In his lifetime, John Arnott was one of the best-known and well-liked figures in London Chartism. A shoemaker by trade, he served the movement as secretary of the National Victims Fund, relieving the distress of Chartist prisoners and their families, and later as general secretary of the National Charter Association itself. But Arnott was more than simply a stalwart and reliable bureaucrat in an organisation which often seemed to have more orators than organisers, he was also known for his singing voice, and for the poems he wrote.
In later years, Arnott fell on hard times, and was last seen by the Chartist writer W E Adams around 1865 begging for pennies at a bookshop on the Strand. By then he had been all but forgotten, and Arnott was effectively lost to history. Until a few months ago, when David Shaw, who has written extensively on minor Victorian poets offered a brief life history of the “Somers Town Rhymer”. That work finally established the facts of Arnott’s later life and death in St Pancras Workhouse in 1868.
Since then, David has been doing some more digging, and has come up with a real gem with which to update our Life of John Arnott – a poem, written in his own hand, in support of the Reform League’s campaign for a widening of the franchise. After so much disappointment at the end of the Chartist era, it is heartening to know that Arnott lived long enough and retained sufficient interest to see the Reform Act of 1867 become law.