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General Sir Charles Napier was Commander in Chief of troops in the north of England between 1839 and 1841, which was the period of the first violent outbreak of Chartism. Napier was a down-to-earth man with a well-developed social conscience; he had little sympathy with politicians whatever their party but he did have a great deal of sympathy with the poor in the north. This account tells of the mayor and gentry subverting the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act by raising a public subscription.
Misery is running riot through the greatest part of this district, that is to say through the manufacturing parts; the agricultural parts suffer less perhaps, at all events being less condensed it is less perceptible. At Nottingham the gentry are really very good natured: the mayor and one or two more got up a meeting, and in a few days near £4,000 was subscribed, despite the exertions of the poor law people, who said we were encouraging idleness. The poor here have resolved to die rather than go into the union houses, and I have not the least doubt that numbers would have starved sooner than go there; certainly they would have resisted hunger until the feebler bodies of their children perished, or been so reduced as never to recover their health. Many who were willing were refused admittance. ...
However the misery is so horrid, the poor law rules are necessarily broken and put aside, and relief out of door is given perforce. We have 800 men paid by the private subscription; and, horror of horrors! 200 of them rank Chartists, employed by the mayor's order, at which some people here cannot sleep in their beds: they would ere this have slept less if they had a 'vigorous mayor', for the town would have been burned. My firm belief is that it has been saved by the good heart and good sense of Roworth the mayor, more than by anything else: - if we are saved, for the Chartists have prepared a quantity of combustibles and are exceedingly ferocious. There are quite enough of rascals amongst them to fire the town; and also many good fellows so enraged at villainy, such as I have described, as to be ready for any violence, though they would regret it when they saw what would happen. Both there classes are very dangerous, but the cowardice shewn is absolutely ridiculous. One night, when out with 12 dragoons, a mob of 2000 followed and assailed us with abuse so violent as to make me fear they would end with stones, a large heap being at hand. Thinking they would have some respect for me, I told the magistrate and the dragoons to ride on while I spoke to the mob, and I rode back alone. To my surprise all fled, pushing each other down in their haste.
At Sheffield not a man faced the dragoons; fire and assassination are their weapons, and now their nature, because they are driven to that course, the poor law being the goad to keep them going. That law is however, in a great measure, only new in name, for they give out-door relief everywhere in the manufacturing districts; but they still separate parents and children, which the people will not bear, and they are right. The hatred to this law is not confined to Chartists, nor to the poor, it creates Chartists, it makes them sanguinary; they mean to spare no one that has a good coat if they once get to work: in short it is all hell, or likely to be so in England.
Sir Charles Napier to his brother, Colonel William Napier, 19 January 1840.
Sir William Napier, Life of General Sir Charles James Napier (1857, II, 111-133)
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