Classics of labour history: Malcolm Chase and the story of Chartism

Chartism has been a central part of labour history since the discipline emerged. A brief flurry of activity in the early 1920s led nowhere in particular, but Professor Asa Briggs’ Chartist Studies (1959) opened the door to what Dr Stephen Roberts has dubbed a ‘golden period’ of research and publication (see below). Dorothy Thompson, meanwhile, led the intellectual effort to centre Chartism not just as a campaign for the right to vote but as a radical working-class social movement – a position which though endlessly challenged has not been seriously contested since. But despite countless studies of Chartism through the prisms of biography, local history and, more esoterically, the linguistic turn, and even though it has been a feature of school history curriculums for decades, there had never been a satisfactory narrative history of the Chartist movement until Professor Malcolm Chase’s 2007 Chartism: A New History – a book unrivalled fifteen years on. In reviewing this and other volumes on Chartism for Labour History Review’s 2009 special issue on Chartism, Stephen Roberts set Malcolm Chase’s work in the longer context of Chartist histories and delivered a verdict that has borne the test of time.

Malcolm Chase, author of Chartism: A New History.

Chartism: A New History. By Malcolm Chase (Manchester University Press; 2007 £60 HB, £18.99 PB, 421pp.)

The heyday of research into Chartism was the two decades between the publication of Chartist Studies (1959) and The Chartist Experience (1982). During this golden period local historians revealed the rich detail to be found in provincial newspapers, postgraduate students of the calibre of James Epstein and David Goodway worked on theses which would become important books, monographs on subjects from Bronterre O’Brien to the Land Plan appeared, and Dorothy Thompson brought out what remains an indispensable volume of documents as well as completing work on her seminal book… The glaring omission in all these publications, however, and one long commented on by Chartist scholars themselves, was the absence of a book-length narrative history… Finally, over three decades after J.T. Ward’s attempt and nearly a century after Mark Hovell’s study, a new history of the movement has emerged… [Malcolm] Chase has given us the richly-detailed, reliable, lucid, and considered narrative history of Chartism that was badly needed. He has written a book that will be read for many years to come by a wide range of people. It is a book which really ought to be in every large public library… Read the full text.

This is the sixth in a series highlighting labour history classics to have appeared in the SSLH Bulletin and its successor Labour History Review. See more of our Classics of Labour History series.

All articles published since May 1960 can be accessed through a subscription to Labour History Review.