Sunday, 17 May 2009

'As I tried to bludgeon Chartist demonstrators in the square'

The quotation above of course is made up by Half Man Half Biscuit, in 'Letters Sent.'

Chartist demonstrations almost automatically bring to mind urban settings of protest - particularly 'monster' meetings in Georgian and early Victorian civic squares: Stevenson's Square in Manchester, Clayton Square in Liverpool, Paradise Square in Sheffield, and so on. Many of the big meetings - and conflicts - occurred in what should be 'public' space, but in fact were not freely open to all, but controlled by local elites opposed to any threats to public order.

Yet Chartist demonstrations were not solely urban in character. Partly because they were being forced out of 'public' spaces in towns, and partly because inhabitants still had connections with the countryside, 'camp meetings' and demonstrations also occurred in rural areas, especially on moors and commons. Processions from towns out to the more remote moors connected urban with rural. Monster meetings were held on Kersal Moor near Manchester, Blackstone Edge, on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border on the Pennines, Kennington Common in London, Newcastle Moor, Skircoat moor and Peep Green in the Calder and Spen valleys in West Riding, among many others. These were sites of sublime beauty, elevated ordinary working-class to feel powerful over the environment, or connected to it; they were sites of fairs and races; sites of free movement and free speech.

At the great Chartist meeting on Blackstone Edge in 1848, George Archdeacon was reported to have said in his speech:
We commented at great length on the police and said dare the police come here to stop our meeting. We are not now in the narrow streets where they can call upon Special Constables. We are on a broad field of free discussion — and such are the places where we ought to meet.
(Navickas, 2009, 107)

Further reading:
  • K. Navickas, 'Moors, fields and popular protest in South Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, 1800-1848,' Northern History, 46:1 (2009);
  • P. Borsay, ‘Culture, Status and the English Urban Landscape’, History, LXVII (1982), 1–12;
  • E. Yeo, ‘Culture and Constraint in Working-Class Movements, 1830–1855’, in Popular Culture and Class Conflict, 1590–1914: Explorations in the History of Labour and Leisure, ed. E. and S. Yeo (Sussex, 1981), pp. 155–86;
  • S. Poole, 'Till our liberties be secure: popular sovereignty and public space in Bristol, 1780-1850,' Urban History, 26:1 (1999).

Saturday, 9 May 2009

The revival of 'Old Corruption'

Probably one of the many posts I'll write beginning with 'Twas ever thus.'

The sustained outrage in the press about the expenses of MPs has many echoes in the campaigns against 'Old Corruption' during the long eighteenth century.

'Country' Whig MPs and radicals outside parliament had many solutions for parliamentary corruption, from annual elections to cutting the civil list.

The 'South Sea Bubble' of 1720, the 'credit crunch' [how I hate that phrase] of their times, renewed suspicions about the government's handling of the economy, but Britain's 'saviour' Sir Robert Walpole also had much mud slung at him for his shady deals to keep in power. John Wilkes revived calls against parliamentary corruption in the 1760s, and supporting 'economical reform' became a badge of the Association movement of the 1770s and 1780s.

The most vivid campaign arose in 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars. Huge scandals emerged around major figures, most notably the Duke of York, whose mistress was accused of selling commissions in the army. All the sordid details of tabloid outrage were there: adultery, corruption, military failure. A minor Welsh MP raised the issue, and the Duke of York was impeached, though unsuccessfully. The press lapped the scandal up and spewed it out, despite this being a time when a patriotic attachment to the monarchy was to be expected.

'A Morning Scene in Gloucester' print

Why was corruption such an issue in the later part of the Napoleonic Wars? Shouldn't we have just been revelling in the afterglow of Trafalgar or getting on with fighting on the Peninsula? Well war-weariness was kicking in and there was no immediate end in sight to the war. At the peak of the conflict, the government was spending 30% of national income on the war. [Harling, 1996, p. 136] The press, especially William Cobbett's Political Register, stoked up suspicions among the ordinary public that this money was being spent for corrupt purposes: from paying for emigre French Catholic clergy to hide in Britain, to supporting the Prince of Wales's increasing waistline.

'Never, never till 1809 were found men of such bold, such boldfaced infamy as to avow the corruption, to assert that it was necessary to the support of good government in this country, and that to put an end to corruption would be to endanger the existence of government...'
[Cobbett's Political Register, 19 June 1811, p. 1512]

Suggested reading:
  • Philip Harling, The Waning of Old Corruption: the politics of economical reform in Britain, 1779-1846 (1996)
  • John Brewer, The sinews of power: war, money, and the English state, 1688-1783 (1990)
  • Philip Harling, 'The Duke of York affair (1809) and the complexities of wartime patriotism'. Historical Journal, 39 (1996)

first of all, a plug for my book

My new book, Loyalism and Radicalism in Lancashire, 1798-1815, is published with OUP.

link to OUP website