Born in Ireland and among the most prominent radical intellectuals of his age, James Bronterre O’Brien became known as the ‘schoolmaster’ of Chartism. But by the 1840s he was out of sympathy with the mainstream of the movement. Like so many others who dedicated their lives to their political cause, he would die in poverty, but his ideas and reputation lived on for future generations.
James O’Brien was born in 1805 at Granard in County Longford. His father, Daniel, a wine merchant, died when he was just two years old, but James was sent to a local parochial school, and then to a model school at Edgeworthstown, seven miles away, from where he was able to gain a place at Trinity College Dublin. O’Brien distinguished himself academically before graduating in 1829. He went on to study for the bar at King’s Inns, Dublin, transferring to Gray’s Inn, London, the following year, where he intended to qualify for the English bar. A successful and prosperous career beckoned.
In the capital, however, he soon came into contact with radical politics. O’Brien joined Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt’s Radical Reform Association, which sought universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot and annual parliaments, and here he entered into the orbit of the leading London radicals, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave, William Lovett, and James Watson. Through them he became active in the campaign for the repeal of stamp duty on newspapers (‘the taxes on knowledge’), and published his first known article, ‘A political mirror’, in the unstamped Political Letters (7 January 1831). O’Brien signed it with the nom de plume ‘Bronterre’, and thereafter adopted this as a middle name.
With a growing reputation as a political theorist, speaker and writer, O’Brien soon took on the editorship of Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, the most prominent of the unstamped newspapers, helping to burnish its reputation with his lucid writing and the powerful logic of his arguments.
In November 1834, O’Brien married Sophia St John Bannister, the eldest of four daughters born to a London jeweller, Thomas Bannister, and his wife Ann (nee St John), at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury. He gave his address as Gray’s Inn, suggesting he was still at this stage practising law, and though O’Brien’s parents had been Catholics, he married ‘according to the rights of the Established Church’, the Church of England. O’Brien himself advocated the disestablishment of the Church. He was also one of the few future Chartists at this stage to qualify for a parliamentary vote. His name is recorded on the City of London Electoral Register in 1835 at his Chambers address, One Fig Court.
O’Brien continued to work on various radical newspapers throughout the 1830s, during which time he developed his political ideas, strongly influenced by those of the French revolutionary ‘Gracchus’ Babeuf, who had been executed in 1796 following his involvement in the Conspiracy of Equals. As a fluent French speaker (he would, in a future census return, describe himself as a ‘professor of languages’), O’Brien was able to translate many works of the time, though the second part of his planned two-volume biography of Robespierre never reached publication. O’Brien also communicated his enthusiasm for the French Revolution to George Julian Harney, another of Hetherington’s employees – though Harney would take rather different lessons from it.
Bronterre, as he was now widely known, was elected at an early date to membership of the London Working Men’s Association. Enthusiastic about the prospects for radicalism in London, he declared in his report on the 4,000-strong public meeting of February 1837 that adopted the LWMA’s programme:
‘Lift up your democratic heads my friends! Look proud and be merry. I was at a meeting on Tuesday night which does one’s heart good to think on. I have been present at all sorts of political meetings, Whig, Tory and Radical, but never was it my good fortune to witness so brilliant a display of democracy as that which shone forth at the Crown and Anchor on Tuesday night. I often despaired of Radicalism before; I will never despair again after what I witnessed on that occasion’ (London Mercury, 4 March 1837).
But he left both the LWMA and London after a row with the Irish politician Daniel O’Connell, and moved north to join Feargus O’Connor, taking his journalistic talents to the Northern Star. As a member of the First Chartist Convention, representing Manchester, O’Brien was ambivalent about the use of arms in pursuit of the Charter, initially advocating the use of force, but moderating his views as the convention went on when it appeared to him that such a policy lacked widespread support in the country. In common with O’Connor, he opposed the call for a general strike.
Despite this, after the Newport Rising at the end of 1839, O’Brien was among the many local and national leaders arrested and put on trial. In April 1840, he was convicted at Liverpool Assizes of sedition and imprisoned at York Castle for the next eighteen months. Sophia and their growing family were in dire financial straits, and for a time they were given small sums by the Northern Star. In July 1841, however, O’Brien broke with O’Connor over the latter’s determination to support Tory candidates at the coming general election in order to damage the Whigs. Bronterre favoured running Chartist candidates.
Following his release from prison, Bronterre resumed his political activism and journalism. But as a long-time supporter of land nationalisation, he became further estranged from O’Connor and mainstream Chartism over the land plan. In 1844 Bronterre relocated his family to the Isle of Man, where he was able to publish his own National Reformer and Manx Weekly Review of Home and Foreign Affairs free of stamp duty. He would return to England in time to join the agitation leading up to the third petition for the Charter in 1848, but spoke strongly against any use of force to achieve it, and resigned from the Convention shortly before its presentation to Parliament. He was thereafter largely outside Chartism.
Bronterre did not altogether give up politics, however; in 1849, with the support of the editor, author and newcomer to Chartism G.W.M. Reynolds, he launched the National Reform League. Although this never achieved very much, it did at least endure until 1869, drawing in a new generation of radicals, among them the future secularist Liberal MP. Charles Bradlaugh. Bronterre continued to teach, write and speak on a variety of topics in the face of mounting ill-health, but these provided little income to the family, and in the years before his death Bronterre’s friends had to organise a testimonial fund.
Bronterre died on 23 December 1864 at his home at 20 Hermes Street, Pentonville (National Reformer, 1 January 1865). He is buried at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington; a memorial paid for by his friends bears the epitaph, ‘His life was grand. His death was sad and drear.’
But Bronterre was not forgotten. His enduring commitment to class politics and suspicion of alliances with middle class politicians, though out of fashion in the latter years of his life, continued to define the O’Brienites and their successors. His ideas, especially on land nationalisation, lived on through the Land and Labour League, in which his friends were prominent, and in the First International in the 1860s. And eventually, his principles would prove influential in the emerging socialist movements of the 1880s, providing a bridge between Chartist radicalism and the new socialist parties. But Bronterre’s rejection of insurrection also appealed to the Fabian wing of the later socialist movement, providing him with a legacy among a wider political constituency.
In recent years, there have been a number of gatherings at Bronterre’s graveside to commemorate his life and ideas.
Sources and further reading
James (Bronterre) O’Brien (1804-1864), by W.H. Mahler, Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals (Brighton, 1984), II, 375-83.
O’Brien, James (‘Bronterre’) Dictionary of Irish Biography. Available here.
O’Brien, James (1805-1864), by Graham Wallas, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Vol.41. The text of this entry can be found here, on the blog of historian and journalist Andrew Whitehead.
History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, by R.G. Gammage (second edition, 1894), (Augustus M. Kelley, Reprints of Economic Classics, 1969).
Bronterre: A Political Biography of Bronterre O’Brien, 1804-1864, by Alfred Plumber (Allen & Unwin, 1971).
Radicalism and Reputation: The Career of Bronterre O’Brien, by Michael J. Turner (Michigan State University Press, 2017).