By the end of the nineteenth century, as even the longest-lived Chartist veterans were approaching their end, and their experiences were passing beyond the reach of living memory, some decided that the time had come to place their carefully curated recollections of youthful rebellion on the public record.
William Lovett, George Jacob Holyoake and W.E. Adams among others wrote book-length autobiographies that have been mined by historians of Chartism ever since. But local newspapers, too, often published the memoirs of former Chartists whose names would be recognised by readers in their communities, even if their past exploits had been forgotten.
As editor of the radical Newcastle Weekly Chronicle from 1864-1900, W.E. Adams often gave space in the paper to discussions of local political history, and he allowed his old friend George Julian Harney a long-running column in which to write about past glories (more here). Harney had been among the most popular of the old Chartist leaders in Newcastle, and in 1839 had been elected to represent it at the first Chartist convention.
Then, in 1897, a matter of weeks before Harney died, a reader by the name of Colin McColvin submitted his memories of Chartism in nearby Winlaton to Adams for publication in the Chronicle.
Newcastle and the surrounding towns had been among the most radical at the end of the 1830s, and although to some extent McColvin’s article conforms to the late nineteenth century trope of Chartism as little more than a bygone curiosity, it is notable for the scale of the preparations it reveals in Winlaton, and presumably elsewhere in the district, for an armed uprising – with no fewer than fourteen cannons readied for use at one point.
Adams sent Harney a copy of the article for comment and approval as so much of it centred on him. And a matter of days before he died, Harney was able to dictate a series of corrections and amendments. Adams published the final article alongside Harney’s obituary in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle of January 15, 1898. It appears in full below.
CHARTISM IN WINLATON
A few months ago some recollections of Chartism in Winlaton were submitted to us by Mr Colin McColvin, now upwards of 80 years of age, for publication in the ‘Weekly Chronicle’. As Mr George Julian Harney was the chief personage in the narrative, we sent the documents to him for perusal, and possibly revision. Mr Harney was then nearing his end. But he instructed his devoted wife how to reshape it, and dictated some comments on it. The last few lines of these comments were taken down from Mr Harney’s dictation only four days before he died: so that they read now like a message from the grave. Mrs Harney, who six months ago threw up her professional engagements as a teacher of languages &c, in Boston, U.S. for the purpose of nursing and tending her husband in his last days of suffering, has since been endeavouring to recover at her brother’s house in Jersey from the fatigues and sorrows of her long attendance on a sick bed, has not till with the last few days been able to write out the papers which are given below. Both documents have now a personal and historic interest which justify their publication here.
MR McCOLVIN’S NARRATIVE
When Chartism was at its height, there were no more loyal advocates of the six points of further reform than the men of Winlaton. They hailed the advent of Mr George Julian Harney with the greatest enthusiasm, and right royal was the welcome accorded him. As was usual when any great personage visited the village, the band met him at the stone quarries – midway between Blaydon and Winlaton – and escorted him into the hot bed of independence to the to the sounds of an inspiring air. The great point of vantage – the Sandhill – having been reached Mr Harney took his stand up on the old library stairs which had hitherto been occupied by such well known advocates of the reform bill as Mr (afterwards Sir John) Fife, Charles Attwood, Charles Larkin, and others, and addressed the assembled people, in hopeful and exhortative words, with all the energy of youth, receiving a hearty round of deserving applause. This was Mr Harney’s first appearance at Winlaton.
Having come to Newcastle late in December 1838, Mr Harney, with Mr Robert Lowery, and Dr John Taylor, of Ayrshire were, at a great meeting in the Forth, elected as delegates to represent the Tyne districts in the forthcoming Chartist convention. Mr Harney was then just under 22 years of age. I cannot speak as to his exact height, but he was, as is commonly called, middle-sized. He was of a ruddy complexion, with eyes that he called grey and others called blue, with a plentiful shock of dark brown hair – dark enough to earn for him the name of ‘the black-haired London laddie’. He had a powerful voice, and an elastic step, though he was no dancer. How it exactly came to pass Mr Harney himself could not tell, but it is a fact that he carried Winlaton by storm, and be it remembered that political enthusiasm at the time was shared by the women equally with the men.
Mr Harney’s stay in the North on this occasion was but brief, as he had to meet the convention on the 4th of February, 1839, and had invitations on his way to visit Carlisle, Dalston, cockermouth, Manchester and elsewhere.
It is not my business to recite the history of the Convention, the failure of the attempted ‘sacred month’ &c &c. Suffice it to say that Mister Harney – having returned to the North, to which in those days he always returned ‘ like a bird to its nest’ – was lecturing or speaking at various meetings in the district when, being at Bedlington, he was arrested at 2 o’clock in the morning by a constable from Birmingham, re-enforced by several of the Newcastle police. Taken in a hackney coach early in the morning to Newcastle, thence ‘shipped’ about 5 a.m. across the Tyne, to Gateshead, and so per railway to Carlisle, were all but a riot ensued, which nothing could have prevented had action being deferred by the law-officer until the ‘scaling’ of the mills at the dinner hour. As the rescue, or the attempted rescue, must have resulted in grave consequences, it was better that the attempt failed. Nothing came of the arrest save detention for bail – the grand jury at the Warwick assize, March 1840, having found no true bill.
Mr Harney, as the reader will infer, had numerous personal friends in Winlaton, among whom were Mr Michael Armstrong, Mr Colin McColvin, Mr. John Wilkinson, Mr Edward Summerside, Mr Siddoway, Elijah Moore (of the Band), Mr Reed (father of Mr Reed of the Chronicle office), Mr Miller, Mr Pescod &c. For the most part of his time Mr Harney lodged with a kind old couple, Tommy and Bessie Nicholson. After his immigration to America, he did not forget that worthy pair, with whom he kept up a correspondent to the end of their days. Of all these friends only one remains, Mr McColvin, still hale and hearty, despite the weight of 80 years. Many are his regrets for Mr Harney’s illness, for he has most pleasant remembrances of the old Chartist leader.
The political meetings were occasionally varied; one variation being tea-parties at the Royal Oak – the band being in attendance. There was plenty of singing, dancing, etc, Mr Harney’s favourite song:- ‘When this Old Cap was New,’ written by Mr Thomas Doubleday. being one of the features of the evening.
It would perhaps not be unwise here to digress and relate an amusing story which shows to a nicety the readiness of the Winlaton people to oppose authority during these troublesome times. Two Winlaton Chartists, being in Graham’s public house in the Side, Newcastle, fell into conversation with two soldiers, who informed them that they had, at a certain time, to put in an appearance at the barracks for tattoo, for a contingent under Sir Colin Campbell had to go to Winlaton that night to search for arms. At hearing this, the Winlaton men were all attention, and, having gained as much information as was possible, hurried off home and informed their leaders of the intentions of the military. Every one was brought up in arms at once. Spears and swords were brought out and sharpened, patteraries (small cannon) were loaded and placed in position on the Sandhill, with their muzzles facing towards Front Street, dozens of crows-feet were placed in the precincts of the village for the purpose of laming the cavalry horses, parties of men were stationed at various points armed with hand grenades filled with slugs and nails and every possible precaution was taken for defence. It was all in vain, however. If such an order had ever been issued to the soldiers, it must have been cancelled, for they never turned up. Although Sir Colin Campbell was pretty well known in the village, by reason of his visits to Derwent Villa, the seat of George Heppel Ramsey, J.P., disappointment at his not putting in a hostile appearance was rife. The Winlaton people, however, determined to put on a war-like look, if they could not have a conflict. At one o’clock in the morning, the cannon – probably to the number of fourteen – were fired simultaneously with deafening uproar, the sound being easily heard at Tynemouth by the officers on duty at the barracks, for it was afterwards commented upon, and many were the inquiries as to its significance. A few of the villagers in this crisis showed the white feather and hid their weapons in the neighbouring woods – but they were very few, by far the great majority favouring resistance.
At the Forth affair, the Winlatonians were much in evidence. With their indispensable band, they marched from the village to Blaydon, from Blaydon to Scotswood Road, and into the Forth, causing great stir along the route. Here they met the other Chartists; The prohibition meeting was commenced, and the resolutions were passed. At the finish, when the band had formed up preparatory to marching home, the Newcastle people asked the Winlaton men to accompany them into the town. This was acceded to, and on the way there they met the Mayor (Mr Fyfe) and Dr Headlam J.P., who read the Riot Act. Immediately after this, there arose a shout of ‘the military,’ and Sir Colin Campbell and his men rode up, causing great confusion. Here it will be better to give the description of Mr McColvin who says:- ‘When the rush came, I found myself mixed up among our band, who were most conspicuous objects by their instruments. When the soldiers galloped up with Sir Colin Campbell at their head, I was at the outskirts off the fleeing crowd, within two yards of the commander, and, as you may understand, heard, but had not time to digest, his shout: “Men if you don’t disperse I will shoot you like crows.” An opening occuring, I went with the rest, and hurried off as fast as my legs would carry me. The men who carried the banners were sadly hampered, and in many cases lost their precious possessions. One or two showed resistance when a soldier might attempt to capture his flag. But what was the use? The odds were very great. It was a very queer affair. I think that, had it not been for the action of outsiders, the Newcastle men would never have had the courage to hold the meeting in defiance of the authorities.’
Warrants were subsequently issued for the arrest of the Winlaton Chartists, Wilkinson, Marshall, Miller, and Pescod, for their participation at the Forth, but they disappeared, and eventually turned up in America.
In 1863 Mr Harney was for a few weeks the guest of Mr Wilkinson, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Mr Harney, as everyone knows, was not at the famous meeting.
Besides those who disappeared and turned up in America, there were others who voluntarily emigrated, thus weakening Chartism, and lessening the enthusiasm. But the old feeling survived in the village for a long time afterwards. Time, however, was its vanquisher. One by one the Chartist dropped off, and now only one or two remain. One of these, Mr McColvin, is still ever ready to have a ‘crack’ about old times, and glories in the relation of events which took place in the days of ‘39. He still possessed his spear and a ‘crow’s foot’, but perhaps his dearest possession is a picture of the National Convention, which was issued at the time by the proprietors of the ‘Northern Star’.
MR HARNEY’S COMMENTS
The following was dictated by Mr Harney, a few days previous to his decease.
By the Editor’s kind permission, I have seen the original of the above. I am sorry to say it contained some statements which might have misled the reader, and which therefore had to be omitted. There were also names which I have completely forgotten. One I very well remember, Mrs Bessie Prudhoe Among the primitive wants of Winlaton, there were two – the want of a druggist and the want of a barber. The first want was of little account, in as much as the traffic with Newcastle was large and a neighbour going into the ‘canny toon’ was always willing to execute any small Commission. Besides which, my friend Mrs Nicholson kept an assortment of ‘cures’ for sore throats, toothache, earache, troubles in what the Scotch term the ‘wame’ etc etc, and I remember she advised me, if ever I went into business, to take to drugs as the most profitable. But as the drug trade had no charms for me, I never put her experience to the test. The need of a barber was a most serious one. Chin-scraping being still then the fashion, it was lucky for me that Mrs Bessie Prudhoe did not hesitate to use the brush and razor for, no doubt, what was considered my personal improvement. Mrs Prudhoe was a warm-hearted enthusiastic Chartist.
There were statements in the original about my superintendence of drilling, quite without foundation. I was not in the North at the time of the midnight demonstration which, according to Mr McColvin, so startled to the authorities. As the writer of the above reminiscences says. I was not at the Forth meeting when Sir Colin Campbell signalized himself by a most brutal speech, and I fear much that, had a collision taken place, he would have been as good as his word.
It only remains for me to thank Mr McColvin for his reminiscences. I have found the Winlaton people among the kindest, to say the least, I have ever met. Never can I forget the humble but pleasant hospitality of the Nicholsons and others. Would that I could now sit down to a Winlaton tea with as hearty a welcome to enjoy the famous singing hinnies as ‘when this old cap was new!’
GEORGE JULIAN HARNEY