Monday, 1 February 2016

Dorothy Thompson and the Dignity of Chartism

Stephen Roberts is a respected Chartist scholar. For the past three decades he has studied and written extensively about the movement and its leading figures.

But over many years he was also first a student and subsequently a friend and collaborator of Dorothy Thompson, an iconic figure whose teaching and research transformed the study of Chartism and our understanding of the Chartists.

Unfortunately, much of her work appeared in small-circulation journals which are now hard or impossible to obtain, especially for those of us without access to university libraries. Following her death in 2011 there was always the danger that her real contribution as a historian could be lost.

This was a concern for Stephen Roberts, and while taking part in one of the annual Chartism Days, the inspiration for which had originally come from Dorothy Thompson, he decided to reclaim her work from the threatened obscurity of the library shelf.

It was Dorothy Thompson who led the charge to rehabilitate the Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor, who opened up the study of women in Chartism, and who reclaimed Chartism as an independent working class movement - indeed the first working class political party ever formed

The result is The Dignity of Chartism, edited by Stephen Roberts and bringing together many of Dorothy Thompson's most important and interesting essays and articles to provide the interested reader with a structured and accessible way in to her work.

Published by Verso, the book includes short pieces on a number of Chartist leaders, a thought-provoking piece titled "Who were 'the people' in 1852?" and her review of John Saville's "1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement".

But the real centrepiece is a previously unpublished essay on Chartism in Halifax on which Dorothy Thompson collaborated with her husband Edward (EP) Thompson. It is a significant work in its own right, and fed directly into EP Thompson's famous The Making of the English Working Class.

In an interview with Chartist Ancestors, Stephen Roberts warmly recalls being taught by Dorothy Thompson, and the generosity with which she nurtured a future generation of historians.

He says she continued to be interested in developments in the study of Chartism long after she ceased to write about it herself. And he adds:"Dorothy could be a severe critic - but that meant that when she praised something she really meant it."

Read the interview in full.

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