Chartism in one town

Issue: 117

Keith Flett

Robert G Hall, Voices of the People (Merlin, 2007), £15.95

Since the turn of the century the number of studies of Chartism—the world’s first working class party, formed around the six points of the People’s Charter in 1837—has burgeoned. The work of the Merlin Press Chartist series, of which this work is the eighth volume, and its indefatigable editor Owen Ashton deserve special praise. The series has demonstrated that there are many new sources and issues to explore in the study of Chartism. With the availability, shortly, of the Chartist paper, the Northern Star, as an online resource, the possibility for further studies seems considerable.

North west England was a centre of Chartism, and several major studies have been published in the past 35 years, in particular John Foster on Oldham and Neville Kirk’s study of the rise of mid-Victorian reformism in the working class. Hall’s book is not an argument with either of these authorities, but instead provides new and detailed research on the town of Ashton-under-Lyne.

Ashton in the first half of the 19th century might be likened to an American frontier town of the same period. It was overwhelmingly working class, based on cotton mills, with a rapidly growing population. The infrastructure of the local state was largely absent—the forces of authority and law and order, and a wider ruling class presence, could be numbered in handfuls. That allowed the Chartists considerable room for manoeuvre. However, it also meant that action to challenge the existing order would need to be coordinated across a wider area than just Ashton.

Hall starts the book with an examination of the workplace and the impact of changing technology in the mill on the working class. That marks the book out as unusual in the range of Chartist studies, with the work of Kirk and Mick Jenkins on the 1842 General Strike being among a small number of other studies to focus on this crucial area. Hall’s conclusion is interesting too. He argues that the introduction of new technology did not go all that smoothly, took much longer than had been thought and therefore did not have such a dramatic impact in terms of deskilling existing workers, spinners for example, as historians had supposed.

Hall goes on to focus on who the Chartists were in Ashton, the impact of defeat in 1839, when a proposed general strike in August and armed uprising in November both failed, and the relationship between Chartist leaders and supporters. He also makes useful general points about Chartist historiography, showing a grasp of the work of revisionists such as Gareth Stedman Jones and Patrick Joyce, but judging it against his research about Ashton.

For example, Stedman Jones in Rethinking Chartism (1983) argued that the language of the Chartists should be taken entirely at face value; Hall demonstrates that in fact, both in Ashton and nationally, they were careful about the political platform that they constructed. So on the decision to exclude the vote for women from the six points of the People’s Charter Hall notes that there was considerable structural discrimination against women in the labour market, and this was also echoed in divisions in Chartism about a “women’s place”. However, he suggests that the Chartists decided to focus on the vote for men because they realised that taking on prejudice against women would reduce support for the Charter. The point of the Charter was to construct a political programme that would find widespread support, and therefore actually change the political landscape.

Focusing on local Chartists, Hall suggests that the leadership of the movement was a sharply politically conscious group of individuals very much focused on learning and education. He also argues that the Ashton leadership were disappointed with the lack of politically advanced ideas held by their followers. He uses the example of the London costermongers, who Henry Mayhew found to be instinctive Chartists, particularly when it came to a fight with the police, but with little real idea of what Chartism stood for. A valid point, but of course a concept of “them and us” where the working class in the main was supporting “us” was still a better starting point than otherwise.

The two concluding chapters look at the demise of Chartism in the ten years after 1848, and how Chartism was remembered by those who had been active in it. Hall takes on board Patrick Joyce’s point in his book Work, Society and Politics (1980) about factory culture in the mid-Victorian period—that relations between workers and mill owners in towns such as Ashton did improve in the 1850s as the owners tried to pursue a policy of conciliation. But Hall suggests that this policy only worked up to a point.

It is argued that the reasons for the decline of Chartism were partly to do with its success. In some areas Chartists did get elected to local councils and then worked with radical middle class elements to pursue practical changes such as better sanitation and street lighting. Hall also suggests that this desire to actually achieve positive change found an outlet in single-issue causes that Chartists occupied themselves with, finding that the overarching push for political reform was foundering. There were a vast range of these causes in the 1850s, from building societies and cooperatives to temperance groups.

Finally, Hall reviews the memoirs of William Aitken, written in 1869. Hall points out that, although Aitken writes as if the Chartists were simply one precursor to the new Liberal Party, in fact Aitken was only able to make this argument by leaving out all the bits of his own past—physical confrontations with the authorities, for example—that did not fit with the newly constructed Liberal “traditions”.

For those seeking an introduction to Chartism, Voices of the People is not the place to start. However, for those with some familiarity with the debates within Chartist studies over the past 35 years Hall’s book provides both some stimulating new research and approaches and a useful but not overstated riposte to some of the revisionist approaches that have claimed that Chartism never amounted to anything much anyway.