Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Minute book of the Democratic Committee for Poland’s Regeneration: an exciting Chartist discovery

Minute books are absolutely central to the collective memory of any organisation. They record who was there, what they discussed and agreed, often what financial assets they had, and what they decided to do to advance their cause. No less so the Chartist movement.

Extract from the minute book

Alas, of the many hundreds of minute books that must have at one time recorded the activities of local branches of the National Charter Association, its delegate bodies, its central executive and its satellite organisations, barely one has survived. So the news that the original hand-written minute book of the Democratic Committee for Poland’s Regeneration has come to light is hugely exciting.

The 62-page vellum-bound quarto notebook, hand-written by the prominent Chartist George Julian Harney, recorded the life of the committee between 1846 and May 1847. It includes a list of the 29 founder members, and of 70 later members, in alphabetical order by town of residence, followed by minutes of the committee’s meetings, and newspaper cuttings.

In addition to Harney, other leading Chartists involved in the committee included Feargus O’Connor, Ernest Jones, William Cuffay, Thomas Martin Wheeler and Philip McGrath. Among the European exiles taking part were the German radicals Karl Schapper and Heinrich Bauer, and BartÅ‚omiej Beniowski, a veteran of the 1831 Polish uprising and himself an active Chartist.

The story of the book’s discovery by the historian David Goodway (author of the classic London Chartism 1838-1848 [Cambridge University Press, 1982]) and of what it can tell us about the committee and its place in London radicalism is told in an article for Cairn International Edition by Fabrice Bensimon, Professor of Modern British History at the Sorbonne University. His article was translated by Adrian Morfee.

The full text of this fascinating article can be found (in English) here.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Spy story: what a police informant claimed to have overheard in a Drury Lane pub on 10 April 1848

It is not every day that you find an account in the official record of an ancestor threatening to crush soldiers opposing a Chartist monster meeting “like toads” – even if, as seems likely, the evidence was a fiction concocted by a paid police spy.

So I am immensely grateful to Dave Steele, who came across a document in the National Archives making precisely this accusation and kindly sent me a copy.

The document, filed with similar reports on Chartists in Home Office records (TNA HO45/2410/531-532), claims to recount “A conversation between two Chartists which was overheard in a public house near Drury Lane Theatre on the evening of Monday April 10”. If it actually happened, the two speakers, named as Mr Stokes and Mr Anderson, had spent that Monday at the Kennington Common rally before the 1848 Chartist petition was taken to Parliament and were reflecting on the day's events.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

In remembrance of William Lovett

Chartist memorabilia is getting harder to find. But I was delighted to come across this death/remembrance notice for William Lovett.

Working on behalf of the London Working Men's Association, Lovett was the author of the People's Charter and secretary to the First Chartist Convention. But he was sidelined in later Chartism by Feargus O'Connor and his supporters, and moved on to devote his energies to secular education.

The remembrance notice is typical of those produced at the time (Lovett died in 1877). Interestingly, it gets a mention in trade union newspaper The Bee-Hive's report of Lovett's death, and its text is quoted there in full.

Unlike some of those who went to their graves before him, Lovett was no populist and was never a great platform orator. Similarly, his funeral was quiet and attended mainly by those who had known him well - in contrast to the great outpourings of popular grief that attended the funerals of O'Connor and others.

I have written more here about the simple and secular funeral of William Lovett, and the tragic death and magnificent funeral of Feargus O'Connor.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Talking Chartism: the video is here

I recently spent a very enjoyable hour and a half chatting about all things Chartism with professional genealogist Natalie at Genealogy Stories. You can watch the first hour of our conversation below.


This was a completely unscripted and unplanned talk (at least on my part), so please excuse the ums and ahhs, and any stories I launched into before getting sidetracked.

In part two, which you can access through Natalie's website, we talked a little about what happened to Chartism after 1848, and rather more about some interesting Chartists, including William Cuffay and Susanna Inge.

On the whole, I am really pleased with how it came out - although there are so many things I didn't get round to talking about, and of course if I'd prepared an answer to every question I might well have looked at alternative interpretations of some events. 

Natalie herself did a great job, and was very easy to talk to. Do check out Genealogy Stories where she has a growing collection of interviews along with some other great family history resources.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The incomplete life stories of David Duffy and Benjamin Prophett

Neither Benjamin Prophett nor David Duffy cuts the same heroic figure within Chartism as William Cuffay.

However, the fact that both men were arrested and brought to trial (along with more than 20 others) just days before the great Kennington Common Chartist meeting of 10 April 1848, does demonstrate that Cuffay was hardly unique as a black man in early Victorian London.