Chartism Day 2022: report from a day of research, song and a missing friend

From ‘Shabby Feargus’ to the impact of the Northern Star’s move south and Chartists as ‘premature liberal democrats’, the first Chartism Day since 2019 was as entertaining as it was informative and thought-provoking.

Chartism Day 2022 gets under way as Dr Joan Allen introduces Dr Richard C. Allen.

It had been a long-time coming. But finally, after two years in which Chartism Day did not happen as the world went into lockdowns and social distancing, more than 70 delegates were able to meet at the weekend in one of the cities most closely connected to the Chartist cause to hear papers on research in the field and to exchange ideas and renew friendships.

Central to the event was one man who had been at the heart of Chartism Day for so many years, and yet who could not be there: Professor Malcolm Chase, whose death has been keenly felt by all those who knew him and by the many organisations and initiatives in which he had been involved.

It is now two years since Professor Chase died, and this year’s conference was held in his honour, at the University of Leeds, where he spent much of his career. Professor Chase was the pre-eminent scholar of Chartism, and a leading figure in both the Society for the Study of Labour History and the Social History Society, the co-sponsors of the event.

Professor Andrea Major, head of the school of history at Leeds, opened the day by noting Professor Chase’s huge contribution to the university, commenting that it was particularly fitting that this first big in-person event that the school had been able to hold in a very long time was on a subject so close to his heart.

Presenting a paper titled ‘“Some ungodly immoral principle in the human heart”: exploring opposition to physical force Chartism in Wales, 1839’, Dr Richard C. Allen talked about the role of the Quaker iron master Joseph Tregellen Price, a prominent member of the Peace Society, in averting a more serious Chartist uprising in Newport.

Dr Allen cited Price’s efforts to dissuade his own workers from participating, his influence in bringing an ambassador from the Peace Society to the area, where public meetings were held to oppose the Chartist tactics, and a chance meeting and discussion with the Chartist leader Dr William Price on the night of the rising, all of which helped ensure that workers from Merthyr and Neath were absent from the rising. By doing so, he concluded, Joseph Price ‘may have changed the whole course of Chartism’.

Dr Janette Martin presents on the life of Samuel Collins.

In the first of a series of ‘Chartist lives’ spread through the day, reflecting Malcolm Chase’s approach in his book Chartism: A New History, Dr Janette Martin talked about the life of Samuel Collins (1802-1878), a handloom weaver from Chadderton who had been at Peterloo as a young man, later became involved in Chartism, and who left a volume of poetry, a copy of which along with a portrait is now in the John Rylands Institute.

An opponent of the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor and critic of the Chartist land plan, one of Collins’ poems is titled ‘Shabby Feargus’. Its opening verse, intended to be sung to the tune a ‘Yorkshireman in London’, reads:

I’ll tell you of a mighty man,
Ranting Fergus, Roaring Fergus
I’ll tell you of a mighty man,
A physical force ranger.
He proves himself a mighty Mars,
He’s cover’d o’er with cuts and scars.
In fighting out the people’s wars,
He laughs at death and danger.

Dr Mike Sanders introduces John Stafford’s song ‘Ye Tyrants of Old England’.

The musical theme continued with a presentation from Dr Mike Sanders of ‘From “Ludding Time” to “The Welsh Patriots”: John Stafford and the construction of radical tradition through song’.

Dr Sanders drew on a book, Songs Comic and Sentimental, published by Stafford, noting that despite its title the songs were neither comic nor for the most part sentimental. Rather, the book set out a large collection of songs about most of the radical struggles of the early nineteenth century, composed and memorised by Stafford, who was unable to read or write, and which were recorded in print and saved only ‘at the most urgent request of a large circle of friends’.

As the songs were to be set to existing and known tunes, Dr Sanders pointed out, it was possible to re-create part of the soundscape of the radicalism of the period. He illustrated the point by playing video of Jennifer Reid, an expert in broadside ballads and Lancashire dialect work songs, performing a number of Stafford’s compositions (see video at foot of the page).

Dr Sanders concluded: ‘These songs don’t simply record history. These songs by creating memories actively create history.’

Co-convenors and speakers Dr Joan Allen and Dr Richard C. Allen confer.

In ‘Trials and tribulations: political identity class and status in the age of the Chartists, 1839-1843’, Dr Joan Allen discussed the different treatment – and different expectations – of working class and middle class Chartist prisoners while in gaol, and the difficulties facing poorer prisoners in mobilising supporters and legal resources to argue their case for less harsh conditions.

She contrasted the treatment of the Sheffield Chartist Samuel Holberry, an impoverished working-class man whose four-year sentence and appalling treatment in the notorious gaol at Northallerton almost certainly contributed to his death, with the arguments of supporters of John Collins and William Lovett that as respectable men they would suffer far more from normal prison conditions than others.

In a further and still starker contrast, the gentleman and barrister Feargus O’Connor had been able while in prison to furnish his own cell, enjoyed unlimited visits, books and writing materials, and even had his own turnkey. Importantly, he was also released three months early. Despite this, O’Connor wrote while still in York gaol: ‘I am worse than dead… buried alive in a stone coffin.’

Presenting a second ‘Chartist life’, Mark Crail talked about James Grassby, a carpenter and joiner from Hull who, over a period of more than a decade contributed to local and national Chartist organisations as secretary, treasurer and chair of a range of committees, fund-raising groups and other bodies, ultimately becoming secretary of the National Charter Association in 1852.

Though hardly known today, Grassby would have been a familiar figure within the Chartist movement, his name appearing more than 200 times in the Northern Star and as a delegate to national conventions and conferences of both the NCA and the land company.

Speaking on behalf of the Social History Society, Dr Henry Irving recalled that he had first met Malcolm Chase while an undergraduate, and subsequently as a Masters and PhD student had been encouraged by Professor Chase to attend conferences at which Professor Chase appeared always to know everyone and to be able to make important connections. Professor Chase had, he said, been a central figure in the SHS since its foundation.

Dr Vic Clarke on the implications of the Northern Star’s move from London to Leeds.

Dr Vic Clarke presented a paper on the impact of the Northern Star’s move from Leeds to London in 1843 and the implications for its reporting of ‘local’, national and international news. She noted that as it made the transition, the Northern Star also changed its name, dropping the words ‘Leeds General Advertiser’ in favour of ‘National Trades’ Journal’.

While based in Leeds, the paper’s news reporting had fallen into two parts. ‘Local news’ featured coverage of newsworthy events and what would today be called human interest stories centred on West Yorkshire, featuring individuals who would have been known in the locality – and might include small-scale criminal activity or, in one example, the growing of a giant mushroom, proudly displayed to the newspaper’s staff by the man who grew it. ‘Intelligence’, meanwhile, could include valuable information for political activists, for example reporting on the prosecution of a local chimney sweep for employing an under-age boy.

Following the move south, ‘local’ news came to be used as a catch-all phrase for events taking place in any specified location and was often lifted directly from other papers, while ‘intelligence’ increasingly included updates on political events in Europe and the United States and was often supplied by regular correspondents to the Star. Dr Clarke also noted that shortly after the move to London, George Julian Harney had taken over as editor, resulting in a substantial increase in international coverage.

Dr Joan Allen read a final ‘Chartist life’ on behalf of David Osmond, who was unable to be at the conference, recounting the story of William Edwards (1796-1849) of Newport, described as one of the ‘least remembered figures’ from the Newport rising. Though dubbed the ‘mad baker’ and dismissed as an eccentric figure within the Chartist movement, Edwards had in fact been a serious and important radical voice, who had typically argued the case for moral force Chartism.

Dr Matthew Roberts makes a point about the idea of Chartists as ‘premature liberal democrats’.

Dr Matthew Roberts presented a paper on ‘Heritage politics and the memory of Chartism in England and Wales, 1918-2020’ which examined how politicians and others in the twentieth century had sought to co-opt the history of Chartism into their own world view, choosing to remember it in ways which reinforced their own stories and political positions.

He divided the different ways in which Chartism had been remembered into three categories: the ‘Fabian view’ adopted by the mainstream of the Labour movement up to the days of New Labour of the Chartists as serious and ultimately peacefully intentioned reformers; the ‘militant proletarian view’ adopted by those to the Left of Labour (and within its left wing) of Chartists as revolutionaries; and the ‘Chartists as premature liberal democrats’ adopted by the ‘heritage’ industry and even some Tories which attempted to sanitise the Chartists into a broader story of the gradual and peaceful advance of democracy and the widening of the franchise.

Shirley Chase encourages Malcolm Chase’s many friends to support brain tumour research.

At the conclusion of the conference, Shirley Chase noted that Malcolm had planned to do so much more. She told the conference that she had at home twelve portraits of the reformer Francis Burdett, collected by Professor Chase in anticipation of a future project. He had also wanted to work on what had happened to Chartism from the 1850s to the end of the century, and in particular at the development of Liberalism in that period.

Thanking all those who had paid tribute to Malcolm during the day, the university for hosting the event, and Dr Joan Allen and Dr Richard Allen for their persistence in ensuring that such an event could eventually be held, Shirley Chase also asked that people who had known Malcolm should support research and the development of better treatments for those with brain tumours.

Donations can be pledged in Malcolm Chase’s name to the Brain Tumour Charity.

Download the conference programme (PDF).

Below: Jennifer Reid performs the songs of John Stafford at an earlier event.

Note: reports of contributors’ papers are intended to give a flavour of the day; they do not provide a comprehensive summary of individual contributors’ arguments or evidence.