Today in London radical history: freethought pioneer James Watson dies, Norwood, 1874

James Watson (1799–1874) was an English radical publisher, activist and Chartist.

Born in Malton, North Yorkshire, on September 21, 1799, Watson’s father died when he was only a year old. His mother, a Sunday school teacher, taught him to read and write, but around 1811, she returned to domestic service in the household of a clergyman, who had paid for James’s schooling and tuitions for a brief period. Watson worked there as under-gardener, in the stables and as house-servant, and he read widely.

In 1818 Watson moved to Leeds where he found work as a warehouseman, and joined a group of men in Leeds who met weekly to read and discuss the writings of radicals such as Tom Paine, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile. The group made contact with Carlile and agreed to distribute his Republican newspaper in Leeds.

Watson was converted to freethought and radicalism through this group and what he read. He began to spread freethought literature and helped raise money for Carlile when he was sentenced in 1821 to three years’ imprisonment for blasphemy. Watson moved to London in September 1822 to serve as a volunteer assistant in Carlile’s Water Lane bookshop. As Carlile’s shop published and sold radical publications that challenged the Six Acts imposed by Lord Sidmouth in 1819, this was risky work, and many of those who worked there went to prison. James Watson also became involved with other publishers such as William Hone and Henry Hetherington in the struggle against the stamp duties on newspapers and pamphlets.

In January 1823 Carlile’s wife, having completed her own term of imprisonment, took a new shop at 201 Strand, and Watson moved there as a salesman. As their publications were unstamped on principle, government agents were constantly employed to seize papers and nick those distributing them. A game of cat and mouse between printers and informers/excisemen ensued, with regular smuggled shipments of radical papers being hunted and sometimes stopped. Salesman after salesman was arrested. In February 1823 Watson was charged with selling a copy of Elihu Palmer’s Principles of Nature to a police agent. He spoke in his own defence, but was convicted and sentenced to a year in Coldbath Fields Prison.

In prison he read David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Johann Lorenz von Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History, and developed his anti-Christian and republican opinions. As he said later, “endeavouring to make the best use of the opportunity for study and investigation.”

After leaving prison in April 1824 James Watson was employed again by Richard Carlile who taught him the skills of the compositor and printer. In 1825 he was employed in printing Carlile’s The Republican; he was also hired as a printer by the radical publisher, Julian Hibbert. Soon after this he went into business on his own.

He lived in extreme poverty at times, and in 1826 caught cholera, nearly dying. Recovering, he became an Owenite, and in 1828 he was storekeeper of the “First Co-operative Trading Association” in London, in Red Lion Square.

In 1831 Watson set up as a printer and publisher in Finsbury. Julian Hibbert, his former employer, died in January 1834 and left him a legacy, allowing Watson to enlarge his printing plant. He started by printing the life and works of Tom Paine, and these volumes were followed by Mirabaud’s System of Nature and Volney’s Ruins. Later he printed Lord Byron’s Cain and The Vision of Judgment, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab and The Masque of Anarchy, and Clark on the Miracles of Christ.

Watson printed, corrected, folded, and sewed the books by himself, taking great care for the appearance of his books, which he sold at one shilling or less per volume (effectively losing money on many).

At this time Watson also became a leading light in the National Union of the Working Classes, a working class radical group, strong in London. The NUWC was an alliance of more moderate elements working for an extension of the franchise for working men, and some more direct action–oriented wing, who felt the working class needed to take power, and would only win it by force. Like many NUWC members and other radicals the 1832 Reform Act bitterly disappointed him, and he denounced it: “The whole thing is from beginning to end humbuggery of the worst description. One thing self-evident is that there is not the slightest pretense to make an attempt at relieving the suffering millions from any part of their burden.”

Watson was arrested in 1832 for organising a NUWC procession and a feast on the day the government had ordained a “general fast” on account of the cholera epidemic. The government had stated that the cholera epidemic was God’s punishment on society, and that everyone should fast for the day to placate the Lord. The NUWC, enraged, announced that the poor were always hungry, that they would not fast but would march in anger and then have a slap-up feed to stick two fingers up to the authorities. The organisers were nicked.

However, Watson escaped imprisonment for this episode.

In the same year, Watson began publishing an unstamped radical newspaper, the Working Man’s Friend. This got him imprisoned between February and July 1833. He also served a further period in prison (August 1834 to January 1835) for selling Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, the leading radical unstamped paper of the day. This was his last imprisonment, though he continued to issue books banned by the government.

Watson’s shop was near Bunhill Fields; he then moved first to City Road, and in 1843 to 5 Paul’s Alley.

During his political life, he associated with many leading radical figures, including freethought and unstamped guru Henry Hetherington, Chartists Thomas Cooper and William Lovett, and the radical MPs Thomas Wakley, and Thomas Slingsby Duncombe.

Watson was active in the campaign in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six Dorchester labourers transported to Australia for forming a union branch; he was one of he committee which organised the great April 1834 meeting in Islington demanding the six be pardoned and returned home.

In June 1837 Watson was also on the committee appointed to draw up the bills embodying the Chartist demands. He was on the moral force wing of the Chartist movement, and was opposed to the violence of some of the agitators; however he was also resolutely opposed to alliances with middle class whigs and anti-corn law agitators, whom he denounced. He was averse to “peddling away the people’s birthright for any mess of cornlaw pottage”.

Watson corresponded with Giuseppe Mazzini, and in 1847 joined his Peoples’ International League. In 1848 he was one of the conveners of the first public meeting to congratulate the French Revolution of 1848.

An untaxed and absolutely free press became his main object in later years. He died at Burns College, Hamilton Road, Lower Norwood, on 29 November 1874, and was buried in Norwood cemetery. A grey granite obelisk erected by friends commemorated his “brave efforts to secure the rights of free speech”. A photographic portrait was in the Memoir by William James Linton.

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As the printer, publisher and layout artist at past tense I feel an affinity with Watson, across the century and a half that separate us. Not just because like Watson I have spent several decades sweating and swearing over printing machines; also losing money because we try to produce our publications to be cheap and relatively accessible, while attempting to make them look interesting and presentable… Was his back knackered like mine, partly from hefting massive quires of paper from shelf to guillotine? Was his printshop pile with skyscraper piles of half printed tracts, through which you have to weave…? half-finished projects put on one side gathering dust, corners turning up from the cold? Dreading another rent rise, or the jamming screech of a snarlup in the press?

Watson came to printing and publishing through the unstamped and freethought movements; I came to it through the anti-poll tax agitation… Admittedly times have changed, and it takes more than publishing political tracts get yourself jailed. Part of the credit for this goes to Watson and many others like him who struggled against blasphemy laws and defied the government spies in the 1820s.

But Watson I also feel connected to because there’s a tangible link between us. In his old age, Watson was a formative influence on a young Ambrose Barker, who became a secularist, then a socialist in the London Emancipation League and the Socialist League, and would go on to write a biography of Henry Hetherington. Barker would live to a ripe old age, and himself in the 1930s would work politically with another young man, the anarchist Albert Meltzer. Who in his turn I later knew, and worked with briefly in the Anarchist Black Cross, before his death in 1996… Over 200 years of radical connections in four individuals. A small example of how ideas pass on through generations.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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