Though feeble as individuals, they form a power united (Engels)
Since a young boy, Joseph witnessed working- class families suffer with hardship, as well as suffering himself, so it makes sense that he would become drawn to the Chartist movement. Despite his chaotic schedule, he found time to attend public meetings that centered on this topic and even gave lectures on the subject. He describes joining the group ‘heart and soul’ (Terry, 65), aspiring for a changed future with no undeserving inequality. But, who was he joining? What exactly was Chartism?
Chartism was a movement that formed in 1838; it was the first movement that gave the muffled voices of the working-class a platform and strived for a political democracy. The movement extended across the whole nation but was particularly strong in Joseph’s home county of Yorkshire, also home to multiple chartist leaders. The movement strove for, and announced themselves to be, a non-violent organization. However, not all Chartists agreed with this pacifistic approach; Chartist leader Feargus O’Conner not only condoned the threat of physical force but believed it to be an asset for their movement. O’Conner’s radical nature was quite notorious having been incarcerated at York Castle for 15 months in 1840.
As we know already, Joseph did not support the use of violence; he was ‘opposed to anything like physical force’ (Terry, 65), especially when used as a tool to propel oneself. For him, other means, such as verbal communications or peaceful protests, were far more successful and they aligned with his religious beliefs. The sort of violence that was associated with O’Conner and Chartism did not conform with his religion since it opposed ‘the Spirit of Christianity’ (Terry, 65). William Henry Maehl states that Chartism used a ‘language of menace’ (Maehl 102), instilling a threatening tone to their voice in order to be noticed. This association with hostility was enough to deter many from the movement and, the little Joseph writes on this subject could suggest it did the same for him. We must remember, he did have a large and ever-growing family to think about.
Every steady industrial man over twenty-one had a right to a vote…
Being unable to vote in political elections and having your voice continually ignored would induce a great anger for which there was no outlet. The Chartist movement was working people’s opportunity to use this passion and release the rage that was only gaining momentum. It was their first chance to be listened to; to be made to feel as if they were worth listening to.
Joseph strove for the working-class right for suffrage and spoke against those who claimed otherwise. He writes of a Reverand Mr Phillips of Brighouse Church who declared that voting was not a right for all and instead a ‘gift’ for the few that ‘the Almighty had blessed with wealth’ (Terry, 65). Mr Phillips’s perspective that the poor should just accept their lowly fate is one that Joseph did not agree with. Our author vilified Mr Philips’s viewpoint by stating how ‘God had made all men equal… every man over the age of twenty-one had the right to a vote in selecting the men who made the laws he was bound to obey’ (Terry, 65). In particular, Joseph had ‘strong hopes for the amelioration of the condition of the workers’ (Terry, 65). He and his family enduring dangerous conditions at sea may have been his motivation to become an activist in hope of assisting future generations. Through many lectures on this subject, and often lecturing instead of giving his sermon, Joseph endeavoured to improve the conditions for labourers
The Chartists showed a remarkable courage in the face of adversity… established a tradition of class struggle in Britain on a scale not seen before (Charlton 86)
In ‘The Chartists: The First National Workers’ Movement’, John Charlton refers to Chartists as showing ‘a remarkable courage’ despite the party being ‘too weak and underdeveloped for it to pose real problems for the rulers’ (Charlton 86). It seems that Chartists were fighting a losing battle since they did not possess enough power to shift the balance and were unable to achieve the equality they desired without help from the middle or upper-classes. However, it would be unjust to denounce this movement and suggest that it made no contribution to working-class lives as the publicity it created for their rights was not forgotten. Charlton describes it as being the ‘single most important factor in reshaping political attitudes’ (Charlton 84).
The Chartist movement achieved something of great importance and that is the unifying of the working-class. This unity meant they were now able to ‘reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it’ (Charlton 86). By being aware of your oppression you are more readily able to fight it and, in years following, they accomplished five of the six demands that were on The People’s Charter. If it were not for the passion that Chartism ignited, the ‘optimism and rage’ (Charlton 86), this may not have occurred.
The importance of coming together and working as a team is essential if you desire change as the individual alone is not powerful enough to do so. We saw just how crucial it is when Joseph relays the sinking of his family’s ship as he had ‘no recollection that any of the men laid on a helping hand’ (Terry 6). His mother and brother nearly lost their lives as the water engulfed them but, this incident need not have been the close call it was. If they had all came together as a team, instead of only looking ‘to save themselves’ (Terry 6), the trauma would have been considerably less. As opposed to struggling individually you can become ‘a power united’ (Engels 89).
Joseph embodies the determination that is associated with the Chartist movement, as it was his relentless work that enabled him to rise through the ranks. He stood behind the Chartist beliefs not only for himself but for his friends, family, and especially for George, Louisa and his six(!) other children who deserved to live in a society where their voices were heard.
Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Penguin Classics, 2009.
Charlton, John. ‘The Chartists: The First National Workers’ Movement (Socialist History of Britain). Pluto Press, 1998.
Kemnitz, Thomas Milton. ‘Approaches to the Chartist Movement: Feargus O’Connor and Chartist Strategy’. Supplement,1889.
Terry, Joseph. ‘Recollections of My Life’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection
Image reference: Feargus O’Connor, Chartist leader from Ireland. (Accessed 25/01/2016)
Image reference: Chartist poster, ‘Peace, Law, and Order’. (Accessed 25/01/2016)
Image reference: ‘The Charter: Established by the Working-Classes’. (Accessed 25/01/2016)