Tuesday 27 February 2024

‘The true history of the Chartist movement has yet to be written’

Robert Gammage was a great admirer of the Chartist orator Henry Vincent, describing him in his History of the Chartist Movement (1854) as ‘the young Demosthenes of English Democracy’ It would appear, however, that Vincent was rather less enthusiastic about Gammage. 

I recently bought a first edition of Gammage’s book online to use as a working copy. A former library copy, listed as being ‘in poor condition’ and with the spine attached only by sellotape in one corner, I didn’t expect much from it or from the ‘ink inscription on the front page’. It cost only a few pounds. When it arrived, however, I was delighted to see that the inscription read, ‘Lucy E. Vincent, from her husband Henry Vincent’, and even more excited to discover that two pages of the fly leaf were covered in handwritten notes. Having seen other examples of Vincent’s handwriting and of his signature, I have no doubt that all of this is in his hand.

Henry Vincent had been one of the six working-men entrusted by the London Working Men’s Association with drawing up the People’s Charter. He was a delegate to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes in early 1839. And he published the Western Vindicator, an important Chartist newspaper aimed at radicals in Wales and the West of England. 

In his History, Gammage recalls how at the age of eighteen he heard Vincent speak: ‘At that time he was in the prime of youthful vigour, being but twenty-five years of age… His person was extremely graceful, and he appeared on the platform to considerable advantage. With a fine mellow flexible voice, a florid complexion, and, excepting in intervals of passion, a most winning expression he had only to present himself in order to win all hearts over to his side. His attitude was perhaps the most easy and graceful of any popular orator of the time.’

In the decades after Gammage first published his book, and particularly after the appearance of a second, posthumous edition in 1894, its account of the movement and judgements on its key figures, partly based on personal experience as Gammage had himself been an active Chartist, helped shape and set the tone for future historians. His consistently hostile and unflattering view of O'Connor would not be seriously challenged for another century.

Though a member of the London Working Men’s Association, Vincent was one of the movement's great radical agitators, capable of rousing crowds to a height of passion. And if in the early days of Chartism he did not specifically advocate the use of physical force, it would have taken a lawyerly eye to discern Vincent's careful tiptoe along the moral force side of the divide. It was not a distinction which much bothered the authorities: on 7 May 1839, after speaking at Newport in Wales, Vincent was arrested for attending a riotous assembly and imprisoned for a year.

On his release, Vincent swiftly married the still-teenage Lucy Cleave, daughter of the radical printer John Cleave, and toned down his former fiery language, falling in behind William Lovett and his moral force ‘new move’ Chartism - as a result of which he was cut adrift and condemned by Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star. Though he made a living from the power of his oratory for the rest of his life, Vincent eventually threw in his lot with the emerging Liberal Party.

At first sight, it would seem that Gammage and Vincent would have shared an analysis of Chartism and what went wrong. The inscription in this book suggests otherwise. Perhaps Vincent, who was short in stature even by the standards of the time, took exception to Gammage’s description of him as ‘much below the middle size’; more likely he was hurt by Gammage’s assessment that his oratory was a triumph of style over substance. As Gammage put it: 'He could impress his hearers with the conviction that his speeches were from beginning to end masterpieces of eloquence; but the moment they appeared in black and white the sweet illusion vanished, the charm was dissolved, the magic spell was broken, and he appeared but little more than an ordinary speaker.'

Vincent's flyleaf notes run to barely 150 words but they are damning. It is interesting to speculate on whether the notes were made as a reminder to his future self, or as an attempt to mansplain Chartism to Lucy, who must have possessed as thorough a knowledge of it as he did. Although a twentieth century librarian has unhelpfully posted a borrowing slip over part of the page, Vincent's opening sentence is clear enough: 'The following work presents but an inaccurate sketch of the Chartist movement - either in its rise, progress or the causes of its failure.' Vincent goes on to criticise Gammage for having little to say about those who created the movement and from the start opposed Feargus O'Connor and James Bronterre O'Brien. 

This is an interesting conflation of O'Connor and O'Brien since the two men held very different views and fell out early on. In his introduction to the 1969 reprint of Gammage's book, the historian John Saville notes that though Gammage's political ideas certainly owed much to those of O'Brien, his attitude to O'Connor was one of 'consistent hostility'.

Vincent, however, regards them as equally culpable for Chartism's downfall: 'The Chartist movement was destroyed by the violence of [Joseph Rayner] Stephens, [Richard] Oastler and the loud talk, bluster and foolishness of O'Connor and his party - and by the insane anti-capital theories and [illegible] working-class prejudices of O'Brien and his party.' I have been unable to decipher that one word.

And in a final flourish, Vincent concludes: 'The real founders of the Chartist movement were William Lovett, and the members of the London Working Men’s Association – and the true history of the Chartist movement has yet to be written.'

On Chartist Ancestors

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