Today in London radical history: Chartist socialist George Julian Harney born Deptford, 1817.

George Julian Harney was a central figure in London’s Chartist movement, as well as playing a significant part nationally, and became an early socialist.
The following text gives a brief account of his life, concentrating on his Chartist days.

Deptford’s Red Republican: George Julian Harney, 1817-1897
By Terry Liddle

As well as being dedicated to the memory of George Julian Harney, this text is also dedicated to the memory of Albert Standley, a pioneer of modern Republicanism.

In 1840, Harney stated: “Be ours the task to accomplish by one glorious effort the freedom of our country.” Let’s do it!

GEORGE JULIAN HARNEY was born in Deptford, then an important maritime centre, in February 17, 1817. As early as the end of the 18th century ship builders in the area had starled to organise trade unions and from the 1830s onward there would be an active Charlist movement. Harney’s father had served as an able seaman in the wars with France. Orphaned early in life. Harney’s education was rudimentary until at the age of 11 he entered the Boys School at Greenwich. Three Years later he went to sea as a cabin boy visiting Portugal and Brazil. Physically unsuited to the hard seafaring life, after six months at sea he returned to London, taking up various jobs ashore. At this time the agitation around the Reform Bill, with both the new industrial middle class and the more numerous working class struggling for the vote, was at its zenith and Harney soon became involved.

In 1832. he look a job as shop boy at the Poor Man’s Guardian. Published by Henry Hetherington, a Freethinker and Owenite Socialist, it had a circulation of 16,000. The Publications Act of 1819 had imposed on newspapers a stamp duty of sixpence which placed them beyond the pocket of working class readers. The Radicals of the day saw this as an unjust tax on knowledge and defiantly published unstamped papers. Hundreds of sellers of the unstamped press were imprisoned for the right to read and sell their own publications. Harney served his political apprenticeship in this struggle being imprisoned three times between the years 1831 and 1836.

HARNEY AND O’BRIEN

On release from Derby prison, Harney became friends with the Poor Man’s Guardian editor Bronterre O’Brien. O’Brien was a keen student of the French Revolution, translating Buonarroti’s history of Babeuf’s conspiracy and writing a biography of Robespierre. Harney followed his example. Of their friendship, O’Brien’s biographer, Alfred Plummer, wrote: “These two spirited young men, filled with revolutionary fervour, were united in conviction that given universal suffrage and the dispersal of mass ignorance… the march of regeneration would be swift and sure, all that was oppressive would be overthrown and triumphant justice would take the place of extirpated wrong.”

The London Mercury of March 12, 1837 noted the formation of the East London Democratic Association noting: “We admire the objects and principles of this new society and shall not fail to give it all the support and encouragement in our power.” Leading figures were Harney, Charles Neeson, a Painite tailor, and Allen Davenport, a shoemaker and follower of Thomas Spence. On June 11, 1837, the ELDA met to consider a motion put by Harney urging the formation of a Central National Association as the only rational means of not only obtaining universal sufflage but also the overthrow of the moneyed tyrants who grind the sons of labour into the dust.

The Central National Association was duly formed and met to consider a motion from Harney and O’Brien advocating physical force as the means to radical reform. However, the CNA was short lived, being wrecked by a dispute resulting from Harney’s attack on the conduct of the Irish MP Daniel O’Connell. Hamey and his followers formed the London Democratic Association. With a solid base among Spitalfields silkweavers and other London trades, its membership was 4,000. Its aims as stated by Harney included universal suffrage, abolition of newspaper taxes and the Poor Law, the 8 hour day and support for trade unions.

At Christmas 1838 Hamey visited Newcastle which had elected him a delegate to the forthcoming Chartist National Convention. Thousands turned out on Christmas day to listen to, and applaud, his call for physical force. Harney continued his speaking tour in Yorkshire and Lancashire, men armed with muskets and pikes attending mass torchlight meetings. Harney at the time was so poor he had to wait in a tailor’s shop while his one pair of trousers was being repaired. The mood was one of revolution, thousands coming to see the forthcoming Convention as the country’s real government.

A week before the Convention gathered in London, Harney addressed a mass meeting in Derby. He proclaimed: “We demand universal suffrage because it is our right and not only because it is our right but because we believe that it will bring freedom to our country and happiness to our homesteads, we believe it will give us bread and beef and beer.”

The convention met on February 4, 1839. An absent delegate was George Loveless who had been transported to Australia for his trade union activities in Tolpuddle. The Convention decided to seek the support of MPs for a petition with over a million signatures supporting the People’s Charter. For Harney this was an absurd waste of time. The LDA attempted to place before the Convention a motion stating that every act of oppression should be answered with immediate resistance. This was rejected. A mass meeting on March 11 addressed by Harney and O’Brien advised the Chartists to arm themselves. The Convention began to discuss the people’s right to arm. Harney again underlines his position in the pages of the London Democrat: “…there is but one means of obtaining the Charter and that is by insurrection.”

An alarmed government began mobilising the military and a new police, Armed gatherings were banned and magistrates given the power to prohibit meetings.

With things reaching crisis point, at Harney’s suggestion the Convention relocated to Birmingham on May 13. The police raided the LDA’s offices, but Harney escaped arrest having already left for Birmingham. A warrant for his arrest was sworn out on May 17. In Birmingham, serious rioting broke out when the police attacked a small meeting. It was only at the urging of Chartist leaders that the rioters dispersed. The authorities reacted by arresting Taylor and several other Chartist leaders. More riots broke out in Birmingham and elsewhere when parliament rejected the Charter on July 15. The Convention’s leaders, unable or unwilling to head a revolution, issued a call for a general strike only to reverse their decision when it became clear that it lacked support. Finally, at the urging of Harney and Taylor the Convention dissolved itself.

The authorities caught tip with Harney at Bedlington near Newcastle, their aim being to return him to Birmingham via Carlisle. In Carlisle he had to be smuggled out of the back door of an inn, an angry crowd demanding his release surrounding the front. When news of his arrest became known in Newcastle the town, was plastered with posters calling the people to action. Miners in the area struck and started marching on Newcastle. A ban on meetings was defied and rioting broke out. Once again it was the Chartist leaders who defused the situation,

By the Spring of 1840 over five hundred Chartists were in prison. Harney was held in Warwick Castle but later released. A rising in Wales had failed and its leaders had suffered transportation. Some died behind bars. In 1842 Harney spoke at the graveside of Sheffield Chartist Samuel Holberry who had died in prison aged twenty seven. “He is numbered with the patriots who have died martyrs for the cause of liberty…”, proclaimed Harney. Harney’s own trial collapsed when the Crown withdrew its case. Scotland was the only place where Chartist leaders were still at liberty and after his trial Hamey went there for a lecture tour which lasted a year. It was there that he met and married Mary Cameron, a weaver’s daughter, to whom he was greatly devoted. His activities in Scotland he reported himself in the pages of the Northern Star. Selling at fourpence halfpenny, it had a circulation of thirty thousand

A STRIKE DEFEATED

While his politics remained the same he was a Jacobin cast in the mould of Marat, the tone of his oratory altered considerably. He now stressed national organisation instead of immediate insurrection. There was now a line of caution and moderation in his speeches. During the Plug Plot Riots of 1842, when the Chartists again tried to win their demands by means of a general strike and troops fired on strikers in Blackburn, Halifax and Preston. Harney, feeling that the strike lacked real mass support, urged moderation much to the dismay of many of his supporters. Harney felt that the strike had been provoked by the manufacturers in a bid to secure repeal of the Corn Laws. Basing his analysis on the situation in Sheffield, where after a mass meeting had supported the strike, several trade union secretaries then opposed it, he wrote in the Northern Star of September 3, 1842: “I would have joined into it heart and soul but no sane man could come to any other conclusion than that the great mass of the people of Sheffield Trades were deadly hostile to any such scheme”. At a conference in Sheffield he pointed out that strikers had returned to work two days after being fired on by troops.

By the middle of August, 1842 the strike had been defeated. The government celebrated by arresting over one thousand five hundred Chartists. Of these, in excess of six hundred were put on trial, forty being transported. Peter M’Douall, a prominent strike leaders, fled to France. The strike, however, was instrumental in ending the Corn Laws, the Home Secretary in 1842, giving the strike as the reason for their abolition. Harney may well have been right.

Harney had settled in Sheffield in 1841 having been appointed full time Chartist organiser for the West Riding. The strength of Chartism in this part of Yorkshire can be judged from the facts that over fifteen thousand people turned out to celebrate the French Revolution of 1848 and that by the following year Chartists held nearly half the seats on Sheffield Town Council. He also became local correspondent for the Northem Star. His political ideas remained unchanged and his opposition to union between the middle class reformers of Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartists brought him into conflict with his old mentor O’Brien. Hamey, and the Northem Star with him, took the view that even if the Union’s reform proposals were adopted the working class would still be left prostrate before capitalists and speculators. The project fell apart when after a conference in 1842 adopted the Charter in name, an earlier conference having adopted its six points, Sturge withdrew. The whole sorry episode, however, had as its legacy further divisions within the Chartists ranks.

One charge thrown at the Chartists was that of infidelity. Hamey was himself an infidel. In Derby he aided the secularist booksellers Finlay and Robinson and when Holyoake was imprisoned for blasphemy Harney acted as agent for his Oracle of Reason. In a letter to Holyoake dated April 22, 1844, Harney made it plain that he was “war with all priesthoods and priestcrafts” along with republicanism and communism as part of Chartism’s future. However when the Reverend John Campbell again hurled the charge of infidelity Hamey replied: “There is nothing concerning infidelity in the Charter… The Charter promises to confer on all men… the rights of citizenship…”

In 1843 Hamey became sub editor of the Northem Star moving to Leeds where it was published. From then until 1850 the paper was under Harney’s effective control. he taking the editorial chair in 1845. During this period Harney often found himself out of step with much mainstream Chartist thinking. In particular he opposed the Land Plan a scheme whereby Chartists would buy land and settle it as smallholders. While the first estate named for Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor worked well for a while in the end the plan failed. As the historian of Chartism, Reg Groves put it: “… it was an attempt to circumvent historical development; to find a way to escape from industrial development, instead of seeking the way forward through the utilisation of the new production power”.

A striking feature of the Northern Star was Harney’s reports of international events. In this he drew on an international tradition that went back to the Civil War. Early in his political career, Harney had come into contact with Polish refugees from the failed uprising of 1831 and had later joined the Polish Democratic Association. In 1844 the Northem Star moved to London bringing Hamey into contact with the various groupings of political refugees. Within this milieu were French, Germans and Italians as well as Poles.

The Poles were organised in the Polish Democratic Association and Lud Polski. The French had been in contact with English Chartists since 1840. That year Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll had founded the German Workers Education Society. Schapper and Bauer were members of the League of the Just founded in Paris in 1836, members fighting in an abortive uprising In 1839. The Italians were mostly followers of Mazzini who aimed for a united Italian Republic. Together with some English Chartists they founded an International Peoples League in 1847.

0ut of this gathering of hardline republicans there arose, following a banquet in celebration of the French Revolution, the Fraternal Democrats. Its slogan “All Men are Brothers” was that of the League of the Just. The Fraternal Democrats can truly be said to be a forerunner of the First International of which Harney would become a member. Its statement of aims stated: “Convinced… that national prejudices have been, in all ages, taken advantage of by the people’s oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they could have been working together for their common good, this Society repudiates the term ‘foreigner’, no matter by, or to whom applied.” Hamey was a fervent member. appealing in the Northern Star “… to the oppressed of every land for the triumph of the common cause.” This did not stop Marx sending Hamey what he called “a mild attack on the peacefulness of the Fraternal Democrats.”

FRANCE AND IRELAND

It was at a banquet to celebrate the 1848 French Revolution that Harney and O’Brien were reconciled, O’Brien speaking in favour of a union of Chartists and Socialists. When the Fraternal Democrats met on Robespierre’s birthday, Harney was in the chair and according to the Democratic Review O’Brien’s vindication of the character of the victim of Thermidor was enthusiastically applauded. O’Brien proposed a toast to Harney and other toasts were to the memory of Robert Ernmett and the health of Smith O’Brien and other Irish patriots. Paine, Washington and Ernest Jones were also honoured. Soon afterwards O’Brien was the main speaker at a meeting held to protest the suppression of electoral reform in France. He bitterly attacked the money class in France who sought to keep the people poor by robbing them of the fruits of their labours.

O’Brien, also spoke at a meeting to protest the treatment of William Smith O’Brien, an Irish nationalist who had been transported on a flimsy charge of high treason. In 1838 over one hundred Chartists and workers organisations had signed an address to the Irish people which stated: “… seeing that the productive classes of the two islands have the same wants and the same enemies; why should they not look forward to the same remedy and make common cause against the same oppressor …” Harney was also a friend of Ireland, speaking from the Irish platform at the Kennington Common demonstration of 1848 and writing in the Red Republican: “It is high time the proletarians of Great Britain and Ireland came into possession of their rightful heritage…”

The Fraternal Democrats’ politics can be judged from a speech delivered by Harney in 1846 to the German Democratic Society for the Education of the Working Class. Said Harney: “The cause of the common people of all countries is the same the cause of labour… In each country the slavery of the many and the tyranny of the few are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same… Working men of all nations are not your grievances the same? Is not. then, your good cause one and the same also? We may differ as to the means … but the great end the veritable emancipation of the human race must be the aim and the end of all May the working classes of all nations combine in brotherhood for the triumph of their common cause.”

The Fraternal Democrats’ programme as outlined by Harney, declared: “We renounce, repudiate and condemn all hereditary inequalities and distinctions of caste. we declare that the present state of society which permits idlers and schemers to monopolise the fruits of the earth, and the productions of industry, and compels the working class to labour for inadequate rewards. and ever condemns them to social slavery, destitution and degradation is essentially unjust…”

MARX AND ENGELS

Harney and Engels first met in 1843, Harney wrote of their encounter: “…he came from Bradford to Leeds and inquired for me at the Northern Star office. A tall, handsome young man… whose English… was even then remarkable for its accuracy. He told me he was a constant reader of the Northern Star and took a keen interest in the Chartist movement. Thus began our friendship …” Engels started writing for the Northern Star in 1844. Despite Harney’s later split with Marx, his friendship with Engels endured. And fifty years later when Engels died Hamey contributed a moving obituary to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor looked fondly upon the years of friendship between Harney and Engels. In 1887 she wrote in the Democratic Review: “…it has been my good fortune to know as a child George Julian Harney … only a few months ago 1 heard Harney and Engels talking of Chartist times.”

Harney first met Marx in 1845 during a short visit by the latter to England. The following year Marx and Engels were suggesting that Harney act as the link between the London Communists and their group in Brussels. Harney, who had joined the League of the Just in 1846, was closer to Marx’s critics who looked on the group in Belgium as “literary characters” guilty of “intellectual arrogance”. Marx and Engels toyed with the idea of ending relations with the London exiles and making a private deal with Harney but it was fruitless. Meanwhile the Northern Star reported greetings from the Belgium Communists to O’Connor who has stood as a Chartist in a by election.

In 1847 Harney stood for election in Tiverton where he opposed Lord Palmerston. ln his election address, Harney stated: “I would… oppose all wars and interventions except those which the voice of the people might pronounce absolutely indispensable for self defence, or the protection of the weak against the powerful. I would labour to put an end to the alliance of this country with despotic governments…” So worried was Palmerston by Harney’s attack that his reply filled five columns of The Times. On a show of hands Harney was overwhelmingly elected but declined to go to the poll in protest at an undemocratic franchise.

That year Marx returned to London to attend the second conference of the Communist League. While there he addressed a gathering of the Fraternal Democrats in celebration of the 1830 Polish Revolution. The Northern Star reported: “Dr. Marx… was greeted with every demonstration of welcome. The Democrats of Belgium felt that the Chartists of England were the real Democrats and that the moment they carried the six points of their Charter, the road to liberty would be opened to the whole world.” “Carry your object then”, said the speaker, “and you will be hailed as the saviours of the whole human race.”

In the course of his speech, Marx pointed out that the downfall of the established order is no loss for those having nothing to lose in the old society and this is the case in all countries for the great majority. They have, rather, everything to gain from the collapse of the old society which is the condition for the building of a new society no longer based on class oppression.

REVOLUTION!

Europe in 1848 was aflame with revolution. In France the monarchy of Louis Phillipe was overthrown and a republic proclaimed. The French Provisional Government invited Marx to France and even offered him money to start a newspaper. The Chartists welcomed the upheaval which saw the tricolour everywhere next to the red flag. The National Charter Association, the London Chartists and the Fraternal Democrats addressed the Parisian people in these words: “…you have exhibited a spectacle of unparalleled heroism, and thereby set an example to the enslaved nations of the earth … the fire that consumed the throne of the royal traitor and tyrant “I kindle the torch of liberty in every country of Europe.”

Harney, together with Emest Jones and Phillip McGraith, was sent to France to deliver this address to the Provincial Government. At the Hotel de Ville in Paris he assured France of the support of the British people, presenting Ledru Rollin with the original of the address adorned with the tricolour. This was hung over the presidential chair in the hall of audience. Hamey and Jones then went to meet with Marx.

When British intervention against France looked likely, the Fraternal Democrats issued a manifesto which stated: “Workingmen of Great Britain and Ireland, ask yourselves the question: why should you arm and fight for the preservation of institutions in the privileges of which you have no share … why should you arm and fight for the protection of property which you can only regard as the accumulated plunder of the fruits of your labour? Let the privileged and the property owners fight their own battles.” Jones assured the Fraternal Democrats that “the Book of Kings was fast closing in the Bible of Humanity.” The Northern Star editorialised: “…as France has secured her beloved Republic, so Ireland must have her parliament restored and England her idolised Charter.”

A banned meeting in Trafalgar Square proclaimed support for the Charter and the French Revolution. A riot ensued with lamps near Buckingham Palace being smashed to the alarm of Frau Guelph. Town after town held monster rallies under the tricolour hailing France and the Charter; a joint Irish and Chartist meeting in Edinburgh sung The Marseillaise. At Kennington Common twenty thousand gathered with the tricolour in the face of armed police.

In London a Chartist Convention assembled on April 4. Harney reported that his constituents had resolved that the forthcoming petition would be the last presented to the Commons as presently constituted. All delegates reported growing willingness to use physical force if the Charter was again rejected.

A march on parliament to present the petition was banned. Harney replied that the Chartists shouldn’t meet at all unless they were prepared to fight for the demonstration. Government buildings were barricaded, clerks armed and specials sworn in. The Empress decamped for the Isle of Wight. Troops were deployed and heavy guns brought up from Woolwich. As the Chartists prepared to demand their rights, the government, mindful of events in France, prepared for war!

On April 10, the Chartists assembled to hear O’Connor beg them to call things off claiming he would be shot. By 10am the Chartists with banners calling for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Ireland for the Irish” were on the march. In their midst was a carriage carrying the petition with over five million signatures. It was followed by another carriage with Hamey in the front seat. Eventually one hundred and fifty thousand gathered on Kennington Common. There O’Connor said he made a deal with the police they would allow the meeting if the march was called off. Various platforms were set up with Harney among the speakers. By 2pm the crowd was starting to disperse. Apart from a few scuffles there was no violence. Britain was not France!

The National Convention reconvened on May 1. Harney had been forbidden by O’Connor, his employer, to attend. The Convention became a short lived National Assembly. The National Charter Association was reorganised and links with the Irish Republicans (Ireland in the grip of the Great Hunger was ill prepared as Britain for revolution). There was talk of an uprising in the summer. In Bradford thousands marched with pikes. Northern Chartists resolved to form a National Guard and there were riots in Manchester. At London’s Bonner’s Fields, Jones assured his audience that the Chartist green flag would fly over Downing Street. This was not to be so.

The state struck first, the Irish heading the list. John Mitchell, editor of the United Irishman was transported being held en route in the Woolwich hulks. He was followed by Smith O’Brien whose rising in Tipperary failed. Next came the Chartists. London Chartists were found guilty of conspiring to levy was against Victoria. In Liverpool two were sentenced to death and five transported. Jones got two years.

Somehow, Harney remained at liberty. Amongst Chartists not behind bars the mood became one of despair and defeatism. Many now repudiated revolution and sought an alliance with middle class advocates of a limited extension of the franchise. Splits occurred and rival organisations were set up. Harney was on both the executive of the NCA and a provisional executive set up by London Chartists.

If some moved Right, Harney moved Left. As the Red Republican put it: “they have progressed from the idea of a simple political reform to the idea of Social Revolution.” For the Left, Chartism was now “… the cause of the producers, and the battle of this enslaved class is now the battle we fight, but it must be fought under the red flag… the task given to us at present is to rally our brother proletarians en masse around the flag, by means of a democratic and social propaganda, an agitation for the Charter and something more.”

Harney was now removed from the Northern Star by O’Connor who accused him of advocating murder, a charge repudiated by the NCA. Unity moves in the form of a National Charter and Social Reform Union was stillborn. The Chartist Convention of 1851 issued a statement emphasising that Chartism should be the protector of the oppressed and should recognise that a political change would be useless unless accompanied by a social change. The Red Republican appealed for reports from trade unions and co operative societies. By the end of the 1850s Chartism was a spent force.

Fired from the Northern Star, Harney started publication of the monthly Democratic Review. This carded articles from a wide range of Radicals including Engels. It also republished articles by Marx.

The Democratic Review was followed by the Red Republican which appeared on June 22, 1850. At its masthead was the bonnet rouge and the red flag. Articles advocated the expropriation of docks, canals and railways and even the abolition of money. In its pages was published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Faced with a booksellers’ boycott, the name was changed to the Friend of the People. It was published from 1850 to 1852 when it merged with the Northern Star, then the Vanguard, to become the Star of Freedom. Harney’s final publication was the Vanguard which ceased publication in 1853.

AN UNWELCOME VISITOR

In 1850 there came to Britain the Austrian general Haynau, notorious for his activities in Hungary and Italy including the flogging of women. On a visit to the Barclay brewery in Southwark, workers answered Harney’s call for protests by grabbing Haynau, cutting off his moustache and flogging him. Chased through the brewery, he hid in a dustbin until tile police rescued him. The rest of his visit was spent in bed recovering. The event was the subject of a popular song.

By this lime Harney and Jones had fallen out, hurling accusations of dictatorship. Determined to defeat Harney, Jones called a convention in Manchester. There he was triumphant but he was powerless to halt Chartism’s decline. Unity moves, opposed by Hamey, again failed. The last Chartist Convention met in 1858. It was the end.

Hamey had also fallen out with Marx who was now living in London. The cause of the breach was Harney’s willingness to open the pages of his publications to a wide range of exiles including those with whom Marx was engaged in fractional strife.

At a Fraternal Democrats event in 1848 Marx had met with the followers of the French revolutionary Blanqui. Out of this there was organised the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries. Among those signing its statutes were Marx, Engels and Harney.

Early in 1851 Harney spoke at a meeting to commemorate the Polish patriot Bem, organised by French followers of Blanqui and Louis Blanc. That year he managed to be at rival events celebrating the 1848 French Revolution. The first was organised by the European Central Democratic Committee organised by Mazzini and others. Its statements ‘were regular features in the Red Republican and the Friend of the People.

The other was presided over by Schapper, an opponent of Marx. During the course of the meeting, two of Marx’s followers, Schram and Pieper, were accused of being spies and roughed up. Despite Harney’s defence of Schram, in the Friend of the People of March 15, 1850, Marx, now broke off cordial relations with Harney attacking him as an “impresionable plebeian”. Some months later they met again at a tea party celebrating Robert Owen’s 80th birthday. They did not meet again for 25 years a chance encounter on Waterloo Station. Harney, however, continued to hold Marx in high esteem even offering to set up a fund to spread his ideas among British workers.

Increasingly politically isolated, Harney suffered a severe blow with the death of his wife in 1853. At the end of the year he moved to Newcastle where he tried to organise a Republican Brotherhood with Joseph Cowan. Two years later he moved to Jersey continuing to work as a journalist, resigning from his paper when it supported the Confederates in the American Civil War. In 1863 he emigrated to America.

There he worked as a clerk continuing to write articles for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, now his only contact with the political world. When Charles Bradlaugh visited America in 1873, Harney acted as his guide.

In 1881 Harney returned to England. Living in Richmond, despite worsening health he continued working as a Journalist. Unlike some veteran Chartists he did not join H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. He did, however, send greetings to the striking dockers in 1889 and was present at the May Day demonstration in 1890.

Shortly before his death Hamey was interviewed for the SDF’s Social Democrat by Edward Aveling. Aveling wrote: “I see in this old man a link between the years and the years. I know that long after the rest of us are forgotten the name George Julian Harney will be remembered with thankfulness and tears”. There can be no better epitaph!

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This text was originally published as a pamphlet by the Friends of George Julian Harney, in 1997, to commemorate the 100th annversary of Harney’s death. Republished in a slightly revised edition, 2002.

In memory of the author, Terry Liddle, libertarian socialist, freethinker, working class historian, and dedicated southeast Londoner, who died in 2012.

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Today in London philosophical history, 1793: William Godwin’s Political Justice, first published.

Though largely forgotten now, William Godwin’s tract, ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, was very widely read and hugely influential when it appeared in 1793, raising philosophical arguments aroused by the French Revolution to whole new levels. Involved in the late 1780s-early 1790s in reforming circles, around groups both inspired by the French Revolution and working for radical reform in Britain, (such as the Revolution Society, the circles around Thomas Paine and the London Corresponding Society), Godwin took a different radical and philosophical direction. Though he expressed a  solid belief in education and its power to free people, he came to doubt the use of organisations and oppose all government, or political effort of any kind.  “A man surrenders too much of himself” in political organisations or associations, he asserted… In some ways he foreshadows both anarchism and extreme laissez faire capitalism… though there’s no evidence he directly influenced any later thinkers of the 19th Century libertarian movement.

Historians and Godwin: AL Morton said that Political Justice “concentrated all the typical ideas of the time into a single work permeated with utopian feeling” – though in fact he ended up widely at variance with many of his contemporaries politically.

Godwin’s background was in hardline Calvinism, and though he discarded the Calvinist doctrine, he retained the way of thinking: logical, deductive, disdaining of sentiment and experience; he also took from this upbringing his ardent belief in the perfectability of humankind. Its obvious too that the history of persecution of dissenters influenced his view on links between state and church… Mark Philp , who made a study of Political Justice, also identifies many of the central ideas of the book as emanating from Godwin’s background in the rational Dissenting movement, to the point where disagreeing with many traditional views of Godwin, he frames his ideas in that context, rather than that of the philosophical debate arising from the French Revolution. Interestingly,  some of Godwin’s philosophical cul-de-sacs, like that concerts and theatrical performances would die out in a free rational society, arrive via ostensibly opposite motives at very similar conclusions to puritanism, which does seem to chime somewhat with Philp’s conclusions.

After a failed early career as a dissenting minister, Godwin became a journalist and writer; while he was immersed in the ideas and way of life of the Rationalist Dissenters, he also came under the influence of french philosophers.

Godwin was on the fringes of movements for electoral and social reform at home, as well as groups in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution. While his inclinations were not really towards activism, but to discussion and change through development of ideas, his close friends like Thomas Holcroft and Joseph Gerrard were targeted by government repression of the reformers. He intervened in the trials of London Corresponding Society leaders Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and others, accused of treason, in 1794, writing a powerful article in the Morning Chronicle which exposed the attempt to widen the high treason charge to mean any attempt to change society. Godwin’s article was credited by many with influencing the jury’s decision to acquit all those charged: a heavy defeat for the authorities.

But a combination of observation of the repression of the reformists, his own philosphical thinking, and disillusion at the violent turn the French Revolution took, led Godwin to not only theorise that government was an unnecessary evil, but also to extend this to assert that all political combinations were counter-productive. Temporary combinations may be necessary for a time and specific purposes, but left to exist they would foster cabal, party spirit, tumult, demagoguery. He also came to dismiss the possibility of true lasting social change coming from revolutionary upheavals…

‘Political Justice’ was begun in 1791, though not finished till January 1793. Successive editions later in the decade revealed changes in his ideas; though some historians have attributed this to the times growing less radical, or fear of government persecution, it’s also true that his ideas evolved. The book is a hymn to progress, opposition to war, despotism, monarchy, religion, penal laws, patriotism, class inequality; in its place he exhorts the “human will to embark with a conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection.” He argues for absolute freedom in political and speculative discussion, against any prosecutions for blasphemy or sedition; for abolition of established religion; he dismisses monarchy, aristocracy, elective dictatorship in the US style (new then). The book also condemned luxury, ostentation, wealth; the pursuit of them he saw as corrupting virtue and degrading others, and thus ourselves; those who live in luxury are parasiting on the labour of others, and claiming that property is bequeathed by their ancestors as a justification is a “mouldy patent”. It is immoral for one man to have power to dispose of produce of another’s toil, and wrong for one to live in ease unless its available to all. Godwin opposed colonialism, advocating universal free trade in its place. Economics was his achilles heel though, He did lack any analysis of economics, or its role in social change; as historian AL Morton pointed out, criticising Godwin’s economic proposals as sketchy Liberalism. Holding that on the one hand its wrong for one man to have superfluous wealth while others go hungry, but equally wrong for anyone to deprive anyone of their property or wealth, takes no account of how wealth is acquired. Godwin thought property should remain sacred, not only so as to emphasise the personal virtue of giving it away, but also because for the poor to take the property of the rich by force would infringe the self-determination of the wealthy.

In opposition to then widely held theories that people are determined by factors such as heredity, social position and environment, and are unable to change themselves, Godwin asserted that man IS a creature of ‘his’ environment, but of conditions ‘he’ can change – education, religion, government and social prejudice. In Godwin’s generation, for the first time, the idea was developing that people are made SOLELY by nurture; an exciting thought, with powerful and radical implications. Godwin recognised that social inequalities and hierarchies ‘poison our minds’ from birth; these ideas he saw as the result of political and social institutions…

Godwin elevated education to supreme importance. Education and its possibilities dominating enlightened thinking then; but in contrast to other reforming thinkers of the time, eg the French philosophers, he argued against national standards of education: state-regulated institutions would stereotype knowledge and lead to beliefs that cease to be perceptions and become prejudices… No government should be entrusted with power to create and regulate opinions.

English writers from Locke to Paine saw government as negative, but relatively uninfluential… Godwin though saw its malign influence everywhere, and thought its abolition would open up exciting chances… Government was wrong as a concept. Out of step with 18th century philosophers, or even the beginnings of 19th century liberalism in Condorcet’s plan for a national education scheme, and Paine’s ideas for pensions; Godwin dismisses all such schemes as infringement and constraint of the individuals’ will and virtue.

Godwin saw the true unit of society as being the parish, a limited area where people would all know each other and each other’s concerns, and ambition couldn’t thrive (he’d obviously never been to a Tenants Association meeting). In this environment, public opinion was to be the supreme authority, acting through juries. He utterly dismissed voting as the enemy of debate: a majority vote or consent does not turn wrong into right.

Godwin developed a dogma of perfection  – a popular sport among late nineteenth century radicals. The voluntary actions of individuals come from their opinions, so it’s vital to show the rational course and teach people to act consciously and rationally; logic and truth would triumph over vice and moral weakness, inevitably! Duty (to the general benefit of all) and sincerity are the highest virtues.

Often out of step in the radical circles of the time: not only in doubting the role of government or political co-operation, he also dismissed the big idea of the era, the ‘natural rights’ of man, holding that we have no ‘right’ to do as we want; either actions are ‘reasonable’ and benefit mankind, or not. There’s no ‘right’ to actions that harm human happiness.  BUT only a virtuous society can create equality of property; laws etc to enact it are futile till men are virtuous.

He attacked the sacredness of the family – not only was cohabitation an evil in itself, but marriage was a mistake, binding people with promises that contradicted general welfare. He thought most people would freely choose one person; but for a child to know who its father was unnecessary, its mother would care for kids with the help of community. Bit of a Dead beat dad’s charter there! The father’s ‘virtuous work’ is more important than the mothers’?

Godwin thought authority would gradually decay as education and reason triumphed. He was opposed to abrupt changes, seizures of power etc, revolutionary upheavals. Change must be based on informed and reasoned consensus and desire. He thought it ‘wrong’ to incite an ‘ill-informed’ mass to revolt – better to wait for virtuous ideas to spread than risk uncertain bloody uprising by ‘non-perfect’ people. There was a moral hierarchy in his world-view; those with essentially virtuous, ‘valuable’ minds are more worthy people. Rational hierarchy should prevail.

Morton says Godwin’s problem is, how do men change: man is shaped by his environment; and thus a contradiction: how do unchanged men (products of this society) change or even imagine change in society… ? Only dialectics, seeing man as part of a class, resolves this, and Godwin never got it, so his ideas were “academic and harmless”…

His individualism was taken to fantastic levels: there was no room in the early editions for personal affection (though he softened on this later); he also almost comes out against performances of music or theatre because the co-operation of musicians, like all co-operation, was an offence against one’s own sincerity. He even thought we could end sleep, sickness and death if we put our minds to it.

His opposition to state action did, (as HN Brailsford sarkily notes) “excuse him from attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage”: he escaped the repression that bore down on more active radicals. Although his attacks on monarchy were just as uncompromising as Tom Paine’s, tory Prime Minister William Pitt said Godwin should be left alone, as unable to influence the poor and inflame radical crowds – because “a 3 guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not 3 shillings to spare.” Though in fact ‘Political Justice’ sold for less then three guineas, this was a damning verdict: it was still a learned book for the educated, in contrast to the electric effect that Paine’s book had among the nascent working and artisan classes. In fact 4000 copies of Political Justice were sold, a fair amount, a testament to the middle class eagerness for revolutionary and philosophical ideas at that time.

When Willie met Mary

Godwin’s relationship with Mary Wollstoncraft seems to have been a meeting of equal minds, according to his both own account, and others’; neither dominated the other, they experienced “friendship melting into love”. Initially they lived, seemingly happy, respecting each others minds and intellects and regarding each other with reverence and pride. They lived together unmarried (daringly unconventional then), in accordance with their principles in house in the Polygon, Somers Town (then right on the edge of London), leading partly separate lives, as they frequented different social circles and friends, but overlapping, occasionally meeting by chance at the same social events! 
Only when Mary became pregnant did they reluctantly marry in March 1797. Tragically Mary then died giving birth to their daughter. Around this time Godwin did revise his idea of universal benevolence slightly, putting care for your family first… THEN others, as being the most effective way of securing general good.

Mary W hadn’t had much time for ‘universal benevolence’ – she more practically claimed that “Few have much affection for mankind, who first did not love their parents, their brothers, sisters and the domestic brutes who they first played with.” In other words, radical ideas come from love close to home, from emotional ties. To some extent Godwin’s harsh purity altered under her influence, for a while.

After Mary’s death Godwin’s life went downhill – not only was he often personally unhappy but after the flush of revolution and philosophical ferment, political reaction was triumphing, and his ideas were increasingly attacked and silenced, or became irrelevant, as working class radicalism evolved, based on co-operation and organisation, on class antagonism, and working on the whole practically rather than dithering in the abstract. Many of Godwin’s associates had been transported, jailed, persecuted, others drifted to the right. In later years he ran a  publishing firm and library that went eventually bust and ended up relying on the charity of his friends and dwindling sympathisers, especially his son-in-law, the poet Shelley.

‘Political Justice’ did for a few decades from the 1790s influence a younger generation, most famous among them the romantic poets, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth (for a while), and most of all Shelley. They were inspired by his vision of a “free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated, and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of universal benevolence.” Though the historian HN Brailsford claimed they lacked the bottle that turned others into agitators, and even welched out of their grand plan to form an ideal Godwin-inspired commune (or ‘pantisocracy’) in the USA. Coleridge later said this plan saved them from doing anything more dangerous and radical, in the meantime they gradually aged and became respectable, disassociating themselves from their youthful enthusiasm for social change. But Godwin’s ideas also lent themselves to the aristocratic romantics, able to see themselves as well on the way to being perfect beings, above the distasteful masses; Political Justice gives plenty of ammunition to those looking to stand aloof, refuse to get involved in the complex daily reality of struggle for social change.

Shelley: Straight Outta Godwin

Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley fell under the influence of William Godwin’s ideas since he read ‘Political Justice’ at Eton, and was captivated by it, as had been Wordsworth, Southey Coleridge before him. For him though this affiliation lasted, until his untimely death. Shelley began to correspond with Godwin in 1811, met him, and gradually started to support his impoverished guru financially. HN Brailsford thought Shelley’s ideas very much derived from Godwin (as well as the French philospher Condorcet), and his poetry belonged entirely to world of politics. To him, ‘Political Justice’ was the “milk of paradise” – his work, from 1812’s Queen Mab to Hellas (1821) was often an imaginative expression of its ideas. To Shelley, thought, ideas , passion, were more real than things of earth and flesh; he lived in philosophy and guided himself by it.

In Hellas, he preaches perfectability, non-resistance, a kind of anarchist individualism, the power of reason, the superiority of persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and that moral evils come from political institutions: straight outta Godwin, basically. Under Godwin’s influence, he asserted, sometimes, that change would come through education and gradual elimination of error, not revolution. As with Coleridge and Southey, Political Justice persuaded him to do nothing political, that action is futile, ideas and spreading them everything. (In fact Godwin himself actually talked Shelley out of forming a radical association in Dublin in 1812); he preached passive non-violent resistance to oppression, in the Mask of Anarchy, and Revolt of Islam, to the point of portraying rebels as living sacrifices, humane missionaries for redemption of man.

But he differed from his mentor, in expression as much as anything: what are cold intellectual ideas in Godwin are emotional and heartfelt in Shelley’s work, and abstract ideas became calls for action. He also didn’t see of change in society as entirely a gradual process of discarding of error, he did believe a sudden emotional conversion or revelation would occur.

Relations between philosopher and his romantic pupil took a rocky turn when the poet met Godwin and Mary Wollstoncraft’s daughter, Mary and they fell in love. Shelley had already eloped with one schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook, to whom he was still married. So despite his ideas about free individuals, marriage, etc, Godwin played the conventional father, banning them Mary and Percy from meeting, leading to THEIR elopement. Only after the unhappy Harriet’s suicide in 1816 he was reconciled. BUT he continued to take Shelley’s money throughout this estrangement. (Is that unprincipled? He could probably have justified it in terms of rational benevolence and so on.) Shelley never criticised him for this attitude, but he was on weak ground really. Another question for Godwin’s views on freedom to act, how does Shelley’s ability to take up and discard women with little thought for the effect on them fit in; but when they kill themselves its ok because now it can all be made respectable with marriage…? All leaves a bit of a sour taste.

By Godwin’s death in 1836 Political Justice‘s initial fame had already declined and he was almost forgotten.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Yesterday in publishing history: scandalous and seditious pamphlets banned, 1643.

“Oh printing! How has thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind!”
(Andrew Marvell)

The spread of printing, the beginnings of regular challenge to the social, religious, political status quo, is intimately bound up with the early life of the pamphlet.

The printed pamphlet appears almost from the earliest beginnings of printing, though there were handwritten pamphlets before that (certainly there are reports of heretical tracts circulated among the Lollards in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, which must have been handwritten); it is with the spread of the printing press that the political pamphlet was really born.

The very form of the pamphlet – short, cheap, to the point – lent itself to spread of ideas among wider sections of society. Partly this arises from their practicality, convenience: a pamphlet can be easily concealed, stuffed in a pocket or passed secretly- useful if your ideas are illegal, suspect, samizdat. More than this, there’s always been an immediacy, accessibility, a sense of openness and egalitarianism about them… as well as disposability. You have to contrast printed pamphlets and broadsheets, mass produced, cheap, with the laboriously beautiful (mainly religious) works, hand copied by monks, seen by the few, all written in Latin or other rarefied languages… The pamphlet by definition, was like a shock to the system… Crucially early pamphlets were often 8 pages, printed on quarto size paper – meaning they were cheap, and could be printed, folded, cut and shifted quickly…

This egalitarian influence was reflected in the way pamphlets (and broadsheets, ballads etc) were sold: by balladsellers, hawkers, so called mercury women, selling them in the streets.

They were also passed around, hand to hand, one copy might be shared, or read aloud even by one literate person to others who couldn’t read (much the same as newspapers were later). This culture, in the street and pub, slum and garret, was the ever-widening venue for a growing democratisation of ideas: the street hawkers of broadsheets and pamphlets were generally politically radical, associated with popular groups like the Levellers…

Pamphlets were also clandestinely distributed in times of repression: they could be scattered about the streets and nailed to doors, thrown around in crowds… Edward Sexby’s Killing No Murder (1657), justifying the right to assassinate Oliver Cromwell, was distributed in this way; smuggled in from Holland, bundles passed out to sympathisers in the radical Baptist and fifth monarchist underground and disillusioned republicans, then scattered in the streets, at night, including at Charing Cross and other important public meeting points… (This aroused fierce repression, leading to Sexby’s arrest and death in prison).

Particular areas of cities, particular streets, were associated with printing, bookselling, publishing…. eg in the early modern City of London, St Paul’s Churchyard, Cripplegate Ward; parts of Seven Dials in Covent Garden… some of these were also well known for radical ideas, religious dissent, debates, the coffee house culture of discussion…. Publishing didn’t really get going as a capitalist industry till the 18th century: small publishers and booksellers, were the main producers for centuries. Non-conformists in religion and politics were always strongly represented in this culture. The radicals who wrote some of the classic pamphlets and books that defined the English Civil War, or marked the period of the French Revolution in England – Lilburne, Winstanley, Paine, Godwin, Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, among others – moved, met, discussed, in this environment, for example.

Pamphlets were by some, mainly among the learned, looked down on, sneered at, considered of little value. Thomas Bodley (founder of Oxford university’s famous Bodleian Library) was against preserving pamphlets in libraries: they were “not worth the custody in suche a librarie.” There was a kind of snobbery, an association of the form with déclassé ideas, disreputable subjects. But also because in early decades of printing, the size of a book signified prestige: pamphlets almost by definition came from those without money to print bigger works.

They were dismissed as poor quality, shabby, ephemeral, and associated with slander, scurrilous attacks, unrespectable and vulgar opinions; with unreliable, unruly or heretical and subversive overtones.

Just a couple of typical sneers at pamphlets, which also reflect the shock to the system that this kind of publishing represented; Samuel Daniel called them:

”These Pamphlets, Libels and Rhymes
These strange confused tumults of the minde…”

While Gabriel Harvey referred to “such luxurious, and rioutous Pamphlets… O straunge fancies, o monstrous newfanglednesse…” (1592).

The very words used for these publications had disreputable associations: at one point in the 16th century the word pamphelet also meant prostitute, suggesting these publications were kind of dirty, immoral, promiscuous, available to all, but for sale, to any bidder…

… and another word for a short stitched publication was libel, from French libelle, originally simply meaning ‘small book’, but its use as political and religious weapon in french wars of religion, often through satire, lead gradually to the modern meaning of libel as we use it: something slanderous, dangerous and possibly seditious.

But though pamphlets were deliberately labeled as unrespectable, a kind of sleazy cousin of the more upstanding book, their appeal rapidly became so broad that the authorities and respected authors stooped to use the form, (sometimes with the air of a banker forced to clean a toilet) From Henry VIII on, Tudor and Stuart administrations used pamphlets, backed by the state or often more at arms length, by proxy, through sympathisers, to mobilise public opinion in face of rival royal claimants, religious schisms, foreign invasion threats and catholic sedition… as well as reply to popular heretical tracts.

All forms of printing were subject to controls and censorship from the earliest. In 1559 queen Elizabeth instructed the Court of High Commission (the supreme church court) that part of their duties included the licensing and monitoring of pamphlets, plays and ballets, to make sure that “nothing therein should be either heretical, seditious or unseemly for Christian ears”. Every legally published title required prior approval, a licence to publish, from an appointed censor (generally an episcopalian cleric), who inevitably exercised an ‘uneven hand’, since that approval was withheld from texts challenging political or ecclesiastical authority.

Printers and booksellers were forced to submit to licensing and thus censorship by the crown, church authorities or the Stationers Company for a century and a half or more.

Illicit printers were often had up for their activities; in the 1640s printers could be tried in Parliament itself… Offending, heretical, subversive pamphlets were often ordered to be burned publicly, as sometimes were their authors…

But the rules were widely flouted (especially for heretical or politically subversive causes, but also in the production of dubious texts and images produced for profit) and underground presses proliferated, printing not only religious works outside accepted church teaching, but also early porn, dodgy poetry, sensationalist news and fantastic tales, news of monstrous births, outlaws, final speeches of the hanged, etc. Groups like the Levellers ran underground printing presses, which were often raided at the height of their struggle with Cromwell in the late 1640s, but as one was closed down, another would open up…

The 16th century wars of religion were instrumental in galvanizing the rise of the pamphlet. In France in the 1580s-1590s, real civil war between catholics and protestants was mirrored in a war of words; in England, similarly, pamphlets appeared replying, arguing to others – the orthodox protestant church was attacked not only by catholics backed from abroad, but by more radical puritans pushing for more extreme forms.

Which is why the term ‘pamphlet war’ appeared in the 1590s. As did the word ‘pamphleteer’, someone who made a living or was well known for writing pamphlets… From 1580s pamphlets began to replace the broadsheet ballad as the leading way of spreading news in print.

And as they became more popular and read more widely, innovators began to develop new forms and styles, and methods of production. Pamphleteers began to play with the look of pamphlets, experimenting with typography, adopting satirical pseudonyms and publication addresses, (taking the piss out of the strict rules of the licensing system, which required a publishers name and address) or deliberately plain language, as opposed to the complex wordiness used in orthodox theological debate. Some of these developments were partly by necessity of the form – eg you have to express yourself shortly and sharply if you have restricted space, heretical writers (under sentence of death if caught) have to disguise their name and address… But necessity was turned to sharp advantage. The form of the pamphlet resulted from AND influenced its content.

The rapid increase of pamphlets appearing in different languages across Europe, was also very important. Latin, language of the church and universities, used in most books (even by the reforming Humanists) excluded the unlearned (ie almost everyone). Publishing in English in England, for example, involved a real opening up of ideas, knowledge, opinion to whole new classes, and pamphleteering played a leading part in that process.

Pamphlets came into their own in 17th century, most particularly during the English Revolution. Through the early half of the 17th century, a previously relatively narrow social/economic order was threatened by a welling up of radical religious, political and social ideas.

Among those sections of society concerned to keep to, or return things to, the traditional path, to more closed forms of social relations, many (of those expressing these views in print) laid part of the blame for the breakdown of traditional mores on the pamphlet, and more specifically on the loosening of controls on printing, from the royal patronage of the early Tudors to a more commercial and ideological free for all. The tone was pretty much summed up as, look, you let the plebs write too much, read too much, express themselves, and look what happened – civil war etc. Within the parliamentary side itself, the moderates and those in power trod a double path of trying to loosen king Charles/episcopate control and censorship over their views, while trying to keep a lid on the more radical opinions bursting out among their own ‘supporters’/allies… so you get leading Puritan Minister Richard Baxter denouncing the explosion of cheap print, books, pamphlets: “Every ignorant, empty braine… hath the liberty of the Presse… whereby the number of bookes is grown so great that they begin with many to grow contemptible” (1648); he later (1653) he identified “the… Licentiousness of the Press of late… a design of the Enemy to bury and overwhelm… Judicious, Pious, Excellent Writings.”

Marvell also weighed in: “Oh printing! How has thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind! That Lead, when moulded into bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into Letters.”

Both Milton and Marvell likened the output of the press to the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus in the Greek myth, that ‘sprang up armed men’. Words were dangerous seeds… that can bring forth subversive actions.

Repression and censorship and the struggle to find ways around it was actually a constant process through the years of the English civil war. In the years immediately before the war actually broke out, acute political and religious battles produced a ferment of ‘libelles’, which the government and church leaders viciously cracked down on. For printed matter, regulations originating in the sixteenth century required every prospective publication to be licensed by a censor and then recorded in the register in the Stationer’s Office. After 1637, the rules got tighter: printed materials had to include the name of the person who authorized the publication. The Star Chamber, a “royal prerogative court”, administered these rules – it could punish offenders with fines, imprisonment, or various kinds of corporal mutilation. In the seventeenth century the Star Chamber ordered ever more vicious punishments, climaxing in the mutilation of Puritans Henry Burton, John Bastwick and William Prynne in 1637 for publishing puritan rhetoric. Their merciless punishment scandalised many.

The challenge to the king, his circle and the high church establishment, which began in Scotland in 1637 and culminated in the outbreak of civil war, led to the crumbling of government enforcement of censorship in early 1641, as Parliament dissolved Charles I’s prerogative courts, including the Star Chamber, removing the mechanisms by which censorship and licensing laws had been enforced.

This unleashed a flood of publishing, an unrivalled broadening of written democracy, “the most effusive public participation in national politics to date. In the Freedom of the Press in England, 1476-1776, Frederick Siebert shares some helpful statistics on the quantity of printed output: “An analysis preserved in the Thomason collection in the British Museum shows that although only twenty-two pamphlets were published in 1640, more than 1,000 were issued in each of the succeeding four years. The record number of 1,966 appeared in 1642”

However, the vast majority of MPs, having whipped popular participation in the movement against the king, particularly using the press, once they gained control, decreed that the press must be controlled in the interests of the state and of religion. The Parliament which had challenged the king over its own authority and asserted the economic, political and social power of the rising classes it was coming to represent, was in no way prepared to see unfettered freedom of expression for the lower orders and every radical tom, puritan dick or freethinking harry. They could be enlisted to fight the king, but should not expect to determine their own destiny, or even to be able to express their own views in print.

“As it turned out, neither the Independents nor the Presbyterians, the Royalists nor the Roundheads, Parliament nor the Army, the Council of State nor Cromwell, had any real solution for the problem of printed news. Each cried out for a measure of freedom while rising to power; each sought to buttress acquired authority through some measure of control. To what extent and in what directions this control should be exercised was the immediate question presented to each.

When free speech was favourable to Parliament’s agenda to overthrow the Crown, the Roundheads encouraged it. When it threatened their own stability, they snuffed it out with oppressive censorship laws. Power had shifted away from the monarch but, according to the demands of print culture — linear, rational, hierarchical by the vary nature of the dominant medium — a tyrannical central government under the Parliamentary forces, and ultimately King Charles II remained inexorable.”

Censorship was in fact re-established by Parliament in 1643, after the fighting war had started against king Charles. Successive orders issued from Parliament to try and control printing and publishing; the one empowering the Committee for examinations to appoint people to search, seize and imprison those engaged in producing ‘Scandalous and lying’ pamphlets, on 9 March 1643, was merely one in a long series. The fact that they had to keep making such orders illustrates the truth: their censors were failing to keep a lid on the radical ferment bubbling up from below.

Tens of thousands of pamphlets, maybe as many as a hundred thousand different titles, were issued during the civil war/commonwealth period, reflecting both sides of the civil war, royalist and parliamentarian, but also the fracturing political positions on the parliamentarian side, and the radical religious and social views that flowered in the 1640s and 50s. There was an extraordinary increase in productivity in the 1640s: an annual output of 625 titles in 1639 jumped to 850 in 1640, to over 2000 in 1641 and over 3,666 in 1642. Some evidence of this bountiful crop is borne out by George Thomason’s collection of pamphlets gathered from 1640/1 to 1660: he recognised that the war of ideas being waged through pamphlets was of historical significance, amassing 20,000 different titles himself, (so actual production must have been huge… ).

It is, though, worth remembering, that literacy was still very narrow in modern terms… 30 percent of adult males in 1640s England were considered literate, this rose to 60% by the mid-18th century; though this is unreliable, as it may have only meant they could sign their names, not that they could necessarily read at all, let alone at length.

The groundbreaking political ideas thrown up in the civil war – Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, fifth monarchism, and all the varied dissenting religious views – found expression through pamphlets, tracts, circulated very widely, often finding echoes among large sections of the population; partly because of the upheaval caused by economic and social crises… Civil war pamphleteering also began to open up the voices of women, not for the first time, (there had already been a small but vital culture of women producing pamphlets in the 16th and 17th centuries), but on an unprecedented scale. Mass petitioning of Parliament through the early years of the civil war, organised by women, was an important development: the women’s petitions were printed up and circulated as pamphlets. Pamphlets as a form allowed women to express themselves in a public sphere in a way that they were otherwise denied, being excluded from universities, the church, the writing of books etc: it formed a vital part of part of an expansion of opportunities for women, of the laying of a direct claim to political expression, to the idea that they had an interest and a voice in the political sphere.

In many ways, some of these pamphlets were collective representations as well as individual works… Some of them had mass circulation, and were being used at the forefront of the exchange of ideas; as one way of developing social policy, though debate, counterblast, agitation…

The civil war years saw a constant battle between censor and subversive printer, with underground presses running the gauntlet of informers, puritan busybodies, to produce the radical ideas that emerged in the pamphlets now grouped under the banner of the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters…

Even as the struggle against the king passed into the hands of Cromwell and the puritan bourgeoisie, they were alternately allying with the radical elements, particularly in the army, when they needed their support, and suppressing their presses…

In September, 1649, Parliament under Cromwell reinstituted censorship laws with the Printing Act, thereby suffocating the free expression of the pamphleteers. The new act presented the most detailed list of regulations for the press of the entire seventeenth century: all printing was limited to London, all books and pamphlets had to be licensed( in other words, neutered), and all “scandalous” and “seditious” material was prohibited, and all printed material sent by carrier or post was scrutinised.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Yesterday in radical history: William Cobbett indicted for seditious libel, 1830, for supporting Swing Rioters

In 1830, the radical journalist William Cobbett was accused of inspiring and inciting the huge surge of rural rebellion, agitation and arson that was labelled together as the Swing Revolt, after the fictional Captain Swing in whose name anonymous threatening letters to employers were signed.

Cobbett would later be acquitted.

An account of the particular circumstances of the accusation against Cobbett follows. It is interesting in that it focusses on specific acts and individuals, among the hundreds hanged, transported and jailed for taking part in this mass movement. But also in that it calls examines the conclusion of the Swing movement’s celebrated historians, the marxists Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude, that it was a purely economic upsurge, formed in rural workers’ immediate grievances, and only weakly connected to the growing political reform movement or its agitators.

The account is most of an article written by Roger Wells:

Mr William Cobbett, Captain Swing, and King William IV

WILLIAM Cobbett’s trial, and triumphant acquittal, for seditious libel published in his widely circulated Political Register on 11 December 1830, just as the Swing rising was beginning to subside, is well-known. The charge accused Cobbett of inciting Swing crimes, including machine-breaking, and above all arson.

The motivation behind Cobbett’s prosecution by Grey’s government, despite its commitment to parliamentary reform, remains obscure. Cobbett’s claim that his indictment derived from a ministerial conspiracy against one of its arch-critics is usually written off as an exotic mixture of customary exaggeration, paranoia, and the rhetorical demands of a self-conducted legal defence in court, or a combination of all three. In the footnotes of Professor Dyke’s recent penetrating study of William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture, he attributes reports from the Swing epicentre of Battle in Sussex to a ‘government informer’. This personage was not the implied run-of-the-mill Home Office correspondent, but George Maule, none other than the Treasury Solicitor. This ultimately poses the question of what this elevated state functionary was doing in Battle, which also happened to be the venue for one of Cobbett’s lectures, just under a month before Maule arrived in the town. Battle was also the home of the capitally convicted arsonist, Thomas Goodman, reprieved for confessing that he was motivated by hearing Cobbett’s lecture in the town on 16 October.

The political temperature across the rural south-east steadily rose from the spring of I829, when Kent farmers unprecedently mobilised to petition for the postponement of the hop tax, and further parliamentary petitioning for relief from agrarian distress recurred over a broader region in 1830. Hostilities spawned by the rejections of these petitions were reflected in the denunciations of the unreformed state by candidates and their agents in the general election of August 1830 after the death of George IV. The simultaneous impact of the continental revolutions was indeed profound. Sectors of the press hailed the ‘stupendous and glorious revolution’, in stark contrast to the ‘buffooneries of…corrupt electioneering’ in Britain, and successfully advocated celebratory meetings with collections for the fallen revolutionaries to extend to ‘remote country villages’. The ‘glorious actions’ of the French stimulated political thrusts by popular democrats elsewhere, including Battle where a vociferous artisan and labouring grouping also rallied behind the embattled ‘revolutionist’ editor of the Brighton Guardian, gave ‘public testimony to the freedom of the press’, and extolled the virtues of people like themselves, ‘spirits that dwell in humble tenements’. Moreover, these pro-French meetings endured, and Cobbett’s lecture tour opportunistically exploited them through his distributions of petitions to be signed in favour of parliamentary reform. A meeting at Maidstone which despatched cash and a euphoric address to Paris on 10 October was quickly followed by Cobbett on 14 October, and two days later he lectured at Battle. By this juncture Swing’s mobilisations in Kent, commencing with the expulsion of Irish harvesters in July and August, had extended to the destruction of threshing machines at the end of August and into September, before bursting into widespread incendiarism. In the October correspondence between Kent’s Lord Lieutenant Camden and Sir Robert Peel at the Home Office, arson constituted the primary concern. Incendiarism was significantly more intense than revealed by the copious logging in Hobsbawm’s and Rude’s tables, as exemplified by a Southfleet farmer’s diary note that ‘fires continue almost over the county’. Neither of the two specified that day figure in the tabulation.

Cobbett’s Battle speech was dramatically paraphrased by Earl Ashburnham – who lived locally and had had a public altercation some years previously with Cobbett – for Camden’s consumption:

there never was such rank treason utter’d in any country, or at any age…he reprobated the labouring class in Sussex for not shewing the example set them…in Kent, where their fellow sufferers were asserting their rights by destroying the property of those who tyrannised over them.

Camden dutifully relayed this missive to Peel; if Peel cursorily and darkly replied that he had ‘taken steps with regard to Cobbett and his Lectures’, Peel’s principal concern with incendiarism remained unshaken. No suspect had been arrested, though Peel had despatched London police officers to help local magistrates, but only in response to specific requests, together with limited army support. The Home Secretary was prepared to consider an unprecedented extension of government pardons and rewards to accomplices of arsonists who confessed, but feared that the result would be agent provocateurs whose contrivances would be exposed in court.

Moreover, Peel quite critically feared that ‘if’ he ‘originated interference with the ordinary exertions of the local magistrates’, he risked a debilitating political backlash. Conversely, Peel was convinced that the ‘severe example’ to be made from an incendiary’s conviction and execution would be crucial in its own right, and counter the ‘unparalleled Lenity’ of the light sentences passed by Sir Edward Knatchbull on the first batch of machine-breakers tried in October at the Kent Quarter Sessions. On 26 October, Camden was informed by an increasingly desperate Home Secretary, that he would ‘adopt any Measures – will incur any Expence… that can promote the suppression of the Outrages’. He proposed that

‘some-one well versed in Criminal Business & in the art of detecting crime, will [be] establish[ed]… in some central place – place at his disposal…a certain number of Police Officers, and place him in general Communication with the most active Magistrates’

in Kent. The sole proviso was categoric assurance that this initiative ‘will not give offence to the local magistracy and induce any relaxation of their activity’. On receipt of this assurance, Peel sought Cabinet approval, and despatched Maule to Maidstone where he arrived on 31 October.

Maule’s original mission to Kent was soon briefly extended to East Sussex, and he then had ultimate supervision over prosecutions at the Special Commissions which sat in judgment on Swing activists for Hampshire and other counties to the west. The suppression of Swing almost totally absorbed Maule’s department for the ensuing three months. ~ The Home Office itself was recurrently ‘besieged’ by communications over the risings. Once he succeeded Peel, Melbourne ‘sat up all the first night he was in office’ on 23 November, and subsequently rose daily at 6 am ‘to get through the business’. Although arson retained its paramountcy for Maule, other Swing crimes including machine-breaking, attacks on professional poor-law administrators and tithe audits, automatically concerned him. He investigated additional issues, among them clandestine riot incitement by farmers, their refusals to become special constables, and politically motivated activists with their suspected linkages with metropolitan radicals.

No fundamental policy change derived from Grey’s ministry’s replacement of Wellington’s, though the Whigs were much more determined on speedy repression. Maule’s existing brief was uncompromised, and indeed widened firstly by Melbourne’s 23 November proclamation offering huge rewards for those who both helped arrest certain categories of Swing offenders and gave evidence against them, and secondly by the decision to create Special Commissions. Maule’s tasks included the selection of cases to be financed by the Treasury, and those to be left to the normal county agencies. Government would prosecute only in felony cases where the evidence was strong.

By the time of Maule’s appearance in Maidstone, further attacks on threshing machines had occurred in Kent, together with mobilisations over wages, and levels of poor-relief, which were spreading into Sussex. The first rising in that county in fact occurred at Battle on 30 October, not the famous Brede incident of legend, and featured as such on Charlesworth’s maps. At Maidstone, Maule supervised prosecution processes, perused all available depositions, directed the deployment of plain-clothes policemen, in order ‘to give spirit and courage to the magistrates with… advice and by cordial co-operation’. On 1 November Maule attended a meeting of over seventy Kent magistrates, chaired by Camden, to debate Swing’s causes and course. It was widely believed that ‘over-taxation, want of work [and] insufficiency of wages’ underlay the risings. Knatchbull refused to say what considerations underlay his lenient sentencing, and the ultra-Tory Lord Winchelsea explained why he had given cash to a major Swing crowd he encountered days before. Maule’s proposed role was warmly endorsed, and Cobbett went unmentioned, despite the fact that while the magistracy convened, a popular meeting for parliamentary reform, orchestrated by the ‘pretty numerous’ radical and unionised paper-makers, went ahead on nearby Penenden Heath. Maule resisted suggestions that a magisterial posse should reconnoitre; instead two policemen were despatched, and if their arrival coincided with the audience’s dispersal, placards demanding ‘Reform in the Commons House of Park vote by ballot… or nothing’ and enjoining ‘respect the Soldiers…they are our friends’ remained in place. The magistracy departed once cavalry escorts were available).

After a brief sojourn in London, Maule returned to examine paperwork against Hollingboume protesters, and the radical Maidstone shoemaker Adams who had led two to three hundred rioting ‘agricultural labourers’ in the vicinity, demanding cash contributions from various targets, and making political speeches. Maule also received ‘disastrous intelligence’ of further fires in Kent, more in Sussex, including two at Battle, further details on which came from the local Clerk of the Peace who rushed across specifically to lobby Maule. The clerk insisted on the current escapist line, that incendiaries were ‘strangers’) Maule was ‘heretical on this point’, believing that locals were responsible on the grounds of ‘the number of these conflagrations and the intire absence of a trace in any one instance…If strangers do the act’, he reasoned, ‘some of those…on the spot conceal it’. No suspect had as yet been arrested for arson, and Maule immediately despatched policeman Clements to Battle. Arson also topped others’ agendas. One leader of at least three distinct Swing mobilisations, the former naval rating and radical, Richard Price, claimed that the ‘burnings were necessary to bring people’ – by which he meant establishment ‘gentlemen’ – ‘to their senses’. Customers ‘talking about the fires’ in the comfort of the Rose in Dover, included Thomas Johnson, whose ‘exulting…manner’ in his prediction ‘that there would be a great many more’ led to fighting. The police removed Johnson in handcuffs, but not before he ‘seized’ one protagonist ‘by his teeth in his private parts’.

Wellington’s notorious 2 November declaration, categorically ruling out parliamentary reform, shortly precipitated his government’s demise, and more immediately generated popular mobilisations in London. These culminated in the abortion of the king’s customary regal visit to the inaugural dinner of London’s new Lord Mayor on 9 November, as neither the monarch’s nor the duke’s safety could be guaranteed. The cancellation pre-empted one metropolitan policeman’s intention to ‘throw off his Coat’ and ‘join the Mob’; instead, this man, Charles Inskipp, who hailed from Battle, simply resigned, denying his inspector’s charge that he was motivated by ‘fear’, as ‘he wished to go into the Country’, which he did). The Weald was engulfed by Swing crowds when Inskipp arrived in Battle. On 8 November a Petty Sessions meeting had been targetted by a mass lobby drawn from several parishes, though the full-blown riot advocated by the future arsonist Thomas Goodman was forestalled by the cavalry’s arrival. News on 10 November, that serious disturbances had not occurred in London, alleviated local authorities’ fears that metropolitan violence would have ‘acted electrically’ to trigger politically motivated disorders in the town. Nevertheless, dozens of risings within a fifteen-mile radius, demanding wage and poor-relief increases, tithe and rent reductions, intermingled with attacks on professional social-security administrators and refusals to enrol as special constables, stimulated dark forebodings. The customarily cool and energetic justice Courthope, who chaired the Petty Sessions, had previously focused solely on incendiarism. Once Sussex followed ‘the example of Kent’ with mass mobilisations, the

‘whole fabric of society appears to be shaken’, not least owing to the general prevailing opinion that all governments must now submit to the will of the people & cannot resist redressing all real and imaginary grievances of the labouring population.’

Four days later on 11 November Courthope believed the magistracy was liable to collapse, and urgently supplicated the Home Office:

Let me again & again entreat… Peel not to leave us without some good adviser… the whole of the County may be hazarded by an indiscreet tho’ well intentioned act of one or two County Magistrates.

Maule arrived in Battle on 12 November, though he clearly saw this as a diversion. Although arson suspects had by now been arrested in Kent, the view ‘that the incendaries are imported from the Metropolis’ was so ‘prevalent’ in Kent, that Maule had asked for an enquiry by intelligence sources to reveal any links between radicals in country and capital. Among those whose letters he advised intercepted were Stephen Caute, the ‘spokesman of the Radical Club’ at Maidstone, and a principal speaker at the recent Penenden Heath meeting. While Maule sympathised with the multifaceted problems of Courthope’s Bench, notably the need for ‘some legal assistance’, Maule’s stay must be brief; if Peel thought otherwise, then he should send a London stipendiary magistrate to deputise. Cobbett did not figure in either Courthope’s perceptions or Maule’s calculations.

On 14 November Courthope was ‘so fatigued & harrassed that I can scarely put two connected sentences together’. The arrival of General Balbiac at Battle to direct military deployment on 15 November restored some confidence, though the cavalry were too stretched to intervene everywhere in the High Weald ‘infested with assemblies’. Many activists flourished handbills, ‘distributed with the activity of an election’, detailing the incomes of state sinecurists and senior ecclesiastics, appropriately entitled ‘Nice Pickings’. Justice Collingwood tried to neutralise their impact by ending one negotiation with protesters by orchestrating three cheers for the king and exacting promises not to read Cobbett. Battle remained in ferment. The postmaster remained deeply ‘impressed that the Peasants are instigated to pursue their present outrages by persons…anxious to overturn the government’, an assertion supported by information that ‘a person of notoriously revolutionary principles had ‘gone round to the neighbouring Village Beer Shops lecturing the Paupers after Cobbett’s fashion’. This proved to be none other than the recently-resigned London policeman, Charles Inskipp. He donned ‘a Cap decorated with tri-colored Ribbands’, which he stressed ‘were worn at the French Revolution…and if they were all of his Mind there would soon be a revolution here’. Inskipp claimed to ‘have left the new Police for the purpose of coming down to instruct the people’, arguing that

‘now’s the time to make…Government…comply and do away with the Tythe and Taxes and… said that he did not value his life a farthing and he would head them, and would instruct those unenlightened to fight for their rights.’

The issue of arrest warrants for Inskipp in late November coincided with another incendiary attack. By this juncture, Swing’s epicentres were moving swiftly westward, and stimulated renewed populist politicking in West Sussex. A ‘riotous and revolutionary spirit’ in the Horsham region focused on the town itself, and on 18 November a thousand protesters led by three members of the ‘Horsham Radical Party’ besieged local gentry, farmers, and a lay tithe proprietor in the church, during which alter rails were demolished for weapons. This meeting limited itself to wage increases and tithe reductions, but was followed by a purely political assembly at the town hall which attributed the disturbances to governmental ‘mismanagement’. Employers, whether farmers or master tradesmen, were too impoverished to afford improved wages, unless tithes, taxes and rents were reduced, together with the ‘total abolition of all sinecures, useless places and unmerited pensions’; parliamentary reform was indispensable. Only four of the sixty-three householders summoned to become special constables turned out, giving the local Bench – which included the present High Sheriff Thomas Sanctuary – no option but to lobby for military aid. Once troops arrived – by forced marches – warrants were issued against politically-motivated instigators of the first protest who had absconded, and the detective services of a London policeman secured to expose the perceived ‘conspiracy’ to effect ‘revolutionary objects, &: for the incitement of Riots at Horsham and the adjacent Parishes’. The latter initiative developed into a prolonged farce, played out against continual fears that the county jail in the town would be attacked, with the release of the Swing prisoners, whose numbers were swelling and included arsonists. The army guarded the town until mid-December when the prisoners were carted off to Lewes for the Assizes.

During this period in late November and early December in East Sussex, authority moved temperately gradually to restore order. As many farmers were ‘in the greatest poverty & their capital all gone’. Courthope refused to compel legally men to serve as special constables. He enrolled those who volunteered, ‘made them as friends instead of enemies’, and was thus ‘able to distinguish our friends from our foes’, prior to launching an offensive against the ‘perpetrators of these outrages’. County policy to organise parochial night patrols – ‘not a very agreeable office these Cold nights’ – was slowly implemented, with Battle among the first. Late on the night of 2 December the Battle patrol passed Thomas Goodman, but made no verbal contact with him; shortly afterwards it was called to a blaze at Henry Atherton’s barn, though little could be done to save it.

Subsequently, two patrol members insisted on reconnoitering the spot where Goodman had been seen, and his footprints were traced in one direction to the barn, and the other to his lodgings at Thomas Pankhurst’s. Both men were arrested, and Goodman speedily committed. Pankhurst was held some time and released only after agreeing to give evidence of his lodger’s movements. At Horsham jail Goodman joined three other alleged incendiaries. These were George Buckwell belatedly committed in mid-November for arson at Hartfield one month earlier, a retarded fourteen year-old for incendiarism at Bodiam, and Edward Bushby for firing farmer Olliver’s barn at East Preston on 28 November.

Simultaneously, Maule experienced mixed fortunes in orchestrating Swing’s repression in Kent. Three arson suspects from Northfleet were eventually released for lack of evidence, while Maule’s attempts to indict Wrotham farmers for inciting labourers to force tithe reductions foundered on the incumbent’s refusal to prosecute and thereby generate ‘an irreconcilable break between himself & parishioners’. Intelligence sources failed to establish links between radicals in Kent and London. On the other hand a batch of machine-breakers had been transported at the East Kent Sessions, and maximising press coverage was calculated to have reversed the effect of Knatchbull’s early leniency. Radical activists were under arrest. Maule aimed to prosecute them not for political but for typical Swing offences, including at least one for levying contributions, robbery in legal terms, and liable to capital punishment, Moreover, six suspected arsonists were in custody. If the evidence against two was merely circumstantial, one of the three youths accused of incendiarism at Blean had turned King’s Evidence. The case of the army deserter John Dyke who had been ‘wandering about the Country for some time’ raised strong hopes for a conviction at the Kent Assize scheduled for mid-December. Dyke and the two Blean youths were found guilty, and executed on Penenden Heath on Christmas Eve. Once the Kent Assize finished, Maule briefly returned to London, before proceeding to Lewes for the Sussex Assize commencing on 20 December. At this point Maule’s correspondence with the Home Office briefly lapsed, restarting with his arrival in Reading on 28 December to oversee prosecutions at the Special Commission for Berkshire.

Maule was in London on 17 December, the day after Arthur Trevor in the Commons advocated Cobbett’s prosecution by the government. Maule’s return from the Sussex Assize coincided with Trevor’s repeated demand on 23 December. The ministry decided to ‘fight…Trevor’s Motion’ by insisting that it infringed executive prerogative, an argument which suggested that government was not going to be bounced into prosecution and only implied that action would be considered.

Cobbett’s commentary, principally in print, exploited the Swing crisis throughout the autumn to maximise political capital. His imagery of a ‘rural war’ and concept of a ‘just war’ were dramatic, but hardly unsubstantiated by the facts, though his claim that he had ‘for many years past’ warned ‘the middle class, and particularly the farmers, against the…time when millions would take vengeance on the thousands’ was an exaggeration. Certainly, Swing legitimated reiteration of all dements of Cobbett’s central critique of the agricultural depression, underemployment, inadequate wages, parishwork, benefit-cutting professional overseers, and the game laws; its aggravation by taxes, tithes, national debt, sinecures and pensions facilitated advocacy of unity between farm labourers and their employers to demand parliamentary reform as the panacea for the redress of grievances, and the restoration of rural economic equilibrium. Cobbett emphasised elements of emergent inter-class solidarity, including refusals to serve as special constables, and extolled examples of Swing mobilisations being followed by parliamentary petitioning as at Horsham. He was however cautious, controlling his enthusiasm notably when attempts were made – again in the Battle district – to stop forcibly tax collections. He would not have been surprised that the Home Office closely monitored the pages of the Political Register, and annotations thereon reveal that Cobbett’s observations on incendiarism were carefully scrutinised. According to Cobbett, arson was principally resorted to where labourers were too weak to force redress through overt means. He insisted that incendiaries were not strangers, but locals, and that arson in contrast to riot, was ‘most easy to perpetrate, the least liable to detection’; ‘no power on earth’ could forcibly contain this brand of terrorism. Moreover, in the Register for 11 December, Cobbett attributed widespread reductions of tithes to ‘the terror of… the fires, and not to the bodily force’ represented by riotous mobilisations. That part of his article was heavily scored in the Home Office’s copy. Key components of his argument, notably the difficulty of detection, and that arsonists were locals, coincided with the Treasury Solicitor’s perception. Ironically, it was Cobbett’s populist political rival, Richard Carlile, who was to be convicted in 1831 for riot incitement, who asserted that Cobbett had ‘the power to rouse the country to resistance by one week’s Register. A serious word from him to the people would decide that point’.

Cobbett asserted that arson and fears of incendiarism produced tithe reductions, and constituted ‘unquestionable’ evidence that these ‘acts’ of ‘working people…produced good, and great good too’. These became the grounds for the charges of incitement to ‘violence and disorder and to the burning and destruction of Corn, Grain, Machines and other property’, which eventually appeared in the indictment. The decision to prosecute was taken in January 1831, but presenting it to the Old Bailey Grand Jury was delayed by the Attorney-General’s absence at the Special Commissions until 16 February. Then a True Bill was found, though the trial did not come on until July.

Events at the Sussex Assize between 20 and 23 December were nevertheless crucial. Here, Maule discussed legal details with prosecuting counsel Non-felony cases, including former policeman Inskipp for seditious speech at Battle, were left to customary county funding. So too was the charge against Goodman for arson at the same place, as in Maule’s estimation it ‘might possibly fail’. Maule left Lewes on 22 December, after Bushby’s conviction for arson, but in the middle of Goodman’s eight-hour trial. Unusually, Goodman’s conviction hinged on the footprint and supportive circumstantial evidence, and as the judge emphasised, did not include customary proof of animosity between arsonist and victim.

This lack of traditional motivation was critical. It negated a reprieve in response to an orthodox case for clemency based on the concurrence of the victim and good character references, hardly feasible in the fervid atmosphere. Clemency, however unlikely, demanded extraordinary grounds, which eventually derived from the three separate, but incremental allegations against Cobbett. The first, a single sentence version, was published in The Times on 24 December, the same day as the Thunderer reported the bulk of the Lewes trials, and was verified by the Revd Rush. Much has been made of Rush’s supposedly inexplicable presence at Lewes, not least by Cobbett himself, but Rush had given evidence against two men convicted of conspiring to force the tax collector at Crowhurst to return the cash to the payers. Cobbett accurately claimed that Swing prisoners in Hampshire and Wiltshire jails were ‘canvassed’ for links with himself, and if he made no mention of Sussex antecedents, it is not impossible that such occurred. If Goodman was approached after his conviction, and volunteered that his incendiarism was stimulated by Cobbett’s Battle speech, it was the only conceivable chance, however remote, to save Goodman’s life. Irrespective of Rush canvassing, verification of Goodman’s statement by a clergyman was logical. Cobbett immediately denounced Goodman’s allegations, including The Times’ embellishment that Goodman’s first target, a stack belonging to Charles Emery of the George in Battle on 3 November, which Goodman admitted after his conviction on another charge, was fired in retaliation for Emery’s refusal to accommodate Cobbett with a venue for his 16 October lecture at Battle.

William IV not only read the newspapers and worried over the impact of the ‘lower orders…of a licentious and unrestricted press’, but on occasion brought his ministers’ attention to possible seditious paragraphs. Among them was at least one issue of the Political Register. The king took a close interest in Swing, and was particularly relieved that the trials at Lewes ‘proceed[ed] without interruption’. Doubtless his personal proximity to Lewes underlay this relief, for William spent Christmas 1830 at Brighton Pavilion, where he ‘always’ kept ‘open house’, a ‘strange life’ for a monarch. On Christmas Day, as Bushby and Goodman were transferred back to Horsham for execution on New Year’s Day, the king’s private secretary informed the Duke of Wellington – who had relayed the latest information of Swing trials at the Hampshire Special Commission – that

‘Proceedings at Lewes have been of the same Character and one of the Incendiaries has confessed that he had been incited to the mischief by Cobbett’s Publications and Lectures:’

On 30 December Francis Burrell and two visiting magistrates at Horsham jail, activated they said by Cobbett’s denial, interviewed Goodman ‘without the slightest hope being held out to him of any remission of his Sentence’. They interrogated Goodman as to ‘whether he had any enmity against’ his arson victim, and were reassured that Goodman ‘bore no malice’. Then ‘without any dictation or suggestion’, Goodman penned a more substantial account of Cobbett’s lecturing, including advocacy of every man having a gun in ‘readdyness’ to follow the speaker into action when called upon. The High Sheriff of Sussex, Thomas Sanctuary, showed the second confession to the king at the Pavilion on New Year’s Eve, and was introduced by him to Home Secretary Melbourne ‘on the subject of Cobbett and the Swing Fires’. William was convinced that ‘Cobbett begins to be frightened’.

Melbourne performed a remarkable volte-face between 30 and 31 December. On 30 December he had specifically and personally rejected a petition presented by the Whig MP for Lewes, Thomas Kemp, for a respite for both Goodman and Bushby, to make time for representations for reprieves. On the following day Melbourne formally and hurriedly transmitted the king’s commands granting Goodman a fourteen day stay of execution; within days it was commuted to transportation for life. Ironically, William had also learned

‘that Goodman is not acquainted with Cobbett’s Person and… he may have mistaken a Disciple of C’s who lectured after he left Battle… Cobbett… is supposed to be very wary to have so committed’

himself to the language alleged by Goodman. Now the king asked Sanctuary to get ‘Corroboration’ of Goodman’s statement to the visiting magistrates. Bushby was hanged on I January as scheduled. Under-sheriff Medwin who presided, reported directly to the king, including the possibility that another party was also involved with Bushby at East Preston. William ‘desired’ Medwin to preserve the paper to which he committed Bushby’s few dying words. The king still hoped that ‘Cobbett may be laid hold of’ on 2 January, as Sanctuary launched a local investigation into Goodman’s character and sought further details of Cobbett’s lecture. This elicited a robust response from Sir Godfrey Webster, the somewhat idiosyncratic politician and local landowner, who sat on the Battle Bench, and who had played a determined role in countering Swing. Webster’s anger that Maule had refused to ‘take up’ and finance ‘the case of Inskipp for Sedition’ was turned to fury by ‘one… of the most destructive fires we have yet had’ at Battle which greeted the news of Goodman’s respite. Locally, Cobbett’s ‘admirers’ had increased, while the ‘licentious pasquinador’ was now ‘looked upon as a guardian angel’, an impossible scenario in which to gather incriminating evidence respecting Cobbett’s lecture. Moreover, the disparity between Goodman and Bushby’s fate induced the local magistracy to believe the latter’s execution constituted ‘Judicial Murder’, and the former’s reprieve ‘a great mistake’. Later that month, King William told the Duke of Wellington that

‘Ministers had carried too far their pardons to the rioters. He took great blame for himself for having been led to propose the pardoning of Goodman. Some Sussex gentlemen had got round him & there was a hope he would have given some evidence against Cobbett.’

Further irony derives from the fact that Goodman had witnessed one of Charles Inskipp’s beershop harangues. Inskipp’s arrest and prosecution itself owed much to very peculiar circumstances. The bar-room orator was denounced by one of the cavalrymen policing Battle. This character, William Moneypenny, was however no run-of-the mill squaddie, but the scion of an affluent Irish family, cut off from his inheritance for making an improvident marriage. Moneypenny’s motives can only be guessed. Significantly, none of the other soldiers who were billeted on the beershop gave evidence, and Moneypenny’s initiative may have constituted an attempt to rehabilitate himself. More sinister are the facts that as Inskipp was a Battle man, and about the same age as Goodman, the arsonist was unlikely not to know him. Moreover, the two were fellow prisoners while awaiting trial. In view of these details, Goodman deliberately juxtaposed Inskipp and Cobbett in a cynical attempt to incriminate the latter, encouraged by a number of Sussex magistrates who were probably initially not aware of Goodman’s apparent duplicity. This series of developments briefly led the king to believe that conclusive evidence against Cobbett was obtainable.

These led directly to Goodman’s pardon, but his testimony was useless against Cobbett, though the charge according to Cobbett’s solicitor would have been clinched by any proven incendiary’s claim that he had been motivated by Cobbett’s speeches or journalism. The commutation to transportation was hurriedly implemented presumably to get Goodman out of the way. Ministers were anxious to stop Tory attacks for not prosecuting Cobbett, and indicting him – and the much more vulnerable Richard Carlile – also had the virtue of holding notorious demagogues partially responsible for Swing. This ruse countered some pamphleteers’ claims that the rising was driven by revolutionary protesters in conscious imitation of the French. After the continental revolutions William IV was paranoid about sans-culottes. If he came to believe that Swing somehow represented an English form of similar portents, his support for Whig parliamentary reform may have evaporated. Cobbett publicly and grandiosely attributed his prosecution to a combination of Whig fears and malignancy, and a determination to silence his criticism of government early in 1831. However, this claim loses some of its credibility in the context of Cobbett’s solicitor lobbying the assistant secretary of state at the Home Office, who in response made it categorically clear that Cobbett’s current support of the first Reform Bill would not head off the prosecution; ministers would rather ‘add a million to the national debt’ than abandon the case. Cobbett’s acquittal, at the hands of a hung jury, principally derived from the weakness of the case that he had advocated arson, and Cobbett’s production of witnesses who had been in his Battle audience, backed by a petition from many others, denying that he had incited them. One signatory was Henry Alderton, Goodman’s victim. Cobbett’s prosecutors were unable to replace Goodman with any other witness from Battle, though Goodman’s inadmissable evidence against Cobbett was nevertheless confounded at the trial. Later, Cobbett dutifully and glowingly praised ‘the excellent people of Battle’ who had preserved him from the ‘conspiracy’ of 1830-1.

A number of conclusions may be drawn from events in Swing’s initial south-eastern theatre, Cobbett’s activities, Goodman’s revelations, and the Treasury Solicitor’s campaign. Interpretations of Swing as the inevitable violent response to the intolerable and seemingly chronic deprivation of farmworkers encapsulated by the customary perception of the ‘last labourers’ revolt’ requires significant qualification. Farmworkers were not only joined by considerable numbers of rural craftsmen, some of whom were clearly politically- aware populist democrats, but the revolt also embraced their counterparts in adjacent towns. There were too many conjunctions between village and urban protesters to warrant perceptions of an exclusively rural revolt, and too great a participation by non-farmworkers to accept notions of a labourers’ uprising. Farmers clearly played a covert role in stimulating labourers to mobilise principally against the clergy and tithe payments, though as Maule discovered at Wrotham prosecuting delinquent farmers was highly problematic. The injections of politics were critical, and Cobbett’s crusading on stage and in print was the very visible tip of an iceberg. Cobbett certainly contributed to publicising French events in the rural south-east, but others including the radical nucleus at Battle were already active in the same cause. Both clearly contributed to the atmosphere in which people at the bottom of the social hierarchy really did consider that mass mobilisations would remedy grievances, as reported by Justice Courthope among many others. Moreover, the popular democratic politics articulated by Swing activists convinced many previously sceptical electors, and a body of liberal Tories, that modest reform of the Commons was paramount. This was a major reason which eludes some historians, ‘why the clamour for constitutional reform… hitherto… contained within safe pockets spread so suddenly and extensively in… 1830’.

Maule’s orchestration of repression in Kent, especially criminal prosecutions, represented an unparalleled intervention by central government thereby seriously compromising customary local juridical autonomy. But, both in the south-east, and later in those counties for which the Special Commissions sat, Maule and his department, were responsible for ensuring that almost all Swing indictments pertained to acts of violence, as opposed to politically motivated sedition. Inskipp was an exception, but his prosecution derived from the unusually situated cavalryman, Moneypenny, and the trial was financed by county not Treasury funds. Cobbett’s indictment followed a unique series of events, namely Goodman’s desperate post conviction claims, and the capacity of Tory magistrates to exploit their proximity and access to the monarch to outmanoeuvre the government, which had recently fought Tory MPs’ demands for legal action against Cobbett. Ministers could hardly refuse to act against Cobbett after the publicity accorded to Goodman’s assertions, though ironically those assertions could never be transmuted into admissable evidence. Privately, one MP opined that ‘The Whigs were egged on by the taunts of Tories’ into Cobbett’s prosecution, and once it failed ‘laughed at the…defeat’. A warped version of William IV’s role in all this was eventually publicised by the Observer which claimed that Cobbett’s prosecution comprised the ‘fulfilment made by a very exalted personage to a few Sussex landowners’. Once acquitted, Cobbett cheekily challenged the government to prosecute the editor for implicating the king. The prosecution of both Cobbett and Carlile on political charges, namely incitement through seditious publications, subscribed to the convenient fiction, that the politics of Swing, along with some of the violence could be ascribed to the demagoguery of a pair of notorious radical publicists. Despite Maule’s role in orchestrating Swing’s repression, especially the legal counter-offensive, this barrister ‘of great ability‘ played no part in the decision to prosecute Cobbett.

Eventually Cobbett celebrated the Reform Act in another Swing epicentre, Barton Stacey in Hampshire, principally because this locality provided so many – including one of the capital – victims of the Special Commissions. Cobbett insisted that he ‘was an utter stranger to the neighbourhood’, one reason why the canvas of prisoners in Winchester jail for incriminating evidence failed. He claimed that the second Reform Bill’s passage ‘owe[d] more to the COUNTRY LABOURERS than to all of the rest of the nation put together’, because Swing triggered Wellington’s resignation and his replacement by Grey’s government committed to reform. If reality was more complex, especially the desertion of Wellington by ultra-Tories who were convinced that Swing demonstrated that some measure of reform was necessary to recreate confidence in the state, Cobbett was not wide of the mark. More critically, he also reiterated the incisive observation that while riots were relatively easily contained in rural regions, arsonists remained elusive, with incendiarism ‘the most easy’ mode of protest ‘to perpetrate, the least liable to detection’. Ironically, the Home Office agreed, stressing as early as January I831 that the numerous investigations by London police officers of ‘many fires’ across Swing’s territories, had been of ‘little use’ but of ‘great expense’ for central funds. In future, policemen would be made available only where local authorities met the full cost. This represented a reversal of policy initiated by Peel, maintained by Melbourne, and initially directed by Maule in the south-east. Cobbett’s further claims, that arson would intensify in the aftermath of Swing’s ostensible repression, and that the press was subjected to pressures against full reportage, also proved correct, though it was complicated by farmers trying to evade restrictions introduced by insurance companies. Swing did not invent incendiarism as a peculiarly rural form of protest, but that episode not only witnessed a massive recourse to arson, and perhaps more importantly elevated it to the most enduring mode of countryside protest prior to the Revolt of the Field in the 1870s.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: John Rety, poet, anarchist, publisher, chessplayer, dies, 2010

On February 3rd 2010, anarchist, poet and publisher John Rety died, aged 79.

Born Reti Janos to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, his political views were shaped by his childhood experiences. His grandmother escaped a pogrom in Serbia by swimming across a river with her children strapped to her back, while following the outbreak of war, John’s family knew life as Jewish people was going to become extremely tough.

His father Istvan, a theatre director, was interned on an island in the Danube, which also held sporting events and John, aged 12, snuck onto the island on the pretext of watching a football match. Instead, he spoke to his father through camp fences, and persuaded him to escape. Istvan did get out: he and his wife Ilona spent the war in hiding. In the last years of the war as a young teenager John ran errands, taking packages around, later saying that he assumed it was for the anti-nazi resistance!

John’s grandmother had been looking after him during the war years, but she was later imprisoned. On the day the war ended, she approached a guard and said he could now put down his rifle and take off the fascist armband he was wearing. In response the guard murdered her.

Aged 16, John wrote a play about war and how adults had a lot to answer for – a theme John spoke about in the last year of his life, in a radio interview, saying: “War is devastating, first and foremost, for children. They do not understand why their parents have gone berserk.” 

The play was performed on the steps of the Budapest parliament – a dangerous thing to do. He fled Hungary, apparently just a step ahead of the authorities. He arrived in London in 1946 and got a job as an apprentice for a publishing house.

He published a novel aged 21, called Super Sozzled Nights, and hung out in Soho, then teeming with a bohemian culture that sparked many creative and radical projects.

It led him into the magazine trade, and he founded the Soho underground paper, Intimate Review, with contributions from young writers including Doris Lessing, Bill Hopkins, Laura del Rivo, Frank Norman, Alan Owen, Cressida Lindsay & Bernard Kops. Réty was the first to publish Colin Wilson. The Intimate Review largely circulated among the customers of the coffee houses that were appearing in Soho. It was a parish magazine, a gossip sheet for a bohemian, literary in-crowd that attracted contributions from many coming names. John would hawk copies on weekend evenings to cinema queues.

The former Guardian journalist Harold Jackson, co-editor of the Intimate Review, recalled Rety’s astounding ability to persuade eminent people to contribute to the magazine for free. “Our covers,” he said, “were regularly produced at very short notice and for no money by Feliks Topolski. Ralph Steadman’s work appeared from time to time.”

When Intimate Review was forced to fold due to a threatened libel action, Rety started other papers – including the Cheshire Cat and Fortnightly. Then, as Private Eye began to take over his readership, he took the editorial chair of the anarchist paper Freedom for a couple of years.

John met his partner Susan Johns in 1958. They moved into Robert Street, Regent’s Park and scraped a living by putting on a jazz night at a Soho basement bar, and then ran a second-hand furniture store in Camden High Street, Here, I think John met local squatters and got involved with supporting squatting around Camden and Chalk Farm. Resistance to the powerful property magnate Joe Levy in Camden Town ended in his own family’s eviction and loss of home and livelihood.

John was a member of the radical anti-nuclear group the Committee of 100, and his politics were anarchist – although he said it was his own form of anarchism, as he found tracts on anarchist theory so badly written he could not make head nor tail of what they were going on about. He had a low opinion of the anarchist classics “with the exception of Kropotkin, who could write, and Malatesta, who could argue…. Bakunin, I could never understand what he was going on about.”

In the Sixties, he took on the editorship of anarchist magazine Freedom. As a Freedom co-editor (1964-1969), John radically broadened the political and cultural reach of the paper.

Anarchist poet Jeff Cloves recalls one incident: “In the late ’60s, I chanced to hear the Duke Ellington Band play on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (with singer Dakota Staton) as a tribute to Martin Luther King. I was delighted that Freedom published a piece I wrote about this free spontaneous event, and utterly dumbfounded when the next time I met John he launched a fierce attack on me for endorsing the ‘cult of personality’ [surrounding Martin Luther King Jr].” 

Fellow anarchist poet Dennis Gould remembers: “John’d be chatting away and then he’d confront you with a question, a challenge. Which I could never answer!” 

John was said to have been “one of the first to burst through the heavy police cordon surrounding Grosvenor Square at the anti-Vietnam War rally in front of the US Embassy in October 1968” and was among 13 protestors who soon after held a 13-day fast there… For may years he was a regular at Speakers Corner.

At the end of the 1970s, John worked for the Student Community Housing (SCH) as a roofer. This was cut short when he fell and fractured his arm. The accident prompted him to enrol in a City and Guilds art course.

Camden Council offered a semi-derelict building at 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, to the SCH; the keys were handed over to the place that so many people associate with John. It was in too poor a state of repair for the SCH to take on there was no gas or electricity, but John and Susan liked it and moved in. They founded the Torriano Meeting House, and began to put on events, notably poetry readings.

It is impossible to articulate the depth and range of events that have been held at the Meeting House, and the causes that have found a hospitable base there.

The readings were an astonishing success, drawing in poets and public from all over the country. Many paid tribute to him in a festschrift, Torriano Nights (2009). Stephen Spender & Adrian Mitchell were among the hundreds of poets who performed there.

The most important of these were the Sunday evening poetry readings which began with aspiring versifiers spouting their own work, often at considerable length. But Rety, who had a quick temper and a ready laugh, was a strict master of ceremonies.

When contributions from the floor were no good, he would shout out in his Mitteleuropean accent that the writers should read more good poetry if they wanted to avoid writing rubbish, and remind objectors that if Shakespeare walked in he would have to wait two hours for a hearing. After the interval an invited guest, who occasionally was Sir Stephen Spender, Dannie Abse or John Heath-Stubbs, would read and be heard with respect. The result, it was said, was an atmosphere resembling the start of an Aldermaston march and a tea party given by Brendan Behan’s mother.

John’s ability to charm support from unlikely sources never deserted him. Camden council contributed £10,000 a year to support the Torriano Meeting House. When, eventually, funding cuts forced them to withdraw the grant, the council offered Rety an Epic (Eminent Persons in Camden) award. Typically, he indignantly refused, regarding it as a bribe to stop him complaining about the loss of his grant.

In 1987, he founded the Hearing Eye Press, this time with financial assistance from the Arts Council of London. For the publication of his celebratory volume, In the Company of Poets: An Anthology Celebrating 21 Years of Poetry Readings at Torriano Meeting House (2003), he found support from the Arts Council of Great Britain. It is a collection starting with Dannie Abse and proceeding, via John Arden, through names including Oliver Bernard, John Heath-Stubbs and Dilys Wood. Rety’s own work was modestly absent from the book. Hearing Eye Press ultimately published over 150 books.

This did not exhaust his amazing energy or his proselytising zeal for poetry. He became poetry editor of the Morning Star and edited an anthology of the work appearing there, Well Versed, with a foreword by Tony Benn. This was popular enough to go into a second edition. It is frequently asserted that the Morning Star saw a rise in its readership due to the verse Rety published there.

An originator of the idea of poetry on the London tube – although he did not sit on the panel that eventually implemented it – he later extended that idea to the telephone with a Dial-a-Poem service with British Telecom. At 25p a minute, the line received 750 calls in its first week of operation in 1988, and seemed on the route to success until Rety fell out with BT, “as so many do”, he stated happily. He did not win his arguments over presentation, and a percentage for the poets, and the venture sputtered out.

When the land rights group The Land Is Ours occupied a derelict plot owned by Guinness in 1996, and turned it into an experiment in sustainable and cooperative living (calling it “Pure Genius”), John described the South London site as “anarchy in action”, saying that, as a participant, he had “now seen anarchy in practice and, so far, it works.” (Freedom, 18 May 1996)

Watch video of John talking about his early political influences

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkcgwbzacIc&feature=related

This post was cobbled together from a variety of sources… We also remember John, mostly from meeting him wandering around the Anarchist Bookfair, ranting… carrying armfuls of poems and papers…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in pamphleteering history: William Benbow’s Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes published, 1832

William Benbow was a radical pamphleteer, publisher, propagandist and bookseller, who in the 1830s ran a radical bookshop at 205 Fleet Street, in London. An activist of the National Union of the Working Classes; he later became a leading physical force Chartist. Both the NUWC and the Chartist movement became quickly divided between those who thought protest, petition and mass pressure for political reform would gain working men the vote, and those who felt the rich and powerful would always defeat peaceful campaigning, and only ‘physical force’ – mass strike, uprising and revolt – could do the job.

Benbow was probably not the first to think up the idea of a ‘general strike’, but in his classic pamphlet of 1832, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, he proposed that the producers of the wealth, being exploited by an idle and rich minority, should cease to work en masse, for a month. This would be enough to kickstart the process of depriving the rich of the fruits of the labour of the working classes, who would elect a congress to begin the process of re-ordering society in their own interests. The way Benbow writes about the Holiday, as a sacred and glorious festival, designed to usher in happiness and prosperity for all, carries echoes of the biblical Jubilee, when work was banned, debts were abolished and prisoners freed… Benbow was also a non-conformist preacher, but the Jubilee had transcended religious imagery in the early nineteenth century, as ultra-radicals like Thomas Spence and Robert Wedderburn revived the idea as a vehicle of almost millenarian communist significance. But mass stoppages of work were also part of a long tradition in working class culture. Benbow’s genius was to invest the theory of the strike with a cataclysmic and transformative aura.

It was at the Rotunda, the leading radical centre of the day, in Blackfriars Road, Southwark, that Benbow first publicly advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up… that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.”

Not only was no work to be done, but workers should make all effort to cripple the state and the financial system. Supporters of the Sacred Month should withdraw any savings they had in banks or other institutions. They were also required to abstain from all taxable articles such as drink and tobacco. Benbow’s proposals included addressing practical problems of how the mass of striking workers were to support themselves; first of all living on their saving (admittedly meagre), but then taking over parish funds and extorting money and goods from the rich to survive. but that He also suggested local committees should be set up to administer food distribution and keep order: these local committees would be the basis of elections to a national Convention – a working class government in effect.

Below, we reprint the text of Benbow’s 1832 pamphlet:

GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY, AND CONGRESS OF THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl…
Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and they do not resist you.” JAMES,c.v.

BY WILLIAM BENBOW.
LONDON:

PRINTED AND PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR, 205, FLEET STREET. SOLD BY WATSON, 33, WINDMILL STREET, AND ALL BOOKSELLERS.

DEDICATION TO THE PRODUCTIVE CLASSES.

PLUNDERED FELLOW-SUFFERERS!

I lay before you a plan of freedom – adopt it, and you rid the world of inequality, misery, and crime. A martyr in your cause, I am become the prophet of your salvation.

A plan of happiness is pointed out and dedicated to you. With it I devote to you my life and body, my soul and blood.

WILLIAM BENBOW.

Commercial Coffee House, 205, Fleet-street.

INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS.

Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.
The possessors of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery and have vexed the poor and needy.
EZEKIEL.

LIFE, when good for any thing, consists of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and consequently of happiness. All men enjoy life but do not enjoy it equally. The enjoyment of some is so very limited, that it does not deserve the name of enjoyment; that of others is without bounds, for they have the means of procuring fully ease, gaiety, and pleasure. Thus happiness is circumscribed, and is becoming every day more and more so, that is, the numbers who are deprived of it are hourly increasing. Now, who are they who do enjoy; does their enjoyment proceed from their own merits; are they laborious,-do they work for the happiness they possess? We shall see. Let nothing but truth, glaring stark-naked truth, be stated.

The only class of persons in society, as it is now constituted, who enjoy any considerable portion of ease, pleasure, and happiness, are those who do the least towards producing any thing good or necessary for the community at large. They are few in number, a fraction, as it were, of society, and yet they have become possessed of a most monstrous power, namely, the power of turning to their own advantage all the good things of life, without creating themselves the smallest particle of any one of those good things. How, in the name of wonder, have they obtained this monstrous power! It must have been either by an involuntary and unnatural consent, or by what seems nearest to the truth by the most stupid ignorance on the part of the people. Of course this monstrous power held by the few is exercised with an iron hand, and necessarily begets indescribable wretchedness and misery among the great mass of society in every part of the kingdom. And this fraction of society, to which has been foolishly conceded, or which has impudently and unnaturally usurped, the preposterous right to exercise a monstrous power over almost every man, is as one to five hundred when compared to the people who produce all the good things seen in the world. Notwithstanding the one, the unit, the mere cypher, has all the wealth, all the power in the state, and consequently prescribes the way and details the manner, after which he pleases the 499 should live in the world. The 499 who create the state, who are its instruments upon all occasions, without whom it can not go on for a single second, who dig deep, rise early, and watch late, by whose sweat and toil the whole face of nature is beautified – rendered pleasant to the sight, and useful to existence; – the 499 who do all this are reduced to less than nothing in the estimation of the unit who does no one thing, unless consuming may be called doing something. The one – the unit or cypher – consumes, luxuriates, revels, wastes: in the winter fur and down warm him: in the summer he cools himself in the marble bath or in the shady bower: the seasons are his – their flowers, fruits, and living creatures are his – the 499 are his purveyors, they procure him every thing; and more to be pitied and worse treated than the jackal, they are not left even the offals. Not content with every thing – marrow and bone – if the bone be of any use: not content with their own peculiar titles, this consuming portion of society call themselves the people

They are the people of substance, the people of character, the people of condition the people of honor! so they say; but perhaps another definition of what they are would make them more easily recognised. They are the jugglers of society, the pick-pockets, the plunderers, the pitiless Burkers – in fine they are all Bishops! They exist on disease and blood: crime and infamy are the breath of their nostrils. The 499 bleed for them, die of disease for them; by hard and cruel treatment they are hurried into crime and infamy, if crime and infamy can justly be imputed to beings who make an occasional effort to obtain a portion of the heaps they produce.

The people are formed out of our proportion of 499: they are in number as 499 is to 1. By saying what the people do, we explain what they are. By saying what they can and ought to do, we explain what they can and ought to be.

For many years the people have done nothing for themselves. They have not even existed, for they have not enjoyed life. Their existence has been enjoyed by others; they have been, as far as regards themselves, non-entities. They have had neither ease, gaiety, nor pleasure; they have not lived ; for a state of continual toil, privation, and sickness can never be called life. What working man can say he lives? Unless he says he lives when he is pining away piecemeal producing with an empty stomach and weary limbs what goes to make others live. The existence of the working man is a negative. He is alive to production, misery, and slavery- dead to enjoyment and happiness. He produces and is miserable: others enjoy and are happy. The people then, since we call the mass the people, are the drudges of society ; they do every thing and enjoy nothing. The people are nothing for themselves, and everything for the few.

If they are the source of all wealth- that wealth is not for them: if they are all-powerful, their power is used for the benefit of others: – they protect and support those who grow fat on the sweat of their brow! They fight too yea, they fight – but for what? for religion, for honour, for the caprice of kings and ministers!

When they fight for themselves, then will they be a people, then will they live, then will they have ease, gaiety, pleasure and happiness; but never, until they do light for themselves! When the people fight their own battle – when they are active in resistance to the greater part of existing institutions – when they have a proper opinion of themselves; that is, when they are convinced of their own power and worth, they will then enjoy the advantages a people ought to enjoy. They will be every thing they were not before: they will be no longer abused, maltreated, and lessened in their own estimation. they will be no longer robbed of the fruits of their toil: no longer oppressed and goaded to despair, their lives will be no longer a burden too heavy to he borne. The few- the grasping, the blood-sucking few – will be no longer able to do all this. The few- the idle, dronish few – will be forced to work as well as others, and every man’s share of the good things of life will be in proportion to his production of them. When the people are resolved and prepared upon all points to fight their own battle, the rapacity of the landlord, the inhumanity of the king’s tax gatherer and of the bishop’s tithe proctor will disappear. And if there should happen to be any poor and infirm persons to be provided for, they will not be entrusted to hospital-governors and poor-house keepers, who live in splendour on the parish allowances or charitable donations made solely for the exclusive advantage the poor and infirm, who may justly be considered, and ought to be treated as the martyrs of labour.

How is it that the people have never existed- that is, have not enjoyed ease, gaiety, pleasure, or happiness? How is it that they have been the instruments of the few, procuring them a superabundance of ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness? How is it that they have always been the productive party, and never the consuming party? The lion makes the jackall hunt and provide for him, because the lion is stronger; but, in the case of the people, the position is reversed, for the weaker party have hitherto forced the stronger party to hunt and provide for them. How has this most monstrous state of things been established and kept up? Simply thus: by keeping the people in ignorance- by hoodwinking them with the bonds of superstition and prejudice.

Ignorance is the source of all the misery of the many. On account of their ignorance they have been oppressed,- plundered,- ground down to the earth, and degraded like beasts of burden. It is ignorance that makes us incessantly toil, not for ourselves, but for others: it is ignorance that makes us fight, and lavish our blood and lives to secure to the few the power of still keeping us their tools; it is ignorance that prevents us from knowing ourselves and without a clear knowledge of ourselves we must ever remain the tools of others- the slaves of the consuming party. In every age of the world the people, for want of knowledge of their own worth and power have been the unpaid, unrecompensed tools of kings, nobles, and priests. Yet at no time, in no country, among no people has there existed so much degradation, oppression, and misery, as exists at this moment in this wretched country. Ignorance has reduced England to distraction, and unfortunate Ireland to phrensied madness.

There is no greater folly than to expect that people will do that which they are ignorant of. To fulfil a duty or to obey a law, we must understand it. Our lawgivers have kept us in ignorance, for if we had knowledge we would not obey laws framed for our own destruction. Our lords and masters are doing every thing that our ignorance may continue, in order that they may continue, like the lawyers of old, “to load us with burdens too grievous to be borne, which they will not, touch with one of their fingers.” Since our lords and masters have very good reasons for keeping us in ignorance, we have still stronger ones for getting knowledge. By keeping us in ignorance they enjoy: by getting ourselves knowledge we shall enjoy, and cease to suffer. The knowledge we want is very easily acquired: it is not that taught in schools or books, or at least in very few books. The knowledge we want is a knowledge of ourselves: a  knowledge of our own power, of our immense might, and of the right we have to employ in action that immense power. We cannot have this knowledge without having an opposite kind of knowledge:- namely, the knowledge of the numerical and real weakness of our enemies, though they have been so long enabled to oppress us and drain us to the last drop of our heart’s blood. The people of Paris had this knowledge when they revolted against tyranny, and trampled it for a moment under their feet: the people of Paris will give a still stronger example of the sort of knowledge we want, when they declare that kingship and privilege are incompatible with popular liberty: in fine, when they shall strike for a republic- and this example way be expected shortly. The men of Grenoble the other day gave a proof of this knowledge when they refused to pay unjust taxes, burned the tax-gatherers’ houses and books, and forced the government to come to a compromise. In short, the knowledge we want is to be fully convinced of the weakness and villainy of our enemies, and to be resolved to use the means we have of destroying them.

The interest of the people has been the same in every age of the world; and yet, extraordinary as it may appear, they have never understood it. If the people had understood their true interests, could any power or accident reduce them to the state they are now in? What that state is we all, alas, know: it is, beyond all contradiction, a state of privation, bordering on starvation, – a state of misery and degradation. Inattention, and the most culpable and dishonourable indifference on their part, have produced their own ruin, and consequently that of the countries they inhabit. Look to the people of this kingdom – look to this country: are they far off from ruin? If you, O people, do not rouse yourselves, you will leave to posterity a nation of the most miserable slaves.

The remedy? the remedy? you all exclaim. You have it within your own reach; but since it seems you cannot see it, you shall have it named to you, and pointed out to you so palpably, that if you do not make use of it, the brand and curse of slavery will stick to you during your wretched lives, and your children and children’s children will curse you as traitors, who have sold yourselves, and them, whom you had no right to sell. Now the remedy that is to better your condition, and to snatch you from final and everlasting ruin, is placed within yourselves. It is simply – UNITY OF THOUGHT AND ACTION. – Think together, act together, and you will remove mountains- mountains of injustice, oppression, misery and want. How do you suppose you were brought to your present condition? By never thinking or acting- by being ignorant of yourselves. The bulls in the fable, whilst united, defied the strength of the lion; he sowed jealousy and disunion among them, and they became his prey. Our enemies, by their unity of thought and action- numerically and physically weak as they are- have succeeded in making us their prey. A small portion of mankind, by adopting plan and method, by putting their heads together, have been able to do as they pleased with the greater portion. The smaller portion, by their unanimity, have made the greater portion toil for them: by unity of thought and action, the smaller party have become lords and masters, the greater party slaves.

Lords and masters! They are united; and therefore they may be whatever else they please; they have become, by their unity, lords and masters; and they are, without impunity, the possessors of all power, pomp, greatness, wealth, vanity, lewdness, beastiality, cruelty:- they are a living catalogue of all the vices and crimes that human nature has been forced to be the source of. A want of unity of thought and action on our parts has been the cause of this unnatural state of things. Our indifference and disunion have enabled our horrid enemies to cover the earth with thousands of Sodoms and Gomorrahs.

Of all the follies human nature can be guilty of, there is no one greater than to expect that others will do for us what we ought to do for ourselves. If others do not feel as we do – if they have no cause to feel as we do – if they are not oppressed, robbed, plundered, degraded – how can they enter into our feelings who are so! To expect aid from Tories, Whigs, Liberals – to expect aid from the middling classes, or from any other class than those who suffer, (from the working classes), is sheer madness!

Are liberty and equal rights worth enjoying: are ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness worth possessing? Is the satisfaction of seeing ourselves on the same footing with all men – of beholding no longer such a distinction as that between peer and peasant – of no longer seeing ourselves trampled on by the horses and carriages of persons of a different order- of seeing every man either on horseback or on foot, – is such satisfaction worth nothing? What more glorious, more consolatory, more honourable to man than equality! Equality, O people and friends, is grand and beautiful: we may have it; but let us he united!

Virtue- where is it to be found? Among the people! Who have died- who have been martyrs for their principles- the people! Who have been hanged, who have suffered at the stake for their country, and for the good of humanity – the people! From Wat Tyler down to Emmet and Thistlewood, the martyrs of truth have always been found among the people. Their martyrdom would not have been in vain, had we supported them: they relied upon us- they gave us an example- they held forth a torch-light they sounded a tocsin- their heartstrings wrung it; but we, O shame, have been deaf to it! We have had hearts of steel- we have been worse than the deaf adder for we have heard the music of liberty, and have not listened to it!

It is almost superfluous to say, that the horrid and merciless tyrants, whom we have allowed to lord it over us, have no feeling in common with us. The whole study of their lives is to keep us in a state of ignorance, that we may not be sensible of our own degradation and of their weakness. To expect good at their hands, to hope that they will break one link of the chain with which they bind us, to dream that they will ever look with pity upon us, is the vainest of all dreams. But enough; they have fattened upon the sweat of our body; they are determined to continue to do so; it is our business to prevent it, to put a stop to it. We are the people, our business is with the people, and to transact it properly, we must take it into our own hands. The people are called upon to work for themselves! We lay down the plan of operation; we despair of all safety, we despair of liberty, we despair of equality, we despair of seeing ease, gaiety, pleasure, and happiness becoming the possessions of the people, unless they co-operate with us. We chalk down to them a plan; woe to them if they do not follow in its traces!

THE HOLIDAY.

A holiday signifies a holy day, and ours is to be of holy days the most holy. It is to be most holy, most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote- to create rather- the happiness and liberty of mankind. Our holy day is established to establish plenty, to abolish want, to render all men equal! In our holy day we shall legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up during our holiday, shall place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal liberties, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production: this is the object of our holy day – of our sacred day, – of our festival!

When a grand national holiday, festival, or feast is proposed, let none of our readers imagine that the proposal is new. It was an established custom among the Hebrews, the most ancient of people, to have holidays or festivals, not only religious feasts, but political ones. Their feasts were generally held to perpetuate the memory of God’s mighty works; to  allow the people frequent seasons for instruction in the laws,- to grant them time of rest, pleasure, and renovation of acquaintance with their brethren. The Sabbath was a weekly festival, not because they supposed that God reposed from his labour on that day, – but immemorial of their deliverance from Egypt;- out of the house of bondage, and of their feeding on manna in the wilderness. The true meaning of feeding on manna is, that the productions of the soil were equally divided among the people. They fed upon manna- that is they were fed in abundance. During the various festivals, no servile work was done, and servants and masters knew no distinction. Every seventh year, which was called the year of Release, a continued festival was held among the Hebrews. Mark, a holiday for a whole year! How happy a people must be, how rich in provisions, to be able to cease from manual labour, and to cultivate their minds during the space of a whole year! We English must be in a pretty state, if in the midst of civilisation and abundance, we cannot enjoy a month’s holiday, and cease from labour during the short space of four weeks! But to return, – the year of release was a continued- unceasing festival; it was a season of instruction; it was a relief to poor debtors. The land lay untilled; the spontaneous produce was the property of the poor, the fatherless, and the widow; every debt was forgiven, and every bond-servant dismissed free, if he pleased, loaded with a variety of presents from his master. There was another holiday or feast deserving of mention;- it was called the jubilee. No servile work was done on it: the land lay untilled what grew of itself belonged to the poor and needy; whatever debts the Hebrews owed to one another, were wholly remitted; hired, as well as bond servants, obtained their liberty; the holding of lands was changed, so that as the jubilee approached, the Hebrew lands bore the less price. By this means landed possession was not confined to particular families, and the sinful hastening to be rich was discouraged.

We have now shewn that the holding of festivals is consecrated by divine authority; it only remains for us to show the necessity that there is for the people of this country holding one; and then to proceed to its details and object.

The grounds and necessity of our having a month’s Holiday, arise from the circumstances in which we are placed. We are oppressed, in the fullest sense of the word; we have been deprived of every thing; we have no property, no wealth, and our labour is of no use to us, since what it produces goes into the hands of others. We have tried every thing but our own efforts; we have told our governors, over and over again, of our wants and misery; we thought them good and wise, and generous; we have for ages trusted to their promises, and we find ourselves, at this present day, after so many centuries of forbearance, instead of having our condition bettered, convinced that our total ruin is at hand. Our Lords and Masters have proposed no plan that we can adopt; they contradict themselves, even upon what they name the source of our misery. One says one thing, another says another thing. One scoundrel, one sacrilegious blasphemous scoundrel, says “that over-production is the cause of our wretchedness.” Over production, indeed! when we half-starving producers cannot, with all our toil, obtain any thing like a sufficiency of produce. It is the first time, that in any age or country, save our own, abundance was adduced as a cause of want. Good God! where is this abundance? Abundance of food! ask the labourer and mechanic where they find it. Their emaciated frame is the best answer. Abundance of clothing! the nakedness, the shivering, the asthmas, the colds, and rheumatisms of the people, are proofs of the abundance of clothing! Our Lords and Masters tell us, we produce too much; very well then, we shall cease from producing for one month, and thus put into practice the theory of our Lords and Masters.

Over-population, our Lords and Masters say, is another cause of our misery. They mean by this, that the resources of the country are inadequate to its population. We must prove the contrary, and during a holiday take a census of the people, and a measurement of the land, and see upon calculation, whether it be not an unequal distribution, and a bad management of the land, that make our Lords and Masters say, that there are too many of us. Here are two strong grounds for our Holiday; for a CONGRESS of the working classes.

The greatest Captain of the age has acknowledged, that there was partial distress; Londonderry has said, that ‘ignorant impatience’ was the cause of our misery; the sapient Robert Peel has asserted, that ‘our wants proceeded from our not knowing what we wanted.’ Very good during our festival, we shall endeavour to put an end to partial distress; to get rid of our ignorant impatience, and to learn what it is we do want. And these are three other motives for holding a Congress of the working classes.

When Governments disagree; when they have a national right or interest to settle; a boundary to establish; to put an end to a war, or to prevent it; or when they combine to enslave, in order to be able to plunder the whole world, they hold a Congress. They send their wise men, their cunning men, to discuss, plan, and concoct what they call a treaty, and so, at least for a time, settle their differences. In this mode of proceeding there is something that we must imitate. In our National Holiday, which is to be held during one calendar month, throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, we must all unite in discovering the source of our misery, and the best way of destroying it. Afterwards we choose, appoint, and send to the place of Congress, a certain number of wise and cunning men, whom we shall have made fully acquainted with our circumstances; and they, before the Holiday be expired, shall discuss and concert a plan, whereby, if it is possible, the privation, wretchedness and slavery, of the great mass of us, may be diminished, if not completely annihilated.

We affirm that the state of society in this country is such, that as long as it continues, heart-rending inequality must continue, producing wretchedness, crime and slavery;- plunging not a few, but the immense majority of the people into those abject circumstances. Our respect and love towards the human race in general, and more especially towards the working classes to whom we belong body and soul, has induced us to reflect and consider, and thus to discover what we think will bring about the object we aim at; namely, the happiness of the many. Our lords and masters, by their unity of thought and action, by their consultations, deliberations, discussions, holidays, and congresses, have up to this time succeeded in bringing about the happiness of the few. Can this be denied? We shall then by our consultations, deliberation-, discussions, holiday and congress, endeavour to establish the happiness of the immense majority of the human race, of that far largest portion called the working classes. What the few have done for themselves cannot the many do for themselves? unquestionably. Behold, O people and fellow labourers the way!

Before a month’s holiday can take place, universal preparations must be made for it. lt should not take place neither in seed-time nor in harvest-time. Every man must prepare for it, and assist his neighbour in preparing for it. The preparations must begin long before the time which shall be hereafter appointed, in order that every one may be ready, and that the festival be not partial but universal.

Committees of management of the working classes must be forthwith formed in every city, town, village, and parish throughout the united kingdom. These committees must make themselves fully acquainted with the plan, and be determined to use the extremest activity and perseverance to put it into execution as speedily and effectually as possible. They must call frequent meetings, and shew the necessity and object of the holiday. They must use every effort to prevent intemperance of every sort and recommend the strictest sobriety and economy. The working classes cannot lay in provisions for a month; this is not wanted, but every man must do his best to be provided with food for the first week of the holiday. Provisions for the remaining three weeks can be easily procured. As for wearing apparel, since the holiday will take place in the summer, there can be no great difficulty in being provided with sufficient covering for one month. If the committees do their duty, and earnestly explain the nature and necessity of the holiday, they will induce all lovers of equal rights, to make every sacrifice of momentary inconvenience in order to obtain permanent convenience and comfort.

We suppose that the people are able to provide provisions and funds for one week; during this week they will be enabled to enquire into the funds of their respective cities, towns, villages and parishes, and to adopt means of having those funds, originally destined for their benefit, now applied to that purpose. The committee of management shall be required to direct the people in adopting the best measures that shall be deemed necessary. The people must be made aware of their own folly, in having allowed themselves to have been deceived by the Parish parsons, and Select Vestries, and they must cease permitting others to vote away their own money. The people, so soon as they shall see themselves in want of provisions or funds, must have immediate recourse to vestry meetings, which have power to grant, in despite of Overseers and Justices, such relief as may be wanted. There is nothing to prevent any six or ten persons from calling a vestry meeting as often as may be deemed requisite, and the registers, books, and other parish documents must be consulted, and will give sufficient evidence, that there is wherewithal to support the people during the holiday. Let it be constantly borne in mind, that the united voice of the people will be duly attended to, and that an equal division of funds and provisions will be allowed them by the parish authorities, when their object is known. The committee, which may also be looked upon as the commissary department, must likewise watch over the good order of its district, establish regularity, and punish all attempts at disorder. The people having a grand object in view, the slightest points in their character must be grand. About to renovate Europe, the people must appear renovated.

In the earlier periods of our history, monarchs, princes, and rulers of minor titles, had recourse to voluntary loans. At first the people raised these loans voluntarily, for they thought by so doing, they would enable their chiefs to protect them. It was soon seen, however, that the voluntary loans were converted to the sole advantage of the chiefs, and their more immediate partisans, consequently the people began to grow slack in contributing them. By means of the voluntary loans, the chiefs or governors became powerful enough to exact involuntary loans, and the method of raising them was taxation, and other sorts of exaction. Hence, though sovereignty was at first supported by voluntary loans, as soon as it was discovered to be a self-interested institution, it was obliged to levy involuntary loans, that is, taxes. Now there is a species of sovereignty- we mean the sovereignty of the people- that has not as yet been supported, and it is for its support that we claim at this moment, during the festival that is to establish it, voluntary loans. When we talk of establishing the sovereignty of the people, we talk of establishing the grandeur, the happiness and liberty of the people. Nothing can be more deserving of praise and support. We have hitherto contributed to the sovereignty of particular families, that is to their grandeur, happiness and liberty; and their liberty must be called uncontrolled licence- tyranny.

Now, since we have so long tried the sovereignty of particular families, let us try the sovereignty of the grand family- the human race. That species of sovereignty can never become tyranny. We call then upon every man to add his mite to this voluntary loan, and particularly the rich, who are always so generous in keeping up the splendour of ancient race. The antiquity of the human race they will not allow to be sullied by modern degradation. If they show pity and support towards the descendants of a Stuart, a Bourbon, or a Guelf, they will surely show more towards the descendants of Adam.

“The cattle upon a thousand hills are the Lord’s.” When the people’s voice, which Lord Brougham proclaims to be the voice of God, and surely we need no higher legal authority, calls for its own, demands the cattle of the thousand hills, who dares withhold the cattle of the thousand hills? During our holiday the people may have need of this cattle: let them order it to the slaughter-house, and their herdsmen and drovers will obey them. There may be some persons, who having been so long a time the keepers of the Lord’s cattle, will be inclined to keep it still longer. However, we are of opinion, that when solicited they will render “unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s.” But there are other keepers of the people’s cattle, whose unbounded liberality and strict probity are known to the whole world. These keepers may be classed under the denominations of Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Lords, Barons, Baronets, Esquires, Justices, and Parsons, and they will all freely contribute to our glorious holiday. Some of them, according to the extent of the Lord’s flocks, will send us a hundred sheep, others twenty oxen; loads of corn, vegetables and fruit will be sent to each committee appointed by the Lord’s voice, which, when distributed among the people, will enable them during the CONGRESS to legislate at their case, without any fear of want tormenting any part of them.

Should there, however, be a few who may refuse to render up the Lord’s cattle, the number of the greatly generous will infinitly counter-balance them. To the NEWCASTLES, who think every thing their own, we will oppose the BURDETTS, who think all they possess, the Lord’s or people’s. What a faithful keeper of the Lord’s cattle we shall find in Sir FRANCIS! The relief we shall obtain from him when we wait upon him at Belper, Burton, and in Leicestershire, will be a proof of his generosity and probity. The following is the way Sir FRANCIS and all such honest keepers are to be waited on, and our wants and wishes made known to them. Although we name Sir FRANCIS, we do not give him any real preference over the Westminsters, the Russells, the Lansdowries, the Althorpes, &c. Let him, however, be supposed the keeper, that for form sake we are to wait upon. The Committee will depute 20 persons to wait upon Sir FRANCIS, and state to him respectfully, but energetically, their business. Suppose, but it is the most improbable of all suppositions, that Sir FRANCIS should not be inclined to pay full attention to the application. Then the Committee will send 100 persons, with the same request, urging it still more respectfully and energetically; and should there still be indifference on the part of Sir FRANCIS, the Committee shall send 1000 persons and so on, increasing in proportion, until the Lord’s cattle be forthcoming. The persons sent by the Committee, shall allow no one to disturb the peace of the people. Upon all visits from the committee, the person visited must be seen in person by the Committee: not being at home is no excuse. Sir FRANCIS may be at Belper, Burton, or in Leicestershire; the Committee of those districts will find him at one or either of them, and solicit ‘England’s glory’ for support, which be will freely grant, as he is very rich, and very willing to establish the sovereignty, happiness, and liberty of the people.

Here be it observed, that the above mode of proceeding is not limited to any part of the country, or to any one Sir FRANCIS. All the Sir FRANCISES, all the reformers are to be applied to, and the people will have no longer any reason to suspect reformers’ consistency. The reformers of the united kingdom will hold out an open hand to support us during our festival. O’Connell will abandon the collection made for him; indeed that collection is virtually destined for our Irish brethren during the holiday. Until they are tried no one can imagine the number of great men ready to promote equal rights, equal justice, and equal laws all throughout the kingdom.

When all the details of the above plan are put into execution, the committee of each parish and district, shall select its wise men to be sent to the NATIONAL CONGRESS. A parish or district having a population of 8,000, shall send two wise and cunning men to Congress, a population of 15,000 four, a population of 25,000 eight, and London fifty wise and cunning men. The advice of the different committees is to be taken as to the most convenient place for conference. It should be a central position, and the mansion of some great liberal lord, with its out houses and appurtenances. The only difficulty of choice will be to fix upon a central one, for they are all sufficiently vast to afford lodging to the members of the Congress, their lands will afford nourishment, and their parks a beautiful place for meeting.

It may be relied upon, that the possessor of the mansion honoured by the people’s choice, will make those splendid preparations for the representatives of the sovereignty of the people, that are usually made for the reception of a common sovereign.

The object of the Congress; that is what it will have to do. To reform society, for “from the crown of our head to the sole of our foot there is no soundness in us.” We must cut out the rottenness in order to become sound. Let us see what is rotten. Every man that does not work is rotten; he must be made work in order to cure his unsoundness. Not only is society rotten; but the land, property, and capital is rotting. There is not only something, but a great deal rotten in the state of England. Every thing, men, property, and money, must be put into a state of circulation. As the blood by stagnation putrifies, as it is impoverished by too much agitation, so society by too much idleness on the one hand, and too much toil on the other has become rotten. Every portion must be made work, and then the work will become so light, that it will not be considered work, but wholesome exercise. Can any thing be more humane than the main object of our glorious holiday, namely, to obtain for all at the least expense to all, the largest sum of happiness for all.

We think that the necessity of a GRAND NATIONAL HOLIDAY has been fully impressed upon the mind of every man who may have read us. We have etched out the plan; not detailed and matured it, for it will take a longer time and deeper reflection before we can pronounce our plan complete. We expect the assistance of others, and we invite them, without putting us to unnecessary expence, to communicate to us their hints. We have explained in a few words our object; it will be seen that never was there an object, an aim so sublime, so full of humanity. We will not revert, now that we are forced to a conclusion, to the necessity of a holiday, but we must repeat ourselves respecting the plan.

We are sure that there is no one who will not be ready to join heart and hand in our festival, provided he can be persuaded of the possibility of holding it. If we had not been convinced of the possibility of holding it, we should never have mentioned it. All we require is that our holiday folk should be prepared for one week; we engage ourselves to provide for all their wants during the last three weeks of the festival. We have shown in what way the people should have recourse to vestry meetings, and what power they had over all parish authorities. We have shown that the parish authorities are entirely dependent on the people, and that without the consent of the people they can raise no rate, nor dispose of any fund already accumulated. We have shewn that the people had a right to examine the parish accounts, and become cognisant of the funds held by the parish authorities, and that the people could dispose of those funds as they thought proper. If, then, there are funds in hand, the people will apply them to their own support during the holiday; if it should happen that there are not funds, the people must vote a supply, for the people must be convinced of one thing, namely, that it is they alone who have a right of levying parish contributions. Some few persons may not like the idea of having recourse to parish allowance for their support even during the short period of three weeks, but these over-delicate individuals must reflect that they are becoming a momentaryburden to their parish, in order to rid it of increasing  and everlasting burdens. We think we have said enough to prove, that by vestry meetings alone the people would be fully able to support themselves during the holiday. Let the people only reflect on the sums that the parish authorities have from time immemorial levied upon the people, without the concurrence of the people, and then they will have no longer any scruples, but will, if the occasion require it, have recourse to the same method for raising funds for the benefit of the many, that the few have always had for the benefit of the few. We are too honest, too conscientious, too delicate, consequently the few who are neither honest, conscientious nor delicate dupe us. We must avoid all squeamishness; we are not only working for ourselves but for the human race and its posterity. We beg of the people to throw off all false delicacy. They must boldly lay hands upon that which is their own.

We call our reader’s attention to what we have said about “the cattle upon the thousand hills.” They are the Lord’s, that is the people’s; and when the people want them, the guardians who have kept them so long, will deliver them unto the people. We repeat, and we do so expressly that the people may be the more convinced of what we assert, that Sir FRANCIS BURDETT, and all such liberal men, will come forward in shoals to support us. There is nothing enthusiastic or ideal in this assertion. Let us reflect upon it. MR. COKE, of Norfolk, is a very rich man, and a very liberal man. Now we ask, what does a liberal man amass wealth for, if not in order to be able to support liberal principles. MR. COKE’S heart will beat with joy when he finds such an occasion for his liberality, as we are going to give him. We see him already ringing for his check-book, and ordering droves of his oxen, and waggon-loads of his wheat to be sent to us holiday folks. We hear him I wearing at his servants, damning their laziness, when the demands of the people are to be satisfied. And in every county a COKE is to be found; in Middlesex you will find a BYNG, in Bedfordshire a WHITBREAD. It would be too long to mention names, but you have only to look over the list of the majority in the House of Commons on the Reform Bill, and the list of the minority in the House of Lords on the same Bill, and then you will see, at a glance, the number of liberal men who are keeping their riches for your advantage. Only think of the immense sums that these liberal men spend at elections, in order to legislate for you, and consequently do you good! Now can you be persuaded, that they will not liberally resist you when you are fighting your own battle. Be assured they will; not only will they send you funds and provisions, but you will find them simple volunteers in your ranks. HENRY BROUGHAM, Lord Chancellor, will, if you accept of him, volunteer his services as one of your Deputies to CONGRESS. These great men, O people, are waiting for you; as soon as they can rely upon you, you may rely upon them. All they want to declare themselves for you, is your support. Let them have it.

We intended to give a list of the principal subjects to be discussed and settled during our CONGRESS. The Public shall have this list in a Periodical, advertised on the last page.

FINIS.

Printed by W. Benbow, 205, Fleet Street.

THE TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE,
A MONTHLY PERIODICAL,

To be first Published on the 21st of January.

Price Two Pence.

This PERIODICAL will be purely Political; it will “speak daggers but use none.”- It will advise the separation of the people from the Aristocracy; each portion of society must shift for itself, until plain dealing is established. The Tribune of the people is the Advocate of the people. The people shall be no longer duped.

PUBLISHED BY BENBOW,
205, FLEET STREET.

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Postscript: The Grand National Holiday in action

The Chartists took the idea of the ‘Grand National Holiday’, although some preferred to called it the ‘Sacred Month’. After the first flush of enthusiasm of mass meetings and petitioning had given way to disillusion as Parliament rejected the first Chartist petition in July 1839, rioting had occurred across various parts of the country in response to the Commons vote, and a number of Chartist leaders were arrested and jailed – including Benbow. He had been spreading the idea of the Grand National holiday again, and it had been widely discussed in Chartist circles around the country. Workers in Wales, the north of England and the midlands were especially agitated, and many were prepared to take extra-ordinary steps.

August 12th 1839 was agreed as the date when the ‘Sacred Month’ would begin. The Chartist Convention of summer 1839 adopted it as policy. But Chartism was not a homogenous movement; although united around some demands, tactics and even ultimate ends were often hotly debated. If some were openly planning insurrection, stockpiling pikes, staves and other weaponry, many more moderate elements shied away from violence, whether because they felt it was wrong in itself, or because they believed it would draw state repression and end in mass arrest and jailings. In the event the repression came anyway.

The Chartist movement aroused great fear, among the middle classes, in particular, and some among the authorities… The government had already begun to crack down on Chartism before the Grand National Holiday could get going, arresting 100s of activists including leading speakers, agitators and lecturers, and charging them with sedition. William Benbow himself was nicked on August 4th, and spent eight months in prison awaiting trial. These arrests not only weakened the strike by taking crucial figures out of the picture, but the trials and supporting prisoners became an alternative focus, and the Convention in fact voted to suspend the Sacred Month just before it was to begin and replace if with a three day General Strike starting on 12th August

To some extent the Sacred Month, did begin, in that workers in a number of areas stayed away from work. On 12th August 1839 in many, mainly northern areas, the pubs were shut. The weekly Chartist newspaper The Northern Star for the 17th and 24th August 1839 reported meetings across the north, in which it gave accounts of large turnouts comprising a majority of the working population of particular areas, which then proceeded to march to surrounding locations to pull others out in support of the Sacred Month – flying pickets, in fact, often a useful tactic in large-scale strikes. A number of factories were closed down.

Even in areas where the strike did not take hold there was at least symbolic support. For instance, in London, on 12th August, Chartists held a mass meeting on Kennington Common.

The response to the strike call was, however, in reality very patchy, and there is no clear picture of how many workers stayed away from work. Despite huge Chartist rallies, which seemed to reflect mass support for Chartism in some areas (eg Kersal Moor), in 1838, there is some uncertainty about Chartism’s real support. In some Lancashire towns with large working class populations, Chartist support seemed to be dropping off, not building. On 4th August in the run-up to the start of the Sacred Month, Chartists were called on to attend church en masse: but numbers who in fact turned up were disappointing (150 at Manchester, 1500 at Stockport, 2-3000 at Bolton and 4000 at Blackburn.) On the 12th, Chartists paraded through the main cotton-producing towns, but in some places work continued as normal – for instance in Oldham and Rochdale. In Oldham, a meeting of factory workers agreed that the National Holiday was unnecessary and the Charter could only be achieved by peaceful means.

In some areas the strike lasted several days, though not the whole month. In most places, within a week, the movement had collapsed.

In essence, “without working class unanimity it could have no hope of success.” (Donald Read)

It seems that in many areas there was a division between factory operatives and handloom weavers who worked out of their own homes. The latter formed a more solid support for Chartism, and its more radical elements; factory operatives were possibly more likely to back away from more extreme Chartist measures. This could have been influenced by the clear link between poverty and economic hardship and preparedness to support or initiate ‘physical force’ measures. In areas or trades his by depression and resulting lack of work, increased desperation led to wider willingness to enlist in revolts, plots and the ‘Holiday’; where trade was more prosperous or at least reviving, support for radical measures fell away. (So in Oldham, where, as mentioned above, support for the Sacred Month was scant, trade in the textile mills had recently picked up.) The handloom weavers, whose work was being replaced by factories, were being driven to the edge and were correspondingly more up for a sharper, deeper change…

But more fundamental problems of planning also undermined the attempt to put the Sacred Month into practice. Benbow’s suggestion, that revolutionary local councils should organise the expropriation of the rich to provide for people deprived of wages when they struck, proved difficult, with an organised police force, now properly up and running, soldiers deployed around the country, and a government in reality more prepared for violence than the workers were. Mass expropriation sounds attractive when you’re starving and angry, but logistically, it was quite a step to take. It was not to be attempted, which may well have doomed the Grand National Holiday from the start.

Few workers had any savings, and if some had small plots of land to feed themselves, many had nothing. Without a mass will to seize the means of production from the start, a simple economic stoppage was up against it from the start.

By September, the Chartists were themselves discussing the strike’s failure, and some were admitting they had not been adequately prepared. According to Bury Chartist Dr Fletcher, “It must be admitted that they had been attempting something which they had not either the strength or the wisdom to enable them to effect.” Fletcher, for one, did not give up on the idea of force to achieve Chartist ends, though he felt that it could be more effectively achieved if control of any future ‘physical’ action lay with local groups, not with a National Convention which had proved itself wobbly in the face of the crucial moment. Fletcher also identified a factor other theorists of the General Strike would later re-iterate: “if the working classes would fight, they must begin themselves, and the convention must not be the father of the act, but the child of it.” A centrally declared national strike is much less likely to succeed than an organic movement built towards the centre from the grassroots (See the appendix below on Rosa Luxemburg and the Mass Strike.)

So in the end, the Grand National Holiday, the Sacred Month, fizzled out. Many of the Chartists still at large began instead to plan insurrections, based locally. Armed revolt did break out in Newport, South Wales, in November 1839, and plots were also barely forestalled by the authorities in Yorkshire.

Though the Grand National Holiday failed to overthrow british capitalism in its infancy, the idea remained strong among the international working class. The theory of the General strike, as a method of overthrowing class society and introducing a more just and egalitarian economic and social order, was revived, most powerfully by the French syndicalists in the late 19th century. Some socialist historians have asserted that French radical workers were introduced to the idea by English workmen during meetings of the First International in the 1860s. So perhaps old Chartists influenced by William Benbow, or recalling 1839, passed this idea of to a new generation who picked it up and ran with it…

More on William Benbow’s life

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Appendix: Rosa Luxembourg and the Mass Strike

It’s not our intention here to go into detailed theoretical proposals for how a possible future General Strike might pan out differently. But one classic communist text we have read we did find useful. Initially it was interesting to us when looking at the British General Strike of 1926, and relating theories of a General Strike as a method of initiating possible social revolution. But it also can be helpful when looking at 1839.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her book, The Mass Strike (1905), made some critiques of how anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists of her time all saw the General Strike. She suggested that the idea of the anarchists and syndicalists of a political general strike pre-arranged with a political aim to overthrow capitalism was unlikely to succeed, but posited instead (based on an analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution) that a mass strike, evolving more organically out of people’s immediate economic struggles in daily life, meshing together, constituted a new phase in the class struggle, not an abstract and artificial moment plucked from the air, but a historical development, emerging from below, not being imposed or ordained by any higher authority, or even she suggests by an external political radical structure like a socialist party.

Part of Luxembourg’s intent in writing The Mass Strike, it is true, was to discredit the existing theories of the General Strike as put forward mainly by anarchists and syndicalists, trends of radical thinking that she and other marxists were struggling to liquidate from the working class movement, as they saw it. But she was also engaged in a parallel battle against those within the Marxist camp who were attempting to steer Marxism towards a reformist position, away from the idea of a revolutionary transformation of capitalism; as well as being critical of trade unionists mainly concerned with purely day to day economic gains at the expense of the bigger picture.

Theorists of the General Strike thus far had almost exclusively conceived of it as a road to revolution. Sixty years after the Chartist Grand National Holiday, the French syndicalists, organised in the CGT union confederation, developed theories in which the General Strike was central. They saw it as the supreme weapon for the workers to overthrow capitalism and take control of society in their own interests. One of the CGT’s founders and leading theorists, Fernand Pelloutier, wrote about the General Strike. Two examples showing how he and other revolutionary syndicalists saw this future strike:
“ … Every one of them (the strikers) will remain in their neighbourhoods and will take possession, first, of the small workshops and the bakeries, then of the bigger workshops, and finally, but only after the victory, of the large industrial plants….”
“ … Because the general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere, because it takes possession of the instruments of production in each neighbourhood, in each street, in each building, so to speak, there can be no establishment of an “Insurrectionary Government” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; no focal point of the whole uprising or a centre of resistance; instead, the free association of each group of bakers, in each bakery, of each group of locksmiths, in each locksmith’s shop: in a word, free production….”

The syndicalist line on the General Strike was very much to the fore when The Mass Strike was written. It attempts to dismiss the prevailing ideas of the potential of such a struggle : “It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution’ like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”
You can’t create either by going round calling for it, in other words; it will emerge as and when needed and according to the conditions of the moment. It is not ONE predictable fixed open and close struggle, but an inter-connected web of movements events, themselves caused by local or specific economic conditions, though led and expressed by people with a political idea of the movement, at least as Luxemburg saw it.
Another nice quote: “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
Rosa saw it as not a method but THE form itself of workers struggle… A rallying idea of a period of class war lasting years or decades… It cannot be called at will by any organization even The Party! She goes further and almost says that it cannot be directed from above or outside, though she does say elsewhere that the socialists have to provide political leadership.
She does contrast the mass fighting strikes with one off ‘demonstration’ strikes – what the TUC or Unison calls today ‘days of action’ in other words.
Related to this, she says the successful mass strike arising in the way described above would not/must not be limited to the organized workers: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” The union structures must recognise the common interest of unionised and non-unionised workers, in other words (to their surprise many strike committees learnt this lesson in practice in 1926, as unorganised workers flocked to the struggle in thousands).

She suggests minority movements are pipe dreams; “a strategy of class struggle … which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Even though the Socialists are the leadership of the working class, she suggests, they can’t force things through on their own… (past tense would question that the working class needs an external leadership, here we do differ from auntie Rosa).
Later on she talks about trade unions getting to the point where preservation of the organisation, its structure etc, becomes end in itself, or at least more important than taking risks, entering into all out struggles, or even any at all! Also how daily struggles over small issues often lead people to lose sight of wider class antagonism or larger connections… Interestingly she points out that TU bureaucracies become obsessed with the positive, membership numbers etc, and limited to their own union’s gains, ignoring negative developments, hostile to critics who point out the limitations to their activities. And how the development of professional bureaucracies increase the chance of divorce of officials etc from daily struggles… Nothing sharp-eyed folk have not also pointed out over the last hundred years, but she was among the first to diagnose it. (She also says the same ossification processes are dangers the Revolutionary Party needs to beware of… showing foresights to the developments of the communist parties and other left splinters over the following decades).

Rosa Luxembourg’s assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, is possibly a more realistic guess at how a successful strike movement might threaten to overthrow capitalist social relations than some other theories. In the case of 1839, some Chartists were attempting to crowbar a General Strike into existence, in conditions that may have doomed it from the start. Interestingly, viewed through her prism, the plug strikes of 1842 in the north of England probably had more ‘revolutionary potential’, arising from the immediate need of the workers involved, as they did, rather than the somewhat forced Grand National Holiday. However, it is also interesting to compare Benbow’s idea of local committees of working class activists taking on ordering food distribution and keeping order, with both the councils of action in the 1926 General Strike (and similar structures thrown up elsewhere, like the 1956 workers councils in the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, or in embryonic form in some places in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent in Britain). Benbow was early to spot how such structures would be necessary in a time of ‘dual power’, where capitalist state still exists but workers are powerful enough to begin to supersede it.

Though Rosa Luxemburg disagreed with Fernand Pelloutier, her vision, like that of Benbow, also suggests a revolution that is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, part of a tangled period of change and dual power… a future that remains open and in our hands…

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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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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Today in London’s pubishing history: Levellers take over the Moderate newspaper, 1648.

The groundbreaking political ideas thrown up in the english civil war – including the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, fifth monarchism, and all the varied dissenting religious views – found expression most notably in print. Hundreds upon thousands of pamphlets were printed, tracts, often circulated very widely, and finding echoes among large sections of the population; partly because of the upheaval caused by economic and social crises…

In many ways, some of these pamphlets were collective representations as well as individual works… Some of them had mass circulation, and were being used at the forefront of the exchange of ideas; as one way of developing social policy, though debate, counterblast, agitation…

In the later years of the civil war, there was an explosion not only in pamphlet production, but also this kind of papers of ‘newsbooks’, of which large numbers appeared, some lasting one edition only, some being published for a few weeks or months, some for a year or more. Newsbooks had begun to appear from late 1641, as the county slipped into civil war, and the demand for regular news became important. In this period the state censorship partially lapsed, (as its powerful proponent, Archbishop Laud, fell from power) allowing an increase in free expression, though the war years would see several measures to tighten it again. Newsbooks were intimately bound up with the politics of the civil war and the political, religious and economic conflict that the wars were both born from and helped themselves to create and expand. Royalists, radicals, pro-and anti-parliamentary activists were involved in producing these newsbooks, some representing collective movements and voicing ideas being discussed by wide social movements; others the viewpoint of one, often eccentric writer.

While there was a powerful appetite in some quarters for the ideas expressed, there were also powerful forces mounted to repress this fermenting print culture. Censorship of radical social or religious opinions was exercised through licensing, controlled by the Stationers’ Office, and backed by Parliament. Royalist opinion also came to be banned and closed down as Parliament gradually emerged victorious from the civil wars. Underground presses operated in secret, moving to avoid detection, and being replaced when they were seized. Among the authorities and their supporters many were suggesting that access to print media should be severely restricted, to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas: ideas could only open up the potential for dangerous acts. Allowing ideas into print and allowing people to discuss them was in itself a threat to the established social order. This view had pre-dated the civil war – in fact the eruption of the war and the social movements that had come out of it was held as evidence that you couldn’t let just anyone think, speak, read or act – where would it end?

As well as being consummate pamphleteers, civil war radicals the Levellers also found voice, for a while, through the pages of their own newspaper, the Moderate, which appeared for a few months of 1648-49.

The Moderate launched in June 1648, with a format of twelve pages, much of it content being foreign news. After three issues, in July 1648, it shrank to eight pages, beginning a new series; in the sixth issue of which a regular feature was introduced, an editorial, which coincided with the paper’s becoming the mouthpiece of Leveller arguments, advocating a wider franchise and religious toleration. These arguments gained the Moderate widespread enmity; the Earl of Leicester asserted that the paper “endeavours to invite the people to overthrow all propriety, as the original cause of sin; and by that to destroy all government, magistracy, honesty, civility and humanity.” It consisted of a sheet of eight pages, small quarto size, the chief contents being the news of the day. It lasted for over a year, from July 1648 to the end of September 1649. No complete series of its numbers is extant; they are found, singly and scattered, among the collections of pamphlets of the so-called King’s or Thomason Library in the British Museum.

There is some uncertainty over who edited and wrote for the Moderate. Gilbert Mabbott, official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649, was certainly associate with the paper’s creation. As licenser, Mabbot theoretically had the power to withhold a license to publish from any newsbooks he thought were subversive; however, he was progressively less successful. His name frequently appears on newsbooks of the period but was often used without his permission. He had attempted to suppress a newsbook called the Moderate Intelligencer in June 1648 after it expressed royalist views, and helped start the Moderate with a view to supplanting it. Mabbott was however, possibly an ally or sympathiser with the Levellers, and either gave over control of the paper of allowed the radicals a free hand in writing articles.

The Moderate was thought to have been edited later by Richard Overton, one of the most articulate theorists and pamphleteers of what was loosely identifiable as the Leveller party.

Despite widespread censorship of the press in 1648-9, including banning of Leveller publications and coinciding with the arrests of Leveller leaders and other radicals, the Moderate managed to keep is licence to publish. It remained openly critical of the government, arousing some ire in Parliament. In July 1649, Sir Henry Mildmay spoke up in the House of Commons, asking whether or not Gilbert Mabbott’s licence should be removed, specifically naming the Moderate as a dangerous publication. Although the Moderate continued to appear, the Council of State began drawing up further restrictions on licensing of publishers; meanwhile Mabbott himself resigned his position as licenser, seemingly because he was both narked at the notoriety he was attracting, as many publishers simply stamped his name in their issues without obtaining licences, but also in protest at the whole licensing system, which he denounced as a plot to enslave free people by keeping them in ignorance, as well as being a monopoly, and a measure which prevented expression by punishing licensees in advance, pre-emptively, rather than after something actionable was said.

German Marxist historian gives an account of the Moderate: “For a comparatively short time, viz., from the middle of the year 1648 to the autumn of the year 1649, information about the movement is forthcoming from a journal, which was described as the organ of the Levellers, and which within certain limits may be so regarded, as it reproduces most of the proclamations and pamphlets of the Levellers published during that time, and so far as it exhibits any tendency at all, represents that of the Levellers. Strange to say, this paper, though the organ of the most extreme political party of the period, bears the singular title of the Moderate. But this name was neither meant in an ironical sense nor was it chosen in a hypocritical spirit. It indicates the calm and impartial style in which the paper was written. Far from smacking of sans-culottism, as the elder Disraeli asserts in his Curiosities of Literature [9], we have nowhere met with a single phrase that could be remotely compared to the vulgar and obscene passages commonly found in the contemporary Royalist press, the Man in the MoonMercurius Elencticus, etc.

The Moderate was one of the first papers to publish explanatory leading articles, or at least the embryo of such. Several of its numbers open with disquisitions on political and even economical problems, and I venture to reproduce these articles so that the reader may judge whether we are justified in describing the Moderate as the pioneer of the Labour Press of our days. The issue of September 4 to 11, 1649 (No.61), commences as follows:

Wars are not only ever clothed with the most specious of all pretences, viz., Reformation of Religion, The Laws of the Land, Liberty of the Subject, etc., though the effects thereof have proved most destructive to them, and ruinous to every Nation; making the Sword (and not the people) the original of all Authorities, for many hundred years together; taking away each man’s Birth-right, and settling upon a few, a cursed propriety (the ground of all Civil Offences between party and party) and the greatest cause of most Sins against the Heavenly Deity. Thus Tyranny and Oppression running through the Veins of many of our Predecessors, and being too long maintained by the Sword, upon a Royal Foundation, at last became so customary, as to the vulgar it seemed so natural (the onely reason why the people at this time are so ignorant of their equal Birth-right, their onely Freedom). At last Divine Providence crowned the slavish people’s attempt with good success against this potent Enemy, which made them Free (as they fancied) from their former Oppressions, Burdens and Slaveries; and happy in what they could imagine, the greatest good, both for their Soul and Body. But Pride, Covetousness, and Self-Interest (taking the advantage of so unvaluable a benefit). And many being tempted to Swim in this Golden Ocean, the Burthens and Oppressions of the people, are thereby not onely continued, but increased, and no end thereof to be imagined. At this the people (who cannot now be deluded, will be eased, and not onely stiled, but really be the original of all Lawful Authority) begin to rage, and cry out for a lawful Representative, and such other wholesome Laws as will make them truly happy. These not granted, and some old Sparks being blown up with the Gales of new Dissentions, the fire breaks out, the wind rises, and if the fewel be dry and some speedy remedy be not taken for prevention, the damage thereby may be great to some, but the benefit conceived greater to all others.

This line of argument sounds very modern. The world moves but slowly, and it gives a feeling of humility to realize how old political wisdom is.

Mr. Isaac Disraeli is annoyed because the Moderate, in its issue of July 31st to August 7, 1649, when some robbers were executed for cattle-stealing, blames the institution of property for the death of these people, arguing that if no private property existed, there would have been no need for them to steal for their living. The article states: “We find some of these Fellons to be very civil men, and say, That if they could have had any reasonable subsistence by friends, or otherwise, they should never have taken such necessitous courses, for support of their Wives and Families. From whence many honest people do endevor to argue, that there is nothing but propriety that is the loss of all men’s lives in this condition, they being necessitated to offend the Law for a livelihood, and being; and not onely so, but they argue it with much confidence, that propriety is the original cause of any sin between party and party, as to civil transactions. And that since the Tyrant is taken off, and that Government altered in nomine, so ought it really to redound to the good of the people in specie; which though they cannot expect it in few yeers, by reason of the multiplicity of the Gentry in Authority, command, etc., who drive on all designes for support of the old Government, and consequently their own interest and the people’s slavery; yet they doubt not, but in time, the people will herein discern their own blindness, and folly.”

From the reports of the Moderate, as well as from other contemporary newspapers, it appears that the Leveller movement was not confined to London and its immediate neighbourhood and the Army, but also had followers in the country. Very interesting in this respect is a correspondence from Derby, in the issue for the last week of August 1649, particularly because we find mentioned in it a class of workers who are nowhere else mentioned in connection with this movement, viz., the miners, who had appealed to Parliament for redress in connection with a dispute with the Earl of Rutland, and the correspondence states that they were determined, if Parliament did not do them justice, to have recourse to “Natural Law”. Their number, including friends and sympathizers, was said to be twelve thousand, and they threatened, in default of a hearing, to form a resolute army. “The party of the Levellers in Town”, the article continues “promises them assistance in the prosecution of their just demands.” But a few days later, a letter from the “Freeholders and Mineowners, etc.”, of the Derbyshire mining district, published in a Cromwellian paper, states that the miners numbered at most four thousand, and that the Levellers did not have a dozen followers in Derby.

Moreover, the miners were accused of having repeatedly sided with the King, while the far more numerous freehold-farmers and mine-owners supported Parliament. This provoked a reply, in No.61 of the Moderate, which asserted that the above-mentioned letter was a fabrication of the Earl of Rutland and his agents; that the farmers and small owners had nothing to do with it. As to siding with the King, it had been stated in the original petition of the miners that the Earl of Rutland, then Mr. Manners, had repeatedly driven miners from their work, with the aid of Cavaliers, and when they complained, had sought to throw suspicion on them by false charges.

No.63 is the last issue of the Moderate. On September 20, 1649, Parliament enacted a press law, which re-established the system of licences, and prescribed severe penalties for the publication of abusive and libellous paragraphs. This undermined the position of the paper. On the other hand, negotiations had just been resumed between the Levellers and representatives of the Army and Parliament, with a view to reaching a compromise, so that it is by no means unlikely that the Moderate ceased to appear because the need for a special organ of the Levellers no longer existed. As a matter of fact, the Moderate reported on September 1st (and its report is confirmed by the Perfect Weekly Account, a paper which was more sympathetic with the Parliamentary party) that four representatives each, of Parliament, the Army, and “those called Levellers”, had held prearranged conferences in order to arrive at a mutual understanding, and if possible a settlement of all differences. “Time will soon show what will be the outcome of all this.” No compromise was effected, but it seems that, after Lilburne’s acquittal in October, a kind of truce followed, as during the subsequent years the Levellers adopted an expectant attitude.”

(Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism)

As Bernstein mentions, the Moderate and other publications were effectively closed down by parliamentary legislation in September 1649. There is no doubt that the regular publication of the Moderate, as with the flood of Leveller pamphlets over the previous 2-3 years, has been a powerful irritant to Parliament and the army leadership, linked as they had been to army agitation and mutiny, social movements and petitioning in London, as well as voicing protest over enclosures, religious intolerance, poverty, war privations, austerity, the continuing exclusion of the vast majority from political power… Through 1649, Leveller leaders had spent many months in prison, while mutinies against the army leadership, against being forced to continue fighting and being sent to continue the war/genocide then raging in Ireland, had shattered the on-off alliance that had sometimes operated between activists and agitators associated with the Levellers, and the emerging leadership of the New Model Army and its puritan allies in Parliament. The Moderate may have been allowed to continue while this shaky détente existed, but was eventually repressed when it became clear the interests of the ‘Grandees’ and the grassroots had diverged.

The passing of the parliamentary Act in September 1649 outlawed all newsbooks, binding over printers, booksellers, publishers and binders with large sureties to prevent them publishing such items. It also authorised the Stationers Company Master and Wardens to search shops for newsbooks as well as subversive pamphlets, giving them powers to break into premises, locks and chests, and search people. The Act was intended to last for two years. There’s little doubt that the two main targets were John Lilburne (and other Levellers), and the royalist press, which had been spreading virulent anti-government propaganda and wild rumours to inflame people against the new republican regime. The ideas was also to replace the bubbling undercurrents, irregular opinions and political ferment, with consistent propaganda to reconcile public opinion to the Commonwealth, and gradually exclude both radical ideas and pro-monarchist sentiment. After the newsbooks were repressed, two official organs appeared, covering news and parliamentary affairs, in an attempt to restrict the spread of wild rumour, but also with an aim of shaping public opinion in the direction the Commonwealth approved – towards a middle course, away from royalist revivals but also keeping a lid on agitations by the lower orders for wider freedoms and a greater say in public policy.

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Today in Publishing history: leftwing tabloid, News On Sunday, launched, 1987.

In the mid-1980s, sick of the right-wing bias of the press, a group of Uk leftwingers decided, instead of complaining about it, they would set up our own newspaper: “a radical, campaigning tabloid that would speak truth to power.”

Thus was the News On Sunday born. It lasted 6 weeks.

Below we reprint an account of the birth and death of News on Sunday, which we have unscrupulously nicked from the Big Flame history blog. Sorry, but theft comes natural. The account does emphasise former Big Flame members’ role in the paper, but others were involved…

“Possibly the most ambitious project to come out of Big Flame was News on Sunday. The aim was to set up a radical campaigning tabloid Sunday newspaper, to challenge the right-wing domination of the media. It was created, and launched on 26th April 1987. We raised £6.5 million. And lost it all in 6 weeks, though continued to publish for a further six months – funded by the TGWU in partnership with the eccentric millionaire Owen Oyston.

The idea came from Ben Lowe, and was first set out in the Big Flame discussion bulletin in 1978. His idea was to go beyond the ambitions of newspapers like Socialist Worker and the Morning Star and establish a paper that was a popular tabloid – selling in the newsagent alongside the mainstream press. His belief was that, if we could establish sales of 100,000, it could be commercially viable. He was to be joined by Alan Hayling (a long-time Big Flame member who had been a TV producer before going to work at Ford on the assembly line), who fronted the project, built alliances and co-ordinated the raising of the funding that made it possible.

By this time Big Flame had dissolved but this was certainly a project inspired by the ideas of BF. Many other projects inspired by left-wing groups did happen then, but News on Sunday was probably unique in the scale of its ambition, as shown by the £6.5 million needed to make it happen.

Alan and Ben brought together a range of people on the left, inspired by the idea of taking on the mainstream media rather than just complaining about it. All working for free, and with no promise of any reward, a rather good pilot edition was produced in the Autumn of 1985.

With persuasive market research – on the basis of the dummy edition – and a strong business plan, Alan persuaded Guinness Mahon (a City of London merchant bank) to take it to the city. But the mainstream City investors could not understand it. “Where do the founders make their money?” was a common question. I don’t think we ever consider making money out of it – not beyond a basic salary. That wasn’t our motivation, we wanted to change the world. To most city investors the lack of a financial incentive was just weird and they were out. (It was the equivalent of going on Dragons Den and asking for a large amount of money, but then saying they could have 100% of the shares.)

I was one of the group known as the Founders (though I stepped down when I was employed on the paper). Although the newspaper was owned by the shareholders, the Founders held a Golden share, designed to protect the values of the paper and prevent a takeover by the likes of Murdoch or Maxwell.

We also, over many months, set down the political charter on which the newspaper was to be based. This was intended as the guiding principles. The idea was that just as every journalist on the Mail knows, almost intuitively, the Mail angle on any story so would any journalist on News on Sunday know the angle to approach news from. In practice, though pinned up around the office, it was largely ignored and people went with their gut feeling – which was sometimes a radical and alternative interpretation and sometimes wasn’t.

The Independent had just succeeded in raising the investment it needed and it always struck me that there was a far less clear gap for that newspaper than for a radical Sunday tabloid. It seemed very unfair that the city had been prepared to back it simply because of the experience and the authority of the management team, but not to back our project. Sadly, they turned out to be right.

The money was raised from trade unions, from individuals and – the majority – from local authority pension funds. To my mind this was the Big Flame approach at its best – building bridges, working imaginatively and with great ambition. And there was no subterfuge. We laid out very clearly, in the Charter, what the paper was about. Core to our argument was that it could only succeed commercially if it was genuinely radical. I always described it as a left-wing version of the Mail on Sunday. I remember Ron Todd (General Secretary of the TGWU, who invested £550,000) questioning the position on Ireland, which called for British withdrawal. He was won round after Alan pointed out that this was exactly what a recent Daily Mirror editorial had called for.

I remember well the party on the night where the offer closed and we had succeeded, we had raised £6.5 million. So many on the left had told us it could not be done but we had worked with the system and raised the money. It was an incredible moment.

If that was the Big Flame approach at its best, we were about to see the approach at its worst. The revolutionary left, Big Flame included, was oppositional. It campaigned against things. We had no experience of organising anything except political struggles. I could check with ArchiveArchie but I doubt there was a single article in the Discussion Bulletin, over more than a decade, on how to manage an organisation.

Shortly after publication, as the crisis hit, a ‘company fireman’ called Roy Barber was called in to sort things out. I remember him being very puzzled. “I get called into companies in crisis and normally I find de-motivated people who are really not very good at their jobs. Here you have highly motivated and talented people – and yet you are heading for bankrupcy.”

Those involved will point to many explanations of what went wrong. Some say it was because John Pilger (involved during the dummy period) was pushed out, some that it was because of his behaviour. Some that we should have been based in London, not Manchester. Some blame Alan Hayling. Some blame Keith Sutton, the man we hired as editor (after he produced the strikers’ Wapping Post during the Times newspaper strike). Some blame the advertising agency with their inflamatory slogan “No tits but a lot of balls”.

I believe we created an environment in which it was impossible to succeed. It was full of endless meetings, back-biting, lack of clear responsibility and a sense of blame if you got things wrong. The debate over “No tits” became so heated that there were groups of people who wouldn’t talk to you if they suspected you of supporting it. You had to watch what you said and who you said it to. It was, with hindsight, what you would expect if you put a group of 80s lefties in charge of running an organisation. And I include myself in that.

When Vanessa Engle (who worked as an editorial assistant at News on Sunday) was producing the BBC2 programme on the newspaper, she asked when I knew it would fail – imagining I would say 26th April 1987, the Sunday of the first issue, when we realised how low the sales were. I replied that it was two months earlier. It was the end of a heated day of meetings when we had decided to pulp £85,000 of posters that were ruled unacceptable. I walked round the block and wept, for I knew then the newspaper could not succeed. It wasn’t even that I liked the posters. But I knew an organisation that was capable of agreeing to commission and spend this amount of money, and then – in its schizophrenic decision-making structure – decide to ditch it, could not succeed.

We, those who set up the newspaper, took over the management and hired a group of journalists. I often think it would have better to do the opposite, to hire a group of managers and take positions as journalists. Many of us knew how to write, as we showed in the dummy. And we knew very clearly the radical angle we wanted to put on the news. We had no idea how to manage.

The result is best expressed in the title of the book about News on Sunday, “Disaster” (by News on Sunday journalists Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie). The advertising – the TV ads and posters – that survived the internal rows was feeble. An argument with retailers over the % of the cover price they received resulted in lack of enthusiasm on their part. And the paper itself, in my view, lacked the radical political bite that we had envisaged – and had succeeded in producing in the dummy.

The paper only rarely lived up to our hopes and was often hard to distinguish from competitors like the Mirror and the People. I remember one shameful cover story ‘exclusive’ proclaiming that a convicted rapist was to be freed because his victims had been found to be prostitutes. The article, from any radical perspective, should have been asking why that made any difference. It was published from this angle because we had got hold of the transcript, not yet made public, and so were first to reveal this information. (And, in fact, the transcript revealed that the judge still regarded him as guilty but he got off on a technicality.)

On Ireland I did manage to get a freelance journalist commissioned form the North, who could give the nationalist perspective and had great connections with the Republicans. Her first artic le, published in one of the pre-publication dummies, was hard hitting. But then I discovered it was, word for word, the same article as she had written for An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper. She couldn’t understand why that was a problem and wouldn’t agree to write different articles for us. It would have made News on Sunday an easy target for some.

After the SAS killed 8 IRA men in an ambush I did write an editorial asking whether eight more mourning families would make peace more likely. To my astonishment Keith Sutton published it. (I had joined the project partly because of my desire to be involved in journalism but this was the only thing I ever wrote for News on Sunday.) But after that the Ireland coverage reverted to the media norm of British troops versus the terrorists.

By the time of launch the costs had ballooned to the point where News on Sunday needed to sell 800,000 to break even. This was a long way from Ben’s original hope of 100,000 but, given the market research sales predictions of over 1 million, didn’t seem at the time to be a problem. It would be interesting to see what we would have created if all our plans had been based on a break even at – say 250,000. A tougher business person could have insisted on it.

In week 1 it sold barely half a million and we knew it would go down from there, as all new launches did. Owen Oyston, a Lancashire multi-millionaire who had made his money in estate agency, was already an investor and stepped in to try and rescue the paper.

The 1987 general election was imminent and it seemed for a time that if the newspaper, funded by Labour local authorities, went bankrupt in the middle of the campaign it would be a gift to the Tories – as a great example of “loonie lefties” in action. Oyston went to see Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party. I don’t know what happened in the meeting but Oyston believed he was promised a knighthood if he could keep the paper going until after the election. With the TGWU he put in more money and the bankruptcy was delayed until the week after the election. The paper staggered on for four more months, owned and funded by Oyston and the TGWU.

I was by then Finance Manager and I remember bizarre trips to his mansion (where bison wandered the gardens) to have payments approved. Oyston was a strange character, for whom the newspaper – fresh off the press on a Saturday night – would be delivered by models from a local agency. He is better known now for the prison sentence he was to serve for rape.

I also came across a list of payments to local politicians, including £3,000 to somebody who is now a prominent North-West MP. It may have been perfectly legitimate but, when he discovered I had a copy, he went to great lengths to get it back. It was a sad end to have him in charge of our great idealistic project. I eventually left the newspaper, before it went bankrupt a second time, after refusing to sign the cheque to the model agency for ‘consultancy’. The head of the agency was later to go to jail with Oyston. It was a very seedy business.

The Golden share had proved to be no protection. Faced with the financial crisis and an ultimatum from Oyston (“give up the golden share or the paper closes”), the Founders had no alternative but to give in and hand over control.

After I left News on Sunday I set up a training business, now called Happy Ltd. When I am asked what motivated me to start Happy, I always refer back to News on Sunday. The greatest irony for me was that, for all our ideals, it was a far worse place to work than IBM – the great capitalist monolith where I worked in my year off. I left determined to find out how to create a company that was both principled and effective – and a great place to work in. I learnt most of what I know about how not to manage at News on Sunday.

We had great dreams. We would show it was possible to engage with the capitalist system and create an alternative within it. We succeeded in raising millions and, if we had succeeded, we could have set an example for others to follow. Instead we made it virtually impossible for a similar project to get funding again (though the actual amounts the pension funds lost was dwarfed by the losses caused by the crash of October 1987.)

And we didn’t even manage to create a publication that was especially radical or challenging. And, to me, that was down to our lack of ability in how to manage and organise to get the most from our people.

It could have been a truly great legacy of Big Flame. In fact those of us involved from BF did not play any separate role and certainly didn’t have a caucus of any type. We did have strong views on what should go in the Charter, meant to be the guiding document for the publication, but had no common view on the key question of how to build an organisation that could create a great paper – or the experience to make this happen.”

Henry Stewart, September 2010

Note on Big Flame

Big Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly in the then prevailing climate on the left with branches appearing in a number of cities. One of the key sentences in the platform published in each issue of the newspaper was the statement that a revolutionary party was necessary but that “Big Flame is not that party, nor is it the embryo of that party”. This had the advantage of distinguishing them from some small groups who saw themselves as much more important than they were, but posed the problem of the ‘party’s’ real reason for existence.

They published a magazine, also entitled Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham. They also devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as “libertarian Marxist“. In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unity electoral coalition, with the International Marxist Group.

In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time.

However Big Flame was wound up in about 1984.

Much more on them here

For the fun of it: a TV ad for News On Sunday. Yes, it is bad.

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

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Today in London publishing history: Act passed punishing publishers of unstamped newspapers, 1743.

The tax on newspapers was first introduced in Britain in 1712; at the same time similar taxes on the price of paper, on adverts and on pamphlets and almanacs were brought in. Originally the statute regulating the tax, the Stamp Act, was trumpeted as being aimed at raising funds for the English state lottery, to monitor the circulation of newspapers and other periodicals, and to restrict publication of writing intended to stir up political opposition of any kind. But at heart it was designed to curb the production of newspapers, or make them unviably expensive to buy, especially for the plebs, who the authorities thought should definitely not be either aware of what was going on in the world, questioning the social order, or improving their mind – they should be reading the bible, and only the bible. Not getting ideas above their station. “All periodicals were already required by law to state the address and name of the owner, making taxation easily enforced on publishers, and allowing the government to see where legally printed publications were coming from.” Government-sponsored publications were exempted, and discretion was almost always used to allow pro-establishment papers to go unpunished if they did breach the rules, but to press hard against oppositional ones. “In order to exempt themselves from the tax, periodical authors pledged their patronage to members of Parliament, leading to publications rising and falling based on the party in power and a general distrust in periodicals of the time.”

The Act was not specifically aimed at raising revenue for the state; at least at first. But an initial stamp duty of a half old pence in 1712 rose, gradually increasing to 4 pence a century later. Adding such a cost to the publishers meant it was inevitably added to the price of the paper, and when wages were low, a price of a paper rising to 6 or 7 pence put it out of many working people’s reach.

As oppositional voices, movements for political reform and radical groupings emerged, expressing satires, critiques and outright rejection of the political system, personalities, and the establishment, government nervousness of the spread of ideas only increased. If in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the pamphlet conveyed the main bulk of radical and oppositional ideas, the birth of the daily newspaper in 1702 in London spawned a massive expansion. Over the next few decades political papers and journals became widely read; under the influence of the late 18th century pressure to reform the political system, and the French revolution, the number of radical newspapers proliferated exponentially.

This expansion, and the dangerous ideas it spread among the lower orders, was the main reason for the increase in the stamp tax. And the working class movement, in particular, that emerged as in the industrial revolution took hold, resented the stamp, as being aimed at keeping them down. As literacy increased, cultural expectations and aspirations evolved, the need for more educated clerking strata and so on developed, the Stamp continued to deny millions access to daily news. Of course, there were ways around it – not just the old practice of one literate person reading a paper to a less literate group, or people clubbing together to buy one… (In fact one of the factors that contributed to the development of radical clubs was the advantage of sharing the cost, through co-operative access, to papers and other reading materials…)

But also from the earliest times of the stamp on papers, there were attempts to dodge the stamp, putting out papers underground. This was not seen as in any way unethical – dodging the government’s Excise and Revenue officers was widely regarded in many levels of society as somewhere between a basic necessity and a national pastime. Smuggling of basic commodities was widespread; the 1730s also saw mass agitation against the introduction of the excise on Gin production, which involved demonstrations, the odd bomb, and several murders of informers grassing people up for selling the old mothers ruin… Some publishers were bound to attempt to avoid putting the tax on their papers, and many folk could be relied on to help them distribute them, if only to annoy the powers that be…

In response of course, the government, in April 1743, introduced an Act which laid down punishment for the publishers of unstamped newspapers (up to 3 months imprisonment in the Bridewell), offering rewards of 20 shillings per person jailed to informers who dobbed them in.) Of course there were always desperate lowlives available and happy to make a living collecting cash for snitching; but increasingly, especially in the early 19th century, there were a greater number willing to risk going to prison to write, print, sell and transport the unstamped papers. To many, the stamp on a newspaper was central to the ‘taxes on knowledge’, it was the ‘slave mark’, the sign of subservience to a government representing the upper class interests, hostile to change… Evading it was a badge of honour as much as anything. But even denouncing the stamp tax got you in trouble; Henry Hetherington, radical publisher of the Poor Mans Guardian, was jailed for calling the stamp duty ‘a tax on knowledge’ – his printing presses were ordered to be destroyed.

In the era of the French Revolutionary/Napeolonic War of 1792-1815, and in the period immediately following, the ‘war of the unstamped’ rose to fever pitch. Radical journalists who published papers, that refused to pay the stamp, the ‘shopmen’ and shop women who sold them, went to prison, in increasing numbers. As a post-war depression helped revive the long agitation for reform of parliament and more representation for the middle and working classes, and riot and insurrection grew, political repression from the state included a tightening on political newspapers. In particular the stamp was increased, under the draconian Six Acts, to include all publications which sold for less than six pence, contained an opinion about news, or which were published more frequently than every twenty-six days, and specifically banned papers “tending to excite hatred and contempt of the Government and Constitution of these realms… also vilifying our holy religion”; another of the Acts targetted publishers deemed guilty of “seditious or blasphemous libel”, ie questioning Church doctrine at all, or advocating political reforms.

Radical Richard Carlile was a central figure in ignoring the law, continuing to publish his newspaper, the Republican without paying stamp duty. Through the 1820s his shopworkers carried on when he was, as he often was, in prison… By the early 1830s, and into the 1840s, the struggle was led by men such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, John Cleave, George Julian Harney and Bronterre O’Brien; many of whom ran radical bookshops, and were also active in the radical movements like the National Union of the Working Classes and later Chartism. Much of the huge agitation for reform and revolutionary undercurrents of these decades involved activists who had cut their teeth resisting the stamp. Tactics and methods of dodging the informers and government agents were legion: publishing your paper but calling it a pamphlet, smuggling copies around by numerous tricks (including inside a coffin at least once), printing on wood to avoid the paper excise…

At the beginning of 1836 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man’s Guardian, and John Cleave’s Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000.

In the House of Commons, John Roebuck led the campaign against taxes on newspapers. In 1836 the campaigners’ pressure became so overwhelming, they forced the government to reduce the 4d. tax on newspapers to 1d, a huge cut which allowed many radical and popular publications to reach wider audiences. The same year Parliament agreed to remove the tax on pamphlets. But the campaigned continued and in 1849 a group of publishers led by Henry Hetherington formed the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. However, it was not until 1855 that the newspaper stamp duty was finally abolished.

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