Boot blacking was mundane and ubiquitous. Cheap enough to be found in every home, it kept your footwear black and shiny; and more importantly it waterproofed and protected your shoes against the mud and muck of a nineteenth century street.
As an aside, some imaginative Chartists also discovered that a blacking bottle could be used as a home-made hand grenade. Giving evidence at the trial of Samuel and Mary Holberry in Sheffield, police superintendent Thomas Rayner claimed that in searching their house at 11 Eyre-lane, he had discovered a cache of weapons. ‘I have seen a grenade opened; we cut the strings, and found first a coat of hards, then pitch covered with small pebble stones and a bullet, in the centre a blacking bottle stopped up with a bit of wood with a hole through it, a quill through the hole filled with gunpowder; the bottle was filled with blasting powder and slugs’ (NS, 18 January 1840, p3).
Most Chartists, however, were more concerned with the intended contents of the small stoneware flasks and with keeping their feet rather than their gunpowder dry.
From the manufacturer’s point of view, it was an ideal product: costing a pittance to concoct from soot and beeswax or lanolin, it promised a small profit margin, but sold in such quantities that there were fortunes to be made: when Charles Day, of the Day & Martin blacking company, died in 1836, he left £450,000 in his will.
So why, some wondered, should such riches go to the factory owners rather than to the cause of Chartism.
In September 1841, Roger Pinder, a joiner, living at Weatherall Place, Car Lane in Hull, wrote a letter to the Northern Star headed: ‘To news-agents, co-operative store-keepers, and all such as take an interest in the carrying out of the agitation for the People’s Charter.’ (NS, 25 September 1841, p5).
Noting that the leadership of the movement was held back in its plans by a lack of resources, he promised: ‘I will supply all such as may favour me with their orders with blacking of best quality, and at the lowest possible price; and whilst it is good and cheap to the consumer, it shall leave a good remunerating profit to the agent. And I further propose to transmit to the Executive Council of the National Charter Association, to assist in carrying out the objectives for which the Association was formed, one halfpenny out of every shilling which I receive.’
There was no immediate response to the idea, and a month later there was another letter from ‘A reader of the Star’ to express surprise that ‘I have not heard another word since on the subject’. As the letter was apparently from Yorkshire, quite possibly the writer was Pinder himself. He reminded his readers that ‘if it put into the Chartist fund £5 per week it is not out of the pockets of the people, but out of the profits of the manufacturer’ (NS, 30 October 1841, p7).
Pinder was a committed Chartist. Though first named in the Northern Star in April 1841, when he was listed as a member of the general council for the National Charter Association in Hull (NS, 10 April 1841, p8), he would later claim that he had pledged himself to the radical cause as early as 1819, the year in which the Peterloo massacre took place, when he would have been seventeen years old.
Of his blacking business he wrote: ‘I can do this because I do it for the purpose of rendering thereby a help to the good cause; and not for the mere purpose of making a living. Thank God! I can make a living by my own labour.’ And slowly, he began to make a little money for the cause. Just 2s 1d on the first occasion, but with further sums to come. William Hill, the paper’s editor, remarked optimistically: ‘If this honest Chartist was properly supported, he alone ought to be able to support the Executive. – Ed’ (NS, 13 November 1841, p4).
Pinder appears to have raised his offer to the Executive Council from a halfpenny for every shilling of blacking sold to a penny. In a further lengthy letter to the Northern Star he wrote: ‘There is no decent family that does not use more or less of blacking. And if we take the average at one halfpenny for a week, and suppose agents to be generally supplied through England and Scotland, this very small demand from 60,000 families would leave a handsome sum for the Executive. Thirty thousand pence returned to me by the agents, would entitle the Executive to a clear revenue of £10 8s 4d weekly; a sum nearly sufficient for the remuneration of seven Chartist lecturers at thirty shillings each…’ (NS, 20 November 1841, p4).
Some Chartist localities threw their weight behind Pinder. The Chartists of Todmorden reported that they had resolved to support him ‘as far as possible and they call upon other towns to do the same’ (NS, 27 November 1841, p1), while on the same page the Chartists of Burnley announced that they had resolved unanimously to become agents for the sale of Pinder’s Blacking.
Reports of further donations by Mr Pinder to the Executive followed: 12s 8d one week, then £1 0s 7½d, followed by 13s 11 1/2d. Not the £10 or more which Pinder might have hoped, but a good income all the same.
John Campbell, the secretary of the National Charter Association, saw the initiative as an example of ‘exclusive dealing’, declaring that, ‘The system adopted by Mr Pinder with his blacking, will be a more powerful lever in the hands of the Chartists than they are aware of.’ He added that ‘the shoes, the hat, the clothes I wear are all made by Chartists’, and declared:, ‘Now it is my opinion that Mr Pinder, and men in any other line of business, who will act like him, ought to receive the support of the Chartists, as long as their articles are as good and as cheap as the articles of other individuals, who perhaps are our bitterest enemies’ NS, 24 December 1841, p7).
Inevitably, as Chartist blacking began to prove successful, others entered the Chartist marketplace. Stephen Binns, blacking manufacturer and member of the General Council of the National Charter Association from Nun-street, Newcastle, announced that he would supply ‘any seaport town in Great Britain and Ireland, carriage-free, with first-rate Chartist Blacking as low as any in the trade and will give one twelfth of the proceeds to the Executive Council in Manchester’. His blacking, he declared, ‘cannot be surpassed in quality; and any quantity can be procured in penny packets, or otherwise packed in neat boxes’ (NS, 8 January 1842 p5).
And William Brelsford, blacking manufacturer of 18 Royle Road, Burnley, wrote to say that he had not previously thought of supplying customers outside Lancashire, but was now happy to sell to customers elsewhere. He would pay 1d out of every 8d received to the Convention (NS, 22 January 1842, p6).
Blacking was not the only everyday product that could be sold to the massed ranks of the Chartists, and within a matter of months, the Leicester partnership of Crow & Tyrrell had revived the idea of radical breakfast powders, and were advertising their ‘Chartist beverage of improved British breakfast powder’ as an untaxed alternative to tea or coffee (NS, 5 March 1842). They too offered regular donations to the Chartist cause.
Despite great ambitions and some initial success, however, sales of Chartist blacking never came anywhere close to meeting Roger Pinder’s hopes. As he wrote in a further letter that appeared twice in the Northern Star, ‘the country evinces but little disposition to support the cause of Chartism through the Executive, inasmuch as neither myself nor Messrs Crow and Tyrrell has had much to add to their funds for some weeks past’ (NS, 7 and 28 January 1843).
Though Roger Pinder’s name continues to appear in the Northern Star in reports of Hull Chartism, there are no further mentions of Pinder’s Blacking. He had, it seems, come to the conclusion that breakfast powders offered a better business opportunity. ‘Pinder’s Chartist Beverage’, declared a final advert, which announced that R. Pinder had ‘commenced the manufacture of the above named article on the premises occupied by him for the last twelve months, in Edward’s Place, Hull’ (NS, 24 December 1842, p8). And if only his brother Chartists would place their orders, he would give four shillings to the fund of the executive and one shilling to the victim fund for every 100lb sold.
As for Roger Pinder, the outlines of his life can be found in the official records that accompany us all through life. Born in 1802 at Barrow-upon-Humber, just a ferry-ride from Hull, he established himself as a joiner and in 1825 married Elizabeth Forth, who was two years his junior. Together they had a daughter, Margaret, who worked as a miliner and married a locomotive engine driver. By 1871, Roger, now working as a railway joiner, and his whole family had moved back south across the Humber to live in his home town. He died there on 18 April 1875 aged 74; his wife Elizabeth died just weeks later on 31 May. Both are buried in the local cemetery.