Monday 19 February 2024

Did Chartists die before their time?

Some years after Chartism had passed into history, the editor of the Miner’s Advocate rejoiced that despite ‘the havoc death has made among the Reformers of our time, especially among those connected with the Chartist movement’, the Leeds radical William Rider was ‘still clear-headed and strong’ (18 February 1865). Rider was all of 60 years old. A decade and a half later, after Henry Vincent’s funeral, the Daily News reported that, ‘mingled with the little groups that lingered after the mourners had departed were some old Chartist friends of the deceased, now grey and bent with years’ (3 January 1879). Vincent had been 65. 

It hardly now seems miraculous that someone in their early sixties should still be at least partly in possession of their mental faculties or retain a degree of physical vigour. At least, not to those of us who have reached that age more or less in one piece. Yet time after time, newspaper editors from the 1860s onwards reported on their encounters with former Chartists as if they had discovered Methuselah himself. Was this simply a reflection of the shorter life expectancies of those born around the turn of the nineteenth century? Or was Chartist activism and its consequences so debilitating that it sapped the life force of those who lived through it and sent them artificially aged and decrepit to an early grave?

There are now 49 Chartist life stories on Chartist Ancestors, in 47 of which the age at which the subject died can be established with some certainty. They range from 26 at the lower end of the spectrum to 94 at the top end. Among them, the mean average age at death is 62 and the median (or midpoint in the range) is 63. To some extent these figures may be artificially lowered by the fact that three of the four Chartists who died at the youngest ages were killed by the police (Henry Hanshard aged 26) or died in prison (Alexander Sharp aged 28, and Joseph Williams aged 40). Early deaths were of course also common among the wider population, but to be on the safe side, I recalculated excluding these three, and got a mean average of 64 and median also of 64. 
So how does this compare with life expectancy in the early to mid Victorian era generally? Data from the Office for National Statistics Decennial Life Tables for England and Wales shows that a baby boy born in 1841 had a mean average life expectancy at birth of just 40, while a girl could hope to live to the age of 42. And life expectancy at birth remained below 50 for the rest of the century. But, of course, in part this reflected the appalling death rate among the very young. In the 1840s, around 15% of babies died before their first birthday. For those who survived infancy, life expectancy rose substantially, so that a baby boy born in 1841 could, if they made it to the age of ten, hope to live to the age of 57, rising, if they made it to 20, to an average of 60 years. Those who made it to age 40 could expect to live on to the age of 66. It should be noted that the ONS data is only for boys, although the data for girls follows a similar pattern – with the age gap slightly in favour of women at all ages.
Clearly direct comparisons between Chartists and the general population are impossible – the ONS data gives an idea of life expectancy for those born in 1841 at various stages of their lives, while the Chartist data shows the age of death for a group of individuals who were born and died over a period of some decades. But it is probably as near as it is possible to get.
In summary, then, our Chartists generally lived to between 62 and 64 years of age, while among the general population a baby boy born in the early Chartist years who made it to adulthood would live on average… somewhere into their early to mid sixties. Many of those in the Chartist group endured great hardship as a result of their political activities, probably more so than their apolitical neighbours: a prison sentence, whether for selling unstamped newspapers (John Cleave), seditious libel (Henry Vincent) or both (George Julian Harney), was not to be taken lightly. And certainly some would have lived longer lives had they not been Chartists (just ask Henry Hanshard or Alexander Sharp). But on the whole, Chartists and former Chartists did not die any younger than others around them. In mid Victorian Britain, merely making it to your sixties was cause enough for celebration and wonder.

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