The National Charter League was one of a number of organisations that came forward after 1848 in an attempt to rebuild links with middle class reformers.
Launched in April 1850, its leaders included Philip McGrath, who had been a prominent figure in the National Charter Association throughout the 1840s, and Thomas Clark, a Stockport Chartist who was a close ally of Feargus O’Connor and had managed the affairs of the Chartist Land Company.
Covertly, it was also said to enjoy the support of O’Connor himself.
The National Charter League announced its formation in O’Connor’s Northern Star on 6 April 1850, with a promise to “create a friendly intercourse, without reference to class distinction, with all those who are labouring to bring about a change in our representative system”.
Its manifesto also made much of the fact that it would “eschew all violence, whether of acts of or language” in its pursuit of the Charter.
While no mention was made of the National Charter Association, the initiative clearly represented a split with the main body of Chartism, now under the leadership of a provisional executive whose members were aligned with O’Connor’s employee and now rival, George Julian Harney.
In its next issue, the Star carried a riposte to the National Charter League from Thomas Martin Wheeler, a former secretary of the NCA and now smallholder at O’Connorville, who expressed his “regret” at their secession and warned of the dangers of dividing the Chartist ranks.
Nevertheless, the League received the backing of William Lovett, who had stood aloof from the short-lived People’s Charter Union when it launched a similar initiative two years earlier, and announced that its first public meeting would take place on 1 May (Northern Star, 20 April 1850).
The event did not go according to plan. As soon as the meeting began, it was clear that the NCA’s provisional executive had done a better job of mobilising its supporters than had the NCL.
When Dixon and Clark, both members of the NCL executive, began by proposing that Dr Bowkett take the chair, there was a successful counterproposal from the NCA contingent that DW Ruffey (formerly known as Ruffey Ridley) should be given the job.
Having now gained control of the meeting, Ruffey got the support of the crowd to bring the NCA’s provisional executive on to the platform.
The meeting proceeded with Mr A Hirst for the NCL contingent reading out what was on the face of it an uncontentious call for the six points of the Charter, but which carried a coded implication that while the NCL stood for achieving this through peaceful means alone, others favoured force.
The two organisations “should act distinctly”, he argued, as “they – the members of the National Charter League –believed that no class alone could carry the reforms they wished for; and that those who refused the co-operation of the middle classes took away the best groundwork of action”.
With the crowd now in uproar, Clark came forward to second the motion.
As Reynolds’s Newspaper (5 May 1850) reported:
“His appearance in front of the platform was the signal for such a storm of angry voices as has seldom prevailed, except in meetings of the Anti Corn Law League, or, later still, of Free Traders and Protectionists. His supporters endeavoured to sustain him by clapping their hands, &c, but the groans and hisses of the great majority of the meeting completely drowned all signs of applause; while cries of “Off¬-off!” “Shame! Shame!” “Turn him out!” “What did you get?” “What will you sell us for?” and various other cries were heard distinctly above the tumult.”
Reynolds, it should be noted, was by this time a member of the NCA executive and not an impartial observer.
Speaking for the NCA faction, Thomas Kydd promptly moved an amendment reaffirming the Charter, which O’Brien strengthened with a further form of words condemning attempts “by any section or party to divide the Chartists of this country; or to draw them from the National Charter Association”.
After further rowdy debate, the NCL motion and the NCA amendment were put to the meeting, and the NCA amendment carried by “an immense majority”, according to Reynolds’s Newspaper.
“Mr Bezer moved a vote of thanks to the chairman, in a brief but powerful speech, condemning the conduct of the members of the new League.
“Mr Drake seconded the motion in a similar strain; it was carried, and the stormy meeting quietly dispersed.”
At least, that was the pro-NCA faction account given by Reynolds. The Northern Star was more scathing, reporting that the NCL speakers were treated “in manner which would have disgraced an assembly of savages” (11 May 1850).
It concluded that the supporters of the NCL remained full of hope and were confident that their proposed course would soon be adopted by “the enlightened democracy of Great Britain”.
However, a second NCL gathering just a fortnight later at the Fox and Hounds in Hare-street, Bethnal Green, ended in much the same way with the meeting passing a resolution of support for the NCA and condemning the NCL carried by acclaim (Northern Star, 18 May 1850).
Even the Northern Star had to conclude: “The Charter Leaguers retired in solemn silence, apparently regretting their visit to the Tower Hamlets.”
The rivalry between O’Connor and Harney now came into the open.
Harney had remained editor, in name at least, of the Star as the NCL and NCA went to war. But Harney now confirmed his resignation in a letter to Reynolds’s Newspaper (26 May 1850), complaining that O’Connor had prevented him from publishing his views in the paper.
The NCL continued on its course, each side condemning the other at meetings and in print, with the NCL even advertising its plan to publish a letter examining Reynolds’ conduct as a Chartist “with copious extracts from his most indecent writings” (Northern Star, 8 June 1850).
However, the League never managed to gain more than a handful of adherents. Over the course of the next few months, it eventually abandoned public meetings in favour of more decorous lectures, the subjects of which ran from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church to astronomy.
Having apparently abandoned its interest in politics, it soon lost the will to carry on at all, and by early in 1851, nothing more is heard of the National Charter League.