Friday, 7 July 2017

Transcribing the Chartist Land Company registers

In the first of two guest blog posts, Peter Cox outlines how a U3A project is making a significant contribution to the study of Chartism by transcribing the identities of Londoners, women and French residents who subscribed to the Chartist Land Company.

A few years ago I became mildly peeved that the Suffragists were getting all the headlines – research, plays, and now a film. The Chartists, who made all the running two generations earlier and suffered for it, had been neglected in popular culture. Since retiring I’d written a three books on aspects of contemporary history, and was looking for another challenge, so I thought I’d try my hand at writing a Chartist play. I bought all the books on Chartism I could find and set about it.

Plan of Charterville.
A year later it was written, set in Manchester around a Peterloo memorial meeting in 1889, told in flashbacks, with a cast of, well, too many now forgotten Chartist leaders. But I failed to follow it up and it languished while I moved on to different project. Then earlier this year I heard of a “Shared Learning” initiative from Royal Holloway, a college of London University, called Citizens 800 which invites members of the forty odd U3As around the capital to research any aspect of radical history since Magna Carta, and report on their results.

The U3A, the University of the Third Age, is a national organisation which encourages retired people to continue learning. In the North London branch we have 700+ members and several history groups, including one I chair called a Sideways Look at History, which examines closely a specific period in all aspects, the world over. I decided to use the Citizens800 initiative to look at the Chartist Land Company, the popular, (literally) groundbreaking but ill-fated venture from the famously larger than life Feargus O’Connor, proprietor of the Northern Star and the only Chartist MP. To transcribe all the London subscribers from a set of three massive share register volumes held at the National Archives at Kew, and then estimated to contain around 70,000 names, addresses and occupations, was a daunting prospect, but I recruited four helpers and we began in March 2017.

Kew is a great place to work, but although the entries were all transcribed by professional clerks, the quirkiness of their handwriting, and intermittent pages of fading ink, were a trial for ancient untrained eyes even equipped with magnifiers, and to begin with it was a struggle. But we averaged a visit a week and managed to finish the transcription by the end of May. In fact I had made it harder by widening the remit. During the first visit it was clear that there were as many women listed as Londoners, about 4% of the total each, and, intriguingly, several applicants from France, mostly Boulogne, Calais and Rouen. So I decided we would record all the women, wherever they were from, and note whether there were men in the same household applying, and the France-based applicants.

A surviving cottage at Charterville.
The system had worked like this. O’Connor promoted the Land Company in the Northern Star and invited applications. They poured in, and he set up local offices wherever there seemed to be heavy demand. Applicants contributed at intervals up to the figure of £2-10s, which would entitle them to a vote in the ballots that would ensue when O’Connor had bought up enough land for settlements. In the end he bought five, at Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, now Charterville; outside Rickmansworth in Herts, now O’Connorville; at Lowbands, near Redmarley in Worcestershire; at Snigs End near Staunton in Gloucestershire; and at Upper Dodford in Worcestershire. It was seeing the Dodford cottage restored by the National Trust in the summer of 2016 that resuscitated my interest in the Chartists.

Once he’d bought the sites, O’Connor laid out plots of two, three or four acres, and recruited gangs of artisans to build the cottages to a simple plan he himself had set out, and he often, a wholehearted bear-like man, shed his fustian jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and worked in the early days of construction. Eventually some 500 plots were created and balloted for. But the law then was not flexible enough to allow the kind of lottery or friendly society status he had envisaged for the company, so O’Connor, increasingly impatient, and galled by criticism by other Chartist leaders he’d antagonised, ploughed (again literally) on, ignoring the legal niceties. It was that among other things that led to his and the Land Company’s downfall.

Sampler produced by Ann Dawson, one of
the original residents at Charterville
After a couple of months working through the pages of the share register volumes, we had between 1,700 and 1,800 Londoners, very nearly the same number of women, and just over 100 from France. The next stage was to comb laboriously through the lists, removing inconsistencies (and the many accidental duplicates) and correcting errors – some of the London addresses were cryptic to say the least, with roads that had disappeared or been renamed – and to start hunting up some of the names in the 1841 and 1851 censuses and other online sources.

In a separate post I will talk about our analysis of locations and occupations, and introduce a few of the characters we’d followed up, including William Cuffay, much-loved and admired, who after the failure of the Kennington assembly in 1848 was convicted of treason and transported to Tasmania; the journalist Edmund Stallwood; and a coachbuilder with the splendid name of Alonzo Dunford, who acquired one of the plots at Charterville.

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