic of workers. Rather than see this artistic activity as incidental to Chartist writings we should see it as central. The Chartist leaders came from the persuading professions and vocations – the law, evangelical ministry, quack medicine, the theatre, the bookstall, the newsdesk and the print-shop. In their hands and mouths words became weapons, with the power to capture and convert. Something of this is missed in Claeys’s collection of Chartist works, and the danger is that by taking the Chartists too seriously, we may overlook the fact that Chartism threatened most when it was at its least sombre. When Carlyle saw the men of 1848 in the streets around Trafalgar Square – the ‘discharged playactors, funambulists, false prophets, drunken ballad-singers’ – he understood only too well what happened when politics became entertainment.