Historians from around the UK and some distance beyond were in Newport, South Wales, at the weekend for the annual Chartism Day conference.
The conference was organised by the Society of Labour History, the Chartist Study Group and – as hosts this year – the South Wales Centre for History and Interdisciplinary Research, and held in the main boardroom of the University of Wales' Caerleon Campus (pictured here).
The day is a great opportunity for Chartist historians to network, and to hear presentations of work in progress. This year’s conference ranged widely from the development of Chartist rhetoric, to the Chartist Gothic literary tradition and Chartist songs.
What follows is more an attempt to give a flavour of the day and of the presentations rather than a full report of the detailed evidence and rather more subtle arguments put forward by the four main speakers.
Janette Martin, currently working on her PhD thesis at Leeds University, explained how the styles of speech used by Chartist orators changed over the period from 1838-48, and explored some of the gaps between what was said and how it was reported at the time.
She suggested that while some Chartist orators – among them George Julian Harney – drew on an older political tradition of public speaking that prized classical structure and allusion, others began to develop a newer, less formal approach which gradually displaced it.
This new style of speaking drew on the tradition of nonconformist sermons, and would be influenced by visiting American speakers and music hall.
The emergence, thanks to the railways, of itinerant lecturers and “celebrity” preachers who travelled all over the country, honing their performance on the way, also encouraged the development of a more homogenised style which could be widely understood.
Given the recent launch of various versions of the Northern Star online, Janette Martin’s comments on the gap between what was said and what was reported, either in the press or even in political tracts published by the speakers themselves, was timely.
She pointed to the difficulties facing reporters and newspapers – including, for example, the problems in hearing what speakers said at often noisy outdoor meetings, the time restrictions facing reporters, and the difficulty of conveying tone of voice and gesture.
Distortions could be used for political ends, as when hostile newspapers sought to make a Chartist speaker sound more confrontational through the use of punctuation and other forms of emphasis, and might even be introduced deliberately by the speakers themselves.
Richard Oastler, confronted on one occasion with the accusation that the speech he had delivered was not the same as that which he had published, replied that,
“…the hour was late, ten o’clock at night; the people had been out five hours, and I feared to tire and starve them; so I then gave the outline; now, I print, what, if circumstances had permitted, I should have spoken…”
Ernest Jones, meanwhile, would tell one of his reporters setting out to cover a meeting to welcome the return of the Chartist leader John Frost from exile,
“Do not trouble to report what they said; send me two or three columns of what they ought to have said.”
Dr Fabrice Bensimon, of Université Paris 10 – Nanterre, spoke on the presence of British workers and Chartists in France in the 1840s.
In the period after the Napoleonic wars, Britain enjoyed a technological advantage over France which meant that British workers were much in demand, especially in the textile and steel industries and as railway builders.
In 1846, an estimated 66,000 British workers were present in France. As economic migrants, some of these workers were attracted to Chartism, and branches of the land company existed in Rouen, Boulogne and elsewhere.
Thomas Sidaway, an innkeeper who had been active in radical politics around Gloucester since Peterloo, and his son John Sidaway, who became a Chartist lecturer, appear to have been especially active in the land company.
The Nailers’ Arms, a public house run by the Sidaways, was a centre of Chartist activity in Rouen, and in seeking customers Thomas Sidaway advertised his Oddfellow connections in the Norman Times, a short-lived paper produced for British workers in the city.
Fabrice Bensimon also showed a fascinating illustration from L’Illustration (a French paper somewhat similar to the Illustrated London News) showing a British factory worker reading what appears to be the Northern Star to fellow workers in the workshop.
The author commented:
“Not a single syllable is uttered during twelve working hours of the day; only in the centre of the room, a reader, concealed behind the broadsheet format of The Times, with a powerful voice which seems to borrow its notes from the voice of a locomotive, declaims to his fellow workers, all of them fervid Chartists, the content of the gigantic newspaper from the date to the name of the publisher.”
Later in the day, Dr Rohan McWilliam (pictured below at the lectern) of Anglia Ruskin University spoke on the “Chartist Gothic”, drawing links between radicalism and popular literature during the 1840s.
Drawing especially on the work of GWM Reynolds, the Chartist journalist and author of the long-running serialised novel The Mysteries of the Court of London, he explained how writers often attacked as pornographers used their exposés of Victorian low life as a political tool.
At least in the earlier period of the serialisation, Reynolds would often digress from the story line to launch into a political point or would use footpoints to provide facts and statistics that drove the point home.
This link between radicalism and popular culture loosened after 1850, however, and was even displaced by a more conservative sensibility.
The most travelled of the speakers were Dr Kate Bowan and Dr Paul Pickering of the Australian National University in Canberra. Dr Pickering is an eminent historian of Chartism. His latest book, a biography of Feargus O’Connor, was launched at the conference.
Kate Bowan and Paul Pickering are currently exploring Chartist songs and the popular aural tradition.
As Paul Pickering pointed out, historians often skate over the fact that many works treated as Chartist poetry and verse are in fact songs with known and recognisable tunes, while the evidence that song formed a central part of Chartist culture is strong.
Henry Vincent published a regular Song for the People in his Western Vindicator, Thomas Cooper formed a choral society among his Leicester Chartists, Feargus O’Connor was proud of his singing voice and unashamed to use it in public, for example.
As their research develops, Paul Pickering and Kate Bowan are investigating what Chartist song would have sounded like, as well as its part in radical culture – exploring the instruments used, the tunes adopted and the resonances these tunes would have struck with Chartists.
As I said earlier, this is not an attempt to give a full account of the speakers’ contributions – just a brief taste of what they had to say. Nonetheless, I hope I have not too seriously misrepresented what they had to say.