what's next for Chartist studies?

Here are some quick thoughts that I gave to the annual Chartism day, which this year took place on 29 June in St. Mary's Church, Bramall Lane, Sheffield, the site of an alleged (but not proven) Chartist insurrectionary 'bomb'.

What's next for Chartist studies? 

Matt Roberts asked me to speak on this topic, in part because I wrote a historiographical review of the current state of labour and protest history in Social History. In the article, I discussed how labour history has moved away from class as a sole identity and framework and now looks more towards gender and international identities.  There is much more to be researched about the gendered aspects of Chartism, and also its international links.

The article also examined what Steve Poole and myself and others have been working on recently: the efflorescence of early modern and rural studies of popular protest. Again, there are possibilities that could be applied to Chartist studies, not least in terms of exploring the politics of resistance and the everyday, and also regional approaches to the history of protest, not in a Briggsian focus on towns, but in terms of regions, neighbourhoods and areas not normally studied for Chartism. [Steve Poole did this in in his paper on rural Chartism in the West Country].

For me it seems as if Chartist studies is flourishing - as the success of this conference testifies, and also with a quick look-up on the Bibliography of British and Irish History - we can see today the wealth of directions in which we are going.

Bibliography of British and Irish History, 'Chartism'

Digital History

I will say something briefly about digital history before I talk about my own research. As someone who works with Tim Hitchcock, I can’t not suggest bringing Chartism into the digital age. Tim has been one of the people to make a whole network of historical resources available, first through Old Bailey Online and now through Connected Histories. But so far much of the most up-to-date and searchable and analysable material has been using London sources relating to crime and poverty, and much fewer about protest and politics.

There are many possibilities with new digital sources available online for Chartism, not least the online newspapers and Francis Place papers.

Ironically, it has been local historians and enthusiasts who first opened up Chartist resources to the world rather than academic historians - and I’m thinking of Chartists.net - which is an invaluable resource, not least because they list names and memberships of e.g. the Land Company, in detail.

What we need now is to look into the possibilities of connecting up all these digital resources - using new methods of nominal record linkage - historians have been chasing up names in the census and parish records for years, linking them together with their own databases in Access or card files. If we could connect the lists of names on the Chartists.net site with the census and parish material now online, and mentions in the newspapers, it would be much easier to answer the question posed at the head of the Chartists.net site: ‘was your ancestor a Chartist?’ It would be great - and this is mine and Robert Poole’s goal - to connect all this up with accurate transcriptions of one of our most useful and used resources - the Home Office disturbance papers, and all their associated trials and assize records.

You can read elsewhere in my blog about the difficulties of using the TNA pdfs of the microfilm and Gale Cengages’s new but rubbish digitization of the files. So if anyone wants to help Robert and I with what is admittedly a huge project to accurately reorder, catalogue and transcribe the Home Office papers - let’s use this opportunity and let us know.

Mapping Chartism 

We’re currently going through the spatial turn in history, apparently. So we had the linguistic turn in the 80s and 90s, which focused, particularly in radical and Chartist history on language and its symbolism and its power. Then from the late 90s we had the cultural turn - wonderful work of Malcolm, Paul Pickering and others on the culture of Chartism and the politics of everyday life. Now I’m writing on the spaces and places of Chartism. But as with a lot of things, there’s nothing new about it - one of my favourite Chartist historians got there first, way back before all the ‘turns’ started - Eileen Yeo, in her fantastic chapter on the spaces of Chartism back in 1981. 

Again Tim Hitchcock and Bob Shoemaker, the comedy double act, have made huge efforts to connect all their databases to historical mapping, with the amazing result of Locating London’s past:

Locating London's Past, search for 'riot'

So what I’m working on is a northern equivalent - but with the newspapers and Home Office papers as my data - alas the quarter sessions, petty sessions and assizes are not within my reach or time as yet, and I haven’t started on the material on Chartists.net as yet.

Mapping popular protest on paper was done by Andrew Charlesworth in his still highly useful atlases of urban and rural protest. But digital mapping offers historians much greater (and easier) tools of layering lots of different data on lots of maps. The point of digital history is not just to provide new answers to old questions, but to generate new questions that we never thought about before.


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