Today in London radical history: Chartists rally on Kennington Common, 1842.

On 22nd August 1842, 40,000 Chartists defied a ban to rally on Kennington Common & fought police who attempted to clear them.

In 1842, a series of wage reductions in factories around North Staffordshire and Manchester sparked a sudden and widespread movement of strikes and demonstrations. The widespread distress and poverty force on thousands of workers enraged a wide swathe of the north in late July and early August. Strikes brought factories to a halt in Staffordshire and Lancashire, Manchester; mass meetings were held on the moors, and huge processions of workers carrying banners and bludgeons to defend themselves. These became flying pickets, spreading the strike from mill to mill and factory to factory (in some places the movement is known as the plug riots or plug plot as sabotaging workers pulled the plugs from boilers to prevent steam pressure being raised). The movement radiated out like wildfire. On August 12th, a meeting of delegates from 358 factories meeting in Manchester, escalated the strike wave to a new level when the vast majority voted to expand the aims of the strikes beyond the purely economic, to stay out until the Charter, the demand of the Chartist movement for political reform, was achieved. The movement spread into Yorkshire. It seemed for a few days as if the abortive Grand National holiday or Sacred Month that had failed to launch almost exactly three years before in 1839 was beginning for real…

As the government began to panic, they started to move contingents of troops north to repress the growing movement. But although the centre of the battle was up north, and Londoners were not joining the strike, they were far from passive. On August 13th columns of soldiers were marching to Euston station to be shipped off to the industrial battlegrounds; they were booed and hissed by gathering crowds in Regent Street. This kicked off a week of Chartist inspired-disturbances in the capital.

On the 14th, more demonstrations were held to boo further troop movements troops. The following day, the angry crowds became so dense around Euston, soldiers were charge ordered to charge and disperse them.

On the 16th, a mass chartist meeting was held in Stepney in solidarity with plug rioters and other northern comrades. On the 18th another mass Chartist meeting held was held on Islington Green, which developed into a march to Clerkenwell where there was fighting with police who tried to disperse them: “this same assemblage of persons… paraded the town in procession till one in the morning, and listened to speeches of the most atrocious and treasonable character.”

On the 19th, the police had been given “positive orders… not to allow any Mob, as Night approached, to enter London”… As Home Secretary Sir James Graham wrote to the Duke of Wellington: “In London the excitement is increasing; and we have been determined not to allow an adjourned meeting to assemble this evening at Islington, in consequence of the proceedings of… last night.” A large Chartist rally, Clerkenwell again ended in tussles with the cops, despite the police guarding all entrances to Clerkenwell Green and two magistrates walking about with copies of the Riot Act; such great numbers gathered that they were able to break through the police lines and remained in possession of the Green till late, though no meeting was held.

Other meetings at Lincolns Inn Fields, and Great Queen Street, saw similar scenes: speeches were delivered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at 10.00pm, and when police attacked them, the crowd marched to Covent garden and fought police In Bow Street. Several policemen were beaten before the crowd drifted off.

The weekend was quiet, but on Monday August 22nd, two monster Chartist rallies were called, to meet on Kennington Common in South London, and at Paddington in the west of the city. After several days of disturbances, the authorities were intensely nervous. Troops were moved to Kensington Common from the army barracks at Hounslow, and from Woolwich Barracks to Clapham Common, in readiness for use against demonstrators in the event of more disturbances. “Every wall, public building &c. [was] thickly studded with Proclamations, Cautions &c. emanating from the various authorities, strictly prohibiting public meetings, &c… London may be said to be under police, if not under military law.”

By the Monday afternoon, crowds ‘very numerous, very gay’ assembled on Kennington Common. “The whole appearance of the scene was rather of a gay and festive kind, and quite different from that which the gatherings of the fierce democracy at Islington, Clerkenwell and Stepney exhibited.” Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor turned up but decided not to speak as he was bound over to keep the peace, and legged it (his instinct for self-preservation was always keen). 15 minutes later, as the meeting started, police swarmed onto the Common, some mounted, led by the Commissioner Richard Mayne, scattering the demonstrators off the Common. The crowds remained in strong possession of the surrounding streets, and skirmished with the ‘blue lobsters’ for hours, but the meeting had been halted, without calling in the military. At Paddington, police fought a three-hour battle to clear the area around the railway station; a third impromptu rally at Clerkenwell Green broke out into fierce fighting in which the police were overwhelmed.

However, after the 22nd, the Chartist disturbances in London subsided. A large rally on the 23rd at White Conduit House in Islington passed off peacefully. Most significantly perhaps, was that no strike wave had developed in London inspired by the northern outbreak (though it was said that 600 builders working for Cubitts had struck).

The strike wave in the north continued for several days and erupted into fighting in many places, but the question of whether the aim was political reform or immediate wage rises began to divide the movement in places. The army shot several people during riots in Halifax and Preston, and the arrest of a large crop of Chartist and strike leaders eventually drove the workers back to work.

More on the 1842 General Strike:

Catherine Howe, (2014). “Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis”. Breviary Stuff, London, UK. 

Mick Jenkins (1980). The General Strike of 1842. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 

And on the London disturbances of August 1842: David Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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