life stories

Frederic Riddle, 1815 – 1875

When a little known portrait artist named Frederic Riddle died in 1875, an obituary in Charles Bradlaugh’s secularist National Reformer declared that ‘in him liberty has lost one of its best apostles’ (4 July 1875)1. Today, Riddle lies buried ‘close to his hero James Bronterre O’Brien‘ in Abney Park Cemetery.

Frederic’s father Joseph Brimble Riddle had been born in 1771 into a Quaker family in Bristol; in 1802, however, at the age of 31, he was baptised into the Church of England – and the following year married Maria Brimble, perhaps, given the shared name, a cousin. A commercial agent and merchant based in the Old Market Street, Joseph is listed in an 1830 poll book as a ‘bacon factor’.

Frederic himself was born in 1815. One of eight children, his older brother Joseph Esmond Riddle (1804-59) would become a noted Church of England clergyman and classical scholar, with an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Frederic, however, aspired to be an artist.

The 1841 census, two years after the death of his father, shows Frederic lodging with the family of Robert Hazard, a confectioner. And later that same year in Bath, he married Emily Eve, the daughter of another confectioner, Henry Hale Eve. Emily was two years younger than her new husband; her mother Elizabeth had died in 1833, and her father remarried in 1839. Both partners, it seems, came from relatively comfortable backgrounds.

As a young man, Riddle had been, it has been suggested, a Chartist2, although his involvement is unclear. Having been in Bath and Bristol at the end of the 1830s, however, he must surely have encountered Henry Vincent, Chartism’s great orator and proprietor-editor of the Western Vindicator.

The newly married Riddles swiftly moved to London, where Frederic hoped to make a living as a portrait painter, and Emily became a teacher – an occupation which probably did more to help pay the bills. By 1861, Frederic, Emily and their six children, along with Emily’s cousin Laura, and Laura Wells, their doubtless overworked ‘general servant’, were to be found living at a ‘ladies’ school’ run by Emily on Dalston Hill in Hackney.

It is possible that Frederic became involved in the long-running National Reform League, founded by James Bronterre O’Brien in 1850; he was certainly active in its organisational and ideological successor, the Land and Labour League. Founded in 1869 by trade unionist members of the First International, among them George Odger, Martin Boon and Patrick Hennessy, and with the involvement of Bradlaugh, the League advocated the nationalisation of land and, with its newspaper The Republican, placed itself at the centre of a working-class republican network in London.

Unlike many others in republican circles, however, Riddle may have rejected secularism and retained the religious faith in which he grew up. The historian Royden Harrison, in his Before the Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics, 1861-1881 (Routledge, 1965), says in a single passing mention of Riddle that he ‘turned to scriptural authority’ to justify his politics.

Masthead from the front page of The Republican newspaper, which named Frederic Riddle in issues of 1871
Masthead of The Republican, March 1871. Click for larger image.

There are just two mentions of Riddle in The Republican, both in 1871. The first, a report of a meeting of the Land and Labour League at the Bell Inn, Old Bailey ‘for the purpose of electing officers for the ensuing year’, declares that ‘Mr Riddell’ was elected as secretary3. Despite the difference in spelling, this must surely be the same man. The second, a report of the League’s ‘third half-yearly report’ names Frederic Riddle as joint secretary4.

By this time, however, Riddle must have been despairing of making much of a living from his art. The 1871 census describes him,  in a rare combination of careers, as an ‘artist and accountant’. The family now lived in Stoke Newington, but no longer had a live-in servant. Frederic Riddle died on 21 June 1875 at his home, 35 Spurstowe-road, Hackney, leaving an estate worth less than £100.

Riddle probably played relatively little part in Chartism at its height. But as an admirer of James Bronterre O’Brien, and an active member of the later bodies in which Bronterre was influential, he helped ensure the transmission of important O’Brienite ideas on land ownership and republicanism to the socialist organisations that would emerge after his death.

Sources and further reading
1. Frederic Riddle, National Reformer, p.15, 4 July 1875.
2. ‘”The Old Chartist”: Radical Veterans on the Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Political Platform’, by Antony Taylor, in History, 95(4): 320, October 2010. Accessed here, 25 August, 2023.
3. ‘Land and Labour League’, The Republican, p4, 1 March 1871.
4. ‘The third half-yearly report of the Land and Labour League’, The Republican, p.8, 1 September 1871.

Note: The Republican is digitised and accessible through the British Newspaper Archive (subscription).