Monday, 13 June 2016

Chartism Day 2016: from 'constitutional humbug' to cheap beer, a political rehabiliation and 3D models

Chartism Day 2016 took place at the University of Chester at the weekend, with around 50 delegates turning up for a busy programme of presentations on topics as diverse as Chartism’s relationship with the Irish Repeal movement, the impact of the Beer Act on radical meetings and an exciting new initiative using 3D animated modelling techniques to re-create Chartist processions.

What follows does not attempt to summarise the arguments of the speakers, which are in any event almost all drawn from work in progress towards full academic publication, but simply to give a flavour of the day’s talks.

A word of thanks should also be put on the record for Dr Michael Huggins of the University of Chester who put in an enormous amount of work to organise this year’s event.

Tilting with the parsons
Dr Michael Sanders of the University of Manchester took as his theme, “Tilting with the parsons: Chartism’s challenge to the churches, 1840-1842.”

Using evidence largely drawn from the Chartist Circular (a Scottish paper) and English Chartist Circular, he described how the two titles deliberately singled out individual churchmen who had given sermons opposing Chartism and taken on their arguments.

Among the key topics highlighted in these ideological and theological debates were the role of women in political and public life, attitudes to wealth and, of course, the franchise.

Alongside these debates, Dr Sanders highlighted the concerted efforts by some Chartists to organise their own religious institutions in the form of Chartist churches and democratic chapels.

These initiatives were at their height in the period 1840-1842, with fewer mentions in the Chartist press after that date until their eventual disappearance after 1848.

Chartist churches could be important centres of Chartist activity. The democratic chapel at Nottingham, for instance, included women lecturers and a Miss Abbot set up a Chartist Sunday school. Children were baptised there, and they were a focus for fundraising.

The evidence, concluded Dr Sanders, suggested that “there is a definite place for religion in our histories of Chartism”.

Victoria Clarke on "pledges and pint pot politics".

Pledges and pint pot politics
In “Pledges and pint pot politics”, Victoria Clarke, who is currently working towards an MA at the University of Leeds, examined the relationship of Chartism to beer houses and the rise of temperance within the movement.

She outlined how the Beer Act of 1830, which had set out to curb drunkenness caused by the easy availability of spirits by making it cheap and easy to set up a beer house, had created venues for radical meetings, with rooms available for the “wet rent” of a glass of beer for each attendee.

However, such venues often created practical problems. One newspaper account satirised a Chartist beer house meeting in an account which saw serious discussion interrupted and diverted by constant requests for someone to get in more drinks or to bring tobacco to the table.

Increasingly, there was also a tendency towards temperance, with arguments for abstention both economic (by not drinking, working people could starve the government of tax revenues) and moral (contrasting drunkenness with sober self-improvement).

Helen Macfarlane’s critique of the British constitution
In “The ‘time honoured humbug of our ancestors’”, Jacob Dengate, PhD student at Aberystwyth University, looked at the critique developed by Helen Macfarlane, the self-described “Chartist and red republican” of appeals to a lost and purer constitution.

“In Macfarlane’s critique there was no golden age of freedom in the past,” he argued, placing her firmly within a European revolutionary milieu which encompassed among its London exiles the French socialist Louis Blanc, the Italian Giuseppe Mazzini and the German Dr Charles Marx.

Chartism and age of democratic revolutions
Josh Gibson
Josh Gibson, PhD student at Cambridge University, described how Chartists drew on both the US and French revolutionary examples and the arguments of earlier British radicals such as Thomas Paine and Major John Cartwright to argue for a written constitution.

He pointed out that the first Chartist convention had issued its own 39-point declaration of rights.
Such a written constitution was important, he said, because it would be based on common law, natural law and divine law, stood over and above government and could be widely circulated to and understood by the people.

The Marseillaise and British radicalism
Dr Kate Bowan of the Australian National University set out how radicals saw the Marseillaise as being at the centre of an internationalist radical tradition rather than as a specifically French anthem. The song featured in the repertoires of all radical bands and played endlessly on Chartist processions and at outdoor meetings.

Other national songs thought to give a similar revolutionary focus could be described as “the Italian Marseillaise”, even though they bore little resemblance to the original, and there were calls for a competition to write an “English Marseillaise”.

Chartism and repeal: parallel movements
Dr Matthew Roberts
In “Chartism and Repeal: parallel movements”, Dr Matthew Roberts of Sheffield Hallam University set out to argue that the differences between the two movements had been exaggerated.

He said that the obvious rivalry between Daniel O’Connell, the pre-eminent figure in the campaign to repeal the union of Britain and Ireland, and the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor had “obscured the points of similarity and contact that existed”.

He pointed out that the objectives of the Repealers included the setting up of an Irish Parliament and five of the six points advocated by Chartists – falling short only in relation to the call for annual parliaments, about which O’Connell had doubts.

They also shared a common ideology of opposition to “old corruption” and the use of the democratic idiom, and similarities of strategy and tactics, from petitioning to the use of the mass platform, exclusive dealing and electoral politics.

Dr Roberts said he was not suggesting that the two causes were identical. There were important differences in the class basis of their leadership and the social and geographical basis of their support among other things. But that they had much in common.

Dr Roberts also sought to rehabilitate the reputation of O’Connell, whose opposition to trade unions, willingness to accept partial reforms such as household suffrage and eventual denunciation of Chartism split some Repeal bodies in England and left his reputation in tatters with many Chartists.

O’Connell, he pointed out, was one of the few MPs invited by the London Working Men’s Association to take part in the drafting of the Charter to turn up for the meetings, and his bloc of Repeal MPs had voted consistently in favour of Chartist petitions.

Dr Roberts concluded: ”At the very moment when he was damning the Chartist movement, O’Connell came to preside over an organisation which was surprisingly similar in organisation, strategy and tactics.”

Chartists and the Far East
In “The celestial empire: Chartists and the Far East”, Professor Paul Pickering of the Australian National University contrasted two very different approaches among Chartists to China and Chinese people, exposing viciously racist attitudes.

Chartism “in the abstract”, he said, tended to be sympathetic to China, regarding the country as fellow victims of the Whigs, and the Chinese people as “quiet, amiable and unwarlike”. Chinese rebels, meanwhile, were described as fighting for a vaguely defined “liberty”.

Yet Chartism “in practice” was very different in its approach, providing sympathetic coverage of anti-Chinese race riots in Victoria and New South Wales in the late 1850s and early 1860s, with Chartist journalists resorting to racist attacks of the “unwelcome presence” of “vast hordes of Chinese” with their “filthy and immoral habits”.

Such attitudes, emerging from nationalist and liberationist arguments which backed “Italy for the Italians” and “Hungary for the Hungarians”, moved on to demand  an Australia for white, European Australians, and would reverberate down through 20th century “White Australia” politics.

The meanings of space and place in the Chartist movement
Dr Katrina Navickas
Dr Katrina Navickas of the University of Hertfordshire outlined her work on the significance of place to the Chartist movement, identifying the importance of local identity and the ways in which involvement in local politics underpinned efforts to push forward the broader issue of the Charter.

Drawing on her mapping of data on meetings and protests, she showed how, in Manchester radical processions tended to follow a similar route, often starting in the radical stronghold of Ancoats and ending at St Peter’s Fields, which was quite distinct from the routes of loyalist processions.

She also outlined work in progress aimed at using animated 3D modelling to re-create the street scenes and routes of Chartist processions, taking data from maps and images of street frontages then populating the 3D model with digital protesters.

Dr Navickas admitted that while the project clearly had great potential for public involvement, she was as yet unsure of its research impact.

Although still in its early stages and in need of funding if it is to be taken further, the initiative was very positively received at the conference, with some participants suggesting that much of the value of these models might emerge only once they had been created.
Radical and loyalist procession routes mapped.

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