The Chartist Robin Hood: The Poems of W. J. Linton (1812–97)

By Stephen Basdeo

During the 1830s, in spite of the passage of the ‘great’ Reform Act (1832), most working men could not vote, while women did not enter the equation at this point. So, in 1836, six working men and six MPs drew up a list of demands calling for political and constitutional reform. In its final form, this People’s Charter consisted of six demands: the vote for all working men; the abolition of the property requirement to serve as an MP; equally sized electoral districts; the secret ballot; salaries for MPS, so that working men as well as the independently wealthy could sit in the commons; and annual general elections. The movement—which acquired the name of Chartist—became the first mass working class movement; large-scale outdoor meetings were held which were attended by thousands, and three petitions were launched in the hope that the government would respond to and ratify their demands.

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W. J. Linton–radical and reformer, poet, publisher, and engraver

The Chartists left us with a large body of prose and poetry—much of which was often written by working class people—which sought, through the arts, to inspire its members to soldier on in their just cause in spite of government opposition. One prominent Chartist writer was William James Linton (1812–97). He was born in London to a lower middle class family who, throughout his life, campaigned tirelessly for political and constitutional reform. His politics were overtly radical and bordered on republican, and he often wrote under the name of ‘Spartacus’; it was a telling pseudonym and suggests that he was a proponent of ‘Physical Force’ Chartism, which favoured direct action over ‘Moral Force’ Chartism, which aimed to convince the elites to grant the people’s demands with kind words.

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Outline of the People’s Charter. (c) The Victorian Web

Above all, however, Linton considered himself a patriot. His patriotism was not a narrow patriotism based upon loyalty to the state but rather what Eric Hobsbawm would call the ‘social-democratic’ form of patriotism: loyalty to the people of the nation rather than state institutions. Patriotism in any country often depends upon a thorough knowledge or awareness of a nation’s past events and famous people. When the Chartists looked back to the past, they more often than not looked back to the medieval period for inspiration; Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was the figure who was chosen by them as their main historical forebear, and he was cast as the hero of the people in several Chartist poems and even serialised novels. Less is known, however, about Robin Hood’s place in the movement. I have previously written about ‘The Chartist Robin Hood’ in my analysis of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838), but Linton also appropriated the outlaw’s legend to serve a radical political cause.

The first Robin Hood poem which Linton wrote appeared in The Plaint of Freedom (1852). This was a privately printed collection of poems which circulated only among his friends. Simply titled ‘Robin Hood’, it is part of a much larger narrative of separate but connected poems which trace the onward march of democracy with resistance to tyranny from the ancient period onwards:

Robin Hood

Yet far better in tangled wood

Than palaced with the tyrant’s men;

And nobler than a Norman den

The forest lair of Robin Hood

 

Ay, better even for yeoman good,

Than service under foreign lord,

To roam at will on springy sward

And rouse the deer with Robin Hood.

 

Cease villain! O’er thy woes to brood;

Be woodman’s law thy only friend,

Thy quarry vengeance: out, and bend

A freeman’s bow with Robin Hood!

 

A thankless life in the merry green wood:

Natheless in the shadow of Freedom there

Some worthier hearts may learn to dare

And aim beyond bold Robin Hood.

The poem was written towards the end of the Chartist movement; the failure of the 1848 petition, and the general fading of the movement towards the end of 1851, meant that reformers such as Linton would have to wait until seeing their goals fully realised. Linton’s poem looks back nostalgically to the time of Robin Hood. Although men were not ‘free’ in any sense during this time period—a fact acknowledged by Linton in the poem—there was one spot in England where men might roam free of any tyrants: this place was of course forest lair of Robin Hood. As a reflection of the idea, current among many Chartists in 1852, that there was still work to be done in the cause of political reform, Linton urges his contemporaries to be better than Robin Hood, to aim higher and achieve more, or, ‘aim beyond bold Robin Hood’.

Research tells us that English politics entered an ‘age of equipoise’ in the post-Chartist period. It is certainly true that there was a brief feeling of calm. However, while there were fewer mass meetings, people continued to organise and the question of universal male suffrage did not go away over the next decade. Former Chartist activists continued writing and pushing the cause of reform in the press; Linton wrote several articles for The Red Republican (which also published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto), and Linton himself also founded The English Republic.

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Beginning in the 1860s, things picked up again as several new organisations dedicated to the cause of political reform were founded: The Universal League for the Material Elevation of the Industrious Classes (est. 1863); The International Workingmen’s Association (est. 1864); the Reform Union (est. 1864); and the Reform League (1865). And it was in 1865 that Linton published his next Robin Hood poem entitled ‘An Hour of Robin Hood’, which was published in Claribel and Other Poems:

An Hour of Robin Hood

O for an hour with Robin Hood, deep, deep in the forest green,

With fern and budding bramble waving o’er me as a screen,

In mid-noon shade,

Where the hot-breath’d Trade

Came never the boughs between.

 

O for an hour of Robin Hood, and the brave health of the free,

Out of the noisome smoke to where the earth breathe, fragrantly,

Where heaven is seen,

And the smile serene

Of heavenliest liberty.

 

O for the life of Robin Hood, to wander an outlaw free

Rather than crawl in the market-place of human slavery:

Better with men

In the wildest glen,

Than palaced with Infamy.

 

My life for a breath of Robin Hood, with the arrow before my eye

And a tyrant but within bow-shot reach: how gladly could I die

With the fame of Tell,

With Robin so well

Embalm’d in history.

 

O but to rest, like Robin Hood, beneath some forest green,

Where the wild-flowers of the coming spring on my mouldering heart may lean;

For England’s sward

Is trampled hard

With the journeyings of the Mean.

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Victorian children with rickets–a disease caused by a Vitamin D deficiency and low calcium intake. Notice the ‘bow legs’ on some of the children; rickets causes abnormal bone growth.

The forest is imagined once again as a place of freedom from tyrants. Yet interestingly, the freedom which the forest gives is not only one from overhearing Norman lord but also ‘from the noisome smoke’. This was an era, of course, of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, in the words of William Blake. Very particular to London and many industrial cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, and Sheffield was heavy pollution which sometimes resulted in ‘pea-souper’ fogs which blackened buildings and shut out the sun for days at a time. The heavy pollution was one of the reasons why many children developed rickets, which is deficiency of Vitamin D (it causes ‘bow legs’ and ‘pigeon chests’ in children). This was not the first time that environmental concerns would be expressed in retellings of Robin Hood, for John Keats had famously criticised deforestation in Robin Hood: To a Friend (1818), and recently we have seen the rise of eco-critical studies of the Robin Hood tradition.

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Manchester, c. 1870

The Chartists wanted the right to vote. They had little to say about capitalism in its early years—they aimed to curb its excesses but were relatively speaking happy with the prevailing capitalist economic system. Linton was neither a socialist nor a communist, and criticised both groups in The English Republic. Yet it is clear that some influence from that movement has filtered through subtly into Linton’s poetry with comments such as ‘the market-place of human slavery’. These words anticipate some of the comments about capitalism and ‘the market’ which William Morris would make in News from Nowhere (1888). This being said, while Linton never embraced socialism, after 1848 many former Chartist campaigners took a leftward turn and found a natural home in the socialist movement.

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The Reform Act was eventually passed under Disraeli’s Tory government in 1867

After the (apparently) Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, died in 1865, the government decided to look into how it might extend the franchise. Yet these discussions were just that: discussions. With the passage of working-class suffrage yet two years away and by no means a sure thing when Linton was writing Claribel, we see much anger come through. Linton longs to have a tyrant to aim his bow at and, the story of England’s working class in the modern era is still one of oppression: England’s ‘sward’ is still trampled by the journeyings of the ‘mean’ who cannot enjoy the forest as Robin Hood of old did.


Further Reading:

Linton, W. J., Claribel and Other Poems (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1865)

——, The Plaint of Freedom (London: Privately Printed, 1852)

Sanders, Mike, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

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The Politics of Victorian England’s “Vicious Republican”: G. W. M. Reynolds (1814–79)

By Stephen Basdeo

It’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814–79). His prolific writing career has been overshadowed somewhat by his contemporaries such as Charles Dickens, whose writings, while they manifested a bit of a social conscience, were hardly radical. Reynolds’s name, by contrast, was, in Dickens’s words, ‘a name with which no Lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.

But why was Reynolds’s name so dangerous to a man like Dickens? After all, in their fictional works, they both railed against the injustices of the poor law and the workhouse, the oppression of the working class, and the exploitation of children. They should have been natural bed-fellows. But Reynolds was a committed radical, democrat, and borderline revolutionary who sought a fundamental change in society’s constitution, and importantly not a racist (evident by his comments in Grace Darling, published in 1839, in which he criticises those who believed that black people were inferior). Dickens, who had questionable views on race, was a paid-up man of the establishment who merely argued that the upper classes should be philanthropic where possible. Not without justification did Reynolds call him

“That lickspittle hanger-on to the skirts of Aristocracy’s robe—‘Charles Dickens, Esq.’ —originally a dinnerless penny-a-liner on the Morning.”[i]

(The Morning refers to Dickens’s work for the conservative Morning Post newspaper, which was taken over by The Telegraph in the 1930s). Reynolds maintained a firm and unshakeable belief in the rights and sovereignty of the people. His influences in this regard were writers such as Thomas Paine—the intellectual force behind both the American and French Revolutions—and, having spent the early part of his career as a struggling journalist in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This naturally entailed a belief in the sanctity of the ballot and truly universal suffrage, which for Reynolds also included women—something which would not be achieved until after Reynolds’s death:

“Every community has the right to choose its own institutions, its own form of government, and its own rulers.”[ii]

Of course, in the early Victorian era, few could vote. It is true that the ‘Great’ Reform Act was passed in 1832, which extended the franchise to large sections of the middle classes, or those who either rented or owned property worth 40 shillings. But for the Chartists, this was not enough and they kept on campaigning for vote, and neither should the people accept anything less than full universal suffrage, according to Reynolds.

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Title page to Reynolds’s crime novel: The Mysteries of London

But who were ‘the people’? Interestingly, Reynolds only infrequently uses the term ‘working class’ in his novels and newspaper articles, and opts instead for a much wider term: ‘the industrious millions’.[iii] While Reynolds was a passionate advocate for working-class political enfranchisement, evident through his significant involvement with the Chartist cause, most of the time ‘the oppressed’ or ‘industrious millions’, a term which he uses in The Mysteries of London (1844–48), comprises both the working and middle classes. They occupy a place beneath royalty and aristocracy, as he maintains in the same novel, in which a character named ‘the Republican’ declares that:

“I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”[iv]

Reynolds probably saw something of himself in his republican character. This idea of aristocracy against the people (working and middle classes) is a constant theme throughout his journalism. Both his fiction and his journalism were melodramatic; he had to present a clear ‘bad guy’ or evil class of people, while the industrious millions he depicted as a saintly yet passive oppressed people. It was the aristocracy, in Reynolds’s view, who were responsible for every social ill: poverty, crime, injustice.

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The original incarnation of Reynolds’s Newspaper entitled Reynolds’s Political Instructor. This edition features William Cuffay, the famous Chartist activist, on its front page.

Reynolds’s radicalism evidently looks back to earlier, more bourgeois forms of it which were influenced by the likes of Paine and various French thinkers from the 1830s. So, while Reynolds does often criticise capitalist society and its attendant social ills, he has no advanced theory of the existence of a ruling class and the class conflict between them and the industrious millions. The best he can do is to map his criticisms of capitalism on to older discourses of ‘Old Corruption’. The idea of Old Corruption held—with much justification—that a narrow oligarchy of aristocrats elected by only a very small proportion of the population pursued their own landed interests at the expense of the people-at-large. In Reynolds’s worldview, in spite of the rise of capitalism, it was still the aristocracy who held sway over the people, as he wrote in 1851:

“As I have often said, England is in reality a despotism—this despotism consisting, not of an autocrat, but of an oligarchy—not of an individual, but of a few hundreds of aristocratic families.”[v]

The caveat for Reynolds was the aristocracy consolidated its power by more often than not allying themselves with the capitalists. In some of his later writings we find references to two types of aristocracies: the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of money:

“The Birth Aristocracy sees that the helm is escaping out of its hands; and therefore, rather than allow the slightest chance for the infusion of a democratic element into the system, it will enter into political partnership with the Moneyocracy. This arrangement will be for the perpetuation of tyranny and class-legislation; and the two Aristocracies of Birth and Money will unite with the common object of riveting the chains about the industrious millions.”[vi]

We have to remember that Reynolds’s most biting political commentary came before the first English publication of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848). The first English translation of this was published in the Chartist magazine, The Red Republican, but it would not be until the 1870s, which was the decade that Reynolds died, before a fully-fledged English socialist movement would emerge. It would not be until the writings of Marx and Engels’s found their way into mainstream radical thought in Britain after the 1850s that the idea of class conflict between two classes—a bourgeoisie and a proletariat—would be clearly articulated. Thus, Reynolds’s radical philosophy was an early attempt to diagnose the social ills of modern industrial society while taking into account earlier forms of aristocratic, oligarchical oppression.

Reynolds News
Reynolds’s Newspaper

If we are viewing Reynolds’s politics through a modern lens, we might fall into the trap of thinking that he was what we might call left wing today. Some of his views do indeed correlate with those espoused by prominent members of the left. However, where he would have differed from today’s so-called radicals is in his views on taxation. He was an advocate of what we would now call a low-tax society. One of the primary reasons for this is that he hated the idea that taxes went to fund an idle and profligate monarchy and aristocracy. In an editorial for Reynolds’s Newspaper in 1851, he asked how it could ever be just for the taxes of the working poor should

“Swell the coffers of the Illustrious Beggars and Serene Paupers of Saxe Coburg Gotha.”[vii]

Now, taxes in the Victorian era were, if we look at it objectively, not too onerous. Income tax was first levied during time by the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel at a rate of 7d in the pound. The tax threshold was an income of £150 per year which exempted almost all the working class. Direct taxation was somewhat unpopular in Victorian Britain and some chancellors toyed with the idea of abolishing income it; however, it proved too convenient and lucrative. Yet Reynolds hated all forms of tax: in the middle of many of his novels, he often broke the narrative to enter into a political rant. Perhaps the best articulation of his opposition to all forms of taxes comes in The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (1848):

Taxation is a vampire that loves to feast on the blood of a nation’s heart, and prey upon the vitals of an industrious population. It is an avaricious, grasping, griping fiend that places its finger on every morsel of food which enters into the mouth, on every article of clothing which covers the person, and on everything which is pleasant to behold, hear, feel, taste, or smell! It interferes with our warmth—our light—our locomotion—the very printed paper which diffuses knowledge! It roams over the land to claim its share of the produce of our fields and manufactures and it awaits on the [quays] of our seaports for the unlading of vessels bringing things from abroad. The moment the industry or intelligence of man originates something new, the fiend Taxation overshadows it with its loathsome, hat-like wing. It plunges its hand into the rich man’s dish and the poor man’s porridge … Oh! Insatiate is that fiend, for he attends at the death bed when the will is made, and in the spiritual court when it is proven:—he has his share of the price paid for the very marble which covers the grave of the deceased:—and it is only there—in the grave—that the victim of Taxation can be taxed no more![viii]

In sum, Reynolds was a democrat; the people—the working and middle classes—should be granted the vote. They are prevented from achieving political equality due to the machinations of the aristocracy who conspire with the interests of big capital to oppress the industrious millions. And he hated all forms of tax: it made food more expensive; it restricted the exchange of knowledge through the Stamp Act; and it stifled commercial and industrial innovation.


[i] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’s Miscellany, June (1851), cited in Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1992), p. 356.

[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Duty of the French Republicans’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 29 December 1850, 1

[iii] As he progressed throughout life, however, he does opt for the term ‘working class’ with greater frequency.

[iv] G. W. M. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, 2 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1846), I, p. 70

[v] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Necessity for the Ballot’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 22 June 1851, 1.

[vi] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The People’s Rights’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 13 April 1851, 1.

[vii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘A Word to the “Liberal Minority” in Parliament’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 16 March 1851, 1.

[viii] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (London: John Dicks [n. d.]), ch.5.

Bandits and Robbers of India

By Stephen Basdeo

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British East India Company established a number of fortified trading settlements—“factories”—in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. The trading company boasted its own army and as it sought to increase its influence over Indian rulers and secure ever more favourable trading terms, it regularly got involved in territorial disputes between local Indian princely states, as well as against the French East India Company. When the first “World War” broke out in 1756—the Seven Year’s War, between the Kingdom of France and Great Britain and their respective allies—the British East India Company found itself fighting against the French Company and the Nawab of Bengal’s army.

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Robert Clive and the British East India Company are victorious at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (c) Wikimedia Commons

Had the French and the Nawab of Bengal succeeding in expelling the British company from the subcontinent forever, then the history of Britain in India might be consigned to a mere footnote in history. But the British won: as a result of its victory against the Nawab of Bengal and French East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company annexed the region of Bengal. A vast part of the subcontinent was now under the control of a trading company, and Company rule was confirmed when the Treaty of Allahabad was signed in 1765, when the Mughal Emperor granted the British company the diwani of Bengal—the power to levy taxes on the inhabitants. From this point onwards, the Company expanded and consolidated its power not only over the territories it annexed, but also over the numerous princely states. By the nineteenth century it was clear that the British were there to stay.

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The signing of the Treaty of Allahabad, granting the diwai of Bengal to the British East India Company (c) Wikimedia Commons

Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969) tells us that, in times of political crisis, banditry usually flourishes. This is especially the case in regions of the world which are less urbanised or industrialised, and where the reach of “the long arm of the law” extends only as far as where there is a policeman or some other form of law enforcement to actually enforce the law. Hobsbawm chooses to focus principally upon Southern Italy, Central, and South America; it should come as no surprise to us, however, that in India during the early nineteenth century, banditry likewise flourished during this period which witnessed a number of rapid political changes, during the decline of an old empire and the rise of a new one.

Back in Britain, crime literature was as popular as ever: two lawyers named Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin published a new edition of The Newgate Calendar in four volumes in 1824, with an extended edition comprising five volumes a year later—such was its commercial success. Walter Scott published Rob Roy (1818) which thoroughly romanticised the image of the highland outlaw and freedom fighter. Pierce Egan the Elder (1772–1849) would be making money covering sensational trials alongside his sports journalism. Penny bloods such as those written by G. W. M. Reynolds “exposed” the hidden criminal underworld of the nineteenth-century industrial city.[i] And Charles Macfarlane, in emulation of earlier eighteenth-century criminal biographies, published The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Nations (1833).

Just like it says on the tin, Macfarlane—a travel writer—wanted to shine a light on the lives and careers of highwaymen from Europe and also in England’s newly-acquired dominions in the subcontinent. So alongside tales of Italian bandits we also meet robbers from as far afield as Afghanistan and India.

There is some racialism in Macfarlane’s description of robbers from the Far East. Of “oriental” highwaymen, Macfarlane tells us that

Compared indeed with the hordes—the hosts—the almost nations of marauders in the East, our most numerous troops of [European] banditti sink into the insignificance of mere gangs. Their crimes, too, are tame and colourless contrasted with the full fire of Oriental atrocity.[ii]

This immediately marks out Indian bandits as a lesser and more savage ‘race’ than their European counterparts. In Europe, it was a—ultimately false—but widely held belief that highwaymen would simply rob you but rarely resort to violence. Macfarlane’s words on Indians, however, recycle orientalist stereotypes about the ‘savagery’ and ‘primitiveness’ of people in the East. Of course, when one actually reads Macfarlane’s book, the crimes committed by Indian bandits are no better or worse than those committed by the Italian robbers of whom he was so fond.

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A Rohilla kidnapping a child–illustration from the America edition of Macfarlane’s book

One of the most notorious gangs of bandits in India were the Rohilla, who ‘infested’ the region of Rohilkhand, Uttar Pradesh, in the northern part of India. One of their primary grievances was the fact that, unsurprisingly, they did not like being ruled by the British. On this matter, Macfarlane quoted Bishop Herber who told him that:

The conquest of Rohilcund by the English and the death of its chief in battle, its subsequent cession to the Nawab of Oudh … form one of the worst chapters of English history in India … by all I could learn, the people appear by no means to have forgotten or forgiven their first injuries.[iii]

According to Macfarlane—and we must bear in mind that crime writers in this period were prone to completely inventing the odd fact or five—the Rohilla band were primarily former soldiers who had fought against the British. Feeling angry that the British had taken control of their region, they took to the forests around the foothills of the Himalayas and began to prey upon unsuspecting travellers. In view of the fact that their problems were mainly with the British occupiers, one might have assumed that they would only have targeted British travellers. Yet Macfarlane records that they robbed people of all ethnicities; British travellers, in fact, usually travelled in well-armed convoys, so it was not always wise for them to attack lest they bring the full force of the Company Raj upon them. So we might make a further assumption here that it was Indians themselves who bore the brunt of their depredations. They were most famous, as well, for creeping into villages late at night and stealing horses—an offence of similar magnitude to that of car stealing today.

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Calcutta in 1848 (c) Wikimedia Commons

We must, furthermore, view their political grievances with a pinch of salt: there is evidence that groups like the Rohilla had flourished even under the Mughal Empire. For this reason, B. Cohen describes them more as outlaws-cum-mercenaries, willing to hire out their arms to the highest bidder whatever their grievances might be.[iv]

The English tried all manner of things to catch the ring leaders of this notorious band, including offering a reward of up to 10,000 rupees to anyone who might betray their location. But the local population kept their mouths shut. This shows that the Rohillas were a very successful organised crime group—or a very brutal one. All gangs of bandits usually pay off the local inhabitants to keep them quiet, as Macfarlane told readers in his preface:

Before the reader proceeds further I will warn him that he will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those who occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. He will meet with men strangers to that virtue of robbing the rich to give to the poor. They give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to avoid detection.[v]

These men were hardly the Robin Hoods of their day. They were brutal, cared not who they robbed. They were not even overtly political, thus they cannot be placed into Hobsbawm’s paradigm of the bandit as a proto-revolutionary type of figure. They really were just thugs. Of course, while we describe these men with terms such as “bandit” or “outlaw”, we have to ask ourselves whether, in an era of colonialism when the men were living under the rule of a British trading company—a company described as “the original corporate raiders” by some—who the real outlaws and bandits of the period truly were.


In-Text References

[i] Stephen Basdeo, ‘”That’s Business”: Organised Crime in G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 54–75.

[ii] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (Philadelphia: G. Evans [n. d.]), p. 258.

[iii] Macfarlane, p. 280.

[iv] B. B. Cohen, Kingship and Colonialism in India’s Deccan 1850–1948 (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 16.

[v] Macfarlane, p. 2.

Further Reading:

Basdeo, Stephen, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018)

Hobsbawm, Eric, Bandits, 2nd edn (London: Pelican, 1972)

Howe, Stephen, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Knapp, Andrew and William Baldwin, eds. The New Newgate Calendar, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824)

Scott, Walter, Rob Roy, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1818)

“Confusion, horror, and bloodshed”: Joseph Ritson’s Eye-Witness Account of the Gordon Riots in 1780

By Stephen Basdeo

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noticed that across the English Channel in France, quite a few people are very, very annoyed with the current administration. The people of France, having had a major revolution between 1789 and 1799, and large-scale rebellions in 1830, 1832, 1848, 1871, and 1968, have something of a reputation for rioting.

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Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Yet there was a time that the English were known as the rebellious people of Europe. During the 1700s, riots frequently broke out in the capital; it was an era in which, according to Pat Rogers, ‘King Mob might resume his reign after the briefest interregnum’. One of the worst of these riots was the Gordon Riots in June 1780 when, for just over a week, London was under mob rule. The diaries of a young conveyancer, named Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), who had recently moved to London offer an interesting eye-witness account of those weeks.

Ritson had been a legal apprentice in his home town of Stockton but was encouraged to move to London by his employer, Mr Robinson, because he felt that the young Joseph’s talents and ambition would be put to better use in the capital than they ever could be in a provincial northern town. So, at the age of 23 this young lad, from a poor family of yeoman farmers in Stockton, set off to London on foot with nothing but a knapsack containing two shirts.

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18th-century Stockton

He found lodgings at Grays Inn and, almost immediately as he arrived in 1776, found employment as a clerk in the firm of Masterman and Lloyd on a salary of £150 per year—he was hardly poor on this salary, but he was not exactly rich either. While he no doubt applied himself diligently in the service of his employers, his real passion lay in researching ancient books and manuscripts and writing history books.

There is little political comment in Ritson’s letters until the period of the French Revolution, other than a few snipes at both the Whigs and the Tories. Although he had his own faith, furthermore, he appears to have regarded it as a private matter and rarely passed comment on religious subjects. He was unusual, however; Britain had been a Protestant nation since the sixteenth century and Catholics were forbidden from holding public office, attending universities, or even serving in the army. The establishment was paranoid that any adherent of the Catholic religion might get close to power—Britain had after all gotten rid of its pro-Catholic monarch in 1688 and replaced him with a Protestant King and Queen, while Catholics had largely supported the Jacobite rebels in 1715 and 1745. A large part of Britain’s emerging national identity was founded upon loyalty to the Protestant Monarchy; to be a Catholic in eighteenth-century England must have felt similar to what it was like being a communist in McCarthy-Era USA.

But in 1778, Britain was fighting a war against its Americans colonies who wanted independence, and France who decided to support the Americans. Britain needed soldiers, and so the government—supported by Parliament—thought that it might be expedient to lift the ban on Catholics serving in the army as well as granting them some civil liberties, all contained in the Papists’ Act.

While Ritson paid no heed to what was going on in Parliament, a young Scottish nobleman named Lord George Gordon got angry. He signed up to the Protestant Association—a kind of early modern extra-parliamentary pressure group—and became its president in 1779. He petitioned King George III on numerous occasions to repeal the Papists Act, but the king just humoured him. Annoyed with the rejection of his numerous appeals, on 29 May 1780, Gordon rallied the members of his Protestant Association and marched on the House of Commons to deliver a final petition.

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Lord George Gordon

The anti-Catholic crowd grew in size and eventually numbered 60,000 people. When parliamentarians refused to debate the public’s petition, the crowd got angry and began attacking some members of the House of Lords.

Things spiralled out of control quickly.

Naturally, the young Ritson, who was very close to his mother back in Stockton—who at this point was gravely ill—sought to reassure her that he had come to no harm. After all, news still travelled fast in the Georgian era:

Grays Inn, 7th June, 1780

Dear Mother,

I am very well and am much grieved to find that you should continue otherwise, but hope to God you will soon get better of your complaint … the confusion which reigns here would have prevented me from writing sooner. A general spirit of discontent has long been increasing among the people: it has at last broken out among the lower class in London.[i]

It will be noticed that Ritson here foregrounds the ‘spirit of discontent’ among the poorer classes of people. Yes, he acknowledges later in his letter that he personally saw many ‘Down with the Papists’ and ‘No Popery’ slogans being chanted by the people, and that some very rich Catholics had their homes burnt down, but he registers their primary concerns as being a general disillusionment with the establishment more generally.

gordon_riots

In fact, Ritson only makes a passing comment on the anti-Catholic nature of the riots but instead singles out a few other events which, to him at least, were more representative of the nature of the riots: they were an attack on symbols of state power. For example, Ritson told his mother that,

Five of the mob having been committed to Newgate, and the keeper refusing to set them free, their comrades yesternight, burnt it to the ground, and set not only their own people, but all of the debtors and felons at liberty, three or four of whom were to be executed within these few days … Sir John Fielding’s house was also plundered of everything, and the furniture,, &c. burnt in the street … Lord Mansfield’s house, in Bloomsbury Square, was burnt this morning … Lord Mansfield’s country seat, about four miles from town, is said to be now in flames … destruction has been vowed against the houses and persons of several noblemen, bishops, and gentry.[ii]

In a letter written the following week, again to his mother, Ritson told her that

The same evening on which I wrote my letter to you, but after I had finished and sealed my letter, the mob burnt the Fleet and King’s Bench prisons, and set all the debtors at liberty, and likewise the toll gates on Black-friars bridge, and the greatest part of Holborn was in flames.[iii]

How might the young Joseph Ritson—a lawyer and in some ways a representative of the legal establishment—have avoided getting his house trashed or being assaulted? We do not know exactly, but as riots were common in eighteenth-century London, he might have placed a candle in the window of his rooms. During the frequent riots of the eighteenth century, doing this signalled that you supported the rioters in whatever cause they were rioting over and you could therefore be sure that your person and your property would be safe.

But were the people whom Ritson observed all just Protestant religious bigots? No they were not, and Ritson was right to focus on the protests against symbols of power, and he stated in another place that,

No person any way innocent either has or (except by consequence) will suffer, and most of those whom they single out as examples of their vengeance, have long and deservedly been objects of public detestation, such as Lord Mansfield, Lord North, Lord Sandwich, Lord George Germaine, and others of the present scoundrel ministry.[iv]

(And neither should we be surprised at Ritson’s attitude—he was a self-professed radical and later enthusiastically supported the French Revolution).

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The Gordon Riots – By John Seymour Lucas

Edward P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), having conducted research into the events of June 1780, as well as other riots in the period, refrained from calling the Gordon Rioters a ‘mob’ but opted instead for the term ‘revolutionary crowd’.

Such revolutionary crowds passed through three stages: the first was an orderly march to parliament to deliver their petition; the second was a demonstration against parliamentarians in the immediate aftermath of the petition’s rejection. Governments do not concern themselves too much with phases one and two, other than keeping an eye on the crowd. Most mobs usually end their activities at the second phase and often the movement fades as people go home and realise that they will get no satisfaction from the government today.

The final—and most dangerous phase—of any riotous crowd is when ‘licensed spontaneity’ occurs: people unrelated to the original cause join the mob and at this point, within the crowd, anything goes as far as settling concerns with the rich. During the Gordon Riots too, there was also a significant amount of drunkenness and looting, but this did not turn the population too much against the rioters; in societies where a large part of the population are or feel that they are excluded from political discussion, any actions that the rioters take are generally approved of or at the very least not condemned by the people-at-large. This is what is happening in Ritson’s account. The eccentric bookworm has not participated in the riots himself but he understands that the mob are settling a score with the rich and he feels that they are justified in doing so.

Eventually the army was called in because at this point in time, Britain had no professional police force but relied on a corrupt system of thief takers and bailiffs to uphold law and order. There were some constables charged with keeping the peace, known as Bow Street Runners, who worked out of John Fielding’s Bow Street Magistrates Office, although the punishment meted out to Fielding’s house gives us an indication of what the crowd thought of these guys. The army quelled the rioters: the total costs of the damages inflicted by the mob in just one week totalled £200,000. A total of 32 private homes were destroyed as well as numerous businesses. Ritson’s account offers us an interesting eye-witness perspective on the most notorious riots in London history—an event which has become central to the study of plebeian resistance to the establishment.

Notes:

[i] Joseph Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, ed. by Harris Nicholas, 2 vols (London: William Pickering, 1833), I, pp. 14–15.

[ii] Ibid., p. 16.

[iii] Ritson, ‘Letter VII’, I, p. 18.

[iv] Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, I, p. 16.

Further Reading:

Hitchcock, Tim and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Rogers, Pat, Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift and Grub Street (London: Methuen, 1980)

Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963)

 

The Flemish Revolt: Pierce Egan’s “Quintin Matsys” (1838)

By Stephen Basdeo

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) is one of my most favourite Victorian authors. The son of the more famous Regency journalist and writer, Pierce Egan (1772–1849), he was an artist, illustrator, journalist, newspaper editor and novelist who, although rarely studied or read today, made a significant mark on Victorian popular fiction.

Pierce Egan the Younger pic
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

He was rather fond of outlaws and rebels and liked to tell their stories: throughout the early part of his career he published Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838); Wat Tyler (1841), in which the eponymous rebel is depicted as a medieval Chartist; Adam Bell (1842), a story of a lesser-known medieval outlaw who is said to have lived around the same time as Robin Hood; Paul Jones (1841), which is the story of a man who defects to the American side during the war of independence; and Captain Macheath (1842), which tells the tale of the hero of Macheath the highwayman who originally appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). All of these stories were melodramatic and politically radical tales in which the protagonists fight against an unjust and oppressive government.

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Title Page to Pierce Egan the Younger’s Quintin Matsys (1838)

Before all of these, however, Egan wrote Quintin Matsys (1838).

It was his first literary project and he took an unlikely historical figure for its subject, the Flemish painter Quintin Matsys (1466–1530). Matsys will be familiar to all art history students as the founder of the Antwerp School of painting and some of his most famous works include A Portrait of an Elderly Man (1513), A Grotesque Old Woman (c. 1513) and The Money Changer and His Wife (1514). The first of these has become a popular meme in today’s internet culture while the latter is famous throughout the world.

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The Real Quintin Matsys by Jan Wertrix

Shortly before Egan put pen to paper, a short story fictionalising Matsys’s life was written by A. B. Slous, entitled ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, and appeared in volume one of The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature (1833), so this may have been where Egan got some inspiration from, as the opening chapter in Egan’s novel which tells of Matsys’s early life bears much resemblance to the first chapter in Slous’s short story.[1]

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

Yet Egan’s was no dry novel about the life of a painter. Matsys starts out in the novel as a humble and starving painter but becomes embroiled in a revolution against the noblemen of the City of Antwerp. Matsys leads a secret society of men known as ‘Redressors’ who punish noblemen who commit wrongs against the working and middle classes of Antwerp and its surrounding regions. Issues come to a head when a (very melodramatic and characteristically bad, scheming, and evil) aristocrat has Matsys’s future father-in-law arrested on a spurious charge of treason.

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

After this, the Redressors lead the middle classes and working classes to the barricades in which they drive out the bad aristocrats and their private armies from the city. The many illustrations which accompanied the novel—which Egan engraved himself—are in fact highly reminiscent of the imagery of the French Revolution of 1830 (not the ‘big’ French Revolution of 1789 but the one featured in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor steps in and brokers a truce between the classes; when the working classes and bourgeoisie have secured certain political rights, Matsys is able to devote himself full time to the profession for which he would become famous. This is what might be termed an ‘origin’ story if we were talking about pop culture today.

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Young Quintin considering one of his paintings in Egan’s novel

Obviously, Egan intended this novel to be a commentary on the politics of England at the time, and not those of Belgium and there are allusions in Egan’s text to ‘the present day, when society is, in all its relations, as opposite as it can possibly be to that which 400 years since existed’.[2] And there is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that the historical Quintin Matsys ever led a revolt against the nobles of Antwerp.

However, this did not bother the authors of penny bloods like Egan as they regularly made stuff up anyway.

Egan’s radicalism is more of a pre-1832 style of English radicalism; the cause was the political enfranchisement of the people at large, and their struggle was conceived of in terms of a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the workers, with their main enemy being the aristocratic political establishment. This is the politics of Henry Hunt and those in attendance at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, 1819; it harks back to a time in British politics when, prior to the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, the workers and the middle classes had indeed allied together to campaign for the vote. But ever sneaky, the British establishment used that classic tactic of divide-and-rule; they gave the vote to some middle-class householders (those who owned or rented property worth more than forty shillings), which left poorer people out in the cold. So, the working classes had to organise themselves, and in 1836, the London Working Men’s Association was formed to secure the vote for the working man, and two years later the Chartist movement was born. Egan’s depiction of the middle classes and working classes working together, writing as he does in 1838, suggests that he believes such an alliance is still possible.

Much emphasis is placed by Matsys and his fellow rebels upon the ‘rights and sovereignty of the people’ and ‘the people’s liberties’. The people of course are the working and middle classes, but the generalised idea of the people and of liberty recalls not only Henry Hunt but also Thomas Paine. The Chartists likewise drew upon such language, but it has to be remembered that the movement was not fully formed at the period when Egan’s novel began its serialisation in early 1838, and later, it was the terms of the People’s Charter which the Chartists most emphasised. And in Egan’s Wat Tyler, we see a firmer idea of a ‘Charter of Liberties’ with specific demands, while it’s left a little more hazy in the early Quintin Matsys novel.

More research is needed into the early works. As we noted earlier, all of Egan’s early novels—Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, Adam Bell, and Paul Jones—include revolts against ‘the powers that were’. The fact that the revolt in all of these novels, but most markedly in Quintin Matsys and Wat Tyler, is led by men of the middle and working classes gives us an insight into radical ideas in what is often a rather understudied phase in English working-class history and thought between the 1832 Reform Act and the emergence of Chartism.


[1] A. B. Slous, ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, in The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature, 1 (London, 1833), pp. 668–70.

[2] Pierce Egan, Quintin Matsys, The Blacksmith of Antwerp (London: W. Barth [n.d.]), p.179.

See also: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’, in Imagining the Victorians, ed. by Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, 15 (Leeds: LCVS, 2016).

Life of a Little-Known Chartist

While the main focus of this website is crime, since the publication of my book, The Life and Legend of Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018), I have been increasingly interested also in nineteenth-century radicalism; what was once a passing interest now shares equal space (in my head) with the lives of brave Chartists and rebels. There is of course much overlap with Robin Hood and radicalism (see my post on Joseph Ritson), and in the story below, you’ll see that the local Tories probably did set fire to someone’s business in order to win an election.

While I was researching the book on Wat Tyler, I came across this biography of an old Chartist leader named “Rex” who was interviewed by a correspondent for The Social Democrat (a socialist   publication, although the Chartists were not socialists) in the 1890s and was recalling his youthful activist days.

For those who do not know: Chartism was the first mass working-class political reform movement who had six demands on their Charter:

  • votes for all men;
  • equal electoral districts;
  • abolition of the requirement that Members of Parliament be property owners;
  • payment for M.P.s;
  • annual general elections; and.
  • the secret ballot.

While the movement had fizzled out by the 1850s–and perhaps succeeded by the emerging socialist movement–it will be noticed by eagle-eyed readers that all-but-one of their demands have been implemented in Britain. So, not a “failed” movement after all.

This may not shine a light on the lives of forgotten criminals, but as a social historian, it does shine a little light on those forgotten from history (and even rare in that we have a picture of him!)

The following article appeared in The Social Democrat in 1897:


REX THE CHARTIST

The Social-Democrat

April 1897

“This strange, eventful history.”—SHAKESPEARE.

Who is he?

One who fought that you may be

Freedom’s child:

Bore the Torch of Liberty

Undefiled:

Bore it well and bore it long,

In a world where Greed and Wrong Curse the Weak and aid the Strong

This is he!—R

An old man sits before me. His hand is shrivelled, but his mind is strong; with a heart as responsive as over to Reason and to Right!

“Who is he?” He is none other than “Rex, the Chartist!” Born March 31, 1806—ninety-one years ago.

Rex lost his mother at the early age of six. He received no actual school education; it was only for the absolutely well-to-do children of those days. Yet Rex was fortunate in having for his grandfather a remarkable man; in politics an ardent radical, in religion a thorough Tolstoyite—ignoring the Old Testament, but accepting the precepts of the New, and, what is more, thoroughly practising his Christianity. Rex also received much enlightenment from an exiled Irish schoolmaster who, suspected of stealing a pheasant from a preserve, had to quit his native land whore, as a matter of fact, he had never stolen anything. It was this Mr. Kelly, a very clover man, who, with his exceptionally able grandfather, a Jacobin, and famous fighter for Freedom, nominated young Rex as a member of the famous Quakeress, Hannah Pink’s Select Library. Therein Rex revelled, reading and acquiring knowledge. Indeed, at the age of seventeen he know the histories of Greece and Rome by heart, besides many other and varied masterpieces of English literature, reading until two o’clock in the morning—a practice he long continued.

In 1820, Rex was apprenticed to the cabinet-carving, in which he excelled. But what a reward! Ono shilling a week for the first year; half-a-crown for the seventh! And the hours—four a. m. until six p.m., with a continuous “overtime” until ten!

And it was Britain who freed the blacks!

The absolute integrity of Rex caused his master’s customers to prefer the employee to the dissipated employer. So they set Rex up in business and gave him their custom. It was then the young man married; becoming too the acknowledged sage of the village, where at the inn would gather the “advanced democrats” to hear Rex read the famous Bronterre O’ Brien’s journal, The British Statesmen, and other literature.

Perhaps no better proof of Rex’s sincerity can be given than in the fact of his becoming a total abstainer. Hearing John Cassell, as famous then as a temperance crusader as his children now are as publishers in London, Rex, on economic as well as ethical grounds, felt he had no right to be asking for Democracy greater rights when the rights they already possessed were prostituted by the abuse of alcoholic drinking. Thus, in November, 1833, Rex became an ardent abstainer, remaining so ever on ward.

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The image of Rex which accompanied the article about him in The Social Democrat in 1897

In 1837 Rex went to Taunton. Here he met Benjamin Lucraft. Thanks to Rex, with whom he worked, Lucraft became an active member of the Working Men’s Peace Association, to which, of course, both men belonged. Of that association Lucraft eventually became secretary, receiving a true reward for his long services. In Taunton, Rex worked hard for the cause of the people; and this notwithstanding he was employed by those utterly opposed to him. His fame as a workman brought him next in the employ of the member for Bridgewater, Colonel Tynt, yet he never lost a moment in expounding his political theories.

About now Rex joined the Complete Suffrage Association, the difference between this body and the Chartists being that, whereas the Chartists were in favour of annual, the Complete Suffrage Association were in favour of triennial Parliaments-neither, by the bye, accomplished facts as yet! Rex next became an employee of the Earl of Egremont, where he proved himself an excellent craftsman and agitator! At length our study settled in Taunton.

In Taunton Rex met Chartists. A society was formed and the fact that no employee could vote without the risk of displeasing his employer, who knew exactly how that employee voted, so annoyed the Chartists that they determined to force local Liberals into pressing upon their party the necessity of the [secret] ballot. Brannan, a Bideford man, and Rex were deputed to wait on the Liberals.

“We were,” said Rex, “treated with scorn and contempt, being told we were only an insignificant body of men!”

”Ah,” said Rex in retiring, “You have refused our appeal, but we will make you repent it!” And, by Jove, they did, for at the next General Election, Sir J. Labouchere, relative of the present member for Northampton, and a member of the Government, with Sir John Colebrook, were severely punished—the Chartists who, on poll-day, had gone for a holiday into the country, returning in the evening to learn Colebrook bad been succeeded by Arthur Mills, the Tory, by five votes; while Sir J. Labouchere had his former majority reduced. “Give us our demands, and not play with us,” said Rex, and that demand the Liberals granted after being punished for their jeer and sneer!

In 1848 a meeting was called “for the reconciliation of the working and middle classes (comrades, don’t laugh!). To that congress Rex was sent, and it was there, Rex thinks, he met George Julian Harney, the brilliant journalist, democrat, and humanitarian, of whom Rex had heard so much and read a deal.

Perhaps of all the treasures which adorn the wall of Rex’s humble habitation, none are held as sacred as the portrait of the eloquent Ernest Jones, given to Rex by the veritably great democrat lawyer on his appearance at Exeter many years ago. There is a deep pathos Rex’s opinion of Jones: “He was a noble fellow—a grand man. I really loved him!” One of those wonderful indomitable spirits whose whole being is a continuous sacrifice for others. Like Rex, who was repeatedly offered a permanent sinecure by aristocrats and the Government if he would “only renounce his stupid views,” Jones, as every student of history knows, refused a heritage of £2,000 a year rather than abjure the faith reason had endowed him with. Proudly Rex points to the life and writings of Jones, laying special emphasis upon the fact that what the advanced thinker is still struggling for Jones long ago advocated at the cost of being prematurely killed by bigotry and persecution in its vilest form.

Here I cannot help expressing my surprise at the fact that, as in the case of Shelley, no monument commemorating the splendid life of Ernest Jones, poet, patriot, politician, has been erected by neglectful democracy. And here I must express passages of Jones’s, doing so at the desire of Rex himself:—

“I believe in the progressive development of the human mind. I believe the human race possesses one great collective life, having its infancy and ripening to its manhood; and I protest against demanding from the infancy of nations that which their maturity alone can achieve. I protest against measuring the child by the standard of the man … I will meet him [Professor Blackie] on the ground he himself has chosen. I will go with him to ancient Greece. I will follow him to classic Rome. I will accompany him to revolutionary France … And I will undertake to show that in them all democracy has been the founder and saviour of the people’s greatness.”

Again:

“I proclaim a new crusade; a great crusade; the greatest ever known. Not for the mouldering tomb of a buried God, but the fresh green altar of the living Deity. Arise! Sound with me the signal note tonight which shall make those ramparts rock on their foundation. The people’s land shall be the people’s own!

Yet again:

“What gross injustice, for society counts woman as nothing in its institutions. And yet makes her bear the greatest sufferings infested by a system in which she has no voice. Brute force first imposed the law, and moral force compels her to obey it.”

Finally, Ernest Jones’s opinion on labour and capital:

“Two things are necessary for the production of wealth—labour and capital. It is, therefore, argued that capital has paramount claims, since without capital, labour would be useless. Perhaps so, but let us examine what capital is, whence it arises, and to whom it belongs. The earth itself is the fundamental capital of the human race, which, in return for labour, yields them, as interest, the means of life. Labour is capital; every working-man, the poorest in existence, is the capitalist of labour-power, and claiming as a right a share in the general capital of mankind—the soil, the air, the waters, and the things that in them are. The only fair day’s wage is the wage you pay yourselves. The only fair day’s work is the work that is free.”

Wonderful prophet, Ernest Jones. It is 1851, and thus he writes:—

“Men of America, the sad ruin is germinating in your land. You are following in the wake of Tyre, Carthage, Rome-of Venice, Spain, England!”

“He know then what America of today would be,” says Rex, who is not wrong. This is the genius Rex loved, who was, too, his bosom friend! Any wonder?

The city of Exeter is a cathedral city. It was a cathedral city when Rex resided in it. And it had a bishop and it had a blackguard! Semper Fidelis is the motto of Exeter. Yes, and “Ever Faithful” it seems to have been to the poor, honest, well-intentioned democrat. Not only was he maligned and derided and stoned, but he was, with premeditation, absolutely ruined by a vagabond who, without doubt, was aided and abetted by men of position who hated Rex because of his political views. At Exeter Rex was well known as an eloquent and earnest reformer. Here, on behalf of the Local Optionists, he was deputed, with a schoolmaster, to wait upon the sitting members for the city—Mills, ex-Tory MP for Taunton, who, of course, knew Rex, and Sir J. Karslake, the well-known lawyer. On being introduced, Arthur Mills said significantly, “Oh yes, I know Mr. Rex; I have met him before!” But he knew ”Mr. Rex” still better, perhaps, after the election, for the future Lord Chief Justice Coleridge and Edward Bowring, having agreed to the desire of the deputation, were preferred to the sitting members, and sent in their places to Parliament. And the Rex who had caused the Tories of Taunton joy in seeing Arthur Mills their MP caused the Tories of Exeter the mortification of seeing the same Arthur Mills their ex-M.P. You can comprehend, then, why Mr. Mills knew of Rex, can you not?

“We shall never get our men in Parliament till Rex is gone,” said the Tories of Exeter. To get rid of him, of course, was the subject for consideration. Rex does not say the Tories burned his house down and ruined him and his family. He does not say so. He prefers to be the sailor’s parrot. That same parrot who heard Shakespeare utter in one of his philosophic moods—”Give thy thoughts no tongue.” Two or three times the factory of Rex was fired; eventually it was destroyed. And the vagabond whose name Rex gives to me as having done the deed never worked again, possessing means ever after. The fire insurance offices, too, refused, after the first attempt, to further insure, saying the factory would surely be burned. Rex, driven from Exeter, left a ruined man, having lost in all twelve hundred pounds. And this, too, in this boasted land of liberty. Yes—assuming that liberty is dominated by political orthodoxy.

Since 1875, I think it is, Rex has eked out an existence in Plymouth. As I hear the lark soaring to salute the light of heaven, I think what a war and what a peace! A plebeian fighting for the poor and rewarded with poverty. Nor stands Rex alone, for as I write comes an appeal to aid noble, old George Julian Harney, who gave wealth, leisure, happiness to the same cause as Rex. And as I look at the excellent wood engravings Rex has lent, and which were given away with the Commonwealth, “the organ of the Reform movement”—portraits of The O’Donoghue, M.P., Charles Braudlaugh, Potter, MP., Ernest Jones, E. O. Greening, Colonel Dickson, Langley, Merriman and others—I ask myself, “Is Demos worth serving?” and from the grand great dead of a buried past, and this fine old veteran before me, comes one united voice:—”Fear no man; follow truth!”

I confess I felt cynical as I bade adieu to the grand old subject of my paper. There, surrounded by his books, in which he still takes a deep interest, I feel how neglectful of the honest, brave, good this world is. Here is a man—a man to the backbone—one who has given his life—money, pen, time—for the benefit of his fellow-being, yet who has been left to eke out an existence that would have spelt poverty itself were it not for a few friends and two clever girls of his, who hold premier positions on the English stage as ladies of the ballet, who have been admitted by the London and provincial Press to be excellent in their art—girls true to their honourable profession, as their father was to his. The reverence of these children is only equalled by the love of the parent, who proudly points to their photo, saying, ”They are good girls, with all the old strength and fire of their father—”

“Not yet dead, yet!” I interject.

“My dear boy, not yet begun to grow old, who will run over to Heath’s and have his photo taken for you—ay, will write you an article for the paper, if you like! What are you laughing at? I mean it. Why, what do you think me, a confirmed in valid?”

“Goodbye, Rex, old fellow, you are a masterpiece!”

I passed into the busy street with mixed feelings of wonderment and regret—wonderment at the still fiery old fellow of ninety-two and regret, disgust that the lives of Jones, of Harney, and of Rex should have been thrown away on behalf of Carlyle’s thirty millions—mostly fools!

Yet, when I take a farewell glance of this old veteran, whose love for his fellow-creatures is still phenomenal, I think—

In the dawn of that tomorrow when this hollow age is past-

Greed, the God alike of Pagan and the Christian, dies at last;

Then, perchance, no more this struggle will the myriad toilers see,

But the prayer of One who uttered “As in Heaven on Earth for Thee”

Not the hypocritic churches, not the bigotry around,

Not the mother and the maiden and the child in serfdom bound,

Nor the noblest once of Nature, Man, as now the brute and worse,

Sacrificed on Mammon’s altar, victim of the robbers’ curse:

In the dawn of that Tomorrow, then, perchance, the race may learn

What THE CHILDREN OF THE DESERT did to win The Promised Bourne! — Rean


Citation: Anon., ‘Rex: The Chartist’, The Social-Democrat, no. 4 (1897), 99–103.