The tragic death and magnificent funeral of Feargus O’Connor

Feargus O’Connor had a powerful presence. Standing 6ft tall in an era when the average man was less than 5ft 6inches, he towered over his contemporaries. Powerfully built, with a voice and speaking style to match, an exuberant personality and an unshakable sense of self belief, he could hardly do otherwise than dominate any public gathering.

For many, O’Connor did more than just lead the Chartist movement; he personified it. Though he rarely held any elected office of importance within Chartism, his opinion carried a weight afforded to no other individual. By turns eloquent and blustering, hard headed and sentimental, he imposed his views on the Chartist movement for nearly 15 years, brooking no rivals and little criticism.

But by the early 1850s, O’Connor’s erratic behaviour was exciting concern among his friends and comrades. For years he had worked unrelentingly for the cause under great personal pressure, and he drank heavily, but his behaviour has subsequently been ascribed to the late stages of syphilis. As time went on, his ebullience began to seem increasingly bizarre, manic and even violent.

With hindsight, it has been suggested that the early symptoms of his condition were becoming apparent years earlier – possibly even during the mid-1840s when the failures of the Chartist Land Plan conceivably owed something to O’Connor’s intricate and, by his own admission, largely incomprehensible and inexplicably complex structure and operations.

By 1852, however, when he caused such a scene at a London theatre that he was dragged before a magistrates court, his friends were becoming increasingly concerned.

O’Connor took himself off to the United States, where he shocked his hosts with his inappropriate behaviour, asking young women why they did not grow beards, insisting fellow restaurant diners share their wine with him, and telling rambling stories to all who would listen (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 30 May 1852). “He sometimes takes a fancy to dishes not to be found in the bill of fare, and fights with the waiters for not attending to his orders.”

Smuggled on board a steamer home from New York after its captain proved reluctant to offer him passage, O’Connor’s “eccentricities were so offensive that the honourable gentleman was frequently expelled the cabin” (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 6 June 1852). Neither did a return to familiar surroundings appear to help.

Making his way to Westminster the day after his return only to find that the House was not sitting, he pushed his way through a crowd watching proceedings in the Court of Exchequer and sat down at the attorneys’ table facing the judges, where he interrupted proceedings by “waving and kissing his hand to bench” and began to laugh “in a very hearty style (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 6 June 1852).

When the usher was called, O’Connor “hurriedly snatched up his hat, and laughing, and bowing to the bench, took his departure”.

His interruptions continued, first in the Court of Common Pleas, then to the Court of Appeal and finally to a court where the Lord Chancellor was sitting, where he again disrupted proceedings by laughing, making loud remarks on the cases in hand, and telling incoherent stories about his trip to America.

Matters came to a head later in the week when O’Connor took his seat in the House of Commons. At one point, Sir Benjamin Hall, Tory MP for Marylebone rose to complain to the Speaker that while he was speaking, O’Connor had “turned round and struck me in the side”. O’Connor responded that Hall was his “greatest enemy” and began to offer a garbled defence of the Chartist land company before being ordered by the Speaker to apologise. This O’Connor did. But this time he had gone too far.

Feargus O’Connor’s final days

The following day, after a short debate MPs directed the sergeant-at-arms to take O’Connor into custody. Within 24 hours he had been examined by two doctors, declared insane, and at the urging of his sister committed to the Manor House Asylum in Chiswick run by Dr Thomas Harrington Tuke.

O’Connor was by all accounts well care for at Chiswick, but over time he continued to deteriorate, and by 1855 he had largely lapsed into an unconscious state. However, his sister became alarmed at his physical condition and, overruling objections from O’Connor’s nephew Roger, had him moved to her house at 18 Albert-terrace, Notting Hill.

Less than a fortnight later, Feargus O’Connor was dead.

The inquest that followed was acrimonious. O’Connor’s sister asserted that he had been stupefied by drink while in Dr Tuke’s care; his nephew complained that the state of his uncle’s body suggested he had not been care for since his discharge from the asylum. Both allegations were disputed by medical men called as expert witnesses.

The coroner, Thomas Wakley, diplomatically steered the jury to a verdict of natural death and no blame was attached to either party. In addition to his duties as coroner, Wakley was MP for the strongly radical borough of Finsbury and must have been well acquainted with O’Connor.

It became clear that nothing remained of O’Connor’s money. What little there had been had gone on three years of medical care. Indeed, at the close of the inquest, Dr Tuke offered to advance the cost of his funeral “as a mark of respect”. A member of the jury added that he too would contribute a sovereign towards the cost (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 9 September 1855).

Feargus O’Connor’s funeral

The public funeral was set for Monday 4 September. That morning, large numbers met at Finsbury-square and Smithfield, where they formed a procession with banners and flags (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 9 September) before moving on to Russell-square and merging with a second contingent and heading for Notting Hill, where O’Connor’s body rested at his sister’s house.

No doubt through chance rather than political design, the funeral arrangements had been entrusted to a Mr Lovett.

According to Reynolds’s Newspaper…

“the cortege consisted of a hearse and four horses, profusely loaded with feathers, two mourning coaches with four horses each, conveying the immediate personal friends of the deceased, and preceded by a board of feathers, borne by porters. A dozen men with wands in their hands walked at the sides of the hearse.

“The procession was formed at the Prince Albert public-house, Notting Hill, and several foreigners carrying a banner which is said to have been present at the Parisian barricades in February, 1848, bearing the inscription ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite! Republic Democratique et Sociale!’ and another red one, with ‘The alliance of the peoples!’ conspicuously inscribed thereon.”

Reynolds’s reporter put the size of the procession itself at around 10,000, “walking four and six abreast”, with the whole line of the procession from Russell-square to Notting-hill also “thronged with people”. The Times, no friend of O’Connor, put the crowd at 30,000 to 40,000, while some later commentators have suggested as many as 50,000 may have been present.

When the body was brought out, there was a loud cheer. It was followed by O’Connor’s nephew Roger, his long-standing friend and lawyer William Prowting Roberts and two other men as chief mourners.

“They started shortly after two o’clock, proceeding through Wesbourne-grove and Harrow-road. An enormous number of people lined the Harrow-road, the crowd becoming denser as the cemetery was approached. At ten minutes past four o’clock the cortege reached the cemetery, and the hearse, with the carriages that followed it, were admitted. The gates were then most injudiciously closed against the vast mass of persons who sought admission, but the crowd, who were greatly irritated, unceremoniously broke them open.”

Not all had come to pay their last respects. The following week’s paper (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 16 September 1855) reported that Thomas Downs of Nelson-street, Shoreditch, had been brought before Hammersmith magistrates for trying to steal a watch from William Murphy as he watched the funeral procession pass along Notting Hill. A second man, George Stichtery “aged 28, a tall, dark, respectably dressed man” was accused of a similar crime at the chapel door. Thomas Scudder, a 14-year-old boy, had stolen a silver watch from a man on the Harrow-road and passed it to another boy who ran off. And James Sullivan, also charged with picking pockets at the cemetery, exacerbated his offence by fighting with the police constable who took him into custody.

Those who had made it in to the chapel, however, were able to take part in a service according to the rites of the Church of England before O’Connor’s body was taken to the grave, where thousands had already assembled.

There “Mr W Jones, formerly of Liverpool” delivered an oration in which he lauded O’Connor as “one who had given his life to the cause of liberty and humanity, to the cause of the poor and the oppressed”. O’Connor had been the champion of democracy, and now it was for the representatives of the working class who formed that democracy to offer a tribute of gratitude in return.

“Tyrants might call him a demagogue – slaves might call him a madman – the rich might term him a fool, while the indifferent multitude left him to his poverty – yet liberty and humanity would moisten his grave with their tears, and his memory would be enshrined in the hearts of thousands.”

As his oration came to an end, a hymn was sung, “and the people quietly dispersed”. And so ended the very public life and times of Feargus O’Connor.