Thursday 12 January 2017

The Chartist who crossed the road and his father the special constable: one family's radical heritage

Chartists must have travelled long distances on the morning of 10 April 1848 to take part in the Monster Meeting on Kennington Common that was to precede the presentation to Parliament of the third great petition for the Charter.

But for Henry William Street, it was just a matter of crossing the road on which he lived to join the throng.

Things did not go according to plan. With the capital in lockdown, and thousands of special constables and units of the regular army guarding bridges and strategic buildings, Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist executive bowed to pressure to call off a procession to Parliament.

Henry William Street, pictured
with his wife Caroline Ann (Howells)
 and most likely their daughter 
Charlotte Caroline Street.
Although there were clashes between protestors and police, there was no major confrontation – which may have been all to the good in the Street household.

Family legend has it that when Henry headed off to the Common, he did so with a knife tucked in the band of his trousers. His father, James, meanwhile, was there as a special constable – hiding behind a tree to avoid having to confront his son.

Tales like this that come down through family accounts are often notoriously unreliable – at least in their detail – as I know from researching my own Chartist ancestor.

However, in this case there is a written record of the story, as told by Henry’s daughter Mary Jennie Street to a relative and committed to paper before her death in 1949. Which is probably as good a record of memories of the time as can reasonably be expected.

Henry Street was a young man at the time of the 1848 meeting. Born in December 1826, he worked first as an insurance and land agent before starting a small print works in the back garden of his house at 140 Kennington Park Road.

For Henry, this was to be the start of a long involvement in political and public life – and a tradition of radicalism that has persisted through the generations.

Henry died in 1909, but by then his son Samuel Howells Street was running the print business. Samuel was a conscientious objector – and in 1916 his press was destroyed and machinery confiscated for printing “seditious” leaflets, postcards and newspapers.

The £500 fine was, apparently, paid secretly by the prominent anti-war activist Fenner Brockway (later Lord Fenner Brockway), who had been in a similar position as editor of the Independent Labour Party newspaper the Labour Leader.

The family tradition of radicalism is proudly upheld today by Henry’s great granddaughter, Jennie Street, who has “kept my ancestors’ spirit alive in my work and campaigning”.

I am immensely grateful to Jennie, who now lives in Sheffield, for sharing her family story and photographs and permitting me to use them here.

Read the Illustrated London News report on the Kennington Common monster meeting.

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