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The Chartists

Dr Mike Sanders with the National Chartist Hymnbook of 1845

Dr Mike Sanders with the National Chartist Hymnbook of 1845

A talk by Dr Mike Sanders, University of Manchester

at the launch of Liberty is Near!

the album of Chartist hymns put to music by Garth Hewitt

Greenbelt 2013


The following talk, given in three parts, was interspersed with performances of the Chartist hymns listed.


1) Hark, I Hear

2) Great God!


Part One

The song, or rather hymn, you have just heard – ‘Great God is this the patriot’s doom?’ – was written by the Leicester Chartist, John Henry Bramwich, for the funeral service of Samuel Holberry – an early Chartist martyr.  At that funeral it was sung to the tune of the ‘Old Hundredth’ by Chartists who carried banners proclaiming “The Lord hateth the hands that shed innocent blood” and “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”  It was reprinted in The National Chartist Hymn Book, wtw.wtw_web_pkg.download_photowhich is (as far as we know) the only surviving Chartist hymnal and which forms the basis for Garth’s latest album Liberty is Near!

But back to Samuel Holberry born in 1814 into a family of agricultural labourers.  The youngest of nine children, he began his working life as an agricultural labourer before enlisting in the army aged 17.  After four years service he left the army and moved to Sheffield where he worked as a cooper and then as a distiller.  In October 1838 he married Mary and also became active in the Chartist movement.  In the early hours of January 12th 1840 he was arrested as the leader of a planned uprising in Sheffield and subsequently sentenced to four years imprisonment in Northallerton prison – notorious as one of the harshest prisons in the country.  While in prison, his young son (also called Samuel) died (a mere 18 weeks old), and he himself contracted tuberculosis.  As a result of his illness, Holberry was moved to York Castle where he died, aged 27, on June 21st, 1842.  His wife,  Mary, had seen him once during his imprisonment.

The constable who arrested Holberry asked him “Surely you would not take a life?”  To which Holberry replied, “But I would in defence of liberty and the charter.  Mind, I am no thief or robber, but I will fight for the charter and will not rest until we have got it…”.  Holberry had taken up arms in the name of Chartism and died an unrepentant Chartist.  This prompts two questions – what was Chartism and why did it inspire such commitment in its followers?

The first question – what was Chartism – is deceptively easy to answer.  Chartism (as Wikipedia tells us) “was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain between 1838 and 1848 which took its name from the People’s Charter of 1838.” The People’s Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:

  1. A vote for every man over the age of 21;
  2. A secret ballot;
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament;
  4. Payment for MPs (so poor men could serve);
  5. Constituencies of equal size;
  6. Annual elections for Parliament.

In the 1830s and 1840s, most politicians, most intellectuals and most clergymen fiercely denounced these demands, arguing that if enacted they would bring about the collapse of civilisation.

Today five of the six points are accepted as fundamental to the operation of a democratic system.  Only the sixth point, annual parliaments, has yet to be conceded.  And it seems to me that the principle underlying this point – that of ensuring the accountability and honesty of elected representatives – is something that our increasingly sclerotic and discredited political system needs.  To take a recent example, would MPs elected on a pledge not to increase University tuition fees have reneged on that promise if they had known that they would have to face re-election within the year?

In order to convince Parliament to accept their demands, Chartism pursued two main strategies – the mass petition and the mass meeting.  Both were intended to demonstrate the popular support enjoyed by the movement and the second measure, the mass meeting, was also intended to have a more coercive edge to it.  The extent of Chartism’s popular support can be judged by the number of signatures on its petitions.  As I give you those numbers, I ask you to bear two things in mind.  Firstly, that in the 1840s the entire electorate for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland amounted to just over 900,000 people.  Secondly, the combined population of the British Isles at this time was in the region of 10-12 million people (so you need to multiply the number of Chartist signatories by 5 or 6, in order to find a present day equivalent).

The first Chartist petition, presented to Parliament on June 14th 1839, was 3 miles long and contained 1,280,000 signatures.  It was rejected by the House of Commons by 235 votes to 46.  The second petition, presented to the House of Commons on May 2nd 1842, contained 3,317,752 signatures (that is almost four times the size of the total electorate at the time).  It was rejected by an even larger majority than the first – 287 votes to 49.  The size of the third and final petition presented on April 10th, 1848 has always been the subject of controversy.  Clerks for the House of Commons claimed that it contained 1,975,467 signatures (some of which were alleged to be forged); the Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor, claimed that the petition contained 5,700,000 signatures.  A recount was impossible as the petition itself had been consigned to the furnace of the Houses of Parliament.

That Chartism enjoyed mass support throughout the British mainland is indisputable.  At its peak in 1842, Chartism enjoyed the support of at least one third of the adult population of the UK , and outnumbered the existing electorate by at least three and a half to one.  In 1848, even on the House of Commons’ figures – the Chartist petition was double the size of the British electorate.  Why Chartism enjoyed this level of support is, on one level at least, more difficult to explain.  For laudable as they are, the six points of the People’s Charter do not seem adequate to the task of explaining why Chartism inspired such commitment and devotion that many Chartists were prepared to face imprisonment, exile and even death rather than betray their beliefs.  In order to answer this question we need to understand the symbolic meaning of the Charter.  But before I address that question – it’s time for some more music.


3) Daily Bread

4) Assembled ‘Neath Thy Broad Blue Sky


Part Two

You may be interested to know that you have just shared an experience with Charles Dickens!  That last song, ‘Assembled ‘neath thy broad blue sky’, is a hymn that Dickens heard being sung at a union meeting in 1854 during the ‘Preston Lock-Out’.  It’s telling that Dickens heard it in that context because there was a close, if sometimes fraught, relationship between Chartism and the trade union movement.  In the first part of my talk I touched briefly on Chartist strategy, I want to say a little more on that subject now.  As we’ve seen Chartism proved very effective at gathering signatures on a petition – but also as we’ve seen, Parliament proved no less effective at ignoring those petitions.  Parliament’s intransigence provided Chartism with a dilemma which it never solved, and which continues to confront movement for political and social reform to this day – what so you do when the powerful refuse to listen?

Following the rejection of the first petition in 1839, the Chartist movement began to discuss “ulterior measures”.  Some favoured a run on the banks, others advocated “exclusive dealing” (i.e. only dealing with those shopkeepers who supported the Charter).  The Chartist Convention first called for, and then called off, a “sacred month” (or General Strike).  Some others within the movement believed that the Government would never listen to reason and began planning an insurrection.  The storm broke in Newport on the night of November 4th  1839, when some 7,000 armed iron-workers and colliers marched into Newport where they fought with a detachment of regular troops positioned in the Westgate Hotel.Unknown  At least 24 people were killed in this battle and a further 50 wounded.  The leaders of the insurrection John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones, were convicted of high treason at a Special Commission held in Monmouth.  The penalty for high treason was hanging, drawing and quartering, but as a result of Chartist pressure and some doubts over the conduct of the trial – this was commuted to transportation for life.  Mass arrests followed Newport (and the lesser outbreaks in Sheffield and Bradford) and  by June 1840 at least 543 Chartists, including almost the entire national leadership, were in prison.  Many thought that Chartism was finished.

Yet by 1842 Chartism was stronger than ever.  The 1842 petition contained well over 3 million signatures, yet it too was rejected by Parliament.  Once again, the Chartist leadership was uncertain as to what to do next and, once again, events intervened.  Not an insurrection this time, but a wave of industrial unrest approaching the level of a general strike throughout August and September.  A Trades Union conference held in Manchester, resolves to continue the strike until the Charter becomes the law of the land.  The following day, a Chartist conference declares its support for the strike wave.  Behind the scenes, however, the Chartist leaders are divided as regards supporting the strike, and by the end of September the strike collapses.  Mass arrests of Chartists and trade unionists follow and savage judicial reprisals are taken.

At the Lancaster Assizes in 1843, almost the entire Chartist leadership is put on trial.  Amongst the accused is Richard Pilling a Lancashire weaver and his speech in his own defence at the trial goes some way to explaining why Chartism enjoyed such popular support.  Here are the opening and closing portions of Pilling’s speech:

“Gentlemen, I am somewhere about 43 years of age.  I was asked last night if I were not 60.  But if I had as good usage as others, instead of looking like a man of 60, I should look something like a man of 36.  I have gone to be a hand-loom weaver, when I was about 10 years of age – in 1810.  The first week I ever worked in my life, I earned 16 shillings a-week by the hand-loom.  I followed that occupation until 1830.  Then I was the father of a family – a wife and three children.  In 1830 I could only earn – indeed the last week that I worked, and I worked hard, I could only earn six shillings and sixpence, but I should do that or become a pauper.  I should go to the factory, which I detested to the bottom of my heart, and work for six and six-pence a week; or become a pauper.  But although I detested the factory system, yet sooner than become a pauper on the parish I submitted.


I have seen in the factory in which I worked wives and mothers working from morning till night with only one meal; and a child brought in to suck at them twice a day.  I have seen fathers of families coming in the morning and working till night, and having only one meal… This was the state we were in at the time of the strike…Suppose gentlemen of the jury, you were obliged to subsist on the paltry pittance given to us in the shape of wages, and had a wife and six helpless children, five of them under thirteen years of age, to support, how would you feel?  Though you were to confine me to a dungeon I should not submit to it.  I have a nervous wife – a good wife – a dear wife – a wife that I love and cherish, and I have done everything that I could in the way of resisting deductions in wages, that I might keep her and my children from the workhouse…Suppose gentlemen, that any of you had a wife and six helpless children depending on your exertions for support; and suppose that one reduction after another took place in your wages, till the remaining portion scarcely proved sufficient to provide you with the common necessaries of life; and that on Saturday night your sorrowful wife had nothing for her family – that she saw her dear children dying almost for want of the common necessaries of life; and that you had a son as I had, on a dying bed without medical aid, or anything to subsist on, how would you feel?

I was twenty years among the handloom weavers and ten years in a factory, and I unhesitatingly say, that during the whole course of that time I worked twelve hours a day… and the longer and harder I have worked, the poorer and poorer I have become every year, until at last, I am nearly exhausted.”


5) How Long


Part Three

Hymns and hymn singing were an integral part of Chartism.  Many meetings opened and closed with a hymn and hymns were specially composed for major events such as the opening of the first Chartist Convention in 1839.  The movement produced at least three hymnals; Hymns for Public Worship – Suitable for Chartist Congregations edited by Joshua Hobson (an editor of the leading Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star): The Shakesperian Chartist Hymnbook edited by the Chartist poet, Thomas Cooper, and the National Chartist Hymn Book  produced by the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting in 1845.  Sadly, this last item is (as far as we know) the only surviving Chartist hymnal.  It is a small and fragile pamphlet lying in the public library charterin Todmorden (a Pennine town on the Yorkshire/ Lancashire border), but also available in a rather more robust digitised form online.  It consists of sixteen pages and contains sixteen hymns printed without tunes, but stipulating the metre to which a given hymn is to be sung (this was standard practice for all hymnals at the time).
Chartism is sometimes described by historians as a ‘hunger’ movement, a desperate response to desperate times.  This is only half true.  Chartism was not just a movement of desperation, it was also a movement of hope.  Chartism was driven by hunger but, as you’ve heard today,  that hunger was for liberty and social justice as well as daily bread.  Taken together these Chartist hymns offer a narrative of redemption, in which the current social order of dearth and oppression will be transformed into a world of plenty and liberty.  The over-riding and oft-repeated message of the hymn book is that Chartism is consistent with God’s will and must, therefore, ultimately triumph.  The most audacious identification of Chartism and Christianity occurs in hymn thirteen, which claims the resurrection itself as both type and trope of the transformation desired by Chartism.  In this hymn it is not simply the case that Christian belief is compatible with Chartist activity, but rather that the former demands the latter.  It is also the hymn with which Garth opens his album and will close today’s set.


6) Hail, Glorious Morn!


Dr Mike Sanders, University of Manchester