life stories

Joseph Williams, 1809-1849

Joseph Williams was imprisoned in 1848 after speaking at a series of meetings at Clerkenwell Green and Bishop Bonner’s Fields in east London. He died in prison the following year, murdered, said the Chartist movement. This is the story of one of the Bethnal Green Chartist Martyrs.

Joseph Williams was ‘a short stout man’, a journeyman baker, East-ender and long-standing Chartist activist, well known for his impetuous and incendiary speeches – so much so that some in his curtailed lifetime thought he might be an agent provocateur. As events turned out, it became decisively clear in the summer of 1849 that this was not the case.

Born in April 1809, Joseph’s father William Williams was a shoemaker – this much we know with some certainty. Most likely, he was the Joseph Williams baptised at St Andrew, Holborn, on 27 January 1811, and whose parents William and Susanna lived in Leather Lane. Though shoemakers were often radicals, there is no evidence that William Williams was politically active, and it would appear that Joseph first became involved in London radicalism in the mid-1830s, when he would have been in his twenties.

Williams, it seems, had been associated with the campaign led by leading London radicals William Lovett and Henry Hetherington in opposition to stamp duty on newspapers (the ‘tax on knowledge’) and in the National Union of the Working Classes, where he came across the ideas of the French revolutionary Babeuf. As the Chartist journalist Edmund Stallwood, who may have known Williams throughout this time, would later say in his graveside oration: ‘Mr Williams being by trade a baker, and of an impetuous temperament, and a daily witness of the sufferings of his fellow-men it was no wonder that he at once became a thorough-determined strong political and social reformer.’

Along with George Julian Harney, Charles Neesom and the Polish-Lithuanian émigré Bartlomiej Beniowski, Williams was an early member of the East London Democratic Association, founded in January 1837, and played his part in the struggle for Chartist supremacy in London between the London Democrats and the London Working Men’s Association.

The Democratic Association failed to gain any of the London seats at the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention) when it met in February 1839, to co-ordinate the presentation of the first petition to Parliament and organise subsequent ‘ulterior measures’. But at a later meeting on Kennington Common, they succeeded in getting Williams elected as delegate for East Surrey and Lambeth. The vote was swiftly overturned when it became apparent that his support had come largely from LDA members living in Finsbury, Marylebone and elsewhere.

Later, in January 1840, in the wake of the failed Newport rising, police raided a 600-strong meeting in the Trades Hall, Abbey Street, Bethnal Green, where they arrested a dozen men including Williams and Charles Neesom, and seized a quantity of arms. Rumours swirling around the capital since the previous summer had suggested plans for a Chartist rising in London were in train, with Williams, Neesom and Beniowski all set to play a prominent part. As with almost all such conspiracies, this one had been thoroughly riddled with police spies and been swiftly abandoned. Williams and the others were lucky to have all the charges against them dropped.

Little more would be heard of Joseph Williams until 1848, when he and a number of national figures in the movement, among them Ernest Jones and Philip M’Grath, turned up at a meeting on Kennington Common called independently by the journalist, writer and recent Chartist convert G.W.M. Reynolds. By midday on 13 March, a crowd some twenty thousand strong had gathered. Despite a large police presence, a small part of the crowd broke away and began to loot local shops. Having seen what such a crowd could do, and with the threat of anything up to half a million flocking to Kennington Common on 10 April, the authorities stepped up their preparations.

Williams was most likely present on that day – as most London Chartists would have been – but he does not appear in the record again until May when, as John Mitchel, editor of the United Irishman, went on trial in Dublin under the new Treason Felony Act, he was among the speakers at a series of meetings on Clerkenwell Green organised by London Chartists and Irish Confederates.

Williams addressed crowds of several thousand on 25, 26 and the evening of 29 May, when he is reported to have said:

‘My Friends, the bloody aristocracy has done its work at last… When I give you the signal I want you to fall into marching order four abreast and to follow me where I will lead you. I will then take you to a place where you will meet ten times as many people as are here and then you will be advised what to do.’

The crowd did as it was told, and followed Williams along Old Street and City Road to Finsbury Square, where they joined up with a second crowd some 3,000 strong that had started out from Stepney Green after being addressed by Ernst Jones and others. The joint procession, led by Williams, John Fussell and others, headed along Chiswell Street and Long Lane to Smithfield, through Holborn and Seven Dials to Leicester Square, and on through Dean Street, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square.

Frederick Town Fowler, a freelance reporter for The Times who was the principal witness at subsequent trials, claimed with confidence that the crowd was some 50,000 or 60,000 strong by this time, and could have been bigger. Leaving Trafalgar Square, the largely good-natured and peaceful crowd headed along the Strand and Fleet Street singing the Marseillaise and Chartist songs, and eventually back via Farringdon Street and Smithfield to Finsbury Square.

Though most of those who had joined in this show of strength now went home, some 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered outside Cartwright’s Coffee House in Redcross Street. ‘Do you think that Mitchel had a fair trial,’ asked Williams. ‘No’, shouted the crowd. ‘Do you think it necessary that we should have a Republican government?’ ‘Yes!’ When the City of London police moved in, the crowd fought back and efforts to disperse the gathering went on for some time before peace was restored, with fighting along Golden Lane. Stones, bricks, bottles, earthenware jugs and even an iron bowl were thrown at the police, and boiling water was poured down from the windows above.

After a series of further meetings over the next week, the police moved in and arrested many of those who had spoken from the platforms. Williams was charged with making seditious speeches at Clerkenwell Green on 25, 26 and 29 May, and imprisoned for two years at Tothill Fields Bridewell.

The forbidding walls of Tothill Fields Bridewell, painted 1850 by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.

Williams suffered in prison. For a month from May to June the following year he was in the prison infirmary suffering from an attack of rheumatism. And in July, he was caught hiding letters he had written to a fellow Chartist prisoner; for this and other ‘repeated acts of disobedience’ he was sentenced to solitary confinement and a punishment diet of bread and water. But there was more to come.

Like Alexander Sharp, sentenced alongside him, Williams was at first spared the hated work of oakum picking (the mind-numbing and painful task of separating strands of old rope by hand) on payment of a weekly fee of 5 shillings. This may have been an organised Chartist effort to spare him hard labour as Sharp, too, benefited from similar payments in the first months of his imprisonment. But when the money ran out in August 1849, the deputy governor ordered him to work.

Williams refused and on 26 August, he was again sentenced to solitary confinement and a restricted diet. But with an epidemic of cholera sweeping London and making inroads into Tothill Fields, he swiftly fell ill. A doctor prescribed medicines and more food, but despite being returned to a normal diet after six days, it is clear that Williams was still sick. And within a fortnight he was dead.

The Northern Star reported that Williams ‘horrible to relate, has left a wife and six children to mourn his loss’ (15 September, 1849).

The Chartist National Victim Committee which raised and distributed funds for those arrested and imprisoned sent two lawyers to the coroner’s inquest, which heard lengthy evidence from both prison warders and prison doctors which blamed Williams’ death on cholera, and his refusal take the medicines prescribed for him. His father, William Williams, however, told the hearing:

‘I saw the deceased on Wednesday last. I went into his cell. He appeared in a very low state. When I asked him how he was he did not answer for about a minute, when he said he was very ill from starvation. He told me he had suffered solitary confinement for six days/ Whilst I was there the attendant gave deceased about half a quartern of soda water, because he said he was sick. My son told me that they,” meaning the doctor and attendants, “told him he was suffering with cholera, but it was no such things, it was starvation and cold, and not cholera”.’

This was enough for the Northern Star to declare that Williams ‘was clearly brought to an untimely end by the prison discipline and diet of Tothill Fields House of Correction’. It declared him to be ‘one more martyr in the cause of freedom’.

Williams’s funeral took place on Sunday 16 September, the organisational details having been entrusted to ‘the firm of the political prisoner John Shaw and Co., of Gloucester-street, Commercial-road’, as the Northern Star reported (22 September, 1849). ‘At two o-clock Golden-lane, and the streets and other avenues leading thereto, were crowded with a dense mass of persons anxiously awaiting to pay the last tribute of respect to the man who had sacrificed his life at the shrine of principle’. And at 3.30pm the funeral cortege set off, the ‘dense body’ of mourners blocking the streets despite the fifty marshals appointed to clear the way.

Approximate route of Williams’ funeral procession – based on the description given in the Northern Star of 15 September 1849, and mapped onto Google Maps. With rebuilding over the years, the route shown here may not be exact. Note that the route taken from Golden Lane to Victoria Park Cemetery differs from that of Sharp’s funeral a week later.

Williams was to be buried at Victoria Park Cemetery, alongside Henry Hanshard, a young silk weaver who had been clubbed and killed by police during the events of May and June 1848; and they would be joined a week later by Williams’s fellow prisoner, Alexander Sharp.

The Star reported that a red pall of glazed calico hung over the hearse, on either side of which was inscribed ‘He asked for freedom with his breath / Merciless tyrants gave him death.’ And on the back of the hearse hung a similar pall with the words: ‘It is not Cholera, but Cold and Starvation / Joseph Williams.’ Ahead of it was carried ‘a huge tricoloured banner, inscribed on the one side, “Finsbury,” and on the reverse with the above words of “Joseph Williams.” The dead man’s wife, father, mother and other relatives followed immediately behind it in a coach, which was followed in turn by five cabs and ‘an immense concourse of persons’, sometimes four and sometimes six abreast.

The Star estimated that at least 20,000 people gathered to watch Williams committed to the deep grave at Victoria Park Cemetery, the substantial elm coffin in which he was buried carrying an inscription plate bearing his name and age. Thomas Clarke then spoke on behalf of the Chartist executive committee, before Edmund Stallwood, ‘at the request of the committee and the relatives of the deceased’ outlined Williams’s life story, during which he addressed head-on previous suggestions that Williams had been an agent provocateur: ‘Perhaps it is as well here to state that the ardent temperament of our friend has caused him to be regarded as a spy; but, surely, before such obloquy is thrown upon any one it would be well to examine the ground, and to remember that spies are generally well rewarded, whereas our departed friend Williams – no doubt from feeling deeply, and giving expression to his thoughts strongly – could, with difficulty, furnish forth the daily meal, and very rarely was in possession of a “Sunday suit,” his honest politics always keeping him poor.’

The mass gathering then unanimously adopted an address to the Queen, previously drawn up by the Chartist executive, that blamed the deaths of Williams and Sharp on cold and starvation rather than cholera. And it concluded with a hymn, composed by Mr Bentley of the Cripplegate locality, sung by all present to the tune of Base Oppressors:

Sons of Briton, one more martyr,
Sleeps the hero’s sleep of death;
He has died for freedom’s Charter –
Class-made laws have seized his breath;
By oppression and starvation,
In a prison he has died,
For declaring that a nation,
Class-rule, has a right denied

Safe from further goading malice,
Resting in the arms of death,
Echo through each gaol and palace,
Lies on, true to his last breath.
Tell them, sound the thrilling story,
That the twenty-ninth of May,
Near destroy’d their rule gory –
Williams – Williams led the way!

Triumph, bless his name respected:
Deaths like his do victors rise,
Labour’s price shall be protected,
Freedom’s shout shall rend the skies,
With appalling voice of thunder,
Whether gain’d by peace of war,
Merciless villains cease to plunder,
Man is man, and who is more?

There would also, in time, be a monument to the Bethnal Green Chartist Martyrs. But that is another story – told here.

Sources and further reading

‘The London Democratic Association 1837-41: A Study in London Radicalism’ by Jennifer Bennett in The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830-1860, edited by James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson, Macmillan, 1982.

London Chartism, 1838-1848, by David Goodway, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Copies of the Northern Star and Sun newspapers quoted above can be found in the British Newspaper Archive.

Baptismal and census records for Joseph Williams can be found on Ancestry.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online, July 1848, trial of Joseph Williams and William John Vernon (t18480703-1691)