The iconography of revolution is clear. Cannon, muskets, a barrel of gunpowder and tricolour flag form the backdrop to the main image on these three nineteenth century pewter mugs. And at the centre of what could be an explosion, or might in other circumstances pass for divine light, is a liberty cap. The motto, too, ‘vox populi, vox dei’, engraved on a scroll, speaks of the ultimate power of the people.
But it is the text at the centre of the engraving which identifies these firmly as Chartist objects. ‘The Charter and No Surrender’ first appeared as a Chartist slogan in the Northern Star in May 1840 and would be used and reused for more than a decade to come – in speeches, resolutions and even from time to time as a stirring sign-off to Feargus O’Connor’s weekly letters to his readers.
I bought the tankards at auction in August 2023. Though clearly identified as Chartist items, they have no documentary provenance, and I have so far found nothing in the pages of the Northern Star or elsewhere that mentions them.
It seems most likely, however, that the tankards were made for presentation, intended to pay tribute and thanks to a visiting Chartist speaker. Such public gift-giving was common, as reports of many of the great monster meetings held in the early years of Chartism show. A great deal of ceremony was attached to the practice, and it was often an opportunity for Chartist women to play a prominent part in public events, as they were seldom offered the opportunity to speak from the platform otherwise.
In June 1839, for example, the women of Wigton presented Dr James Taylor, one of three Newcastle delegates to the first convention, with ‘a magnificent green silk scarf, scarlet breast knot, &c in proof of their esteem for him as their representative’. Similarly, that same month the female Chartists of Cockermouth gave George Julian Harney ‘a magnificent scarf of crimson silk’.
Later, in autumn 1841, a ‘great and glorious demonstration to receive Feargus O’Connor’ at Aberdeen was followed by an evening soiree at which, ‘three very interesting and well-dressed girls read an address to Feargus O’Connor, and at the conclusion threw a splendid tartan plaid round him in the Highland fashion, which they bound with a splendid silver broach as large as a small cheese-plate, and bearing the following inscription:- “Presented to Feargus O’Connor, Esq., by the Female Chartists of Aberdeen, 29th October, 1841”.’ And so it goes on – these are not isolated examples.
There is a clue to the likely recipient of the tankards engraved at the centre of the ‘no surrender’ slogan – the initials ‘EJ’. This surely must be Ernest Jones, O’Connor’s loyal deputy, a fiery speaker and firm advocate of the need for physical force to achieve the Charter. Jones, however, only entered the Chartist movement when it was at a low ebb in 1845 or 1846; and by the time it revived as a mass popular movement in 1848, much of the ceremony and celebration of the great outdoor mass meetings had gone. So if the tankards were presented to Jones, when would this have been?
As it happens, there is a highly plausible explanation to hand. In 1848, Jones was one of a number of speakers arrested for sedition after a meeting at Bishop Bonner’s Fields in Bethnal Green. Found guilty and sentenced in July 1848 to two years in Tothill Fields prison, ‘He left the dock with the cry of “THE CHARTER AND NO SURRENDER”,’ as the Northern Star reported (15 July, 1848). Hence the choice of slogan.
Clearly, Jones was in no position at the time to be presented with anything. In Tothill Fields, in common with other Chartist prisoners, he refused to pick oakum, and as a consequence was put in solitary confinement and confined to a diet of bread and water. In unsanitary conditions, and amid an outbreak of cholera in London, he was lucky not to share the fate of Joseph Williams and Alexander Sharp, both of whom were imprisoned alongside him, and neither of whom lived to complete their sentences.
By July 1850, Jones’s release from a ‘whig dungeon’ was eagerly anticipated by a Chartist movement now pushed on to the back foot once again by the course of events. On 9 July, John Arnott, Edmund Stallwood and John Milne, all members of the National Charter Association’s executive committee, met Jones at the gates of Tothill Fields and accompanied him to Westminster Police Court to pay the bail and sureties that would ensure his freedom. Members of Bethnal Green’s Emmett Brigade, consisting of both Chartists and Irish Confederates, presented Jones with a ‘small tribute raised by that patriotic body on the proceeding night’, and after a brief rest at his home in Bayswater, he began a dizzying programme of public meetings.
The following night, after a supper at the Craven Arms in Golden Square, the Metropolitan (London Chartists presented Jones with portraits of himself and of his wife, Jane Atherly. Less than a week later, he was in Halifax to thank the town’s Chartists for their sterling support of his family during the previous two years; there, at a public meeting at West-hill Park, ‘Mr Goakrodger, in a speech full of the deepest feeling, presented Mr Ernest Jones with a purse containing fifty sovereigns’.
And so it went on. Much in demand as a speaker, Jones was forced to forestall still more invitations by issuing an itinerary for a speaking tour that filled the months of September and October: starting at a camp meeting at Moutsorrel in Leicestershire on the first of the month, he headed on to Leicester, Derby, Northampton, Loughboro’, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottingham, Sheffield and Rotherham – all in the first ten days. Moving up the country, he spoke at meetings in Yorkshire, the North East and as far north in Scotland as Aberdeen, before turning for home once again. Jones needed a rest. As he told the Star (19 October, 1850), ‘I have now visited and lectured at 50 large towns in England and Scotland in as many days’.
There is, however, one further meeting at which Jones was the main speaker which is of interest. On Sunday 20 October, Jones was guest of honour at ‘the first open air meeting that has been held in Manchester since 1848’ (Northern Star, p.8, 26 October 1850). There, in front of ‘an immense concourse of people’ assembled at Campfield, he told a cheering crowd: ‘Some tell you that teetotalism will get you the Charter: the Charter don’t lie at the bottom of a glass of water.’
It seems inconceivable that the Chartist localities that hosted these meetings, often with great ceremony and celebration, failed to present their star speaker with some token of their appreciation. As to which of them might have chosen to do so in the form of engraved pewter mugs, that remains a mystery.
And so, what of the mugs themselves? There are, as far as I can see, no pewter marks anywhere which would help to narrow down where, when and by whom they were made. This is not unusual but it is unhelpful. They are, as the pictures show, of different sizes, standing seven, five and four inches high – and would hold a quart (two pints), a pint and a half-pint respectively. To judge by the dust inside them, they haven’t actually held liquid of any kind in a long time.
Though all are very similar, the smallest of the three has a slightly different handle design, so they may or may not have originally come as a set. And the engraving, though obviously to the same design, has differences in execution. With more space to work on, the largest tankard appears to have been engraved with more skill than the others, and surprisingly, it is the middle tankard which appears to be the least expertly executed. This is apparent in the image of the cap of liberty which, had it no been one of a set of three, might have proved difficult to identify easily.
And finally, though each tankard has taken minor bumps (the lip of the large tankard is off-centre; there is a small dent in the base of the medium tankard), they have survived well for their age. My guess is that they have spent most of their lives boxed up and out of sight.