Expanding on our post from earlier today on the Kennington Common Chartist rally of 10th April 1848, it is worth looking in further detail at some of the forces of the state and its supporters arrayed against the Chartists and especially against the possibility of the rally sparking a working class uprising.
Socialist historian John Savile’s account of the government’s preparations for the day are instructive:
Chartism and the State in April 1848
The announcement that the third Chartist petition would be presented on Monday 10 April had been formally made in the Northern Star on 18 March; but it was the assembling of the Chartist Convention in London on Tuesday 4 April that enormously heightened public alarm. Everyone, whichever side they favoured, felt the levels of excitement rising throughout the country. The whole of society had been reading for weeks past about the clubs in Paris: their communistic statements, and their importance as the bases for the popular demonstrations that seemed to be taking place daily. The month of March in Britain had seen a series of minor riots and disturbances, and against the background of a Europe in turmoil the tide of fear was already seeping into the consciousness of the better-off classes throughout the kingdom. And now here was the Chartist Convention meeting publicly in the centre of the capital city, bringing together the local and national leaders of a great mass movement which had been stirring the country for the past decade, and which now seemed stronger than ever. The debates and deliberations of the Convention have been somewhat ignored by historians in the build-up to the Kennington Common demonstration, yet it was the daily reports, published in full in the London press and copied by the provincial papers, which steadily influenced, and hardened, public opinion against the general aims of the working-class movement; and which, above all, convinced the propertied classes that physical force was being planned.
The Convention opened on Tuesday 4 April at the Literary Institute, John Street, Fitzroy Square, and Philip McGrath was elected chairman, with Christopher Doyle as secretary. The number of delegates was limited to 49 `in order to escape the penalties of the Convention Act’. The first two days were spent mainly in listening to reports from the delegates of different towns. Ernest Jones representing Halifax, made a somewhat wild speech on the first day in which he said ‘that his constituents had urged upon him the desirability, if possible, of conducting the movement on moral force principles; but they warned him not to stoop to one act of unnecessary humility in urging their claims. To a man they were ready to fight (cheers). They were eager to rush down the hills of Yorkshire in aid of their brother patriots in London’; and the delegate from Barnsley reported that he had been instructed to say that ‘if the Government let the military loose upon Ireland, something else would be let loose here’. On the second day the most militant speeches were made by Cuffay and the Irish delegate from London, Charles McCarthy. Both favoured the establishment of rifle clubs. There were other speakers, however, on both these and later days, who specifically repudiated violence. A letter on behalf of the Metropolitan Committee from John Arnott had appeared in the London Times of 4 April dissenting from the violent language which Vernon had used about the forthcoming Kennington Common meeting; and the chairman of the Convention appealed for less rash talk at the beginning of the session on Thursday morning. It was, inevitably the violent language which impressed the outside world as well as the constant reiteration of the new unity between the Irish and the Chartists. On Wednesday 5 April the Convention issued a placard which was extensively posted throughout London and which made a special appeal to the Irish in the metropolis:
Irishmen resident in London, on the part of the democrats in England we extend to you the warm hand of fraternisation; your principles are ours, and our principles shall be yours. Remember the aphorisms, that union is strength, and division is weakness; centuries of bitter experience prove to you the truth of the latter, let us now cordially endeavour to test the virtue of the former. Look to your fatherland, the most degraded in the scale of nations. Behold it bleeding at every pore under the horrible lashings of class misrule! What an awful spectacle is Ireland, after forty-seven years of the vaunted Union! Her trade ruined, her agriculture paralysed, her people scattered over the four quarters of the globe, and her green fields in the twelve months just past made the dreary grave yards of 1,000,000 of famished human beings. Irishmen, if you love your country, if you detest these monstrous atrocities, unite in heart and soul with those who will struggle with you to exterminate the hell-engendered cause of your country’s degradation – beggary and slavery.
In its final paragraph the placard reminded the working people of London that `the eyes of EUROPE are fixed upon you’ and it concluded with a general exhortation that the great demonstration would strike a great `moral blow’ for the achievement of `liberty and happiness to every sect and class in the British Empire’. The discussion in the Convention during Thursday further revealed the differences of approach and opinion within the movement, and the Friday session was dominated by the decision of the metropolitan police to ban the meeting and the procession. There was again some very violent language from certain of the delegates, but the Convention agreed in the morning session to send a deputation to the Home Secretary to emphasise the peaceful nature of the demonstration on the coming Monday. Reynolds led a deputation of three and he reported back in the afternoon. Sir George Grey was not available and the deputation had been received by the Under- Secretary at the Home Office, Sir Denis Le Marchant, the Attorney-General and the chief magistrate from Bow Street. It was indicated that Sir Denis Le Marchant `exhibited great coldness’ and it was made clear that whatever the deputation said on behalf of the Convention there was no possibility of the government changing its mind. A letter was left for Sir George Grey which he read to the House of Commons that evening.
Some of the discussion on this day continued the previous days’ threats of physical force. Charles McCarthy `would not say what would be the fearful consequences if a blow were to be struck by the police force or the military. They were determined, in the name of liberty, if attacked, to resist the blow to the utmost’. Ernest Jones argued that the government did not seriously intend to stop the procession, and in a later intervention he moved a resolution to the effect that they should circulate all towns asking for simultaneous demonstrations on Monday `in order that in case the lamentable event of a collision with the troops should take place here, the myrmidons of the law would be kept in their respective districts’. And Harney, just before the Convention closed its session for the day, moved for a committee to select alternative delegates `so that in the event of the present Convention being mowed down in the streets of London or swept into Newgate, there would be others to take their place’.
Reports of this kind in the press were hardly calculated to allay fears, and middle-class hysteria continued to mount. The Saturday session of the Convention heard a long rambling speech from O’Connor and in the afternoon reports from some delegates who had been to see various members of Parliament. All these matters were reported in detail in the London press on Monday morning as was a public meeting in Victoria Park on Sunday, 9 April, at which Ernest Jones was the main speaker. Jones had been among the most violent speakers during the Convention and this speech, as reported in the Morning Chronicle on the day of the great demonstration, would have been confirmation again of the militant intentions of at least some of the Chartist leadership. After repeating his argument that he did not think the government were serious in their intention to suppress the procession, Jones continued:
‘If the Government touch one hair of the head of the delegates – if they place them under arrest, or attempt the least interference with their liberty – every town represented by the delegates, would be in arms in less than 24 hours [tremendous cheers]. If I were to be killed, or wounded, or arrested, the moment the intelligence arrived at Halifax the people would rise and disarm the troops – imprison the authorities – and 100,000 Yorkshiremen would march upon London [enthusiastic cheers]. So help me God I will march in the first rank tomorrow, and if they attempt any violence, they shall not be 24 hours longer in the House of Commons [cheers].
These words of Jones were echoed by the chairman of another Chartist meeting at Blackheath: `We are determined to conquer tomorrow; nothing shall put us down. We shall not be terrified by bullets or bayonets. They have no terrors for oppressed starving men.’
It is not by any means surprising, as the general level of apprehension rose, that precautions and countermeasures were put in hand. The Queen and her family left London for the Isle of Wight on the morning of 8 April. Waterloo station was cleared and several hundred special constables moved into place. The day before, Palmerston had written to Lord John Russell: `I conclude that you have made all the necessary arrangements for the security of the Queen at Osborne; but it is a rather unprotected situation, and the Solent Sea is not impassable.’ The Royal Family themselves were concerned at the public reaction to their departure from the city where so many were fearful of what was likely to happen in the coming days. Prince Albert instructed his equerry, Colonel C. B. Phipps, to report on the public sentiment in this matter, and in a letter dated 9 April Phipps noted that he had found no negative reaction in general, and that he ignored the tittle-tattle of `aristocratic Drawing Rooms’. The justification for the Queen’s departure was clearly that of a constitutional monarch accepting the advice of her prime minister. Phipps ended his letter with a statement of his impressions of the public temper:
There is every shade of opinion as to what will occur tomorrow. Some say that there will not be the slightest disturbance of the peace, others that there will be serious riots – and then again that there will be some partial disturbance, such as breaking windows – the latter is my opinion – I think that in the present excited state of the lowest classes, the day can hardly be expected to pass over without some disturbances but that they will be easily suppressed.
Colonel Phipps travelled from Windsor to London early on the morning of 10 April, and his report to Prince Albert, written at 5.30 p.m. the same afternoon, gives an interesting statement of what so many were thinking and discussing in the hours before the expected demonstration:
The morning, which was very beautiful, brought all kinds of sinister reports; even at Windsor before arriving at London by the train I was informed that immense bodies of people were collecting, and that all the bridges would be occupied by troops and Guns pointed, and that an immediate battle was expected. Coming from Paddington Station to Buckingham Palace the town certainly wore a most warlike appearance – all the Park Gates were closed and each guarded by a Picquet of the Foot Guards, with haversacks and Canteens upon their backs, prepared for actual service. At Buckingham Palace I heard that very large bodies had assembled at Kennington Common, and that numerous additions were marching towards the meeting in different directions.
The correspondence of leading politicians and the columns of newspapers all over the country were full of the expressions of anxieties and fears which had affected the whole country, and which without question had a very marked influence upon the Chartist leaders themselves. One piece of evidence of the latter is the well-known statement which Ernest Jones is reported to have made on the evening of 9 April concerning the willingness of some at least of the Chartist leaders to abandon the Kennington Common meeting. The most pervasive sentiment was undoubtedly that which equated the possible outcome of 10 April with what had occurred in France. It was revolutionary Paris, and the rapidity with which the revolution had spread, that was in most people’s perceptions of what might be the possible consequences of a large gathering in London of those hostile to the existing order. Every paper in the country, without exception, carried in each issue the news from France; and along with the rising phobias against the French and French ideas about work and property went the reports of the violent speeches in the Chartist Convention. As The Times wrote two days after the Kennington Common meeting, on 12 April,
It cannot be denied that the public mind, stunned and confounded by the events on the Continent, had become, as the ancients would have expressed it, meteoric, unsteady, open to strange impressions and diffident of its own most habitual beliefs.
It is necessary to distinguish the attitudes and responses of those concerned in the practical business of maintaining public order from the rest of the propertied classes, whatever the size of their property stake in the country. Government ministers in Whitehall were in no doubt about the gravity of the situation in early April. The revolution in France had shocked them with the rapidity of its escalation, and they were fully alert to the consequences of accidents such as the shootings in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. Moreover they were equally aware of the possible repercussions in Europe of any demonstration of weakness on the part of the English government in dealing with unrest and disturbance. The reports that had appeared in the French and Irish papers of the quite minor rioting that had occurred in Britain during March had greatly exaggerated the scale of the incidents; and uncertainty and irresolution at this time would only encourage the Jacobin element in all the nations affected by revolutionary movements. British diplomacy in March had achieved its main objective: the neutralisation of France as an active military force in Europe. This, for the Whig ministry, was as important for western and central Europe as it was for Ireland.
There was, however, never any doubt among the leading political groups in England that the coercive forces at the disposal of the British government were wholly capable of dealing adequately and successfully with any confrontation that might occur, either on the mainland or in Ireland. The problem, and really the only problem, was that Britain was not Ireland. The Irish had always been treated as a colonial people, and a scale of deaths acceptable in Ireland could not possibly be admitted in England. A soil stained with English blood would bring forth martyrs. No minister at this time seems to have mentioned Peterloo in his correspondence or in speeches, but the need to avoid bloodshed and implicitly the political consequences of bloodshed were clearly understood and strongly emphasised on a number of occasions. At the same time the Whigs never allowed their liberal principles to obstruct the security requirements of the state. Their own position in society depended on the preservation of the existing order, and they were conscious of how far class hostility from the lower orders should be allowed to express itself given their own capacity for constraining its violent manifestations. Clarendon wrote to Sir George Grey on 7 April during the period of growing anxiety and concern prior to the Chartist meeting on the 10th:
There is so much loyal and good feeling in the Country, such mighty interests are at stake, the circumstances of Europe are so grave, the future is so menacing, that I feel sure you will not appeal in vain to the `Haves’ in England against the ‘Have nots’. But this is not the time for stickling about Constitutional forms or party consistency. If we lose Ireland, it will be as much owing to the want of an Arms Bill and to the imprudent policy of the Whigs two years ago as any thing else.
The impression accepted by many historians that the plan for the defence of London was largely the work of the Duke of Wellington is incorrect. The reputation that the Duke enjoyed in the country was an enormous asset to the government of 1848. Greville wrote on 13 July 1847: ‘the Duke of Wellington was if possible received with even more enthusiasm. It is incredible what popularity environs him in his latter days; he is followed like a show wherever he goes, and the feeling of the people for him seems to be the liveliest of all popular sentiments; yet he does nothing to excite, and hardly appears to notice it. He is in wonderful vigour of body, but strangely altered in mind, which is in a fitful uncertain state, and there is no knowing in what mood he may be found: everybody is afraid of him, nobody dares to say anything to him; he is sometimes very amiable and good-humoured, sometimes very irritable and morose.’
The much quoted comment of Chevalier Bunsen which suggested that Wellington was in command of the preparations for the Chartist demonstration was no doubt an accurate statement of what passed between them. Wellington was certainly brought into the discussions at a rather late date when the crucial choices had been made, and he was present on the day of the demonstration itself, but all the basic decisions had been taken by Sir George Grey and Lieutenant-General Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the Military Secretary. Wellington had contributed his own memorandum on 5 April which began very curiously:
Having seen in the newspapers statements that 200,000 Chartists are to be assembled in and around London on Monday next the 10th instant; and knowing that Her Majesty’s Servants have ordered the movement of certain troops upon the metropolis . . . I have not heard that the Government has adopted any measures to dissuade or to prevent these large bodies from assembling near the Metropolis. I do not know whence they will come, or what is their avowed or their real or their supposed object.
Wellington then proceeded to set out quite reasonable precautions which could be taken. He was especially concerned to place great emphasis upon the need to keep communications open: similar to his insistence on the matter for Dublin in his memorandum of 2 March which has been noted above. His main points, however, had already been well taken.
It was on 3 April that Sir George Grey issued a general circular to all the relevant authorities in the country recommending the swearing-in of special constables, although by this time many thousands had already been enrolled. The Home Office was in continuous correspondence with all parts of the United Kingdom, but until the Kennington Common meeting, except for Ireland, there was an inevitable concentration on the preparations within the London area. The tactics overall were simple and straight-forward. The decision of the metropolitan police commissioners to ban the procession on Monday was phrased as `assemblage or procession’ and this was generally taken to refer solely or mainly to the procession back from Kennington Common which would accompany the petition to the House of Commons. In a memorandum to the Lord Mayor of London dated 9 April Sir Denis Le Merchant set down the precautions which had been agreed and which were already for the most part in operation. Le Marchant wrote that the meeting on Kennington Common would be allowed provided that it remained peaceful, but no procession would be permitted under any circumstances. The main force of professional police would be on and around the bridges across the Thames, with a special concentration on Blackfriars Bridge. Cavalry and foot soldiers would be stationed out of sight at various strategic points and especially at the bridges. At Blackfriars, for example, four houses at the north end were taken over, with the consent of their owners, for a large party of infantry. Only in the event of the civil forces being unable to contain the demonstrators would the military intervene, and it was assumed by all who were involved in these decisions that military intervention would come only as a very last resort. There were 7,122 military including cavalry in London for the 10th; 1,231 enrolled pensioners; just over 4,000 police – metropolitan and city – and about 85,000 special constables. The disposition of troops was the responsibility of the London Military District subject to the agreement of the Home Office. The main problem was to find suitable accommodation for the military in order that they would be out of sight but within reach of central London. Several owners of large houses put their stabling at the disposal of the cavalry, and a director of the South West Railway arranged for 500 infantry and 100 cavalry to be accommodated at Nine Elms station on the Sunday and Monday. Many of the infantry were inside government offices and buildings.
Army morale had always been appreciated as a matter for close concern. This was the great objection to billeting. Palmerston’s experience at the War Office had taught him that the contact of ordinary soldiers with civilians could be a subversive matter. In Ireland, partly because of the potentially more explosive political situation and partly because of the very poor housing conditions in the country as a whole, there was no choice but to provide accommodation; and almost all the army was quartered in their own barracks. On the mainland, however, even by 1848 there was often not sufficient barrack buildings to house the troops as they were moved rapidly round the country where disaffection was threatened; and tented camps, as in Liverpool in the summer of 1848, often had to be accepted.
Every scrap of information about the political conversation of ordinary soldiers – nearly always supplied by the local police – was carefully scrutinised; but there was very little. In London a constable of the E Division reported a conversation with a sentry on duty at the west entrance of the British Museum in Great Russell Street in which the soldier was alleged to have said: `You’ll find that if we are called out we shall not do much, and he thought that plenty of his people had signed the Charter but did not say if he had signed it’; and in the week before 10 April there were reports of up to a dozen soldiers of the Scots Fusiliers, stationed at Charing Cross barracks, talking in public houses of the Kennington Common meeting: one of them further stated that he had an aged father and mother in the country, who were reduced in circumstances and who now received for their maintenance from the Parish only three shillings a week – and what use was three shillings a week to an old couple of their age – He, for one, knew others of the same mind, would never fight for any Government or any other system which would behave so to any poor people’.
On another occasion, again with no precise dating but in the week before 10 April, a report of four soldiers of the same regiment stated that a civilian addressing the soldiers said: `I hope my lads you will not interfere with us next Monday’ and one of the soldiers replied: `There is little fear of that, my boy. Do you do your Duty and we will do ours – And if we are called out and ordered to fire – we shall fire over your heads.’ In this episode one name was quoted with identification markings. The only other incident reported in this particular War Office file was a short report dated 5 April when a police constable noted that he saw three privates of the Grenadier Guards stop and sign the Chartist petition on Westminster Bridge.
These were trivial affairs and cannot have caused the military authorities any serious concern. It is worth remarking that there do not appear to be any reports in government papers of the slightest anxiety about the metropolitan police. It was, of course, the Roman Catholic part of the army which the authorities were worried about in 1848, but this was a new problem. In the years preceeding 1848 the Catholic hierarchy in England had always come out strongly against physical force politics, and the influence of O’Connell against the Chartist movement was powerful. In 1848 itself there are a number of reports in the Home Office papers where evidence was given of the steadying influence of the local Catholic priest, evincing disapproval of the link with militant Chartism. The new situation in 1848 was one in which Irish soldiers might come into contact with Irish Repealers united with English Chartists. As events turned out, there was nothing to worry about on the English mainland. Ireland was, as ever, likely to produce disturbance; and on the night before the Kennington Common meeting in London, when there was rising excitement in Dublin as everywhere else, fighting broke out in Dublin between the soldiers of two regiments over the Repeal question. Clarendon, in a letter dated 10 April, described the incident in a letter to Sir George Grey:
There was a disagreeable row here last night between the soldiers of two Regiments about Repeal and they fought in the street. They were soon brought back to Barracks . . . We have heard too that the Repeal soldiers will attempt to break out of their Barracks tonight – the whole spirit of the garrison (or the R.C. part of it) appears to have altered since the 57th came here. We have fortunately got rid of them now by sending them to the North but P[rince] George tells me he inspected the two foot companies before they marched yesterday, and that he never saw such a mutinous and sullen set of fellows – he expected they would knock him down.
In later letters of the next few days Clarendon reported that the military commanders had investigated the incident and were now less troubled. He especially emphasised that the account in the Nation was `entirely false’ and that only two regiments had been sent out of Dublin; and it was the 57th alone about which there were still doubts.
The protection of strategic buildings was an important part of the general security precautions. In the early weeks which followed the Paris revolution there had been a number of reports in The Times especially from various correspondents in the French capital, which provided much detail as to the logistics of revolution by the masses; and Normanby, in his despatches to the Foreign Office, was also full of information on these matters. It was plain that the occupation of important buildings in the centre of the city, thereby providing permanent bases, was a quite crucial factor in the escalation of the revolution, allowing the possibilities of constant demonstrations, invasion of the Assembly, and a continuous renewal of revolutionary spirit and morale. The matter was well understood in Britain beyond the small groups of ministers and their military advisers. There were constant demands from those in charge of buildings for additional troops and arms in the days leading up to the Kennington common demonstration, among them an interesting letter from the director of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, who asked the Home Office for additional protection, on the grounds that it could now be expected that disturbances would be more serious than had previously been anticipated. He added:
Please to remember if it should by any accident happen that the Building of the Museum fall into the hands of disaffected persons it would prove to them a Fortress capable of holding Ten Thousand Men.
The date of the letter was 9 April. All the main buildings in Whitehall were heavily protected. At Somerset House a portcullis had been built; the roof of the Bank of England was parapeted with sandbags, and guns mounted through the apertures; all the prisons in the central London area were reinforced with additional arms and soldiers or pensioners. Other precautions included the earlier lighting of public lamps in the areas of London most likely to be affected; renewal of the instructions to gunsmiths to make their weapons unusable in the event of looting; and the compulsory taking over by the government of the national Electric Telegraph system for the whole week beginning Sunday 9 April. A month earlier the Home Office had asked for a special line to be constructed between the central office of the Electric Telegraph at Euston and the Home Office.
The distinguishing feature of the measures taken by the British government against its own radical movement, compared with the situation in Paris in the days before 22 February, was the overwhelming support given throughout the country by the middle strata of society. It could be taken for granted that the landed aristocracy and gentry would support the forces of order, but it was the middling groups – from the wealthy bourgeois at the top to those referred to in contemporary literature as the shopkeeping class – who rallied in large numbers and with great determination to oppose the radical disaffected. Already, in the aftermath of the Glasgow riots of 6 March, Archibald Alison, the high Tory deputy sheriff of the County of Lanark, had written to the Home Secretary commenting on the `most excellent’ disposition of the `whole middle classes’; and in London Rowan, the senior commissioner of the metropolitan police, was also taking it for granted that he would be able to rely upon a large inflow into the ranks of special constables. It had not always been so, which is why leading Whigs and Tories were now so ready to congratulate their middle-class allies. Corn Law repeal was, after all, still in everyone’s mind; and there had always been hesitation and uncertainty among some groups of the middle ranks of society in times of social crisis: in part ideological, but much more, it may be conjectured, because of doubts about the efficiency as well as the efficacy of government security measures. Even in 1848, when the Whig government acted throughout with competence and expedition, there was hesitation in the early days in some areas; but this was probably the fault of the local authorities rather than of central government. What can be said of this year is that the firm direction of affairs by the Home Office encouraged confidence that demonstrations of support by middle-class groups would be strongly reinforced by government action. Certainly by the middle of March the tide of opinion was running strongly in favour of the government; and in the weeks preceding the Kennington Common meeting an upsurge of confidence and support for the government of a quite extraordinary kind took place. Normanby had been constantly emphasising to Palmerston the failure of the July monarchy and of the Guizot government to maintain the confidence of its own supporters, and Normanby came back again and again to what he regarded as the crucial factor in the revolutionary process: the falling away of middle-class support for Louis-Philippe and all that he stood for. The urban middle classes in Britain were, of course, more numerous and more powerful economically than similar groups in France; but there was at the same time a widespread anti-aristocratic sentiment among many business circles and within middle-class nonconformist chapels. The threats from below to social stability and to the rights of property were, however, of such a kind that there was no doubt on which side the middle classes would stand; and the firm determination of the government overcame doubts and fears that the middle-class support of security measures – in their role as special constables – would receive the full backing of the coercive powers of the state. These considerations were especially important for the shopkeeping classes; and all over the country the middle classes offered their services in overwhelming numbers. Never before had there been such a mobilisation of all who for many different reasons were self-interested in the preservation of the existing structure of society. The mayors of all the large towns in the industrial North reported large numbers of special constables having been sworn in, and there were similar reports from less threatened areas. But it was London, inevitably, upon which national attention was focussed in the days before the Kennington Common meeting; and here the response was solid everywhere in the central parishes of the city and in some it was overwhelming. By 27 March Hackney had 200 special constables each with a staff and white arm-band. Limehouse divided their recruits into sections with different colours in their button-holes: the rank and file wore blue, sub-leaders red and the leader of five or more sections had blue and white. Towards the west of the town the upper classes took over. Marylebone had a printed notice calling for a meeting on the Saturday evening. The officers had already been elected, presumably more or less self-elected. Lieutenant-General Sir James Bathurst, a Peninsular veteran on the retired list but still Governor of Berwick for which he received £568 15 shillings and 10 pence per annum, was Superintendent-in-Chief; his deputy was Lieutenant-Colonel Sir J. J. Hamilton; and among the superintendants of the divisions into which the special constables were grouped were two rear admirals, one knight and one colonel. There was a good deal of self-help. Before the Kennington Common meeting – the exact date is not given – between thirty and forty tradesmen formed themselves into a company ready to be sworn in as special constables. They met at the Bell Inn, Kings Cross.
There were, inevitably, some rather unusual offers of help which the government felt it necessary either to do nothing about or to reject. On 7 April a gentleman farmer from Essex offered his services: `I am an experienced sportsman and a good steady shot’; the young gentlemen of Rugby school who were seventeen years or over offered to assist the authorities; and two days after the Kennington Common meeting the Keeper of the Queen’s prison in London wrote to Sir George Grey enclosing letters from various inmates serving time who were offering their services to help put down any disturbances: the Keeper adding that `I confidently believe I should have received the most loyal and efficient support from most of the Prisoners had there been any real occasion for their services’. Thomas Allsop, in a letter to Robert Owen, who was in Paris, summed up the prevailing mood in London: `Very great alarm prevails here, and very grave apprehensions are entertained for the peace of the country generally by grave and reflecting men. The worst feature is the antagonism of classes shown by the readiness of the middle classes to become special constables.’
Allsop’s letter was dated 8 April. Two days after the Chartist meeting The Times summarised the political lessons: `London will crush treason at once, and that all classes are at one in this respect. Such is the new strength we have gained by that noble day’s work, a strength we could not easily have gained in any other way’; and on the same day the Nonconformist, whose anti-aristocratic sentiments have already been quoted and whose political position was liberal-radical and certainly not Whig, insisted that while armed forces cannot kill `a living sentiment’, it nevertheless emphasised the importance of the `counter-demonstration on the part of the middle classes, not against the principles of the Charter, but against that recklessness of counsel which sought to realise them in social confusion and streams of blood. A physical-force revolution is thus, we hope, become an impossibility, never again to be attempted.’
The most controversial question concerning the special constables of 1848 is the extent to which working people themselves enrolled for 10 April. It was widely stated, and if not stated then assumed, by contemporaries of most political views outside the Chartist movement itself that at least many of the respectable artisans had volunteered in London and elsewhere in the country. What happened in the months which followed has hardly ever been discussed, and it is still a matter unresolved. We can list the working-class groups who wore armbands as special constables in London and other towns and about whom there is no argument. These were those employees who were either in a close master-servant relationship in which it would have been impossible to retain employment without being sworn in. Such were male domestic servants and the country employees of the landed classes. Many aristocratic families sent their women and children out of London and kept back their male servants as well as bringing up from their estates their gamekeepers, on the principle no doubt that good marksmen might be useful – as the Essex farmer noted above had assumed. There were a number of accounts in the contemporary London papers of titled persons enrolling as special constables along with their complete male establishments. Then there were the employees of railway companies and of public utilities such as gas companies. The railway companies ran their organisations for decades with a quasi-military discipline, and it was expected that their employees would volunteer. A letter of 5 April from the London and South Western Company to the Home Office reported that three to four hundred were already sworn in and that the number would increase to 800 on the day following: `of this number 40 or 50 are superior officers and clerks, upon whom I can thoroughly rely.’ Among the gas companies which provided lists of officers and workmen sworn in during the period preceding the Chartist demonstration were the Commercial Gas Company of Stepney; the Imperial Gas Works, Margaret Street, Shoreditch, and the Independent Gas Company, Haggerston. There was some opposition by workers to this voluntary conscription, but hard evidence is difficult to establish. The magistrates who received the oath also had problems, and there were several letters to the Home Office asking for guidance when large establishments tried to enrol their workers in the mass. The original circular from Grey of 3 April had referred to the enrolment of `respectable individuals’ but as 10 April approached the Home Office indicated its approval of these mass registrations. There was one particular group which received much publicity and which was certainly beyond the pale of working-class respectability. These were the Thames coal-whippers for whom Parliament had legislated in 1844; and their offer of service was widely used to indicate the extent to which the Chartist movement did not represent the whole of the working classes. It was also used, by Gladstone among others, as an example of the returns governments could expect from social reform measures. The coal-whippers were at the lower end of the labourers’ group, and although so much publicity was given to their commitment to public order, a report in the Weekly Dispatch suggested that many in fact had been more or less compulsorily enrolled by their labour superintendent. After the demonstration of the 10th was over, the coal-whippers demanded payment for their services since they had lost a day’s work, or in some cases, part of a day. Their request set up a mild flutter in Whitehall, but they had been so useful in the government’s propaganda that there was no question but to pay them. Richard Mayne, the metropolitan police Commissioner wrote to C. E. Trevelyan at the Treasury – whose economic heart must have been much displeased at the prospect of this frittering away of public funds: `it would be mischievous and impolitic to make them dissatisfied especially after the public notice taken of them’. There was careful calculation of the rates of pay deemed politic.
Many workingmen were either committed Chartists or like Mayhew’s costermongers, were for `us’ and against `them’, but there must have been quite large numbers who took no clear attitude or who followed their masters. Any quantitative analysis is obviously not possible, but there is an interesting phenomenon that has not been much commented on, and yet was to be found, in these early days in April at any rate, both in London and in the industrial North; and it may be significant as an indication of changing political attitudes. This was where working operatives refused to be sworn in as ordinary special constables but were prepared to act within their own works to protect their working premises from outside attack and, presumably, in Manchester, against visiting bands – pickets – who in the past had forced a turn-out. Magistrates who accepted workers on these terms were acting illegally in that the terms of a special constable’s appointment were such that while it was usual to employ them within their own neighbourhood they were obliged to serve anywhere in their own county; and according to a later ruling from the Home Office, even in another county as well. Service within their own working establishment was much more common than has so far been noted. There is, in the return of special constables made by the metropolitan police to the Home Office an interesting comment against Lambeth (St Mary’s parish): `Mr Maudsley, Engineer, has 1000 for his own premises most of whom are thus secured from taking the wrong side as they are on ill terms with the Police.’ There are also scattered pieces of evidence which show opposition to enrolment, one of the most important being a letter of 8 April sent to the Home Office by a London magistrate, a Mr P. Bingham who attended the Geological Museum to swear in the considerable number of workers employed in its building:
I am sorry to have to apprise that the feeling exhibited by them was anything but satisfactory. Some refused to be sworn, and those who consented, insisted on limiting their services to the inside of the Building. I willingly assented to this under the circumstances I have stated, considering they might otherwise be on Kennington Common.
I was then desired to attend at Lord Ellesmeres, where a very large body of workmen is employed. The Foreman informed me that the whole of them, with the exception of three, refused to be sworn, but that they had promised to defend the building in case of attack.
After this, I thought it better to abstain from going further.
Much was made by contemporaries of the business establishments who signed up all their workers and this support has been used by modern historians to buttress their own belief in working-class involvement in the maintenance of public order against the potential or threatened Chartist violence. One of the most striking examples of a large-scale opposition to service as special constables came from the industrial North during the second half of March. The story was told by Sir Thomas Arbuthnot commanding the northern military district who added to his report that he had made particular enquiries on the matters stated and found them to be `essentially correct’. What happened was that the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company swore in 700 of their workmen as special constables. The day after, a mass meeting of the men was held to protest against their involvement `at a moment’s notice’ and the resolution given below was unanimously adopted:
Resolved, first: That we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do disapprove of the abrupt manner in which we were called up to be sworn in as special constables by the authorities, and that we did fully expect to be treated as men capable of comprehending right from wrong – Secondly: That this meeting is of opinion that it is in the interest and duty of all classes to protect life and property, and that we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do pledge ourselves to do so, as far as it in our power lies, providing the middle class do pledge themselves to protect our capital, namely, our labour – Thirdly: That it is the opinion of this meeting that the present distress of the working classes arises from class legislation, and that it is their unanimous opinion that no permanent good can be effected for the community at large, until the working classes are fully and fairly represented in the Commons house of parliament, and that intelligence and virtue are the proper qualifications of a representative. The workmen here present do pledge themselves to offer no resistance to any body of men who may struggle for such a representation.
The resolution just quoted was taken from a press cutting from the Manchester Examiner of 18 March which Arbuthnot enclosed in his report to the Home Office. His accompanying letter said that it appeared that a number of the railway workers were well-known Chartists and some were in well-paid positions; that at the meeting there were some good speakers and that cheers were given for the Charter. Without doubt the resolution had been drawn up by someone or group accustomed to political activity.
One example of a group of militant railway workers does not make a case for the total opposition of working people to middle-class appeals for the law and order approach of the Whig government; even when put alongside the evidence already quoted from London. It does, however, encourage scepticism and highlight the need for more serious research into working-class attitudes, both in the run-up to the London demonstration of 10 April, when the hysteria in the country at large was widespread and pervasive, and in the months which followed. Most of the discussion about working-class involvement as special constables has related to the April days, and little to the weeks which followed when in some parts of the country – in particular London and the industrial North – the combined Irish and Chartist movements were growing and violence was coming to be accepted. From the evidence which is available, it would seem that the gap in later months between social classes was widening. This was certainly true of the liberal grouping within the middle classes whose attitudes towards working-class radicals were appreciably hardening; and, as political bitterness developed, it is probable that working-class enrolment in the security forces, whatever its original size and social composition, was lessening or being completely eliminated.
On the morning of 10 April the National Convention met at 9 a.m. in its usual hall in John Street. G. W. M. Reynolds took the chair in the absence of Philip McGrath, and Doyle reported that he and McGrath had waited on the police commissioners on the previous day to inform them that the Convention, as an indication of their desire to lessen tension, had changed the route of the procession as originally planned, and now intended to keep it some distance from the Houses of Parliament. The police, on their side, had replied that there could be no change in the decision to ban the procession. The Convention then heard Feargus O’Connor at his most rambling and, after shorter speeches from the floor, the Convention concluded at 10 a.m., and the leading Chartists then entered the vans outside the hall. These wagons contained the petition and were drawn by horses supplied by the Land Company. This official group then drove slowly down Tottenham Court Road, through Holborn and Farringdon Street over Blackfriars Bridge, and arrived at Kennington Common about 11.30 a.m.
The police had set up a control centre in the Horns Tavern on the edge of Kennington Common early on the Monday morning. Richard Mayne, the junior of the two Police Commissioners, was responsible for its direction. Messages from all parts of London came to this control point where the Chartists were assembling and later marching; and these reports were then sent on to the Home Office. Some examples follow:
`Report from Clerkenwell Green that 3000 assembled.’ (The Globe reported in its second edition that on two poles carried by the demonstrators there was a cap of liberty, a tri-coloured flag and an American flag).
Police Station, Stepney, 9 a.m.:
`There are at present about 2000 persons assembled on Stepney Green, who are now being formed in procession five deep, with Music, Flags etc. All seems peaceable, and no appearance of their being armed’
E. Div. 9.50 a.m.:
`The procession is now moving from Russell Square about 10,000.’
`The procession is now filing onto the Common having arrived by the Walworth Road. There are numerous flags and banners but not the slightest appearance of arms or even bludgeons.’
Soon after O’Connor arrived at Kennington Common he was called for a discussion with the police who informed him that the meeting would be allowed but that the procession would not. Mayne reported the interview at length in a communication to Sir George Grey. O’Connor returned to the demonstration and addressed it from one of the vans, arguing that they had established the right of meeting and to avoid a physical confrontation with the authorities they should accept the presentation of the petition by a few people; and that the meeting should disperse. `He would again call on them for God’s sake not to injure their cause by intemperance or folly’, and he ended: `Let every man among you now take off his hat and bow to the Great God of Heaven – thank him for his goodness, and solemly promise not to break his law.’ Ernest Jones was the next speaker and, to quote the Morning Chronicle report:
said that he was a physical force Chartist, but in their present unprepared state he deprecated any attempt at collision with the authorities. He had recommended that the procession should not have been brought on this side of the water, and that the bridges should not have been placed between them and the House of Commons. He believed that if they had met on the other side of the water the police would never have attempted to stop the procession. But at present they had been completely caught in a trap. They would, however, meet on the other side of the water, if their petition were not granted, and carry their remonstrance to the foot of the throne. He entreated them to disperse peaceably on the present occasion, and they might depend upon it, if they followed his advice, they would be able to meet in larger numbers upon another occasion, joined by thousands of the middle classes.
There was opposition to the platform from militants such as Cuffay, and this was the beginning of an alternative leadership in London to the hitherto accepted personalities of Chartism. It is possible that Ernest Jones, despite the discredit which this day must have brought upon him in the minds of some Londoners at any rate, might have continued to move to the Left; but he was the first of the major figures of the movement to be arrested in early June, and was not therefore part of the illegal movement that began to grow during the summer months. In the rest of the country the failure of the Kennington Common meeting had remarkably little, if any, effect upon the morale of the Chartist movement; in the industrial North especially, it continued to increase its political activities until the mass arrests of the late summer.
For the government 10 April was of crucial importance. The Chartist demonstration was never intended to be a physical confrontation with the government; and when the Chartist leaders protested their peaceful intentions, they were not dissembling. The Whig government, however, did, not overreact, as has often been suggested. A demonstration of their coercive power over their own radicals, in the context of this period, was of central importance, both at home and abroad. As the Chartist Convention correctly noted, Europe was looking anxiously and carefully at what was happening in England; and it was not hysteria but calm resolve that moved the Whig ministers to their elaborate precautions in their own capital city. They had absorbed the lessons of Paris, and to have permitted a mass demonstration to accompany the petition to Westminster might have offered opportunities for disturbance or riot the consequences of which, in the tense atmosphere of these days, were certainly incalculable. Again there would have been no doubt about the outcome; but a bloodless victory – one indeed that could be laughed off, as this one was – offered confidence and relief not only inside Britain but in every European capital that was beleaguered. To contemporaries in 1848 the affair of Kennington Common was certainly not as trivial as it has mostly been portrayed in the history textbooks. It provided evidence, as noted already, of the wholehearted support of all the various groups within the middle strata. The House of Commons could have its fun at the expense of the fictitious names on the Chartist petition as well as at the grossly exaggerated claims of its total signatories, but the government was under no illusion that the radical movement had disappeared or was suffering any serious loss of morale. As Palmerston wrote to Clarendon on the day following the Kennington Common meeting: `Things passed off beautifully here yesterday, but the snake is scotched, not killed.’
Taken from J. Saville, 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 102-20.