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Feargus O'Connor's philosophy was a jumble of inconsistencies. He hated the oppression of industrial society and was inclined, like Cobbett, towards the politics of agrarian nostalgia. O'Connor believed that the industrial revolution was tearing the population away from its roots. He thought that if factory workers were unemployed and land was uncultivated, the two should be put together. He related all problems back to enclosures creating landless labourers. His initial premise was wrong - but he was Irish and he had come to England just after the agricultural labourers' revolt of 1830-31 (the 'Swing' riots). He was well acquainted with Irish landlordism and its inherent problems, and he could see the misery, distress and social problems of the towns. O'Connor applied a solution that would have suited Ireland but was inappropriate for England.
O'Connor appealed to the 'fustian jackets' of the north - factory workers rather than artisans. He used physical force as a bluff: he knew it would never work, so he sabre-rattled. He would neither advocate nor lead revolution. After 1840 the National Charter Association was the main Chartist organisation and in 1842 there was a split between the London and Birmingham moderates. This was unfortunate because Chartism was beginning to fail and it left O'Connor as the main leader at a time when Peel's measures were beginning to help the economy. O'Connor was frustrated because he came to the forefront of Chartism as it was beginning to decline. From 1843 onwards O'Connor turned more and more to the Land Plan - another side issue from Chartism because it had nothing to do with the Charter.
O'Connor had a muddled feeling that there was a connection between landholding and political power - but also he feared industrial middle-class power. He was a man of action - never an economist or political philosopher, but his ideas created enthusiasm among the readers of the Northern Star in spite of the inconsistencies. J. MacAskill noted that, 'O'Connor expressed the confusion of ordinary beings in the face of mounting social complexity, but as a propagandist he shared, rather than exploited this confusion.'
O'Connor tried to solve the "Condition of England Question" with something like an economic answer. The idea was right but the method was wrong. The scheme sounded good and was an alternative to the workhouse, but it was a dream. He started with the ideal and tried to make it a reality - rather like Owen and New Harmony. There is probably no way that an agrarian answer would solve an industrial problem. Most Chartists wanted work, better conditions and higher wages: this was expressed in the Plug Plots of 1842. A rising population meant that too much land would be needed to re-settle the unemployed and factory hands had little agricultural background by the 1840s. By that time, most factory workers were second generation town dwellers. O'Connor really cared about the ordinary working man's plight - he was the most genuine of all the Chartist leaders - but his heart ruled his head. To work, a long-term, planned scheme was needed and O'Connor was not an efficient organiser.
O'Connor favoured smallholdings from as early as 1841 when he wrote a pamphlet entitled The Remedy for National Poverty. He continually referred to the idea of the topic in the Northern Star and began to speak on the subject of land reform at Chartist conventions in Birmingham (1843) and Manchester (1844). The scheme was launched on 26 April 1845 at the National Convention as the Chartist Land Co-operative. A committee was set up in May 1845 to produce the rules of the Co-operative but it was only part of the Chartist programme for the political and social welfare of the workers.
In December 1845 a convention was held in Manchester exclusively to consider the Land Plan. The rules were amended, a list of Directors was drawn up and an application was made to register it under the Friendly Societies Act. On 31 July 1846 the application was rejected, so on 24 October 1846 the name was changed to the Chartist Co-operative Land Company and an attempt was made to register is as a Joint Stock Company.
On 12 December 1846 the annual conference of the Chartist Land Company was held in Birmingham. A National Land and Labour Bank were established and a new set of rules was drawn up. On 17 December, there was an unsuccessful attempt to register the newly-named National Co-operative Land Company as a Joint Stock Company. On 25 March 1847 another new name was given to the Company and rules were submitted to turn it into a Joint Stock Company. This time, it was called the National Land Company. So far, the scheme had had five names and four sets of rules in two years and still was not legal.
O'Connor was put in charge of the bank as Trustee. The bank could not be legally controlled by the Land Company. In May 1848 a Select Committee of Inquiry was set up to investigate the Company's affairs. The Committee declared the Company to be illegal and ordered it to wind up. O'Connor assumed it would continue and proposed methods for future buying and allocation of land that avoided balloting, which was one of the main legal objections to the scheme. However, in February 1851 a Bill was brought in to dissolve the Land Company, which became law in August. The haphazard nature of the Land Company's proceedings largely were due to O'Connor's behaviour and he lost a great deal of his own money in the scheme.
The Land Plan suffered from O'Connor's erratic behaviour - great enthusiasm followed by long periods of inactivity. He also was inattentive to detail, which is puzzling since he was a lawyer. O'Connor was emotional and unstable and began to develop a persecution complex. Also by this time he was beginning to suffer from 'General Paralysis of the Insane': he was in the later stages of syphilis. His instability became noticeable: his behaviour as MP for Nottingham during the debate on the Charter in 1848 was rather odd. It was more marked after the failure of Chartism in 1848 and eventually he was committed to Dr Tuke's lunatic asylum in 1852.
The scheme intended to raise £130,000 in 10,000 shares of £1/6/- each: it worked rather like a building society with investors. However, it was a high price for ordinary people to pay because it could mean two or three months' wages. Some factory hands earned only 3¾d a day. Shares could be paid in instalments of any amount; some paid in as little as 1/- a time so it took a long time.
When an estate was bought, it was divided into holdings in proportion to the paid-up membership of each group, then names were pulled out of a hat to see who got the tenancy. No fair way of allocation was ever found and there was no guarantee of getting a smallholding. The size of the plot depended on the number of shares the lucky share-holder had so there was no equalising process either. Each successful shareholder got the amount of land to which he was entitled; a cottage and an advance of cash as initial capital to buy stock. For a two-acre holding, the sum was £15; for three acres it was £22/10/0 and for four acres it was £30.
By December 1845, thirty of the thirty-two districts had produced subscriptions. The Yorkshire and Lancashire industrial areas were strongest in terms of recruitment: both were areas of the factory system, high unemployment and insanitary conditions. Later, more craftsmen from older towns contributed. These people were unable to compete with the factories, especially after the Corn Laws were repealed.
In March 1846 the Herringsgate estate (near Watford) was purchased. It was later renamed O'Connorville. In October 1846 the Lowbands estate in Gloucestershire was purchased and in June 1847, the Snig's End and Minster Lovell estates were purchased. Minster Lovell was renamed "Charterville".
In December 1846 the Land Bank was set up to attract capital to buy the estates. Although it attracted savings from workers, the money was likely to be withdrawn in times of depression and there was always a problem in raising capital for the Land Plan. Also, the interest rate of 4% was very low. Railway investment paid more for those who had money to invest. There was never enough cash to cover the cost of the estates and to grant everyone a holding: it would have taken 150 years to settle all the allottees.
All sorts of problems were inherent in the scheme. The estates were small - only between 300 and 500 acres - the soil was of poor quality and the estates were situated badly for markets and roads. They tended to be situated in sites inappropriate for farming in terms of weather and soil erosion. However, poor marginal land was for sale because it was becoming clear that the Corn Laws were going to be repealed and farmers wanted to get rid of uneconomic land. Free trade reforms made self-sufficiency less important and defeated the object of the Land Plan. The new residents were town-folk and had to face the weather and the isolation of rural life but were unused to either. Then they had to make their livelihood off the land.
In three years, only 250 subscribers were settled, of a total of 70,000, before the Land Company collapsed ( i.e. 0.4%). Many settlers thought that they had bought the land because they had bought shares. It proved difficult to get the rents from them to pay off the mortgages. O'Connor subsidised the Company with over £3,000 of his own money. Many of the settlers could not cope with the conditions and returned to the towns or were sent to the workhouse. Others became labourers or returned to craft-work. Of the original 250 settled families, only 46 remained in their cottages in 1851.
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