The Last Chartist Petition – Part One

The million-strong People’s Vote March today put me in mind of the Chartists. OK, I know that Chartism didn’t end well, with the final petition discredited by the Tories (claiming the signatures were fake, the demonstration much smaller than it was, and turning out the army), but everything they were fighting for has since come to pass in what we take for granted as a functioning parliamentary democracy. I wrote a  novel a few years back about a Chartist journalist, so I thought I’d share the relevant chapters here: the prelude this evening, the final demo tomorrow. If you like it, then please share. Thank you.

The meeting Reynolds had mentioned was to be held the following Monday in Trafalgar Square, and was to be a demonstration against the raising of the new income tax. The organiser was a man I did not know name of Cochrane. As it was an open secret that the latest Chartist petition was to be presented to Parliament the next month, Reynolds had it in mind that this event would constitute a kind of preliminary rally. He had put the word out that the ‘Workers of London’ should gather beneath the monocular and no doubt disapproving gaze of Lord Nelson, even though not a man jack of them, including us, earned anywhere near enough to be liable for income tax, the threshold then being a hundred and fifty a year.

Reynolds was positively intoxicated with radical fervour, and had learned German just so that he could read the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei. You will remember the time. Continental Europe was experiencing the greatest upheaval since Napoleon. The year had begun with a revolution in the Two Sicilies, by February the French had declared another republic, and now there were barricades in Berlin. The Hapsburgs were looking decidedly insecure as well, the Danes were acting up, and so were the Irish. It was Reynolds’ belief that the working men of all countries were uniting, having nothing to lose but their chains.

It was the same rousing call that we had both heard before, but I was by now old enough to be sceptical. This was, after all, England, and we had already had our revolution, for all the good it had done us. Nonetheless, as red flags went up all over the old empires, it seemed the case to many English radicals that the time was ripe for a Chartist revival. My instinct was that we were doomed, but I could not bring myself to do the sensible thing, which would have been to stay at home and then read about it in the papers on the morrow. As with all my other vices (strong drink, tobacco, opium, women of easy virtue, and writing), I was unable to give up my politics.

Trafalgar Square was still a building site, although the Vice-Admiral himself had been up in the air for the last five years. The surrounding roads were freshly laid, and there were still wooden hoardings around the pedestal at the base of Railton’s great column. As a venue for a demonstration it left a lot to be desired, other than in its centrality and its proximity to the heart of government.

The day did not begin well, with Cochran publishing notices that the meeting was cancelled, as he had been informed by the Home Office that large public gatherings were prohibited within one mile of Parliament when it was in session. Reynolds was having none of this, and he dragged me along anyway. The workers of London were of similarly like mind, and a good ten thousand of them, by my estimation, had turned up by lunchtime expecting a speech.

Reynolds saw his chance, and shoved his way to the plinth, where he declared himself Chair to a rousing cheer from the crowd. I did not fancy myself an orator, and elected to remain where I was, which was relatively front and centre, about ten heads back. Reynolds, on the other hand, was born to it. He said nothing at first; he merely held his arms aloft and absorbed the applause and adulation. I am not certain how many there even knew who he was at that point, other than one of their own taking charge. After a minute or so, Reynolds gestured for quiet with his hands, as if soothing a child. As a hush spread through the crowd like mist on a spring morning he spoke.

‘The history of all hitherto existing societies,’ he began, ‘is the history of class struggle—’

There were coppers everywhere, but the crowd was behaving itself so they let him speak, which he did, for upwards of two hours, unscripted, unrehearsed, and utterly voltaic. When he concluded with, ‘Let the ruling classes tremble, for the voice of the people is the voice of God!’ I would have followed him anywhere, and as the huge crowd exploded into a rapturous ovation that lasted for a good ten minutes. I shouted myself hoarse along with the rest.

Reynolds declared the meeting closed at about three, and the crowd began to peacefully disperse. I sought him out, but he was so thronged by well-wishers and hero worshippers that I could not get to him, although he did catch my eye from the centre of the group and offer a cheery wave. I decided not to wait, and to instead meet up with him again later at the office. In the meantime, I had a burning need to relieve myself, and a thirst on me that I would not have sold for half a bar, so I allowed the crowd to carry me out of the Square and along the Strand.

I felt quite intoxicated by the whole experience, and could almost have believed that I was part of some righteous people’s army, marching amid the True Levellers with Gerrard Winstanley at its head. But opinions on the street that day were just as divided as they were in the age of the New Model Army. In the case of the Chartists, the middle classes were not with them, and neither were many of the workers. Although the crowd to which I belonged was imposing, if not downright intimidating, there were still passers-by who thought it prudent to air their contrary views in no uncertain terms. There was one group in particular whose voices certainly travelled. They were well-dressed and well-watered fellows, and had elevated themselves on steps and lampposts around The Coal Hole Tavern. I could quite clearly hear an obvious ringleader colourfully asserting that the people leaving the meeting were lazy and would not work, while his companions maintained a supporting chant of ‘Jobless scum!’

The police made no attempt to discourage this clear provocation, indeed I noticed a fair few joining in with this idiotic braying. The effect on the demonstrators was slow, but catastrophic, as if one of Professor Owen’s dinosauria had been lumbering down the Strand minding its own business when it was suddenly struck upon the tail by some manner of troglodyte. Those who were close enough to hear themselves thus addressed resented the charge with some emphasis, and the word then began to ripple through the rest of the crowd and back to the Square until all assembled felt greatly insulted. All it took then was a single word (I know not whence, only that it was given), and the crowd roared as one and rose up against its tormentors. The peelers had no doubt been waiting for this moment, too, for they charged with truncheons rampant, precipitating a riot and thus confirming the old adage that no situation, however desperate, has ever been improved by the arrival of officers of the law.

I now found myself in a pitched battle in which I wanted no part, but from which I could not easily flee. Like many, I was trapped within the crowd, which became more constrictive as it was slowly driven back by the police. My primary preoccupation was remaining on my feet for fear of falling and being trampled to death. Like everyone else I was screaming at the coppers.

The fight proliferated itself in skirmishes between police and demonstrators along every street within a mile radius, for by the time the sun was low in the sky they had closed off all means of exit and had us once more contained within the Square.

Reynolds once more took control, regaining the plinth and urging the multitude to break out. Some of the harder members now started to tear down the wooden hording around the column to fashion clubs, while granite blocks from the new roads were uprooted and smashed, providing handy missiles. Soon the crowd surged forward alarmingly once more, and the police were forced back under a hail of rough projectiles, while those tooled up with improvised cudgels fought the front line hand to hand. It was still impossible to escape, or to move in any direction or at any pace not dictated by the throng, so I kept my head down and was borne south west along the Mall accompanied by the sounds of windows being put out and shouts of ‘To the Palace!’

Having no desire to be tried for treason I finally managed to contrive an escape from both sides by sneaking through St. James’ Park under cover of darkness, so I know not exactly what happened at the Palace Gates, while witness accounts vary wildly. All I can say for sure is that the Crown was still in control the next day, while a hundred or so men went to the stepper for thirty days for riotous conduct.

As all the fighting was concentrated at the western end of the Mall, I managed to make my way back towards the Strand. Being well-dressed, most of the coppers I saw either tipped their hats or ignored me, and the pair that did take me for a person of interest were quickly mollified by my notebook and my confident assertion that I was with the Chronicle. They warned me to avoid the Strand, but I explained that I must return to my office so they let me pass. That I meant Reynolds’ office and not that of the Morning Chronicle I kept to myself. I needed to see for myself that my friend was all right, and if all was well he would be back at his headquarters with the kettle on writing up the riot. If he had gone to the Palace though, then God help him, I thought.

I need not have worried. I could not get to the office, for Wellington Street was packed wall to wall with a heaving mass of working men, Chartists and Communists mostly I would say, whom Reynolds was addressing from an upstairs window, like Napoleon rallying the Grande Armée from a balcony at Austerlitz.

I left him to it and staggered off in search of a cab. I sat out the rest of the proceedings, but the following morning I heard that the crowd had reformed and had erected a barricade in Charing Cross next to the statue of Charles I. The fighting continued all that day and into Wednesday, by which time every copper in London was on duty and the Met was slowly regaining control. By Friday, the Times reckoned it was all over, although at the premises of Reynolds’ Miscellany Chartism’s latest star speechifier was already making plans for the presentation of the movement’s third and greatest petition to Parliament the following month, because, as he said, we had a world to win.

To read Part Two click here

If you’d like to read the rest of the book you can buy it on Amazon here

The first part is also available as a free online serial here

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