In the industrial areas 1842 was a year of depression, widespread unemployment and wage reductions. The choice for many operatives, as Factory Inspector Horner reported, was ‘employment on any terms, or starvation’. Inevitably, tempers in many districts ran high. There were riots at Blackburn in May, and on 5 June Marsden told a large crowd on Enfield Moor that they should march under arms to London to demand the Charter from the Queen. Emotions were heightened by the case of Samuel Holberry, the young Sheffield Chartist imprisoned for conspiracy and riot in March 1840. Holberry, like other West Riding Chartists, was imprisoned at Northallerton but after the death of his associate John Clayton was removed to York Castle, following the appeals of his friends. But the young revolutionary’s health could not stand prison conditions, and the Home Office agreed to his release, subject to sureties for his future behaviour. However, Holberry died on 21st June and was thereafter celebrated in Sheffield as ‘a martyr to the cause of Democracy’. His funeral on the 27th provoked an immense rally and a new folklore. Harney delivered a graveside oration: “Our task is not to weep; we must leave tears to women. Our task is to act; to labour with heart and soul for the destruction of the horrible system under which Holberry has perished. . . . Compared with the honest, virtuous fame of this son of toil, how poor, how contemptible appear the so-called glories that emblazon the name of an Alexander or a Napoleon! . . . Come weal, come woe, we swear . . . to have retribution for the death of Holberry, swear to have our Charter law and to annihilate for ever the blood-stained depotism which has slain its thousands of martyrs, and tens of thousands of patriots and immolated at its shrine the lovers of liberty and truth.” Holberry scarcely deserved his eulogy; but Chartism needed its martyrs after the rejection of the second petition.
Chartists were not alone in talking of possible violence. The League’s determination to embarrass the Conservative government had led some of its supporters to make equally threatening gestures, and Oastler cautioned his Northern supporters against falling into the ‘trap’: ‘if the Leaguers urge you to violence, leave that work to them!’ As the 205 remaining NCA localities elected a new executive (McDouall, Leach, Campbell, Williams and Bairstow) in June rumours were spreading that the League planned to provoke major strikes by extensive wage-cuts or lockouts. Indeed, reductions in the West Midlands had already provoked some strikes.
In early August the strike enthusiasm spread to the North. Here, Chartists had certainly discussed striking, but were scarcely in a position to organise it. Workers were provoked by threatened 25 per cent reductions at Ashton cotton mills in July and started a wave of strikes on 5th August. A rally on Mottram Moor combined the demand for the Charter with the Oastlerite call for ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’. There-after touring mobs of ‘turn-outs’ travelled through the Lancashire mill districts, forcibly drawing the boiler plugs in order to create a general strike. As the ‘Plug Plot’ spread, Chartists naturally sought to use it, by carrying resolutions to ‘stay out’ until the Charter was accepted. Chartist leaders assembling at Manchester were astonished at the scene. ‘Not a single mill at work! Something must come out of this and something serious too’, Campbell declared on the first sight of Manchester, to Cooper who had narrowly escaped arrest in the rioting Potteries. The sixty delegates honestly confessed that they ‘did not originate the present cessation from labour’ but ‘strongly approved of the extension and continuance of the present struggle till the PEOPLE’S CHARTER became a legislative enactment’. But though, for once, the Chartist leadership was near the scene of action, its chronic divisions prevented it from assuming command; McDouall raged about `leaving the decision to the God of justice and of battle’. The rioters took little notice of philosophies, as they engaged in the sort of spontaneous outburst which Oastler had long predicted and which the NCA was unable to organise. Working people closed the mills in Ashton, Bacup, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Bury, Chorley, Crompton, Droylsden, Dukinfield, Heywood, Hyde, Manchester, Newton, Oldham, Preston, Rochdale, Stalybridge and Stockport. The ragged hordes who swept over the Pennines to close Yorkshire mills in Batley, Bingley, Birstall, Bradford, Bramley, Calverley, Cleckheaton, Dewsbury, Gomersal, Halifax, Hebden Bridge, Heckmondwike, Holmfirth, Honley, Horbury, Horton, Huddersfield, Keighley, Leeds, Littletown, Marsden, Millbridge, Mytholmroyd, Ossett, Pudsey, Skipton, Stanningley, Thornhill and Todmorden cared little for Chartism. Their protest was against foul industrial conditions…And up the brave men of the ‘Union’ briefly went. But they ‘went’ without much Chartist support. The Star attacked McDouall’s ‘wild strain of recklessness’, and O’Connor desperately tried to prove his own moderation. McDouall’s bravery immediately evaporated, as he fled abroad.
Unrest spread via Carlisle to Scotland, where conditions were desperate in several areas. The weaving town of Paisley faced near starvation; the Lanarkshire miners struck in protest against wage cuts; rallies of the unemployed on Glasgow Green demanded instant relief; Dunfermline weavers burnt down local factories; in several burghs it was resolved to strike until the adoption of the Charter. Yet in general the moderation of the Scottish radical press and Chartist leadership restrained Scottish Chartists. The principal scene of activity was the flax and jute town of Dundee, where the shoe-maker-preacher John Duncan and the Democratic Society organised a strike at a series of excited meetings on Magdalen Green in August. But the affair ended with the tragi-comic march of a ragged group of Chartists to Forfar, the arrest of the leaders and the real tragedy of Duncan’s death in a lunatic asylum in 1845.
The strike wave soon ended. By late August many workers were returning on the employers’ terms; by late September all was over. And it soon became apparent that the Chartists had made another strategic error. They could never have organised the strikes; they had only sought to take advantage of disputes caused by industrial troubles; but they were widely blamed for the events. The overworked Graham at the Home Office and the Tory publicist Croker continued to suspect that the League might be at the root of the trouble, but were never able to gain proof. Graham was ‘by no means prepared to use Military force to compel a reduction of wages…’ He regarded the government’s role as being ‘to preserve peace, to put down plunder and to prevent…intimidation’. But although he accepted that workers had ‘just cause of complaint against their masters’ and was sickened by the panic of cowardly justices, he considered that ‘a social insurrection of a very formidable character’ could only be met by force. And it was the Chartists who were arrested. By late September, John Mowbray was complaining of the ‘languid state’ of the cause in the North East.
In the autumn of 1842, Chartism was once again rent by bitter recriminations. McDouall, Cooper and others had undoubtedly been excited enough by the opportunity offered by the strikes to advocate violence in some form. But O’Connor had opposed such talk, and the NCA had limited itself to asserting that ‘all the evils which affected society…arose solely from class legislation’ and urging workers to stay out until ‘the only remedy for the present alarming distress and widespread destitution’ -- the Charter -- was adopted. Lovett added his voice, urging workers to ‘avoid violence…[and] restrain outrage’. But Chartists were widely arrested and sentenced. From October, 274 cases were tried in Staffordshire, resulting in 54 sentences of transportation and 154 of imprisonment; Cooper, initially released, was later sent to Stafford Gaol for two years, during which he wrote his celebrated Purgatory of Suicides (1845). Fewer cases were tried in Lancashire, culminating with the trial of O’Connor and fifty-eight others in March 1843. Chartists again raised defence funds.
O’Connor, as usual, had temporised. While Hill had condemned the strikes entirely as a League plot, O’Connor had seized the main chance. Both men had opposed McDouall’s fatal motion, but O’Connor had agreed to its being publicised by the NCA executive (of which he was not a member). Feargus was therefore surprised to be arrested in late September, and henceforth blamed McDouall for the disaster--even opposing the collection of funds to support him in exile. McDouall returned to Britain in 1844, blaming O’Connor for his flight and subsequent poverty. It is difficult to decide between two such convincing liars. Another whipping boy was the executive, which appears to have been neither efficient nor altogether honest. Cooper consequently proposed its replacement, and a December investigation of its activities and accounts led to its disappearance. The League itself remained highly suspect in many Chartist (and Tory) minds. O’Connor therefore turned another policy somersault, condemning ‘the leaning of the Complete Suffragists to the Free Trade party’: now the CSU must be destroyed as a ‘League Job’. The opportunity was soon at hand. The CSU-Chartist alliance was to be cemented at a Birmingham conference on 27 December, which was to be elected (on Lovett’s plan) half by electors and half by non-voters. O’Connor denounced this scheme and urged Chartists to secure election wherever possible. After some bitter arguments, the result was a Chartist victory: to Sturge’s mortification, O’Connor was returned for Birmingham. The CSU and others were aware of the danger; as O’Brien wrote, “A conference composed of such materials as Mr Feargus O’Connor would pack into it would soon find itself utterly powerless and without influence for any purposes but those of mischief …” But the CSU could do nothing against O’Connorite packing. ‘The Chartists were anxious to get their men elected if possible at the Complete Suffrage meetings,’ recalled Gammage, ‘in order to avoid the expense falling on themselves alone, and in many cases they succeeded in so doing.’
The conference, attended by 374 delegates, assembled in the Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute. The arrogance of a section of the CSU, in rejecting the Chartist name and presenting a secretly prepared 96-clause ‘New Bill of Rights’ in place of the Charter, achieved the almost impossible by uniting the Chartists. Lovett proposed and O’Connor seconded a motion to substitute the Charter for the Bill -- although Lovett (whose ‘lip…was curled in scorn’ as O’Connor spoke, according to Gammage) scarcely enjoyed the alliance. Middle-class CSU men were dismayed by Lovett’s opposition; his known hostility to O’Connor and sympathy with a class-collaboration policy had seemed to guarantee his support. But honest Lovett could not accept the dropping of that document which had advocated “just and equal representation…in plain and definite language, capable of being understood and appreciated by the great mass of the people…[and for which] vast numbers had suffered imprisonment, transportation and death…”
It was in vain that Lawrence Heyworth maintained that ‘it is not your principles that we dislike, but your leaders’. To Chartists there was something sacred about the old cause and the old styles; and there was a blasphemy, a sacrilege in the proposed change. ‘Give up the Charter! The Charter for which O’Connor and hundreds of brave men were dungeoned in felons’ cells, the Charter for which John Frost was doomed to a life of heart-withering woe!’ roared Harney. He would not give way, “to suit the whim, to please the caprice or to serve the selfish ends of mouthing priests, political traffickers, sugar-weighting, tape-measuring shopocrats. Never! By the memories of the illustrious dead, by the sufferings of widows and the tears of orphans, he would adjure them to stand by the Charter.” Chartists were simply not prepared to be patronised by tactless and supercilious Complete Suffragists. To Cooper it seemed that “there was no attempt to bring about a union, no effort for conciliation, no generous offer of the right hand of fellowship. We soon found that it was determined to keep the poor Chartists at arm’s length.”
The varied Chartists carried Lovett’s motion by 193 votes to 94 on 28 December. Sturge thereupon led a secession of the majority of CSU delegates to the local temperance hall, to prepare a Bill for presentation by Crawford. The breach was accompanied by expressions of hope for future collaboration. But the fact was that O’Connor had broken another danger to his controlling position.
O’Connor’s constant purges inevitably cut down conference membership. Having done his duty, Lovett departed. By 31st December only thirty-seven delegates remained in the NCA-dominated section. And even now the NCA men (who were joined by a few CSU delegates, including Solly, while Vincent threw in his lot with the CSU) were divided. Cooper wanted an annual convention, from which a five-man executive should be elected annually, with only the secretary being paid a regular salary. His plan was (for the moment) generally accepted. But White bitterly opposed Parry’s proposal for continued co-operation with the CSU, and O’Connor, while professing to calm matters, provoked further divisions. Many Chartists left the conference to face their trials, often with great courage: White, while conducting his defence, insisted on the provision of sandwiches and wine and William Jones maintained a running fight with Baron Gurney. The sheer guts of men about to go to prison deserved a worthier cause than the highly personalised, self-centred O’Connorite dream. Place might protest; Lovett might be sickened; Oastler was inevitably almost unheard. What was left of organised English Chartism was now controlled by the megalomaniac Irishman. Place’s rival Metropolitan Parliamentary Reform Association soon disappeared.
The triumph was almost complete. Real or potential rivals to the despot were either running ineffective evening classes (like Lovett) or about to be imprisoned (like the now doubting Cooper). The CSU was cut down to its appropriate size. Its Bill, proposed by Crawford, was rejected by 101 votes to 32 on 18th May 1843. And when, on 31st January 1844, it dared to hold a rally under Crawford at the traditional venue of the Crown and Anchor tavern, O’Connor and his supporters contrived virtually to destroy it. But O’Connor was now the monarch of a declining kingdom. By fair means and foul, he had converted the Chartist remnant into a personal following. He was now to try to mould it to new purposes. A sign of coming attitudes was given in the Star in January 1843: “Chartism is superior to Christianity in this respect, that it takes its name from no man…There should be no sectarianism in it. Chartism is no invention of one man, any more than truth is. Our cause has no father but the First Great Cause…What greater honour can a man have than to be a Chartist? …We worship Truth -- we worship God.” This was not the first or the last appearance of such arrogance. And it was sadly unfounded. 1842 marked a Chartist peak never to be reached again.
J. T. Ward, Chartism, Batsford, 1973, pages 160-67.