Today in London’s unruly history, 1848: a Chartist riot in Camberwell

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

The Chartists are usually quoted to be the’ first national movement of British working class’: they aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, excluded from the vote or political process. Although many of their leaders nationally were of middle class (or even aristocratic) origin, (actually in London they tended to be more artisans or working class) they were a hugely broadly based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot —To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament—thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although many did not advocate the vote for women, others did, and female democratic associations formed a part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters,and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London in the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1842, and then in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third petition. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ‘48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

Chartist Riot?

In March 1848 this climate led to a riot after a Chartist meeting – which seems to mainly ended in some opportunist looting…

A week after 3 days of riots in newly opened Trafalgar Square in early March, another Chartist meeting was convened, on Kennington Common for 13th March: on the platform were a number of the Chartist leaders. The authorities had taken extensive precautions and troops were under orders to be called out, if necessary, with General Brotherton in command, and the mobilisation of police totalled an extraordinary 3,88i, including eighty mounted men and one hundred in plain clothes, in the vicinity of the Common; 1,141 on the Surrey side of the bridges; and the remainder in reserve.

In the event, no obstruction was offered to 400 or 500 men who about noon – for which time the commencement of the proceedings was announced – departed, so the Camberwell Division of Police later reported, on a signal being given ‘by raising a Pole’. The band took in their Route the most retired arid unfrequented byeways supposed for the purpose of’ avoiding the observations of’ the Police and Special Constables until they reached Bowyer Lane where they commenced an attack upon the small Shop Keepers by breaking their Windows and in some cases forcing down the Shutters and carrying away a quantity of their Goods.

The shops rifled in Camberwell consisted of a pawnbroker’s, three boot and shoemaker’s, a tailor’s, a clothes shop, a confectioner’s, baker’s, broker’s and three general dealer’s. The looters were armed with ‘staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions’, including palings. One of the shoemakers told them:—I am a poor man; if you want something, don’t come to me” – 1 said 1 was no maker of laws, I had nothing to lose, and begged them not to distress me.’ He persuaded fifty or sixty to pass on, but when the main body came up they beat in his shop-front arid removed 162 pairs of boots and shoes, worth £35 16s. The principal target was the premises of a pawnbroker and silversmith. His shutters and doors were attacked with ‘Hatchets Hammers Shovels and other offensive and dangerous weapons’ to cries of ‘Hurrah for Liberty’ and ‘Come on, my brave boys, we’ll have our liberty’;”” and ‘watches were thrown into the street over the heads of ‘the people’. He estimated his loss at upwards of £900, including as it did 200 watches and 170 rings.

The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Several witnesses identified among the leaders Charles Lee, a gipsy (not apprehended until a year later), arid David Anthony Duffy,a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about without shirt, shoe, or stocking’. (Benjamin Prophett, known as’Black Ben’, was another ‘man of colour’ and seaman.)’ Eighteen men, of’ whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. The ages of all twenty-six (including Lee) are known: only ten were aged twenty or over (Prophett at twenty-nine was the eldest) and the youngest were three thirteen -year-olds. The Camberwell police superintendent dismissed the offenders as: ‘All Labourers and Costermongers’; yet of the twenty-five tried in 1848 a substantial number had trades, even though most of them were still in their teens. The occupations were: four labourers, three seamen, one fishmonger, costermonger, hawkboy, errand boy, brickmaker, ginger beer maker, bonnet box maker, baker, carpenter, bricklayer, sealing wax maker, glass blower, printer, tailor, currier, shoemaker, twine spinner (rope-maker), and brushmaker (and seller of ‘brooms and brushes).

Although the Camberwell riot was of short duration it was intense and also of historical importance, for it contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848 in London” and it was upon 8 and 10 April that the minatory sentences were imposed upon the rioters. It has, however, been overlooked by virtually all historians – and others. The Northern Star did not carry a report of either the riot or the resultant trials. Mayhew mentions the pillaging of a pawnbroker’s shop but assumes that it took place on 10 April (while his collaborator John Binny transcribed the autobiographical narrative of Charles Lee after his return from transportation for life).

The participation of black radicals in the riot is interesting: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Carribbean. Cuffay was prominent in the April 1848 Kennington meeting, and was then arrested in August of that year, accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

Chartists in Camberwell

Camberwell had by 1848 become a stronghold of Chartism in South London. Chartists we know of include John Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, a local agent selling tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP TS Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker in Edinburgh and Camberwell; he married a Soho baker’s daughter and, with her dowry, bought a baker’s shop in Camberwell; he was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’;  and ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist until rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop in 1848’. We have to wonder if this wrecking was the same riot of 13th March above?
Johnston left in 1848 for Chicago, Illinois, after labouring work in New York and Philadelphia. Lived and worked in Chicago till 1890, when he died. (Autobiographical Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Scotchman (Chicago, 1885)

John Simpson, mentioned above, was also a subscriber to the Chartist land Plan: a list of those who subscribed a little money to the Chartist Land Company, Feargus O’ Connor’s scheme to settle workers on land to make them self-sufficient. O’Connor was undoubtedly the most influential Chartist leader in the 1840s; but his grand scheme failed (after attracting thousands of poor subscribers). After some years of propaganda the Chartist Co-operative Land Society (later the National Land Company) was founded in 1845. O’Connor’s vigourous propaganda work collected a mass of subscribers and donations, and in 1846 “O’Connorville” was founded at Heronsgate, near Chorleywood, northwest of London. Other estates were bought and let out in smallholding to subscribers picked by ballot. But by the end of 1847, the financial difficulties facing the scheme and the incompetence of its directors, became obvious. In 1848 a House of Commons Committee reported that the Company was illegal, its finances in a state of chaos, and its promises impossible to fulfill.

Other Camberwell Land Plan subscribers included

  • John Cheshire, of James St, Camberwell New Rd,
  • Richard Ackenhead, who lived in Arms place, Coburg Rd, and also (later) in St Marks Place, Kennington, was a cordwainer
  • William Clipsham, a joiner, of Nelson St, Spilsbys, Camberwell
  • William Cook, a labourer, of 5 Westmoreland St, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • William Coombes, 9 Regent St, Camberwell, a labourer
  • George Cooper, a labourer, also of Regent St
  • Daniel Dempsey, labourer, 12 Regent St Camberwell

Regent St seems to have been a Chrtist hotspot

John Counningham, Susanna Cotts, James St, Camberwell, and William of the same name – brothers?

  • William Greengrass, labourer, James St Camberwell New Rd

(Again, James Street a sounds a very radical place…)

  • George Richard Day, a law clerk, 1 Surrey Place, Camberwell
  • Baziel Fisk, shoemaker, 1 Tangue Place James St Camberwell New Rd
  • Thomas Heath, joiner, Portland St Camberwell
  • John Keen, tailor, 13 Neat St, Coburgh Rd,Camberwell
  • John King, waiter, 15 Neat St
  • Edward North, carpenter, Windham Rd, Camberwell

who may have been same as Edward North, who lived in Bereford Place, Wyndham Rd, Camberwell, but later listed as a hawker…

  • James Rhodes, dairyman, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • George Rutherford, 3 Pitt St, Camberwell

(There’s also a George Rutherford listed in Wyndham rd as a labourer…)

  • John Wilkins, baker, 1 Acorn Place Camberwell

There’s an interesting pattern tho if you look at where these addresses mostly if not all are – all north of Camberwell Church Street, probably poorer housing then as it is now, if you compare it to what lies south of Church Street. Check out Booth’s Poverty maps and you can see that class-wise, Church Street/Camberwell New Road broadly marked a boundary, delineating something of a north-south wealth divide in Camberwell.

 

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