Chartism attracted some fascinating characters – and even more fairly ordinary people who found themselves caught up in fascinating events.
Over the past couple of years, I have been able to add a number of individual life stories to Chartist Ancestors that have particularly captured my imagination. Typically, these are not among the best known of the Chartist leaders, whose life stories are reasonably well known. Rather, they are ordinary men and women who through willpower or circumstances have found themselves playing leading parts in historic events – occasionally in ways which would strain credibility if they appeared in fiction.
Here are some of the real life stories that have interested me most.
Best known in the history of Chartism as having been the last surviving Chartist activist, the long-lived Henry Clubb died in 1921 after a life-long commitment to vegetarianism which found expression in his career choices as a journalist and lecturer, in his religious affiliation as a member of the Cowherdite sect, and most disastrously in his attempt to establish a commune in the wilds of Kansas that lasted less than a year. Those who made the trek expecting to find Octagon City built around an eight-sided town square, with eight roads radiating from it, and eight-sided houses and barns for 64 families discovered instead a single log cabin, one plough and a collection of tents. But Clubb was a highly principled man whose long-standing commitment to the anti-slavery cause led him to volunteer for active duty in the Union army on the outbreak of the American civil war.
More about Henry Clubb
For a time, Susanna Inge achieved celebrity in the Victorian press as a “She Chartist”. As secretary to the City of London Female Chartist Association, she and her fellow Chartist lecturer Mary Ann Walker were held up in fascination and horror as examples of how Chartism corrupted the “fairer sex”. Despite this, they never shrank from taking on male opponents in debate and stood firm for the Charter and for the rights of women to participate fully in the political process. Inge came from a working class family and had aspirations to become a writer. Sadly, she never achieved her ambition, and after having an illegitimate son she moved to New York where she worked as a fur sewer until her death in 1902.
More about Susanna Inge
One of the backroom boys of Chartism, James Grassby was neither a great writer nor orator and was probably known to relatively few Chartists. But there is something of the Leonard Zelig about his ability to be present at so many significant turns in the movement’s history. In 1842 he was the delegate from his home town of Hull to the Manchester Chartist conference that coincided with the wave of strikes that swept the North – and stood trial alongside Feargus O’Connor and others at Lancaster Assizes. Moving to London, he became secretary to registrations and elections committee among many other bodies, and was a trusted friend and comrade to William Cuffay. As Chartism went into decline, he served first as a member of the national executive and subsequently as general secretary of the National Charter Association. I have to declare an interest in my enthusiasm for Grassby in that he was my great-great-great grandfather, but I do wonder how he managed to do all this while continuing to earn a living as a carpenter.
More about James Grassby
More about Bartolomiej Beniowski
Thomas Slingsby Duncombe
The best known of those included in this list, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe was the “Radical Dandy” MP for Finsbury, and the best and most reliable ally that the Chartist cause ever had in the House of Commons. Duncombe, a notorious gambler and philanderer well known for his louche bachelor lifestyle and love of female company, is included here mostly because I have this year been able to reveal the great secret that he hid from all about him: Duncombe lived in domesticity as man and wife with his partner for more than two decades and shortly before he died they married.
More about Thomas Slingsby Duncombe
More about Helen McFarlane
Read about more Chartist lives here.