life stories

Ernest Jones, 1819-1869

Born on 25 January 1819 into a well-connected family, Ernest Jones spent much of his childhood in Berlin, returning to England in 1838 and not becoming involved in Chartism until 1846. In a few short years, however, the aristocratic latecomer would become the loyal lieutenant of the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, and later his successor at the head of the movement.

For many decades, Jones enjoyed a considerable reputation among historians for his personal integrity and political abilities. To some extent, his reputation stood higher than could perhaps be justified, for four main reasons:

Ernest Jones, ‘from a woodcut’: picture used by R.G. Gammage in his History of the Chartist Movement. Click for larger image.
  • He survived long enough into the post-Chartist era to protect his reputation, on one occasion successfully taking his former Chartist comrade the newspaper publisher GWM Reynolds to court over allegations of financial impropriety;
  • He died at a relatively young age, when he was on the verge of becoming an MP, allowing his supporters to cast him in the role of a lost leader (think Hugh Gaitskell or John Smith more recently);
  • He was not Feargus O’Connor, and as O’Connor’s effective successor could be compared favourably on all occasions with him by the many who took against O’Connor in his lifetime or, later, when writing the early histories of the Chartism; and
  • He was Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ favourite Chartist. The two often went out of their way to praise him in their journalism, standing him in good stead with a future generation of Marxist historians.

In recent years, historians have somewhat revised their opinion of Jones as a political leader and a man. There is certainly sufficient ammunition if you look for it, not least over financial matters.

In 1851, when Jones split the National Charter Association by forming his own Manchester-based executive in opposition to the properly elected London-based body, he left the working men in London facing a debt of £30 – a huge sum for men who would have earned a few shillings a week. The London executive spent a year raising the money to meet the NCA’s commitments, with the likes of John Arnott, James Grassby, John Bezer and Robert le Blond contributing the lion’s share. Even George Julian Harney gave a few shillings, while Jones contributed nothing.

Meanwhile, Jones borrowed £50 from a commercial lender to keep his People’s Friend newspaper going. Thomas Martin Wheeler, a former NCA general secretary and activist, agreed to act as surety. Some years later, in 1858, Jones defaulted, having repaid just £10, leaving Wheeler to be confined in a debtor’s prison. Again, it was the London Chartists who came to the rescue by raising funds to free him, while Jones was alleged to have tried to suppress the news of what had happened.

All that can be said in Jones’s favour in matters such as this is that he genuinely did not have any money of his own. Jones did, though, came from distinctly aristocratic stock. He was born in Berlin, where his father Major Charles Jones was equerry to the Duke of Cumberland, later to become King of Hanover, and attended highly exclusive German schools, not returning to England until 1838, where he was reported to be a regular visitor to the court of the young Queen Victoria.

Jones married and began to publish poetry while studying law, and was called to the bar in 1844. Soon after, however, he appears to have abandoned his interest in the law and become involved in Chartism. He burst onto the national scene in 1846, when he appeared in the offices of the Northern Star brandishing his poems and was taken up by O’Connor, who published his work and endorsed Jones as a candidate to that year’s Chartist convention.

Jones repaid the favour at the convention when he successfully moved a resolution for the expulsion of Thomas Cooper, the prominent Leicester Chartist who had criticised O’Connor’s financial stewardship of the Chartist land plan. Not surprisingly, Jones swiftly became one of O’Connor’s most trusted lieutenants.

Jones was undoubtedly genuine in his commitment to Chartism, and his excitable speeches became a feature of Chartist meetings.  Writing his obituary some years later, the Manchester Weekly Times (30 January 1869) claimed that he

“probably attended more meetings and delivered more lectures, from the time of his entering political life, up to the present, than any man now living; and it is recorded that he never would accept payment for this labour”.

In 1848, however, Jones fell foul of the law when he delivered a speech on 4 June to a gathering of 15,000 at Bishop Bonner’s Fields in London which appeared to incite revolution. He concluded with:

“Only organise and you will see the green flag [of Chartism] floating over Downing Street. Let that be accomplished, and [the United Irishmen’s leader] John Mitchell shall be brought back again to his own country [from Australia where he had been deported], and Sir G Grey and Lord John Russell shall be sent out to exchange places with them.”

Charged with sedition, he was sentenced to two years’ solitary confinement. For 19 months he was allowed neither pen nor paper, his obituarist later recalled; he was “confined in a small cell 13 feet by 6, in utter solitude, varied only by a solitary walk in a small high-walled prison yard”. Despite these privations, Jones managed to write a great deal of his best poetry while in prison.

Ernest Jones

After his release, Jones was able to resume his involvement with Chartism, launching The People’s Paper. Having missed much of the most acrimonious fall-out from the events of 1848, he was able to quietly distance himself from the now increasingly erratic O’Connor without being seen to criticise his former mentor.

After 1851, when Jones established a new National Charter Association in Manchester, effectively seizing total control of the movement, he launched numerous initiatives to arrest the decline and revive its fortunes, but to little avail. In 1858, he finally concluded that Chartism was dead, threw in his lot with the Radicals, and resumed his legal practice.

Ten years later, with his reputation as a barrister now made, Jones was the Liberal candidate in Manchester in the first general election following the extension of the franchise in the 1867 Reform Act. However, a cold became pleurisy after he unwisely left his sick bed to address an election meeting, and within days of his final public appearance, Jones was dead at the age of just 50.

There is little doubt that he would have become an MP. An indicative ballot, conducted as a trial run for the introduction of secret balloting in 1872 (one of the six points of the Charter) had produced a strong showing, and news of the result was relayed to Jones on his death bed. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people attended Jones’s funeral, which is often described as the last great Chartist gathering. He was buried at Manchester’s Ardwick Green Cemetery.