Cornwall was not promising ground for Chartism. Even so, it had its supporters among the miners.
Though Cornwall was the home county of William Lovett, author of the People’s Charter and an influential figure in the movement’s early years, it was not particularly fertile territory for the cause.
Even in 1839, following the presentation of the first Charter petition to Parliament, Duncan and Lowery, acting as missionaries in the South-West, reported:
“We find that to do good we will have to go over each place twice, for the People have never heard of the agitation and know nothing of political principals; it is all uphill work. Were we not going to it neck or nothing, we should never get a meeting; the tradespeople are afraid to move and the working men want drilling before entering the ranks,”
(reported in The Chartist Movement, by Mark Hovell, Manchester University Press 1918).
But even in this fallow ground, the missionaries found some support – enough, at least, to alarm the local authorities. Shortly before the missionaries held their meeting in Penzance, a magistrate, H.S Graham, wrote from the Rectory at Ludgvan to ask the central government for advice and to warn that the district was “swarming with miners, who are at the present moment happy and Contented, but easily excited”. This letter was followed a few days later by another from an outraged Mayor of Penzance:
To Lord John Russell, Home Secretary
I write to your Lordship from a part of Her Majesty’s dominions in which there is no clashing of interests between the agriculturist and the manufacturer – in which the labouring classes are in constant employment – where absolute poverty is not known – where loyalty is proverbial and contentment almost universal. – But all this desirable order of things is threatened to be overturn’d and society disjointed by a party of itinerant politicians – who style themselves ‘Chartists’ – who profess to be ‘missionary Delegates from the National Convention’ – at which the most seditious and inflammatory language was fearlessly made use of – Her Majesty was insulted – the ministers were grossly abused, all the established institutions ridiculed, and the working classes were called on to arm themselves and to obtain by force some redress from some alleged grievances = and to sign a ‘national Petition’ to be presented to Parliament insisting on many unconstitutional arrangements.
The sensation which this meeting has occasioned in this tranquil part of the world is quite extraordinary – the upper classes of Society are in a state of alarm and men have called on me urging me to do my utmost to suppress any such meetings in future – but I do not know how to act and appeal to your Lordship for instructions that may enable me to effect such a desirable object = I think it right to state that the meeting was held in a room hired for the occasion – I am quite ready to follow any suggestions which your Lordship may recommend.
I have the honour to be
Your Lordship’s humble servant
Mayor of Penzance
Source: The Early Chartists, edited by Dorothy Thompson, Macmillan 1971.
The threat of revolution was, of course, somewhat overstated. None the less, Chartism persisted in the county, and Cornwall was one of just 13 localities represented at the Chartist annual convention of April 1845, when Mr J. Skews handed in his credentials. He told his fellow delegates that “Messrs. Clark, Doyle and M’Grath had done a great deal for Chartism in that district; and if Mr O’Connor would pay them a visit, their triumph would be complete. In Penzance they had effected great good in municipal and parochial matters in electing their own local officers. Camborne had likewise been agitated, as had also Truro. In consequence of persecution, Truro was not in so good a position as might be wished. In St. Ives, four lectures had been delivered, and such had been the good effects that he believed if the agitation was continued, a Chartist member woukld soon be returned for that borough., In fact, if the county were properly agitated it would be the best Chartists district in the kingdom”. Mr Skews then read several letters from the towns in that district, confirmatory of his statement (Northern Star, 26 April 1845).
Just a few weeks earlier, on 12 April 1845, the paper had carried a letter from the sub-treasurer of the Chartist cause in Penzance, setting out the movement’s achievements in the locality.
Dear Sir, – It will, no doubt, be within the recollection of many of your readers that we commenced our local warfare under the able directions of Mr C. Doyle, last November. At that time we secured the election of a truly honest Democrat, Mr J.B. Read, in the council, whose exertions through life have been unceasing in the cause of suffering humanity. We were not mistaken in our choice; his conduct has created such an amount of confidence, that the people are determined to have the management of their own affairs. On the 1st inst., we elected four assessors and two auditors of our own choice; in this instance, the ruling few let us do as we pleased. On the 25th every Jack in office was at his post; yes, and some of the workies ( sic – editor), to their shame be it spoken, were there to assist in the dirty work of crushing public opinion. Wagers were willingly offered, ten to one, that we should be beaten; every means that could be used were, to divide the people, but all vanished as air before the united intelligence of the mass; which is convincing proof that if the people are determined to be free, they will be so. Triumph we did; and I am satisfied that a more glorious and unsullied triumph has never been achieved in any borough in the kingdom. Though the league against us was apparently all-powerful, they gained not an inch – we carried all our own way, thanks to the goodly band of sturdy Democrats, who, “come weal, come woe,” are resolved to crush tyranny, and dissipate corruption, wherever it exists. We have elected thirteen men for the Board of Highways, amongst whom are Mr John N.R. Millet, Solicitor, whose unflinching opposition to local tyranny is well known, and whose conduct during this contents entitles him to the thanks of every one of Labour’s sons in this borough; Mr J.B. Read, the people’s own, whose truly able and efficient appeals animated us, and struck terror and dismay into the ranks of our opponents; Mr Charles Reynolds, sen., Cordwainer, the father of Chartism in this locality, whose hatred of tyranny, love of justice, and consistent walk through life will not be questioned even by his veriest enemies; Mr Solomon Ezekiel, a Jew, an honest Democrat, and a very intelligent one too; Mr William Pengell, Grocer, who has for years been found uniting with thepeople of this town, when any act of oppression was about to be perpetrated, and at one time made a very great sacrifice in defending their interests. The remaining eight are men well tried, namely, Messrs. Martin, Bramble, and William Trenwith, Cordwainers; John Paul, Curriers; Joseph Wallace, sen., and Thomas Edmonds, Carpenters; William Dounithorne, Butcher; Richard Kempe, Farmer; and Edward Harvey, Architect; the last named is a member of the Town Council, and I should be wanting in my duty if I did not say that he richly merits the thanks of every working man for his noble and patriotic conduct. Our local struggles have rallied round our darling flag (Charter) men, who otherwise would not have examined our beloved principles; and this has caused hundreds to look on us, as a political body, in a far different light to what they formerly did.
With regard to the overseers of the poor, the 25th of March is passed, but no notice of vestry meeting has yet appeared; what the magistrates’ intentions are I know not, but if we get fair play we are ready for action. It is painful to record that the aristocrats, through a dastardly employer, have victimised one of our most worthy members, W.J. Guscott, Statuary, formerly our sub-secretary, by discharging him; but he, noble fellow, though a fond and lovely wife with four lovely children are solely dependent on him, braves all, rather than give up one iota of his principles as a Chartist. Our lads are determined to do all they canto lighten his sufferings; he goes on tramp next Thursday. Were I to close this report without returning thanks to the brave fellows who aided in bearding the tyrants in their dens on Tuesday, I should charge myself with ingratitude indeed; and to none more than the truly independent Cordwainers of this town, who can with propriety be termed the “bravest of the brave” amongst Labour’s sons. Their example is worthy of imitation by every town in the kingdom. They are not only foremost in the fight for local rights, but they lead other trades in union for promoting their trade affairs.
If Mr [Feargus] O’Connor will but redeem his long promised pledge, he shall have such “a rally round him” as will not be inferior in spirit, though it may in number, to the best he has ever had in the kingdom.
Yours truly in the cause of Chartism.
P.J O’Brien, Sub-Treasurer.
Penzance, 27th March, 1845.
Richard Spurr: Cornish Chartist in Australia
Noel Spurr writes…
My great great grandfather Richard Spurr, a cabinetmaker from Truro was a Chartist leader first in Cornwall and later in London. He attended the Manchester conference of 1840 and later emigrated to Australia. More about his life can be found in Crime, Protest, and Popular Politics in Southern England, 1740-1850 by John Rule.
From the family bible and certificates, we know Richard Spurr to have been in the following places in England at these times:
Jersey 1821-1822, 1848
Truro 1824-28, 1830-39
Golden Lane 1845
Departed Plymouth 26 December 1849
Spurr had obtained baptism and marriage certificates in 1848, so we know the ages on the shipping records given are all two years out. They show that he emigrated with his family to Australia aboard the ship “Trafalgar”, arriving at Adelaide on 31 March 1850. Their ages are given as Richard 47, Anne (nee Babot) 43, Cornelious 11,William 4, Charles 2, Emma 14.
After landing in South Australia, as most Cornish immigrants did, Richard Spurr then went to Melbourne, Victoria , where the gold boom was just beginning. A similar revolution to the Chartist movement was formed here among miners in particular, which resulted in the 1854 Eureka Stockade in the gold mining town of Ballarat. I cannot prove he was involved at this stage, but do know he and his brother were in and around Ballarat for some of this time.
Richard Spurr died in 1855, and is buried in the historic Melbourne General Cemetery grave # CE 2 1201,
His headstone reads
IN LOVING MEMORY OF RICHARD SPURR
DIED 25 JANUARY 1855
AGED 54 YEARS