Friday, 29 January 2016

Pickwick at the barricades: or the musings of Mr Samuel Pickwick on the cause of Chartism

Charles Dickens may have been a bit of a radical at times, but he was certainly no Chartist. So it may come as a surprise to discover that Mr Pickwick, one of the more sympathetic characters from his early works, was a bit more of a fan. Especially as the Pickwick Papers are silent on the matter.

Samuel Pickwick, the portly personification of a comfortably off and generally good-humoured retired Londoner, was (or is), of course, a fictional character. But the Pickwick Club of which he was perpetual president and to which he lent his name, spawned a number of real-life imitators.

Now the minute book of one such club has come to light. Written largely between January 1837 and December 1841, at the height of the first wave of Chartist activity, the book purports to recount “the convivial doings of Pickwick, Winkle, Wardle, Snodgrass and others”.

In fact, it belonged to a James Plater, who wrote his name on the flyleaf, but on the evidence of the varied handwriting found in the book was  the work of a number of people, who from the focus of their interests were, like Pickwick, familiar with London.

Among the questions they asked (and answered) were: "Which is the finest Church, Bermondsey New Church or Shadwell Church"; "Whether it is not a bad spec. for this New Gin Shop to open in Dean St" (which, it is decided, "It is not"); and "Which was the first public House in London that burnt Gas" (the honour going to "the 2 Brewers Mill Bank").

As to the members’ Chartist and radical sympathies, the evidence is fairly strong. One motion that came up for discussion was "Whether the Chartists are not absurd in their demands"; to which the Club moved that it was "not absurd".

They also addressed specific events, notably the Newport uprising. On 12 January 1840, the Pickwick Club debated the motion of "Were the Jury in Frost's Case justified in finding a verdict of Guilty on his Indictments", to which they returned the answer: "Certainly not".

On 16 January 1840, Frost was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Three days later the Club debated "Whether the sentence passed on Frost is not against common feelings of humanity", to which the answer returned was that "it is".

When asked "To consider what remedy will be efficient to ameliorate the Condition of the People", the Club answered: "universal suffrage". Similarly, when asked "Whether Hanging tends to decrease the Crimes for which it intended", they replied "It does not".

The minute book is due to be auctioned by Bonhams in a sale set for 8 March 2016, with a guideline price of £10,000 to £15,000. Please note that I have no idea how long after this date the link will continue to work, which is why I have written up as much as I reasonably can about the volume here.

The author of the catalogue notes speculates on the identity of James Plater, the original owner, noting that in one entry he is recorded as attending a meeting of the Club on 11 December 1841, in propria persona, accompanied by his wife and daughter.

They suggest he may be the silversmith who is recorded as apprenticed to Thomas Wilkes Barker in 1835-36 and living at 15 Compton Street, Clerkenwell.

The authors of the minute book were not alone in their enthusiasm for Mr Pickwick. He gathered such a following that, in the days before modern copyright law, other authors "borrowed" Dickens' Pickwickian universe and characters for works of their own.

The distinctly more Chartist GWM Reynolds wrote two such volumes: Pickwick Abroad and Pickwick Married. Dickens himself was unimpressed, although the working lives of the two men would continue to cross down the years.

Pickwick Club and Chartism
The Pickwick Club minute book, as seen on Bonhams auctioneers' website.

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