Politics, Protest and Class, James Ashley (b.1833)

Politics in James Ashley’s memoir is not often spoke about, nor is it elaborated on. One would presume that because of this politics is a factor which doesn’t present itself as entirely relevant to his identity. However this is not the case. Within the 18th, 19th and 20th century political revolution was apparent across many states within Europe. However there has been no political revolution of a violent nature that has occurred within Britain since the civil wars of the 17th century. Although this revolutionary change never happened, other factors of British life in the 19th century which may have had an effect on James Ashley, was the change of social, industrial and cultural development.

Storming of the Bastille prison, the opening event of the French Revolution, on July 14, 1789
Storming of the Bastille prison, the opening event of the French Revolution, on July 14, 1789

Due to the rise of the industrial revolution many social aspects changed. Working class people found more job opportunities, however these were often under disciplined working conditions with extremely long hours of labour. In terms of a social paradox, the industrialized era brought about a rise of the bourgeoisie, through industrialists and business men. This class segregation also had an effect on culture and leisure, which in turn had an active effect on politics. This segregation of class which was made clear by the different leisure pursuits and occupations, only further enhanced Britain’s biased political system, especially in terms of the vote. As before the reform act of 1867, only the respected classes were eligible to vote, which took away any chance of the working class being able to unite and create change. However it was evident that a reform act was going to take place sooner or later, as due to the continuity of monotonous leisure pursuits brought about by long hours of labour, the fear that the bourgeois could hold a greater influence over the working class was felt.

“By the interwar period, social reformers began to worry that ‘passive’ leisure pursuits had helped create a ‘dull’ and ‘apathetic’ working class, circumstances which they feared could provide a fertile ground for fascism” (Beaven pg.1).

James Ashley does not detail the issues of political change which would have affected his life. However he does mention in parts of his memoir, times where he would go and see politicians at public hearings.

“I left bond St. early, going first to a meeting of the Liberation Society at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which began at 6o’c, in order to hear Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, who presided; it was just about the time he was first elected member for Birmingham.” (Ashley pg.23)

Joseph Chamberlain born in London 1836-1914, was a British politician and statesman, whom of which acted as the chief advocate for the Boer war of 1899-1902. An incident which James mentions within his memoir. “And we once more most reluctantly farewelled the professor and family for America. That was just one month before the commencement of the Boer War.” (Ashley pg.43) Through James’s participation of these political public speakings, I can presume that James was very much integrated within 19th century politics. James does not evaluate on political views of his own, so it is hard for me to gain knowledge of how it helped form his identity.

One political change in Britain within the 19th century which may have helped James gain a clearer sense of his identity was the reform act of 1867. An MP debate which took place during the years of 1866-77 consolidated in the idea of allowing the working class to vote. As at the time, like I mentioned before, the vote was only designated for the respectable classes.

“The unreformed constitution had placed irresponsible power in the hands of a few landowners, with a franchise that was either absurdly restricted or that lavished votes on the lowest and most venal of the population” (Saunders pg.92).

Disraeli introduces his reform act 1867
Disraeli introduces his reform act 1867

The idea of the reform act was introduced by Benjamin Disraeli; a British conservative politician who served twice as prime minister during the 19th century. He proposed that the vote should be given to the working class, but only the respectable working class. This excluded unskilled workers who were seen by MP’s as underserving and criminal. To help ensure this ideology was carried out correctly, a qualification of 26 shillings a week was compulsory for a working class man to vote.

“The 1867 Reform Act, which allowed a proportion of skilled working men to vote, propelled the male citizen to the heart of the ongoing discourse on the foundation of democratic principles and their subsequent development in Britain” (Beaven pg.1).

During the year of 1867 James Ashley was both living and working in London and by this time, he had married his wife Jane who had given birth to their first born child Will. I believe the Reform act of 1867 had a massive effect upon James in terms of his identity and his understanding of class. During this period James would have been classed as a respectable working man, as his weekly wage was more than triple the amount needed to qualify. “I found that with my £20 at the Ragged School my income had been £166” (Ashley pg.17) By falling under this bracket of respectability, James would have been allowed to vote. Although he doesn’t mention any participation in voting within his memoir, I would strongly presume he did, as his interest within politics is relevant throughout his memoir.

By James being given the right to vote, it would allow him to gain a greater sense of his identity, as he would now be classed as respectable by a vast amount of society. This I believe represented how far James had come within his life. Starting out as a working class boy in Wales, to becoming a respectable working man, living in one of the most economically powerful cities in the world. In terms of class, I feel that it help put things only further into perspective for James. By hard work and a profound work ethic, James had managed to create a healthy position of financial stability and with it came the respectability, which was arguably equally important as financial security living in 19th century Britain.



Ashley James, Untitled, pg1-50,(c, 12,500 words). Brunel University Library. Vol:1 No:24

Beaven Brad, Leisure, Citizenship and Working-Class Men in Britain, 1850-1945. Manchester University Press. Manchester.2005

Saunders Robert, Democracy and the Vote in British Politics, 1848-1867: The Making of the Second Reform Act. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. Surrey. 2013

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