This detailed review is by Tony Shaw of Halifax.
HALIFAX AND THE DIGNITY OF CHARTISM
“Dorothy and Edward Thompson were at the time working on an essay on Chartism
in their adopted town of Halifax. The essay was intended for but did not appear in
Chartist Studies (1959), edited by Asa Briggs”
The Dignity of Chartism p65.
So writes historian Stephen Roberts in his introduction to a collection of works by Dorothy Thompson that he has edited. The collection in The Dignity of Chartism (2015) by Dorothy Thompson ranges across her professional life as a historian with pieces from 1952 to 2007. The centre piece is the unfinished essay he refers to above, ‘Halifax as a Chartist Centre,’ an original typewritten copy of which is held by Halifax Central Library.
The book was published by Verso and is available at:- https://www.versobooks.com/books/1894-the-dignity-of-chartism
DOROTHY THOMPSON 1923-2011
Although naturally linked with her fellow historian-activist husband EP Thompson, with whom she collaborated on most of his projects, it is important that she is not overshadowed by him. She was a formidable historian in her own right and in the field of Chartist history she was pre-eminent. Amongst her at the time groundbreaking works were The Early Chartists (1971), The Chartist Experience (1982 – co edited with James Epstein), The Chartists (1984), Images of Chartism (1998) and now we have The Dignity of Chartism. Stephen Roberts credits ‘The Chartists’ as still the most significant work written on the Chartists and assesses that she was the leading authority on Chartism in the world. Her influence as a historian continues through these works, those she taught, those who have read her work and those who engage with her work — either agreeing with her approach and interpretation or not. She instigated the series of Chartism Days in 1995 and this is now an annual event.
Thompson writes of being part of the post war generation of young Communist Party inspired historians who were determined to bring working class people and their struggles into the historical record. She left the Communist Party in 1956 but remained committed to working class history initially as part of the grouping known as the first New Left from 1957. While she rejected the label Marxist at the end of her career she remained on the left throughout her life.
DOROTHY THOMPSON AS A HISTORIAN
As a historian she was wary of any approach that took a single point of reference as the basis for analysing the past. She felt this could limit the subject matter historians chose to study as well as colouring unduly the interpretations drawn.
Thus she points out that a focus on economics could exclude women from working class history and that a view of what such women should have been demanding politically meant many feminists discounted them too. In her discussion on the work of John Savile in two of the essays she points similarly to what she considered misinterpretations of Chartism based on what the working class should have been doing in 1848 (engaging in revolution) rather than what she felt her research showed they were actually doing (largely forming collective self help organisations).
In Thompson’s critique of the ‘linguistic turn’ of historian Gareth Stedman Jones in the same essays she welcomed his move away from a narrow economics/trade cycle interpretation of history where historical events could be too readily seen as caused by economic factors. Instead Jones examined the language used by Chartists in the nineteenth century. Thompson took him to task for having too narrow a view of the Chartist uses of language; for ignoring the context in which such language is used. Terms, like ‘The People,’ were used that had been used in radical politics for over 100 years but meant something else in the Chartist period — it meant working class. Chartism has to be seen as a working class movement.
Clearly as a socialist she did not discount class as an essential category for analysing history. Indeed she did not discount economics or the effect of trade cycle periods of employment and unemployment on the actions of people — the first section of the essay on Halifax is an account of both changes in the trade cycle but more importantly structural changes to the local economy as the textile industry went from the older cottage based handloom ‘putting out’ system to factory machine based production.
Richard Brown on his website ‘Looking at History’ http://richardjohnbr.blogspot.com says that as a feminist she ‘almost single handedly reconstructed the narrative of women in Chartism’. As a student of literature before she studied history she welcomed an analysis of language and writes of how the Chartists used older terms in new ways in their hymns, night schools, newspapers, banners, broadsheets to create a national language of resistance. Her point was that all factors — economics, gender, language — were relevant but none were paramount.
DOROTHY THOMPSON AND LOCAL HISTORY
The reference to ‘Dignity’ in the title of the book is a tribute to the Halifax handloom weaver Ben Rushton who she felt embodied the spirit of Chartism. One of the reasons the Thompsons had chosen to move to Halifax where they lived for 17 years, at Holly Bank, Siddal was that it had been a centre of working class radicalism that could be studied. The essay ‘Chartism in the Industrial Areas’ in the collection is a guide to how to conduct research in local areas and she was keen to get away from too narrow a focus on activity in London and the use of central government records. While she felt this meant local circumstances and variations could be studied she thought that one of the main achievements of Chartism was the building of a national movement.
DOROTHY THOMPSON AND CHARTISM
Four main themes emerge from the collection: the rehabilitation of the reputation of Feargus O’Connor as a leader, the complex relationship with Irish politics and the Irish in Britain, the role of women and an overview of the rise and decline of a working class movement.
1. Feargus O’Connor.
Prior to her work O’Connor had been dismissed as a boastful egoist who had been the ruin of Chartism because of his ‘physical force’ tactics of calling mass meetings and promising to physically defend them. This was based on a reading of him as seen through the eyes of London based ‘moral force’ Chartists like William Lovett of the London Working Mens’ Association who preferred the tactic of persuasion. Fabian historians brought their gradualist agenda to this interpretation.
Later historians who thought of Chartism, especially in 1848, as a revolutionary movement saw him as too timid for failing to lead a revolutionary working class. They downplayed his role in favour of leaders such as George Julian Harney and James Bronterre O’Brien. Thompson in contrast viewed him as the ‘most well loved man’ in English public life in the 1840s. Chartist songs referred to him as the Lion of Freedom, many children (including in Halifax) were named after him and in 1855 – long after Chartism`s heyday — up to 60,000 attended his funeral. He had held together for over a decade a national organisation of working class radicals; something never achieved before. Thompson felt that if the name Chartism had not been coined we would be referring to the period as ‘O’Connorite Radicalism’.
2. Irish politics and the Irish in Britain.
Radical politics in England had always been engaged with Irish politics. The 1798 United Irish Rebellion was a huge shock to the British State and was brutally suppressed. It had been an attempt, after the American and French Revolutions, to set up a Republic in an independent Ireland. There had been radical, or Jacobin, republican movements in England and Scotland too. A popular figure from a later rising was Robert Emmett who had given a speech from the dock prior to his execution. This speech was recited and his memory toasted in Chartist meetings. O’Connor came from a United Irish family and had named the Chartist paper, the Northern Star, after the United Irish paper. After the Rebellion there had been various Coercion Acts and Chartists, even Lovett, had opposed these. The 1842 Charter Petition had repeal of the Union with Ireland as part of the program.
However in Ireland itself the dominant figure for nearly fifty years was Daniel O’Connell. In 1798 he had been a volunteer against the United Irish. As opposed to the non sectarian (not based on any religious sect) United Irish he wanted Catholic Emancipation which was achieved using the tactic of ‘monster meetings’ in 1829. He was socially conservative and was a firm believer in laissez faire economics (under no circumstances should the State interfere in the workings of the free market) and was thus against Trade Unions.
Initially in favour of suffrage reform O’Connell broke with English radicalism over the Glasgow Spinners strike of 1837/8 when Lovett refused to condemn trade unions or accept the New Poor Law. Thereafter he was rigidly anti Chartist and was prepared to support the Whig government in exchange for piecemeal reforms.
In 1841 the Tories came back to power and O’Connell sought repeal of the Union – however he was not a Republican (he wanted an Irish Parliament under the British crown) and was against any use of violence. In effect he had destroyed the older Jacobin tradition in Ireland and prevented the development of any large scale home grown Chartist movement.
When O’Connell died in 1847 another group, the Young Ireland movement, emerged from his shadow and some of these tried to make common cause with the Chartists via a confederated movement. This was in Thompson’s judgement far too little and too late. When they made their contribution to the 1848 ‘year of revolutions’ they were easily defeated in a small scale rising.
In England the Irish had been involved in the movements that fed into Chartism. Several of the national leaders (O’Connor, O’Brien and others) were Irish and at regional level they were well represented eg in the West Riding we have the likes of George White, John West, David Ross and Daniel Donovan. It is more difficult to judge the numbers involved at a rank and file level. Thompson noted JH Treble`s case that the Catholic church was opposed to Chartism but doubted that it had any serious effect in the very different circumstances of industrial England. In fact Thompson felt that the only areas that experienced a Chartist revival in 1848 following the rejection of the 2nd 1842 Petition were those areas, including the West Riding, that had large Irish populations. However she called for more research to explain this regional difference.
Thompson makes the case against John Savile’s view of 1848 as a revolutionary year in part as a result of this overview of the Irish and Irish politics. The Irish in Ireland were too weak, especially against a background of famine, to mount any serious rising and had little co ordination with English radicalism. The Irish in Britain were involved in what she felt was merely a turbulent year alongside their Chartist colleagues. There had been confederate risings planned in London and Liverpool but these came to nothing.
After the heyday of Chartism and as racialised views of the Irish became more prevalent (after heavy migration during and after the Famine of the 1840s) this compact between English and Irish radicals broke down and there were instances of anti Irish riots. Some ex Chartists kept the older view of shared oppression such as Ernest Jones now Manchester based and standing for the position as MP. He supported the three Fenian Manchester Martyrs in 1867 (hung after a policeman was killed during an attempt to rescue two arrested members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, an organisation dedicated to ending British rule in Ireland) and scandalised his middle class Liberal support in the process.
3. Chartism and women
The 1832 Reform Act was the first piece of legislation to specifically discount women from the electorate on the basis of gender. However Thompson reported this did not result in a specific feminist political agitation as middle and upper class women preferred their extended class voice and ‘oblique methods’ of influencing elections rather than associating themselves with those excluded by property qualifications.
Unlike the middle class the working class concept of ‘the People’ included women for at least some of the Chartists. There were well over 100 separate female Chartist Associations in the period 1838-48 and women had been urged to join the National Charter Association from its inception. Male middle class sympathisers were embarrassed to find female signatures on the Petitions sent to Parliament.
Like Chartism in general the women had been involved prior to the Charter in defending themselves and their families against what they saw as an attack on working class life. An especial focus was the New Poor Law (actually the Poor Law Amendment Act) passed by the newly enfranchised middle class and the Whig government in 1834. This attempt to cut the amount rate payers spent on the poor involved splitting families and incarcerating them in workhouses. They were quickly christened Bastilles by the working class referring to the Paris prison stormed by the revolutionary crowds during the Paris revolution in 1789.
What the women did not campaign for, nor the movement as a whole, was general improvements to their position in the workplace. Both the men and women regularly used slogans about the work of women as ‘in the hearth or the schoolroom’. Their position and that of children was put to the fore in the arguments against conditions in factories and mines both to curry sympathy with potential middle class sympathisers and to gain improvements for all workers, male and female.
The 1842 report of the Children`s Employment Commission did have a big impact and it is from here we get the testimony of the Halifax young worker Patience Kershaw. This was noted by Thompson and expanded on by Catherine Howe in her book ‘Halifax 1842, A year of crisis’. The conditions described are appalling and were seen as such at the time. At the same time in textile mills women working long hours on their feet until late into pregnancy and children as young as three being left unsupervised with bits of cloth tied around their necks soaked in water or milk attracted the support of men like Leeds born Tory Radical Richard Oastler. The 10 Hours Movement aimed to cut production in the mills in part to increase demand for the labour of male handloom weavers.
There had been occasional claims made, reaching a high point in 1842, about the situation of women in Chartist publications either on particular women’s grievances linked to a demand for political rights or even more general support for the vote but only for single women or widows. Women pointed out the contradiction of having a queen as head of state while denying the capabilities of women to be fully active in politics.
In the earlier period the ‘hen radicals’ as referred to in the ‘respectable’ press were active politically in a number of ways. For the most part they were supporting the men in ways that were an extension of family roles: making banners, doing the work around tea parties, teaching in day and evening schools. But Thompson felt that later (male) historians had seen ‘the crowd’ as a male phenomenon and as such had misunderstood womens’ role in older traditional forms of politics. From the use of foul and abusive language to being literally in the front line facing down armed troops and special constables (and being attacked for their troubles) women played the fullest of roles.
Even ostensibly ‘family’ roles as shoppers could lead to conflict as they took the lead in organising ‘exclusive trading’ ie boycotting shops where the shopkeeper did not back the Charter. One of the demands of the Charter was the secret ballot (to prevent voters being extorted) but in the meantime the fact that the way people voted was published for all to see proved useful — shopkeepers needed working class trade.
Who were these women? Thompson reports that there is a dearth of information about what occupations (if in paid work at all) they had but they seemed to have come from a wide range of backgrounds. Even if they were acting as members of Chartist families rather than workers themselves Thompson points out they could still be instigators of action. Ben Wilson in Halifax recounted in his memoir that he had been introduced to radical politics by his Aunt. Thompson, citing the Chartist Elizabeth Neesom, also saw no necessary contradiction between the ‘voices’ of independent working women and those who sought to defend their families. The ‘manifestos’ that most clearly claimed political rights for women also complained of the toil involved when their husbands had poor or no wages.
A later historian Anna Clarke, as noted by Richard Brown, developed the notion of ‘militant domesticity’ to encompass this: women justifying political activity outside the home by reference to work done both in the home and outside it. They justified their actions as being in defence of the home in the face of an aggressive Whig government. Clarke also used this notion to distinguish it from the later dominant middle class notions of ‘separate spheres’ with men at work and women as ‘angels’ at home. These working class women could not be described, and dismissed, as angels. The Tory Prime Minister and sometime novelist Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his novel ‘Sybil’ of fiercely independent Chartist factory girls who were more courageous than their male counterparts.
Thompson stated that while women did remain active in a number of ways after Chartism they were increasingly marginalised. This began in the Chartist period itself as the state was forced to make concessions to working class concerns (eg the Poor Laws were applied with less rigour) and new forms of organising were developed by the Chartists.
Against a background where paid work gradually moved out of the home or small workshop and as the family no longer worked as a single unit (as it had done in the earliest phase of mill-working) there was less room for the unskilled or those not earning a wage to be involved in a movement that had moved from direct protest to committee meetings.
Women might have been urged to join the National Charter Association but it was increasingly difficult for working class women.
After 1850 Thompson notes that the labour movement and popular politics shared the general ‘masculinisation’ of society. Working class women were still involved but Thompson called for more work to uncover this history. Perhaps women such as Helen Macfarlane: Chartist, witness to the 1848 uprising in Vienna and under the name ‘Howard Morton’ first translator of Marx`s The Communist Manifesto!
So Thompson presents a picture of ‘a very considerable presence’ of women in Chartism at least in the earlier period but ‘conspicuously absent’ in the later Chartist years and in the movements (Co-ops, friendly societies, model trade unions) that followed on from Chartism. She called for more research to explore and explain this. Any feminist claim at all for womens’ political rights in the Chartist period, such as it was, had come from women and some men in the movement. The women were mostly opposing specific government policies or supporting class rather than gender progress. So not perhaps the gender specific program we would expect from modern movements but women acting politically nonetheless and Thompson put them in the history books.
4. The Halifax experience and the rise and fall of Chartism:
Thompson outlines a process where Chartism emerged from disparate pre existing movements and organisations, entered a decade of developments within local and regional Chartism before it dissolved into various strands.
She has no doubts that this was a working class movement — at first based on the experiences of hand-workers and then factory workers. The uneven development of the local economy where for instance spinning might be mechanised but not weaving meant that hand working could, and did, exist long into the nineteenth century. They may not have had to submit to factory discipline but a group who had to have the entire family working, had no regular employment, had to meet their own overheads, received fines for spoilt work and got no money for indirect processes cannot be described as any other than a wage labourer. The employer sometimes loaned people money for looms leaving them in perpetual debt and dished out raw materials paying only for finished product.
Halifax had Jacobin and radical traditions long before Chartism including a Constitutional Society (supportive of the French Revolution). Thompson speculates that Ben Rushton, born in 1785, may well have known John Baines transported for swearing to secrecy local Luddites who had considerable local support. Halifax also had a strong movement around the unstamped press (a stamp was put on papers that had paid a tax that effectively made papers too expensive for working people — radicals sold papers without the tax).
The local political Unions that campaigned for the 1832 Reform Act (that achieved votes only for those who had wealth if not land) had remained in existence but after the Act the middle classes gradually left. For several years in the early 1830s a series of issues arose that fractured working class and middle class radical alliances — especially the New Poor Law and the 10 Hours movement. Jonathan Ackroyd led the masters in opposing the attempt to limit hours in the mills to 10 hours yet as a ‘Radical’ sought an alliance with aristocratic Whigs at an election in 1835. This is the ‘window breaking election’ as riots followed the failure to elect a Radical by one vote. In 1836 O’Connor caused consternation by forcing the Radicals to choose between attending dinner with him or with the Whigs – the Radical attended both!
Thompson views the 1837 attempt to introduce the New Poor Law into Halifax as the immediate precursor to Chartism – at a meeting of Halifax ratepayers to nominate Guardians for the new system Jonathan Ackroyd was nominated and opposed as a ‘grinder’ of working people. In March 1837at a public protest Richard Oastler and also, crucially, men like Radical Bob Wilkinson, William Thornton, Abraham Hanson and Ben Rushton spoke from the platform — the local leadership of radicalism had now passed to weavers and artisans. By January 1838 they were petitioning for 5 points of parliamentary reform and we can see the various agitations merging into Chartism and had an organisation before Francis Place in London published The People`s Charter.
July 1838 saw the formation of the Great Northern Union as Chartism became West Yorkshire based with Halifax sending delegates. October 1838 the first West Riding demonstration at Peep Green took place and by December an effective formal Chartist organisation was in force.
In response to the arrest of JR Stephens at Ashton there were protests all over Halifax Parish with resolutions calling for the right to bear arms and to defend themselves. Halifax magistrates were calling for troops. Peter Bussey the West Riding delegate took over 13,000 signatures from Halifax for the 1839 Petition. Local Chartists invaded Anti Corn Law meetings finally putting the last nail in the coffin of any alliance with the middle class.
The Halifax Guardian reported drilling and that 700 Chartists were armed and mill-owners nervously demanded that the military be stationed near their mills. Napier, in command of the troops, described Halifax as ‘wickedly Chartist’ but demanded his isolated troops be gathered together in one place rather than dispersed among the mills. There had been discussions about what to what to do if the petition in July was rejected (a general strike) and if the state responded with violence to any action. In the event there was no strike although 300 to 400 men did assemble to hear speeches and invade the Parish church with an address to the Queen.
Thompson thought it likely that the rest of 1839 saw the movement go underground as a national rising was planned with nightly drilling and secret meetings in Halifax parish. Local Chartist Ben Wilson and a student James Stansfeld (later Liberal MP and government minister) knew of these plans. In fact, led by John Frost, only Newport in Wales rose in November 1939 with Bussey reputedly hiding at the time rather than lead any West Riding rising. As Frost was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, unrest continued into Jan 1840 with armed occupations in Dewsbury, Heckmondwike and Birstall and an attempted rising in Bradford.
Halifax escaped the widespread arrests in the North and Chartists spent 1840 reorganising. In summer the National Charter Association was formed, a Halifax branch was inaugurated and by early 1841 Halifax and the 12 townships formed a District. It is in this period that the old style Jacobin leaders like Bussey withdrew. December 1841 saw a triumphal demonstration when O’Connor visited on his release from prison. In May 1842 the second petition was dismissed by parliament and by August Halifax was deeply involved in the Plug Riots (General Strike) that the Chartists had not initiated but supported. Many of the strikers were Chartist supporters.
After the riots, 36 people went to jail but not Rushton. In some areas Chartism was extinguished but not in Halifax as local leaders — including Rushton – kept the organisation going. He had a new generation of working class leaders supporting him: Ben Wilson, Isaac Clisset, John Snowden, George Walker, John Culpan and Kit Shackleton. February 1844 saw a revival in Chartist fortunes in the West Riding and Halifax was well placed to become the centre of the regions activity. By 1846 the agitation for 10 hours revived and Chartists were taking a lead — it was on this issue that an attempt by middle class reformers to ally with them failed. Via the Halifax Building Society they had attempted to create voters by enabling people to meet the 40/-(£2) threshold for county votes. Akroyd supported this but his strong opposition to the 10 hours ended this tentative move.
In 1846 Ernest Jones made his first appearance at Blackstone Edge and was to be closely tied to Halifax for much of the rest of his career even as he assumed de facto leadership of the entire movement. In 1847 he stood for election in Halifax but lost as the Whig allied with the Tory candidate. It was at this election that Jonathan Akroyd dropped dead at an election meeting as he was heckled by Chartists who also used the tactic of exclusive trading extensively.
In the run up to the 1848 petition, which Thompson shows was under way before news was received of the French Revolution in February, we enter the period that Ben Wilson is referring to when he speaks of open drilling and arming himself. The Revolution did enthuse people with meetings to welcome it, tricolours being displayed and slogans of Liberty Equality and Fraternity alongside the gathering of signatures. Huge demonstrations took place – 20,000 people on Skircoat Moor, 10,000 marching through Halifax with women prominent. This is when the avowedly Anglican Halifax Guardian felt obliged to quote the Pope to keep Irish working class people quiet! However there was no trouble when the third and final petition was rejected by parliament in April.
The local Chartists were not going entirely quietly though — in June a camp meeting at Blackstone Edge was awaiting Jones as speaker when a messenger arrived to say he had been arrested. With the trials of the Young Ireland leaders current news the meeting responded by processing onto the moor and George Webber threatened to lead them to the setting up of a Republic of Yorkshire and Lancashire with barricades on Halifax`s streets if Jones got a stiff sentence. Webber was arrested for this threat of insurrection and Jones was given two years in prison. Thompson`s judgement was that this was the passing of the physical force moment.
Thompson thought Chartism had actually been in decline as Jones joined the movement in 1846. People had left the movement or were moving into other more limited movements such as Trade Unions, Friendly Societies, Co-ops and had been since the 1830s. In 1847 Halifax had supported O’Connor’s Land Plan (a cottage based industry) but with reservations about the scheme’s legality which proved to be correct.
Other factors Thompson identified were: a/these working class organisations were passing to millworkers who were buying into free trade ideology while the support in 1848 came from the last gasp of hand-workers with their hatred of factories and nostalgia for land and economic independence; b/an upswing in the trade cycle; c/that only the West Riding and parts of Lancashire had any insurrectionary spirit left while none of the national leaders had this; d/that the large mill-owners became more subtle in their use of paternalism and/or their support for self generated working class group self help projects. These predated and had had little to do with the later Sam Smiles individualistic self help ideology.
The core of Halifax Chartism remained united but had dwindling appeal and Thompson says it was not surprising that there was ‘something of a rapprochement’ with middle class radicals. Halifax did try to get Jones elected to its first municipal body (Halifax became a Borough in 1848) prior to his arrest and some Chartists were elected and supported by middle class radicals; three members of the Ackroyd family lost at this election. What she found surprising was that local Chartists remained steadfast in principles and organisation.
By 1851 and through the 1850s and 1860s Wilson and Webber were leading lights in the Halifax Industrial Society (a co op) but Chartists had collected for Jones family throughout his prison sentence. On his release in July 1850 he came to Halifax and decided to decline an invite to a private meeting with middle class radicals in favour of his old Chartist supporters. From 1852 to 1858 Halifax supported financially Jones’ People’s Paper. But at the 1852 election Jones only managed 37 votes and at a bye election shortly after the Chartists didn’t put forward a candidate at all as Halifax Chartism declined in popular support.
Ben Rushton`s ten thousand strong funeral in 1853 was a splendid testament to his life-long role in working class politics. While it may have been the’ last great West Yorkshire demonstration’ Thompson is skeptical of John Snowden’s assertion that by 1859 Chartism had entirely expired when Jones appealed for funds. Having fallen into financial difficulties, Snowden had become estranged, had something like contempt for working class people who had not self educated themselves and had rejected help from his old Chartist colleagues in favour of a pension from Edward Ackroyd having fallen into financial difficulty.
At the same time a small group of Chartists were still meeting. Snowden was used as an example of a working class man who had no truck with the Reform League. This had started in 1865 to agitate for further reform and while it sought to maintain good relations with middle class radicals (middle class moderates were organised in a Reform Union) a section still saw itself as distinct from the middle class. Webber was secretary of the Halifax Reform League supported by other Chartists like Wilson. At the 1868 election Webber and the League wanted Jones to stand against Edward Ackroyd who was a somewhat unreliable Liberal MP. Jones however was already committed to standing in Manchester and recommended EO Greening instead — tellingly he was a rising star in the co-op movement.
Thompson sees the 1868 election as the last flowering of a Chartist entity that campaigned alongside middle class radicals before losing their identity altogether by merging with mainstream Gladstonian Liberalism
When Jones died in January 1869 – Webber and Wilson attended the funeral as representatives of the League – funds were raised for his widow (including from Snowden) and Hebden Bridge Chartists were prominent in raising funds for a monument in Ardwick (Manchester) for him. There was one last hurrah of ‘old buffers’ when the Halifax Guardian reported on a dinner of old Chartists in 1885. The paper could not resist noting that some of them had become businessmen and some even employed labour — thus letting us know that in their younger days, while in prison or on the run, these men had been working class.
The national picture and the rise and fall of Chartism.
From case studies such as Halifax Thompson had a view of the overall development of Chartism and working class history.
As outlined by Thompson, Stedman Jones viewed Chartism in 1848 as the end of a class free ‘People’ tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. This strictly political movement was an end to itself — it had no social claims or policies. This ‘politics’ declined as it became less important because by 1848 the Tories were liberalising the State. Thompson reports Savile by contrast as seeing the State as stronger in 1848 in the face of a potentially revolutionary situation than it had been in 1838. That it did not lead to revolution was explained in part by poor leadership. A decline in class militancy was explained by the notion of a Labour Aristocracy where the skilled workers had been separated from the rest of the working class by better conditions based on the proceeds of the Empire. So for the former Chartism (SJ) was barely a working class movement at all as seen in the use of traditional terminology and lack of a social program. For the latter (Savile) it marked the start of a reformist working class movement after failing to provide a socialist revolution.
Thompson`s view of the trajectory accepted neither of these interpretations. For her the movement had been working class from its inception as people who were working for a living had been left behind by their erstwhile middle class colleagues when they, the middle classes, had got the vote in 1832. She agrees that after 1815 there was a movement for political reform backed by extra parliamentary tactics that did have success. She points to the Test and Corporation Act (1828 – prior to this people had to swear a Church of England oath to take public office); the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) and especially the ‘Great’ Reform Act. Crucially all these were passed by a Parliament that was Anglican and aristocratic — they had shown they would have to respond to pressure.
In the first glow of getting political power the middle classes, at least the more ideological of them, introduced blatant class based laws that sought to centralise the British State such as the 1834 New Poor Law, the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, the 1839 Rural Police Act. Middle class ‘extra parliamentary activity’ such as mobilising against the 10 Hours Act, and the use of the law to punish the Tolpuddle labourers in 1834 and the Glasgow Spinners in 1837 further pointed to the class nature of the government.
So working people organised to force the government and local power holders to back down. The Poor Law was never enforced as severely as the law allowed and the police powers that were based on permissive legislation (local powers could introduce a police force legally but did not have to) in many places, were not introduced. This included Halifax, hence the use of troops in emergencies. The powers that be were not being charitable but were responding to political pressure from well organised working class people on social matters. So while the movement did use the tactics and language of earlier movements these were in the context of a working class that sought answers to their social problems via the vote. The Chartists well understood what further political and social progress an extension of the suffrage could bring.
Another sign of the working class nature of Chartism can be seen by their refusal to have their movement co opted or lead by middle class radicals. The issue that most clearly shows this was the middle class lead anti corn law movement. The landed aristocracy fought to maintain the law that kept the price of food high by means of a tariff that kept out foreign food. The middle class wanted this rejected in favour of free trade, and only achieved repeal in 1846, but Chartists refused to ally with them knowing that a fall in the price of food would be utilised by the middle class to cut wages.
The most obvious move to lead suffrage movements was Joseph Sturge`s 1842 Complete Suffrage Union that offered help in extending the vote if they dropped the name Chartist and used only moral force tactics. Even the moderate William Lovett refused this overture. Chartists welcomed the help of middle class radicals like ‘honest’ John Fielden or Tory radicals like Richard Oastler but it was very much on their own terms.
Stephen Roberts comments that Thompson`s main interest lay with the physical force tendency within Chartism. However she felt that the high point of Chartism was in the period 1838-40 with 1839 and the Newport Rising, and the planning for widespread risings that never materialised, being the only time it was a really serious threat to the state. Both O’Connell in Ireland and O’Connor in England had sought to use the pressure of mass ‘monster’ meetings to force change. The real threat of violence — apart from small Jacobin groups largely based in London or the proposals for the rescue of Welsh prisoners — came from the state at this stage and the Chartists ‘physical force’ was largely rhetoric or the need for the defence of meetings from attacks such as at Peterloo in Manchester in 1819. Thompson said that if the authorities had attacked one of the mass meetings she could have envisaged an armed response but not by 1848. Together with the retreat from centralising policies forced upon them the government transmuted the death sentences of Frost and the other Newport leaders and Thompson felt this meant the Chartists did not see such a need for defensive measures against the state.
She further felt that the repeal of the Corn Laws and the passing of Factory Act of 1847 saw a state that was still having to concede to extra parliamentary pressure. In these circumstances the working class saw ‘politics’ as having a lower priority as they diverted to other forms of defence of their class interests such as trade unions, co operatives, self education and friendly societies. While keen to stress this is not a rejection of politics and that class conflict was still experienced as such she felt this showed a move to reformism as many had a vested interest now in reduced violence.
As noted above in reply to John Savile on 1848, Thompson thought it was a ‘turbulent’ but not a revolutionary year. In addition to the failure to build a strong movement in Ireland she points out that while the outbreak in February 1848 of the French revolution gave a fillip to Chartist agitation the working class element of the revolution had been defeated by June 1848 and by December the conservative Louis Napoleon had been elected President. Savile had been right that the state massively increased its forces in the face of the disruption but what had really needed explaining was the failure of Chartism to revive outside London, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Other areas of previous Chartist support such as South Wales, Nottingham, Birmingham and Leicester remained relatively quiet.
Thompson felt that 1848 was the end of a decade of mass pressure from the excluded working class to enlarge the system rather than overthrow it. Part of the explanation was that by 1848 political thought was increasingly dominated by economic concepts and the working class responded by seeking economic weapons such as unions and wage bargaining.
She felt that by 1848 the fear of an all out attack on working class communities and institutions had passed and the language of social democracy was in the ascendant. They were now looking to collective self help rather than government intervention to defend themselves and their conditions. Thus there is no need to seek an explanation for a sudden drop in class consciousness in 1848 – the changes had been under way since the 1830s. After 1840 the older Jacobin ways of organising political protest were losing ground in favour of a movement of committees and it is against this background that the decline in the role of women is to be explained.
What the new means of organising did provide was a lesson in how to create power bases in trade unions and other class based industrial and social areas that would eventually be the structures on which the later political movement was built and financed. Thus these movements were still class based and were not a move into Liberalism after 1848.
Conclusion – what did Chartism achieve?
Thompson points out that it was necessarily a short term movement with such poor people not being able to sustain a permanent organisation. However in many ways it changed the terms of nineteenth century politics. She felt that some of her left wing colleagues were unable to see any achievements at all — that being tied to a rigid adherence to Marxist theory led to loss of respect for utopian traditions in British socialist thought. Rather the Chartists learnt from their experience. Interestingly she in part felt that Marx himself had a more subtle interpretation than many people who followed him.
For all its divisions Chartism brought a whole new class into politics and its influences were felt as much at local as regional or national level. It held together for 10 years achieving a national organisation that could mobilise consistently tens of thousands of people in defence of their class interests and had had an ‘anti parliament’ in its National Convention. It forced modification of the most brutal middle class policies post 1832 and laid the foundations of future sources of social and political power.
CATHERINE HOWE: HALIFAX 1842 – A YEAR OF CRISIS.
Halifax and Chartism is also the focus of the 2014 book by Halifax born Catherine Howe. Stephen Roberts writes a foreword for the book, which focuses on the most dramatic events of the Chartist period in Halifax. Howe covers the entire Chartist period but the 1842 strike is foremost in her account. Roberts judges that this is now the definitive account. She gives due regard to the strikes origin in the Midlands and to the concurrent developments in the mining history. Of special interest is her focus on Halifax child miner Patience Kershaw. Roberts comments that these events are not particularly well known in Halifax itself.
See also: Benjamin Rushton is buried in Halifax https://writemark.blogspot.com/2017/07/benjamin-rushton-is-buried-in-halifax.html#comment-form