Sunday, 18 June 2017

Chartism Day 2017: from biscuits and salt pork for the troops to surrealist Chartist images and a lost letter

Some 20 years on from the first ever Chartism Day, each year’s event still brings word of archive discoveries, exciting new images and innovative ways of “doing history” that shed light on the people who made up the Chartist movement and how they thought and acted.

Chartism Day 2017 was no exception. Organised by Dr Katrina Navickas and colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire history department, this year’s conference visited Heronsgate – better known to those with an interest in Chartism as O’Connorville.

Dr Katrina Navickas
First up was Dr Robert Poole of the University of Central Lancashire, who spoke on the emergence of mass petitioning during the Napoleonic Wars, and on the 1817 petitioning campaign seeking political reform which ended with the suppression of the blanketeers.

In that year, following the Spa Fields meetings in London and the revival of the Hampden Club, some 1 million people signed around 600 petitions calling for manhood suffrage – despite tight restrictions on how such petitions were permitted.

MPs were outraged that the petitioners appeared to be suggesting that the Commons was not representative. As the Tory politician George Canning put it: “This is no longer the language of petitioning; it is the language of rebellion.”

With habeas corpus suspended and the Seditious Meetings Act in place, the campaign was doomed to failure, and troops were able to break up the blanketeers’ march from Manchester and to suppress risings both in Manchester and Pentridge.

Lecturer and writer Les James, who has worked extensively on Chartism in South Wales, next set out how he and his colleagues uncovered a letter written by Zepheniah Williams, one of three leaders of the Newport Rising, while on board the ship transporting them to Van Diemen’s Land.

Although a copy of the letter had been first uncovered in the 1930s, the original had been thought lost, until found among a set of 600 Home Office criminal petition documents held by the National Archives and digitised by the family history website FindMyPast.

It appeared that the letter had been added to the file at some point in the 1850s, when Williams’s suggestions that many of the troops used to suppress the Chartists had been insubordinate and even willing to join them would have been an embarrassment.

The letter and other documents found in the same file are now the subject of further research.

David Steele and his composite image of the Kennington
Common Chartist rally
Setting out his early-stage research into the Kennington Common rally of 10 April 1848, David Steele explained how he had used army records of the provisions provided to troops stationed in the capital to prevent an uprising to assess numbers.

The records included provisions for 10 days for 5,000 men at the Admiralty, 10 days’ supplies for 300 men at Somerset House, 10 days’ supply for 200 men at the Bank of England, 10 days’ supply for 200 men at the Royal Mint and 15 days’ supply for 600 men at the Tower.

The records further stipulated that the biscuits, salt pork and spirits held at the Tower should be ready to move to other positions at short notice.

“This is serious military planning and obviously Wellington is behind this. It is the kind of military planning he has done in his campaigns.” The authorities were clearly planning for a serious insurrection, he said.

Steele went on to show a composite image he had managed to create from the two daguerreotypes of the Kennington Common meeting now held in the Royal Collection. From these, he could pinpoint the position of the camera to Horne’s Tavern – and to establish that the chimney shown in the background was of a factory making sulphuric acid.

Steele argued that there were unanswered questions about how and why a society photographer such as William Kilburn, who is known to have taken the pictures, came to be there that day when other more lucrative work must surely have been available.

And he cast doubt on reports of the size of the demonstration, estimating by counting the number of individuals in grids drawn on to the image that the numbers may have been as low as 3,500. This was, he stressed, highly provisional and may have reflected just a part of the crowd at a very early stage of the meeting, before many had yet arrived.

Professor Ian Haywood, right, discusses what
may be the first ever image of Chartists
Drawing on his research on the rise of Victorian caricature, Professor Ian Haywood of the University of Roehampton showed how Chartists had been presented satirically at the time.

He also told how he had discovered a sketch book in archives in Washington DC in which the then unknown young cartoonist Richard Doyle had drawn the only known images of the Birmingham Bull Ring riots.

“I found all these weird images of public gatherings and it got more and more interesting until… I was blown away by this,” he said, showing one of the sketches. “Giant policemen wading into the crowd and grabbing them by the armful, watched by a handful of smug dignitaries. It’s classic Swiftian.”

Other sketches showed “surreal scenes of outdoor monster meetings”, stick figures running riot and “stealing people’s shoes”. “Are these meant to be Chartists or someone else? I really don’t know at the moment. It’s like something out of Bosch or Dante. I’ve yet to decode these images.”

Professor Malcolm Chase on the Land Plan
Professor Malcolm Chase of the University of Leeds argued that the Land Plan was “the site where the social thinking and social policy of Chartism is most widely debated and most visible to us”.

He stressed the inclusive nature of Chartism, emphasising a particular version of the family ideal and particularly celebrating the role of women. “Families lay at the heart of Chartist rhetoric.” But as the movement evolved, it became a “professionally staffed, that is male staffed” campaigning body.

This meant “a decisive shift away from communities and families towards a subscriber-based agitation focused on indoor activities”, reflecting broader social adoption of the male breadwinner ideal. As Chartist agitation declined, so some activists went off into co-operation and the newly emerging building societies movement.

“The Chartist Land Plan is simply the biggest and brashest building society of them all and at its heartwas a vision of the family in which women worked as homemakers and men as providers.” And among the lessons taken from its demise was the need for sound financial management.

“Though the appeal of back-to-the-land remained powerful, the Land Plan marked the end of agrarian fundamentalism. It was part of an evolving notion of home-centredness … no longer intent on subverting society but on hollowing out spaces where working people could be insulated from its worst effects.”

Dr Katrina Navickas concluded the conference by presenting the findings of her attempts to map the origins of those Manchester subscribers to the Land Plan who were allocated smallholdings.

Many came from the working class strongholds of Ancoats and Hulme, but others came from more diverse sometimes rural or semi-rural areas. But the mapping also showed that their experience of being set down in the Chartist settlements alongside families from across the UK would have been nothing new, as their near-neighbours in Manchester would also have come from Scotland, Ireland and other parts of England.

With the conference concluded, many of those taking part set off on a walk to Heronsgate – a relatively short distance, but at the very hottest part of the hottest day of the year so far – where they were able to visit buildings that have survived from original Chartist settlement.

The day concluded at the Land of Liberty, Peace and Plenty, a former beerhouse at the edge of the settlement which must have served many of those Chartists who had not pledged to abstain – arguing instead, perhaps, as Ernest Jones did, that “the Charter don’t lie at the bottom of a glass of water”.
  • Note: accounts of the conference sessions above are intended to provide a flavour of the day rather than a balanced or comprehensive summary of the speakers' research.
  • A special mention to all those who tweeted aspects of Chartism Day 2017 - many of whose comments and images appear in the Storify below created by Dr Katrina Navickas.

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