Though growing up in a Chartist household was no guarantee of future radicalism in politics, it must have left its mark on many children. This page includes the best known account of a Chartist childhood, by the radical journalist W E Adams.
As an aside, my own great, great grandfather, Benjamin Grassby (1836-96) spent his childhood in a strongly active radical milieu. His father was James Grasby, an active Chartist throughout the 1840s and ultimately general secretary of the National Charter Association in 1851.
Although Benjamin grew up to be a staunch member of Dorchester Conservative Club, he named his first two sons Ernest (possibly, though it is now impossible to say, after Ernest Jones) and Garibaldi (rather more clearly after the hero of the popular radical cause of Italian unification).
A better documented Chartist childhood is that of W E Adams, born in Cheltenham in 1832, who grew up to be an advocate of radical causes (though hostile to late 19th century socialism) throughout his long life, and who served 36 years as editor of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.
Soon after his retirement in 1900, Adams wrote a series of recollections for his old paper, and these were republished in 1903 as two volumes under the title Memoirs of a Social Atom. In these volumes, Adams recalls meeting the great Chartist leaders while still only nine or ten years old, and of himself becoming active in Cheltenham’s Chartist organisation at the age of 16.
Set out below is the chapter of these memoirs (taken from the 1968 reprint published by Augustus M Kelley in New York in 1968, with an introduction by John Saville) in which Adams recounts his childhood introduction to Chartism and youthful activism.
Young Chartists and Old, by W E Adams
Few men now living, I fancy, had an earlier introduction to Chartism than I had. My people, though there wasn’t a man among them, were all Chartists, or at least all interested in the Chartist movement. If they did not keep the “sacred month,” it was because they thought the suspension of labour on the part of a few poor washerwomen would have no effect on the policy of the country. But they did for a time abstain from the use of excisable commodities. There were other indications of their tendencies. We had a dog called Rodney. My grandmother disliked the name because she had a curious sort of notion that Admiral Rodney, having been elevated to the peerage, had been hostile to the people. The old lady, too, was careful to explain to me that Cobbett and Cobden were two different persons – that Cobbett was the hero, and that Cobden was just a middle-class advocate. One of the pictures that I longest remember – it stood alongside samplers and stencilled drawings and not far from a china statuette of George Washington – was a portrait of John Frost. A line at the top of the picture indicated that it belonged to a series called the Portrait Gallery of People’s Friends. Above the head was a laurel wreath, while below was a representation of Mr Frost appealing to Justice on behalf of a group of ragged and wretched outcasts. I have been familiar with the picture since childhood, and cherish it as a memento of stirring times.
Another early recollection is that of a Sunday morning gathering in a humble kitchen. The most constant of our visitors was a crippled shoemaker, whose legs were of little use except to enable him to hop or hobble about on a pair of crutches. Larry – we called him Larry because his Christian name was Laurence, and we knew no other – made his appearance every Sunday morning, as regular as clockwork, with a copy of the Northern Star, damp from the press, for the purpose of hearing some member of our household read out to him and others “Feargus’s letter.” The paper had first to be dried before the fire, and then carefully and evenly cut, so as not to damage a single line of the almost sacred production. This done, Larry, placidly smoking his cutty pipe, which he occasionally thrust into the grate for a light, settled himself to listen with all the rapture of a devotee in a tabernacle to the message of the great Feargus, watching and now and then turning the little joint as it hung and twirled before the kitchen fire, and interjecting occasional chuckles of approval as some particularly emphatic sentiment was read aloud. But Larry had other gods besides Feargus. One was William Cobbett. Among his cherished possessions were two little volumes of Coibbett’s works – the “Legacy to Parsons” and the “Legacy to Labourers.” These volumes, I recollect (for Larry, though I was but a lad, loaned them to be as a special and particular favour), were preserved in wash-leather cases, each made to fit so exactly and close so tightly that no spot or stain of any sort should reach the precious pages within. Poor old Larry had a brave and wholesome heart in a most misshapen frame. Dead for fifty years, he lives yet in at least one loving memory.
The humble shoemaker, though he longed for the emancipation of his class, and made what sacrifice he could to achieve it, turned his modest circumstances to the best account. No pot-house politician he. Larry and his wife were as cheerful a couple as could be found in the town. Riches are not necessary to produce the blessings and comforts of home. A bright fireside is not incompatible with poverty, or at least with the very humblest of means. This was demonstrated in Larry’s cottage. It consisted of just two rooms – a kitchen and a loft – though it had what are almost unknown advantages in large towns: a plot of ground for flowers in front and a bigger plot for fruits and vegetables at the back. But it is Larry’s kitchen – at once his parlour and his workshop – that lives in my recollection. To say that it was as “clean as a new pin” is to give but a faint idea of the spotless brightness of everything in it. The very floor, brick though it was, was better scrubbed than many a dining table I have seen since. The pots and pannikins, the cans and canisters, those simple tin or pewter ornaments of the mantelshelf, shone like silver. All else about the apartment, where there was a place for everything and everything was in its place, was equally conspicuous for the polish that was given to it. Larry’s cottage, as the result of the industry of Larry’s wife, was a veritable palace for cleanliness and comfort. Even the old cripple’s low shoes were a wonder; for they shone so brilliantly that a cat, seeing her reflection in them, as in the pictorial advertisements of Day and Martin’s blacking of that time, would have almost arched her back for a conflict with her counterpart. And the venerable couple, in spite of their penury, were probably as happy a couple as any in the kingdom. If all Chartist homes had been as well kept as Larry’s, there might have been less discontent in the country, but there would have been more force and vitality in the movement to which the masses of the people gave their sanction. As a striking example of devotion to political ideals among the poor, the lame old shoemaker retains a treasured place in the recollection of the days that are gone.
While I was still a boy, though even then interested in political affairs, our town was visited by two of the Chartist chiefs. One was Feargus O’Connor, the other Henry Vincent. Some excitement was caused by the intimation that the former gentleman was expected to arrive by a certain route at a certain time. I joined a party of elder people to go out and meet him. We went to a neighbouring village, sat on a bridge, and waited. Our visitor did not come – at least, not our route. That night or the next night, I have a faint recollection of seeing an orator in his shirtsleeves addressing a crowd in the markets. It was Feargus. He was expected again in the first month of 1848, when a procession of carts and wagons passed through the town on the way to Snig’s End, one of the estates which had been purchased under the Land Scheme. This time, however, he did not come at all. Vincent’s visit occurred about
1841. It was after the “young Demosthenes,” as he was called, had suffered two periods of imprisonment – first in Monmouth Gaol, and afterwards at Millbank and Oakham. The meetings he addressed were held in a stable or coach-house – at any rate the room or building was in a livery stable yard. I recollect the locality well, though not a word that was said there. What I do recollect also is the suspicions that were expressed in our household as to the cause of the change of tone observable in Vincent’s utterances before and after imprisonment. The fiery and reckless orator of
1839 had become sober and restrained. The simple people of that day could only account for the change on the ground that the Government had somehow found means to influence or corrupt him. When Vincent next appeared in the town, it was as the spokesman of the Peace Society, not of the Chartist Association.
Chartism had interested me as any other stirring movement with which my friends and relatives were connected would have done. But the time soon arrived when I became interested in it on my own account. The local leader of the party was a blacksmith – J.P. Glenister. Others with whom I became associated – all much older than myself – were shoemakers, tailors, gardeners, stonemasons, cabinetmakers, the members of the first-named craft greatly predominating. There had been an earlier leader of the name of Millsom, a plasterer; but he, I think, was then dead. Next to Glenister’s the names I best remember among my old associates – all forgotten now save by a very few – were those of Hemmin, Sharland, Glover, Hiscox, Knight, Ryder, and Winters. They were earnest and reputable people – much above the average in intelligence. Glenister was probably the least educated among them. But he had one qualification which the others had not – he could make a speech. Not much of a speech, perhaps, though the speaker generally contrived to make his audience understand what he wanted to say. The old blacksmith usually, in virtue of his standing among us, presided over our meetings. One night, while he was so presiding, somebody spoke of Tom Paine. Up jumped the chairman. “I will not sit in the chair,” he cried in great wrath,” and hear that great man reviled. Bear in mind he was not a prize-fighter. There is no such person as Tom Paine. Mister Thomas Paine, if you please.” Glenister soon afterwards emigrated with his family to Australia, and one heard of him occasionally as doing well in his new home – which, being an honest and industrious man, he was every way likely to do.
It came to pass that the insignificant atom who writes this narrative, having all the effrontery of youth, took a somewhat prominent part in the Chartist affairs of the town. The first important business in which he was concerned was the National Petition for the Charter which was set afloat immediately after the French Revolution of 1848. It was alleged to have received 5,700,000 signatures; but the number was subsequently reduced to 2,000,000, which included many fictitious names – the work of knaves and enemies in order to bring discredit on the document. The animated scenes at our meetings where the petition lay for signature are still fresh in the memory. Then came active operations for getting the Chartist leaders to the town.
Thomas Cooper was a rather frequent visitor. Two impressions remain – one, that he recited Satan’s speech from Milton with magnificent effect; the other, that he had a most irritable temper. I had been concerned with another youth in organising a lecture at the Montpellier Rotunda. We had occasion to whisper to each other about some matter of business while the lecture was being delivered. Cooper caught sight of us, stopped, and then covered us with confusion as he solemnly assured the company that he would only resume his discourse “when these two young men have finished their conversation.” The matter of business, whether it suffered from the delay or not, had to stand over till the close of the meeting.
Cooper’s visit happened in March 1851. Three months later came Ernest Jones. Our gathering, in default of a better place, was held in a market garden. It was not a large gathering – only 150 or 200 present, the result, probably of showery weather. Jones had been in prison the year before for uttering seditious language. The treatment he had suffered was abominable. Petitions for inquiry were promoted; a select committee of the House of Commons was appointed to investigate; a blue book containing the evidence was printed; and there, I think, the matter ended. As chairman of one of the meetings, I had some correspondence with Mr Grenville Berkeley, then member for Cheltenham. The hon. Gentleman was courteous in his replies, sent me a copy of the blue book, but could not, or at any rate did not, do anything else.
Our next Chartist visitor, I recollect, was Mr R G Gammage, the author of a sketch of the history of Chartism, who subsequently studied medicine under great difficulties, and settled down as a practitioner in Sunderland. Gammage’s visit coincided with the occurrence of the General Election of 1852. We therefore got him nominated so that he might have an opportunity of making a speech from the hustings. This was all we wanted, for of course it would have been utterly useless to go to the poll in the then state of the franchise. Suffice to say that Gammage made what we all thought a capital speech for the Charter.
There will be other occasions for describing the old electoral methods. But I may perhaps be excused for referring in this place to an affair preliminary to the contest of 1852 in which I bore a small part. The Chartists, even though they had few votes, were at that time numerous enough to make their favour worth cultivating. The agents of the Whig party therefore organised an open-air meeting of the working classes in the Montpellier Gardens. It was attended by about 2,000 persons. The resolutions were ingeniously framed to propitiate the Chartists and at the same time assist the candidature of the Whig nominee. Having, I suppose, made myself conspicuous at some of our meetings, I was invited to take part with Glenister in this gathering of working men. One of my aunts happened to be passing the Gardens, heard the cheers and saw the crowd, and so went to see what was the matter. Great was her astonishment to observe her precocious nephew on the platform proclaiming at the top of his voice the inalienable right of every man to the suffrage! The agents of Mr Craven Berkeleyu, then the Whig candidate for the town, turned the meeting to good account, advertising in all the local papers the resolutions that had been adopted, with the names of the working men and others who had proposed and seconded them. I was told I had done well on the occasion. If so, it was the only time I ever did well in like circumstances. But I had an uneasy consciousness that we had been “used” by the party wirepullers; as, indeed, we no doubt had been. Used or not, however, we had the satisfaction a few weeks later of hearing our own candidate propound the true doctrine from the hustings.