This page gives a brief introduction to the working of the Chartist land plan and links to lists of thousands of Lancashire workers who subscribed to the Chartist land company in the 1840s.
The Chartist Cooperative Land Society was launched by the National Charter Association in 1845 with the aim of resettling industrial workers from the cities on smallholdings, making them independent of factory employers and potentially qualifying them for the vote.
Chartists were invited to subscribe regular amounts towards an eventual £2.50 (£2/10s) share in the venture. Soon the money began to flood in, pennies and shillings at a time, and was deposited in an account held by Feargus O’Connor in the London Joint Stock Bank.
The idea – eventually carried into reality in five locations – was to allocate parcels of land by lot.
By early 1848, when Chartism itself was once again on the rise following a lengthy period in the doldrums after the failure of the 1842 petition, more than 70,000 supporters had subscribed.
The Excel spreadsheet on this page lists of thousands of these people.
Already by 1846, the first of the Chartist colonies had opened at Heronsgate, near Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire. There would in due course be a total of five operational colonies. Chartist Ancestors has a list of all those allocated smallholdings under the land plan, and another of local land plan officials.
But the venture had run into organisational difficulties which would eventually cause its collapse. Refused registration as a friendly society, the society was renamed first the Chartist Cooperative Land Company and subsequently the National Land Company as it sought registration as a joint stock company under legislation passed in 1846.
This proved difficult to the point of impossibility. The directors were required to supply a legal document listing shareholders who together held at least one quarter of the company’s capital. For most companies with a handful of large shareholders this would not have presented problems. In the case of the land company, it meant compiling the names and addresses of tens of thousands of people. There was a further requirement that the list should be in alphabetical order.
The directors did their best to comply. The resulting register, compiled in a leather-bound volume, is now held at the National Archives in Kew. It contains the names, addresses and occupations of thousands upon thousands of subscribers – or shareholders – in the land venture.
As time went on, it gradually became clear that the land company was fatally flawed. The directors failed to gain registration within what was then a fairly primitive legal framework for limited companies, and questions began to be raised about the viability and financial probity of the scheme.
For many of those allocated land in two-acre smallholdings, life was desperate, and the struggle was simply to survive – not least because most lacked even rudimentary knowledge of farming, and in some cases the soil was too poor to support the kind of market garden approach which might have been more profitable.
Further problems arose when Joshua Hobson, who had edited the Northern Star until November 1845, first sued Feargus O’Connor for breach of contract over his dismissal and then laid allegations that O’Connor had siphoned off money from the Star for his own use and was now doing the same with the land company.
O’Connor duly denied the accusations. He said that, on the contrary, he had subsidised the Star from his own pocket.
The evidence today suggests that O’Connor was innocent of the charges. However, the relaxed financial regime into which the land company was forced by a lack of proper legal structure meant that the funds of the company and O’Connor’s personal finances were largely indistinguishable.
There would eventually be a lengthy parliamentary inquiry into the land company, and in August 1851 an Act of Parliament was passed to wind up the company.
The lists of land company subscribers that appear on Chartist Ancestors were compiled by Professor Jamie Bronstein of New Mexico State University during the course of her PhD research in the early 1990s. They include the names of all subscribers in 11 Lancashire towns – some thousands in all – transcribed from the shareholder register held at Kew. Chartist Ancestors is grateful to her for permission to reproduce the lists here.
Each entry includes, where recorded in the land company’s records, a full name, address and an occupation.
Is it safe to assume that all those listed were Chartists? Probably not. The National Charter Association certainly never grew as large as the list of land company subscribers, and many can have taken no other active part in the movement.
Many will have been attracted by the chance of a better life on their own smallholding. The appeal of a lottery was as appealing then as it is to many people now and required no political commitment.
But it seems unlikely that individuals who opposed the Chartist project would sign up to the land company, and at worst it seems fair to say that they would at least have been sympathetic to the cause.
Anyone using these lists also needs to keep in mind their practical limitations. There are likely to be many inconsistencies and errors in the lists. Many of the would-be shareholders themselves may not have had a consistent way of spelling their own name and address and will have used informal versions not found on official maps and documents.
Details from whatever written application they sent to the land company’s offices were then copied by hand into a leather-bound ledger by clerks who may have had to guess at handwriting and abbreviations. Some 150 years later, these ledger entries were typed into a spreadsheet for private academic study. And finally, a further decade and a half on, they have been converted from one redundant software package to a more modern program, and some tidying up has been carried out before publication.
If entries here do not entirely tally with those for what may be the same people in the 1851 census or in other sources, then human error at one or some of these stages may be the explanation.
Here, however, is the gateway to the most comprehensive list of Chartist sympathisers in Lancashire that can now provided.