Thirty delegates assembled at the Parthenium Rooms, St Martin’s Lane, London, on 31 March 1851 for what was to prove a turning point in the movement’s later history – the London Chartist convention.
An earlier gathering in Manchester on 26 January 1851 had attracted just eight delegates and achieved nothing. For the London Chartists and many others in the movement, that was all to the good – for by this stage a serious split had emerged within Chartism between a now ailing Feargus O’Connor and his supporters (whose strength lay in the Manchester branch) and the increasingly socialist left under George Julian Harney, who now constituted the majority.
O’Connor and his supporters called their Manchester conference to try to seize back control of the National Charter Association from those who, following a meeting in London the previous August, were trying to unite the NCA in common cause with trade unions and others on the left. As Harney’s paper, The Friend of the People, jubilantly reported, the Manchester conference was a complete failure, a “collapsed bubble”, a “ridiculous abortion calculated to sink its authors and abettors to the lowest depths of contempt”.
But the auspices were not good for the London convention either – of the 49 delegates expected, many failed to turn up while some of those who did lacked political experience.
However, the London convention was to mark the transformation of Chartism into an openly socialist movement. In addition to restating its opposition to middle class organisations, solidarity with trade unions and Irish groups, the convention now went on to adopt a social programme calling for Poor Law reform, state education, price controls, currency and taxation reform and nationalisation of the land and mines.
The convention sat until 10 April, leaving the executive to flesh out the details of its new policy.
Delegates to the Chartist convention 1851
G.W.M.Reynolds, Greenwich and Kent
John Gray, North Lancashire
Thornton Hunt, Portsmouth and Edinburgh
Alf.Hunniball, Westminster and Marylebone
George Shell, Lambeth and Southwark
John Shaw, Tower Hamlets
James Finlen, City and Finsbury
Ab.Robinson, Bradford District
T.M.Wheeler, Exeter and Tiverton
G.J.Harney, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire
Thos. Savage, Bristol
Ernest Jones, Halifax
A.Duncanson, Paisley District
James Capewell, Staffordshire Potteries
J.J.Bezer, Sheffield and Rotherham
Alex.Yates, Coventry and Birmingham
John Barker, Northampton
George Wray, Leicester
D.W.Ruffy, South Shields &c
Walter Pringle, Edinburgh
Thos.Hurst, Huddersfield District
James Graham, Dundee
John Moss, Derby District
James Watson, Newcaste-upon-Tyne
Dan.Thompson, Dudley District
Daniel Paul, Glasgow District
Source: The Friend of the People, Saturday 12 April 1851
Not surprisingly, the move was not received with universal acclaim, and a new rising star of Chartism – the newspaper publisher and author G W M Reynolds – was the subject of particular scorn in some quarters. The following account from The Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News of 26 April 1851 gives a flavour of the hostility.
THE CHARTER REFORM BILL.
We are indebted to the Times for the publication of a new document, called “The Chartist Programme.” We are also indebted to the Times for a highly favourable leading article, of unusual length, on the said “Programme.” But the old men of England will wonder why the Times gives so much publicity to such a terrible document, the leading proposal of which is to turn the land into national property.
First remarkable item, the date “10th April.” This was the day when an insurrection of Chartists was threatened; but which turned out nothing more than a huge assemblage on Kennington Common to hear an explanation from Feargus O’Connor, of his own political consistency. Nevertheless, the 10th April was an ominous date, 1848. We are in 1851; and the “Programme” was dated and issued on the 10th April, just while the Rev. Mr. Irons, a Calvanist preacher, is praying that England may be saved from predestinated revolution.
Second item, that the name of G.W.M. Reynolds stands first on the programme. He is the leader of this new thing. The Lamartine of the English revolution is to be “Reynolds.” The name that is to head the Commonwealth, and strike off the heads of the aristocracy, is “Reynolds.” Consequently, as the Times has sent him abroad, all over the world, as the “forthcoming man,” it becomes us to inquire who he is. And who is this Reynolds? Why, a filthy-hearted, low-minded fellow, who for the edification of the people sends forth pictures of women half naked, and indulges their brutal taste in the lowest writing that can descend to the pot-house. He sells the filth at a penny a sheet, and sells waggon-loads of it. Yet withal he manages not to save himself from Bankruptcy Courts and Bankruptcy Commissioners. Whenever we get Reynolds for Prime Minister, we’ll have approached the age of prime debauchery.
Third particular, that the Charter now contains twelve points. It takes in, the whole science of government comprehending currency education, poor-law, military tactics, and religious regulation. It is therefore complete and sweeping; and yet far more moderate that the names attached to it might have led us to expect. The army is to be maintained, the national debt paid off by the interest, poor people to get work instead of a workhouse, taxes to be levied on land and accumulated property, the taxes on knowledge to be abolished, the church to be separated from the state, and education “to a certain extent to be compulsory.” All this is not out of the ordinary course of political reasoning; and we can only regret that such good principles are found in such very bad company.
The Charter itself, as it originally stood, undergoes some change. Before, every male adult convicted of crime was to cease to have a vote; but now, every one is to have a vote who is not actually undergoing punishment for crime. Reynolds and his adherents believe that when a man has paid the penalty of the law, he should be afterwards be regarded in the same light as the man that never broke it. Unfortunately, Reynolds is not the creator of flesh and blood, and therefore cannot alter the feelings which indelibly cling to the heart. We cannot esteem the felon who comes from the hulks as we do the honest man who never heard of them.
The Charter doctrine of land we must scarcely trust ourselves to criticise. In the first place, we don’t quite understand it; and in the second place, we are most anxious to do it all the justice in the power, so here it is pure and simple :–
” 1. –THE LAND.
“This Convention believes that the land is the inalienable inheritance of all mankind, and that therefore its present monopoly is repugnant to the laws of God and nature. The nationalization of the land is the only true basis of national prosperity.
“With a view of arriving in this ultimatum it is resolved that the following measures be so successively urged upon the public :–
“1. The establishment of a Board of Agriculture.
“2. The restoration of poor, common, church, and Crown lands to the people.
Such lands to be divided in suitable proportions. All persons located upon them to be tenants of the State, paying a proportionate rentcharge for their holdings.
“3. Compensation to out-going tenants for improvements.
”Tenants not to be tied down to any old covenants or rotation of crops.
“The repeal of the game laws.
“All rents to be commuted into corn-rents.
“4. The state be empowered to purchase land, for the purpose of locating thereon the population, as tenants, individually or in association, paying a rentcharge to the state. The funds for that purpose to arise from the rentcharge payable on the common, church, poor, and Crown lands above-mentioned, and such other sources as may hearafter be determined.
“5. Government purchasing land as above not to be permitted to sell again, but to hold such lands as national property for ever, letting them to tenants in such quantities, and under such conditions, as may secure freedom to the tenant, and safety to the State.
“6. The Suite to have priority of purchase, at fair current prices.
“7th. To provide for the final and complete nationalization of land, the State to resume possession of the soil as rapidly as the existing interests can be extinguished by process of law, by death, by surrender, or by any means accordant with Justice and a generous treatment of all classes,”
After our readers have taken breath, we may mention for their instruction that this doctrine of land will be more fully described and opened up by “missionaries,” who are forthwith to be appointed to hold meetings in England, Ireland, and Scotland, in explanation of the whole programme. For the “Convention” has resolved that such questions shall be agitated at the hustings, and by other public meetings in every town and borough where practicable. The peaceable inhabitants of the Empire will be gratified to know that nothing more is to be done with Parliament than sending them a petition–a huge national petition. No barricades, no pickaxes, or horse-hoofs! Reynolds is to roll the petition up, and Feargus is to roll it into the House of Commons. Then after that it will be used to kindle the kitchen fire of the House of Commons. Perhaps next year, 10th April will be the time for the solemn bundling up of the petition. And who shall wonder if it does not happen some few days afterwards that Reynolds is in the hands of Mr Commissioner Fonblanque ? It was so in 1848, why not in ’52? Think of it!–a man to put the nation right, who can not put his own house in order.”