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Thomas Carlyle on the 'Condition of England Question'

The Whig ministers who were in power during the first phase of Chartism (1836-9) were conscious of their traditional rôle as the guardians of liberty rather than the maintainers of order. Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary between 1835 and 1839, deliberately minimised the seriousness of the disturbances, delayed arrests for as long as he could and preferred to let the mass meetings take place as a means of blowing off the steam of popular discontent. Only at the very end of the 1839 parliamentary session was the government sufficiently alarmed to ask parliament for an increase of 5,000 for the regular army, a rural police Bill and statutory powers to set up efficient police forces at Birmingham, Manchester and Bolton. In the autumn of 1839, shortly before twenty-two Chartists were shot at Newport (Monmouthshire), the Attorney-General, Sir J Campbell, claimed that the government had put down Chartism without spilling a drop of blood.

Many Conservative politicians and members of the public took the disturbances more seriously and demanded firmer repressive measures. At the same time they sometimes showed greater concern that the Whigs for the underlying social and economic problems. Carlyle described his pamphlet on the "Condition of England Question" as being 'about the poor, their rights and their wrongs'. It was written at the end of 1839 and received great interest. An edition of a thousand copies sold out immediately. The comments about 'Glasgow Thuggery' refer to a notorious trial in Edinburgh in 1838 when five leading members of the Glasgow Operative Spinners Union were charged with conspiracy and murder. The evidence revealed systematic intimidation of non-Union spinners working for lower wages by means which included assault, vitriol-throwing (sulphuric acid), arson, shooting and murder. A verdict of 'not proven' was returned on the major charges, 'guilty' on the minor ones. The defendants were sentenced to seven years' transportation but were pardoned in 1840.

A feeling very generally exists that the condition and disposition of the Working Classes is a rather ominous matter at present; that something ought to be said, something ought to be done, in regard to it. And surely, at an epoch of history when the 'National Petition' carts itself in waggons along the streets, and is presented 'bound with iron hoops, four men bearing it', to a reformed House of Commons; and Chartism numbered by the million and half, taking nothing by its iron-hooped Petition, breaks out into brickbats, cheap pikes, and even into sputterings of conflagration, such very general feeling cannot be considered unnatural! To us individually this matter appears, and has for many years appeared, to be the most ominous of all practical matters whatever; a matter in regard to which if something be not done, something will do itself one day, and in a fashion that will please nobody. The time is verily come for acting in it; how much more for consultation about acting in it, for speech and articulate inquiry about it!

We are aware that, according to the newspapers, Chartism is extinct; that a Reform Ministry has 'put down the chimera of Chartism' in the most felicitous effectual manner. So say the newspapers; - and yet, alas, most readers of newspapers know withal that it is indeed the 'chimera' of Chartism, not the reality, which has been put down. The distracted incoherent embodiment of Chartism, whereby in late months it took shape and became visible, this has been put down; or rather has fallen down and gone asunder by gravitation and law of nature: but the living essence of Chartism has not been put down. Chartism means the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad, the wrong condition therefore or the wrong disposition, of the Working Classes of England. It is a new name for a thing which has had many names, which will yet have many. The matter of Chartism is weighty, deep-rooted, far-extending; did not begin yesterday; will by no means end this day or tomorrow. Reform Ministry, constabulary rural police, new levy of soldiers, grants of money to Birmingham; all this is well, or is not well; all this will put down only the embodiment or 'chimera' of Chartism. The essence continuing, new and ever new embodiments, chimeras madder or less mad, have to continue. The melancholy fact remains, that this thing known at present by the name Chartism does exist; has existed; and either 'put down' into secret treason, with rusty pistols, vitriol-bottle and match-box, or openly brandishing pike and torch (one knows not in which case more fatal-looking), is like to exist till quite other methods have been tried with it. What means this bitter discontent of the Working Classes? Whence comes it, whither goes it? Above all, at what price, on what terms, will it probably consent to depart from us and die into rest? These are questions.

To say that it is mad, incendiary, nefarious, is no answer. To say all this, in never so many dialects, is saying little. 'Glasgow Thuggery', entering his dark room, to contract for and settle the price of blood with operative assassins, in a Christian city, once distinguished by its rigorous Christianism, is doubtless a fact worthy of all horror: but what will horror do for it? What will execration; nay at bottom, what will condemnation and banishment to Botany Bay do for it? Glasgow Thuggery, Chartist torch-meetings, Birmingham riots, Swing conflagrations, are so many symptoms on the surface; you abolish the symptom to no purpose, if the disease is left untouched. Boils on the surface are curable or incurable, - small matter which, while the virulent humour festers deep within; poisoning the sources of life; and certain enough to find for itself ever new boils and sore issues; ways of announcing that it continues there, that it would fain not continue there.

Delirious Chartism will not have raged entirely to no purpose, as indeed no earthly thing does so, if it have forced all thinking men of the community to think of this vital matter too apt to be overlooked otherwise.

Chartism (1840) pp. 1-3.

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