The Chartist Movement/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII


THE GOVERNMENT PREPARES FOR ACTION

(1839)


Throughout the manufacturing and mining districts an atmosphere of excitement and terror was spreading during the early months of 1839. Poverty and scarcity grew. A very bad harvest in the previous year increased the price of bare necessaries of life to thousands who in time of good harvests were scarce able to live, whilst the dislocation of trade reduced wages and increased unemployment. The streets of many a Lancashire town were filled with pale, gloomy, desperate, half-famished weavers. The workhouses were besieged (for the New Poor Law was yet in abeyance), though many a stubborn operative preferred to starve in silence. "There is," wrote a sympathetic observer[1] later in the year, "among the manufacturing poor, a stern look of discontent, of hatred to all who are rich, a total absence of merry faces: a sallow tinge and dirty skins tell of suffering and brooding over change. Yet often have I talked with scowling-visaged fellows till the ruffian went from their faces, making them smile and at ease: this tells me that their looks of sad and deep thought are not natural. Poor fellows."[2] "It looks as if the falling of an Empire were beginning," wrote the same noble soldier in the early days of 1839.

In truth the aspect of Great Britain in these days was sufficiently terrifying. From Bristol to Edinburgh and from Glasgow to Hull rumours of arms, riots, conspiracies, and insurrections grew with the passing of the weeks. Crowded meetings applauded violent orations, threats and terrorism were abroad. Magistrates trembled and peaceful citizens felt that they were living on a social volcano. The frail bonds of social sympathy were snapped, and class stood over against class as if a civil war were impending.

The acquisition of arms by the more desperate of the manufacturing and mining folk must have begun before the meeting of the Convention.[3] A letter from the Loughborough magistrates, dated January 30, relates that the framework knitters, under the influence of Stephens, are making enormous sacrifices out of their terribly small wages for the purchase of arms and for the support of their two representatives in the Convention.[4] Stephens's arrest must have given a considerable impetus to the collection of weapons of war. From this time onwards similar reports were received almost daily by the Government from magistrates, officials, and private persons of all descriptions. "Better to die by the sword than perish with hunger" was the prevalent feeling. The Mayor of Newcastle reports in February that arms are being collected in that district.[5] In March it was stated that the colliers and foundry-men in the Newport and Merthyr districts were forming clubs, which organised the purchase of arms through hawkers. Thomas Phillips, the Mayor of Newport, who played a great part in the suppression of the rising which took place later in the year, relates that meetings are frequently held in the public-houses in the remote colliery districts when neither civil nor military authority is available.

The missionaries attend at public-houses or beershops where a party has been assembled. The missionary expounds to them the grievances under which they labour, tells them that half their earnings is taken from them in taxes: that these taxes are spent in supporting their rulers in idleness and profligacy: that their employers are tyrants who acquire wealth by their labour: that the great men around them possess property to which they are not entitled.[6]

This sounds very much like a résumé of Vincent's doctrines,[7] as reported by the Crown witness at his trial. The manager of the Pontypool Ironworks went about in fear of death, and had once escaped a mauling only by putting on female costume.[8]

From Halifax in April came a report that much drilling and collection of arms was going on amongst the handloom weavers, who were reduced to such desperation as to resolve to better themselves at the expense of the community.[9] Bradford and Barnsley magistrates reported in similar terms about the same time.[10] At Halifax a book about barricade and street fighting, and the method of facing cavalry with the pike, written by an Italian revolutionary named Macerone, was circulated.[11] Pikes, manufactured out of old files stuck into a handle, or acquired in some similarly inexpensive fashion, were the favourite weapon, though not a few Chartists obtained muskets. These martial preparations were carried on even in the remote districts of Scotland, as far as Aberdeen, though the little weaving towns, like Barrie's "Thrums,"[12] were the chief centres of excitement.

Frequent and tumultuous public meetings increased the excitement. Delegates of the Convention, who there expressed themselves cautiously and vaguely on the subject of arms and physical force, were less reticent whilst addressing their friends and followers in the country. Vincent set the whole of South Wales ablaze, and when he was at last arrested early in May, every one held his breath in terror of the inevitable insurrection. No work was done in Newport on the day the news arrived. In Lancashire the various agitators and delegates used the most extreme language. William Benbow was the most outspoken of these advocates of armed revolution. He was a cobbler of Manchester, now about sixty years old. He had lived through the desperate days of Hampden Clubs and the Six Acts. He had been a friend of Sam Bamford of Middleton and William Cobbett.[13] In 1816, if we are to trust Henry Hunt, Benbow had been denounced by a Government spy for manufacturing pikes in view of a projected rising. He was also the author of a pamphlet advocating the general strike as a political weapon. A thoroughgoing, hardened revolutionary, Benbow had in no wise been discouraged by the experiences of his earlier days. We have seen him as a leader in the Anti-Poor Law agitation,[14] and he came forward now with greater enthusiasm than ever. He travelled all over Lancashire preaching his doctrine of strikes and insurrection. At a meeting in Manchester he spoke, we are told, "like a mad thing."[15] MacDouall, O'Brien, Richardson, and a host of others spoke of nothing but arms. MacDouall urged his hearers at Hyde to prepare themselves for the struggle, whereupon some one in the crowd fired off a pistol.[16] At other meetings, too, pistol shots took the place of applause. What was true of Lancashire and South Wales was true also of every important manufacturing area, for everywhere the magistrates were terror-struck. To what extent arming and drilling were actually carried on it is of course difficult to say. The wildest tales were about. Three hundred thousand Lancashire men would march at the signal of the Convention.[17] The arms in the Tower of London could easily be seized and distributed. Untold thousands of Welsh colliers were ready to move. That these rumours were exaggerated goes without saying. More significant, however, is the fact that the most sanguine advocates of violent courses in the Convention had themselves to confess that they had grossly overestimated their following and their influence in the country.

These proceedings were not in the least hidden from the Government. Perhaps the Chartists did not intend that they should be, for with many it was an article of faith that moral force backed by a display of physical force would accomplish the surrender of the House of Commons. It was thus possible for many delegates, in the Convention and elsewhere, to advocate the possession of arms without being in the least desirous of using them. Thus the drilling went on with no great attempt at concealment. The Government was well informed as to the state of affairs. From magistrates, town clerks, mayors, officials, and private persons hundreds of reports were received, relating to all parts of the country. With this information before him, Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary of the Melbourne Administration, was able to act wisely and tactfully.

The wisest, and most tactful step was the appointment of Major-General Sir Charles J. Napier to the command of the Northern District in April 1839. Napier, the future conqueror of Sind, was perhaps the most brilliant officer of the school of Wellington, but apart from that he was a true gentleman, and a wise and kindly ruler of men. His journal, which forms an important source of our information for this troublous period, reveals a man of the most admirable character. His soldierly qualities were only exceeded by his sympathy with the unfortunate men whose wild projects it was his duty to frustrate. In politics he sympathised with the Liberals and with the Conservatives of the school of Lord Ashley, who was trying with increasing success to voice the claims of the poorer classes upon the attention of the State and of Society. No better choice could have been made by Lord John Russell, who, though steadfastly opposed to the claims of the Charter and the National Petition, was scarcely less sympathetic and forbearing in his conduct at this crisis than Napier himself, although far more nervous.

The Government in fact handled this difficult situation in an excellent fashion.[18] On the one hand it was not unaware of the nature of the insurrectionary movement, and it was already taking steps to grapple scientifically with the problem of social discontent. The manifold careful inquiries which were made during this and the succeeding years[19] are sufficient witness at least to a desire to do something for these less fortunate members of society. On the other hand the insurrectionary movement was a fact, and Government was bound to protect lives and property against threatening destruction. The difficulty was that there was no police force to speak of outside the London area, and the larger and smaller manufacturing towns were therefore compelled to rely upon military protection in times of riot. Thus Bradford (Yorkshire) with a population of 66,000 had a police force of about half a dozen.[20] Neither Manchester nor Birmingham had a properly organised force until the summer of 1839. Most of the smaller towns had no civil force at all. Under these circumstances the use of military force was inevitable, but neither Napier nor the Home Secretary was prepared to allow it to be used as recklessly as at Peterloo. Much of their energy was in fact devoted to soothing terrified magistrates and manufacturers who wanted to garrison every town and every factory like a fortress, and to let loose the soldiery upon the slightest provocation.

Napier proceeded therefore very cautiously. He found himself in command of between five and six thousand men and eighteen guns. This was a far from sufficient force unless very carefully used. It was scattered all over the northern counties, sometimes in very small units, such as half companies and less. At Halifax, for instance, forty-two soldiers were billeted in as many houses.[21] Napier at once proceeded to concentrate his forces at what he held to be the decisive points. His headquarters were for the time being at Nottingham. Newcastle-on-Tyne, Leeds, Hull, and Manchester were the strategic points. In the Newcastle area he had 900 men; in the Lancashire area, 2800; in Yorkshire, 1000.[22] Manchester was regarded by Napier as the centre of the insurrectionary movement, and he kept one of his best officers, Colonel Wemyss, constantly there, with a force which at one time must have amounted to 2000 men with some guns. This concentration, he notes with relief, was completed by May 1. Napier exerted himself to provide barracks of some sort in every town where the soldiers were posted, as he was afraid that they would be cut off or tampered with if they were left in billets. The provision of barracks was a constant stipulation whenever magistrates applied to him.

In one other district where the Chartists were particularly threatening, namely Monmouthshire, Lord John Russell ordered up troops. This was at the end of April. The troops were to be sent from Sussex or Wiltshire.[23]

It was generally supposed that the day on which the petition was presented would be the day of the outbreak. All the preparations, therefore, were made against the 6th of May, the date originally fixed. On May 3 the Government issued a proclamation against persons who "have of late unlawfully assembled together for the purpose of practising military exercise, movements, and evolutions," and against persons who "have lately assembled and met together, many of them armed with bludgeons or other offensive weapons, and have by their exciting to breach of the peace, and by their riotous proceedings, caused great alarm to our subjects." Magistrates are to take all measures to suppress such unlawful assemblies. This proclamation was followed by a letter from the Home Secretary, authorising the formation of a civic force for the protection of life and property where such was held to be in danger. Government would supply arms to such bodies on application through the proper channels.[24]

Whether this proposal to arm one body of inhabitants against the others was wholly wise may well be doubted. In many districts it would amount to the arming of the richer against the poorer classes, and give the struggle the aspect of a social war. That the proposal was not only made but often carried into practice shows already the degree of terror and bitterness which had entered into social relationships. But in the absence of a regular police force it was perhaps the best course of action, unless a very free use were made of the soldiery, which was perhaps still less advisable. The Government was very cautious in supplying these volunteer bodies with arms. Firearms were very seldom issued, cutlasses being supplied instead.

Thus the two parties made their preparations, the Government cautiously and tactfully, the Chartists noisily and perplexedly. Whether there would be an outbreak of civil war depended largely upon the action of Napier and the Convention. To the latter we must therefore turn again.

  1. General Sir Charles Napier.
  2. W. F. P. Napier, Life and Opinions of Sir C. J. Napier, ii. 77 (September 24, 1839).
  3. Stephens said on November 4, 1838, at Hyde that the burial clubs were purchasing arms; at this meeting pistols were discharged.
  4. Home Office, 40 (44), Leicester.
  5. Ibid. (46), Newcastle-on-Tyne.
  6. Ibid. (43), Monmouth.
  7. Ibid. (45), Monmouth.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Home Office, 40 (43), Manchester.
  10. Ibid. (51), Yorkshire.
  11. Napier, ii. 16.
  12. The Little Minister, "Thrums" is Kirriemuir in Forfarshire.
  13. Northern Star, April 2, 1842.
  14. Compare above, p. 91.
  15. Manchester Times, April 27, 1839.
  16. Manchester Guardian, June 12, 1839. Meeting on April 22.
  17. Napier, ii. 43.
  18. Russell had refused to put down Chartist meetings on the ground that freedom of speech must be preserved (Hansard, 3rd ser., xlix. 455).
  19. See above, especially Chapter II.
  20. Home Office, 40 (51), Yorks.
  21. Napier, ii. 16.
  22. Ibid. ii. 19-22.
  23. Home Office, 40 (45). Pencil note on back of letter dated April 30.
  24. Northern Liberator, May 11 and 18, 1839.