Chartism Day Conference 2017
Sarah Richards reports:
On a scorching hot Saturday 17 June, this year’s Chartism Day was celebrated in the cool and airy hall of Mill End Sports and Social Club, Rickmansworth.
Our hosts, Dr. Katrina Navickas and her colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire Heritage Hub and Local & Regional History Research offered a full and attractive programme. Lectures and discussion were followed by the opportunity to visit the former Chartist Co-Operative Land Company settlement of “O’Connorville” at Heronsgate.
Attending the annual Chartism Day is a joy – and this year was no exception. The organisers are committed to keeping it accessible, open to anyone with an interest in the subject. There’s never more than a minimal charge to attend and this year it was free, thanks to the generosity of the University of Hertfordshire.
For me, it is one of the high points in the year, a privileged opportunity to engage with the latest research on Chartism and related topics and meet many of those active in the field. The six papers presented to the conference evidence the diverse and thought provoking directions that are currently being pursued under the umbrella of “Chartism”.
The day opened with Dr. Robert Poole (Guild Research Fellow and Reader in History at the University of Central Lancashire) demonstrating how ‘The 1817 Petitioning Campaign’ for Reform fostered a culture of petitioning and developed techniques later used by the Chartists. The Hampden Club in London successfully spawned numerous local societies around the country, primarily in Lancashire, Cheshire and the Midlands. Supporters collected signatures door to door, called mass meetings and presented over 700 petitions to Parliament, probably attracting not far short of a million signatures. Although many of the petitions were objected to and rejected, the campaign nevertheless succeeded in increasing support for Parliamentary Reform and developed awareness and appetite for ‘constitutional’ protest.
CHARTISM e-Mag editor, Les James followed with ‘A Plea for Clemency: Zephaniah Williams’ letter to Dr McKechnie 25 May 1840’ - the original document, written by one of the three transported leaders of the 1839 Chartist Rising, was discovered last year amongst the uncatalogued HO Criminal Appeals at the National Archives. Previously our knowledge of the letter depended upon a single copy letter, without provenance, that turned up in 1939 amongst the Tredegar Park estate papers. It was instantly sidelined because of its uncertain origins and importantly its militant message did not fit with the politics of the time. Dr. David Williams (UC Cardiff) was writing his book ‘John Frost: A Study in Chartism’ commissioned by Newport Borough Corporation for the 1939 Centenary of the ‘Newport Chartist Riots’. Zephaniah Williams’ statement contradicted David Williams’ view of the ‘disturbances’ as a monster demonstration which turned into a riot. He dismissed the letter as “currying favour”. Newport was a Conservative run borough, besieged by a Labour dominated County Council, beholden to the South Wales Miners Federation. Within ‘the Fed’, the small, but influential, Communist Party was pushing for a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism and organising a Chartist Pageant in the coalfield. Newport had set up a broad based organising committee and that year embraced the Chartists (in the form of John Frost) as the pioneers of British democracy. Post war, achievement of ‘five of the six points’ became a totem in the battle against totalitarian Communism, viz the recently demolished mural (Kenneth Budd 1978). David Williams’ 1939 view point prevailed in the historiography of Welsh Chartism until after his death in 1978. His ‘monster demonstration’ thesis dominated until the publications of Ivor Wilks (1984) and David J.V. Jones (1985). The 150th Anniversary in 1989 celebrated ’The Newport Rising’. Les James argued that now we can read the letter in the hand of Zephaniah Williams, we should not view it as a ‘confession’ but as a genuine statement of the truth as the writer saw it. We should read and contextualise it as an admission of revolutionary intent and insurrectionary planning occurring over a long period of gestation, with wide geographical ramifications and emotions drawn from an imagined Welsh past.
In ‘Biscuits, Spirits and Salt Pork: Provisioning the Troops at the Kennington Common Chartist Demonstration, 1848’, researcher David Steele (Warwick University) cited detailed military notes from Home Office files to show how the authorities, warned by revolutions in Europe earlier that year, stockpiled food and drink in strategic London locations, positioned large numbers of troops at the outskirts and even larger numbers of special constables within the city. By making a composite image from the two known daguerreotypes of the Demonstration, David Steele located the photographer’s point of view and made a range of estimations of the number of people, all far fewer than the 100,000 previously claimed, leaving us with an appropriate question just before lunch: “if the troops weren’t needed, who ate all the biscuits?” There was much debate over lunch about crowd numbers at Chartist events and thoughts raised that maybe the saturation policing organised by Wellington obstructed or intimidated the numbers crossing the Thames bridges and gaining access to the Common.
The programme resumed with Professor Ian Haywood (Roehampton University) on ‘Picturing Chartism: Notes from the Front Line”. Drawing on his research into political caricature of the 1830s and 1840s, he showed striking images from the mainstream press and the illustrated and radical satirical publications of the period, decoding the imagery of the great Chartist petition as “the people penetrating the citadel of power”. His book is planned for publication 2018.
In the last conference session of the day, before our visit to Heronsgate village (O’Connerville), Professor Malcolm Chase (Leeds University) ‘Chartism and the Land Plan’ and Dr. Katrina Navickas ‘Geographies of Land Company Subscribers in Manchester’ focussed our thoughts on why we were meeting in this Hertfordshire neighbourhood.
Malcolm Chase argued that Feargus O’Connor’s Land Plan was not the ‘bucolic tangent’ described by earlier historians of Chartism. It should not be viewed as an unnecessary diversion, but as an inclusive element of the political movement. The Land Plan was Chartism’s social policy, representing Chartism’s defence of the domestic ideal and the integrity of the family. It was constructed in the face of economic change, the new Poor Law and the move to factory production. Though few were resettled by this “biggest and brashest” scheme, many more bought shares, committing to the possibility of an alternative to urban life. While belief in ‘natural abundance’ and ‘agricultural fundamentalism’ died away in the 1850s, the collapse of the scheme was followed by greater realism regarding legal structures, economic security and the scale of provision required. Activism shifted towards mutual self-help and the creation of building societies promoting home ownership as the working class ideal.
Katrina Navickas showed her early findings from a mapping exercise that she had carried out of subscribers living in Manchester. She drew some of her data from the lists of those individuals allocated plots, which she has made available on Mark Crail’s ‘Chartist Ancestors’ website. (go to website) While the settlements brought people from disparate backgrounds together as neighbours, this had not necessarily been so different in their previous urban experience. Many subscribers can be seen living within easy walking distance of Chartist meeting places, and by using the 1842 Cholera Map as an index of deprivation, their poor circumstances become clear.
After the talks we spilled out into the heat and light outside. Fortunately much of the walk to Heronsgate was on shaded paths through open countryside before reaching the wooded lanes of O’Connorsville.
Though many of the cottages are much altered and enlarged and other properties have been built in between them, the settlement’s Chartist origins are still clear. Our guide from Rickmansworth Historical Society pointed out the rectangle with two tabs, symbol of the Charter, which marks the original cottages high on the wall under the eaves.
One resident welcomed us into her home, one of the least altered, with much original woodwork and other features. Though built on quite a small scale, it must have seemed a palace to someone moving there from cramped early nineteenth century urban housing. Sadly most of those settled in O’Connorsville struggled to make a rural living and moved away fairly soon, leaving the cottages to be colonised by people from the surrounding area. We visited the small church founded in that later phase, and then moved on to The Land of Liberty, Peace and Plenty, a pub with origins as an 1830s beer house, a delightful place to wind down at the cooler end of a day packed with ideas.
Sarah Richards is a family historian specialising in the Frost family and the author of ‘Finding Chartism in the Family: William Davies of Blackwood’, Gwent local History Journal, pp89-94, no 116, 2014 (Chartist 175th Anniversary Edition).
In 2016, she discovered amongst HO papers at the National Archives, Kew, the original letter written by Zephaniah Williams to Dr. A. McKechnie, when aboard the convict ship ‘Mandarin’, 25 May 1840.
Hope Lodge, built in 1846 for Fergus O’Connor,