The Chartist Movement/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V

THE AGITATION AGAINST THE NEW POOR LAW

(1834–1838)


The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed with little or no opposition in Parliament in accordance with the report issued by the commission of inquiry appointed in 1832. The provisions of the Act may be divided into two parts, those concerning the new organisation of the system of relief, and those dealing with the principles on which relief was to be administered. The unit of local administration under the new Act was the union of parishes. For each union an elective board of Guardians of the Poor was set up. As the poor rates were exclusively levied upon buildings and land, the franchise was a property franchise admitting of both plural and proxy votes, a system which placed chief control in the hands of the wealthier owners of property. The central administration, created for the first time, was a Parliamentary Commission of three members, whose powers, though wide, were defined by the Act, and whose competence was limited to a period of five years from the passing of the Act. The principles on which relief was to be granted were frankly deterrent. They may be summarised thus: That relief should not be offered to able-bodied persons and their families, otherwise than in a well-regulated workhouse. That the lot of the able-bodied pauper should be made less eligible than that of the worst situated independent labourer outside.

For two years the Commissioners, or rather their secretary, Edwin Chadwick, laboured successfully to introduce the new system into the rural districts. When, however, they commenced operations in the manufacturing areas in 1836, they met with an opposition whose violence and fury grew with the passing of the period of good trade into a period of unparalleled depression and distress which lasted with scarcely a break till 1842.

The campaign which now commenced with a view to repealing the Act had a double character. It was a conservative opposition to a radical measure, and it was a popular outburst against what was conceived as a wanton act of oppression.

The Act of 1834 was the first piece of genuine radical legislation which this country has enjoyed; it was the first fruits of Benthamism. For the first time a legislative problem was thoroughly and scientifically tackled. It bore on its surface all the marks of genuine Radicalism, desire for centralised efficiency and a total disregard of conservative and vested interests. Under the old system each parish had been an almost independent corporation, administering relief and levying rates with scarcely a shadow of control from the central Government. Under these circumstances abuses and vested interests had grown up to an appalling extent. Parishes often fell into the hands of tradesmen, property owners, manufacturers, public-house keepers, and the like, who exploited both paupers and public in the interests of their own pockets. These, of course, offered a strenuous resistance to the new measure. Then there was a genuine regret on the part of antiquarians and conservatives to see the parish, a very ancient unit of local government, superseded by an artificial unit, designed largely with a view to diminishing the influence of local feeling. The diminution of local independence was of course carried still farther by the strong control exercised by the Commissioners, who therefore came in for an incredible amount of abuse. No abusive epithet was bad enough for the "three kings of Somerset House." Their power was alleged to be despotic, to be unconstitutional, to be derogatory to the sovereignty of Parliament, and so on.

The popular opposition was of a totally different character. It was directed against the deterrent character of the new system, though the popular leaders did not of course disdain to use the political arguments of their learned and Parliamentary allies, and vice versa. The basis of popular hatred of the law is thus stated by a competent authority:

People now are prone to look upon the stormy and infuriate opposition to the Poor Law as based upon mere ignorance. Those who think so are too ignorant to understand the terrors of those times. It was not ignorance, it was justifiable indignation with which the Poor Law scheme was regarded. Now, the mass of the people do not expect to go to the workhouse and do not intend to go there. But through the first forty years of this century almost every workman and every labourer expected to go there sooner or later. Thus the hatred of the Poor Law was well founded. Its dreary punishment would fall, it was believed, not upon the idle merely, but upon the working people who by no thrift could save, nor by any industry provide for the future.[1]

Without going quite so far as to include the whole of the industrious classes as actual or potential paupers, one may safely assert that to hundreds of thousands of working people outdoor relief was a standing source of subsistence supplementary to their scanty wages, and to probably an equal number outdoor relief was an occasional and even frequent resort. The substitution of workhouse relief made that public institution the prospective home of a vastly larger proportion of the poorer classes than would be the case at the present time, so that the deterrent system of relief came as a terrible shock to those who had been wont to rely upon poor relief without experiencing any loss of self-respect or of personal liberty.

The purpose of the Act of 1834 was to attack the abuses of outdoor relief to able-bodied persons. These abuses were serious enough, but it was acknowledged that they were far more prevalent in the agricultural districts than in the manufacturing areas, where wages were higher on the whole and a greater spirit of independence was prevalent. During the years of 1823–49 the average expenditure on poor relief per head of population was three times greater in the agricultural counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, and Lincolnshire than in the counties of Lancashire and Cheshire. In these agricultural counties practically the whole of the working class was pauperised. In the manufacturing districts only certain grades of labour were in that situation. The handloom weavers, the stockingers of Leicester, Nottingham, and Derby, whose situation was being reduced to that of second-rate, unskilled labour, and the multitude of Irish labourers who were swarming into the English manufacturing areas—these provided the mass of pauperism in those parts.

The situation created by the New Poor Law was particularly galling to the handloom weavers, so recently respected and influential members of industrial society. Hence it was amongst them that the opposition was strongest. Under the old system their wages, as they were reduced by economic pressure, were reinforced by outdoor relief. Many had come to look upon this as legal compensation for their loss in wages and resented its withdrawal as a piece of downright robbery. Of course the system was on the whole a bad one. It did help to perpetuate a class of labour which might otherwise have been absorbed into other occupations. It often provided reserves of cheap labour for factory masters. It occasionally allowed other persons than factory owners to fill their pockets at the expense of the public. Owners of tumble-down cottages, for example, being also guardians, paid their own rents to themselves by way of out-relief to their miserable tenants.[2] At the same time none but an official, to whom human beings were as documents in pigeon-holes, would expect a middle-aged, worn-out handloom weaver to be usable in any other industry, and most of the handloom weavers, who were not Irish immigrants, were oldish men, quite unfit for anything else. It was sheer cruelty to refuse them relief altogether, except in a detestable workhouse, where they were separated from wife and children, with little prospect of ever getting out again. No wonder they preferred to starve. The stockingers were in similar case, except that they had not the same memory of days of prosperity, and their indignation was perhaps less tinged with bitterness. Even factory workers were not immune from the terrors of the workhouse during the years which followed the great trade collapse in 1836–37, whilst the unskilled general labourers, who were often Irish immigrants, added an element of a turbulent character to the opposition to the new enactment. It was therefore in the factory and handloom areas of Lancashire, Cheshire, and Yorkshire that the campaign against the workhouse was most violent. Carlisle was also the scene of furious outbursts. There the mass of the population was engaged in handloom weaving, mostly in the employ of one firm—that of Peter Dixon. The hosiery districts were equally excited by the new system of relief and played considerable part in the campaign which began in Lancashire as soon as the effect of the Act was realised.

The theoretical basis of the popular movement was supplied by William Cobbett (1762–1835), pamphleteer, journalist, radical, tory, agriculturist, moral adviser, popular historian, and, since 1832, member of Parliament for Oldham. Cobbett had been almost alone in his opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Bill in Parliament, and soon after it became law he published his views upon it in his Legacy to Labourers. This little book is an excellent example of Cobbett's controversial gifts. Its arguments are as clear and telling as its style. Its bold assumptions and sweeping assertions, as well as its grotesque errors of fact (Cobbett alleges that the population of England had not increased during the previous half-century), are all characteristic of this unparalleled controversialist, and furnished ammunition of which his even more uncritical followers made unsparing use.

The Legacy must be read in connection with Cobbett's admirable but rather perverse History of the Reformation. The two together form a strong plea for regarding poor relief as a legally recognised commutation of the rights of the poor in the land. The seizure of the lands of the Church which, he maintained with some truth, were granted for charitable purposes (an argument applied over and over again by his followers to justify the disendowment of the Anglican Church) was followed by the provisions regarding relief of the poor on which the famous Act of 1601 was based. This Act, Cobbett argued, recognised the legal right of the poor to assistance from the receivers of rent. The Act of 1834, a "Bourbon invention," repealed this right and destroyed it without compensation. This was the main contention, and it formed the theme of most of the speeches delivered by Anti-Poor Law orators. Thus O'Connor at Dewsbury in December 1837: "Had you any voice in the passing of this law? … Did you send representatives to Parliament, thus to betray you and rob you of your inheritance?"[3]

Cobbett's argument goes further than this. On what ground, he asks, was this legal right abrogated? On the ground that poor rates were swallowing up the estates of the landlords. This was in fact absurd. Are the landlords ruined by the poor, to whom they pay £6,700,000, when they pay thirty millions to usurers[4] and seven to "sinecurists"? Was the country being ruined for a paltry seven millions when the taxation paid was fifty-two millions? And, further, even suppose the landlords were paying more, was it not a fact that they were receiving ten or twenty times as much rent as they had formerly received? Not the poor, but the army, the debt, the clergy, the sinecurists, the pensioners, the privy councillors, were swallowing up the estates of the landlords.

The object of the Act was to compel the people of England to live on a coarser diet. He, Cobbett, had seen the official instructions to this effect. As no one but the weakest would accept relief under the new system, labourers would be prepared to work for any wages they could get. Thus the English labourer would be screwed down to Irish wages and Irish diet. Oastler paraphrased this into a corrupt bargain between landlords and factory masters to provide cheap labour for the factories.[5] Further, the Act abrogated that "neighbourly," system of relief which had flourished so long, in favour of a tyranny exercised by three distant commissioners and their secretary, who were perfectly unmoved by pity or compassion, and whose minions were to steel themselves to equal callousness.[6]

This publication found an echo everywhere in the manufacturing districts. The new Act was denounced as the "Coarser Food Bill," and "Irish wages" became a very useful and effective bogey. The evil effects of the old system Cobbett and his readers absolutely ignored. It is true that the wholesale demoralisation which accompanied the old system was not so prevalent amongst the manufacturing people, but even there it had the effect of prolonging the agony of the handloom weavers and similarly situated workers, by subsidising them in their hopeless conflict with the machine weavers. The relief paid in aid of wages benefited no one but the employer of handloom weavers, who was able to extract the current rate of profits without having to set up expensive power-looms. The competition of subsidised labour only tended to reduce wages all round, even in the factories. Thus the old system tended to make the situation of the half-pauperised labourer the normal standard of life, whilst the new aimed at setting up that of the independent labourer. There is little evidence to show that the new system actually did tend towards reducing wages, so that the "coarser food" and "Irish wages" cries were sheer absurdities, although they acquired a certain show of reality during the very distressful years of industrial depression which followed the collapse of 1836.

The centralisation which characterised the Act of 1834 was its strongest point, and it was this which earned the new system the deepest hatred of the classes affected by it. Under the old system it was quite easy to bring pressure to bear upon the relieving authorities, independent, isolated, and unsupported as they were by the authority of the State, and composed very often of persons who had no interest in keeping down expenditure. This was the "neighbourly system" of Cobbett; the system under which the local publican maintained his family and relatives out of poor rates; under which the sweater of framework knitters undersold Saxon hosiers by "making up" wages out of poor funds, and under which workmen on strike demanded relief as a substitute for trade union funds.[7] Occasionally, however, the old system was capable of better use. Thus in 1826 the manufacturers of Lancashire tried to establish a minimum wage for weavers, and called upon the various Poor Law authorities to relieve those who could not obtain work at the minimum fixed, until trade improved and they were all employed. But under the new system local pressure was powerless, except, as we shall see, through an organised and widespread movement. The units of administration were larger, the local authorities were much stronger, as they were elected and supported by the wealthier and more influential classes. Moreover, behind the local unions stood the Poor Law Commission with its wide and all-pervading powers.

For the first time English local opinion came into contact with the official mind. The haphazard, rule-of-thumb method of administration, which admitted of infinite variation of practice, and totally excluded the scientific and consistent treatment of any social problem, was replaced by a rigid uniform system, administered by officials whose authority was derived only in part from local opinion, and whose practice was dictated by precise and rigid rules, against which local opinion was powerless. The new administrator of poor relief, who could not be moved by persuasion or threats, who referred applicants of all descriptions to the "Act of the 4 Will. IV.," who treated all questions in a clear but totally objective and unemotional fashion—such a personage was a new and terrific apparition. The English working man, whether in town or country, to whom the local magistrates were the source of all public authority, and the local magistrates themselves with lingering feudal notions of local autonomy, and a considerable idea of their own importance, were equally enraged at the calm assumption of authority by distant commissioners and local Boards of Guardians who could not be coerced. Against such a system parochial agitation was powerless. The only remedy was the repeal of the Act. That required a more than local movement.

The agitation against the New Poor Law began in 1836. It was divided into two parts: an organised attempt to prevent the introduction of the law, and a popular movement of protest against the law itself. This latter movement, which was later absorbed into the Chartist Movement, was of a totally different character from the agitations which were then commencing in London and Birmingham under the auspices of the Working Men's Association and the Political Union. This difference was of decisive influence upon the fate of Chartism.

The Anti-Poor Law Movement, on its popular side, was, in fact, a rebellion in embryo which never came to full development. Its historical ancestry may be traced back through the Pilgrimage of Grace, Jack Cade, and the Peasants' Revolt. It was a protest against social oppression, against a tyranny which hurt the poor by making them poorer. It was a mass demonstration of misery. It had no programme but redress of grievances. It had no social theory but the restoration of rights which had been taken away, and no political theory except a belief that the sovereign's duty was to protect the poor against the oppressor. It has been well said that the reasons which men give for an opinion they hold are often totally different from the reasons which led them to take up such an opinion. Thus whilst the theoretical opposition to the New Poor Law was based on Cobbett's book, the real grounds of protest were far older in origin than that. The leaders of the movement drew their inspiration from the Bible, from a belief that the Act was a violation of Christian principles. Now this tendency to hark back to the Bible and to Christianity as a basis of political and social practice is the most interesting phase of the whole Chartist Movement. Religious sanction for radical opinions is the only refuge for persons unacquainted with abstract political, or social, or economic theory. And naturally so, for nowhere do we get the standards of eternal justice so clearly set up for us as in the pages of the New Testament. Thus we find that the authority of the Bible or of Christian teaching in some form or other is claimed in all the movements we have mentioned. John Ball's famous couplet may well furnish the text on which all the later popular movements may furnish the sermon. Thus the Anti-Poor Law agitation, led by a Wesleyan minister, a religious, sentimental opponent of child-labour, and a philanthropic employer, falls into line with all these earlier movements. It is racy of the soil, and a most remarkably interesting revival of a popular religious sentiment, dead since the Tudors, and brought to life again by the disciples of John Wesley.

Relying thus on a higher sanction than that of the State, the popular leaders urged their followers to resist the Act even to the extreme of armed rebellion. The movement was thus of extraordinary vehemence and violence. The rank and file were men already rendered desperate by continuous and increasing poverty, ignorant and unlettered men deprived, or fearing to be deprived, of a resource on which they had long counted, men coarsened by evil surroundings and brutalised by hard and unremitting toil, relieved only by periods of unemployment in which their dulled minds brooded over their misfortunes and recalled their lost prosperity. The popular agitation was entirely without organisation. It centred exclusively in the personality of a few leaders. Its methods were thus far removed from those of the Anti-Corn Law League or the London Working Men's Association. It was not educative; it appealed not to reason but to passion and sentiment. Its leaders were not expert agitators, aiming at the conversion of public and Parliament, but mob orators, stirring up passions and spreading terror, hoping to frighten the Government into a suspension or a repeal of the hated Act. Hence there was always an element of futility in the movement. The Reformed Parliament could not be terrorised; it was too strongly supported by the mass of educated and propertied people. Perhaps a glimmering notion that this was the case explains the ease with which the leaders of the agitation were persuaded to range their followers under the Chartist standard.

Cobbett having died in 1835, the leadership of the agitation in the North devolved largely upon his colleague in the representation of Oldham, John Fielden of Todmorden. Fielden came of a manufacturing family which had risen to fortune during the Industrial Revolution. He and his brother were owners of extensive spinning and weaving factories at Todmorden, where the family reigned in semi-feudal state over an obedient population. In politics and sympathies Fielden was a Tory, though, being a Free Trader, he was classed as a Radical in Parliament. He was distinguished by an attitude of Owenite benevolence towards his workpeople. In earlier days he was a great advocate of the minimum wage idea for handloom weavers, and his projected "Boards of Trade," to fix the wages of these unfortunate operatives, received the approval of the Select Committee of 1834–35. He was an early convert to the Owenite schemes for factory reform, and in 1832 founded the "Society for National Regeneration" in which Owen was interested. This Society started an agitation for factory reform, in which several leaders of the Anti-Poor Law agitation were active. Fielden's own part in the latter agitation was small but important. He represented it in Parliament, where he was indefatigable in the presentation of petitions. By his own exertions he prevented the introduction of the Act of 1834, or of the Registration of Births, Marriages, and Deaths Act of 1837, which was closely connected with it, into the Todmorden area at all. It was a good generation later before pressure from Whitehall compelled the Todmorden Union to build a workhouse.[8] Fielden also encouraged similar resistance in neighbouring towns, like Huddersfield and Bury. This resistance was so effective that Lancashire and the West Riding were administered under the old system for several years after the Act was otherwise in full working order.

Two of Cobbett's sons, J. P. and R. B. B. Cobbett, both lawyers, played some part in the movement. They helped to run a periodical called the Champion, in which Fielden was also interested. As demagogues the two Cobbetts were failures, and when the agitation assumed a ferocious lawbreaking character, they fell out, and played no further part except as the legal advisers of Chartist prisoners.

The real leaders of the Anti-Poor Law agitation were Richard Oastler and Joseph Rayner Stephens. Oastler (1789–1861), "the factory king," was steward to the family of Thornhill, whose estates lay about Huddersfield, and he himself lived at Fixby Hall, the home of the absentee Thornhills, upon the moors on the Lancashire side of Huddersfield. He had come into prominence in 1830, when he opened a campaign against the exploitation of child-labour in the Yorkshire factories, an agitation which brought him into touch with Fielden, Robert Owen, and Michael Thomas Sadler. Stephens (1805–1879) was the son of a Wesleyan minister, and was educated at the Manchester Grammar School. In 1825 he entered the Wesleyan ministry and went off to a mission station at Stockholm, Sweden, where he seems to have done good work and got himself well liked.[9] In 1830 he returned and took up a call at Ashton-under-Lyne. Four years later, owing to his taking an active part in a disestablishment campaign, he was compelled to sever his connection with the Methodist body. Like Gladstone shaking off the dust of Oxford, Stephens now felt himself unmuzzled, and plunged at once into a vehement Factory agitation, emulating in Lancashire the repute of Oastler in Yorkshire. He continued, also, to preach as a free-lance, and a chapel was erected for him at Ashton, which remained his headquarters.

It would be a far from unprofitable occupation to speculate on the influence of Methodism, both within and without the Church of England, upon the politics of the early nineteenth century. Oastler himself was a member of the Established Church, but his father was a Methodist of the first generation and a personal friend of John Wesley. In those days the gulf between Church and Methodist chapel was not wide, and professional convenience may have determined Oastler's choice of worship. In all his modes of thought he was a very replica of Stephens.

The strength of the Methodist movement was its appeal to those religious emotions in the masses of the people, which in a carefully organised form were the strength of the mediaeval Church, and which even in these days are not so overlaid with rational considerations as to be insensible to the appeal of a General Booth or a Spurgeon. The appeal of Wesley, as a protest against the soulless, high-and-dry formalism of the Church of England, was essentially popular. He re-established the notion that even the agricultural labourer had a soul, a fact which tended to be obscured by the social arrangements then coming into force. He taught, and his followers taught, vigorously, effectively, the existence of a God who cared for all the dwellers upon earth, who would not let even a sparrow fall, and who went to the extreme sacrifice to purchase from the evil adversary the souls of all His children. These teachings, which showed an effective contempt of dogma, were pressed home by a mixture of general and personal appeal, and general and personal denunciation, culled largely from the language of the Old Testament applied with ingenuity and freedom, as though the preachers were not tied by a strict belief in the verbal inspiration of Holy Writ.

Both the theology and the methods of Methodism were turned directly to the purposes of political agitation by Stephens and Oastler. In fact it may be safely said that Stephens went a long way towards making the factory and poor law movement into a kind of religious revival. He issued forth from the chapel, and sermons were his chief weapon in the war upon Mammon. With Stephens and Oastler alike the Bible was the source of all political and religious teaching. Says Oastler: "I have resolved to go right on. I take the Bible, the simple Bible with me, without either note or comment, and in spite of all that men or devils may devise against me, I will have the Bill."[10] Oastler had an extraordinary faculty for playing upon the feelings of his audience, tears and shudders being equally at his command. Some of his speeches even now cannot be read without tremors, especially those in which he produced, as evidence of factory horrors, the scalp of a girl who had been caught in a driving belt.

Stephens's special gift was denunciation. He conceived himself as a successor of Bishop Latimer or of those Old Testament prophets, summoned by the Almighty to chastise the Jeroboams and Ahabs of their time, prophets "who told kings what they were to do and the people likewise, who told senates and legislatures what kind of laws they were to make and what laws they should not make." He imagined himself at war with Satan, whose reality and vitality, already an established dogma of the Wesleyan community, was vouched for by the existence of such persons as Malthus and the Poor Law Commissioners. These he compared to Pharaoh who ordered a massacre of innocents, but unfavourably, as Pharaoh was frank about the matter whilst the Commissioners were hypocritical.[11]

Both Oastler and Stephens were thoroughgoing Tories.[12] In fact Stephens's political ideal was a theocracy of the Old Testament type in which the preacher announces the will of God, the king enforces it, and the people submit to it. Altar, Throne, and Cottage are the true homes of mankind. In a society of this description neither class distinctions, factories, parliaments, nor poor laws have any place. The Bible is the charter and the Decalogue the law of the land. It is easily conceivable how Stephens and, to a lesser extent, Oastler could become leaders of an armed insurrection against the Poor Law Amendment Act. That Act was conceived as a "law of devils," the work of a Parliament which stood between Throne and Cottage, and which carried on its evil work through commissioners who were as murderous as Pharaoh of old. It was lawful to resist such a law.

If Lord John Russell wanted to know what he (Stephens) thought of the New Poor Law, he would tell him plainly, he thought it was the law of devils … if vengeance was to come, let it come: it should be an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, limb for limb, wife for wife, child for child, and blood for blood.[13]

In Lancashire and Yorkshire the eloquence, activity, and fearlessness of Stephens and Oastler raised them to a pitch of popularity and authority such as few men have attained. Their personal influence was immense, and they were rewarded with passionate adulation for their exertions in the popular cause. Lovett was probably thinking of these two eminent demagogues when he penned his bitter lines about the tendency of working people to look up to leaders. Another hostile critic relates of Stephens:

He was utterly careless of other men's opinions and paid little or no regard to the feelings of any but those he wished to command: and these were the working people. Over these he domineered, carrying everything he wished with a high hand: he was obeyed, almost adored, by multitudes, … Of personal consequences he was wholly reckless.[14]

Thus did Stephens exemplify in his own person the political supremacy of the preacher. In Ashton and in many of the other small manufacturing towns his word was law. And Oastler's reputation in Yorkshire was no whit less. It was a Wesley-Whitefield crusade again. The appeal was to the same class of people, the methods were the same, only the object was different.

In the hands of these two men Toryism assumed a terrifying aspect. They lashed their followers into a continuous state of fury which finally culminated in threats of insurrection and of incendiarism. They seized without inquiry upon every argument which would help to discredit the New Poor Law and the Commission which supervised its enforcement. Did the Act authorise the segregation of the sexes in the workhouse? Then it was a beastly Malthusian device, and Stephens could pour out sentimental references to the destruction of peaceful family life, and dilate upon the villainies of "Marcus," to the horror of his hearers. "Marcus" was the pseudonymous author of a ghastly parody of "Malthus on Population," in which various devices for painless infanticide were described. Stephens affected to believe that this absurd pamphlet was the work of the Commissioners or of their myrmidons, and the hoax, if it was such at first, quickly became a serious belief. No abuse, in fact, was bad enough for the "Malthusians," which term itself became the supremely abusive epithet for all enemies of the popular cause.[15]

The agitation spread rapidly. In every town on both sides the Pennine border, committees sprang into existence to carry on the good work. Most of these committees had already seen service in the Factory Act agitation. In fact it may be said that nearly the whole of the Anti-Poor Law campaigners had transferred their energies temporarily from the Factory Movement. In Manchester, R. J. Richardson of Salford, a wordy, pedantic logic-chopper of the worst description, and William Benbow, an old Radical who had been through the desperate days of Hampden Clubs, Spencean propaganda and Peterloo massacre;[16] in Bury, Matthew Fletcher, a medical man of sorts; in Ramsbottom, Peter Murray MacDouall, a very young medico destined to be important in the Chartist Movement, became the best-known local leaders. Yorkshire had William Rider and Peter Bussey, the former a journalist with the Northern Star, the latter a beer-house keeper at Bradford. Wherever the opposition was strong, as at Todmorden, it was found impossible to elect the Boards of Guardians or to find officials willing to serve. Riotous proceedings followed the attempts to enforce the law by the introduction of the Registration Act of 1837, for which the unit of administration was the same as that of the Poor Law, the Guardians being also the registration authority. The Bury folk denounced the attempt to introduce the Poor Law via the Registration Act as "low cunning and deceit," "illegality and moral turpitude."[17]

Within a few months after the campaign opened the excitement throughout the two shires was already high. It was sufficient at least to attract the attention of radicals and revolutionaries of all kinds. The London Working Men's Association was already feeling its way to establish similar associations amongst the factory population. Much more important, however, was the coming into the North of two men who had hitherto confined their political attention to the capital. These were Augustus Harding Beaumont and Feargus O'Connor.

Beaumont was a youngish man of somewhat superior birth and in well-to-do circumstances. He was a kind of Byron, an aristocrat who threw himself recklessly and probably uselessly into popular revolutionary movements. He was of a wild disposition, uncontrolled temper, and unbalanced intellect. He had seen some stormy doings in France, and had become a figure in London radical circles, where he was on the Dorchester Labourers' Committee. In speech he was brutally candid and vehement to the verge of madness. In fact it was an outburst of this description at a public meeting in January 1838 which carried him off and prevented him from adding to the difficulties of the other Chartist leaders. In 1837 he founded at Newcastle-on-Tyne a paper called the Northern Liberator, which was one of the best of the popular newspapers. It took a vehement part in the campaign led by Oastler and Stephens, and in other respects it was noted for its intelligent interest in foreign affairs.

Feargus O'Connor deserves some special reference. He was born in 1794 of an Irish landed family in County Cork. His family had in the preceding generation been closely associated with nationalist and revolutionary movements, and consequently enjoyed no little popularity in the county and elsewhere. Both his father, Roger, and his uncle, Arthur O'Connor had been United Irishmen. Roger had claimed for his family a highly dubious descent from the Kings of Connaught; Arthur, a more serious and prominent rebel, had been the chief agent in bringing about a French invasion of Ireland, and was still living in exile in France. The family remained fairly well-to-do, and Feargus lived the rollicking life of a young squireen. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and was called to the Irish bar, but never practised to any extent. Of his life in Ireland O'Connor afterwards gave many fantastic accounts,[18] but there is reason to believe that it was of a somewhat lurid description.[19] In 1832 the joint influence of Daniel O'Connell and his own family procured the election of Feargus for the county of Cork. He entered Parliament as one of O'Connell's "tail." He was perhaps one of the best of a rather second-rate lot.[20] He had courage and readiness in debate and an independence of character which brought him under O'Connell's ban. At the election of 1835 he was again returned, but unseated on the ground that he was not qualified to sit—an objection which was probably as sound in 1832 as in 1835, had O'Connell seen fit to allow it to be brought forward in the earlier year. That interrupted his parliamentary career for twelve years. He settled, somewhat precariously circumstanced, no doubt, in Hammersmith, and became acquainted with English radical movements in which for a year or so he played but an ineffective rôle. The growing agitation in the manufacturing districts offered him a better chance of distinguishing himself. He toured the North in August 1836, and made the acquaintance of Stephens and Oastler, and finally followed the example of Beaumont, quitting London and fixing himself in Leeds as the proprietor of the famous Northern Star, a weekly radical paper, which first beamed on the popular political world in November 1837.

O'Connor was a big, rather handsome-looking man endowed with great physical strength and animal feelings. He was capable, especially when his mind became disordered, of incredible feats of exertion and endurance, so that as a travelling agitator he was perfectly ubiquitous. No journey was too long to undertake. As an Irishman he dearly loved a "row," and was supremely in his element in such Donnybrook affairs as the Nottingham election riot of 1842. He was well versed in all the arts of popularity, and could be all things to all men. With rough working men he was hail-fellow-well-met, but he could be dignified when it was necessary to make a more serious impression. He was almost irresistible in conversation, with his fine voice, his inexhaustible stock of anecdote, in short, with his true Irish blarney. These talents were equally displayed from the platform. He had a great bell-like voice, such as was Henry Hunt's chief oratorical asset. In fact he resembled Hunt sufficiently to be regarded by his Manchester admirers as the true wearer of that prophet's mantle. O'Connor could tune his song to suit any ear. In Parliament he was a good House of Commons man and spoke more sensibly than many. To the London artisans he spoke as an experienced politician. In the North, amongst the fustian-jackets and unshorn chins he was the typical demagogue, unloading upon his unsophisticated hearers rigmaroles of absurdity and sedition, flavoured by irresistibly comic similes and anecdotes. He worked on his popular audiences by flattery of the most flagrant character, or by constant references to the sacrifices he had made in the cause of the people. He had a pretty faculty for denunciation. The following is a delightful specimen. He was once hissed by wealthy folk in his audience at Sunderland.

Yes—you—I was just coming to you, when I was describing the materials of which our spurious aristocracy is composed. You gentlemen belong to the big-bellied, little-brained, numskull aristocracy. How dare you hiss me, you contemptible set of platter-faced, amphibious politicians? … Now was it not indecent in you? Was it not foolish of you? Was it not ignorant of you to hiss me? If you interrupt me again, I'll bundle you out of the room."[21]

As a political thinker O'Connor was quite negligible. He was totally without originality in this respect and borrowed all his ideas. James O'Brien, who wrote for the Star, was perhaps his chief source of inspiration. He took up the prevalent ideas as he found them and proceeded regularly from the less to the more popular. At first he was advocating the "three points" of Radicalism, then it was Factory Legislation, then the Poor Law, then the Charter. He never originated any movement, probably not even the Land Scheme which was later associated with him. He came into the various agitations and turned them into channels which ran in anything but the direction desired by their originators. His serious speeches were sometimes miracles of incoherence and absurdity, even when he had revised them for the Northern Star. One short specimen must suffice here:

I am one of those who from experience has [sic] learned that consideration of foreign interests has been forced upon us by neglect of our domestic resources: and I believe that overgrown taxation for the support of idlers and the unrestricted gambling speculations upon labour, applied to an undefined and unstable system of production without regard to demand, is the great evil under which manual labourers are suffering.[22]

O'Connor's reply to Cobden in the famous debate at Northampton in 1844[23] may well be studied from this point of view. His inability to follow out an argument became greater with the advance of mental disorder.

In the North of England O'Connor's rise to popular leadership was rapid in the extreme. Within fifteen months from the foundation of the Northern Star, he was the universally acknowledged leader in those parts. The apparition of an apparently wealthy newspaper proprietor, of superior education, an ex-member of Parliament, and undoubtedly sincere in his championship of the people's cause, was a welcome one to the leaderless multitudes. Stephens and Oastler were prevented by other duties from assuming complete control, whilst the older trade union leaders, like Doherty, were not sympathetic with so disorganised a movement. O'Connor was further welcomed for the sake of his rebellious ancestry, which lost neither in numbers nor in rebelliousness in his frequent references. In 1838, when O'Connell made his attack upon Trade Unionism, it was remembered in O'Connor's favour that he had been O'Connell's enemy. At the end of the same year the arrest of Stephens removed his most serious rival, who, however, had already been losing ground through the drifting of the Anti-Poor Law agitation into Chartism—a process much encouraged by O'Connor—and through his condemnation of Radicalism, for it was his habit to pose as a Tory and a Royalist.

O'Connor had, in fact, all the instincts and certain of the qualities requisite for domination. Hence his quarrel with O'Connell. He wanted himself to be the O'Connell of the English Radicals, and, actually succeeded in reducing the later Chartist leaders to the position of a "tail." He was a man of energy and will, and had some commercial instincts which saved him from the disasters into which cleverer men, like O'Brien, fell. His foundation of the Northern Star was a great stroke of business. He took over the funds, to which he himself contributed little or nothing, from a committee, of which the Swedenborgian ex-minister William Hill was chief, and floated the concern very successfully. Hill became editor, and a good editor too, and Joshua Hobson ably assisted as publisher, but the power which "boomed" the paper was O'Connor. He encouraged working men to subscribe by publishing any and every report of any meeting, however insignificant, and simple weavers were delighted to discover that they had "given it to the capitalists in fine style." They saw their names in print and their speeches were praised editorially. The Star quickly became an institution, and no public-house was complete without it. It made no pretence at being an "elevating" paper. Like many cheap papers to-day, it gave the public exactly what the public wanted. In fact O'Connor and his men may be regarded as pioneers of cheap journalism. They gave away things for nothing, and sometimes rose to illustrations, especially portraits of Radical heroes. Through the Star O'Connor rose to power. He made money by it. He exercised "graft" through it. Chartist leaders became his paid reporters, and his reporters became Chartist leaders. It was Tammany Hall in embryo. The paper could make or unmake reputations, and local leaders went in terror of its censure. Place declared that the Northern Star had degraded the whole Radical Press.[24] It was truly the worst and most successful of the Radical papers, a melancholy tribute to the low level of intelligence of its readers. The same explanation will perhaps do for O'Connor's success as well, for the paper was an expanded O'Connor. For a while after its foundation the paper did furnish some ammunition for Radical orators in the articles written by O'Brien. It was the educative effect of O'Brien's leaders that caused O'Connor to style him the "schoolmaster of Chartism." When these ceased the paper sank to a lower level.

For such a man, conceited even to megalomania, ambitious, energetic, to a certain degree disinterested and sincere, an agitator and demagogue to his finger-tips, the North of England presented an ideal field of operations. A great vague mass of desperate, excited, and uneducated labourers was crying out for leaders in the campaign against the new oppression of the Poor Law. Their lack of programme was paralleled by O'Connor's disregard of programmes. He came forth to lead them he knew not whither, and they followed blindly.

At first O'Connor was compelled to play a comparatively modest part. He was one amongst several leaders almost equally endowed with powers of denunciatory oratory, and in like latter months of 1837 and throughout 1838 their followers' desire for passionate expression was almost satiated with the torrents of rhetoric, poured forth from a multitude of platforms and repeated afresh in the pages of the Star. Beaumont, O'Brien, O'Connor, Oastler, Stephens, and a host of lesser men vied with each other in the luridness of their oratory. The climax in this stage of the movement came in January 1838. On the 1st there was a meeting at Newcastle-on-Tyne to demand the repeal of the Poor Law Amendment Act. O'Connor, Stephens, Beaumont, and others were present. Stephens's peroration was conspicuous even amongst much sulphurous oratory:

And if this damnable law, which violated all the laws of God, was continued, and all means of peaceably putting an end to it had been made in vain, then, in the words of their banner, "For children and wife we'll war to the knife." If the people who produce all wealth could not be allowed, according to God's Word, to have the kindly fruits of the earth which they had, in obedience to God's Word, raised by the sweat of their brow, then war to the knife with their enemies, who were the enemies of God. If the musket and the pistol, the sword, and the pike were of no avail, let the women take the scissors, the child the pin or needle. If all failed, then the firebrand—aye, the firebrand—the firebrand, I repeat. The palace shall be in flames. I pause, my friends. If the cottage is not permitted to be the abode of man and wife, and if the smiling infant is to be dragged from a father's arms and a mother's bosom, it is because these hell-hounds of commissioners have set up the command of their master the devil, against our God.[25]

A week later a great meeting was held at Leeds, where Beaumont, O'Connor, John Taylor, and Sharman Crawford, M.P., were the speakers. Crawford protested against the unbridled language of the three demagogues, whereupon Beaumont rose and denounced his critic with such passion that he fell into some mental derangement, which, coupled with his foolishness in flinging out of the overheated room on to the top of the London stage-coach, brought about his death on January 26, 1838. He was not yet thirty-seven years old.[26]

So month after month the North of England was lashed into frenzy by these leaders. It is hard to say what would have become of this movement, had it not been swallowed up in Chartism. Probably it would have died away, burned itself out. It was not a revolutionary movement, nor were its leaders revolutionaries. It is true that there were real revolutionaries, like O'Brien, John Taylor, and William Benbow, among them, but their time was not yet come. The true revolutionary does not give way to rhetoric like the example of Stephens above quoted. Mere words will not satisfy him, and we have no evidence that either Stephens, Oastler, or O'Connor was prepared to go beyond mere words. Their business was to protest, which they did thoroughly, and to prevent their own suppression under the six Acts, which they did partially and temporarily. When they found that, as a result of their exertions, the New Poor Act was not enforced, and that they could still harangue their followers unmolested, they were virtually in the position of an army which accomplishes by mobilisation all that a successful campaign would bring, and which, being unwilling to disband without attacking somebody, allows itself to be led anywhere. So the agitation passed into Chartism. It gave up its negative character and acquired a positive programme. It became more organised under the influence of Birmingham and London Radicals. But these Northern Chartists retaining their violent methods and their incendiary leaders, gave that tumultuous aspect to the movement by which it is best known. Fully developed Chartism derives its programme from London, its organisation from Birmingham, its personnel and vehemence from Lancashire and Yorkshire.

  1. Holyoake, Life of J. R. Stephens, p. 59.
  2. See Reports on Bolton and Macclesfield Unions, Parliamentary Papers, 1846, vol. xxxvi.
  3. G. R. W. Baxter, The Book of the Bastiles, p. 392.
  4. I.e. National Debt interest.
  5. Baxter, pp. 356, 366, 412.
  6. Legacy to Labourers, pp. 7-27.
  7. Third Report of Poor Law Commissioners.
  8. See for the resistance to the new Poor Law in Todmorden, J. Holden, A Short History of Todmorden, pp. 188-93.
  9. He learnt how to preach in Swedish, and acquired a strong taste for Scandinavian literature, which he communicated to his younger brother, George Stephens (1813–1895), professor at Copenhagen between 1855 and 1893. There was a touch of the undisciplined imagination of the Chartist preacher in some of the constructive work of the author of the Runic Monuments.
  10. December 20, 1832. Election speeches in Manchester Reference Library.
  11. Sermon at Charlestown (Ashton), January 6, 1839 (Man. Lib., T498, 10).
  12. See Oastler's amazing election address in the 1832 election.
  13. Holyoake, Life of J. R. Stephens, p. 122.
  14. Place, in Holyoake's Life, p. 76.
  15. Mackay, History of English Poor Law, 1834–1898, pp. 239-41.
  16. Herr Beer, in his careful research upon Benbow's (Sozialismus, pp. 249-51) career, ha sapparently overlooked a passage In Hunt's Memoirs (London, 1820–22), vol. iii. pp. 409 et seq., where Benbow of Manchester is mentioned along with Samuel Bamford of Middleton as delegate to a meeting at the "Crown and Anchor," 1817. Bamford, in his Life of a Radical (c. 1. p. 8), calls him "William Benbow of Manchester." Hunt, in the Green Bag Plot, 1819, says, "Benbow of the Manchester Hampden Club" was reported by a Government spy to have been manufacturing pikes in 1816. I feel sure that this is William Benbow, the Chartist. See later, p. 138.
  17. Mackay, p. 251.
  18. National Instructor, 1850.
  19. O'Connell's Correspondence, i. 370.
  20. Ibid. i. 391, 412, 430.
  21. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 159.
  22. Northern Star, April 17, 1839.
  23. Ibid. August 10, 1844.
  24. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 154.
  25. Northern Star, January 6, 1838.
  26. Additional MSS. 27,821, pp. 14-24.