life stories

Peter Murray McDouall, 1814 – 1854

Physical force Chartist, political exile and delegate to the First Convention who jointly authored the text of the second petition for the Charter.

Peter Murray McDouall portrait

Peter Murray McDouall was Ashton-under-Lyne’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.

McDouall (whose name often also appears as M’Douall in papers of the time) came to Chartism, like his fellow Lancashire doctor Matthew Fletcher, as a campaigner for factory reforms. Had the Rev Joseph Rayner Stephens, one of the most prominent of the Lancashire ultra-Tories, not been arrested in December 1838, however, McDouall would not have been at the first convention. Stephens, who had been expected to represent Ashton-under-Lyne recommended that McDouall should take his place.

McDouall became one of the most prominent advocates of both physical force and of the Sacred Month (or general strike). In July 1839, he was arrested and imprisoned in Chester for a year in connection with the Bull Ring riots. While there he met, and later married, Mary Ann, the daughter of a warder.

Unlike Stephens, who recanted his Chartism, McDouall remained committed to his beliefs following his release from prison, and was joint author of the text of the Chartist petition of 1842 with Robert Kemp Philp. He was also one of the leading Chartist figures most supportive of the general strike wave that year, despite the concerns of other Chartist leaders.

When the strike ended, the authorities embarked on a series of arrests, trials and punishments. With a reward of £100 for his capture now hanging over him, McDouall fled to France, where he lived until 1844, sustained by Chartist collections. On his return to England, McDouall once again resumed his work for the Chartist movement.

In 1848, McDouall was arrested again and sentenced to two years in Kirkdale Gaol following the abortive Ashton-under-Lyne rising. His family suffered badly through this time, and a daughter, aged 10, died.

After his release in 1850, McDouall attempted to establish a medical practice, but it failed. He and his family emigrated to Australia in 1854, but McDouall died soon after. Although his family returned to England, it was to an impoverished future.

Peter Murray McDouall’s portrait also appeared in a series of of engravings given by the Northern Star newspaper to its readers.

The Charter newspaper masthead
Portraits of Delegates No. 6: Peter M’Douall

The subject of our present sketch is a native of Scotland. He was born at Newton-Stewart, in the county of Wigton, about the year 1815, we believe. After having received a liberal education, he was destined for the medical profession, and obtained his diploma as a surgeon at Edinburgh, although he also attended at the University of Glasgow. From an early age Mr M’Douall evinced a strong disposition to throw himself into the strife of politics, and took part as a speaker in several debating societies, especially in that of Castle-Douglas, where he was distinguished for the knowledge he displayed, as well as for his readiness and fluency as a debater. The time having arrived when it became necessary for him to begin the world for himself, he chose Ramsbottom, near Bury, in Lancashire as his adopted home, and there commenced practice as a surgeon. His residence and professional avocations here, soon brought under his notice the more prominent evils connected with the factory system; and the investigation upon which he entered, opened up to his view a frightful picture of the physical and moral condition of the unfortunate class of persons – male and female, young and old – who are doomed to that branch of manufacturing employment. At the meeting of the British Association of Science, held at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he eloquently advocated the cause of “the Factory Mother and Children,” in a paper which excited much interest; although, we regret to add, that it produced no practical good. Science, and not Humanity, is the great object of the Associations’ labours; If Mr M’Douall’s exertions on behalf of the poor and oppressed were unproductive of benefit to them, however, they were not unproductive of evil to himself. Like his friend and coadjutor in this work of philanthropy – Mr Fletcher, of Bury ¬– he became an object of hostility to those upon whom the factory labourers are dependent for their wretched existence; and that hostility was actively employed to destroy his medical practice. We need not add, that it was effective for its purpose. No poor man or woman dare consult him for professional advice and assistance; and no wealthy one will . This persecution, however, seems but to have added to the ardour of his zeal and enthusiasm on behalf of the poor. In the Chartist movement, he took an active and a prominent part; and he was elected a delegate to the Convention for Ashton-under-Lyne, upon the recommendation and in the place of the Rev Joseph Rayner Stephens. In person, Mr M’Douall is of small stature, and of apparently slight frame; but he evinces great activity and can evidently endure much fatigue. His features are sharply and regularly formed, and from the admirable sketch which our artist has furnished of his face and head, it will be seen that he is a man of some intellect. Statistical research seems to have great charms for him; and he accumulates facts and details relative to the condition of the labouring poor with amazing industry, and appropriates them with great judgment and tact. His speech in the Convention, on the factory system, consisted of a prodigious collection of facts, which though dry and somewhat repulsive in themselves, were wrought up into a most interesting and impressive address, the effect of which, upon the minds of those who heard it, will not soon pass away. His pamphlet on the “Hyde Paradise,” of Mr Thomas Ashton, is of a similar description; and it has attracted so much attention, that Mr Ashton has invited several members of parliament to inspect his works, in order that materials may thus be furnished to them for its refutation. Few of them know any thing of the trickery resorted to in a factory, when an inspection is about to take place! As a member of the Convention, Mr M’Douall is punctual in his attendance, and active and able in the discharge of his duties. He seldom speaks; when he does so, it is either in a set speech upon some great subject, or in a very short and pointed one, upon the matter in hand. His manner is somewhat brusque , though not disagreeable; and he shews neither fear nor favour to an opponent in argument. The delegate for Ashton ranks himself amongst “the physical force men” of the day; although nothing would be more erroneous than to infer from this, that he is of a sanguinary or violent temperament. He is – to strip the thing of its obnoxious name – an advocate for the arming of the people, in defence of their constitutional rights, and although he deprecates the idea of turning any deadly weapon against the lives and property of any portion of the community, he boldly avows that he would take his place with the people to resist any unconstitutional aggression that might be attempted upon their few existing rights and liberties.
* Our next number will contain a portrait and sketch of Mr J V Sankey, delegate for Edinburgh.
[Source: The Charter, Sunday 7 April 1839]