A monument to the Bethnal Green Chartist martyrs

Standing nine feet tall and topped with a cap of liberty, it would have been difficult for visitors to the Victoria Park Cemetery to miss the monument to the Bethnal Green Martyrs.

Erected in February 1851 after lengthy wrangling with the cemetery’s directors, the tapering stone shaft, mounted on a high plinth, marked the grave shared by Henry Hanshard, Alexander Sharp and Joseph Williams, three Chartists who had died because of their involvement in the last great London monster meetings of 1848, the meetings at Bonner’s Fields and Clerkenwell Green that took place at the end of May and beginning of June.

The three were:

  • Henry Hanshard, a young silk-weaver descended from a Huguenot family, who died after being bludgeoned by three police officers;
  • Alexander Sharp, a copper-plate printer and rising star of London Chartism, who died in Tothill Fields Bridewell leaving a young wife and three children; and
  • Joseph Williams, a journeyman baker and veteran radical voice in London Chartism, who died in Tothill Fields Bridewell leaving a wife and six children.

The story of each man is told elsewhere on the website (follow the links above). This is the story of the monument that stood as their memorial.

Hanshard was the first to die – a few days after he was attacked in June 1848. And once his friends in the surely overlapping milieus of Bethnal Green Chartism and the Broad-silk Hand-loom Weavers Union had done their best to raise money for his widow, there were calls for a memorial to be erected.

The deaths in quick succession of both Sharp and Williams in September 1849, both of whom had spoken at the meeting where Hanshard was struck down, focused the minds and fundraising efforts of London’s Chartists, and within weeks the mason was reported to have finished his work.

Five months later, however, the Northern Star acknowledged that many Chartists would be asking what had become of the memorial (11 May, 1850). It went on: ‘The inscription desired to be placed on the monument was placed in the hands of the gentlemen of the Cemetry (sic) Board in November last, and although such an inscription is not a whit stronger than others inscribed on tombs in Bunhill-fields burial ground, or the church yards of Hammersmith and Aldgate, yet we learn that it has been referred to a higher quarter.’

After lengthy negotiations, the Chartist committee reached agreement with the cemetery company, and finally, on 15 February 1851, the Northern Star was able to tell its readers:

‘This work, which has been in the hands of the builder for the last fifteen months, partly from the want of funds, and owing to the Victoria Park Cemetery Company refusing to allow the proposed inscriptions to be engraved, was erected last week. The monument only bears the names of Henry Hanshard, Joseph Williams, and Alexander Sharp. It stands upon a York Ledger, and has a high plinth and good basement, the shaft tapering, and a bold projecting cornice. In the blocking above on the four sides is the bundle of sticks, emblematical of union, and the whole surmounted with a cap of liberty. The height of the monument is nine feet, and two feet six inches square at the base. We are informed that a balance of near £5 is due to Mr Cox, the builder, and when the length of time it has been in hand is considered, it is to be hoped that the Chartist body will speedily liquidate the debt.’

Just a few months later, however, Mr Shaw, the undertaker who had overseen Williams’ and Sharp’s funerals, reported that the monument had been ‘desecrated’, and the stone cap of liberty that had topped the pedestal had been pulled down and stolen (NS, 17 May 1851).

‘I beheld with sorrow from the disarranged state of the pedestal on which proudly rested the cap of liberty, as a mournful warning, pointing to the coming and inevitable doom of despotism, that the hands of some ruthless villain had maliciously wrenched off the emblem adopted by the burning thoughts that once breathed within the lifeless clay calmly sleeping beneath.’

Shaw urged readers of the Star to send deputations to the cemetery’s managers demanding an investigation, and suggested that the ‘detective police’ should be called in.

London Chartists immediately sent a delegation to investigate what had happened. Reporting back to a meeting chaired by the veteran Chartist John Arnott at the City Chartist Hall, John Shaw said that he and others had met the secretary to the cemetery, who attempted to fob them off, claiming the company had made enquiries but been unable to find the culprits; it would be willing to prosecute if they could be identified, he told them, but those responsible were more likely to be discovered ‘by keeping the matter quiet than by offering a reward’ (NS, 14 June 1851).

Unwilling to stay silent, the meeting agreed to write to the cemetery’s directors warning that they would call a public meeting ‘to expose this gross violation of the sanctity of the dead unless the Directors immediately cause the Cap of Liberty to be replaced, and the monument restored to its original condition’. One of those present at the meeting, a Mr Mason, said there was no doubt that the company’s directors had found the cap of liberty to be ‘very offensive’ – and doubted that they were sincere in their efforts to discover the offenders.

Mr Cox, the mason who had erected the monument in the face of ‘great annoyance by the police and his brother tradesmen’, said that it would have required ‘great violence’ to break the cap off the stonework, and could not have been done by one person without the aid of ropes or some description of machinery. The stone on which it rested weighed several hundredweight (1cwt being around 50kg), and that too had been moved out of position.

By the time the meeting went ahead, the cemetery authorities had capitulated (NS, 5 July 1851), and Arnott was able to report that the directors had agreed to have the monument repaired at their own expense. ‘It was not in a pecuniary light that he looked on this triumph, but as a lesson taught to the rich and powerful that public opinion must be consulted and that union among working men was alone necessary to achieve other and mightier results,’ Arnott was reported to have told the meeting.

Other than a continuing struggle to get the cemetery company to pay the mason for his work as it had promised (NS, 15 September 1851) there are no further reports about the monument. Either there were no further incidents, or with the decline of Chartism there were few besides the families of the dead men who remembered and cared enough to complain.

In any event, the cemetery soon ran into financial difficulties. Faced with competition from other cemeteries and an impoverished local catchment area, Victoria Park was forced to cut its rates, and its maintenance budget, to the bone. By 1856, the cemetery was in a scandalous condition, with too many coffins forced into overcrowded graves that were often filled to ground level. Despite a popular outcry, things continued to get worse and worse, and the cemetery was finally closed in 1876 with almost 300,000 people buried in its twelve overcrowded acres.

In 1891 almost the entirety of the land was handed over to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, which duly cleared the chapels, headstones and memorials – most likely including that to the three Chartist martyrs. Three years later, it would reopen as Meath Gardens, a public park which survives today.

Further reading

‘The Resort of Thieves and Harlots’; Victoria Park Cemetery, Bethnal Green on the London Dead website provides and excellent if sometimes harrowing account of the cemetery’s history

The Friends of Meath Gardens website includes historical information and information about the park today

Victoria Park Cemetery was among a number of new cemeteries opened across London as old burial grounds such as that at Bunhill Fields (pictured) filled up. It was not long before some were in worse condition than those they were intended to replace.