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Chartism in Leicestershire

This was a remnant of Luddism, centred on Leicester and Loughborough and the craft industries. Its strength came from the economic plight of the hand frame knitters. Domestic industry was unable to compete with the factories. Leicester Chartists had no sympathy for or with Yorkshire woollen or Lancashire cotton Chartists because they had nothing in common with them. It was a small movement, more akin to the London silk-weavers. They objected to the industrial revolution per se. The problems came from mass-production and factories superseding crafts.

In 1836 the Leicester Radical Working Men's Association was formed from several strands of discontent:

The Association had a programme of

In 1834 the framework knitters' attempt to form a union failed, and wages continued to fall. By the spring of 1838 they could earn 7/- for a full week's work. Stocking weavers could earn 4/6d.

In February 1838 it was decided to re-form the union because in 1837 the new workhouse to accommodate 500 paupers was begun in Leicester - the horrors of the workhouse were visible to thousands of framework knitters who were intermittently or permanently unemployed. Also in 1838 the People's Charter was launched, providing the necessary inspiration for Leicester Chartism. In August of that year the Loughborough Political Union was formed. It was akin to traditional radicalism, but by October had 7,000 members. The Leicester Political Union was formed in October 1838 based on the six points PLUS grievances over

They appear to have believed that gaining the Charter would solve all these problems.

On 19 November 1838 the Charter was official adopted in Leicester. O'Connor was the star speaker - but it rained. Two thousand people attended, carrying banners displaying slogans such as

They had a real medley of causes and it is difficult to determine what was meant by "Chartism" here.

Leicester Chartism was a mixture of practical working-class grievances, Socialism and non-conformist liberal Christianity but November 1838 marked a break with the middle-class liberals. During the winter of 1838-9 there was violent language against the middle-classes in Leicester. There were also reports that Loughborough framework knitters were buying arms and raising funds to sent delegates to the National Convention.

Leaders of Leicestershire Chartism

John Markham initially was a shoemaker, then an auctioneer and furniture broker. He was self-educated, shrewd and level-headed. He was probably the most statesmanlike of the Leicester Chartists. He was not violent, although he could be provoked into violent language.

Thomas Cooper went to Leicester from Greenwich in November 1840 to work for the Leicester Mercury. At that point he had scarcely heard of Chartism but was appalled at the plight of the stockingers. He rapidly identified himself with Chartism and wrote a few articles or the struggling Chartists paper, The Midlands Counties Illuminator. He was dismissed by the Leicester Mercury for this. Cooper took over the Illuminator and became secretary of the Leicester Chartist Association. He began to conduct open-air preaching, lecturing and moved into journalism. There was a marked increase in Chartist membership from 460 in October 1841 to 732 by December 1841. Cooper was a Baptist preacher and cobbler by trade and had an insatiable appetite for all kinds of reading. Initially he supported O'Connor and was verbally violent; an intellectual Luddite but too violent for Leicester and not violent enough for the National Charter Association. He set up the Shakespearean Association of Leicester Chartists, which met in the Shakespeare Rooms in Leicester. It had c. 3,000 members by the end of 1842.

In August 1842, at the same time as the Plug Plots, there was a turn-out of colliers. Cooper was arrested; by the time he returned to Leicester the Chartist organisation had gone to pieces. He left Leicester for good in March 1843; he broke with O'Connor in 1845 over the Land Plan and joined Lovett's education scheme.

John Skevington was regarded as the natural leader of Chartists in Loughborough. He appears to have used his influence to prevent violence. He was arrested in August 1842 and was blamed for causing coal strikes. His arrest caused a clash between the police on the one hand and the miners and Chartists on the other. Skevington was a Methodist preacher and a democrat. He died in 1850.

Many Chartist leaders were framework knitters: Finn was prominent in 1838 with his plan for co-operation between workers and employers to regulate conditions in factories; Buckley was the most active Chartist leader after 1846. Even Chartist leaders who were not framework knitters were fully aware of and sympathetic to the demands of the stockingers.

Further Developments

In 1842 the Chartists were split between Markham and Cooper although in August 1842 the mass strikes and meetings which were attended by 5,000 to 6,000. The Riot Act was read and stones were thrown at the Yeomanry. This caused the 'Battle of Mowmacre Hill'. The strikes collapsed within a week. Chartist activity in Leicester declined after 1842 as it did elsewhere. However, although the turn-outs, demonstrations and anti-Poor Law riots ended, the organisation remained intact.

In 1844 a public meeting was held, addressed by White, and the Chartist Adult Sunday School was formed. In 1846 Thomas Wheeler was sent as the Leicester delegate to the National Convention in Leeds and was elected as the secretary to the Convention. Also, Feargus O'Connor's Land Plan got enthusiastic support. The divisions healed after Cooper left and new leaders emerged: Henry Green (a grocer) and George Buckby (the framework knitters' leader).

In 1848 there was a Chartist revival, with a meeting of about 80,000 people all of whom seemed to support the Charter. Buckby was sent as their delegate to the National Convention but there was another split between Markham and Green who wanted an alliance with the middle classes and Buckby and Warner who wanted to follow an independent physical force line. George Brown, a veteran radical for over 50 years, published Physical Force in which he advised workers to 'get arms'. Police began arresting the leaders.

Chartism continued for another 5 years (to 1853) with meetings, agitations and so on. Chartists became involved in borough elections and turned their attention to other and potentially more fruitful activities.

Comment

  1. There is a close connection between Chartism and the framework knitters. There seems to be a direct link between the strength of Chartism and the state of the hosiery trade
  2. Local Chartist leaders were framework knitters.
  3. Chartism appealed to framework knitters because other ways of remedying their depressed condition had failed.
  4. The Poor Law was a strong link between the stockingers and the Chartists.
  5. The middle class radicals regretted the split between themselves and the workers because it split the reformers' bloc. Also the Chartists allied themselves with the Tories and Peel won the 1841 general election.
  6. Religion was a common denominator. Many Chartists were Nonconformists and Markham, Skevington, Cooper and Finn were all preachers. The Chartist leaders used the Methodist 'class' idea for their groups.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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