The National Charter Association’s National Registration and Elections Committee (NCREC) aimed to co-ordinate the Chartist challenge at parliamentary elections, despite lacking the means to direct local activists and a chronic shortage of money.
Barely a handful of Chartist candidates contested the 1841 general election, and those who did so invariably came last once the votes of qualified electors were counted – no matter how well they may have done at the hustings.
In the Parliament that followed, only Thomas Slingsby Duncombe among those MPs thought to be sympathetic to the Charter could be relied upon to support the cause consistently. But four years later, with another failed petition behind them, the National Charter Association began to turn its thoughts to the next contest.
In 1845, the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor predicted the return of 20 to 30 Duncombite MPs. But it was the temporary resignation of prime minister Sir Robert Peel at the end of 1845 which brought the issue into focus.
By the spring of 1846, the NCA executive had agreed to a levy on members to fund an election campaign when it came, and a special convention was held in Leeds that August to make further preparations. The main outcome of the convention was the setting up of a registrations and elections committee.
The NCREC, as it became, invited Duncombe to serve as its president, with Thomas Wakley as vice-president. Both men agreed, and James Grassby, Westminster’s delegate to the Leeds convention, was made secretary, with John Simpson as treasurer.
The committee met weekly at the Chartist Assembly Rooms, 85 Dean Street. Among those taking part early on were Edmund Stallwood and Thomas Martin Wheeler, both stalwarts of the executive. As the election drew nearer, those attending included: Ernest Jones, John Godwin, Thomas Clark, John Milne, Stallwood, William Cuffay, Simpson and Grassby (Northern Star, 3 July, 1847).
Members spent their time sifting through the voting records of sitting MPs, deciding who was worthy of Chartist support and who should be specially singled out for opposition. It was never intended that the NCA would endorse only committed Chartists, and in the event, support was extended to the likes Colonel Thomas Perronet Thompson, who received £5 towards his expenses in Bradford, and Joseph Sturge (Northern Star, 3 July 1847), with whom the NCA had broken so spectacularly five years earlier and who was now standing for election in Leeds.
The committee’s work went beyond endorsing candidates. At the 1846 convention, delegates had made the point that there would be more chance of getting Chartist MPs elected if more Chartists could be got onto the electoral roll. This was no easy task, with many who put forward their names for inclusion being rejected. This was a particular problem for the NCA, which lacked the funds to mount a legal challenge to such a ruling.
Indeed, finance proved to be a major and persistent problem. There was never enough of it, and the casual approach to money so typical of Chartism from Feargus O’Connor down made keeping track of what there was a major task. When the NCREC published its accounts in the Northern Star on 1 January 1848, they revealed that just £470 had been subscribed – a drop in the ocean compared with the money available to other parties, and tiny even in relation to the sums sent in for the land fund.
A note by George Julian Harney in the Northern Star of 3 October 1847 says:
“Mr Grassby complains, and with good reasons, of the blundering system to which many of our friends seem to be very partial – sending money to any one but the proper party. He says ‘I neither can nor will hold myself responsible for sums that are sent to other people. Some send their money to Mr O’Connor at Lowbands, some to the Star office to Messrs Harney or Rider, and some to the Land office, where they have such a mass of business to attend to, that letters for me are often put aside, and like perhaps a week before I get them, All this might be avoided by sending direct to me. I hope that our friends in the country, having business with the Election Committee, will forward their communications to me, at No. 8, Noah’s Ark-court, Stangate, Lambeth. James Grassby, Secretary.”
Of the £470 available to it, the NCREC had spent most supporting candidates in key constituencies: notably £33 in Halifax where Ernest Jones was expected to win a parliamentary seat. A further £28 was spent organising two public meetings at the Crown and Anchor in London, while Stallwood was paid 7 shillings for his work and Grassby 10s for his time as secretary.
In the mean time, the general election had taken place in August 1847. The results were disappointing. Hopes – voiced at the 1846 convention – that Jones would easily take Halifax were dashed. In Norwich, one of the few seats visited by O’Connor during the election campaign, the Chartist candidate John Humffreys Parry polled 1,572 votes, but trailed the second-placed Tory (in a two party seat) by 155 votes.
Elsewhere, NCREC candidates won at the hustings but were defeated at the poll. They were: Samuel Carter at Tavistock, Thomas Clark at Sheffield, Philip McGrath at Derby, William Prowting Roberts at Blackburn, John West at Stockport, and Henry Vincent at Ipswich. Elsewhere, candidates were victorious at the hustings but did not go to a full election.
The Northern Star in its issue of 7 August 1847 carried lengthy reports from many of the constituencies where there had been Chartist candidates. These and other Northern Star reports can be read in the full online version of the paper.
The one surprise came in Nottingham.
Feargus O’Connor had taken hardly any part in the election campaign, preferring to stay at Lowbands and failing even to turn up at the annual Blackstone Edge rally in July, his pride hurt by the failure of the organisers to send a welcoming party to escort him. Yet with the Tories failing to stand a second candidate in Nottingham and the Whigs mounting a poor campaign, O’Connor was returned as MP for the city. Malcolm Chase, in Chartism: A New History , notes that the result was so unexpected that the Northern Star had failed to send a reporter to the count and had to cobble together something for its next edition from other papers.
Nevertheless, the results were celebrated with great enthusiasm at Lowbands, the Northern Star reporting that “every gun, musket and pistol on the estate, and in the neighbourhood was put in requisition, and volley after volley proclaimed to the villages around that it was a day of gladness”.
Nine other radical liberals endorsed by the NCREC were successful: George Muntz and William Scholefield in Birmingham, John Bowring in Bolton, T P Thompson in Bradford, Tom Duncombe and Thomas Wakley in Finsbury, John Williams in Macclesfield, George Thompson in Tower Hamlets and William Sharman Crawford in Rochdale.
Despite a disappointing outcome, the NCREC was determined to continue its work. In an address carried by the Northern Star (1 January 1848), the committee commented on the lack of finance available to it, urged supporters to “raise a public fund of at least ten thousand pounds, to support your candidates at the next election” and noted the £60 “nest egg” it had left over from the 1847 campaign and which was now in the National Land and Labour Bank.
There was to be no further general election until 1852, by which time Chartism and the National Charter Association were both shadows of their former selves. The dream of £10,000 fighting fund remained just that, and only seven official Chartist candidates stood at that election. But by then the NCREC itself had gone out on something of a high note.
In 1850, one of Lambeth’s two MPs retired due to ill health, creating a vacancy and a by-election. As Malcolm Chase describes it in The Chartists: Perspectives and Legacies , “The NCREC, debt-ridden, collapsed under the weight of supporting a successful radical reformer.”
Seven men were nominated, and three contested the election: William Williams, the Radical former MP for Coventry; Admiral Sir Charles Napier, a supporter of Robert Peel and former MP for Marylebone; and J Hinde Palmer, the son-in-law of Lambeth’s other MP.
Williams’ programme was for a “retrenchment in the expenditure of public money”, total repeal of Window Tax and of “the Taxes on Knowledge”, the removal of income tax, support for free trade, a call for manhood suffrage, and the separation of Church and State. He won the endorsement and the wholehearted support of the NCREC. Napier declared Williams “too much of a radical” to be allowed a free run at the seat, claiming that his opponent would be prepared to “advocate a repeal of the Ten Commandments to be elected for Lambeth”.
Despite the tight property qualifications for the franchise, Lambeth’s electorate had grown from 4,700 in 1841 to nearly 15,000 in 1847, and on election day a large crowd gathered on Kennington Common to hear the candidates at the hustings.
The following account is taken from Electoral History of the Borough of Lambeth since its Enfranchisement in 1832, by George Hill (Stanford & Co. London, 1879).
The hustings on Kennington Common for the Lambeth by-election. From the Ilustrated London News of 16 August 1850.
Lambeth by-election, 1850
On nomination day in Lambeth in 1850, after one of the borough’s two MPs retired due to ill health, seven men were nominated for the seat, and three contested the election: William Williams, the Radical former MP for Coventry; Admiral Sir Charles Napier, a supporter of Robert Peel and former MP for Marylebone; and J Hinde Palmer, the son-in-law of Lambeth’s other MP.
Williams’ programme was for a “retrenchment in the expenditure of public money”, total repeal of Window Tax and of “the Taxes on Knowledge”, the removal of income tax, support for free trade, a call for manhood suffrage, and the separation of Church and State. Napier declared Williams “too much of a radical” to be allowed a free run at the seat, declaring that his opponent would be prepared to “advocate a repeal of the Ten Commandments to be elected for Lambeth”.
Despite the tight property qualifications for the franchise, Lambeth’s electorate had grown from 4,700 in 1841 to nearly 15,000 in 1847, and a large crowd gathered to hear the candidates. The following extract from a near-contemporary source describes what happened next.
The following account is taken from “Electoral History of the Borough of Lambeth since its Enfranchisement in 1832”, by George Hill. Stanford & Co. London, 1879.
In 1850 Nomination-day proved to be a very lively one, and yielded a good deal of fun and amusement. At ten o’clock Mr Onslow, the Returning Officer, appeared on the hustings which had been erected on Kennington Common, opposite the “Horns” Tavern, at which time there must have been nearly 2,000 persons present. The first candidate who presented himself was Mr Williams, accompanied by his friends, who took their positions on the right side of the hustings, and he was loudly greeted by the assembly. His colours were light blue and white. When Commodore Napier arrived, he was received with loud laughter and some cheers. He was accompanied by several ladies, who took their places at the left side of the hustings. Napier was welcomed with loud cries of “No flogging,” “Go back to Ireland,” “Check him,” “Go to Marylebone – you are of no use here.” Napier himself then brought forward the Union Jack, and affixed it to the pillar; but it was soon taken down again, when the mob cried out – “See, he has soon struck his colours,” and cheered loudly; “Napier’s the boy to grow turnips;” “Who whips the sailors?” “Where’s the cat-o’-nine-tails;” “I would flog you well if I had you at the yard-arm” (laughter; “We can’t get hiom out for a pelt,” &c.
Mr Harvey, of Lambeth House, said he had a pleasing duty to perform, namely, to introduce Mr W.Williams. He had known him for more than 30 years. He was a man of business, which was an excellent quality for the representative of Lambeth. (Cheers.) He would not say much in the way of profession; but Mr Williams was a tried man, having voted more than 2,000 times; and he had never heard any reasonable man doubt that he had on all occasions, except twice, voted on the right side. It was not possible for any candidate to stand before them with a better character. (Cheers.) They had also a gallant admiral, who came forward with a very catchy commencement, “Do you want a sailor?” (Laughter, and he “wants the cat-o’-nine-tails.”) He would say nothing against him for being a sailor – they were the best defence of the country; but he did not know what a sailor had to do with representing Lambeth. (“Certainly not.”) He was formerly in Parliament, when he soon got a place. (Laughter.) He said that if called upon to serve his country, he would resign his seat. (Laughter.) When in Parliament before, he got the command of the experimental squadron, for which the people had to pay. (Cheers.) The other candidate was a respectable man, whom they all knew – he would not say one word to his prejudice. He is the son-in-law to your present sitting member, and he did not think that was any recommendation. He was also a lawyer. (“Stepping stone to the ‘woolsack’”.) There were too many lawyers in the House of Commons already. (Cheers.) See how they came out on the question of Lord Palmerston’s policy. Some of the lawyers who voted on that occasion have already got places – (true) – and the others were all on the way to preferment. (Cheers.) There would not be much profession on this occasion, but he said, let them have acts, not words. (Cheers.) In fact let them take Mr Williams, who, he would say, had a good character from his last place. (Cheers.) Place him on the top of the poll, so that the speculators would no more appear among them. (Cheers.) They ought not to have any man who was in office, or seeking office. He nominated W Williams, Esq., as a fit person for their representative.
Mr Doulton, sen., of Lambeth, seconded the nomination fo Mr Williams, who, he trusted, at four o’clock would be their member, for they could not send a better man to Parliament. He was a financial reformer, and had he been in the House last week, he would have voted against the £12,000 to the Duke of Cambridge, whose father had done much good to their charities by his presence, but not by his money. (Hear, “Let the dead rest.”) These things ought not so to be. Mr Williams was a tried man. (Why did not not stop in the House?) He would retort and say, why did not Napier stop there? (Hurrah.) Because he got an appointment. (Cheers.) They had 150 admirals in pay at present, but only 12 in commission. (Shame.) That was how their money went, and how it would go. More than half of the present government members were half-pay officers, and nominees of the government. (Cheers.) Williams was the man whom they could trust, and whom they would send. (Cheers.) They would stop at nothing short of victory.
Mr W Knott proposed Mr Hinde Palmer. He had lived for 40 years near that place, and he came forward to propose a man who was born in that borough. If they knew the father as well as he did, he was sure they would elect his son, who was an old reformer. (He is a lawyer). He is the son of Samuel Palmer, Esq. (How do you know?) He would always vote for the people. They ought not to go to Coventry or to the high seas for a member – (Laughter.) – but elect a gentleman who would promote their interests on all occasions. He then proposed J.H.Palmer, Esq. (Cheers and no, no.)
Mr John Willis seconded the nomination. (“Another lawyer,” and loud laughter.) In a few words, he wold say that Mr Palmet was the person they ought to return. Two of the candidates were said to be tried men – (laughter) – but the jury of Coventry had found Mr Williams guilty of being a bad member – (“no lawyers”) – and the worthy admiral has been found by the country to be a good sailor, but a bad politician; but there is one candidate who has not yet been tried; but he was sure that he would be a good member of Parliament. (Hisses.) They had always formerly had a gentleman who was connected with the borough, who could attend to their local interests – (cheers) – and he hoped they would still continue to do so, by sending Mr Palmer to Parliament as one of their members. (“We want pigs, and we don’t want law.” “Woe be to those lawyers, scribes, and Pharisees,” and laughter).
Mr C. Evans nominated Admiral Napier. (Loud hisses.) His task was easy. He would recommend the gentleman who had been six years member for Marylebone, who also voted for the interst of the country; and if sent to Parliament, the electors would have an honest man, who would not promise more than he would do. He took Sidon, in Egypt, in the bravest manner, and he would speak his mind on all occasions. (“He is thirsting for blood.”) He would not rake up the dead, by referring to the remarks made about the late Duke of Cambridge. He proposed Col. Napier, as a fit person for their representative.
Mr W. Miller, in seconding the nomination of Admiral Napier, said:-
“My name is Miller,
In the Bridge Road my father keeps his shop;
A frugal man, whose only care is to increase his stock,
And keep his only son myself at home.”
(Cries of “bravo, Norval.”) Those who were fathers could understand how difficult a thing that was. He had referred to the shop to show that he was one of the middle class, and as such he seconded the nomination of Sir C. Napier.
Mr Williams then came forward, and was received with loud cheers. They had attempted to perform the most important duty; to choose a person to represent them in the people’s House of Commons. He had been invited to come before them by the leading and the influential men of the borough. He was a tried man. (“Maynooth”) He had served his country faithfully for more than 13 years, and only two votes had been found fault with; and where was the man who had not made two faults out of more than 2000 votes? He belonged to the people, and would stand to them to the last. He was proud to belong to the hard-working class. He was one who would stand by the interests of the working and middle classes. He would do all he could to keep the finger of the taxgatherer out of their pockets. (Cheers.) He was first in the field; he was followed by six others, only two of whom are going to stand fight, and it was their duty to beat them. The father of Mr Palmer was a respectable man, and so was his son. Be he was a liar. (Shame, shame; and loud cheers.) There are 72 liars in the House already, and he was sure that they would not send another. (Cheers.) He was seconded by a lawyer – (laughter) – and he was son-in-law of their present member, and they knew how faithfully he had served them. One of the family was quite enough. Were they prepared to resign themselves to the family compact? (Cries of no, no?) (Here a cat-o’-nine-tails was exhibited amidst loud laughter.) Napier had always been his friend, but at the elevent hour he came forward to prove how much injury he could do him. Was he a man fit to serve them who had hired himself to the despotic government of Portugal? (“That’s a settler, Charlie.”) He says he will accept a place if offered to him. The day before he presented himself to the electors of Lambeth he went to the Treasury, to that secretary who had the giving away good places. (Cheers.) Would they have that place-hunter, a man who lived in idleness upon their industry? If they wanted such a man, there he was before them, and they might take him. (“We will not have him,” “Stop his going,” and laughter.) Admiral Napier was for drawing the blood of their noble sailors. If they wanted such a man, there he was. He now asked them to compare his conduct with the professions of his friends on the right, and with the acts of the old Admiral. Did they want an idler, or a man who would stand by the people day and night? (No, no.) If they wanted a man who would stand for the people, them let the electors vote for him. (Cheers.)
Mr Hinde Palmer, having addressed the electors in a gentlemanly speech, and suggesting that the gallant Admiral would be found some fine morning sailing away from them,
Commander Napier advanced to the front of the hustings, and was received by the exhibition of a great number of cat-‘o-nine-tails. He would make a few observations. One gentleman had said he was not a fit man to represent them, and that he ought to go to sea again. He was employed for the protection of British commerce, and to demand satisfaction for the British flag. (Great interruption and uproar, one gentleman striking the pillars with a regular cat.) It was certainly not a gentlemanly thing for the gentleman on the hustings to be exhibiting the cat-o’nine-tails before him, as if he was the greatest tyrant on the face of the earth. (“So you are.”) The speech of Mr Williams consisted only of fulsome praise of himself, and vulgar abuse of his opponents; but the speech of Mr Palmer was a straightforward and fair one. It was the revolutionary address he held in his hand that brought him to Lambeth. They knew how much the people were indebted to Sir R. Peel for his free-trade measures. (“No, no,” and great uproar Upon the appeal of Admiral Napier, the returning officer ordered the cat-o’nine-tails to be withdrawn from the hustings.) He supported Sir R. Peel in all his measures of reduction upon the articles of the poor. The other candidates attempted to bamboozle them by the pretended reduction of other taxes, so much so that £16,000,000 would be taken off at once, without any other tax to carry on the public government. He would not rob the public creditor. He would take off the window tax – (cheers) – of all taxes, the very first that ought to be reduced. The expenditure of the country ought to be reduced – especially the wasteful expenditure of the navy, but he would not reduce its efficiency. He believed that nearly £10,000,000 of expenditure might be reduced. (Cheers.) He was called a place-man; but he had taken an extraordinary course to secure a place. He would do his duty to his country, employed afloat or on shore. It had been said that he had entered into the service of a despot; but the gentleman who said so knew that he stated what was not true. That was the proudest act of his life. He had now cleared away the rubbish. (Cheers, and “Pity the sorrows of a poor old man.” He would maintain the freedom of trade. He then commented on a speech formerly made by Mr Williams, while member for Coventry. (Here there was a great interruption before the hustings, which did not subside till the police had removed some of the disturbers.) There was not an officer in the British navy who had done so much as himself to put an end to corporal punishment. He had commanded a fleet of 5000 men, and he verily believed that there was not one man among them who would not have gone to the devil to serve him. (“What did you go to the Treasury for?”) He would, however, say that a fleet could not be kept in order unless there were discipline in the ship. He was asked what he had been doing at the Treasury. But could it be possible for any person to suppose that he went to seek a place when he was going to come forward for Lambeth? He would ask whether it was right that he should not be able to move without having spies sent after him. (Time, time.) He would vote for the ballot and extension of the suffrage; but he would not vote for universal suffrage. (Hisses, and “Go back to the Treasury.”) It had been said that there should be great reductions in the army and the navy; but were they prepared to leave the country without the proper means of defence? As to Sunday trading, he did not think that Sabbath protection could be achieved by Act of Parliament. As to the admission of Jews into Parliament, he thought religion ought to be perfectly free, and if he had been in Parliament he would have supported the admission of Baron Rothschild into the House of Commons. (Great uproar, and cries of “Time, time.”) Reform was necessary as much in the Church as in the State, but he did not wish for their separation. He would finish by repeating, that if the majority of the House of Commons were to support the opinions of Mr Williams, the property of all the working men before him would not be worth a farthing. He had been much interrupted by hired men, but he had himself abstained from any such mean practices. The gallant commander concluded, amidst the greatest interruption, asking the electors to come early to the poll to-morrow morning, and give him their support.
The show of hands having been decided in favour of the gallant Admiral, a wreath of laurels was placed upon his head, which he immediately displaced and good-humouredly threw among the crowd.
Enthusiastically as Sir Charles Napier was received, he had no chance against Mr Williams, as the following result will show:-
Sir C. Napier………………………….1182