Monday, 15 August 2016

And the rain came down in torrents… Why did Chartist meetings so often lead to a soaking?

“I hold in my hand a charter – the people’s charter,” declared Dr Arthur Wade. Selected by the London Working Men’s Association to represent it at a rally called by the Glasgow trades, Wade had been entrusted with the task of unveiling the LWMA’s latest publication, its People’s Charter.

But if the event itself was accounted a great success, the People’s Charter might have been thought something of a damp squib – both figuratively and literally. For Wade’s great announcement was barely mentioned in newspaper coverage, coming as it did rather late in the proceedings. And, as it happened, the rally had been beset by continuous rain throughout the day, so the proof copies brandished by the LWMA’s representative must have been somewhat soggy.

Anyone who has spent time reading accounts in the Northern Star of the great processions, rallies and monster meetings that characterised Chartism will tell you that the Chartists appear to have been singularly unlucky with the weather. Barely an outdoor meeting goes by without the crowd having to endure a thorough soaking while speaker after speaker took to the platform.

So it was that at a large meeting in Gateshead (Northern Star, 22 June 1839),
“Mr Harney was also present, and addressed the meeting at considerable length, which stood firmly to the end of the proceedings, loudly cheering at intervals, though the rain came down smartly on their unsheltered heads.”
Indeed, the following night at Ouseburn, Harney again spoke “for a considerable time”, even though as the Star’s by now no doubt somewhat disgruntled correspondent put it, “the rain was descending in copious showers”.

At Marylebone, those who braved a drenching on their way to an event in honour of Bronterre O’Brien were at least lucky to be indoors at the working men’s hall on Circus-street for their concert and ball (NS, 7 August 1841), “though the rain poured down in torrents throughout the evening”.

Later the same year, the plucky London Chartists again turned out in large numbers to welcome Feargus O’Connor on his release from prison at the vestry rooms in Gordon-square, St Pancras, “notwithstanding the rain poured in torrents” (NS, 9 October 1841). So many braved the weather in fact, that “the place of meeting was crowded to excess, and hundreds more, especially females, went away, unable to procure an entrance”.

As the Chartist years roll by, accounts of rain-soaked meetings and the stalwart men and women who brave the weather become a standard of the Star’s reporting; indeed, the precise phrase “and the rain poured down in torrents” can be found in no fewer than 15 reports. So why did bad weather play such a prominent part in the Chartists’ own story?

On explanation is that this is how they wished to present themselves: stoically and determinedly standing their ground no matter what man or nature could throw at them, and that every spot of autumn drizzle became in the retelling a deluge of near-biblical proportions. Or simply that the weather got a mention only when it was out of the ordinary: a vast crowd braving slightly overcast conditions and a bit of a breeze not being especially noteworthy.

And then again, maybe the weather genuinely did have it in for them.

Comprehensive rainfall records for the first half of the 19th century are not especially easy to find (although I would be happy to be pointed in the right direction by a friendly meteorologist or geographer). But a website called the Booty Meteorological Information Source does pull together records from a variety of sources to present a fairly good overview – albeit that even in Victorian Britain the weather in Manchester was not necessarily the same as that in London or Glasgow.

The site notes that the first 40 years of the century “often contained references to excessive rainfall, floods etc”. Between June and November 1839 (when the Newport Chartists rose in rebellion on a night so wet that planned simultaneous marches on the town were thrown into confusion), the South saw twice as much rain as usual, while in 1841 a wet sequence of months from July to November saw the whole of England and Wales getting around 50% as much rain again as was usual.

The summers of 1845 and 1846 were again wet and cold throughout much of Europe, leading to widespread crop failures – no more so than in Ireland where potato blight led to famine. And in 1848, as Chartism rose again for its third and final hurrah, “one of the wettest Februaries in England and Wales” was followed by “a notably wet summer”, with rainfall around 157% of the long-term average.

All in all, it is hard to escape the conclusion that while the Northern Star’s reporters may have been unimaginative in their use of language to describe the weather, the rain genuinely “came down in torrents” on the Chartist multitudes.

"The rain came down in torrents". A London May day, from The Graphic, 6 May 1876

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