1820: Disorder and Stability in the United Kingdom Malcolm Chase (Manchester University Press, 2013)
Think of the years of revolutions or revolutionary outbursts in modern European history.The places and years that come to mind are France in 1793 and 1968, Russia in 1905 and 1917, and many different countries in 1848.However, Malcolm Chase, Professor of Social History at the University of Leeds, asserts that the British Isles underwent another such large-scale conflict in the year 1820.
Indeed, this was a time of great turmoil, as demands for reform long bottled up by the lengthy French and Napoleonic Wars became much stronger.One episode in August 1819 is of particular significance: local authorities crushed a large-scale peaceful demonstration in Manchester in that month, with a number of fatalities.The political repercussions went on for years afterwards.A wag of the time combined the location's name, St. Peter's Field, with the end of 'Waterloo,' and it became forever ironically known as "Peterloo".
The Tory government of the day was against political reforms such as extending the franchise, and instead launched a series of repressive measures to stifle dissent.Part of that effort was the prosecution of the leaders of political demonstrations like the one in Manchester.These trials took place in the spring of 1820, and many reformers believed that they were the beginning of a new era of despotism.
So the first few months of 1820 were marked by many, and largely secret, activities by radicals in London, areas of northern industrial England, and especially western Scotland about what should be done.We know of this because the government's informers and spies monitored the situation closely and their reports are in the National Archives in London.
Events unfolded rapidly, beginning with a sensational discovery of an assassination plot to wipe out the entire Cabinet while they dined at a private house in London's West End.This was the infamous Cato Street Conspiracy, easily foiled by the government as they had an informer (probably an agent provocateur) inside the plot.Then in the first two weeks of April there were uprisings, albeit small-scale in some instances, in the West of Scotland and the West Riding of Yorkshire. These episodes have long been known to historians, who have examined them in national and regional studies (Berresford Ellis and Mac A'Ghobhainn, Donnelly and Stanhope).
What is new and original in Malcolm Chase's book is his broader approach, since he also deals with coincident Ribbonmen agrarian disturbances in Ireland.In addition he places these British Isles events in the wider context of troubles on the European Continent.At the same time Chase mainly avoids--unnecessarily, in my opinion--the micro-study of motivations in specific incidents of rebellion.His is a vision of the broad national and international context.
Here the reader needs to read Chase closely, as not all rebellious connections and coincidences are of equal importance.The evidence is solid for co-ordination of radical activities between northern England and parts of Scotland.The evidence for the Cato Street conspirators' links to radical schemes elsewhere in England is almost as strong.Connections between British radicals and Irish Ribbonmen are weak.Likewise, organisational links between radicals on either side of the English Channel are not strong.
Nevertheless, there were important connections.English and Scottish radicals saw it as a sign of things to come when the Duc du Berri, heir to the French throne, was assassinated in February 1820 and later that year revolutions took place in Spain, Portugal and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.Meanwhile, Parisian crowds were shouting slogans in commemoration of Peterloo.Malcolm Chase has done a masterful job of reconstructing Radical expectations for significant political changes in the year 1820.
He also analyzes some of the political cartoons of the era (eight of which are reproduced in the book) and very usefully explores the offerings of the English theatre in this time of trouble.It is clear that promoters of this art form saw to it that audiences had a steady diet of plays about corrupt politicians, betrayal in high places, political assassination, and Queens whose honour was in question.
Chase offers a solid interpretation of that strange episode of 1820, the Queen Caroline Affair.Briefly, the new King George IV wanted to rid himself of his estranged wife before his coronation. Divorce proceedings were not an option, so he brought her to trial before Parliament in a procedure known as a Bill of Pains and Penalties.The result was a huge public relations disaster for both monarch and government.
The testimony about the Queen's various indiscretions scandalized respectable opinion in both England and Scotland.Some government ministers did not allow their daughters to read the newspapers while the trial was in progress.There was also an unprecedented explosion of pamphlets and cartoons.
Radicals took the side of the Queen, presented her with petitions and gifts, and made public demonstrations of support.According to Chase, this is not the whole story, as support for the Queen extended beyond the most politically disaffected and included the middle ranks of society.He interprets the strange "Caroline fever" as a national communal celebration, a social bonding exercise enabling people to get round the government's ban on demonstrations, and, briefly, an aligning of the Whig party with "the people".
Another dimension to Chase's book is his attempt to tell the story with some sympathy from the top down, from the perspective of the government.Here he parts company with early 19th century radicals and many recent historians who saw that particular Tory administration as one filled with corrupt anti-reformers, apologists for repression, and sanctimonious hypocrites.As Chase points out, the administration saw their repression as a necessary temporary measure that would save Britain from military despotism.The author is at pains to explain the complex forces at work ensuring political stability in the United Kingdom.These included political repression, efficient management of sometimes stretched military resources, some beneficial reforms to the Poor Laws, and the reluctance of the Whig Opposition to challenge for power.There was also the return of good harvests, so important in a still largely agricultural economy, from 1820 onwards for the next several years.
This is a very scholarly book that offers a number of new perspectives on the post-Peterloo era, a period not well understood in our histories.--Fred Donnelly
References and further reading:
P. Berresford Ellis and S. Mac A'Ghobhainn, The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 (London, 1970).
Fred Donnelly, "The Yorkshire Rebellion of 1820: What Caused It?", Albion, vol. 4, Issue 2 (Summer, 2007)
John Stanhope, The Cato Street Conspiracy (London, 1962).
Review of H V Morton's What I Saw in the Slums In 1931 the career of Henry Vollam Morton, Britain's foremost travel writer of the age, took a surprising turn. This politically conservative author of light-hearted travelogues and chronicler of all that was bright, uplifting and positive about interwar Britain suddenly upped sticks after a ten-year career at Beaverbrook's Daily Express and left to join the Daily Herald, a left-wing paper and principal organ of the British Labour Party and Trade Union movement. He had been head-hunted by the paper's owners to become one of the Herald's new "Star Reporters", in an effort to improve its image, widen readership and attract much-needed advertising revenue.
The first fruit of the new partnership was conventional enough as another of Morton's famed travelogues: In Search of Wales was published in 1932. The following year, however, Morton's style changed dramatically with the production of Labour Party Pamphlet VII, compiled from his 1933 Herald columns and entitled What I Saw in the Slums.
A modest, softback pamphlet containing numerous advertisements for Socialism in Action Pamphlets, the Labour Party and the Daily Herald("A Powerful Paper means a Powerful Party"),What I Saw in the Slums was unprecedented for Morton. This was Morton with a social conscience, exposing greed and squalor in the slum cities of England. Gone were the winding byways and cosy villages so familiar to his loyal audience; instead, they now read dramatic tales of sordid back-to- backs, cockroaches and poverty. Morton's fame was being employed to highlight one of the greatest social ills of the age -- the slum problem -- and he seems to have relished his assignment.
In the introduction he describes the publication as "a perfectly frank account of a short journey through the slums of six great industrial cities of England."Morton adopts a politically neutral stance from the start, declaring that he is not a member of any political party and is simply describing the conditions he sees. That way, he hopes, the work will be accessible to readers of all political faiths.
The book is a well-structured whole despite its origins as eleven separate articles, and is illustrated throughout with photographs by James Jarché. The reader is first taken to Birmingham, where conditions are bad enough, but as different cities -- Stoke, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds -- are visited in turn, conditions grow steadily worse (with Glasgow briefly mentioned as a shadowy spectre of a place, where conditions are even poorer). Then, just before the end, there is a glimmer of hope as Morton praises the Labour council of Sheffield, which has brought gas lighting to the slum courts and begun effective slum clearance. Sheffield's slums, reports Morton, are still "frightful" but at least something is being done.
In true Morton style, his language tends occasionally to be somewhat overblown for modern tastes (one of the chapter titles is "Tenements of ghastly tragedy"), but his writing still excels. He paints a sympathetic, non-judgemental picture of the people he meets as they struggle to maintain some dignity in the most difficult circumstances, and his gift of description is as powerful and evocative as ever: "The hot, sweet reek of overcrowded bodies came creeping down the stairs like an assassin"; a child has "lovely blue eyes the colour of speedwells". At one point Morton is told by a veteran of the Great War that conditions in the slums are worse than those in the trenches because his wife and children are there with him, experiencing the same horrors. However, Morton doesn't rely on rhetoric alone, and, as would be expected from a journalist of his calibre, this passionate account is well-researched, with good use of statistics and hard figures for rent, wages, transport and health.
There are recurring themes throughout What I Saw in the Slums, as Morton expresses his feelings about what he sees. The slums themselves, thrown up cheaply to serve the commercial boom of the 1800's, are repeatedly described as an industrial by-product, the residents as "machine fodder."
Then there is "municipal housing," a supposed solution to the slum problem which, Morton argues, is no solution at all. Slums grew up where they did to be close to places of work, and rehousing tenants to far-off council estates with prohibitive rent and transport costs, while well intentioned, was doomed to failure.Morton proposes instead that slums must be razed to the ground for onsite rebuilds, and what is more, he contends that the problem cannot be left to the vagaries of commercial forces. In his view only state intervention will bring much-needed change: "Slum clearance is a duty, not a business proposition." At times his rhetoric verges on the revolutionary, as he suggests that the country should rise up and demand the abolition of the slums.
Morton's greatest contempt is reserved for the real villains of the piece, the misbegotten landlords. He is quite clear that the tenants' situation is no fault of their own: "If morality is to enter the question, I would point to the slum landlords rather than to the people who live in slums."The amount of penny-pinching horrifies him. One tenant, whose only light is a candle and only source of water a communal pipe outdoors, informs him that the rent varies from week to week to account for an odd farthing. Morton is incensed: "I would rather sit down to table with thieves and murderers than with the people who wring their money from misery," he writes. His profound hope is that these "dungbeetle landlords" will be publicly exposed, vilified and jailed -- or worse.
To anyone familiar with Morton's better known publications such as In Search of England, this obscure work, outspoken and opinionated, comes as a bit of a contrast, to say the least. Morton was a gifted and experienced journalist who could always do full justice to any assignment that he undertook, but this transformation did not come about simply as a result of a new editorial direction, and his change of mood was not only apparent in What I Saw in the Slums. According to biographer Kenneth Fields, Morton felt a need at the time to step out of his comfort-zone.He found that he "... could no longer ignore the terrible poverty and unemployment that was evident throughout Britain. Unlike the Express, which he believed had become obsessed with rich celebrities, working at the Herald now gave him the opportunity to write about the life of the working-man" (Fields, 2003).
What I Saw in the Slums has never been reprinted, making it today one of Morton's rarest and most collectible works. Anyone lucky enough to come across a copy of this heartfelt little piece of history will find their search is well rewarded. Whatever the politics or social purpose behind it, this is a well-written work by one of the time's foremost authors, and is a fascinating and very informative exposé of conditions in an England which, not long before, had promised "Homes Fit for Heroes" to a war-weary generation.--Niall Taylor
References and further reading:
Bartholomew, M., (2004) In Search of H.V. Morton, London: Methuen.
Fields, K., (2003) H.V. Morton: The Life of an Enchanted Traveller, Self published
It is difficult to approach reading a politician's reminiscences without some trepidation, a fear that a self-serving treatise awaits --a painting in the best possible hue of the protagonist's involvement in historical events, in order to excuse or justify past failures and misdemeanours. This memoir by former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson, however, is an altogether different beast from the usual political memoir. As the subtitle suggests, the focus is on Johnson's formative years, and he does not seek to explain or contextualise any of the narrative in terms of his later political beliefs or involvement. Rather, it is a very personal account of his early life that, despite the deprivation and ill fortune described, is remarkably free of bitterness. Instead, he merely tells the wrenching and heart-warming story of his impoverished upbringing in the post-war slums of Notting Hill, North London, a childhood dominated by two female characters--his mother and older sister--who cared for him as best they could in their dreadful circumstances.
Alongside the loving depiction of these two stoical and admirable women, Johnson manages to portray his errant and largely absent father with a cool and analytical detachment that, whilst barring no holds in terms of portraying the awful impact of his behaviour on his family, does not demonise but rather seeks to explain (as well as an abandoned son can) the influences on his behaviour and lifestyle, and to provide as rounded a view of his character as possible.
It is incredible, from the perspective of an early twenty-first century reader, that such deprivation persisted through into the late fifties and even the early sixties, at a time when Macmillan was telling his countrymen that they had never had it so good: here was a child growing up in the capital city in a house that had been condemned as uninhabitable decades earlier. It is a truly shocking story, depicting a time when exploitative landlords such as Rachman held sway, taking advantage of the working-class as well as the newly arrived West Indian immigrants, who had little choice but to accept the high rents and poor living conditions.We get a vivid picture of London in the 1950s and 1960s: the impact of the first waves of immigration from the ex-colonies, and the contrast between working-class districts and the vastly differing worlds just a few blocks away.Johnson's mother had a cleaning job in Knightsbridge, which gave her son an insight into how the other half lived, as well as the precious opportunity to access the museums of South Kensington.
Johnson manages to tell his tale without veering into the sentimentality or self-obsession often associated with the so-called 'misery literature' that has become rather prevalent over recent years. He is too self-aware and gifted a writer for that.Instead, he manages to evoke life for families who, for a variety of reasons, may have fallen on hard times in the post-war period of austerity. In doing this Johnson shows how, despite general increasing prosperity and the introduction of the welfare state, the day-to-day lives of many ordinary working people could so easily be blighted by poverty, hunger and insanitary housing conditions. That he does not seek to draw pointed political judgements or conclusions makes the memoir all the more compelling and human. The focus remains on the fortitude of his female relatives in providing a loving home and security against all the odds, a personal and humane story shot through with warmth for these two women.
It would be intriguing to read the next stage of the story, how 'this boy' became the public figure we have since come to know --first a postman, then the union leader who worked his way up to be Home Secretary in a Labour Government, and so very nearly to the leadership of the Labour Party itself. The increasing rarity of such a background for a leading politician makes it all the more intriguing. This, coupled with Johnson's obvious gift for writing, makes this reviewer hope that the wait for the second instalment of Johnson's memoirs will not be long.--Steve Cox