Friday, 2 March 2012

James Watson: Chartist and campaigner for free speech

James Watson (pictured left) was one of the six working men whose names appear (alongside those of six radical MPs) on the People’s Charter, and played a prominent role in establishing free speech in this country.

A veteran of the struggle of the unstamped press in the 1820s and 1830s, he became a founder member of the London Working Men’s Association, under whose guidance the Six Points of the Charter were drawn up and published, and would go on to be a prominent campaigner against punitive blasphemy laws.

Five years after his death in 1875, the Chartist writer and engraver W J Linton published a biography of Watson recalling his part in the radical struggles of the early nineteenth century.

James Watson was born in Malton, Yorkshire, on 21 September 1799, and after becoming involved with a radical group associated with the Republican newspaper in Leeds, moved to London in 1822 to work for the radical publisher Richard Carlile.

Caught up in Carlile’s campaigns against the repressive Six Acts, Watson rapidly found himself on the wrong side of the law, and in April 1823 he was convicted of blasphemy for publishing Elihu Palmer's Principles of Nature, serving 12 months in Cold Bath Fields prison.

Watson would later work as an agent for Robert Owen’s Co-operative Trading Association before establishing his own radical publishing business in Finsbury.  In 1832, he launched the Working Man’s Friend, for which he would again be imprisoned.

Watson was active in the National Union of the Working Classes, and campaigned on behalf of the Tolpuddle Martyrs before, in 1836, becoming a founder member of the London Working Men’s Association.

Like many London radicals, Watson’s involvement in Chartism waned after 1839, when leadership moved to Feargus O’Connor. He did, however, play a role in William Lovett’s National Association of the United Kingdom for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.

In the 1840s, Watson took up the campaign against the laws on blasphemy, co-publishing The Reasoner with the secularist and Chartist George Jacob Holyoake.

In 1848, he returned briefly to the Chartist cause as a member of the People’s Charter Union, which soon turned itself into the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee.

Watson eventually sold his business in 1854 to Holyoake, retiring a decade later with his wife to Norwood, as Linton notes, “to be within walking reach of the Crystal Palace”.
Linton tells us:
“Day by day there was his walk to the Palace, and hours of quiet pleasure, viewing and examining the marvels of art and science here stored.  More than all, there was a never-failing delight in the frequent concerts."

Watson died on 29 November 1874 at Burns Cottage, Hamilton-road, Lower Norwood; and was buried in Norwood Cemetery. 

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