Daniel William Ruffy or Ruffy Ridley, 1805-1861

Ruffy Ridley was a well-known figure in the London Chartism of the 1840s. But his life was more colourful and more complex than it appeared at first glance. From Huguenot ancestry via business success and a sudden downfall and on to a new start in Australia, this is his life story.

Daniel William Ruffy, from a portrait probably dating to the 1850s. From A Family Portfolio: An Account of the Ireland, Rowe, Hay and Ruffy Families and Others, by Elizabeth Rennick (self published, Australia, 1996).

When thousands of Chartists marched to Westminster in May 1842 to present the ‘leviathan’ petition to Parliament, Daniel Ruffy rode on horseback at the front of the procession. Despite such prominence, however, almost no one in the crowd, and few in the small circle of London activists, would have recognised him by that name; because for more than a decade, the man on horseback had always called himself Ruffy Ridley.

Ruffy was used to personal reinvention. He had begun his working life as a cloth dyer; during the 1840s, he then became a clerk or accountant, setting up and running a highly successful friendly society that gave him a comfortable salary; and when that new career came tumbling down after he was brought up in court on charges of fraud, Ruffy, left England for Australia, and a new life as a theatre manager.

Origins and early life

Ruffy was descended on his father’s side from French Huguenot refugees who had come to Spitalfields a century earlier,1 and he was born there in the impoverished silk-weaving district of London on 14 September 1805. His parents, Daniel Benjamin Ruffy, a cooper, and Elizabeth Daniel Burt registered his birth at Dr Williams’s Library, indicating that they were nonconformists. Ruffy, however, eschewed religion in later life, becoming, in the language of the time, an ‘infidel’ and lecturing radical meetings on the evils of ‘priestcraft’.

At the age of 23, Ruffy married Sophia Bailey at Westminster St James’, and a year later they had a son, who they named Christopher. There is, however, no further record of Sophia, who probably died. Later, in 1838, Ruffy remarried at St Martin in the Fields, which stands on Trafalgar Square. His new wife, Mary Ann Aitken, was a decade younger than him and the daughter of a linen draper. By the time of his second marriage, and in the 1841 census, Ruffy’s address was given as 19 D’Oyley Street, Chelsea.

Ruffy’s birth registered at Dr Williams’s Library. Click for larger image.

According to David Goodway, the historian of London Chartism2, Ruffy was a member of the central committee of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union of 1834-35. He is first sighted in the Chartist movement, however, early in 1839, when he announces in the trade union paper The Operative (3 March 1839, p7) that a new organisation has been formed in west London ‘to support the People’s Charter and the National Petition’. Writing as secretary pro-tem, he proclaims that ‘the working men of Pimlico, Chelsea and Brompton have awoke from their slumbers’.

Ruffy Ridley, the Chartist activist

Though little more is heard of Ruffy’s involvement in the first wave of Chartism, he is prominent in the May 1841 convention called to organise the presentation of a huge national petition on behalf of the Chartist prisoners. And he must have made a name for himself as a public speaker. That summer, the National Charter Association sent him to the South West to raise support for the cause in Salisbury and the Wiltshire towns.

There are numerous reports in the Northern Star during the autumn and winter of 1841 of Ruffy lecturing at meetings across London, speaking often at trade union branches. At the Feather’s Tavern in Warren Street one Sunday evening, ‘Mr Ruffy Ridley delivered a most argumentative, lucid and eloquent lecture on the appropriation of the soil’ (NS, 15 January 1842). That same week, he presided over a ‘grand festival, including tea, concert and ball’ for London Chartists at the John Street Social Institution . With the ‘tea, coffee, bread, butter and cake’ consumed, speeches and toasts made, and the tables cleared away, there were country dances, while in the concert room, ‘The evening’s amusement was enlivened by the talents of Messrs. Cuffey, Whitehorn, Ridley, Master Ridley, Pachker, Fussell, Farrer, Clegg, Stallwood, &c., Mesdames Whitehorn, Pipe, Scot-Varden, Waggett, &c.; Glees, duets, songs, and recitations, were given, and the harmony and conviviality of the evening was kept up much to the satisfaction of the numerous company.’

Ruffy also proved himself in direct confrontation with his political enemies. In March 1842, Feargus O’Connor recounted going to Chelsea with Ruffy and the Northern Star’s London correspondent Thomas Martin Wheeler for what had been intended as a debate with Sidney Smith, the secretary of the Anti-Corn Law League. As soon as O’Connor mounted the platform, ‘the gentlemen blew out the lights, let down the drop scene, left us in complete darkness, and the proprietor cleared the stage. Some ruffians attacked Ruffy Ridley, who was outside the drop scene, when the Chartists charged, and a dreadful scuffle ensued, which terminated in the complete routing of the physical force Whigs’ (NS, 5 March 1842, p1). O’Connor, solidly built and over six feet tall, was no stranger to a fight; but neither, it seems, was Ruffy. Not for nothing did Ruffy Ridley get the occasional nickname ‘rough’n’ready’.

Small wonder with his recent record of activity that Ruffy was elected as one of four London delegates (strictly speaking, as delegates for Middlesex, Kent, Surrey and Essex) to the 1842 convention along with Edmund Stallwood and Peter Murray McDouall.

After meeting for three weeks in April, the convention eventually completed its preparations in time to take the petition to Parliament as planned. With more than three million names, it was the largest ever collected, and on Monday 2 May, a huge procession set off from Fleet Street, where the convention had been meeting, to the Houses of Parliament. At its head were Ruffy and McDouall on horseback as marshalls, followed by the petition carried on the shoulders of London tradesmen, and with marching bands and a sea of flags and banners stretching out behind them.

‘Procession attending the Great National Petition of 3,317,702 to the House of Commons, 1842.’. From a print produced by the Northern Star for its subscribers.

That summer, with Parliament having once more snubbed the petitioners, Ruffy returned to a busy programme of lectures, and once more he was sent west by the NCA: to Reading, Oxford, Cheltenham and Gloucester, and down through Wiltshire to Bath, Bristol and South Wales. After speaking at a meeting at Cinderford in the Forest of Dean, Ruffy was arrested for sedition, though nothing seems to have come of the charge and later that month he was back in Southwark addressing the Chartist Hatters’ Association at the Brown Bear Tavern (NS, 24 September 1842).

New directions

Ruffy’s name continues to be associated with Chartist activities into 1843, but there were now fewer meetings for him to address – and in any event, he had other things to do. That year he registered the United Patriots Benefit and Co-operative Society as a friendly society. Based in offices above the Commercial, Devon and Exeter Chop House at 59 Tottenham Court Road, it promised to insure its members against a range of misfortunes and events that might prevent them from earning their usual living.

Though benefits varied depending on the subscription paid, at its most basic level for 2 shillings a week a member and their family could expect to receive 9 shillings a week if they were ill, £12 for their funeral costs, or £6 in the event of their wife’s death, £1 10 shillings if their wife was lying in, and £3 if they needed to find a substitute for the militia.

Reports of meetings addressed by Ruffy began to divide into those in support of the Charter, and those promoting his friendly society; his name also appears in the lists of those making donations to Chartist good causes: for the veteran patriots, for the exiles’ widows and orphans (in support of the families of those transported for their Chartist activities), and for other individual cases. But by the end of 1847, Ruffy’s Chartist activities appear to have ceased.

Three years later he was back. Apparently invigorated by the NCA’s adoption of a socialist programme, he once again took to the platform. And when the National Charter League held its first meeting in opposition to the NCA Executive, Ruffy was there. As the meeting’s organisers later wrote in the Northern Star, the NCL’s founders were totally opposed to ‘connecting Socialism, or Communism, with the agitation for the People’s Charter’ and wanted ‘to inaugurate a movement, the policy of which would be in unison with their own notions of propriety’ (NS, 11 May 1850).

There was little propriety on show at the meeting, where amid ‘a storm of hissing, yelling, hooting, whistling, and imitation of cock crowing’, a large and noisy NCA faction proposed Ruffy Ridley as chairman.

The NCL’s founders complained in the Northern Star: ‘This person, whose real name we believe is Daniel Ruffy, and who has not been heard of in the Chartist movement for a long time past, and whose membership with it at the present time we very much doubt, commenced a vulgar and abusive tirade against the promoters of the League, charging them with every vile motive that can make each man’s conduct odious, much to the amusement of the truth-loving friends of fair play, who, unfortunately for the honour of a sacred cause, formed the majority of the audience.’

The rise and fall of Daniel William Ruffy
Ruffy’s benefits societies advertised in the Northern Star (2 June 1849). Click for larger image.

Ruffy served in April 1851 as a delegate to the next NCA convention, but there is little further evidence of his political activity. But while Ruffy Ridley now stepped back into obscurity, Daniel William Ruffy was rather more in evidence.

To the benefits society formed in 1843, Daniel Ruffy had added a British Empire Freehold Land and Building Society which aimed to help its members build or buy their own homes. Both societies had a roster of radical MPs as patrons, led by the ubiquitous Thomas Slingsby Duncombe and Thomas Wakley, and with offices at 13 Tottenham Court, New Road. And the societies were evidently of some size. One advert claimed that in its first five years the benefits society had paid out £5,449 1s 4d in claims for sickness and superannuation, accouchements, funerals and loss by fire (Northern Star, 2 June 1849). Neither did Ruffy confine himself to the Chartist press: similar adverts could be found in the Carlisle Journal, Yorkshire Gazette, the Farmer’s Friend, and Building News. There was, too, a British Empire Permanent Emigration and Colonisation Society, which aimed to settle members on farms of not less than twenty-five acres each in ‘the Western States of America’.

By 1856, the benefits society alone had some 4,000 members and an income of between £4,000 and £5,000 a year. As its manager, Daniel Ruffy received 2 shillings a year for each member – a handsome salary of £400 a year. He may also have had an income from the building society. By comparison, at Chartism’s peak a few years earlier, Feargus O’Connor had paid the editor of the Northern Star an annual salary of £300, which was thought generous, and a working man might expect to earn around £75 in a good a year.

At  home, too, Daniel had cause to be content with his life. On 5 May 1853, Mary Ann had given birth to a son, who they named Mazzini Kossuth Ruffy, after the Italian and Hungarian revolutionary heroes.

In October 1856, however, Daniel Ruffy’s run of good fortune came to a juddering halt when he was arrested in his office after accounts books were found to be missing, and brought up in front of Marylebone’s magistrates charged with embezzling the benefits society. Though the allegation related to a single instance in which Ruffy was supposed to have over-claimed postage costs by £1, the society’s solicitor claimed that there were many more such bogus claims, amounting to £1,500 in total.

The allegations and the opening of the case against Ruffy were reported in some detail by both the London Evening Standard (21 October 1856) and Reynolds’s Newspaper (26 October 1856), and repeated endlessly in local newspapers across the country for weeks to come, many of which assumed his guilt had been established. Unfortunately no newspaper seems to have bothered to send a reporter to cover the second day of the trial – so when Ruffy was found not guilty and exonerated of all charges, his acquittal was not reported. The verdict is, however, documented in the court records3.

A new start in Australia

Ruffy’s reputation must have been left in tatters. Eighteen months later, he decided on a new start, and boarded a steamship bound for Australia. Ruffy arrived at Launceston, in Tasmania on 5 May 1858 (The Courier, Hobart, 7 May 1858). It is interesting to speculate on whether he met up with William Cuffay, his former London Chartist ally who had been transported to Hobart some years earlier, but there is no evidence for this. However, Ruffy did not stay long: and a month later he was on his way to Melbourne on board the steam ship Royal Shepherd (The Courier, Hobart, 14 June 1858).

It was not Ruffy’s first time in Melbourne. But Ruffy evidently now found the town to his taste, and soon began attending and speaking at meetings of the Labour League of Victoria (The Age, Melbourne, 2 April 1859; The Argus, Melbourne, 13 May 1859). Mary Ann and Mazzini joined him there in June 1859, and the family set up home at Argyle Place in Carlton. Ruffy also appears to have found work as master of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne – a huge building capable of holding an audience of 3,000 people and attracting international stars, including Edwin Booth and Lola Montès.

Probate record for England. He may have left estate in Australia separately. Click for larger image.

But in April 1861, the Ruffy family’s pleasant new life came a sudden end when Daniel returned home from work to find Mary Ann fallen dead in the yard of their house (The Age, Melbourne, 13 April 1861). She had, he said, seemed quite well when he left that morning. The coroner found that she had died of heart disease at the age of just 40. Daniel William Ruffy did not long outlive her, succumbing to phlebitis six months later on 17 October.

Ruffy is buried in a common grave at Melbourne General Cemetery. Ruffy’s son by his first marriage, inherited less than £300 from him. However, he may also have owed him a good start in his working life, as probate records note that Christopher was a clerk at the Friend in Need Life and Sick Assurance Society – established and managed by Thomas Martin Wheeler, another of Ruffy’s old London Chartist comrades from the 1840s.

Notes and sources
Click for larger image.

1. Daniel Ruffy was directly descended on his father’s side from Huguenot refugees. In the part family tree (right), based on Ancestry data, Ruffy’s great-grandmother Marie Freemont was born at Lintot in Normandy; and his great-great-grandparents Jean Ruffy and Catherine Lardant were born at nearby Luneray sur Seine.

2. London Chartism: 1838-1848 by David Goodway (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

3. UK After-Trial Calendar of Prisoners, Middlesex, 1856. Via Ancestry (accessed 20 December 2023).

UK newspapers cited above are from the British Newspaper Library; Australian newspapers are from Trove.