The Chartist Movement/Chapter 4
THE LONDON WORKING MEN'S ASSOCIATION AND THE PEOPLE'S CHARTER (1836-1839)
The London Working Men's Association was the last of a series of similar organisations, extending as far back as 1829, and including the First London Co-operative Trading Association, the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge, and the National Union of the Working Classes and Others, which covered the period from 1829 to 1833. The character of these bodies has already been described. They present a gradual evolution from "voluntary communism to social democracy," that is, from non-political Owenism to a belief that democracy is the necessary preliminary to social equity and justice. This evolution was modified by two events which had a very disturbing influence upon the minds of thinking working men. The Reform Bill of 1832 was a profound disappointment to them, and the sudden attack by the new middle-class Parliament upon the Trade Unions, ending in the barbarous sentence on the Dorchester Labourers in 1834, was a still greater blow. The ideas of the working classes took on a sharper edge. The Reform Bill and the Dorchester Labourers' case were regarded as cause and effect; the middle class were using their newly acquired political supremacy to further their economic interests. Hence the idea of class war, which made the possession of political power more essential than ever to the working classes. Without the franchise the working men would be absolutely at the mercy of the middle class.
The National Union faded away during 1833-34 on the rise of militant Owenism in the shape of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. The little group of men, from whose exertions the whole series of unions and associations took its rise, had already for some time been devoting themselves to another agitation, the object this time being the abolition of the stamp duty on newspapers. This agitation had achieved a partial victory in 1836, when the stamp duty was reduced from fourpence to one penny. This was a solid gain to working men, to whom the newspaper became for the first time accessible. Within a year or two of the reduction there was a rapid growth of popular, radical newspapers which played a very important part in the Chartist movement itself. This agitation had been carried through largely by the exertions of five men—Francis Place, William Lovett, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave, and James Watson, who had been the leading spirits ever since 1829.
William Lovett was thirty-six years of age in 1836. He was born at Penzance in Cornwall of humble parentage. His father, whom he lost when he was still an infant, was the captain of a small trading vessel. His mother reared him upon stern Methodist lines. He was sent to two or three schools at which he acquired some acquaintance with the three R's. He served an apprenticeship to rope-making, but his tastes lay more in the direction of cabinet-making which he contrived to learn in his spare time. In 1821 he migrated to London, and after some difficulty he succeeded in obtaining entrance to the trade and society of the Cabinetmakers, of which society he eventually became President. He thus took a place in the van of the trade union movement, to which he was able to render able service. He was methodical, careful, and businesslike, qualities which were highly prized in those early days, when there were few to whom correspondence, the keeping of books, accounts, and minutes could be safely entrusted. Lovett was the universal secretary.
Lovett's political education began in a small literary society called the "Liberals," of which he gives us no details. He joined the London Mechanics' Institute, where he heard Birkbeck, and probably Hodgskin, lecture. He also heard Richard Carlile and Gale Jones speak in the various coffeehouses where radicals congregated. From Carlile he derived a hatred of dogmatic and intolerant Christianity and was persuaded "that Christianity was not a thing of form and profession for mercenary idlers to profit by," a belief which led him into disputation with his wife who was a devout Churchwoman. Hetherington certainly and Watson probably shared these views too.
Lovett's radical views were quickly reinforced by the teachings of Hodgskin, Owen, and others. He became an enthusiastic believer in Owenism. He was storekeeper for the First London Co-operative Trading Association in 1829.
I was induced to believe that the gradual accumulation of capital by these means would enable the working classes to form themselves into joint stock associations of labour, by which (with industry, skill, and knowledge) they might ultimately have the trade, manufacture, and commerce of the country in their own hands.
He continued to take an active part in the Owenite propaganda down to the failure of the famous Labour Exchange Bazaar which was founded in 1832, but with the militant Owenism of 1834 he had nothing to do, devoting himself to his own affairs and the Newspaper Tax campaign. He was also a prominent member of the National Union of the Working Classes, and took a great part in its activities.
Lovett's expressions of his political and social opinions are comparatively rare, but one or two may be cited. In 1836 we find him arguing in the columns of Hetherington's Twopenny Dispatch. Individualism is the great cause of the evil lot of the working classes. The right of individual property in land, machinery, and productive power; the right of individual accumulation of wealth, "which enables one man to engross for luxury what would suffice to make thousands happy"; and the right to buy and sell human labour by which the multitude are made subservient to the few—these are fountains of social injustice. Through these rights guaranteed by existing laws, industry is improperly directed to enriching the few instead of benefiting the many. Individual property means individual interests and a tendency under any form of government to influence legislation in favour of individual interests. The Corn Laws are a case in point. Individual interest and not surplus population is the root of social evil. Lovett is thus a social revolutionary. Permanent social happiness is to be expected only from the substitution of some higher principle than self-interest as the basis of human society. Without this, changes in the form of government are futile.
At the same time the enfranchisement of the people under a truly democratic system would be a step towards bringing about this substitution. Thus Lovett in a conversation with Place in 1837: "People would contend for a better state if they had political power." Place: "No, if they had intelligence." Lovett undoubtedly agreed with Place. All his life Lovett believed that education was the indispensable preliminary to social regeneration. It was not so much intellectual conviction as a passionate sense of the injustice of things as they were that drove him into political agitation.
On a later occasion Lovett expressed himself at greater length upon the evils of individual accumulation of capital. The primary evil is the trafficking in human labour.
This he conceived to be a pernicious principle in society. We admitted an individual to avail himself of the small savings of his own industry, or it may be of the assistance of his friends, and with these means thus to traffick in human labour, to buy it cheap and sell it dear, and as his means increased, to purchase machinery or other productive powers, and thus to supersede human labour. The fruits thus accumulated we allow him to transmit to his children: they, becoming rich, intermarry and mix with the aristocracy, and thus by this principle we are building up exclusion and corruption on the one hand faster than we can reform evils on the other.
Lovett was a tall, thin man with a delicate frame and an ardent spirit. A description by an admirer runs thus:
Mr. Lovett is a tall, gentlemanly-looking man with a high and ample forehead, a pale, contemplative cast of countenance, dark-brown hair, and possessing altogether a very prepossessing exterior, in manner quiet, modest and unassuming, speaking seldom, but when he does so, always with the best effect. His voice is good though not powerful, his figure commanding, and the slow, clear and distinct enunciation of his thoughts at once arrests the attention and sympathy of his audience.
Place's description is more critical:
He is a tall, thin, rather melancholy man, in ill-health, to which he has long been subject, at times he is somewhat hypochondriacal; his is a spirit misplaced.
Lovett was therefore a man of a not unfamiliar revolutionary type. His was an impulsive and sensitive spirit which felt the wrongs and sufferings of others as keenly as those inflicted upon himself, liable to the extremes of melancholy and of enthusiasm; an intellectual revolutionary differing from his more reckless colleagues in possessing an austere morality, unswerving honesty and courage, and a better insight into the difficulties and dangers which beset the path of the reformer. Lovett was no orator: sensitive and diffident, and endowed with but a weak voice, he did not shine in assemblies of any size. As adviser and administrator he was invaluable. He was a more competent guide than leader. He lacked the will to impose himself upon followers, and disdained to gain a precarious authority by exercising the arts of a demagogue, for which rôle, indeed, he lacked nearly all the qualifications. In fact Lovett carried his democratic ideas to the extreme of repudiating leadership altogether—an idea which he perhaps owed to Hodgskin who, we are told by Place, was an anarchist. This, unfortunately, was neither good theory nor good practice. Good leadership was exactly what the working people wanted in those days. Leaders they had and Lovett was the best of them.
Henry Hetherington was eight years older than Lovett. He was a compositor by trade and had spent a little time abroad in Belgium. He, like Lovett, was educated in the radical and Owenite traditions, and was a thoroughgoing free-thinker. He is described by Place as an honest-hearted fellow who was liable to be imposed upon by rogues. He was the leader of the working-class agitation for the abolition of the newspaper duties. He was the publisher of a series of radical unstamped newspapers of which the most important were the Poor Man's Guardian, started in 1831 as a weekly penny paper for the people, and the Twopenny Dispatch, started in 1835 on the decease of the Guardian. He was also partially responsible for the Republican, the Radical, and the Destructive or People's Conservative in the years 1831-34. He was an active member of the various unions of which mention has been made. He was a better speaker than Lovett, having more confidence and not being handicapped by physical difficulties. He acted as missionary for the National Union in 1831. He was a downright, clear-headed, and trustworthy man. His fight against the newspaper stamp showed him to be a stubborn and ingenious campaigner, and he no doubt supplied some of the qualities in which Lovett was lacking. He was prosperous in his business after 1835 and was apparently a generous giver.
Hetherington left behind a remarkable statement of his views in 1849:
I calmly and deliberately declare that I do not believe in the popular notion of the existence of an Almighty, All-Wise and Benevolent God, possessing intelligence and conscious of his own operations. … I believe death to be an eternal sleep. … I consider Priestcraft and Superstition the greatest obstacle to human improvement and happiness. I die with a firm conviction that Truth, Justice, and Liberty will never be permanently established on earth till every vestige of Priestcraft and Superstition shall be utterly destroyed. … I have ever considered that the only religion useful to man consists exclusively of the practice of morality and in the mutual exchange of kind actions. In such a religion there is no room for priests. … These are my views and feelings in quitting an existence that has been chequered by the plagues and pleasures of a competitive, scrambling, selfish system: a system in which the moral and social aspirations of the noblest human being are nullified by incessant toil and physical deprivations: by which indeed all men are trained to be either slaves, hypocrites, or criminals. Hence my ardent attachment to the principles of that great and good man Robert Owen. I quit this world with the firm conviction that his system is the only true road to human emancipation: that it is indeed the only just system for regulating the affairs of honest, intelligent human beings—the only one yet made known to the world that is based on truth, justice, and equality. While the land, machines, tools, implements of production and the produce of man's toil are exclusively in possession of the do-nothings, and labour is the sole possession of the wealth producers—a marketable commodity, bought up and directed by wealthy idlers, never-ending misery must be their (sic) inevitable lot. Robert Owen's system, if rightly understood and faithfully carried out, rectifies all these anomalies. It makes man the proprietor of his own labour and of the elements of production: it places him in a condition to enjoy the entire fruits of his labour, and surrounds him with circumstances which will make him intelligent, rational, and happy.
A powerful testimony indeed to the inspiration and influence of Robert Owen. Hetherington shared the prevalent view of his circle that Owen's system could not be carried into practice until the working classes were enfranchised.
James Watson was a year older than Lovett, having been born in Malton in 1799. When eighteen years old he went to Leeds as a drysalter's apprentice. There he came into contact with the struggling radicals of the Carlile-Bamford period, when radicalism was almost equivalent to high treason. As a result he volunteered to keep open Richard Carlile's shop whilst the radical champion was in Dorchester Gaol, and so reached London in 1822. In the following year he was visited with the usual penalties and found himself in gaol also, where he improved his mind with Gibbon, Hume, and other anticlerical historians. In 1825 he came into contact with the generous Julian Hibbert, a scholar and a gentleman of republican ideas, who dragged Watson through a serious illness and bequeathed to him a sum sufficient to set him up as a printer and publisher. He took a prominent part, with Lovett, Hetherington, and others, in the various Owenite ventures from 1828 onwards, and also in the campaign against the newspaper taxes. In 1834 he was imprisoned for publishing blasphemous writings. A letter he wrote from Clerkenwell Gaol to his wife, to whom he was but newly married, shows the same melancholy outlook which we have already observed in Lovett.
Do not let my staidness disconcert you or make you think I am unhappy. Remember, my dear Ellen, what a school of adversity I have been trained in, the obstacles I have had to encounter, the struggles I have had to make; to which add that my studies, by choice I admit, have been of a painful kind. The study of the cause and remedy of human woe has engrossed all my thoughts.His favourite poem, significantly enough, was William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis. Watson was a kindly, lovable man, an honest Yorkshireman with the broad and generous qualities bred on the Yorkshire moors, a man, we are told, after the fashion of Cromwell's Ironsides.
Watson and Lovett, perhaps Hetherington too, represent an interesting revolutionary type. They are intellectual men whom modern education might have lifted into quite other spheres of life, where their abilities would have found that expression which political agitation alone seemed to offer in their own day. They were men driven into revolutionary thought by the appalling misery which they saw around them and which tinged their whole mental outlook with a melancholy which sought refuge in political agitation. A feeling of baffled helplessness in the face of the massed array of vested interests, ignorance, prejudice, and conservatism added bitterness to their thoughts. But a horror of violence, of bloodshed, and of hate deprived them of that callous, calculating recklessness which is essential to a physical force revolutionary, and they were helpless in face of such men when the movement which they started took on the nature of a physical force demonstration.
John Cleave was about the same age as Hetherington. He was the latter's right-hand man in the agitation for the unstamped press. He kept a bookseller's shop in Shoe Lane at the Holborn end, and was the publisher of the Weekly Police Gazette, which attained a very large circulation. He was less refined and perhaps less able than his three colleagues, but he was a capable and fluent speaker of courage and conviction. Like Hetherington he was very useful as delegate or missionary.
These were the leading spirits in the London Working Men's Association which came into existence in the summer of 1836. We have two accounts of its foundation, from Place and from Lovett. Place relates how John Black, editor of the Morning Chronicle, who had assisted very enthusiastically in the campaign for a free press, and had therefore come into contact with the Lovett and Hetherington group, tried, during the summer of 1834 when that campaign was at its height, to form the artisans into a study circle. On applying to Lovett with this suggestion, he found him "cold and especially guarded." He received no more encouragement from the other members of the group. Place attributed this to the growing jealousy conceived by the artisans against the middle class, as a result of their great disappointment over the Reform Bill. Lovett's account confirms this important particular. On the conclusion of the campaign against the newspaper taxes, he relates, it was seen that the agitation had brought together a number of influential working men—
… and the question arose among us whether we could form and maintain a union formed exclusively of this class and of such men. We were the more induced to try the experiment as the working classes had not hitherto evinced that discrimination and independent spirit in the management of their political affairs which we were desirous to see. … They were always looking up to leadership of one description or other. … In fact the masses in their political organisations were taught to look up to great men (or to men professing greatness) rather than to great principles.
The main difference between Place and Lovett is that Place suggests that Black did, after all, have something to do with the foundation of this famous body, whilst Lovett does not allude to him. The minute-book of the Association gives the following particulars:
At a meeting of a few friends assembled at 14 Tavistock St., Covent Garden, June 9, 1836, William Lovett brought forward a rough sketch of a prospectus for the Working Men's Association (i.e. the question had already been discussed). It was ordered to be printed for further discussion.
On July 17 it was proposed to invite some thirty-three persons to form the nucleus of the Association. Amongst these original members were of course Lovett, Hetherington, Watson, and Cleave. Of lesser importance were Richard Moore, a carver in wood, an honest, unobtrusive man; John Gast, the famous shipwright of Rotherhithe; Richard Hartwell, a compositor; and Richard Cray, a Spitalfields silk-weaver who wrote a very curious report upon the handloom silkweavers of London. Lovett acted as Secretary and Hetherington as Treasurer.
The objects of the Association are thus stated by Lovett:
To draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country. To seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of the equal political and social rights.
Then follow two specific demands, "a cheap and honest press" and "the education of the rising generation," the latter of which, and especially the determination with which it was pressed upon the attention of the public by the Association, awards to this little group of artisans a not unworthy place amongst the pioneers of English education. The methods adopted are as follows:
To collect every kind of information appertaining to the interests of the working classes in particular and to society in general, especially statistics regarding the wages of labour, the habits and condition of the labourer, and all those causes that mainly contribute to the present state of things: to meet and communicate with each other for the purpose of digesting the information acquired.
The views and opinions based upon this were to be published in the hope of creating "a reflecting public opinion" which would lead to a gradual improvement of the working classes "without commotion or violence." The formation of a library and the provision of a proper place of meeting close a programme of agitation as laudable in its objects as it is sound in its methods.
Conceiving its purposes in this serious spirit, the Association was naturally correspondingly careful in its choice of members. It rigidly excluded all but genuine working men, though it admitted to honorary membership members of the middle class, "being convinced from experience that the division of interests in the various classes in the present state of things is too often destructive of that union of sentiment which is essential to the prosecution of any great object." Thus several radical members of Parliament were elected honorary members. Francis Place, James O'Brien, John Black of the Morning Chronicle, Feargus O'Connor, Robert Owen, W. J. Fox, later member for Oldiam, and Dr. Wade, Vicar of Warwick, a jovial, eccentric doctor of divinity weighing some twenty stones, and an enthusiastic Owenite, all were similarly honoured by admission to the Association.
Even genuine members of the labouring classes were not admitted without careful inquiry. Proposals for admission were frequently rejected or put back for further investigation. It was preferred to keep the Association small rather than depreciate the quality of its membership, or to run the risk of faction and disunion. These precautions were very necessary in view of the difficulties previously experienced in keeping together similar bodies. Stringent as they were, they did not prevent reckless and revolutionary persons from entering and disturbing the unity of the Association. The total number of members admitted between June 1836 and 1839 was 279, exclusive of 35 or more honorary members. It is unlikely that the total strength was ever greater than 200. The subscription was one shilling per month, sufficiently considerable to exclude many would-be members. The receipts rose to £20 in the quarter ending June 28, 1837, and there was a surplus of 4s. 8d. After this the Association quitted the peaceful waters of quiet educational activity and launched out on the stormy ocean of public agitation.
The earliest proceedings of the Association were concerned with the appointment of committees and sub-committees to investigate and report upon various subjects of working-class interest. One committee inquired into the composition of the House of Commons and published a famous report, called The Rotten House of Commons, towards the end of 1836. Another committee inquired into the condition of the silk-weavers of Spitalfields, and a manuscript report, drawn up by Richard Cray, found its way into the archives of the Chartist Convention of 1839. It has no claim whatever to scientific accuracy, but is noteworthy as a pathetic description of the decay of a once reputable class of artisans, and as a specimen of popular anti-capitalistic thought. A third committee about this time drew up an address of sympathy with the Belgians, then endeavouring to establish their autonomous constitution. Another committee, in which, as we may justifiably surmise, Lovett was the chief, published the Address and Rules of the London Working Men's Association for benefiting Politically, Socially, and Morally the Useful Classes. It was principally an exhortation to their fellows in the country to found similar societies. They must use caution in selecting members, excluding the drunken and immoral. For real political education a selected few is better than a carelessly gathered multitude; a mere exhibition of numbers must be avoided—how different this from the mass demonstrations of 1831–32! Failure and disappointment may be the immediate reward, but knowledge and enlightenment will conquer in the end. Before an educated people Government must bow. These admirable sentiments received unstinted praise from no less a person than Francis Place himself, who otherwise was quite out of sympathy with the social democratic tendency of the Association.
The Rotten House of Commons was a scathing attack upon the unrepresentative character of that House and a stirring denunciation of the Reform Bill of 1832. It was strongly reminiscent of similar pamphlets published by the aristocratic radicals of the Wilkes epoch. The gist of the pamphlet is that the House of Commons is now the scene of a struggle between landed and moneyed interest, both equally dangerous to the interests and well-being of the useful classes. The bias of the argument is distinctly against the industrial and commercial faction.
Will it, think you, fellow-countrymen, promote our happiness, will it give us more comforts, more leisure, less toil, and less of the wretchedness to which we are subjected, if the power and empire of the wealthy be established on the wreck of title and privilege? … If the past struggles and contentions we have had with the monied and commercial classes to keep up our wages—our paltry means of subsistence—if the infamous Acts they have passed since they obtained a portion of political power form any criterion of their disposition to do us justice, little have we to expect from any accession to that power, any more than from the former tyrants we have had to contend against.
Some of these men had put on the cloak of reform, but intended not to lose their exclusive privileges; others were for gradual reform "lest we should make any advance towards depriving them of their exclusive prerogative of leading us from year to year through the political quagmire where we are daily beset by plunderers, befooled by knaves, and misled by hypocritical impostors"—a master-hand here truly.
Then follows a recital of the various interests represented in Parliament—Fundholders, Landholders, Money-makers, nobles of all ranks, Army, Law, Church, Manufacturers, and Employers—showing how incompatible such representation is with the true interests of the useful classes. The remedy is obvious—universal suffrage, ballot, annual parliaments, equal representation, abolition of the property qualification for members of Parliament, but above all a free press. Out of 6,023,752 males of full age only 839,519 had the vote. One-fifth of the latter elect a majority of members of the House of Commons, for 331 were elected by only 151,492 votes, that is, one-fortieth of the male adult population had the power to make laws binding upon millions.
This pamphlet was published and scattered broadcast. It became the stand-by of radical orators throughout the country and spread the repute of the Association amongst working people everywhere. The Association published many other pamphlets during 1837, but none attained the celebrity of this one.
In January 1837 the Association accepted an offer of Francis Place to hold a study and discussion circle on Sunday mornings. Place left short notes of these conversations, which apparently consisted of duels between equally convinced exponents of orthodox and Hodgskinite economics. Place confessed his failure to convert the workmen, in a note which he later appended:
In a few, and only a few, instances have I been able to convince some of the trades delegates, who have consulted me, of the absurdity of the notion that everything produced or manufactured belongs solely to the people who made it, and this too without reference to the many hands it has gone through, the manufacturing hands being alone contemplated by them.
This association with so thoroughgoing a supporter of orthodox, "Malthusian" economics as Place was destined very soon to bring the Association into bad odour when the agitation against the new Poor Law became violent, that law being universally regarded as a product of "Malthusian" subtlety.
The Association was growing both in numbers and in influence during the first year of its existence. It received notable recruits, including the redoubtable orator, Henry Vincent, who joined in November 1836, and was quickly elected on the committee. Vincent was a young man of twenty-three or thereabouts, short, slight, extremely prepossessing, and with an unusual gift of speech. Like Hartwell and Hetherington, Vincent was a compositor. By midsummer 1837 the Association was exactly a hundred strong. It had gathered a library of radical and socialistic literature. We read, for example, that Messrs. Williams and Binns of the Sunderland Mechanics' Institution (of whom more hereafter) presented the Association with a copy of Hampden in the Nineteenth Century and were rewarded with duplicate copies of Thompson's Distribution of Wealth, and two Owenite works by Edmonds. Also "on the departure of Citizen Wm. Hoare the Association presented him with a splendid copy of Thomas Paine's works."
Early in the existence of the Association danger raised its head in the shape of a deputation from the Cambridgeshire Farmers' Association, whose leader, a certain J. B. Bernard, was a currency maniac of the Attwood type. The report of a committee appointed to deal with the question, which was one of co-operation between the two bodies, is worth noting as an early indication of the Chartist habit of desiring to suppress all special agitations in favour of a general political movement.
The points urged on the part of the farmers were an adjustment of the currency so as to raise prices to enable them to meet their engagements or a reduction of burthens proportionate to their means. … It was replied on the part of the Association that the working classes were opposed to the raising of prices, as their increasing numbers, together with the new powers of production, were obstacles which would prevent their wages from being raised in proportion to high prices: also that, if by this plan they could relieve the farmer, they would then lose his co-operation in seeking a better state of things.
The report goes on to say that the Association urged upon the farmers the desirability of combining to acquire political power.
Bernard, however, had other ideas than that of co-operating with the Association. He wanted to play a part of his own. Early in 1837 he established himself in London, having acquired some interest in the London Mercury, a popular radical organ run by one John Bell, and edited by James O'Brien. He attached himself in a parasitic sort of way to O'Brien and to Feargus O'Connor, who had been a political free-lance since he had lost his seat in Parliament in 1835. All these, except Bernard, were honorary members of the Working Men's Association, and we may presume had been somewhat piqued by the cool and independent way in which the working man had received them. They commenced a rival radical agitation both in London and all over the country, and from their efforts sprang various associations, with programmes including such items as Universal Suffrage, the "Protection of Labour," and the abolition of the New Poor Law. These societies received a patronising blessing from the older association. The leaders of this new movement were conspicuous members of a violently revolutionary clique, headed by Neesom, a man of sixty or so; George Julian Harney (born in 1817), who had been Hetherington's shop-boy, had passed several sentences for selling unstamped papers, and had filled his head with the doings of Marat and other Jacobins of '93; Allan Davenport, an old cranky radical, who died not long afterwards, and a few others. Most of these individuals played a part in the Chartist Movement, though not a very reputable one.
The setting up of this agitation was the signal for war between the Bernardites and the Working Men's Association. It arose apparently out of a trade squabble between Hetherington and the Mercury proprietors, as owners of rival papers. Hetherington was accused of smashing up a meeting called by Bernard at Barnsley in May 1837. O'Brien denounced Hetherington and his fellows as "scheming impostors," "bought tools of the Malthusian Party" in the pages of the Mercury. Hetherington retorted in kind by calling his rival newspaper proprietors Tories in disguise. There was a stormy meeting of the Working Men's Association in June, when Bell and O'Brien appeared to answer charges against them. The dispute between these rivals was not improved by the intervention of Augustus Harding Beaumont, a young and fiery politician of exceedingly ill balanced mind.
The Working Men's Association, however, enjoyed an almost complete victory over its rivals. Its worst enemies seem to have collapsed about the summer of 1837. Bernard and Bell quarrelled, the Mercury was sold, and O'Brien left stranded, until he began to write for O'Connor in the Northern Star. O'Connor and Beaumont found a more congenial field for their demagogic activities amongst the half-starved weavers, the factory operatives, and the semi-barbarous colliers of the North of England. Harney, Neesom, and the rest applied for admission to the Working Men's Association, which they obtained only with difficulty. Harney at once began to cause trouble by entering into a controversy with O'Connell on the subject of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners. This was regarded by the Association as a breach of etiquette. Harney was censured. He replied by publishing the correspondence with O'Connell in the Times, together with some disrespectful remarks upon the leading men in the Association. A stormy scene resulted in the resignation of Harney and his friends. They at once retaliated by setting up a rival society called the London Democratic Association. This thoroughgoing O'Connorite body carried on a propaganda of extreme violence, to the great disgust of the older and soberer Association in Gray's Inn Lane.
Thus began the historic quarrel of Lovett and his followers and O'Connor. It was primarily the result of sheer incompatibility of temper between the sincere, self-sacrificing, but somewhat sensitive and resentful London artisan, who knew working men and shared their best aspirations, and the blustering, egotistical, blarneying, managing, but intellectually and morally very unreliable Irishman, who probably had never done an honest day's work in his life. It was secondarily a division between Lovett and a man whose methods of agitation included everything anathematised in the Address and Rules—hero-worship, clap-trap speeches, mass demonstrations leading to physical force ideas, and even more reckless oratory. The quarrel thus begun was never healed, and exercised throughout a baneful effect upon the Chartist agitation.
Whilst this strife was proceeding, the Association had been extending its influence by encouraging the formation of similar associations in the country. Occasional applications for copies of the Rules were received in the early months of the Association's career and a special sub-committee was appointed in February 1837 to deal with these. This was followed up by the despatch of "missionaries" into the country to help in the foundation of daughter associations. Cleave made the first such tour to Brighton in March. Hetherington was in Yorkshire in May and again in September. These two combined agitation with the prosecution of their newspaper business. The two flourished well together, as other agitators, like O'Connor and Beaumont, discovered. In August 1837 Vincent and Cleave were at work in Yorkshire, Vincent visiting amongst other places his old home at Hull. The efforts of these able speakers were crowned with success, and within a few months over a hundred working-men's associations sprang into being.
This missionary zeal was backed up by a stream of publications. An Address to Reformers on the Forthcoming Elections (the general election on death of William IV.) urged that only candidates who pledged themselves to Universal Suffrage "and all the other great essentials of self-government" should be supported. Next came an Address to the Queen on Political and Religious Monopoly, which the working men wanted to present in person to the Queen. They were told by the Lord Chamberlain that they must attend the next levée in court dress. This of course was out of the question, so they contented themselves with a spirited and indignant protest. An address on the subject of National Education, published late in 1837, is probably from the hand of Lovett as it contains the germ of the proposals afterwards developed in the book Chartism. It sketches a plan of state-aided, but not state-controlled, secular national education, based largely upon an older scheme of which Place has preserved the details. Ignorance, says Lovett, is the prolific source of evil, as knowledge of happiness. Poverty, inequality, and political injustice follow inevitably from the fact that one part of society is enlightened whilst the other is in darkest ignorance. The fearful prevalence of crime and the callous severity of punishment are equally the fruits of lack of education.
Is it consistent with justice that the knowledge requisite to make a man acquainted with his rights and duties should be purposely withheld from him, and then that he should be upbraided and deprived of his rights on the plea of ignorance?
A true Lovett touch this!
The school buildings should be provided by Government, but the power of appointing teachers, selecting books, and the general management of the schools should be in the hands of a local school committee. This body should be elected by universal adult suffrage (women being enfranchised too), should sit one year and report every half-year. The expenses of maintenance, salaries, books, and the like should be met by a local rate, whilst a Parliamentary Committee, appointed ad hoc, should supervise the Government's disbursements. Five types of schools are recommended: infants' schools for pupils from three to six years old; preparatory, for children from six to nine; high schools for children from nine to twelve; colleges for students of twelve years upwards; and normal schools for teachers. Illuminating are the remarks upon educational method, as representing a reaction against the memory-cram of Lancaster and Bell. Illuminating, too, is the remark that cleanliness and punctuality are to be enforced "as the best means of amalgamating class distinctions."
Shortly afterwards, in December 1837, the Association issued an Address to the Reformers of Great Britain and Ireland. This was in reply to an address by the Birmingham Union, which had recently declared for the democratic reform of Parliament. With this Address the London Working Men's Association made its second great step towards the foundation of the Chartist agitation.
The first step had been taken early in the same year. On the last day of February a public meeting was called under the Association's auspices in the famous Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. This was the first public appearance of the Association and created a great stir. All the principal members spoke. Feargus O'Connor and John Bell were present, not, we are assured, with the goodwill of the promoters of the meeting. A petition to the House of Commons was the result. This petition was the basis of the People's Charter. The preamble lays down
… that obedience to laws can only be justly enforced on the certainty that those who are called on to obey them have had, either personally or by their representatives, a power to enact, amend or repeal them. That all those who are excluded from this share of political power are not justly included within the operation of the laws: to them the laws are only despotic enactments and the legislative assembly from whom they emanate can only be considered parties to an unholy compact devising plans and schemes for taxing and subjecting the many. … That the universal political right of every human being is superior and stands apart from all customs, forms, or ancient usage: a fundamental right not in the power of man to confer or justly to deprive him of [sic]. That to take away this sacred right from the person and to vest it in property is a wilful perversion of justice and common sense, as the creation and security of property are the consequences of society, the great object of which is human happiness. That any constitution or code of laws formed in violation of man's political and social rights are [sic] not rendered sacred by time nor sanctified by custom.
Conversely, a constitution of this kind could only be maintained by force and fraud.
The prayer of the petition contained the "six points of the Charter." The United Kingdom should be divided into two hundred equal electoral districts returning one member each. Every person (women included) above twenty-one years old should be entitled to be registered as a voter after six months' residence. Parliament should be re-elected annually on June 24, Midsummer Day. The only qualification for candidates should be nomination by at least two hundred electors. Voting should be by ballot. Parliament should sit from the first Monday in October until its business for the year was accomplished. It was to rise in any case not later than the first of September following. The hours of business were to be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The salary of each member was fixed at £400 a year.
The petition is interesting as a sample of popular radical theory, which preserved a strong flavour of abstract doctrine long after the middle-class radicals had become disciples of Bentham in theory and opportunists in practice. It is noteworthy that this original conception of universal suffrage included women's suffrage, a demand which the Charter afterwards abandoned. The belief that Government, as it then existed, was maintained by force or fraud was not allowed to remain a mere statement of a theory. It explains the faith of many later Chartists in the power and influence of mass demonstrations which were expected to prove to the Government that its physical force foundation was no longer sound.
The meeting at the Crown and Anchor aroused the interest of the small group of radical members of Parliament which included Sir William Molesworth, Daniel O'Connell, Hindley, Sharman Crawford, Joseph Hume, John Arthur Roebuck, and others. These encouraged the Association to continue its public exertions. The leaders of the Association began to sound their parliamentary friends as to the possibility of getting the question of universal suffrage introduced into the House of Commons. A conference was arranged between the two groups, and took place on May 31 and June 7, 1837. The basis of discussion was the petition of February drawn as a bill. Most of the members of Parliament were disinclined to present a bill of so sweeping a character, and suggested a policy of opportunism and reform by instalments. O'Connell was specially zealous in his advocacy of the "fourpence in the shilling policy," but his suggestions met with little approval. The working men were not prepared either to surrender the leadership of the popular reform movement, as O'Connell had suggested, or to abate one jot of their demands. However, Roebuck agreed to present the Association's petition for universal suffrage, and the others promised to support him. For various reasons, however, nothing more was done until the spring of 1838. The Association published an account of these proceedings in its Address to Reformers on the Forthcoming Elections.
From this time onwards the London Working Men's Association gradually abandoned its quieter methods of agitation, and made with its radical programme a public bid for the leadership of working-class opinion. Its missionary tours were immensely successful, and its petition and the various manifestos it had published found a wide and enthusiastic response. During the latter months of 1837 the working classes in the manufacturing districts began to be infected with a vague but widespread excitement. The trade boom was over and unemployment was on the increase. Agitators like Hetherington, Cleave, and Vincent found audiences ready made at every street corner. As the year wore on the failure of the harvest began to tell its tale; prices rose as wages fell. Discontent was growing apace. Resentment against the New Poor Law added to the excitement. The handloom weavers of the northern counties were especially touched by the new regulations, whose, rigour had passed almost unnoticed in the years of good trade and cheap corn, which followed the passing of the Poor Law Amendment in 1834. Agitations sprang up like magic. Under the stimulus of Stephens, O'Connor, Oastler, and other orators of a fiery and sentimental character, the working people of the North broke out into a furious campaign against the restriction of poor relief. Radical papers like the Northern Star and the Northern Liberator carried the flaming words of the various orators to the ears of thousands who had not heard them spoken. Nor did these speeches lose much in being reduced to print, as they were read out loud by orators of equal passion and less eloquence, in public-house and street-corner meetings. Birmingham was rousing the Midlands to a campaign of a different character, in which it was endeavouring to enlist working-class support.
It was at this moment, too, that the Government aroused the antagonism of all Trade Unionists by the prosecution of the Glasgow spinners who were accused of assassinating a blackleg of grossly immoral character. The memory of the Dorchester Labourers was still fresh, and Archibald Alison, who was writing the history of modern Europe to "prove that Providence was on the side of the Tories," had, as Sheriff of Lanarkshire, the case in hand. Already Alison was breathing out threatenings of slaughter against the Trade Unionists within his jurisdiction.
Into the last-named affair the Association threw itself with energy. A Parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the Trade Unions as a whole was set on foot, largely on the initiative of Daniel O'Connell, who was regarded as displaying unusual animosity against them. A Committee of Trades Delegates was set up in London to watch over the inquiry on behalf of the Unions! The London Working Men's Association appointed three of its members on this Committee, Lovett, of course, being Secretary, and gave twenty-five shillings out of its scanty funds towards expenses. The Parliamentary Inquiry fizzled out in spite of the voluminous charges of Alison, and the Committee found it necessary to do no more than issue a manifesto or two and to give help to the witnesses for the Trade Unions during their visit to London.
This action gained the Association further support. Three of the accused spinners were admitted as honorary members, and thus communications were opened up with the working people of the North. The London Working Men's Association was rapidly becoming a propagator of working-class solidarity. With its hundred and fifty allied associations in all parts of the country, the Association could safely lay claim to the leadership of working-class opinion. Its agitation was not local: it was national and general. It aimed at no partial measures but at a radical reform of the institutions of the country, which would pave the way to social legislation in any desired sense.
In fact the Association was carried away by the excitement of the times and its own success in winning support for its radical programme. It had already achieved a considerable triumph, for the Birmingham Political Union in its desire to gain popular support for its Currency scheme had declared in favour of the radical programme. The Association was spurred on by this success and by the desire to seize and maintain control over the whole movement, of which it fondly imagined it was the author.
It was this feeling, no doubt, which induced the Association to take up again in the spring of 1838 the project of a Parliamentary Bill embodying the specific radical demands, which had been mooted in the previous year. The idea underlying this proceeding was that, as the Bill was about to be presented to the Commons by Roebuck or some other radical member, a great and general agitation should be set on foot throughout the country with a view to bringing to bear upon the House of Commons that pressure which, it was believed, had compelled the Government to pass the Bill of 1832.
At the meeting of June 7, 1837, a committee of twelve had been appointed to draw a Bill. The committee consisted of O'Connell, Roebuck, Hindley, Leader, Col. Perronet Thompson, and Sharman Crawford, all members of Parliament; and Lovett, Watson, Hetherington, Cleave, Vincent, and Moore of the Working Men's Association. This appointment had been announced to the working men of the country in the address on the forthcoming elections, and had raised great expectations. But the Parliament men did not keep their side of the bargain. O'Connell went on a trade union hunt which robbed him of all support amongst the English working people. Roebuck, as agent of the Assembly of Lower Canada, was busy with the case of the Canadian rebels, and the others were probably already involved in the Free Trade agitation, in which they foresaw much greater prospects of success than in a Bill compelling the House of Commons to sit daily from 10 till 4 for £400 a year. Lovett was therefore advised by Roebuck and urged by the Association to draw up the Bill himself. This he did in the intervals when he was not engaged in earning his living. "When I had finished my work I took it to Mr. Roebuck, who, when he had read it, suggested that I should show it to Mr. Francis Place of Brompton for his opinion, he having taken a great interest in our association from its commencement." Place suggested improvements in the text, and the amended measure was discussed by the committee of twelve. Roebuck wrote the preamble, an address was prefixed to it by Lovett, and the whole was printed and published on May 8, 1838, as the "People's Charter."
These proceedings throw some light upon the relations of the Association and the Parliament men. That the latter should be content to allow a bill of this importance to be drawn by an enlightened cabinetmaker and a radical tailor suggests that they had no particularly sanguine views as to its prospects in the House of Commons. Nor were they enthusiastically in love with its provisions. Scarcely any of them were as radical as the "People's Charter." Place says they were all lukewarm, which is very likely. But the Association was also very lukewarm in its co-operation with the Parliamentary Radicals. Its members were very suspicious and very jealous. They were intensely desirous of keeping the leadership of the movement out of the hands of middle-class men who had "betrayed" them in 1832 and prosecuted them in 1834. The Parliament men were kept scrupulously at a distance and the Association negotiated with them in a spirit of cold and exaggerated independence. The class-war ideas, revealed by such pamphlets as The Rotten House of Commons, prevented any hearty co-operation, and ultimately put a stop to any common action at all between the working men and the other classes of society. In any case the Parliamentary Radicals played no further part in the whole movement.
The publication of the "People's Charter" was a triumph for the Association. The name itself recalled much, for there had been a string of pamphlets with similar titles since 1831. The document and the petition which accompanied it received the assent of radical working men in all parts of the country. The programme which they put forward rapidly swept away all local and specific demands. Factory Reform, Currency Reform, abolition of the New Poor Law, of Truck, of the Corn Laws, all these demands were buried in the great demand for democratic institutions through which all the just desires of the people might become law. Within six months of the publication of the Charter the larger part of the working classes was united under its standard. Few of the local leaders were able to resist the popularity of the Charter. Oastler and Stephens were steadfast in their refusal to call themselves Chartists, and they were swept aside. O'Connor shouted as usual with the largest crowd and became a Chartist stalwart when he was sure that the Charter was the best thing to shout for.
The Working Men's Association laboured with increasing energy in the popularisation of the Charter. It was presented with some ostentation to the great demonstrations at Glasgow and Birmingham in May and August 1838. Vincent went on missionary tours which took him to Northampton, Manchester, Bristol, Bath, Trowbridge, and Birmingham. From these journeys, in fact, he never returned, for he took up his residence at Bath, where he attained immense popularity as an orator and as editor of the Western Vindicator, a paper as inflammatory as his own speeches. Through this organ Vincent became a furious and reckless preacher of social revolution, a circumstance which made him the first victim of Government action in 1839. Hartwell, another missionary, was similarly affected by the immense audiences which gathered to hear him on his wanderings. He, too, deserted the quiet ways of the Association for the turbulent methods of the North and Midlands.
The behaviour of these two members was a chief symptom of the break-up of the Association, which, as it were, died in giving birth to the Chartist agitation. Some of the members, led by Vincent and Hartwell, were desirous of turning the Association into a large agitating body, like the unions of 1831–32, or like the enormous bodies then rapidly mobilising in the North and Midlands. They wanted it to desert the placid methods of the past two years. They considered that their two years' agitation had sufficiently educated the opinion of the people, and that the time was now ripe for more energetic measures, for a public display of strength, and it might be for an actual revolution. Motions began to be introduced at the meetings of the Association with a view to increasing its numbers, a step which shows that the Association had travelled far from its sober declaration against the fascination of mere multitudes. These tendencies were stimulated by the great meetings at Glasgow and Birmingham, at the latter of which the Association was represented by Vincent, Hetherington, and the Rev. Dr. Wade. The proposal for a Convention was taken up with enthusiasm and the elections were carried out at a public meeting in Palace Yard, Westminster, on September 17, 1838. The notion of a Convention carried with it suggestions of revolutionary activity, and by the end of the year there was a distinctly revolutionary party in the Association. Hartwell contrasted with pain the apathy of London as compared with the rest of the country. O'Connor was beginning to gain a following amongst the London Democratic Association as at Birmingham, and at a meeting on December 20, 1838, Lovett found himself overborne by the party of physical force. Both at Birmingham and in London the influence of excitement and of O'Connor sufficed to reduce, if not to annihilate, the party of moderation.
The meeting at Palace Yard was practically the last spectacular proceeding of the London Working Men's Association. It was a great meeting. The Association packed it carefully with supporters and sympathisers. It was a public meeting only in a formal sense. The High Balliff of Westminster was the convener, and so the law was observed. The resolutions were all cut and dried. Eight delegates were proposed for election—Place, Roebuck, O'Brien, Lovett, Hetherington, Cleave, Vincent, and Hartwell. Place and Roebuck declined, and Moore and Rogers were elected in their place. There were present at the meeting delegates from all parts of the kingdom, Ebenezer Elliott of Sheffield, quickly lost to Chartism, Douglas and P. H. Muntz of Birmingham, Feargus O'Connor, and several of his northern fire-eaters, and delegates from Edinburgh, Colchester, Carmarthen, Brighton, Ipswich, and Worcester.
So the great movement got under weigh. Henceforward the London Working Men's Association was swallowed up in Chartism. Its leading members were transferred to a higher sphere of activity in the People's Parliament, but when the revolutionary intoxication had passed they returned without regret to the quiet educational activity which some had relinquished with much misgiving, whose results were surer and better, though visible only to the eye of faith.
Sanguine to the end, however, though its finances were depleted, the Association lent its aid to the project of founding a newspaper to serve as a Chartist organ in London. London alone was without a Chartist newspaper. Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, and Birmingham were well supplied, but not so London. A Committee of thirty was appointed by a meeting of London Trade Societies in September 1838, and a prospectus of a weekly paper to be called The Charter was issued. Lovett was Secretary to this Committee, and Hartwell was apparently manager of the printing department. William Carpenter, the writer of the once famous Political Letters, a Radical of some repute, was appointed editor. Hetherington was publisher. The capital was to be raised by subscriptions amongst the trade societies and similar associations. The paper was issued for the first time on Sunday, January 27, 1839. It was very badly managed, and as an experiment in voluntary associated enterprise it was a failure. It cost sixpence, which was more than working people could afford to pay, and it was too sober to appeal to the mass of Chartists to whom the language of the Northern Star was more intelligible. Carpenter was a poor editor, and the management was careless. The paper never paid its way and was sold early in 1840.
The immediate purpose of the London Working Men's Association was the formation of an organised body of working-class opinion. It was first necessary to build good foundations which could hold out through long agitations. Hence the foundation of Working Men's Associations and the precautions suggested in the choice of members. The next step was to furnish a programme and the materials for propaganda. Hence the pamphlets all urging the foundation of a distinct working-class party which should rival and ultimately overthrow the two historic "capitalistic" parties. So far so good. Unfortunately, however, the materials for building up the party were but poor. The Associations throughout the country were not up to the standard of the London Association; their members were men of less understanding and were easily carried away by the excitement around them. The organised trade societies, which form so strong an element, with their funds and organisation, in the modern Labour Party, came but little into the movement. Finally, when the Birmingham and the northern agitations threatened to break up the scheme altogether, the London Working Men's Association admitted them, violent, unorganised, and undisciplined as they were, and so created a party which was certainly big, but was not the sound, organised, and orderly party which they had planned. After 1839 the London Working Men's Association virtually ceases to influence the Chartist movement. It had done its work, and though it was still in existence in 1847, it was never in its later years any more than a backstairs organisation.
- Wallas, Life of Francis Place, p. 269.
- Life and Struggles, pp. 1-10.
- Ibid. pp. 24-32.
- Ibid. pp. 34 et seq.
- Life and Struggles, p. 37.
- Ibid. p. 41.
- September 10, 1836.
- Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 263.
- W. J. Linton, Memories, p. 40: "Lovett was the gentlest of agitators, a mild, peace-loving man, whom nothing but a deep sense of sympathy with and duty towards the wronged could have dragged into public life."
- The Charter, February 17, 1839, p. 51.
- Brief Sketches of the Birmingham Conference, 1842.
- Additional MSS. 27,791, p. 67.
- Ibid. p. 241.
- Linton (James Watson, p. 41) says Lovett was "impracticable."
- Republican, July 30, 1831.
- G. J. Holyoake (edited by), Life and Character of H. Hetherington, etc., 1849.
- Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 263.
- W. J. Linton, James Watson, a Memoir, 1879, pp. 1-73.
- Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 23.
- Life and Struggles, pp. 91-2.
- Additional MSS. 37,773.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, p. 6.
- Lovett, Life and Struggles, pp. 92-3.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, pp. 8-11, 24-5.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, pp. 28, 42, 57. The publications of the L.W.M.A. are in a volume collected by Lovett and presented to the British Museum (8138 a 55).
- Additional MSS. 34,245 B, pp. 3-20.
- Additional MSS. 27,819, pp. 221-4.
- Additional MSS. 27,819, pp. 229-63.
- Ibid. 37,773, pp. 24-8.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, pp. 61, 50.
- Ibid. 37,773, p. 11.
- London Mercury, May 28, June 4, 1837.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, pp. 52, 56.
- London Mercury, June 18, 1837.
- August 13. 1837.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, pp. 62, 74, 75.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, pp. 85-98.
- Ibid. 37,773, pp. 26, 37.
- Ibid. 37,773, p. 40.
- Ibid. 37.773, pp. 62, 63, 65, 67; 27,819, p. 58; 27,822, p. 82.
- Additional MSS. 27,819. pp. 13-14 and 236.
- Lovett's pamphlets, 8138 a 55.
- Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 210 et seq.
- Lovett, Life and Struggles, pp. 164-72.
- See later, pp. 93-6.
- Parliamentary Papers, 1837-38, viii. 211-12.
- Pp. 92-187.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, p. 99.
- See Address of Radical Reformers of England, Scotland, and Wales to the Irish People (1838) for list.
- Place had in 1833 left the shop at 16 Charing Cross, and taken a house at 21 Brompton Square. G. Wallas, Life of Francis Place, p. 330.
- P. 164 et seq. Additional MSS. 27,819, 210 et seq.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, p. 111 et seq.
- Additional MSS. 37,773, pp. 116, 117, 133.
- Place calls Hartwell "a reckless, evilly-disposed fellow." Hartwell had been treasurer to the Dorchester Labourers' Fund, which position he lost under grave suspicion of dishonesty.
- Ibid. 37,773, pp. 106-108.
- Additional MSS. 27,820, pp. 354-58.
- Additional MSS. 27,821, p. 22; 34,245 A, p. 398. Letters in Place Collection, vol. 66, at Hendon.