life stories

James Grassby

Joiner and carpenter from Hull who played a central role as a backroom organiser and administrator in the Chartist movement.

James Grassby (also Grasby) was involved in the Chartist movement at local and national levels almost throughout its history, first in Hull, where he lived and worked as a carpenter and joiner, and later in the capital, where he held numerous London and national roles in the National Charter Association and its offshoots.

Although never a publicly prominent figure or noted platform speaker, he played a central role behind the scenes in the organisation and administration of the Chartist movement and appears to have been an active participant in the numerous and often acrimonious debates about its political direction.

His name appears almost 200 times in the pages of the Northern Star in the 12 years from 1840 to 1852.

Grassby was born in Kingston-upon-Hull in 1805, and on 22 May 1831, at Holy Trinity Church, he married Mary West, the daughter of a Lincolnshire boat builder. They lived at various addresses around the town’s docks (evidenced from his children’s birth certificates) in the mid to late 1830s.

The first record of political activity comes from the letters page of the Northern Star in 1840, at which point he is secretary of the Hull Working Men’s Association and is embroiled in an acrimonious if now incomprehensible row with other local activists. He was Hull’s representative at an East and North Riding delegates meeting (Northern Star, 6 June 1842), and to the Manchester special delegate conference in of the same year.

The Manchester conference coincided with the great national strike that swept across the North and Midlands that summer, and Grassby was arrested and tried alongside Feargus O’Connor and 57 others at Lancaster for inciting riots, risings, strikes and other forms of disorder. He was one of those acquitted.

Grassby appears to have gone on the run between the conference and his trial. In its issue of 26 November 1842, the Northern Star notes that the Hull branch of the NCA was unable to produce a letter sent to its secretary James Grassby because it, “was destroyed along with Mr Grassby’s other papers by his wife after he left the district, on her learning that he was included in the ‘Conspiracy’ indictment”.

Soon after the trial, the family relocated to London. By 1845 at the latest, he was living at 8 Noah’s-ark court, Stangate. Today, St Thomas’s Hospital stands where Grassby once lived, but at the time it was a far from salubrious address. One account of the area notes:

“Over the last 200 years or so, it has been known as being a place of poor design, with bad housing and foul smells. Not even the construction of the Houses of Parliament on the opposite shore, or the building of one of the finest bridges in Europe, (Westminster Bridge) failed to redeem this ‘stinking shore-line’, with its rat infested tenements, and filthy boat yards.”

Over the next few years Grassby appears regularly in the Northern Star as a contributor to various causes and member of assorted committees in the capital, apparently allying himself with the Westminster Chartists just across the river rather than with the Lambeth branch.

Grassby was a supporter of the Land Company, his name listed among 70,000 subscribers in a register now held at the National Archives. The Northern Star of 11 March 1848 records his election as secretary of the Westminster Land Branch, in place of Thomas Pickersgill, who had been allocated an allotment at Minster Lovell.

Among other services to the movement, Grassby was:

  • A member of the committee appointed to raise funds for Eliza Ann Jones, the wife of the Newport Chartist William Jones;
  • Westminster’s delegate to the National Charter Association convention in Leeds in 1846;A member of the Democratic Refugee Committee set up to support and work with friendly political exiles from France, Germany and elsewhere;
  • Chair of a committee set up to organise a testimonial event for the pro Chartist MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe;
  • Secretary to a committee set up in 1848 with O’Connor as treasurer to raise £5,000 to build a “Metropolitan Democratic Hall”; and
  • Regularly listed in the Northern Star as selling tickets to Chartist social and political events, and as a personal contributor to its many good causes.

Following the Leeds convention, a National Central Registration and Election Committee was set up to co-ordinate Chartist interventions in parliamentary elections. Duncombe was invited to serve as its president; Grassby was elected secretary.

This was an important body which met weekly to deal with correspondence and provide advice to the localities, track MPs’ voting records to decide who to support and who to oppose, suggest suitable Chartist candidates and channel funds to those it wanted to support.

Hopes for the committee were high, with Feargus O’Connor predicting that the 1847 General Election could see the return of 20 to 30 “Duncombite” MPs. With little money and still less control over Chartist localities and candidates, the NCREC failed to deliver all that was anticipated. However, the 1847 general election did see the election of O’Connor in Nottingham and the return of nine radical-liberal MPs.

Grassby appears as one of five members of a committee “appointed by the late Chartist Convention… for aiding and succouring the aged and infirm veteran patriots, the wives or law-made widows of the expatriated friends of their country, and their orphans, and the victims of unjust, because unmerited, tyranny” (Northern Star, 1 January 1848).

He was also embroiled in the numerous minor disputes which characterised internal Chartist politics. In one such, reported on the front page of the Northern Star (12 February 1848) he was critical of the directors of the Land Plan.

“Mr Grassby replied to some of the points of Mr Cuffey’s speech. He complained that the Directors were occasionally running into the country lecturing, and that, too, in opposition to a vote of Conference – he thought it the duty of the branches to send the Directors word to obey the vote of Conference and stop in town, and attend to their business as Directors.”

The Directors replied that the comments “would be calculated to create in your minds a very unfavourable opinion of our attention to those important interests which you have committed to our care” and suggested that “indolence and pleasure-seeking at the Company’s expense are indulged in by the Directors”. On the contrary, they argued, the presence of the Directors when various problems arose in different parts of the country was “indispensible”.

“Mr Grassby may think this a very pleasurable sort of life, but if he had six months experience of it, he would, we think, be effectually cured of his error.”

During 1848, Grassby is listed as a speaker at a number of events in London, including a “tremendous gathering” at the “Circus of the National Baths” in Lambeth on 2 March where he spoke alongside George Julian Harney and O’Connor.

On the socialist left wing of Chartism, he was an early subscriber to the Red Republican and Friends of the People, and joined the Fraternal Democrats, becoming president and treasurer. He was also a prominent figure in “the trades”, representing the Running Horse Society of the carpenters’ union (named after the public house at which it met in Duke Street), and frequently representing the NCA in meetings with various trade unions.

The Northern Star (22 April, 1848) reports Grassby’s election by the Westminster and Marylebone branch as an alternate member of the Chartist National Assembly. After recording the election of Mr Vernon and Mr Childs to the substantive posts, the report goes on:

“The Chairman said the next business was of considerable importance. It was to elect two gentlemen to fill the vacancies that might be caused by the despotic hands of the government being laid, which was likely, upon their representatives Messrs Vernon and Childs. Messrs James Grassby and Churchill were nominated and elected to fill the ‘posts of danger’ should the original members of the National Assembly be arrested by the government on their first assembling, as anticipated.”

It goes on to say that the meeting adopted “a memorial to the Queen”, gave three cheers for the Charter, and dispersed. “The whole of the S division of police, under Superintendent Ferguson, were in the Albany-street station house, but their services were not required.”

It is not clear what part Grassby played in the events of 10 April 1848, but in the acrimonious inquests that followed, Cuffay and Grassby made clear that they had warned Feargus O’Connor against inflating the number of signatories to the petition (Northern Star, 2 December 1848). Again, whether Grassby played any part in the Orange Tree conspiracy that summer which led to Cuffay’s arrest is unclear. He did, however, escape Cuffay’s fate.

As secretary to the Westminster Branch of the National Charter Association, it was Grassby who inscribed the book of poems presented to the exiled Chartist William Cuffay after his transportation to Australia in 1849, and from the number of occasions on which the two men’s names appear together in reports in the Northern Star they must have known each other well.

Certainly, while Cuffay was in prison waiting to be transported, the Star reports that he asked for word to be got to Grassby so that he could organise financial help for him to start a new life in Australia.

This he duly did.

Grassby was elected to the National Charter Association executive on March 10 1849 in a by-election. After chairing a conference at the end of that year aimed at reorganising the Chartist movement, he was re-elected to the provisional and then permanent executives. As the NCA divided and sub-divided in 1851, Ernest Jones and others resigned their seats and called a conference to elect a new executive.

“The depleted Committee, foreseeing the worst, gave up its office at 14, Southampton Street, Strand; appointed Grassby its temporary honorary secretary in place of Arnott, and thenceforth held its meetings at his house at 96, Regent Street, Lambeth. The Committee was in debt for a sum of between £30 and £40, and honourably spent its last efforts in raising this amount — a feat which took about six months for its accomplishment.”
(From A History of the Chartist Movement by J C Squire & Julius West, published Houghton Mifflin, 1920).

Despite taking up the role of secretary on a temporary basis, Grassby was still in the role in 1852, still signing himself “secretary, pro tem” while reporting on the state of the gradually diminishing debt.

With his many commitments to the Chartist cause, it is difficult to see how Grassby can have continued to earn a living at his trade. He must have done so, however, as an advert in the Northern Star from 13 April 1850 shows.

The last mention of Grassby is as a subscriber to the Ingraham Testimonial Fund in 1853, a totally unrelated radical cause which, with James Arnott as its secretary, attracted the support of a large number of Chartists.

Unfortunately there is no further record of Grassby’s life or death, although his wife Mary moved to Glasgow at some point to live with her their eldest son, Charles, and her death, as the widow of a housebuilder (apparently his joinery business grew or diversified), is recorded there in 1879.