Chartist prisoners, 1839-1840

The government showed little hesitation in arresting and imprisoning Chartists as part of its strategy for dealing with successive waves of activity. But their treatment once in prison was a sensitive issue.

The most difficult of the prisoners to deal with was Feargus O’Connor, proprietor of the Northern Star newspaper and the leading figure in Chartism, who was convicted in March 1840 for publishing a seditious libel and gaoled for 18 months in York Castle.

On arrival, O’Connor immediately refused all co-operation with the prison authorities, and demanded newspapers, unlimited prison visits, a better diet and improved accommodation.

Unsure how to respond, Barnard Hague, the chairman of the visiting magistrates, sent a series of increasingly desperate letters (sometimes several a day) to London to seek the guidance of the Home Secretary, Lord Normanby.

Responding to questions from the Home Office about O’Connor’s current treatment, Hague wrote back on 1 June, 1840:

My Lord
I beg to forward to your Lordship the following answers to the queries in your letters of the 25th, 26th, 27th and 30th ult.:
Mr Feargus O’Connor is not subject to any indignities of the person.
He does not take his chamber utensil upstairs, or bring it down, or clean it out.
He does not scour his room out, or perform any menial office.
He has had sheets offered to sleep in, and refuses them.
He occupies to-night, and will continue to occupy, the best room on the felons’ side.
He has tea and sugar without restriction as to quantity, twice each day.
He has animal food to dinner, and two glasses of wine.
He is shaved daily, and has clean linen and towels when he wishes.
There are no beds but such as have iron stocks, and flock beds, of which (flock beds) he has four.
He has a pillow, a chair, and a table.
He eats, and has eaten, his meals in his ward by himself, the first day excepted.
He has a large yard for exercise.
He has a bedroom and the large hospital to himself.
He wears his own clothes.
He has not had any newspapers.
He has not written any letters or received any, without the inspection of the governor.
I have, &c
Barnard Hague,
hairman of the Visiting Magistrates

Normanby ordered some further loosening of the rules to permit O’Connor newspapers, a locking-up time of 9pm rather than the usual 7pm, and the right to receive visitors “at all reasonable and proper times”.

Other Chartists were less fortunate. Despite repeated lobbying by the London Working Men’s Association and their families, William Lovett and John Collins faced a far harsher regime in Warwick Gaol after their arrest during the First Chartist Convention of 1839.

Others, including the Sheffield Chartist Samuel Holberry, left prison broken men, their health compromised and their lives shortened by the harsh regime.

Few MPs at this time had any sympathy for Chartism or for the Chartists, but their treatment in prison was watched closely by Parliament. In June 1840, MPs demand a report on the treatment of all those held between 1 January 1839 and 1 June 1840 for:

“printing and publishing seditious or blasphemous libel, or for uttering seditious words, or for attending any seditious meetings, or for conspiring to cause such meetings to be held, or for any offence of a political nature”.

A report of the prison inspectors, including a return from every prison was duly presented to Parliament on 5 August 1840. It contains information on 665 prisoners, 380 in prisons in England and 63 in Wales (almost all Chartists), one in Scotland, and 221 in Ireland.

The full report can be found in HO 20/10 in The National Archives.

The table below shows the names, occupations and the gaols in which all those in Middlesex were held.

A full entry for each of the prisoners named, including details of the regime under which they lived, can be found in the Chartist Ancestors Databank.


House of Correction, Giltspur-street

John Cleave, bookseller and publisher

House of Correction, Cold Bath Fields

Joseph Williams, baker

David Williams, bricklayer

Charles Hodgson Neeson, tailor

Richard Spurr, carpenter

John Cherry, painter

George Livings, chair-maker

Thomas Evans, cabinet-maker

Daniel Burn, labourer

Thomas Clark, cordwainer

Thomas Reynard, milkman

Thomas Hope, cabinet-maker

William Wilkins, cordwainer

George Edward Boggis, labourer

Gaol of Newgate

Charles Hodgson Neeson, tailor

Thomas Reynard, sailor

Thomas Hope, cabinet-maker

William Wilkins, shoemaker

Joseph Williams, baker

Richard Spurr, carpenter

George Edward Boggis, labourer

John Cleave, printer

Westminster Bridewell

William Cornish, shoemaker

Charles Temps, iron-plate-worker

Henry Riddle, die-sinker

Thomas Ireland, porter

Francis Wilbey, schoolmaster

James Bettis, labourer

William Burton, bootmaker

Edward Barlow, painter

Henry Murray, printer

Thomas Ward, shoemaker

Matthew Gross, tailor

William Flayte, tailor

Samuel Waddington, boot and shoemaker