Everyone of course loves to investigate appearances of the name of Robin Hood in medieval court records. One of these days, it might finally be proven who the “real” Robin Hood was by combing through these patchy records of medieval England.
Yet Robin Hood, whether he was real or not, is significant because he is a symbol. So, appropriations of his name in later centuries, by foundlings, Anti-Corn Law Activists, or angry letter writers, are significant because they are simply one means of highlighting the longevity of the legend.
Below is the text of a poem entitled “The Vision”, written by a man who called himself Robin Hood, which appeared in The Penny Satirist in 1841. Victorian newspapers and magazines, particularly those which catered to a working-class readership, often solicited poems from aspiring writers.
The Penny Satirist, and its sister magazine, The Satirist, were quite controversial in their day. They devoted themselves to exposing the scandals of the aristocracy and upper middle classes, as well as aiming to offer a working-class radical critique of contemporary political issues. Issuing from the presses of Chartist newspaper publishers, made it one of the less “respectable” Chartist-sympathizing papers.
The Penny Satirist ran between 1837 and 1846, after which its popularity as a satirical journal was eclipsed by the bourgeois-radical magazine, Punch.
Clearly, the name of Robin Hood here, as it was in centuries past, is still being used as a symbol of resistance against an oppressive elite.
I look’d—and the Sons of Pride stalk’d past,
In their gauds and glittering sheen;
But stormy passions and baffled hopes
In their restless eyes were seen!—
And again I look’d—and a phantom ship
O’er a dark and shoreless sea,
Was bearing them on, while the arch-fiend’s voice
Yell’d out—“For Eternity!”
Then the vision changed—and methought I saw
A blissful valley trod,
By all who with meek contrite hearts,
Walk humbly with their God!
Down a beautiful vista lighted up
With unearthly splendours came,
The mingling music of seraph’s harps,
And songs of loud acclaim!
As nature with mental strife o’erpress’d
The chains of slumber broke,
A still small voice from viewless lips,
In solemn sweetness spoke:—
“Remember the phantom ship—and beware
The doom to which pride condemns,
And school thyself to become as the meek,
Whose jewels are sacred gems!”
Leeds, March, 1841. Robin Hood.
Citation: Robin Hood, ‘The Vision’, The Penny Satirist, 17 April 1841, 3.
Further Reading: Mike Sanders, ‘No Laughing Matter: Chartism and the Limits of Satire’, in Nineteenth-Century Radical Traditions, ed. by Joseph Bristow, Josephine McDonagh (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), pp. 21–36.
I recently came into possession of a book written by Thomas Cooper (1805-92), a famous Chartist activist, which he gave to his friend, the newspaper proprietor and fellow Chartist, John Cleave (1790-1847).
Chartism was the first large-scale working-class political reform movement in Britain who had six demands, which they laid out in their People’s Charter: votes for all men; equally-sized electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that MPs be property owners; payment for M.P.s; annual general elections; and the secret ballot.
Leaders of the movement held mass meetings in public places but the movement was also supported by a great corpus of literature including novels, newspapers and periodicals, poetry, and songs. Most of this literature was written by people who hailed from the working classes.[i]
Thomas Cooper was one such man. He was born in Lincoln in 1805 (he was the childhood friend of Robin Hood novel author, Thomas Miller, also from Lincolnshire) and from a young age was a shoemaker’s apprentice. While he was an apprentice, he educated himself by reading a range of literature including history books, fictional works, and poetry. He excelled in English studies and by the age of 23 became a schoolmaster with a side-job as a journalist. By all accounts he was a fiery man and very passionate about whatever subject he was preaching about, and was in a large part responsible for turning Leicester—where he went after his years at Lincoln—into a Chartist stronghold when he became active in the movement.
And so we come to the book itself. Cooper was passionate about the movement he joined and employed his literary talents to promote its message. In the midst of the General Strike in 1842—a nationwide strike that began in the northern manufacturing districts and spread throughout Britain—Cooper arrived in Hanley, Staffordshire to deliver a speech to workers assembled there and declared that
All labour cease until the People’s Charter becomes the law of the land.
This was incendiary stuff in an era when unions, or ‘combinations’, were legal but members could often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs did in the 1830s. Many arrests were made in the aftermath of Cooper’s speech, and Cooper was among those arrested and he was sentenced to two years in gaol for sedition due to his part in the ‘rising’.
It was in gaol that he wrote The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme, which was then published three years later in 1845 after his release. The theme of the poem is taken from the speech which Cooper gave at the meeting: Slaves Toil No More!
Slaves toil no more!—why delve, and moil, and pine,
To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?
Slaves, toil no more—to win a pauper’s doom!
And while the millions swear, fell famine’s gloom
Spreads their haggard faces, like a cloud
Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:—
How ‘neath its terrors are the tyrants bowed!
Slaves toil no more—to starve!—go forth, and tame the proud![ii]
The poem, written in Spenserian stanzas, in emulation of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590–96), sees Cooper exploring various forms of government while conversing with people who had committed suicide throughout history (and who were in purgatory), including Judas Iscariot, Emperor Nero, and the late Lord Castlereagh on what the ideal form of government was—whether it be monarchical, republican, or democratic and in the words of Stephanie Kuduk:
The energy of the poem builds through its strophe and antistrophe movement between descriptions of contemporary political reality and investigations of its historical and philosophical roots. This movement culminates in a final dream vision of a peaceful republican revolution, brought about by the enlightenment of the people through the agency of “Knowledge” and poetry.[iii]
So, where at the beginning of the poem, Cooper referred to his fellow workers as ‘slaves’, the poem at the end has a more upbeat tone:
Spirits, still more rejoice!—for pain and woe
Are gone and universal life doth bloom
With joy!—The dream o’erwrought me to a throe,
Of bliss—and I awoke to find my home
A dungeon,—thence, to ponder whence would come
The day that goodness shall the earth renew,
And Truth’s young light disperse old Error’s gloom,—
When Love shall Hate, and Meekness Pride subdue,—
And when the many cease their slavery to the Few![iv]
The influence of Percy B. Shelley’s earlier poem, The Mask of Anarchy—written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819—comes through in the lines about the many versus the few, of which we repeat the final lines here:
When Cooper was released from prison two years later, he decided to publish the poem. In the preface to the first edition he (quite sarcastically) thanked his government captors for giving him the time to finish a poem which he had been planning to write for a couple of years:
My persecutors have, at least, the merit of assisting to give a more robust character to my verses,—though I most assuredly owe them no love for the days and nights of agony I endured from neuralgia, rheumatism, and I know not what other torments,—occasioned by a damp sleeping cell, added to the generally injurious influences of imprisonment.[vi]
Only 500 copies of the first edition were printed. This was not an unusual number of copies printed for a first edition of a work by a (at this point) relatively minor author. Just like publishers do today, authors receive a number of copies of their own works which they can distribute to friends and family gratis. The copy of Cooper’s work which I have was given to his friend John Cleave, and inscribed on the front end paper is the following message:
From the author to his respected friend,
Mr. John Cleave.
Oct. 20th, / 45
John Cleave was a member of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC), ‘a major reforming organisation’ which counted among its members radical publishers such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, and of course, Cleave.[vii]
Cleave was also the editor of several newspapers over the course of his career: Cleave’s London Satirist, Cleave’s Penny Gazette, and Cleave’s Penny Police Gazette. His sympathies most definitely lay with the radicals and the Chartists—before striking out on his own, Cleave had collaborated with Henry Hethertington on The Poor Man’s Guardian. He was also a businessman, and was not only a newspaper proprietor but also owned a coffee shop and a book shop, which was based at 1 Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, London.
Just like Thomas Cooper, Cleave had also had his own brush with the law. When Cleave’s business was at its height, the Stamp Act was in full swing; this ‘tax on knowledge’ was a duty placed on paper, and newspapers had to pay it if they printed news. Publishers of serialised popular fiction were exempt from paying it, which is why many cheaper ‘news’ papers often combined light entertainment in the form of serialised novels as well as commentary on political and social issues. Yet Cleave continued to publish newspapers without paying the tax, and for this he was imprisoned for short spells in Newgate gaol twice, in 1834 and again in 1836.
Cleave refused to pay the Stamp Tax because, along with believing that all working men and women should have the vote—unusual even among radicals at this point—he also believed that the key to building a democratic society was through the education of the masses, and in this his newspapers had a role to play. The idea that the spread of knowledge would emancipate the working classes is found throughout Cooper’s poem, which is probably why Cooper gave a copy of his book to his ‘respected friend’.
Cleave died in 1847, and it is not known what happened to the many books he possessed. The particular copy I have in my possession made its way across the Atlantic at some point, for I purchased from a bookseller named Ann Kruger in the USA. This is strange as neither Cleave, nor his daughter Lucy, who married Chartist activist Henry Vincent, ever appears to have taken a trip to the USA, although the Vincents’ descendants have now settled in New Zealand. This is what perhaps makes antiques, and books in particular, special: you never know who has ‘thumbed the pages’ before you. Also, we often know of these working-class writers and publishers through their printed works, yet they leave very few physical mementoes behind, so it is nice to know that something Cooper himself touched still survives.
Cooper lived on until 1892, and during this time published several works of prose fiction and poetry. He turned more to religious matters and was a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). In later life, by the time that he wrote his autobiography entitled The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (1872), Cooper was still a committed democrat and advocate of social justice, and counselled readers at the end to
If you have any money to spare, give it away to relieve the wretched; they abound on every hand. Give yourself up to your work, and live for that only. Go and sell all you have and follow your Master, and you shall have treasure in heaven.[viii]
[i] See: Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Ian Haywood, ed., The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, rev. ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); Ian Haywood, Working Class Fiction: from Chartism to Trainspotting (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997).
[ii] Thomas Cooper, The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme (London: Jeremiah How, 1845), p. 1.
[iii] Stephanie Kuduk, ‘Sedition, Chartism, and Epic Poetry in Thomas Cooper’s The Purgatory of Suicides’, Victorian Poetry, 39: 2 (2001), 165–86 (pp. 165–66).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 inNews 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“This strange, eventful history.”—SHAKESPEARE.
Who is he?
One who fought that you may be
Bore the Torch of Liberty
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.
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.”
“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!”
“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.
In 1381, England was on the brink – the poor suffered the effects of war, the Black Death, and Poll Tax. At this time the brave Wat Tyler arose to lead the commoners, forming an army who set off to London to meet with King Richard II and present him with a list of grievances and demands for redress. Tyler was treacherously struck down by the Lord Mayor. His head hacked from his shoulders, pierced on a spike, and made a spectacle on London Bridge. Yet he lived on through the succeeding centuries as a radical figure, the hero of English Reformers, Revolutionaries, and Chartists. ‘The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler’ examines the eponymous hero’s literary afterlives. Unlike other medieval heroes such as King Arthur or King Alfred, whose post medieval manifestations were supposed to inspire pride in the English past, if Wat Tyler’s name was invoked by the people, the authorities had something to fear.
If you buy it, I hope you enjoy it and are likewise inspired to learn more about the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.