25 February, 1918.
NEW LIGHTS ON CHARTISM
THE CHARTIST MOVEMENT.
By the late Mark Hovell, M.A., second lieutenant the Sherwood
Foresters, and Lecturer in Military History in the University of
Manchester. Manchester: The University Press. Pp. xxxvii. 327.
7s. 6d. net.
This posthumous volume has a twofold interest—that of the
book and that of the author. Mr. Hovell, who was killed in the
trenches near Vermelles in August, 1916, was one of the ablest
students that Manchester University has ever had on the arts side.
Born in Manchester in 1888 in very straitened circumstances, he won
a scholarship at the Grammar School at ten, was obliged through
poverty to leave it at twelve, later became a pupil teacher, and
finally won the Hulme Scholarship at the University in 1906.
His subsequent academic career was extremely brilliant. The
half-dozen post-graduate years which remained to him before he
joined the army were spent partly in conducting Workers' Education
Association classes (chiefly in Lancashire towns), partly in acting
as an assistant to Professor Lamprecht at Leipzig, partly as
Lecturer in Military History at Manchester, and partly in original
research, of which the present volume is the principal fruit.
Professor Tout, its editor, who has revised and where necessary
reshaped Mr. Hovell's incomplete draft with the utmost care and with
assistance from several of the few specialists on the period, has
prefixed to it an admirable memoir at the author, in which enough is
said, and not too much.
The draft in question carried the story of Chartism to the
summer of 1842; the declining years of the movement, including the
Plug Plot of 1842, the petition and meeting on Kennington Common in
1848, and the slow ringing-down of the curtain under Ernest Jones,
have been covered by Professor Tout in a supplementary chapter
which, it is no derogation to Mr. Hovell to say, is one of the best
in the book. Thus rounded off, we have a complete study of
Chartism, based on original research and embodying freshly formed
conclusions. It is not the least remarkable feature of
Chartist phenomenon that its total disappearance, its utter
extinction from the field of British politics ten years after the
Kennington fiasco induced a total cessation of interest even in its
history. Only in the twentieth century—with such works as Mr.
Graham Wallas's "Francis PIace," M. Dolléans's "Le Chartisme," and
Herr Beer's "Geschichte des Sozialismus in England"— have anything
like clear and scientific lights been thrown on it. Mr.
Hovell's is an important addition to these, informed by a kind of
dry native understanding of a movement in which his own Lancashire
working class had played a prominent part. The general effect
which he conveys to the reader is not very different from that left
by the others. Chartism was a movement extraordinarily rich in
idealism at the bottom. It had also the motive-force of revolt
against very genuine and widespread oppressions. Why did it so
completely fail? Because it did not produce a single great
leader. Those who were honourable were men, like Lovett, of
insufficient calibre; those who had the capacity for leadership on a
large scale were either unmitigated charlatans like Feargus O'Connor
or doctrinaire revolutionaries like Bronterre O'Brien. If an
honest and noble idealism in the rank and file could alone save a
Labour movement, the Chartists would have been saved. But this
quality, though so strongly present, never enabled them to
distinguish brilliant impostors from genuine workers or pretentious
theorists from reformers of constructive intelligence. And it
left them still less able to choose between policies than between
In all this there is a great deal that may be suggestively
paralleled in the many Socialist and Labour movements of the later
British phase—the phase of the last forty years. And if
history is written for our instruction few histories could help the
modern Labour movement more than that of Chartism, at least in
showing it what to avoid. It was in this spirit of helpfulness
that Mr. Hovell addressed himself to his task, sympathising as he
did intensely with the upward movement of the people, but believing
steadily in fidelity to truth and fact as the only principle that
can make men free.
R. C. K. E.
21 September, 1920.
BOOKS OF THE WEEK.
A HISTORY OF CHARTISM
"There is your Charter. Agitate till you get it."
These words, attributed to Daniel O'Connell, are celebrated in the
story of the Chartist Movement. Now, it seems, they must go
the way of Cambronne's "The Guard dies ――" and Walpole's "All men
have their price," to take place among the great unspoken sayings of
history. Such is the conclusion of the late Mr. Julius West,
whose "History of the Chartist
Movement" (Constable, 16s. net), a young man's book, witty and
pungent, has just been published, with a memoir of its brilliant
author, who was a Russian of Jewish extraction domiciled all his
short life in England, from the pen of his friend, Mr. J. C. Squire.
Mr. West, who had the credit of unearthing in the Hendon
Annexe to the British Museum a series of MS. volumes put
together by Francis Place, the famous tailor leader of the
Chartists, which had not been examined by any earlier historian,
traces the origin of the movement which eventually crystallized
round the "People's Charter" to a pamphlet demanding drastic
Parliamentary reform, written in 1776 by Major Cartwright.
Cartwright was a man of ideas, but he suffered from the delusion
that there had been a Golden Age in England somewhere about the time
of King Alfred. Later in his long life he begged the Greeks to
use pikes (of an Anglo-Saxon pattern) instead of bayonets in their
war of independence. Does this medieval obsession, which
several of the earlier Radicals seem to have shared, account
subconsciously for the ultimate choice of the term "Charter" by the
party in the later years of its development?
The Reform Act of 1832, though it was the issue of a
prolonged and gallant struggle, and though it was probably all that
could have been passed at that date without the overthrow of
society, proved a grievous disappointment to the labouring classes.
"The organized working men," Mr. West irreverently remarks, "were in
the position of a savage tribe which has captured, at considerable
cost to itself, a supposed wonder-working idol, only to find that it
was a completely useless golliwog." Hence the fierce recrudescence
of agitation which led to the publication on May 8, 1838, of "The
People's Charter," with its Six Points of universal suffrage, annual
Parliaments, vote by ballot, equal constituencies, payment of
members, and abolition of the property qualification for Parliament. Mr. West discusses in detail the parts taken by William Lovett and
Francis Place in the framing of this document, rejecting, as has
been said, O'Connell's traditional lion's share in the authorship.
The ultimate control of the movement, however, passed into the sole
hands of the fantastic demagogue, Feargus O'Connor, who is vividly
painted in these pages, with his large heart and empty head, his
wealth of florid oratory and poverty of solid ideas, his vainglory
and his disinterestedness--"he demanded limelight, but scorned
lucre"—his recklessness, and his pusillanimity. A born stage-manager
of grandiose disasters!
THE FIASCO OF FORTY-EIGHT.
It is for once true to say that "every schoolboy knows" all about
the fiasco of the great Chartist mass-demonstration and petition, on
April 10, 1848. He remembers it because the forged signatures which
the House of Commons discovered in the petition—"No ,Cheese," "Pug
Nose," "Punch"—light up the pages of his history book with sudden
amusement. He is led by them to take a frivolous view of the whole
business. So, for different reasons, is Mr. West. He, too, regards
the threatened march on Westminster as a ludicrous piece of
mismanagement, exalted into a revolutionary legend by
"crowd-suggestion" acting on the credulity of historians. He may be
right in saying that no more than 20,000 Chartists assembled on
Kennington Common (The Times of the day after said the same), but
he is wrong in his failure to appreciate the significance of what
occurred; just here his grip on English psychology slackens.
It is easy to make fun of the Government preparations to meet the
stroke—the Chelsea pensioners called out as staunch triarii to
defend Vauxhall and Battersea; the junior clerks at the Foreign
Office armed with new service muskets and barricading their lower
windows with the great bound volumes of The Times, "which it was
supposed would resist bullets"; Prince Louis Napoleon gravely
patrolling a West-end "beat," remote from the action, in company
with the cook of the Athenæum Club and no doubt reflecting, as he
twirled his moustaches, and contemplated his toy truncheon with the
neat little crown at its apex, on the insanity of English public
life. The humorous side of it all was well appreciated by a
contemporary social historian—one of the greatest England has ever
known—John Leech. But he was penetrating enough to see something
else, which he summed up in his sketch of the minute special
constable menacing a colossal antagonist with the words: "Now mind,
you know, if I kill you its nothing, but if you kill me by Jingo it's
murder." How aptly this little top-hatted figure symbolizes not only
the English people's unexpected resentment of threats which has
brought to the ground so many hopeful schemes of conquering or
converting them, but their resolve to take their most daring
Revolutions (the substance of the Charter among them) under due form
This was the year when Paris streets were red with the blood of the
Days of June and the Milanese belted, pelted, and fusilladed their
masters out of their city. But on Kennington Common, just as
O'Connor was about to begin his harangue, he was invited to step
aside and have a word with Mr. Richard Mayne, Commissioner of
Police. He was told that the bridges were closed; that there were
troops and guns in places where he did not suspect them—in short, to
use the London policeman's classic phrase, that "You don't want to
get into trouble, you know." And there was no trouble. O'Connor
conceded the authorities their main point by abandoning the
procession to Westminster, and trampled on their dignity by getting
across Blackfriars Bridge with the great roll of the petition in a
cab, in spite of all their pickets. This most characteristic page of
English history is Greek to Mr. West; Mr. Santayana, alone of
foreigners, might perhaps understand it.