Friday, 15 April 2016

Feargus O'Connor on land purchases and the Chartist land bank manager who thought better of it

Feargus O’Connor was a prolific writer. For many years he penned weekly addresses to the Chartist readers of the Northern Star each of which ran for thousands of words. In addition, he engaged in political polemic with opponents and rivals, and wrote copious advice on agricultural practices for those who shared his interest in small-scale farming.

In a pre-phone and text era, O’Connor also found time to dash off numerous notes relaying his thoughts and instructions to those he relied on to maintain the creaking machinery of Chartism in some semblance of financial working order.

One such letter is shown here (along with a transcription of O’Connor’s frankly atrocious handwriting). Its contents are of no special importance, but the context in which it was written and the issues to which it makes passing mention make it interesting all the same.

The dateline (“Lowbands 23 Aug 1847”) tell us that O’Connor was at the Chartist land plan settlement of Lowbands, then in Worcestershire but now in Gloucestershire. O’Connor had kept somewhere to stay for himself at the settlement and even if he was never likely to devote himself seriously to cultivating the land he brought with him two cats, a dog and a cow named Rebecca.

In fact, reports from the Northern Star show that O’Connor had travelled to Lowbands a week earlier for location day, 16 August, when the new Chartist settlers were to be allocated their land and cottage. He had evidently stayed throughout most of the ensuing week-long Chartist convention, before, as he wrote in the Star of 28 August, starting for the Newton-heath camp meeting in Lancashire on the Saturday night (which would have been the 21st), returning to Lowbands by the Monday morning at 10am to write his piece for the Star, and with plans to set out again at 6am the next morning for Oxfordshire.

He had, he told readers of the Star, “yet to write another letter before I go to bed”. Perhaps this was it.

So much for the dateline!

The recipient of the letter is also of interest. George Whitmore Chinnery was managing clerk to the law firm of WP Roberts, O’Connor’s solicitors in the running of the land company.

Chinnery was involved in establishing a legal framework for the land company and continued to work on the project as land agent until it was wound up. He often handled the company’s financial and legal affairs (by 1851 the census shows that he had qualified as a solicitor and attorney) and was responsible for overseeing the purchase of land for Chartist colonies.

Whether or not Chinnery was sympathetic to Chartism it is not possible to say. But clearly Roberts (who was a sympathiser) and O’Connor himself trusted him to carry on its business for them. In 1851, as the Minster Lovell estate was being broken up, Chinnery bought two of the properties there himself. He would eventually die a wealthy man

O’Connor’s letter refers to a cheque for £200 for Minster Lovell. This was Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, the third of the land company sites. It had been bought for the sum of £10,878 on 24 June 1847 and construction began on what was to be called Charterville on 21 August.

O’Connor urges Chinnery to “keep going with Snig’s End”. The purchase of Snig’s End in Gloucestershire, another land settlement site, was not completed until October 1847, but was already in process at the time of the letter.

O’Connor was indeed back in town the week after he wrote the letter, as he had promised, informing readers of the Northern Star (4 September 1847) that he had appointed James Knight as manager of the Land and Labour Bank, through which the finances of the land company were channelled. Knight, he wrote, was “a gentleman of the most prepossessing manners and appearance”, and came highly recommended by other financial institutions, in two of which he had served for 13 years.

Unfortunately, as the Chartist Philip McGrath later told a House of Commons select committee investigating the affairs of the National Land Company, Knight never took up the post, despite the offer of a £500 annual salary. Eventually the role was taken by a second man, by the name of Price.

The postscript remains a mystery. Clearly someone was missing Chinnery and wondering “what became of you”, but the crucial word is not at all clear. The most intriguing suggestion is that the sentence begins, “The lords…” but there is no external evidence for this. Since O’Connor was at Lowbands with much of the Chartist leadership for the convention that week, it seems most likely that they were the ones missing the London-based Chinnery.

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