Southern Star – Chartist newspaper for the South

The Southern Star was a Chartist newspaper launched by James Bronterre O’Brien in January 1840. It did not survive the imprisonment of its editor and owner a few months later.

James Bronterre O'Brien

James Bronterre O’Brien, after Unknown artist, stipple engraving, mid 19th century. © National Portrait Gallery.

Launched in January 1840 by the Irish journalist James Bronterre O’Brien, the title of the Southern Star consciously echoed and provided a challenge to Feargus O’Connor and his Northern Star.

The paper would, however, last little more than six months.
From its first edition the Southern Star was subtitled “and London and Brighton Patriot”, stressing its geographical roots. However, Bronterre O’Brien had wider ambitions, and boasted that his initial subscribers came from almost every county of England and many parts of Scotland.

Bronterre O’Brien (pictured above) had worked for the Northern Star during 1839, while also publishing his own earlier paper, The Operative. Although he would later fall out with O’Connor over O’Connor’s preference for working with the Tories and over the use of physical force, at this stage they were still on good terms.

However, it was never likely that he would displace O’Connor at the centre of Chartism. Lacking the strong base among Northern workers, the physical presence and the political reach of O’Connor, O’Brien’s newspaper was probably always doomed to be an also ran.

Bronterre O’Brien occupied an uneasy political middle ground between the likes of O’Connor and the Northern Star on the one hand and William Lovett and his supporters around The Charter on the other.

At the time of the first Chartist convention, he had advocated the election of a “show of hands parliament” based on popular votes – an interesting idea which never gained traction, but which would have challenged O’Connor’s strategy of allying with the Tories to apply pressure on Whig ministers. As time went on he also gradually moved away from supporting violent confrontation.

In a significant break with the Jacobinism found in much of early London Chartism. O’Brien opposed “all secret societies or secret projects of any kind, however innocent may be the intentions of those concerned in them”, as he put it in the second edition of the Southern Star (26 January 1840).

In April 1840, however, Bronterre O’Brien was arrested in Manchester and sentenced at Liverpool Assizes to 18 months in prison for making a seditious speech.

The editorship was immediately taken over by Thomas Smith, who declared immediately below the masthead that the paper was to be “conducted for the benefit of Mr Bronterre O’Brien and his distressed family” (3 May 1840).

Southern Star masthead

Southern Star of 10 May 1840 following Bronterre O’Brien’s arrest.

Smith described himself as “a private individual, who has long been attached to its [the Charter’s] principles” (17 May 1840).

This clearly came as a surprise to Bronterre’s wife, Sophia O’Brien, who wrote to O’Connor and the Northern Star stating that “Mr O’Brien has no connection, directly or indirectly, with the Southern Star”.

Smith offered to withdraw from the Southern Star (24 May 1840), but the row rumbled on, with Bronterre O’Brien accusing Smith of forging a letter requesting him to take the paper on. Smith appeared bewildered by O’Brien’s attacks and ceased publication, putting out his final paper on 12 July.

He concluded: “It is with pain that I announce that a vehicle of such importance to the people of the SOUTH, should be closed, but after a very great loss of time and money, and the repeated attacks in the Northern Star, I am left with no alternative. In taking my leave I now close my remarks by stating that if at any time my humble endeavours can be of service to the cause of the unrepresented, I shall be happy to avail myself of the opportunity.”