Chartist Studies. Edited by Asa Briggs. MacMillan. 1959. 42s.
Between the wars there was little new writing on the Chartist movement. The standard texts—Dolleans, Beer, Rosenblatt, Slosson, West and Hovell—had all appeared before 1920. They were mostly written, putting the matter in broad terms, within the Fabian tradition; with, that is, a good deal of of sympathy for the movement as a whole, a marked tendency to applaud Lovett and denigrate O’Connor, a too-simple economic framework for the political story, and a lack of comprehension of its radical-revolutionary implications.
In recent years, some notable advances have been made, not least in the local history of the movement. The older histories were mostly written from the national standpoint and from the national press, and the considerable regional diversities were largely smothered. To the growing appreciation of the importance of the local and regional histories of Chartism, this present volume is a most useful addition. It comprises a general introductory essay by the editor, a series of town and area studies—Manchester, Leeds, Leicester, Glasgow, Suffolk, Somerset and Wiltshire, Wales; then a second general essay by Asa Briggs, which serves to introduce three essays on national themes: the Chartist Land Plan, the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law Leaguers, and the Government and the Chartists. The whole volume represents a substantial enlargement of our knowledge, and what we now want—without seeming ungrateful for what we have been given—is a companion volume which deals with the other major urban areas so far excluded: London, Birmingham Bradford, Halifax, Bristol and Lancashire outside Manchester; and in Scotland, at least Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.
Like all volumes of essays by different hands, the quality of individual contributions varies a good deal; and this is a matter over which an editor has rather less control than is often believed. Among the town studies in this present book, Mr. J. F. C. Harrison’s essays on Leeds and Leicester seem to me outstanding, and his study of Leicester in particular the best short account of a local movement yet published. Apart from the editor’s own contributions, which are as lively as usual, Miss Brown’s essay on the relationships between the Chartists and the Leaguers is a model—lucid, well argued and well written.
A reading of this volume suggests many general questions of Chartist historiography that are worth an extended discussion. One is familiar to all who work in this field, and this is the absence of a definitive study of Feargus O’Connor. It is certainly no credit to any one that the leading figure of the most impressive working class movement we have yet witnessed in Britain is still without his biographer; and until we achieve a more reasoned assessment of O’Connor, much of Chartist history, and especially of its politics, will remain blurred and out of focus. A second matter needs commenting on at length. Most writers on Chartism have used a rather crude economic determinism as their guide to the varying fortunes of the movement. Briefly stated, the curve of depression and prosperity runs thus: between 1838 and 1842 we have the explosive combination of widespread unemployment and high food prices (the normal depression pattern in Britain before the sixties); then the recovery of the middle forties, associated with railway building, followed by a downturn in 1846–47 which reproduced, in a much less severe way the conditions of 1839. And finally, to complete the disintegration of the Chartist movement, the recovery at the end of the decade and the considerable domestic boom of the first half of the fifties. If we add to this simple pattern of slump and relative well-being, the existence of the Ten Hour movement, the hostility to the New Poor Law, the tensions and conflicts of a rapidly industrialising society, we have most of the economic and social factors that serve historians of all schools. There is no doubt, of course, that these are among the significant elements in the situation, but there are some facts which do not fit into this picture. What has been overlooked—largely because of the concentration upon the obvious sources of tension—is that the British economy, once the post-war difficulties were overcome, was geared to a high rate of economic growth from the 1830s. The rate of investment was high: total production was increasing at more than 3.5 per cent per annum; and foreign trade was just beginning its most rapid increases of all time (the greatest annual growth coming between 1840 and 1860). All the industrialising indices, including urbanisation, were at an all time high. The economic picture of the two decades before 1850 is therefore immensely complicated and confusing. A semi-industrialised country was continuing its industrialisation at great speed and in the process was enriching and enlarging its middle classes. It was also providing a minority of its wage earners—those with certain types of skill—with either the possibility of higher living standards or with the reality of improved conditions. At the same time as these important strata were improving their economic positions—and with the middle-classes the improvement by the mid-century was very marked—the degree of exploitation of the majority of the proletariat was intense. In all countries in the first main stage of their industrialisation, a high rate of capital accumulation must involve economic and political pressures to keep wages down to an iron level. Without these pressures, which included in Britain such items of policy as the New Poor Law and the Master and Servant Acts, a high rate of accumulation,
This more accurate picture of national trends has then to be taken down to local level. Because of the unevenness of change, within industries and between regions, the curve of national fluctuations cannot always be fitted directly to local conditions. The small master economy of Birmingham and Sheffield provided important differences in the economic and social structure from that of the West Riding; and the variations in the rate of transition to the factory within the main sectors of the woollen and the worsted industries all involved further distinctions within the wage earning classes. And when this heterogeneity has been closely defined, we then need to know the detailed movements of wages and earnings, rents and living costs and prices for each main sub-group within the proletariat.
This sort of detail cannot be expected in the relatively short essays of the present volume, but not all show the competence of Mr. Harrison’s work. Mr. Read’s essay on Manchester, for instance, exhibits many of the faults of academic history while missing some of its virtues. The least we expect of a professional historian is an adequate survey of the main sources, but Mr. Read has only skimmed certain of the material available to him, and much has remained beyond his reach. It is surely surprising that for such an important centre as Manchester, no use has apparently been made of the Home Office papers.