Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Britannia and liberty: a message of hope for the Chartists?

Commemorative medals or medallions were commonly issued throughout the 19th century to mark great radical causes and events.

The 1832 Reform Act in particular produced medallions in a wide variety of styles and designs, as did Gladstone’s Reform Act of 1889. However, there appear to be relatively few relating to Chartism.

I am no numismatist, but I was only previously aware of the two Feargus O’Connor medallions – one marking the launch of his Northern Union in 1838, and the other celebrating his release from gaol in 1841.

However, I recently came across this more generic example dated 1842, which is clearly intended to mark the defeat of Chartism in 1842, following rejection of the second great petition for the Charter and the arrest of numerous local and national Chartist leaders.

The question is, what message does it send? I bought this on eBay from a US dealer who described it as “Anti-Chartist”. But I’m not so sure.

On the obverse, under the heading “To-day”, Britannia lies prostrate on the floor. To one side, a mounted cavalry officer, sabre drawn, tramples a banner marked “The Charter”. To the other, a bishop with his crook and what appear to be two robed judges armed with swords, one of whom holds a scroll engraved “Law”, tread a banner marked “Liberty”. At the bottom of the coin are the words “Britannia oppressed 1842”.

On the reverse, under the heading “To-morrow”, Britannia is triumphant, standing sword in hand in front of a scroll marked “The Charter”, which in turn lies across a box or stand inscribed with “Justice”. She is assisted by an armed man who holds the defeated bishop at sword point, while the judges flee, apparently praying for deliverance. The inscription at the bottom reads “Britannia triumphant”.

I think these images, taken as a pair, can only be read as anti-Chartist if Britannia is associated with the forces of reaction and the state. Why else look forward to a day when she triumphs? But even then, the roles played by the cavalryman, bishop and judges simply don’t fit the narrative.

But Britannia was never a purely conservative figure. Rather, she was associated with liberty, and appealed symbolically to the radical cause (not least as a British counterpart to the revolutionary French Marianne).

On this reading, Britannia is the people – or, more abstractly, the people’s liberty – oppressed “to-day” by church and state, but certain to overcome her oppressors “to-morrow”.

In other words, the medallion is not anti-Chartist; rather, it offers a message of hope for the temporarily defeated Chartist movement in 1842 – victory will come.

Northern Star rises again - NCSE is back online

A free, searchable and browsable online version of the Northern Star newspaper is back online. This is great news for family historians and others without easy access to university libraries or paid-for digital newspaper websites.

Launched in 1837, a little in advance of the first publication of the People’s Charter, the Northern Star played a central role in organising, informing and spreading the culture of Chartism among a mass audience – not to mention cementing the position of Feargus O’Connor as the movement’s leading figure. It continued in one form or another until 1852.

The Nineteenth Century Serials Edition project launched a decade ago and gave access to the Star and to half a dozen other publications, but over time and as technology moved on it ceased to work properly.

Now it’s back.

Clearly much has changed since the project first went live in 2018, so I strongly suggest reading these reflections on compiling a 10-year update to the NCSE.

Even if you do have access to an alternative digitised version do take a look at the NCSE site – not least for the article about the history of the paper and its reproduction of the portrait prints distributed to readers of the Star over its first 10 years of publication.

Personally, I still find the British Newspaper Archive version of the Star easier to use, but this may well be a matter of familiarity and individual preference, and I am certainly not going to complain that the NCSE takes a different approach.

Congratulations and a huge thank-you to all involved.

Find the NCSE here.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Join the GWM Reynolds Society

GWM Reynolds
The newly formed international G.W.M. Reynolds Society exists to promote the enjoyment and study of the work of GWM. Reynolds.

Best-selling fiction writer and rival to Charles Dickens, Chartist, radical, newspaper editor, and entrepreneur, Reynolds was famous (or perhaps infamous) in his day.

Although he is less well-known now, his reputation has been growing for some time. Emerging out of a collaboration between the University of Roehampton, London, UK, and DePaul University, Chicago, US, the Reynolds Society aims to bring Reynolds even more to the attention of the wider public and scholarly community.

Initially, the Reynolds Society will facilitate connections between those reading and studying Reynolds, through its database of scholars and experts, and the blog. In the future, this activity may lead to events and collaborations such as the 2014 bicentenary event Remarkable Reynolds, held in London at Westminster Archives Centre.

To become a member, please email Jennifer Conary with your name and host institution.

If you wish to be added to the online database of Scholars and Experts, which will be hosted on this website, please also provide:

  • your area of interest (100 words max)
  • any publications you have done on Reynolds (3 max)

Please also sign up to follow the blog for the latest society news, member research, cfps, and more.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Policing the Chartists: a truncheon from April 1848

The truncheon shown here is the latest item to join my collection of Chartist memorabilia. Some 18 inches in length, and decorated with a royal crest and lion, it earns its place in the collection because of the date, written in black on a gold background: April 10, 1848.

The date places it as one of the countless staves issued in the weeks before the Chartist monster meeting on Kennington Common to the 4,000 London police officers on duty that day and to the 85,000 special constables sworn in to help secure the capital.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Join the great Chartist day out - 7 July 2018

The Kennington Chartist Project culminates on Saturday 7 July 2018 with a day of workshops, participation and action in Kennington Park. It looks great – so if you are free on the day, please go along.

In fact, if you know a bit about Chartism or could otherwise help out, the project’s organisers are looking for volunteers. Find out more about volunteering.