The Dignity of Chartism

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This short collection of essays by the great historian of Chartism, Dorothy Thompson, is an enjoyable read. It brims with important political activists, both men and women, who helped build what became the first major national working class movement in history.

It takes up key arguments, such as the movement’s class character, the reasons for its rise and subsequent decline, its relationship with other political movements, and it reveals just how explosive Chartism at times became.

Thompson makes the point that the movement emerged through a political process affecting “town radicals”, many of whom had become active in the campaign for male suffrage.

They had continued their activism with protests against the deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, demonstrations against the Poor Law, etc.

The author takes up the notion that these activists had learned their political skills via “the filtering downwards of…‘middle class attitudes’”.

She argues it is clear that working class communities had already formulated their own values and beliefs before the rise of Chartism.

They were brought together, not only by the three nationwide petitions, but by a huge political movement that comprised great newspapers, such as the Northern Star, and activities that, at different times, “ranged from monster meetings to regular Sunday services … and from torchlight drilling to education classes and choirs”.

Perhaps the best essay is devoted to Chartism in Halifax. It traces the early radicalism and call to arms made by Chartist leaders, the clashes with the soldiers, the great demonstrations and strikes involving thousands of men and women marching together to “turn out” the mills and so on.

Thompson makes the point that most women and their children were forced to work because their husband’s wages were so low and, as a result, a common slogan voiced by both men and women was “No women’s work except in the hearth and the schoolroom”.

But she also points to the women’s role in the boycott movement against shopkeepers hostile to Chartism, and critically the episodes of stone throwing against the authorities and the “taunting of the police or military, often with coarse or obscene language”.

She refers to female clubs where about 50 or 60 women met weekly in pubs to offer support to one another. She quotes the account of Mark Crabtree who is horrified that “we find evils attached to these clubs”, and describes the cavorting that ensues when the meetings end and the women, having enjoyed a few drinks and a good sing-song, end up mingling with the menfolk.

The collection assumes a prior knowledge of the period, but that aside, it is a great addition to anyone’s collection of Chartist texts.