Many places in Britain have been commemorated in verse – think of Tintern Abbey (Wordsworth), or Wenlock Edge (Housman), or Adlestrop railway station (Edward Thomas), or Little Gidding (TS Eliot). Blackstone Edge can join this list, thanks to the nineteenth century political leader and poet Ernest Jones. His verse The Blackstone Edge Gathering, written more as a song than a poem and set to a popular tune of the day, was composed in 1846.
Jones begins by looking down from Blackstone Edge over the plain – or at least trying to. Instead of his eye being led to far horizons, however, what greets him is industrial smoke and pollution, the product of the cotton mills which, as we have already seen, had been transforming the landscape and the economy of this part of Lancashire. It was not a pretty sight. In fact, Jones suggests, there is something about it which is against the natural order of things:
O’er plains and cities far away
All lorn and lost the morning lay
When sank the sun at break of day
In smoke of mill and factory.
On Blackstone Edge itself, however, high above the Lancashire plains, it’s a different story:
But waved the wind on Blackstone Height
A standard of the broad sunlight
And sung that morn with trumpet might
A sounding song of liberty!
We know exactly which ‘morn’ Ernest Jones was referring to: it was Sunday, August 2nd in 1846. The poem itself, as its title suggests, commemorates an event which took place here, up on the Pennine escarpment, during the heyday of the Chartist movement.
Walking past the Blackstone Edge rocks today it’s hard to imagine this as the setting for a mass political rally. Nevertheless, that Sunday in August saw about thirty thousand people gathered here, at least according to a report a few days later in the Chartists’ own newspaper the Northern Star. There would have been banners and pennants ready to be waved by the wind, there would have been speeches (and they would have been long), but there’d have been a party atmosphere too, rather like on most demonstrations today. Chartism was strong on both sides of the Pennines, both in the larger mill towns such as Halifax, Bradford, Rochdale and Oldham and in the smaller towns such as nearby Todmorden, and rallies on moorland tops were a feature of the movement, it presumably being rather easier to discuss radical politics away from the immediate attention of the mill-owners and their supporters. Blackstone Edge was a convenient place to bring together people from both the Lancashire and Yorkshire towns “all of whom” (this is the Northern Star, again) “must have travelled three miles, and many of whom had travelled thirty to renew the covenant with their fellow men.”
It was the Chartists who helped define the shape of our modern democracy, arguing the case for a political system where voting is the responsibility and right of all, not just of those with money and wealth. And, much to the concern of the British state who periodically set about arresting and imprisoning the Chartist leaders, It was also the first time that a working class in Britain made its presence firmly felt on the national political landscape.
When Ernest Jones joined the crowds at Blackstone Edge, the Chartist movement had already been in full flow for eight or more years. Chartism took its name from the People’s Charter which carried the demands of the movement and which was first published in May 1838. There were six demands: universal male suffrage (or in other words, votes for all men 21 and over), a secret ballot, no property requirements to become an MP, payment of MPs, equal constituencies and annual parliaments. 1838 was a year of activity and mass mobilisation throughout Britain. Newcastle, for example, had a mass demonstration in June, Birmingham in August and Manchester in September. Each city and town made their choice of delegates to attend the Chartist National Convention, which met for the first time the following February. In June 1839, the first Chartist petition (three miles long, by the time it arrived in London) was presented to Parliament, and of course firmly rejected (the voting was 235 against to 46 in favour).
Thereafter followed several years of ups and downs. 1839 saw an abortive rising in Newport, Monmouthshire, and early 1840 would see other attempts at armed uprising, in places such as Sheffield, Bradford and Dewsbury. In general, this was a time generally when the state regained the upper hand, and several Chartists found themselves in prison for various alleged public order offences. The next high water mark for the movement was the year of 1842, when a second petition was taken to Parliament and when, later in the Autumn, the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire were convulsed by a wave of industrial protests known to historians as the Plug Riots. (This had nothing to do with bathroom plumbing. An effective way, the protesters found, to stop the mills from working was to remove the plugs from the boilers of the engines which drove the machinery). Thereafter once again the tide receded. Chartists began to turn their attention from demanding parliamentary reform to creating their own land colonies, a back-to-the-land strategy more than a century before the alternative movement of the 1970s and 1980s tried the same thing.
But Chartism was to have one final year of mass political activity, in 1848, a year which was also marked in mainland Europe by a wave of revolutions. By 1846, therefore, there was perhaps a sense that the movement was once again on the move. This certainly is how the Northern Star reported the Blackstone Edge rally: “Sunday last may be considered as the resurrection day of Chartism,” the report began. Ernest Jones himself was clearly moved by the spirit of the event. His verse (and it must be time by now to get back to that) continued:
And grew the glorious music higher
When pouring, with his heart on fire
Old Yorkshire came with Lancashire
And all its noblest chivalry:
The men who give – not those who take!
The hands that bless – yet hearts that break –
Those toilers for their foeman’s sake
Our England’s true nobility.
So brave a host hath never met
For truth shall be their bayonet
Whose bloodless thrusts shall scatter yet
The force of false finality.
This last comment was something of a barb at the man who had become Prime Minister earlier that 1846 summer, Lord John Russell. Russell had a few years earlier pronounced himself completely satisfied with the way the British electoral system functioned, declaring (and I may be paraphrasing his exact words a little) “Nobody else gets the vote, and that’s final”. Thereafter to his political enemies Russell came to be known as Finality Jack.
Jones and his fellow Chartists not surprisingly had a different idea from the Prime Minister. Jones continues The Blackstone Edge Gathering in optimistic mood:
Though hunger stamped each forehead spare
And eyes were dim with factory glare
Loud swelled the nation’s battle prayer
Of – death to class monopoly!
Then every eye grew keen and bright
And every pulse was dancing light
For every heart had felt its might
The might of labour’s chivalry.
Jones concludes his poem by returning to Blackstone Edge itself, the ‘high hill’ from which the message of Chartism is to be carried out to the world:
And up to Heaven the descant ran
With no cold roof twixt God and man
To dash back from its frowning span
A church prayer’s listless blasphemy.
How distant cities quaked to hear
When rolled from that high hill the cheer
Of hope to slaves! to tyrants fear!
And God and man for liberty!
The Blackstone Edge Gathering was written by Jones immediately after the rally, and published about three weeks later in the Northern Star. The event was important for Jones, for as well as being its chronicler Jones was also one of the main speakers, the first time he had taken the platform publicly in support of the Chartist cause. He had an unusual background: his father was an Army major, his mother came from a large landowning family in Kent, and his godfather was the Duke of Cumberland, uncle to Queen Victoria. Jones was born and brought up in Germany and this upbringing gave him a natural ability with other languages. His family returned to England in 1838 when he was nineteen, and thereafter he qualified and practised as a barrister. The initial years of Chartist agitation passed him by. But something happened to change the course of his life, and by the start of 1846 he had thrown in his lot with the Chartist cause. He went on to become one of the national leaders, suffering two years of harsh treatment in prison at the end of the 1840s on what were effectively trumped-up charges. He met Karl Marx a number of times (Marx told Engels that he found Jones a little egotistical) and probably read Marx’s writings in its original German. He tried to keep the Chartist flame alive in the 1850s and for a time produced his own newspaper The People’s Paper. He also continued to write poems and songs.
Chartist orators must have had powerful lungs, particularly at large open-air events like that at Blackstone Edge. His skills as a barrister would have helped, too, to hold the large crowd. The text of the speech he made at the Blackstone Edge rally has survived and it shows him in powerful form. Here’s a short extract, just to give a flavour of his language:
“What? Are pounds sterling or living souls to be represented in our House of Parliament? What? Are the interests of a man possessing a million pounds to be cared for a million times more? This – this is what their argument involves. This, then is their philanthropy! Out upon them! They have but legislated for their money bags – we will legislate for our fellow-men. The interests they tried to promote was the interest of their vested capital – the interests we will further shall be those of humanity all over the world.”
At the time you might have accused Jones of being impossibly visionary in campaigning for votes for all and a democratic House of Commons. On the other hand, we know now that it was Jones and the Chartists who had the ear of the future, rather than Finality Jack.
This article is an excerpt from The Backbone of England: Landscape and Life on the Pennine Watershed by Andrew Bibby