life stories

Allen Davenport, 1775 – 1846

Allen Davenport, from his book The Life, Writings and Principles of Thomas Spence (1836)

Allen Davenport played relatively little direct part in Chartism. However, as president of the London Democratic Association he provided a direct personal link back to the ultra radical Spenceans of an earlier generation and became a significant influence on the thinking of a young George Julian Harney. Unusually, he also published an autobiography just eighteen months before he died.

Born on 1 May 1775 in the village of Ewen, three miles from Cirencester and close to the source of the River Thames, Davenport was one of ten children in a poor family. In the absence of a dame school which might have provided a basic education, he taught himself to read and write by matching the songs he heard to the words in printed broadsides. After an early start working as a groom, Davenport ran away, first to try unsuccessfully to become a sailor, and then to join the ‘Windsor Foresters’, a regiment of light infantry, in which he served happily for five years until he was demobbed in 1800. During his time as a soldier, Davenport later recalled that he had been part of the military escort which took prisoners convicted of high treason for their part in the Irish rebellion of 1798 to imprisonment at Fort George in Inverness – among them Arthur O’Connor, the uncle of the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor.

During his time in the army, Davenport learned the shoemaker’s craft, and spent four years scratching a living in Cirencester before moving to London in 1804 where such work was slightly more lucrative.

The following year, Davenport came across Thomas Spence’s book The Spencean System, in which he called for ‘a new administration of the landed property of the kingdom’ and other ultra radical ideas. As Davenport wrote in his autobiography: ‘I read the book and immediately became an out and out Spencean. I preached the doctrine to my shopmates and to everybody else, wherever and whenever I could find an opportunity. I had been a sort of Whig reformer before; but I now saw clearly, that all Whig, Tory, or even Radical Reformers, were as rushlights to the meridian sun, in comparison with that proposed by the clear headed, and honest hearted Thomas Spence.’

Davenport married in 1806. His wife Mary was a shoe-binder, and the couple worked together. In a postscript to his autobiography, Davenport wrote: ‘I feel I should add a few lines about just what I owed my wife. She was tireless in supporting my work as a cobbler and tireless in helping me develop as a thinker, polemicist and writer. She gave me confidence, love and a child.’ But Mary died after a decade of marriage, and their only child Mary Ann followed in 1824.

Davenport most likely came to know Spence before his death in 1814. London’s ultra radical circles were not very large, and he definitely knew Arthur Thistlewood and others involved in the 1820 Cato Street conspiracy. Five of their number were hanged for their part in the plot to overthrow and murder the prime minister Lord Liverpool and his Cabinet, and others were transported to Australia. Davenport was not implicated.

Not surprisingly, Davenport later said very little about his activities around this time, but he never gave up on politics – or on poetry, which he wrote and published prolifically, both in newspapers and in self-published volumes of his own. He also became interested in Robert Owen’s ideas on co-operation. But he remained attached to Spencean ultra radicalism, and in 1836 he published The Life of Thomas Spence, in which he outlined Spence’s programme that ‘all land, rivers, mines, coal-pits, &c., be made public property, and be administered on the principle of Agrarian equality!’

‘The Iron God’ Click for larger image.

One of Davenport’s better poems appeared in the Northern Star in the year he died, written in ‘praise, honour and glory to the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent “Iron God” – the all-revolutionary, world-redeeming, and paradise-creating  printing press!’ (NS, 04 July 1846). Harney would later write: ‘If, in the lists of poets, we cannot rank Allen Davenport very high, we may at least award to him the high praise that his simple strains were always devoted to the advance of virtue, intellect and freedom.’

As radical organisations in the capital came and went, Davenport became involved first in the National Union of the Working Classes, and subsequently as a founder member of the East London Democratic Association. Established as a more radical challenger to the London Working Men’s Association, and aiming to recruit a mass membership rather than following the elitist approach of its rival, the ELDA (later London Democratic Association) helped Harney to develop his ideas around arming and insurrection as means to gain democratic reforms, and provided an organisational basis for the more radical voices in the first Chartist convention.

Following Davenport’s death, Harney, then editor of the Northern Star, published extracts from his mentor’s autobiography along with some commentary (NS, 5 December 1846). In it, he noted that, ‘The Chartist Agitation found Allen Davenport too far advanced in the vale of years to take a very active part therein, nevertheless there was scarcely any meeting of importance that he did not attend; one of the last such meetings was the celebration by the Greenwich, Deptford and Lewisham Chartists of Thomas Paine’s birth-day, when at the public supper held on that occasion at Blackheath, Allen Davenport presided.’

Indeed, by his latter years, Davenport had become firmly established in the Chartist pantheon. His name was regularly included in toasts alongside those of John Richards, J. R. Smart, Thomas Preston, ‘and all our “living patriots”,’ for example at a ‘Commemoration of the French Republic reported in the Northern Star (27 September 1845), during which 224 people sat down to supper at the City Chartist Hall in Turnagain-lane, and again at a public supper for ‘upwards of sixty persons’ to mark the birthday of Henry Hunt at the Whittington and Cat, Church-row, Bethnal Green NS, 15 November, 1845).

Davenport’s death, ‘for some time expected by himself and friends’ came on Sunday 29 November 1846. In the absence of family members, George Jacob Holyoake’s secularist journal The Reasoner took charge of the arrangements and immediately issued a call for donations as Davenport lacked even the money to pay for his own funeral.

The funeral took place on the following Saturday, (NS, 12 December 1846). Some time before, Davenport’s body had been moved from his home in Noble-street to the Owenite Hall of Science in City Road, where he lay ‘in an uncovered coffin’. At one o’clock, the funeral procession left for Kensal Green. Among the mourners were Holyoake, Harney, a Mrs Hartley from the Hall of Science, and Miss Julia Fuller, ‘Mr Davenport’s attendant’. At the graveside, William Devonshire Saull, an Owenite and businessmen, ‘delivered a brief but impressive discourse on the life, struggles, labours and virtues of the deceased’.

Davenport was interred in a public grave, and there is no memorial. However, his burial place stands close to that of Henry Hetherington, in the small area of grass between the footpath and the perimeter wall.

Further information

The Life and Literary Pursuits of Allen Davenport: With a further selection of the author’s work was compiled and edited by Malcolm Chase following its rediscovery, and published by Routledge in 1994.

Lengthy extracts from Davenport’s autobiography were published in the Northern Star (5 December 1846, page 3).

‘Allen Davenport of the Windsor Foresters; fencible trooper and political activist’, by Nick Mansfield, was published in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 98 (392). pp. 1-10. ISSN 0037 9700, and is available here on the University of Central Lancashire website.

Meet the Kensal Green Chartists: a walking guide to the Chartists in Kensal Green Cemetery.