Great meeting of Scottish delegates 1839

This page looks at the Great Meeting of Scottish Delegates held in Glasgow on 14-16 August 1839 to reorganise Chartism in Scotland.

In the lead up to the first Chartist Convention, the moderate Edinburgh Chartists had taken the lead in ensuring that delegates from Scottish associations were firmly committed to peaceful means of achieving the Charter.

But the brutal way in which the authorities were seen to have policed the Convention, using London metropolitan police to confront Chartists on the streets after its move to Birmingham, undermined the authority of the Edinburgh leadership.

By mid 1839, the more radical Glasgow Chartists in the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association were coming to the fore. The Chartists of Glasgow had been more successful in collecting signatures to the petition, they had contributed more to the National Rent set up to fund the movement, and the trade unionists who formed the backbone of the city’s Chartist movement were proving to be effective organisers and propagandists.

The emergence of Glasgow as the centre of Chartist influence was reinforced by the launch of the Scottish Patriot newspaper on 6 July 1839.

Unexpectedly, the city’s pre-eminence was also boosted by fears over the confrontational approach now being taken by the Convention in Birmingham. Concerned about a proposed “national holiday” (or general strike) on 12 August, a number of smaller local Chartist groups turned to Glasgow for advice. The Glasgow leadership advised against active participation, and in the event the day was to pass peacefully.

In the mean time, the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association had circulated the main Scottish Chartist bodies to ask whether they favoured a delegate conference to discuss the ways in which the movement could be organised in Scotland. Forty-nine of the 50 respondents said yes, and 40 of these (including those from Edinburgh) favoured holding it in Glasgow.

The delegate meeting was duly summoned to take place in Glasgow on 14 August, 1839. Feargus O’Connor travelled north to represent the General Convention in Birmingham, and Mr Mason from Newcastle was appointed delegate for the Northern Political Union.

The Scottish delegate conference met at the Universalist Church in Dovehill. Fifty-two delegates were present for the opening. Late arrivals boosted their number so that eventually at least 84 towns and villages were represented by 64 delegates.

John Duncan, a newsagent and small shopkeeper who had played a leading role in the Edinburgh and Midlothian Universal Suffrage Association, was elected to the chair, and it was agreed that there should be a Central Committee of 15 which would meet monthly, and an executive of seven which would meet weekly. The general secretary, Thomas Gillespie, would be paid, and funds would be raised from district associations to pay for lecturers and print costs.

When the conference dispersed on 16 August 1839, it had firmly cemented the leadership of the Glasgow Chartists. Of those elected to the central committee, only Duncan lived more than five or six miles from the centre of the city. Six were directors of the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association.

Information for this page was drawn mainly from The Chartist Movement in Scotland, by Alexander Wilson (Augustus M Kelley, 1970) and the Address to the Chartists of Scotland from the Great Meeting of Scottish Delegates (Chartist Circular, 1839).