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Chartist Ancestors
What did your family do in the revolution?

Millions signed the three great Chartist petitions of 1839 to 1848. Thousands were active in those years in the campaign to win the vote, secret ballots, and other democratic rights that we now take for granted.

Chartist Ancestors lists many of those who risked their freedom, and sometimes their lives, because of their participation in the Chartist cause. The names included on the site are drawn from newspapers, court records and books of the time, from later histories and other sources.

I would like to thank the many historians, researchers and the descendents of those associated with Chartism who have helped with this site since it was launched in 2003.

Mark Crail, Editor


History research toolkit
Local and family history groups: full UK list

Local records offices in England and Wales

Local records offices in Scotland

How to...
Make the most of your visit to an archive or records office

Research your trade union ancestors

Find Chartist records in the National Archives


Timelines and statistics
Chartist timeline - 1836-60

Trade unions timeline - 1798-2007

Trade union membership - 1901-2000

Strikes and industrial action - 1901-2000

© Mark Crail

Chartist newspapers
How to read the Northern Star

The Northern Star was by some distance the most important of all the Chartist newspapers, and for family historians it is the single most significant primary research resource now available online.

To get the most out of it, however, requires some preparation, and it is useful to have some idea of how the paper developed over time. This page provides a short introduction to 15 years of the Northern Star.

Please note this page is not yet complete...

On this page
A brief history of the Northern Star
How was the Northern Star read at the time?
A typical issue: 9 February 1839
A typical issue: 5 February 1848
How do I find the Northern Star online

The Northern Star in numbers Statistics on the issues and people reported in the Chartist press

A brief history of the Northern Star
Launched on 17 November 1837 by the radical preacher and publisher William Hill, the Northern Star was initially based in Barnsley. But unable to finance it, Hill sold the paper to Feargus O'Connor, who invested his own money and took up a popular subscription to help fund it.

The paper then moved to Leeds, where O'Connor renamed it the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser. Hill remained as editor. Sales grew rapidly from 10,000 in 1838 to a steady 18,000 in 1840, and for many years the paper appears to have been a commercial success, enabling O'Connor to help fund the wider Chartist movement. At its very peak during 1839, the Star could sell 50,000 copies of a single issue, outselling even The Times.

The Northern Star operated as a commercial newspaper, reporting crime and court stories alongside a steady diet of Chartist news, and carried adverts. Unlike many other Chartist newspapers, it did not confine itself to comment and opinion but sought to give an account of both national and local meetings and events, happily recounting clashes between local Chartist activists and their rivals in the Anti-Corn Law League and later attempts to pack out Church services, to the consternation of the local squirearchy.

In adopting this approach the paper developed a significant network of local correspondents and agents, who reported events, sold copies of the Star and acted as a focal point for Chartism in their locality. In the absence of a centralised party structure, the Northern Star therefore served a crucial organising role for Chartism.

William Hill left as editor in 1843 to be replaced by Joshua Hobson, who had been publisher and printer since the move to Leeds, and the following year O'Connor relocated the paper to London as the Northern Star and National Trades Journal. Hobson was rapidly replaced by George Julian Harney, an old ally of O'Connor, who remained in post until 1849, when the two fell out over Harney's increasingly socialist outlook and interest in European politics.

Harney was replaced as editor by GA Fleming, who had been involved in the paper's production for some time. In March 1852 he bought the paper from O'Connor for £100 and renamed it The Star, severing its ties with Chartism. This policy did not last, as Harney himself acquired the title a month later, renaming it The Star of Freedom, under which name it finally closed later that year.

Further reading
Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press

edited by Joan Allen and Owen R Ashton

How was the Northern Star read at the time?
The Northern Star was a relatively expensive paper, costing four and a half pence (4½d) at its launch and rising to five pence (5d) in 1844.

Although this put it outside the reach of many Chartists, it did not exclude them from its message. Like many publications of the time, the Northern Star was often bought by groups of Chartists and read aloud, prompting much political discussion and debate.

The Star itself claimed that seven people on average read each copy of the paper – pushing its real readership well into six figures. Indeed, the paper was written and laid out to aid reading aloud. Speaking at the 2008 Chartism Day conference in Newport, Janette Martin explained how italics, capital letters and other typographical devices were used to guide readers.

At the same conference, Dr Fabrice Bensimon showed a fascinating illustration from L'Illustration (a French paper somewhat similar to the Illustrated London News) showing a British factory worker reading what appears to be the Northern Star to fellow workers in the workshop.

The French paper commented:

“Not a single syllable is uttered during twelve working hours of the day; only in the centre of the room, a reader, concealed behind the broadsheet format of The Times, with a powerful voice which seems to borrow its notes from the voice of a locomotive, declaims to his fellow workers, all of them fervid Chartists, the content of the gigantic newspaper from the date to the name of the publisher.”

Like most newspapers of the time, the Star was printed as a large broadsheet paper. It had six tightly packed columns of type to a page, and very few pictures. In Papers for the People (edited by Joan Allen and Owen Ashton, Merlin Press, 2005) the historian Malcolm Chase notes that there were “barely a dozen illustrations of any note in nearly 800 issues of the paper”.

However, alongside the paper, a total of 34 prints were produced and given away – almost all of them portraits of Chartists and other contemporary political figures with links to Chartism.

In addition to news of Chartist meetings up and down the country, a typical issue would include stories and snippets of general news (mostly culled from other publications), a lengthy address by Feargus O'Connor himself, an extensive letters section and a replies column in which the editor would issue sometimes cryptic responses to queries and comments made by readers, lists of recent donors and subscribers to the paper and to various Chartist causes including the Land Company and the Victims' Fund, and advertisements.

For the first 18 months of its existence, the Star carried up to a page and half of advertising on its first two pages, before giving over increasing space on the front page to news and comment as O'Connor sought to boost circulation and make up for lost advertising revenues in that way.

For most Chartists, the Northern Star brought news about Chartism's forward march on the national and local stage, calls for action in advancing the Charter and defending those victimised for their involvement in it, new ideas and the rudiments of a political education - and a focal point for political discussion.

Further reading
Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press

edited by Joan Allen and Owen R Ashton

A typical issue: 5 February 1848

 



A typical issue: 5 February 1848

 

 

How do I find the Northern Star online?
A freely accessible and fully searchable run of the Northern Star can be found online courtesy of the Nineteenth Century Serials Edition project.

I have made some notes on searching the Northern Star which may be helpful, however the search facility is still in development and may overtake the points made here.

 

Find out more about Chartism on this website, or browse the Chartist Ancestors Bookshop.


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