Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Spy story: what a police informant claimed to have overheard in a Drury Lane pub on 10 April 1848

It is not every day that you find an account in the official record of an ancestor threatening to crush soldiers opposing a Chartist monster meeting “like toads” – even if, as seems likely, the evidence was a fiction concocted by a paid police spy.

So I am immensely grateful to Dave Steele, who came across a document in the National Archives making precisely this accusation and kindly sent me a copy.

The document, filed with similar reports on Chartists in Home Office records (TNA HO45/2410/531-532), claims to recount “A conversation between two Chartists which was overheard in a public house near Drury Lane Theatre on the evening of Monday April 10”. If it actually happened, the two speakers, named as Mr Stokes and Mr Anderson, had spent that Monday at the Kennington Common rally before the 1848 Chartist petition was taken to Parliament and were reflecting on the day's events.

Both Stokes and Anderson would appear from what they say to have travelled to London by train for the day. Anderson talks of returning that evening to Sheffield, while Stokes says he had travelled 200 miles to get there (possibly also from Sheffield as both seem to be heading off to catch the same train home, although this is not specified). 

Their conversation begins with Stokes bewailing the outcome of the day:

“Well, Mr Anderson, have we not been made a pack of fools today. How contemptible and ignominious we must appear in the eyes of all England & indeed of all Europe! What a set of blustering bullying fellows the whole of the forty nine Delegates are! How can we place any more confidence in these vile braggadocio cowards.”

“True,” replies Anderson, “A viler set of traitors never existed.”

He goes on to list the blood-thirsty threats allegedly made over the previous week by members of the convention: Skelton, Grassby, McCarthy “and his Irish Associates”, and of course “the bold little tailor Cuffay”. Among these, Grassby (my great-great-great grandfather) had apparently “said that all they had to do with the soldiers was to make a [illegible] at their throats and to crush them like toads!!”

But, says Stokes, what a contrast these threats made with the speeches made earlier that same day at Kennington Common when “these cowardly set of rascals discovered all of a sudden that they had wives & children & that Chartism & the petition ought to be abandoned for love of them”.

The two men agree that they have been made fools of, and rightly so. “Find me coming again 200 miles by railway to attend Chartist meetings!” exclaims Stokes. “I say ditto,” says Anderson – noting that by the time he gets home to Sheffield he will have spent “above three pounds”, and cost himself and his master work by failing to stay home and complete a big order for him.

“Mr Stokes (rising) Well, well, I wash my hands for ever of these humbugs & traitors to the cause.
Mr Anderson. Come lets be off – the last train from Euston Square will soon be leaving.”

So, while there can be little doubt that the report came from a police informant (such things were fairly common at the time) was it a genuine account of a conversation overheard, or as Dave Steele suggested to me, something trumped up or faked by a government spy?

I tend to think the whole thing a work of fiction. The whole conversation simply reads too much like the script of a badly written stage play; the language used is hardly naturalistic, and who while chatting over a pint in the pub really talks in such perfect paragraphs. The narrative that emerges from transcript is also too neat and tidy, too well informed and consistent in the story it tells of the day’s events. Stokes and Anderson seem to have the sort of overview that comes not from being at the centre of the crowd but from having time to pull together information from a variety of sources; at a guess, I would say the writer had already seen the following day’s newspaper accounts when he sat down to put pen to paper.

And what of the people named in the report? The author is unknown. Neither does there appear to be any mention of either a Mr Stokes or a Mr Anderson in relation to Sheffield Chartism (their names appear in neither the Northern Star nor in the Chartist Ancestors Databank). I would be interested to hear otherwise, but I suspect they were inventions of the report’s author.

Of those named, Skelton is most likely John Skelton, who had represented the 400-strong West End Ladies Shoemakers in a number of forums and was a regular speaker on Chartist platforms; Grassby is James Grassby, not yet a member of the National Charter Association’s executive committee, but a familiar face on numerous London and national Chartist bodies; and McCarthy is Charles McCarthy, a London-based Irish activist in the boot and shoemakers’ union, Irish Confederate and one of twenty “commissioners” elected to work alongside the NCA executive in 1848. William Cuffay, of course, is the best known of the group – president of the London Chartists and soon to be transported to Australia for his role in the Orange Tree conspiracy.

It is interesting to note that either Mr Anderson or the author of the police report was clearly familiar with the names of four prominent Chartist activists, all of whom happened to be trade union activists operating in London – and at least three of whom (Skelton, Grassby and Cuffay) were members of both the Westminster NCA and the Westminster branch of the Chartist land campaign. But neither Anderson nor Stokes thought to mention a single Chartist from outside the capital, or even Westminster.

To me, this is an absolutely fascinating find, and all the evidence seems to suggest the report is a politically or more likely financially motivated fiction by a London police spy. Dave Steele tells me that all of this will form a short section of his PhD thesis, currently a work in progress, on the dynamics of political crowds in Britain in the early nineteenth century. I look forward to reading his conclusions about all this and much else.