Friday, 7 June 2019

Chartism Day 2019: from electoral strategy to votes for women, via loaded juries and Yorkshire miners

During the first wave of Chartism, Newcastle was home to the radical Northern Liberator newspaper, and would see some of the largest monster meetings of the age.

Some 180 years later, the city played host once again last weekend to Chartism Day – the annual gathering of academic, unaffiliated and local historians whose shared interests ensure Chartism remains a lively and active field of history.

Dr Tom Scriven on Chartist electoral strategy
The first paper of the day was delivered by Dr Tom Scriven of the University of Manchester, who argued that a Chartist electoral strategy was already in place at the time of the 1837 general election – predating the launch of the People’s Charter itself.

The generally accepted view has been that Chartism made a turn towards electoral politics only with the launch of the National Charter Association in 1840.

However, Dr Scriven argued that from a very early date, the approach was deliberately antagonistic towards more moderate reformers, attempting to split Liberal MPs from the Whigs and to force working class leadership on them.

By 1842, divisions between the National Charter Association and other liberals, including Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union, had hardened as Chartists sought to “test” liberal candidates’ resolve and willingness to commit to the demands of the Charter,

Dr Scriven further argued that the Chartist movement’s inconsistent approach towards the middle-class CSU could be explained by this approach: at times opposing its candidates when they failed to commit to the radical programme; but otherwise supporting them to ensure that they were not able to assert independence of working-class radicals if elected.

Dr Joan Allen of Newcastle University offered a fresh perspective on the trial of John Frost and others following the failed Newport Chartist rising of 1839, based on evidence from then newly launched Justice of the Peace newspaper and the correspondence of one of those called for jury duty at Newport.

Dr Joan Allen on rethinking the trial of John Frost
Her ongoing research indicates that the local Justices ensured that the trial was loaded against the defendants by withholding key information, giving the defence too little time to assemble its case, and packing the jury with hostile local farmers.

Bringing a local focus to the conference, Mike Greatbatch of the North East Labour History Society explored the life of William Parker, a significant figure in Newcastle Chartism, setting his life in the context of the city’s rapid industrialisation.

A former soldier turned labourer, Parker served as secretary to Ouseburn Working Men’s Association, and on the council of the Northern Political Union, spoke regularly at public meetings in the city and was a frequent correspondent to the radical and local press.

Speaking on protest and popular politics among the Yorkshire miners, Joe Stanley of Sheffield Hallam University, argued that far from being a defensive measure, the miners used strikes in this period in pursuit of higher wages. And he suggested that having won higher wages, miners were then often used their gains to enable shorter working hours.

While Yorkshire’s miners played little part in Chartism, Stanley argued, this was not because they were too ground down to do so, but because they had few economic problems that required a political solution. Trade unionism and strikes meant that they were relatively well off.

The afternoon session began with a keynote lecture from Dr Robert Poole of the University of Central Lancashire on Peterloo and Chartism.

Mark Bennett of Durham University then spoke on Chartism’s legacy and the reform debate in Yorkshire between 1859 and 1867.

Drawing the conference to a conclusion, Dr Matt Roberts of Sheffield Hallam University challenged the idea that women played little part in Chartism after 1842. Between 1843 and 1852, he pointed out, 52 known organisations of women Chartists existed at one time or another.

Focusing mainly on the Sheffield Women’s Rights Association, established in 1851, he argued that, while influenced by the middle-class feminist and social reformer Anne Knight, the Sheffield WRA was a largely working class organisation with its own agenda.

Under the leadership of Abiah Higginbotham, it took up traditional Chartist concerns, and issues such as temperance and rational dress for women. And, although the first petition in favour of votes for women is usually credited to Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett, and to the petition presented to Parliament in 1866, Dr Roberts pointed out that the Sheffield WRA had got there first: their petition was presented in June 1851 by John Parker MP to the House of Commons and by the Earl of Carlisle to the Lords.

Thanks are due to Dr Richard Allen and Dr Joan Allen, both of Newcastle University, for organising and hosting the day; and to the Labour and Society research group at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Newcastle University, and to the Society for the Study of Labour History both of which sponsored it.

Dr Robert Poole - from Peterloo to Chartism.

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