George Julian Harney was born in Deptford on 17 February 1817. Though still a young man when the Charter was first published, he was already immersed in the milieu of radical London politics, and would remain an important figure until long after Chartism had ceased to exist.
Though of much the same generation as Ernest Jones (born 1819), and often associated with him as the leading figures within Chartism after Feargus O’Connor disappeared from the scene, Harney could not have been more different.
The son of a sailor, Harney appeared destined for a life at sea, entering the Boys’ Naval School at Greenwich at age 11. Instead, however, he became shopboy to the Henry Hetherington, radical bookseller and publisher of the Poor Man’s Guardian.
Harney had been a member of the London Working Men’s Association, but after being influenced by more radical ideas, he became a founder of the East London Democratic Association.
At the first Chartist convention in 1839, Harney was behind moves to commit delegates to a general strike in the event that the petition to Parliament was rejected. Following his arrest, and fearing that the move lacked support, however, the Convention later withdrew the plan.
Harney escaped punishment when the jury refused to indict him. He moved to Scotland, married and returned to England where he became the National Charter Association’s organiser for Sheffield. Following the general strike of 1842, Harney was again arrested – and this time put on trial.
Harney subsequently joined the Northern Star, taking over as editor in 1845 and establishing the Fraternal Democrats in the same year. This organisation built important links with European socialists and radicals, and served as a left-wing faction within the Chartist movement.
After falling out with O’Connor, who owned the Star, Harney established first the Red Republican and subsequently the Friend of the People as avowedly socialist publications. Neither lasted long. After a further series of newspaper ventures, Harney moved to Newcastle to work for Joseph Cowen’s Northern Tribune.
In the post-Chartist period, Harney moved first to Jersey, and then in 1863 to the United States, where he lived for 14 years and worked as a clerk in the Massachusetts State House.
Returning to England, Harney wrote for the Newcastle Chronicle. He remained on the left throughout the rest of his life, writing jubilantly when well into his 70s of the Great Dock Strike that in many ways saw the birth of the modern trade union movement:
"Not since the high and palmy days of Chartism have I witnessed any movement corresponding in importance and interest to the great strike of 1889."
George Julian Harney died aged 80 on 9 December, 1897 and is buried in Richmond cemetery where his grave can still be seen.