The East London Democratic Association was among the more radical voices of early Chartism, providing new thinking and leaders to the wider movement.
The London Democratic Association offered a more radical Chartist alternative to the better known London Working Men’s Association.
Established as the East London Democratic Association on 29 January 1837, it argued from the start for the five radical principles which would form the core of Chartist demands, and opposed the New Poor Law – an issue on which the rival LWMA was divided.
As the historian Jennifer Bennett pointed out in her chapter on the London Democratic Association in Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830-60 , the leadership of the organisation was made up of both veteran and younger activists.
A core of the Democratic Association’s founder members had been active in the National Union of the Working Classes, set up in 1831 at the time of the Reform Bill agitation. Others had more radical associations with the Spencean Philanthropists and through that with the Cato Street Conspiracy.
Among the younger generation, George Julian Harney and others had been active in the campaigns for an unstamped press.
However there was, at least at first, no particular sense of a divide between the two London bodies, and a number of prominent ELDA members, including Harney, Charles Neesom and the Polish-Lithuanian émigré Bartlomiej Beniowski, joined both the Democratic Association and the LWMA.
Bennet argues that it was the arrest of a group of Glasgow cotton spinners and subsequent attack on trade unionism launched by the Irish leader and LWMA member Daniel O’Connell at the end of 1837 which drove the two bodies apart and prompted some ELDA members to leave the LWMA.
By August 1838, the ELDA had been reorganised on a city-wide basis into what Harney described as “a new organisation of the proletarian classes of the metropolis”. Its objects now included social, political and universal equality, a free press and an eight-hour working day.
The new London Democratic Association never gained the reach and traction among the capital’s workers that Chartism later achieved in the North of England. But by early 1839, it did have sections across London, from Lambeth to Islington and from Tower Hamlets to Hammersmith.
That March, it was able to claim a membership of 3,000 (Operative, 10 March 1839) compared with a few hundred for the LWMA.
In April of that year a London Female Democratic Association was set up, which Mary Ireland, Elizabeth Turner, Martha Dymmock and Elizabeth Neesom among its leading members. All were married to LDA activists.
From the start, the LDA had been more radical than the LWMA, and in the arguments about tactics that consumed the First Chartist Convention, its members were prominent among the advocates of arming and of the use of physical force both as a defensive measure and to gain concessions.
Its members would also play a significant role in in developing plans for an armed rebellion following the arrest of the leaders of the Newport rebellion.
Although the government decision to commute death sentences on the three men to transportation, prominent figures in the LDA, including Major Beniowski, would have been at the heart of any co-ordinated armed rising.
Following the collapse of the first wave of Chartism, radical activity in London as in other parts of the country went into decline. In due course, with the establishment of a National Charter Association, the London Democratic Association’s sections became constituent parts of the new body.
The Chartist Ancestors databank includes details of 41 members of the London Democratic Association who can be identified by name.
Prospectus of the East London Democratic Association
No 19, Swan Street, Minories
Established January 1837
The object of this Association is to promote the Moral and Political condition of the Working Classes by disseminating the principles propagated by that great philosopher and redeemer of mankind, the Immortal ‘THOMAS PAINE’.
The subscription of a penny per week constitutes a member (subject to the approval of a majority of the members at any meeting). Which subscription can be paid Weekly or Monthly as convenient.
That the annual meeting of the Association be held on the 29th January, being the anniversary of the death of that great Man, whose character and principles we duly appreciate, by a social and convivial supper on that occasion.
That all members entering on or before the first Sunday in May, shall be entitled to a double ticket of admission to the supper, in commemoration of the birth of Thomas Paine, which will admit a Lady and a Gentleman; all persons entering on or before the first Sunday in August, will be entitled to a single ticket. Persons entering after that time will be entitled to the same by paying up the arrears from the first Sunday in August, and to a double Ticket by paying 1/- extra.
That the members of the Association meet the first Sunday in every month, at Six o’Clock in the Evening, to enroll names, to discuss the principles of cheap and honest Government, and to adopt such mans as may seem expedient to carry out the five grand principles of Radical Reform, viz: ‘Universal Suffrage, Vote by Ballot, Annual Parliaments, No Property Qualification, and Equal Representation.’
That we agree to discuss, to agitate, and petition until those just demands be conceded.
For freedom’s battle
Bequeathed by bleeding
sire to son,
Though baffled oft, is
Mr A Davenport
Mr S Yarham
Mr W Edmonds
Mr J Harvey
Mr G J Harney
Mr C Needham
Mr G H Hedger Senr.
Mr G Hedger Jun.
Mr T Biggs
Mr A Milcham
E Harvey, Treasurer pro tem.
J Harper, Secretary pro tem.
Prospectus from a copy in the Lovett Collection, Birmingham, reproduced in The Early Chartists , by Dorothy Thompson (Macmillan, 1971).