Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution

The late Dorothy Thompson played an unparalleled part in the development of Chartist history over decades, as a researcher, teacher and mentor to later generations of historians. Where earlier historians had focused on the Chartist leadership and its perceived failings, she opened up whole new areas of study, focused on the ordinary Chartist – both male and female – while rebalancing what had been a generally hostile view of the likes of Feargus O’Connor.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Breviary Stuff Publications, it is possible once again to get hold of one of her most important published works. The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution was for many years pretty much the standard work for anyone wanting a more serious understanding of the Chartist movement.

The book is organised into three main sections dealing with the early Chartist period from 1838 to 1841, answering the question “who were the Chartists?” and returning to deal with the period from 1842 to 1850. Within this structure it addresses issues thematically, through chapters dealing among other things with the Chartist press, the Newport rising, leaders and followers, women Chartists and the Charter and the land.

There is contained within around 240 pages so much that was new at the time of publication, such a wealth of detail, so many insights, that it is easy to see how Dorothy Thompson took not years but decades to produce The Chartists. As she herself acknowledged, without teaching and family commitments, it would have appeared 20 years earlier, but that without the contributions of her family, including husband and lifelong political ally Edward (E P) Thompson would have been “a very different book”.

So is it still worth reading? An enormous amount of work has been published on the Chartist movement in the years since this book appeared, providing deeper and more specialised insights in many areas as historians have taken a lead from Dorothy Thompson on possible avenues of research. There is too a magnificent narrative history in Malcolm Chase’s Chartism: A New History. But the answer is a resounding yes. I, for one, am delighted to have a new edition of this book with its covers intact that will stand up to reading rather than consulting. And much of the content remains as fresh as ever.

I am delighted too that Breviary Stuff Publications have more of Dorothy Thompson’s work in hand for republication. This relatively new imprint is doing sterling work in publishing and republishing works of “history from below” at affordable prices. My sole complaint (and a small one at that) is that the size of the book leads to long lines of text that make reading far from easy. I can put up with that.

Buy The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution.

More books on Chartism in the History Bookstore.

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