Stephen Roberts on Dorothy Thompson and the Dignity of Chartism

Stephen Roberts is the editor of The Dignity of Chartism, a collection of essays by the eminent Chartist historian Dorothy Thompson. He studied under Dorothy Thompson and has written extensively on Chartism, publishing a bibliography of Chartism with Owen Ashton and Robert Fyson, a collection of contemporary illustrations of the Chartist movement entitled Images of Chartism with Dorothy Thompson, and numerous other works. He was for many years a Fellow at the University of Birmingham and is now Honorary Lecturer at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts in the Australian National University. He runs the Chartism and the Chartists website.

Chartist Ancestors spoke to Stephen Roberts about The Dignity of Chartism.

Mark Crail: You knew Dorothy Thompson well, and in your introduction to The Dignity of Chartism, you talk warmly of her role as a teacher. What was it like to be taught by Dorothy Thompson? Is it fair to say that Chartist studies would have been much the poorer had she not been there to nurture a whole generation of historians who came to share her passion for Chartism?

Stephen Roberts: I had heard about Dorothy Thompson from my history teacher in the sixth form – we later dedicated Images of Chartism (1998) to him but I didn’t meet her until the end of my second year at the University of Birmingham when I enrolled on her final year special subject course on Chartism. In our first class she opened the door of an ancient cupboard and out came a copy for every one of The Early Chartists (1971) – typical of her generosity.

We knew she was married to a famous historian and had herself been studying the Chartists for many years. What we were about to discover, though, was that she had supervised the work of a large number of postgraduate students. That was one of the exciting things about that year – she would refer to the work of her postgrads, and we felt that we really were on the cutting edge of scholarly research on the subject. Dorothy had supervised James Epstein’s revisionist PhD on Feargus O’Connor, and we were all sent off to read it in the UL. I had enjoyed all the reading I had done on the course, but that thesis, and a brilliant review essay Jim had also written, had a profound impact on me: if this was what postgrad research was all about, I wanted to do it!

Shortly before graduating, I went to see Dorothy but couldn’t summon up the courage to tell her what I was thinking. I did tell her, however, how much I had enjoyed reading the autobiography of Thomas Cooper – and a week later a copy of the book arrived quite unexpectedly ‘by way of congratulations on a very good finals result’. Dorothy was off for a year to the United States, but eventually I wrote to her. There was no email in those days and I had to wait a fortnight for her reply – I was delighted when she said she’d supervise my research.

Of course, I was just one of many postgraduate students she supervised – she had all the theses lined up in chronological order in her study at Wick Episcopi and there were a lot of them! Once or twice a year Dorothy and Edward would throw parties at Wick Episcopi, and here you’d meet her former postgrads as well as their longstanding friends. It wouldn’t be fair to provide a list of the names of Dorothy’s postgrads in case I missed anyone out – but you are correct, she nurtured a lot of the people who went on to write about Chartism. And it wasn’t just them she encouraged and helped – you’ll see her name in the acknowledgements sections of almost all of the books that were published on Chartism from the 1970s onwards. Really anyone working on Chartism had contact with Dorothy on the phone or by letter or was invited to Wick Episcopi for lunch.

Mark Crail: Beyond Dorothy Thompson’s role as a teacher, how important were her own research and writing on Chartism?

Stephen Roberts: Dorothy first made known that she was writing a book about Chartism in the early 1970s – but it was another ten years before it appeared. I certainly remember a real degree of anticipation – other single volume studies at that time were either half-a-century old or echoed the earlier, pretty unsympathetic, views of Feargus O’Connor. In the way that it re-defined how we see the movement, The Chartists (1984) is unquestionably the most important book written on the subject. I wrote in the introduction to The Dignity of Chartism (2015) that she singlehandedly changed the way the movement is understood. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration – everything, Feargus, women, the rank-and-file, the Irish, changed because of her.

Mark Crail: It has been nearly 20 years since Dorothy Thompson published her final major piece of work. What do you think is the importance today of the essays you have chosen to include in The Dignity of Chartism, and what shaped your selection?

Stephen Roberts: Very appropriately the idea for this book came to me at one of the Chartism Days – I say very appropriately because the idea of an annual meeting of all the people working on Chartism was hers. I was sitting in the Brotherton Library in the University of Leeds in summer 2011, listening to people talking about Dorothy’s work, when I suddenly realised that so much of what she had written was hidden away in journals in library stacks and difficult to get access to. There and then I decided that I would gather all this material together between the covers of one book so that people could find it on the shelves of Waterstones. I contacted Verso – who, incidentally are fantastic to work with, very supportive and patient – and The Dignity of Chartism was born! The title came to me quickly – it’s an adaption of a phrase that can be found deep in a long unpublished essay on Halifax Chartism, which forms the centre-piece of the book.

I worked very hard on this book- it’s not just about collecting all the material together, it’s also about putting it into a coherent order so that it becomes a book. I decided not to include anything Dorothy had included in Outsiders (1993), her earlier collection of essays, but this book brings together pretty much everything else she wrote, a lot of it difficult now to get hold off.

Mark Crail: Dorothy Thompson was of course married to Edward (E.P.) Thompson, author among other things of The Making of the English Working Class. How did they influence each other’s work and thinking?

Stephen Roberts: I think many scholars would love to be able to form the sort of relationship that Dorothy and Edward had – they were husband and wife, the parents of three children, but also collaborators in both political agitation and scholarly research. Edward was always at great pains to make clear how much he owed to Dorothy – she shared her discoveries, read everything he wrote and her arguments deeply informed, in particular, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and Whigs and Hunters (1975).

They wanted to maintain their separate scholarly identities and didn’t publish anything together – and only once seem to have contemplated doing this. From 1948 until 1965 Dorothy and Edward lived in Halifax in the West Riding. Here they could easily acquire nineteenth century volumes and soon built up a very impressive library. With Asa Briggs as its editor, a volume of local studies of Chartism was planned. Edward and Dorothy began work on an essay on Halifax, a major stronghold of Chartism. It certainly seems to have been intended to be a collaboration – phrases such as ‘we accept’ and ‘in our possession’ in the text confirm this.

What emerged was a very long essay, more than 30,000 words, and also not quite finished – the reasons, presumably, why it didn’t appear in Chartist Studies (1959). So here it is now, in The Dignity of Chartism. It’s a magnificent essay, in my opinion – I particularly love the opening section which graphically describes the plight of the weavers and combers of the West Riding. Aside from its own qualities, it’s an important essay because it fed directly into The Making, which Edward began work on immediately afterwards.

Mark Crail: Do you see continuing signs of vitality in the study of Chartism? It has been four years now since Dorothy Thompson died in 2011. Would she be excited at what still remains to be done, or have we now discovered all we can about Chartism?

Stephen Roberts: You can’t shake the Chartists off! Dorothy couldn’t and I can’t! Though she stopped writing about the movement when she got into her seventies, she remained very interested in the movement, what was being written and the possibilities for further research – we continued to talk about the subject until the end of her life. Dorothy could be a severe critic – but that meant that when she praised something, she really meant it! She was always concerned that Feargus got his due – I remember she very much approved of Paul Pickering’s biography (2008). Of the things currently going on, I am sure she would have been very interested in the novel approach Katrina Navickas has taken to the study of Chartism

Mark Crail: One final question: with the Dignity of Chartism now safely in print, what are you working on?

Stephen Roberts: For better or worse, I have been writing about the Chartists for 30 years now. Everything I have done – apart from the essay in her festschrift! – has been discussed with Dorothy before it got into print. I had thought that a collection of essays by my teacher would be an appropriate way to sign off. However, I find myself drawn back to the Chartists. One thing I always thought – and remember discussing with Dorothy was that the late nineteenth century provincial press could yield a lot of interesting information about the Chartist movement in its recollections and obituaries. But attempting to go through all of those newspapers would have been an impossible task. Now, with the arrival of digitised newspapers, it isn’t. So I’m now working on the on obituaries of the Chartists. As I suspected, they do help fill out the picture and I’m coming across men who just haven’t entered the histories.

  • This interview was first published in January 2016.