Launched in 1838, the Great Northern Union attempted to unite radical organisations across Yorkshire and Lancashire. But without any form of central co-ordination or resources of its own, it mostly served to build Feargus O’Connor’s status as the leader of the Chartist cause.
After the successful launch of the Northern Star at the tail end of 1837, Feargus O’Connor saw the potential for radicalism in the North of England – and especially in Yorkshire – to be a more coherent and better connected movement than it had ever been.
Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and Hull had proved fertile ground the previous summer when London radicals John Cleave and Henry Vincent were sent North to establish working men’s associations on the same model as the London Working Men’s Association that was now working on its proposed People’s Charter, and new organisations were established in a number of towns.
With his own popularity boosted by the Northern Star’s reporting of his speeches, O’Connor moved to put himself at the head of a new Great Northern Union.
The first mention in print of the proposed new body came in March 1838, when the Northern Star informed readers that, ‘Mr O’Connor has been busily engaged in making arrangements for the formation of the great Northern Union’ (NS, 24 March 1838, p6). It continued: ‘We understand that branches will be established in all the principal towns and leading villages, and that 10,000 splendid medals are about to be ordered as the badge of membership, one of the mottos being, “The United Friends of Freedom”.’
Within a month, O’Connor was able to outline his plans to a meeting of the Leeds Working Men’s Association. Speaking for more than two hours, he declared that he had pledges from ‘nearly every town in Yorkshire and Lancashire to send delegates to Leeds; there to remain and deliberate for four days or longer, if need be upon the condition of the people, their just complaints and the most efficacious mode of remedying them’. This gathering, he said, would draw up ‘a new constitution, suitable for the times we live in’ and would then carry it into effect (NS, 28 April, 1838, p5).
O’Connor went on to say that he was ‘tired of spending his time and money in the cause of cowards’ and that the Leeds Branch of the new body should cost its members nothing. ‘His, Mr O’Connor’s, industry, should supply most of the funds, and those of the wealthier class who profess to admire our Politics, but never assist us, should pay the remainder’. With that, George White, one of the founder members of the Leeds WMA, was called to the chair, and a committee appointed to draw up objects, rules and regulations for the Great Northern Union.
The committee duly reported back with objectives that included universal male suffrage, but the organisational arrangements remained elusive. The medals promised as membership tokens in place of membership cards became a reality (a portrait of O’Connor on the front), but there was no great convention in Leeds or anywhere else in the North of England. In reality, local radical bodies simply continued as before, changing their names and, in effect, declaring their allegiance to O’Connor’s personal authority. The historian Malcolm Chase called the GNU a ‘loose affiliation’, noting that ‘even “federation” would be too strong’ (Chartism: A New History, 2007).
The public launch of the Great Northern Union took place at ‘a splendid meeting of the working classes’ on Hunslet Moor, to the south of Leeds, on 5 June. With the exception of O’Connor, the platform line-up was notably working class. Among those called on to speak were George White, a woolcomber by trade; the trade unionist William Rider; the Elland shoemaker Abram Hanson; and the Birmingham tool-maker John Collins. When the meeting ended, the vote of thanks ‘was carried by a shout of applause which rent the air, and a waving of hats which literally darkened the atmosphere, the thousands declaring that they would follow Feargus to the death’ (NS, 9 June, 1838, p8).
The hostile Leeds Mercury, in contrast, reported that ‘the much-puffed meeting on Hunslet Moor on Tuesday, to form a “Great Northern Union,” was an utter failure. Speakers had been fetched from Birmingham, from Barnsley, and from Elland, but of the 150,000 inhabitants of our own borough only a few hundreds of idle people repaired to the moor, nearly all of whom went from barren curiosity, or were attracted by the two bands of music sent out to gain recruits!’ (Leeds Mercury, 9 June 1838, p4).
Later in the summer, the Northern Star claimed that the Great Northern Union had more than 50,000 members (NS, 4 August 1838, p4), with a new radical association formed as a branch of the Union in Carlisle adding a further 2,000 to their number (NS, 25 August, 1838, p3). They were soon joined by the already well-established Bradford Radicals, who voted unanimously both to join the Union and to adopt the National Petition (NS, 15 September 1838).
The Great Northern Union continued to hold meetings throughout the autumn to adopt first the Petition, then the Charter, and then the delegates they wished to send to the proposed General Convention of the Industrious Classes in the spring of 1839. The most significant of these was the ‘Great Demonstration’ and West Riding Meeting held on Hartshead Moor 15 October. Here, in a natural amphitheatre, vast numbers marched in from Bradford, Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds, each contingent with its bands and banners, to endorse the Charter and Petition, and to elect Feargus O’Connor, William Rider and Laurence Pitkeithly as their delegates to the Convention. The historian Mark Hovell wrote: ‘Hartshead Moor was like a fair, a hundred huts being erected for the sale of food and drink. The Chartists declared that half a million people were present: a soberer estimate divides that number by ten. It was a fiery meeting. Everybody talked about arms, O’Connor upon the virtues of tyrannicide’ (The Chartist Movement, 1918).
The following spring, the focus of attention moved from the North to London and then Birmingham as the Convention took place and the first petition was presented and duly rejected by Parliament. In the crackdown which followed the Newport rising and abortive attempts at insurrection in Bradford, the Great Northern Union disintegrated and radical organisation went underground. Malcolm Chase wrote: ‘After three arrests in Barnsley, the GNU branch seriously considered burning its membership and minute books to avoid incriminating anyone (instead it hid them – it was March 1840 before it was considered safe to retrieve them.’ And by then, with Feargus O’Connor in prison, a new form of political organisation was envisaged: on 20 July 1840, a Manchester conference inaugurated the most significant of all the Chartist organisations – the National Charter Association.