material culture

Feargus O’Connor liberation medal

Made in a soft white metal and now dulled with age, but probably gleaming bright when new, the medal shown here was struck to mark the release of the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor from imprisonment in York Castle, in August 1841, where he had served 15 months for seditious libel.

Liberation medal, obverse. Click for larger image.

Approaching the peak of his influence in the movement and with his rival for the leadership, William Lovett, sidelined, the newly liberated O’Connor was at the centre of the Chartist cause – an iconic figure whose liberty was an opportunity for monster meetings and pageantry. And with planning for the second great Chartist petition already under way, the ‘O’Connor Liberation Medal’, as the Northern Star referred to it (21 August 1841) provided a powerful piece of visual propaganda – a step up from the print portraits of radical heroes with which the paper had previously rewarded its subscribers.

The intention was that, with the issue of 13 November that year, all those who had subscribed since at least 21 September would receive a medal. Anticipating heavy postage costs, the Star urged ‘all friends’ visiting Leeds between mid October and 1 November to call in to collect their area’s allocation of medals from the paper’s offices. This ‘splendid’ medal, the Stardeclared, would be ‘much larger than either the Northern Union or even the Birmingham Union medals’.

Although the promised date of 13 November came and went without further mention of the medal, the following week’s Northern Star announced that ‘on Saturday next, each Birmingham subscriber will receive a medal’ (NS, 20 November 1841). Subscribers elsewhere would receive theirs in the weeks to come – a process which eventually stretched into the new year as the unnamed ‘medallist’ told the Star he needed more time to pack up the numerous parcels for despatch.

Liberation medal, reverse. Click for larger image.

Wisely anticipating conflict between agents and readers, the Starannounced: ‘In order to obviate all complaints, it is to be observed that the price of paper and medal will be 61/2d, and no alteration will be made in the price to agents – thus they will have no reason for charging more than the specified price.’ This was just 2d more than the paper’s usual price, so the whole project must have been a significant drain on the paper’s finances – even if it led to an increase in subscriptions.

The medals were clearly well received. One reader, signing themselves ‘A Woolwich cadet’, wrote in to suggest that it should be worn ‘at all public occasions, meetings and soirees’ (NS, 8 January 1842). He continued: ‘I have had a small hole drilled just above O’Connor’s head (for I should consider it a sacrilege to suffer a hair of his head to be injured, either in the semblance or reality) large enough to admit of a silver wire, forming a ring, to which a ribbon might be attached. I would further suggest that it may be worn round the neck, and that an English Chartist should wear a navy-blue ribbon, an Irishman one of emerald green, and the Scotch a plaid.’

Although the suggestion provoked a heated debate over the rights and wrongs of medal-wearing (‘a badge of voluntary slavery’, one reader declared), the practice appears to have been widely followed. Several surviving examples of the medal have a hole as described and are battered and dented through years of wear. And at least one Chartist would carry his medal around his neck and close to his heart for decades to come. Though still only a boy at the time the medal was issued, the Manchester Chartist and lifelong radical William Henry Chadwick, who had been arrested in 1848 aged just 19 and who would go on to work for both the Liberals and subsequently the nascent Labour Party, was said to have worn his ‘constantly’ up until his death in 1908.

The medallion featured on this page is in the collection of Mark Crail, who runs the Chartist Ancestors website. There are copies in a number of collections, including that of the People’s History Museum in Manchester. A version of this article first appeared on the website of the Society for the Study of Labour History.