material culture

Great Northern Union members’ medal, 1838

Front and back of the Great Northern Union members’ medal. Click for larger image.

Feargus O’Connor founded the Great Northern Union in 1838 as a means of co-ordinating radical activity throughout the industrial centres of Yorkshire and Lancashire. By happy coincidence, the new body also served to build O’Connor’s personal standing as the leader of the movement – an outcome that must have owed at least something to the medal shown here.

Thousands of Great Northern Union medals were cast that year and handed out as proof of membership – a definite and probably costly upgrade on the membership cards printed by most organisations before and since. This example, a little dulled by age, would when new have been bright silver – though in fact the medal is made of a fairly soft, cheap metal and would soon have lost its lustre.

It was 13/4 inches (42mm) in diameter – ‘larger than a crown piece’, as the Northern Star told its readers shortly before the medals arrived from the manufacturer (NS, 8 September 1838). On the front was a portrait of O’Connor, with the text, ‘Northern Union established by Feargus O’Connor Esq. 1838’, and at a much smaller size the initials RE, which may have been the manufacturer’s stamp. The addition of O’Connor’s image was either a relatively late addition, or at least one which no one thought to mention until September, some six months after they were first promised in March of that year. 

On the back were ‘The Five Great Principles of Radicalism’. These mirror the Six Points of the Charter, though without the demand for the payment of MPs, a relatively uncontroversial demand. The medal shown in the picture here is also pierced at the top so that it could be worn around the neck on a ribbon. This was often done by the individual owner rather than as part of the manufacturing process.

When the proposal was first announced, the Northern Star had told its readers that ‘10,000 splendid medals are about to be ordered as the badge of membership’ (NS, 24 March 1838). Later, as the paper awaited their delivery, editor William Hill promised that ‘the 1,600 ordered for Bradford shall be first attended to’ (NS, 22 September 1838), and within a fortnight, the branch was able to report that ‘about three hundred of the members received their medals’ at a public meeting in the Odd Fellows Hall (NS, 6 October).

Though the medals were cast in large numbers, there probably were not enough to give one each to the more than 50,000 members that the Great Northern Union claimed by the end of the summer. The price of 6d may have deterred many. But evidently their production and distribution went more smoothly than the publication of print portraits by the paper, which were frequently delayed and sometimes failed to appear as promised at all.

It is, too, probably a measure of the medals’ popularity that in the early days of their distribution, the Northern Star had to describe them, with a warning that, ‘None others constitute membership. We state this, as some imposition is being practised’ (NS, 6 October 1838). Evidently, even at a few pence a time, they were worth forgeing. But by December, with all attention on the collection of names for the First Chartist Petition, members who had undertaken to sell medals and membership were being asked to submit their accounts, and the money to go with them, to the Northern Star.

The medallion featured on this page is in the collection of Mark Crail, who runs the Chartist Ancestors website.