Portraits of Chartist Political Prisoners in 1841

Chartist meetings were banned by proclamation of the government in 1839. Mass arrests followed with Chartists being imprisoned and transported. In a movement that nurtured personality cults and where Chartist leaders vied for the hero-worship of their followers, rancour and rivalry was inevitable.

William Lovett, a member of the ‘London Workingmen’s Association,’ published his People’s Charter in May 1838. Among its provisions, the Charter made a number of political demands which become known as the ‘six points’: (i) universal manhood suffrage; (ii) payment of Members of Parliament; (iii) equal electoral districts; (iv) abolition of property qualifications; (v) annual parliaments; (vi) the ballot. The people who subscribed to the aims of the People’s Charter became known as the Chartists.

As a movement, Chartism is best described as an umbrella group which comprised people from widely differing protest groups. Although some Chartists advocated non-violent means to achieve their aims, such as petitioning (three national petitions, in 1839, 1842 and 1848, were rejected by Parliament which refused to reform itself) and became known as ‘moral force’ Chartists, other Chartists favoured the use of firearms to achieve their aims and became known as ‘physical force’ Chartists. However, most Chartists were inclined to support whatever method they thought was more likely to succeed at any moment in time. Some believed that the very act of acquiring arms – which was legal at the time – would of itself intimidate the government and force it to submit to Chartist demands. Though many never intended to use arms, there were instances when they were used. In August 1848 James Bright, a police constable, was shot dead in the street by Chartists from Ashton-under-Lyne.(1)

Many of the working-class Chartists who were involved in the movement during the late 1830s and 1840s often lived in abject poverty. According to the Chartist historian Mark Hovel, ‘intolerable conditions of existence’ were the driving force behind Chartism.(2) In addition to the many hardships they had to endure, they also risked the blacklist and imprisonment for their involvement in the movement. Chartist meetings had been banned by proclamation of the government in 1839 and many Chartists had been arrested. In May 1840, more than 200 Chartists were in prison, eighteen had been transported, eleven of them for life. Six months later, the number of prisoners being held had risen to 480.(3)

In October 1840, Chester Castle held fifteen Chartist prisoners, ‘twelve of them for collecting arms’.(4) Many of these were from Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockport. We know something about the prisoners and what their conditions were like. This is because in 1841 the Home Office appointed prison inspectors to investigate the treatment of Chartist prisoners after receiving complaints from the public. The document ‘Confidential reports made by the Inspector of Prisons upon the cases of political offenders in custody on 1st July 1841’, gives us a revealing insight into prison conditions, the backgrounds of the prisoners, their grievances and the attitudes of the authorities towards them.(5)

Although described as ‘political offenders’, while in gaol the prisoners were treated as criminals. A common complaint among the prisoners in Chester Castle concerned the food. Many complained of ‘want of meat’ and their diet largely consisted of bread, gruel and potatoes. They complained of indigestion but could purchase food for themselves if they had the money. Some were receiving money from the ‘victim fund’ (Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor had founded a national defence fund for arrested Chartists in June 1839) or from subscriptions or from relatives. Many complained about being locked up too early – 7.00 pm – and they also complained that they were only allowed to read The Times and no other newspaper. Prisoners were allowed visits from relatives, sometimes unsupervised, and correspondence could be confiscated and inspected.

The Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens, who was a Chartist prisoner, complained about the power of visiting magistrates who could reduce the men’s diet, enforce prison dress and impose solitary confinement. They resented what few privileges the prisoners enjoyed and did their best to restrict them. The prisoners were also allowed to purchase books and could exercise in a yard.

Timothy Higgins, aged 35, from Portland Street, Ashton-under-Lyne, was one of the Chartist prisoners held in Chester Castle. He was a cotton spinner and was married with four children. He had been convicted of conspiracy at the Autumn Assizes at Chester in 1839 and had been imprisoned for 18 calendar months.

According to a report in the Manchester Guardian on 3rd July 1839, the police had searched the home of Timothy Higgins and found two long narrow chests. Inside the chests they found 17 muskets with bayonets, four doubled barrelled guns, a rifle, one large horse pistol, four common-sized pistols, and a quantity of bullets and cases. When he’d been asked why he had the weapons, Higgins replied that he had them from the manufacturer, George Thompson, for the purpose of sale. At the courthouse the following day, Higgins had been given bail and released after his solicitor Richard Corbett submitted to the Magistrates that there had been no grounds stated which would justify the constables entering the prisoner’s house and seizing the arms.

In prison, Higgins was interviewed by Inspector WJ Williams. He said that he’d received about £6 by way of subscription and that his wife had received £2 from the victim fund. He said he’d used the money to buy books and food. The report says that he could read and write well and had been writing poetry while in prison and reading ‘Scott’s novels and common historical works’ and improving his arithmetic. He complained of having no meat and of being locked up at 7.00 pm. He also said that his wife was ‘about to be thrown upon the Parish’.

Although the pretext given for these prison interviews was to make inquiries about the prisoners’ conditions, it is clear from the reports that the inspectors were assessing each prisoner to make judgements about them and their political views in order to report back to the Home Office.

Inspector Williams writes: “Higgins avows himself a republican and is a member of the Workingmen’s Association. Is a man of considerable intelligence, not devoid of feelings. He shed tears when I spoke to him of his family.” Williams quotes Higgins as saying:

“‘I was brought up a cotton spinner – it was my agreeable calling when I first followed it, but they have got into the habit of applying self-acting machinery and man is of no use. I know some of the most intelligent in society who cannot get bread. They take a man now for his muscular appearance not for his talent – machines have become so simple that attending them is commonplace labour.’ This man was appointed an agent of Thompson’s for the sale of arms; a very trifling encouragement would induce him to emigrate to the U.S….”

George Thompson, a Birmingham gunsmith, had been supplying arms to Chartists in Ashton, Manchester and Stockport. He had also been convicted of conspiracy and given 18 months imprisonment in Chester Castle. The report says: “reads and writes well… is of a petulant temper and of ordinary ability.” He was allowed beer and wine by direction of the surgeon – he suffered from chronic rheumatism – and was allowed to exercise outside the yards. In his observations Williams says:

“This individual was called upon by…M’Douall whom he supplied with arms and then established agencies for the sale of them… the agents all being notorious Chartists. I do not believe it was anything more with him than a money making transaction but one of a mischievous character.”

The Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens, who had been appointed to the Ashton-under-Lyne circuit in 1832, was aged 34 when he was convicted at the Assizes in Chester in 1839. He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for the offence of “using seditious language at a public tumultuous assembly.” He was allowed to maintain himself and could use a private room to study and to eat. He told Inspector Williams:

“I have been insulted by one set of Chartists here, who sided with M’Douall, although I have in frequent instances given them money and food.”

In his observations, Williams remarked that Stephens was:

“an object of suspicion to M’Douall and his followers who call him traitor and are indignant at his pocketing the whole of the money raised by subscription for his defence by counsel, when he defended himself and employed none.”

Peter Murray M’Douall was aged 26 at the time of his imprisonment in Chester Castle. A physical force Chartist, he was a surgeon who had a practice in Ramsbottom, near Bury. In July 1839 he had been sentenced at the Assizes in Chester to 12 months imprisonment for sedition and attending an illegal meeting in Hyde in April 1839. Though he had been released from prison in August 1840, there was a great deal of enmity between the Chartist prisoners who were split into two factions – those who followed Stephens and those who followed M’Douall. A number of Chartists had asked that they be kept apart from Stephens who they regarded as an apostate. There had been violence in the prison when one prisoner had sustained a broken jaw.

In a movement that nurtured personality cults and where speakers competed for the hero-worship of their audiences, it was inevitable that there would be fragmentation and rivalries. The rupture between Ashton Chartists had occurred in June 1839, when M’Douall had publicly accused Stephens of committing an indecent assault on the unmarried sister of James Bronterre O’Brien, the Chartist leader.(6) Though this allegation was never proven it did damage Stephens’ reputation.

Stephens’s hatred for M’Douall ‘had no bounds’.(7) While in prison, he had sought to expose M’Douall’s immorality by alleging that he had tried to seduce the turnkey’s daughter: M’Douall later married her. At his trial, Stephens had repudiated Chartism declaring his detestation of the doctrine. Though Stephens never was a Chartist and said so on numerous occasions, many Chartists believed him to be so and he was accused of apostasy. He had also defended himself rather than employ counsel. Many Chartists who had contributed to his defence fund felt betrayed. There were also requests for the money to be given back so it could be used for the defence of other Chartists awaiting trial.

One of the prisoners who asked to be kept separated from Stephens, was Isaac Johnson, a blacksmith from Stockport. He was aged 36 and was married with two children. He told Inspector Williams that three of his children had died while he’d been in prison. He had been sentenced to 1 year’s imprisonment for ‘uttering seditious words’. In his observations, Williams remarks that Johnson was a shrewd man but uneducated:

“Which he explains was owing to his being turned out of school after gaining six prizes in consequence of his Father obliging him to go to school in a white hat with a crape and green riband at Peterloo time, for which he was expelled and never went anywhere afterwards. He is devoted to M’Douall with whom he appears ready to go to all lengths.”

Another prisoner who was much attached to M’Douall was James Duke, aged 36, who was married with six children. A cotton spinner by profession, he was the landlord of the Bush Inn, Stamford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. The pub was a well known meeting place for Chartists and it was here that Stephens was arrested by the Bow Street Runner, Henry Goddard. James Duke had been sentenced to 1 year’s imprisonment for ‘conspiracy to excite the people to arms’. He was also an agent for the arms dealer George Thompson and both he and M’Douall had visited Birmingham to buy muskets and bayonets.(8)

Some of the Chartist prisoners did enjoy greater privileges in gaol due to their social class. Inspector Williams believed that Stephens was unpopular with some of the Chartists prisoners because he had ‘greater privileges’. In the county gaol at York, Inspector Williams interviewed the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, a barrister/journalist who had been given 18 months for libel. He says: “his behaviour was most courteous and gentlemanlike’ and then adds:

“Mr O’Connor is placed in a light room with boarded floor and a fire place near to the infirmary…the Magistrates have supplied an additional officer to wait upon him and attend almost exclusively to his wants. This man sleeps within call and takes Mr. O’Connor’s orders respecting his meals etc and the hours which he selects for exercise in the yard. Mr. O’Connor maintains himself and there is no restriction upon his food or as to the introduction of wine, of which since his imprisonment he has had from four to five dozen. His room is furnished at his own expense…there is no restriction upon his candles, fire, or the hour of going to bed.”

Although O’Connor complained about the presence of a third person when receiving visits and the restrictions on his letters, he told Williams that he was generally satisfied with his treatment. He was eventually released after serving 10 months.

Despite the fact that the Chartist movement degenerated into sects and factions after 1839, it nevertheless overcame this and also survived attempts by the government to suppress it. By 1842, it had become more efficient as an organization and it increased its membership. However, as economic conditions improved, leading to higher wages, working-class support for the movement began to decline. In the mid 1840s some Chartists following their leader O’Connor when he set up the Chartist Land Scheme, where workingmen contributed small sums to purchase allotments of land. The scheme was an economic disaster. After 1848 support for the movement declined rapidly and many Chartists later became Liberals. The six points only began to be adopted after the Chartist movement had ceased to exist and when the political elite were ready to adopt it. With the exception of annual Parliaments, every political demand of the Charter was later to be granted.

The failure of the movement to achieve its immediate aims can be attributed to a number of reasons. Although a working-class movement, trade unions generally remained aloof from Chartism and it tended to appeal to those workers who saw themselves as victims of industrialization rather than its beneficiaries. The Chartists themselves were often at variance with one another and could seldom agree on social policy. The movement also lacked political support in the Commons and failed to form alliances with the middle-classes. It also lacked an effective leadership which in the opinion of the Webbs, ‘brought it to nought’.(9)

Sources:

1. Work, Class & Politics in Ashton-under-Lyne 1830-1860. R.G.Hall PhD Thesis 1991. P. 226
2. Ibid – P137
3. Some Working-Class Movements Of The Nineteenth Century. R.F. Wearmouth. P.211
4. Purge This Realm. A Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens. M.S. Edwards. P.91
5. Confidential reports made by the Inspector of Prisons upon the cases of political offenders in custody on 1st July 1841. Tameside Studies Library.
6. Purge This Realm. P.63/64
7. Ibid – P.93
8. Some Working-Class Movements Of The Nineteenth Century. P107
9. A History of Trade Unionism – Webb.

Article by Derek Pattison

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