life stories

Matthew Fletcher, 1796 – 1878

Opponent of the New Poor Law, Bury GP and 1839 Convention delegate

matthew fletcher chartistMatthew Fletcher was Bury’s delegate to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention), and one of 12 delegates whose portrait (left) was drawn for The Charter newspaper.

Fletcher came to the First Chartist Convention with a distinguished record of opposition to the New Poor Law and workhouse system.

However, it was his opposition to the Rural Police Bill then before Parliament that brought him to wider public attention, when on 18 March 1839 he urged “every man to have a loaded bludgeon” with which to strike back at the police. Seeing this reported in the newspapers, he claimed that his views had been”garbled”.

Despite this bloodthirsty speech, by July of that year, Fletcher was urging delegates to attempt to win over the middle class. Mark Hovell, in his 1918 book The Chartist Movement, declares: “Poor Fletcher had had enough of Chartism.”

By October 1839, a truly alienated Fletcher was claiming that the Charter itself had been put up by supporters of the New Poor Law in order to divert opposition (Northern Star, 19 October 1839). He appears to have returned to Bury and settled into the life of a general practitioner, having nothing more to do with Chartism.

Fletcher can be found in the censuses of 1851, 1861 and 1871, in all of which he is described as a general practitioner. Curiously, in 1851, he is lodging with a small-scale foundry owner, Thomas Parkinson; however, in both 1861 and 1871, a widowed Dr Fletcher is at home in the town with his four grown-up daughters and a servant.

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Portraits of Delegates No. 5: Matthew Fletcher

In the delegate for Bury is to be found one of the few, but gratifying, instances in which the force of sympathy has induced men to come out from the narrow and privileged circle in which their fortunes have been cast, to espouse the cause and promote the interests of the less favoured and more suffering classes of their fellow men.

Mr Fletcher was born at Bury, in Lancashire, in the year 1796. He received his elementary and classical education under the direction of Mr Allard, a dissenting clergyman, at the Grammar School of his native town. He was apprenticed to Mr Goodland, a surgeon, who has acquired a considerable distinction in his profession both as a practitioner and as an author. Mr Fletcher completed his studies at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and was admitted as a member of the London College of Surgeons, in 1817. After having resided for a few months at Bolton, where he saw but slight hopes of professional success, he commenced his career in his native town, and in a few years acquired anb extensive and valuable practice.

Mr Fletcher was educated in high Tory principles, and the remarks of two of the most distinguished writers of that party, Hume and Bolingbroke, on the consequences of the funding system, first led him into the train of observation and inquiry which caused him to adopt the political creed, he has ever since, “through evil report and good,” maintained. Among the social evils which our corrupt system of government had produced, the abuses of the Factory System particularly attracted his attention; and in his intercourse with the mill-owners, he was not sparing in animadversions on the dishonesty and cruelty of their conduct towards the workpeople. This was a course not likely to promote the interests of a young professional man, and he was soon stigmatized as “a Radical,” which, in the circle he moved in, was considered a more serious moral stain than a charge of pecuniary dishonesty would have been.

While Mr Fletcher maintained that the representation of the working classes in the House of Commons was the only means of obtaining a redress of their grievances, he constantly insisted on the importance of forcing their grievances on the attention of all classes, as the most irresistible argument for the restoration of the constitutional rights of the people.

At the close of the year 1829, Mr Fletcher, in an introductory lecture to a course of mechanics, argued that a decided and constantly increasing reduction of the hours of labour, was the only thing calculated to prevent the social and political evils which the factory system was entailing on a great portion of the people of England. He afterwards handed over to Mr WR Greg, the results of his observations on the condition of the factory workers, which formed the greater part of the materials for Mr Greg’s pamphlet on the factory question – a pamphlet which Mr Oastler has denominated his “great gun.” After Mr Greg found it convenient to retract his opinions on this subject, his brother, Mr R Hyde Greg, in an elaborate reply to the arguments of different authors on the evils of the factory system, threw back the responsibility of the facts and arguments in Mr W Greg’s pamphlet on Mr Fletcher; but he did not attempt to deny them. When the factory system assumed the character of a political question, Mr Fletcher joined in the agitation set on foot by Mr Sadler and Mr Oastler; and took a prominent part in it during the whole of its progress.

When the Reform Bill became the great national question, Mr Fletcher, though he had suffered bitter and almost ruinous persecution from the Whigs of his own district, on account of the part he had taken in some parochial disputes, zealously joined in the agitation of that measure. But while he supported it, as calculated, by breaking in on the corrupt system, and teaching the people their power, to lead to further and more efficient reforms, he warned the men of Bury to beware, lest in putting down the old aristocracy, they should throw themselves into the power of the worst of all forms of government, a commercial oligarchy. When the bill had passed, Mr Fletcher seeing that from the influence of the Earl of Derby, the lord of the manor, and some powerful local influences, Bury was in danger of becoming a close Whig borough, brought forward a candidate on the principle of Universal Suffrage, and during a period of six months, he kept up a fierce paper war with the united Whig and Tory parties. At the election, the Radicals polled just half the number of the united factions. From that time a powerful radical party has existed in Bury.

When an attempt was made in 1837, to carry the New Poor Law into effect in Lancashire and Yorkshire, Mr F having heard of the intended visit of Mr Power, the commissioner to Bury, called, in a few hours, a large meeting of the inhabitants, and elicited from Mr Power certain admissions, which have since been used as powerful weapons in the hands of the anti-Poor-law agitators. The report of their meeting ran like the “fiery cross” through Lancashire and Yorkshire, and Mr Power, who had previously succeeded in deluding the people of several towns, was met at every step with the fiercest opposition. Mr Fletcher declared his determination to resist, by every means, that unconstitutional act of parliament, as the feeling was responded to by the people. Up to the present moment, the commissioners have not dared to attempt the enforcement of “the bill” on the people of Bury.

Mr Fletcher has taken an active part in the Chartist agitation, and was unanimously elected the representative for his native town, in the General Convention. He is understood to have been one of the persons against whom warrants were issued, at the time of Mr Stephens’ arrest.

From this sketch of Mr Fletcher’s public career, our readers will have already formed some notion of his personal character. His face – beaming with a generous intelligence – faithfully mirrors forth the man. A contemporary has justly observed, that “there is a softness and repose upon his small features and high forehead, indicative of a contented and satisfied mind;” but that “when he speaks, this serenity entirely vanishes, and his features twitch and writhe in a very nervous-like manner.” Dr Fletcher cannot be justly described as an eloquent man, but he is a convincing and powerful speaker, especially when dwelling upon the sufferings of the people, or the oppression to which they are subjected. His denunciations are sometimes fearful, and his admonitions are solemn and impressive. As a member of the Convention, Mr Fletcher is most punctual in the discharge of his duties, and he ranks high in the estimation of his colleagues. He is firm without being offensive, and however strongly he may oppose in argument, the courtesy of his manner, and the goodnatured smile that plays upon his countenance, render it impossible that you should be angered by his opposition. To borrow once more the language of the True Scotsman – “The fortitude of Dr Fletcher in defending his principles is great; although he does not crush others, he is not to be crushed himself. There is a principle of elasticity about him, which prevents him from remaining long undermost; and he realizes Goldsmith’s definition of a true hero, which consists not in never falling, but in rising as often as he falls. There is nothing like a desire of show about him; he is rather self-forgetting, and depends for esteem and popularity on the purity of his motives, and the truth of his principles.”

* Our next number will contain a portrait and memoir of Dr McDouall, the delegate for Ashton-under-Lyne.

[Source: The Charter, Sunday 31 March 1839]