George Binns, 1815 – 1847, Sunderland Chartist

George Binns was a Sunderland bookseller and Chartist who emigrated to New Zealand. This is his life story.

Born in Sunderland on 6 December 1815, George Binns was one of 15 children. His father (also George) was a Quaker and successful draper, and the young George worked in the family business before he and James Williams opened a bookshop in 1837.

The following November, the partners founded the Sunderland Chartist Association, and their bookshop became a centre of radical activity in the town.

In July 1839, after the failure of the first Chartist petition, both men were arrested for sedition. Tried at Durham the following August, they were convicted and sent to prison for six months. A huge gathering greeted Binns on his return to Sunderland after his release in January 1841, and he was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association.

After an unsuccessful attempt to re-enter the drapery business, Binns emigrated in August 1842 to New Zealand. He got work supervising a whaling establishment in Nelson, but was sacked after becoming embroiled in a public row over the sale of shortweight bread.

Defending himself against accusations that he was “a Chartist ringleader”, Binns wrote to the Nelson Examiner:

“When I came to New Zealand, it was after I had suffered imprisonment, sacrificed my business, and lost the good-will of relations, in an endeavour to free my country; and I was and now am desirous of atoning, in some measure, for my past hostilities, by a life of “peace and good-will” here. I did not expect the word Chartist would be employed against me as a term of reproach in a distant land like this. We are all united here by a community of interests, and though I am not ashamed of my principles, yet I should never render myself obnoxious by their intrusion upon others. I have nothing to do with Chartism in New Zealand, and my past enthusiasm might have been forgotten where there is no grievance to redress and no enemy to our weal.”

Although he had hoped to return to England, Binns was left in serious financial difficulties by the collapse of the whaling business in 1844. Although he subsequently found work as a baker, he died of consumption on 5 April 1847, aged just 31.

An obituary in the Northern Star of 5 February 1848 remembered him as “a handsome high-spirited, talented, true-hearted man – every inch a Democrat”.

Based on an entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography by Herbert Roth, updated 16 December 2003.