CHARTISM DAY in LONDON 2018
Rebecca, the Chartist Land Plan, ‘Knowledge Chartism’, Chartist Hymn Singing and European Revolutionaries, including Beniowski
Colin Gibson (archivist at Gwent Archives) left Newport in the early hours of Saturday 9th June to attend the Conference held at University College, London hosted by the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH).
He found himself travelling amongst a number of members of the south Wales Chartist heritage and history circle, all heading to the same destination.
He writes that “Notwithstanding the best efforts of the rail networks to frustrate the prompt arrival of some of our number, we arrived with anticipation and with only a few minutes to spare. We were plunged into the first lecture given by Rhian E. Jones on Rebecca.
And we were not disappointed. For throughout the day we were treated to a range of scholarly papers that served as a reminder that the ‘Chartist Experience’ of the early Victorian period constituted more than its moments of petitioning and the flashpoints of confrontation with authority, as occasioned particularly in 1839 and the general strike of 1842.
First, the often neglected context of Welsh rural radicalism in these years, expressed in the richly symbolic form of ‘Rebecca’ was minutely explored by Rhian E. Jones drawing upon her new book, Petticoat Heroes(2015). The Rebecca movement overlapped with Chartism, and the particular grievances addressed by both movements were often interlinked, particularly ‘knife and fork’ issues such as opposition to the Poor Law that were also asserted within Chartist politics, as well as through Rebecca. Although predominantly industrial in its constituency, Rhian reminded us that Welsh Chartism was first established in the market town of Carmarthen, where the impetus was very much the influence of Hugh Williams. There were also important pockets of Chartist membership in north Wales, but organized Chartism generally struggled in these areas.
The actual ‘rural vision’ of the Chartist movement, brought to life by the Land Plan settlements of 1845-51, was adroitly and entertainingly explored by Peter Cox outlining a project commenced by the University of the Third Age (U3A). The Land Plan, promoted by the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, successfully acquired above 1,000 acres of land for cultivation and attracted 70,000 shareholders (a small number of whom were allocated land drawn by lottery), resulted in the establishment of five settlements. The U3A project aims to fully transcribe the Chartist Land Company share registers held among the records at the National Archives (TNA), which contain about 43, 000 names. Although all shareholders were not directly members of Chartist Associations the suggestion that, by and large, subscribers to the land plan should be regarded as sharing something of the Chartist ‘world picture’ and outward aspirations of the movement met with general assent of the conference. The shareholders’ information should be viewed then as a valuable data-set for looking broadly at the distribution of support across localities and the occupations of men and women subscribing.
Information already collated by the U3A is currently included on the Chartist Ancestors’ website www.chartistancestors.co.uk The share registers in the Board of Trade records at TNA are referenced BT 41/474/2659; 476/2659.
In periods of downturn and the crushing disappointment of the rejection of successive petitions the Chartist movement was sustained by its educational and cultural activities. Libraries and reading groups were important to the Chartist movement and many individual Chartists were intensely engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. Some Chartists became lecturers in a range of subjects often developing alternatives to prevailing orthodoxies in their theology and social thought. One such was John Skelton the subject of Alison Denham’s talk. Alison’s extensive and illuminating research demonstrated that such educational pursuit could often be a tortuous path of forging an identity of attitudes and belief in a rapidly changing world. Herbalism and ‘alternative medicine’ formed a substantial part of John Skelton’s life activity but he also wrestled with theological and ethical ideas. Between 1840 and 1876 Skelton gave 68 lectures on a range of subjects speaking on 11 occasions to the Marylebone Chartists. Skelton’s topics for these talks included: ‘Was Jesus Christ a Real or Fictitious Person?’, ‘Priest craft and Superstition’ and ‘Progressive Civilization’. Skelton’s promotion of education parallels that of other reformers and the Chartist maxim that ‘Knowledge is Power’. Alison’s thought provoking MA thesis 2013 (University of York) is available to read in full online: Herbal Medicine in Nineteenth Century England: the Career of John Skelton.
The theme of this period as embracing a whirlwind of ideas was amplified in the contribution of Jacob Dengate in looking at the connection of the European Enlightenment to the Chartist movement. Some Chartists were very inspired by the European Revolutions and modes of thought – and some links with continental influence are demonstrable. Outside of the main battleground of ideas the contest for hearts and minds was explored in David Kennerley’s contribution on ‘singing classes’ … and ‘the politics of sound’. Examples were looked at by David that examined the infusion of workers’ lives with the cultural forms and tropes of the middle classes – the bringing of ‘harmony and order’ in response to strikes and ‘discord’ through what might be termed the ‘soft power’ of music and song. These contributions resulted in lively debate on the issues raised.
Chartism not only absorbed ideas from abroad but also people. Foreign influence on Chartism was particularly felt in London because of the presence of many émigré groups displaced by continental upheaval and revolution. This was particularly so for Polish exiles who comprised sizeable communities and organized political groupings in London. The activities of these exiles and specifically the army officer, Bartlomiej Beniowski, comprised the subject of Emma Harris’ incisive lecture. The significance for the Chartist movement of these exiles was that quite a number of them joined the London Working Men’s Association and the London Democratic Association (the latter led by G. J. Harney was already strongly internationalist in outlook).
The most notable in this regard was Beniowski a former Polish cavalry officer. Beniowski and other Poles in 1839 were strong advocates of physical force Chartism. In May 1839 Beniowski wrote articles on military tactics for the London Democrat newspaper and accounts of his speeches appeared frequently in The Charter, the Northern Star and other Chartist newspapers. It has been claimed that he served on a secret war committee planning and directing Chartist military operations and that he had been despatched to take command of forces in south Wales; and later in the north of England. Some recent biographical research on Beniowski by Mark Crail (published on the Chartist Ancestors’ website) identifies that his daughter Emilja Wrublewska left behind family papers, ‘a legacy of literary works’ and ‘other material’ and ‘intriguingly kept a diary from 1850’. Beniowski , who died in 1867, may of course have reminisced in later life to his daughter, details of which could be among papers of hers which remain to be translated from Polish. Although much will probably remain a mystery of the major’s activities there could yet be more to discover.”
Thanks Colin for your reminder of what was a rewarding and thought provoking conference, so many stimulating ideas were presented and we were provided with the opportunity to engage with a wide range of Chartist Projects.
We must thank Fabrice Bensimon for organising such an excellent conference and express our regrets that he has now left London. We wish him well in his return to Paris and look forward to future collaboration. We first met Fabrice at the Chartism Day conference held in Caerleon, Newport 2008 and hope to see him, and even more readers, at next year’s Chartism Day conference in June 2019 – expected to be at Leeds.