Friday, 10 May 2019

Peterloo and its place in the Chartist memory

Hunt Memorial - from the Northern Star (20 August 1842)
So much is being written about Peterloo in this bicentenary year that I am reluctant to pitch in. But I think it is worth commenting on the ways in which memories of the 1819 massacre were co-opted by the Chartists a generation later, and the lessons that they held for radicals 20 or 30 years on.

Peterloo was, of course, not just within living memory. Despite the massive political upheavals that took place in the intervening years, it remained fresh in the minds of those who had been there and those who had heard about it with a sense of horror, even at second or third hand in radical broadsheets and newspapers.

Down the years, Peterloo veterans and their supporters continued to commemorate both the anniversary of Peterloo – 16 August – and the birthday in November of “Orator” Henry Hunt, whose arrest had served as the pretext for the yeomanry cavalry charge that left as many as 18 dead and 650 badly injured.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Chartism Day 2019 programe and registration

Chartism Day takes place in the Armstrong Building of Newcastle University on Saturday 1 June 2019. All are welcome, but please register by Friday 24 May.

Here are the programme and booking details.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

A Rye request for women canvassers

In 1867, the Liberal MP John Stuart Mill moved an amendment to the Reform Bill which would have given the vote in parliamentary elections to women. It was defeated by 196 votes to 73.

But while politicians continued to resist women’s suffrage for a further half century or more, they were clearly happy to call on women’s help in getting elected provided that they confined themselves to cheer-leading on behalf of male parliamentary candidates.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Petitioning, strikes and an end to unity - Chartism in 1842

The year of the second Chartist petition was one of frantic activity for the whole Chartist movement.

Between the start of 1842 and the beginning of May, when the petition was presented, activists up and down the country collected an enormous 3,315,752 names. At more than six miles long, the petition could only be taken into the House of Commons by removing the doors.

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.