William Kilburn’s 1848 Chartist Daguerreotypes

William Kilburn's Daguerreotype photo of the Chartist meeting at Kennington Common on 10 April 1848
Figure 1: William Edward Kilburn, Great Chartist meeting at Kennington, 10 April 1848. Source: Royal Collection Trust.
Early photograph of Chartist meeting at Kennington Common in 1848.
Figure 2: William Edward Kilburn, Great Chartist meeting at Kennington (second image), 10 April 1848. Source: Royal Collection Trust.

Remarkably, a pioneering photographic record survives of the culmination of one of the most significant days in England’s nineteenth-century political history—William Kilburn’s fascinating Daguerreotypes (Figures 1 and 2 above) of the Chartist mass meeting held at Kennington Common (now Kennington Park), London on 10 April 1848.1William Edward Kilburn, ‘The Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, 10 April 1848’ [two Daguerreotypes], Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 2932484 and RCIN 2932482. Among the earliest photographs of a crowd, these historic images of a demonstration widely feared of precipitating insurrection have received occasional attention from scholars since they were rediscovered in the Royal Collection in the late 1970s; however, surprisingly little detailed analysis has been published to date.2See, for example, David Goodway, London Chartism, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 141–42. We also know comparatively little about Kilburn—or what his motivations might have been for recording the Chartists in such an unprecedented manner. While a lack of explicit docu­ment­ary evidence doesn’t help in this respect, we can speculate upon his motives for doing so. Close examination of the two extant images also reveals some surprising detail that helps us understand the (supposed) revolutionary intent of the Chartist leadership on 10 April. A final issue raised by historians—but not addressed satisfactorily to date—is whether the Chartist photographs were, in fact, the first of a crowd. As we’ll see, it’s clear that they were not although this finding does not lessen Kilburn’s technical achievement or the significance of his work.

10 April 1848

Chartism was a working-class mass movement that sought democratic reform of the British electoral system (primarily by giving all men the right to vote).3See generally Malcolm Chase, Chartism: a new history, Manchester, 2007; Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, Aldershot, 1986. When revolutions erupted in various European states in early 1848 the Chartists organised a popularly-elected National Convention (or anti-parliament)4See Thomas M. Parssinen, ‘Association, convention and anti-parliament in British radical politics, 1771–1848’, English Historical Review, 88, 1973, pp. 504–33. which met near Fitzroy Square in London.5The 1848 Convention took place at the Scientific and Literary Institution at John Street (now Whitwell Street, Fitzrovia). Its proceedings are available online. Having virtually a lone voice in parliament (Feargus O’Connor) and relatively few adherents with the actual right to vote, the Chartists relied upon in­tim­idat­ory mass action and the petitioning of parliament to attempt to sway political opinion. Accordingly, Convention leaders planned a display of force at Kennington on 10 April prior to marching upon parliament to deliver the National Petition. Similar ‘monster’ petitions were pre­sented in 1839, 1841 and 1842 and, like its forbears, the 1848 petition was signed by millions and demanded radical reform of parliament.6See generally P. Pickering ‘”And Your Petitioners & c”: Chartist Petitioning in Popular Politics’, English Historical Review, Vol. 116, No. 466, 2001, pp. 368–88.

In wake of the tumult in Europe and rioting in London, Glasgow, Man­chest­er and elsewhere, the Russell Whig government increased penalties for sedition, banned the proposed Kennington meeting and made extensive defensive preparations in the capital involving the army, police and about 85,000 special constables.7For a classic narrative overview of this period see Elie Halévy, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century—IV, Victorian Years 1841–1895, trans. E. I. Watkin, London, 1961, ch. 5; for special constables see Goodway, London Chartism, p. 136 and elsewhere and R. J. Swift, ‘Policing Chartism, 1839–1848: the role of the “Specials” reconsidered’, English Historical Review, Vol. 122, No. 497, 2007, pp. 669–99. Undeterred, and supported by sympathetic trades and expatriate Irish nationalists, the Chartists asserted their con­stit­utional right to meet and petition parliament and, on the morning of Monday 10 April, the rank and file gathered at Kennington as planned.8Times, 11 April 1848, p. 5; Northern Star, 15 April 1848, pp. 6–8. Chartist leaders journeyed from the Scientific and Literary Institute in a specially-built wagon at the head of a large procession; another wagon carried the National Petition. At Kennington Feargus O’Connor met with senior police and was told that the meeting could proceed but the crowd would not be permitted to march over the Thames and upon parliament.9Times, 11 April 1848, p. 5; Northern Star, 15 April 1848, pp. 6–8. As Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists, p. 323 points out, existing laws prohibiting the presentation of mass petitions to (or conducting political meetings within a one-mile radius of) parliament had not been enforced on similar occasions in the early 1840s; the obvious difference in 1848 was the recent European revolutionary context. Amid some dissent, O’Connor persuaded the Chartists to abandon the planned march to Westminster and, after the meeting ended, the petition was delivered without fanfare or violence.10Times, 11 April 1848, p. 5; Northern Star, 15 April 1848, pp. 6–8.

Anti-Chartist poster, 1848.
Figure 3: Anti-Chartist poster admonishing workers not to attend the Kennington meeting, early April 1848. Source: Public Record Office.

From the day of the meeting the attendance at Kennington (estimated variously from 10,000 to 300,000 people!) was contested in the liberal, conservative and radical-Chartist press.11Goodway, London Chartism, pp. 136–37 gives estimates published in a range of newspapers. Over the next few days, the 300 kilogram National Petition was examined by a parliamentary Select Com­mit­tee who claimed it had less than half the supposed five million sig­nat­ures.12See Parliamentary Debates (House of Commons), Messrs. O’Connor and Cripps, 13 April 1848; Times, 13 April 1848, pp. 5, 7; 14 April 1848, p. 4; Examiner, 15 April 1848, p. 243. While extended popular radical mobilisation had contributed to the limited franchise extension encapsulated in the 1832 Reform Act, in 1848 the Chartists’ demands were (once again) summarily rejected. Further incremental expansion of the franchise did occur in the later nineteenth century, but many working-class men were denied the vote until the the final year of the Great War (and many women for another decade after that).

Early historical accounts of the events of 10 April 1848 in London tended to reiterate the view taken at the time by a relieved establishment—that the inflated petition, the exaggerated attendance at Kennington and the failure of the Chartists to march upon parliament amounted to a political ‘fiasco’ which, ultimately, signalled the end of the movement.13See, for example, Mark Hovell, History of the Chartist movement (1925), Manchester, 1963, p. 292. More recently, historians have explored late Chartism in a more nuanced fashion and concluded that insurrection was, in any case, never seriously contemplated by mainstream leaders in April 1848.14See John Belchem ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the collapse of the mass platform’ in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson, eds, The Chartist experience: studies in working-class radicalism and culture, 1830–1860, London, 1982, pp. 269–310; Goodway, London Chartism; see also Henry Weisser, April 10: challenge and response in England in 1848, Lanham, 1983, pp. 291–300 for an overview of the debate upon insurrectionary intent. As we’ll see below, under close examination Kilburn’s photographs reveal some interesting detail that tends to support the modern scholarly view. Before looking at these issues, Kilburn’s background and his relationship with the Royal family need to be outlined.

William Kilburn and the Royal Family

Despite being one of the first photographers to work for the British Royal family, William Kilburn remains a quite obscure figure: no detailed bio­graph­ical scholarly research has appeared to date.15But see Frances Dimond and Roger Taylor, Crown & camera: the Royal family and photography, 1842–1910, Harmondsworth, 1987, pp. 27–29; David A. Wooters, ‘Daguerreotype Portraits by William E. Kilburn’, Image, Vol. 33, 1990, p. 21. Briefly, he was born at Ely Place, London, in 1818 to Catherine (1787–1874) and Thomas Kilburn (1786–1830).16Digitised Image (Ancestry.com), London Metropolitan Archives, Christchurch, Register of Baptism, Guildhall, DL/T/Ms 10115, Item 14, page 99, entry number 794, William Edward Kilburn (born 28 November 1818; baptised 3 February 1819); Digitised Image (Ancestry.com), Household of William Kilburn, 1871 Census, England, Civil Parish of Whitwell, Hampshire, Class RG10, Piece 1170, Folio 43, Page 13, GSU roll 827801. Thomas was a warehouseman and merchant whose Irish-born father William (1745–1818) was a skilled illustrator who became a successful calico printer; by the time Chartism emerged in the late 1830s, the extended Kilburn family was relatively prosperous having connections with East India trade and the London banking and insurance industries.17Payne Kenyon Kilbourne, The history and antiquities of the name and family of Kilbourn (in its varied orthography), New Haven, 1856, pp. 45–46, 54–55, For William Kilburn senior see Ann Christie, ‘A taste for seaweed: William Kilburn’s late eighteenth-century designs for printed cottons’, Journal of Design History, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2011, pp. 299–314; E. Charles Nelson, ‘William Kilburn’s calico pattern, copyright and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine‘, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 4, 2008, pp. 361–73. At the time of the 1841 census William described himself as an accountant resident with his widowed mother, siblings and servants at Haverstock Terrace, Hampstead.18Digitised Image (Ancestry.com), 1841 Census, England, Household of Catherine Kilburn, Civil Parish St John, Hampstead, Middlesex, Class HO107, Piece 674, Book 1, Enumeration District 1, Folio 10, Page 13. William married Louisa Ludlam Tootal in 185419Digitised Image (Ancestry.com), Marriage Register, St John Hampstead, William Edward Kilburn and Louisa Ludlam Tootal, 18 May 1854, page 73, entry 146. and they had three children.20Digitised Image (Ancestry.com), Household of William Kilburn, 1861 Census, England, Parish of Marylebone, Middlesex, Class RG 9, Piece 89, Folio, 112, Page 37, GSU roll 542571; Digitised Image (Ancestry.com), Household of William Kilburn, 1871 Census, England, Civil Parish of Whitwell, Hampshire, Class RG10, Piece 1170, Folio 43, Page 13, GSU roll 827801. Louisa was a member of a prominent textile manufacturing family and subsequent census records suggest that the Kilburns enjoyed a comfortable middle-class existence attended by house­hold servants and a governess.21Household of William Kilburn, 1861 and 1871 Censuses; Digitised image (Ancestry.com) 1881 Census, England, Household of William Kilburn, Whitwell Civil Parish, Hampshire, Class RG11, Piece 1185, Folio 95, Page 10, GSU roll 1341290; Digitised image (Ancestry.com), 1891 Census, England, Household of William Kilburn, Whitwell Civil Parish, Hampshire, Class RG12, Piece 896, Folio 57, Page 9; GSU Roll 6096006.

Kilburn first photographed the Royal family in April 1847 and Prince Albert purchased the Chartist Daguerreotypes the following year.22Ann Lyden, A Royal passion: Queen Victoria and photography, Los Angeles, 2014, p. 28; email communication, Asst. Curator of Photographs, Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle, Berkshire, 28 February 2017. As noted earlier, the two surviving photographs of the Kennington meeting appear to have lain forgotten in the Royal Archives for many years—in 1978 Gus Macdonald noted that (one) Kilburn photograph had been ‘only recently unearthed’.23Gus Macdonald in Camera: a Victorian eyewitness, London, 1978, p. 66. Despite Kilburn’s images very likely being the earliest extant photographs of mass political protest, it was not until 2016 that the first chapter-length study by Jo Briggs appeared.24Jo Briggs, ‘All that is solids melts into air: representing the Chartist crowd in 1848’ in Novelty Fair: British visual culture between Chartism and the Great Exhibition, Manchester, 2016, ch. 2. While this remains the most detailed account to date, Briggs primarily is concerned with what might be termed the aesthetics of representation rather than my interest in the wider political context.

Figure 4: William Edward Kilburn, Portrait of Prince Albert, 1848. Source: Royal Collection Trust.

Unfortunately, we do not know how or when Kilburn developed an interest in photo­graphy—or who trained him. That said, from early 1847 he became one of the few licensed Daguerreo­typists working in London.25Presumably, Kilburn negotiated a licence with Richard Beard (who purchased the English rights to Daguerre’s patent in the early 1840s). Note that John Hannavy’s brief entry upon Kilburn in the Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography, Vol. I (A-I), New York, 2007, p. 797 claims that he was working as a photographer ‘before’ 1846 but no evidence is adduced to this effect; the earliest docu­mentary reference to Kilburn’s photographic enterprise that I’ve located is an advertisement published in the Morning Post on 10 February 1847. It’s also clear that Kilburn rapidly became an accomplished practitioner, garnering Royal patronage within a couple of months of commencing operations at 234 Regent Street. Initially, Kilburn specialised in portraits colour-tinted by the French miniaturist Léon Mansion (André Léon Larue) who had pro­vid­ed the same service to Antoine Claudet, one the earliest commercial photo­graph­ers in Britain.26For Kilburn and Mansion see Standard, 17 February 1847, p. 3; for Mansion see Laura Claudet, ‘Colouring by hand’ in John Hannavy ed. Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography, Vol, I (A-I), New York, 2008, pp. 322–24. Figure 4, a portrait of Prince Albert taken in 1848, is a good example of Kilburn and Mansion’s collaborative work. Securing Royal patronage so quickly likely was of great benefit to Kilburn’s early career and, ultimately, his clients included the renowned Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, prominent politicians such as Richard Cobden and Benjamin Disraeli, and other famous Victorians such as Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens.27Numerous digitised portraits by (or after) Kilburn can be found in the National Gallery Collection; see also Wooters, ‘Daguerreotype portraits by William E. Kilburn’. William’s elder brother Douglas (1811–71) also became a pioneer photo­grapher in the Australian colonies, commencing operations in Melbourne soon after William opened his first London studio.28Argus, 20 August 1847, p. 3. Douglas and his younger brother Charles originally appear to have emigrated in 1840. South Australian Register, 25 April 1840, p. 4. Charles later returned to England but Douglas settled in Australia; in addition to his photographic work he was a magistrate and (briefly) a member of the Tasmanian parliament. Later operating from 222 Regent Street, in 1861 William was still styling himself ‘Photographer to the Queen’ but he also had other business interests and, by the end of the decade, he had retired to the Isle of Wight where he died in 1891.29Hampshire Advertiser, 19 December 1891, p. 4; Household of William Kilburn, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 Censuses. In the 1871 census Kilburn described himself as a ‘Retired merchant’ and in 1881 a ‘Retired Merchant E. India’. His partnership with his brother Henry and William Kershaw in the family firm Norton, Kilburn and Co., East India Brokers, was dissolved in December 1859 (London Gazette, 3 January 1860, p. 16). A later business partnership with John Wilson (trading as John Wilson and Sons, Linen Warehousemen), was dissolved in February 1871 (London Gazette, 7 April 1871, p. 1819).

Figure 4: William Edward Kilburn, Portrait of Prince Albert, 1848. Source: Royal Collection Trust.

Given that Victoria, Albert and their children variously sat for Kilburn a number of times between 1847 and about 1852, why did this relationship come to an end? A speculative answer lies in the Queen’s increasingly ambivalent (and even somewhat troubled) attitude to being photographed by the early 1850s. Kilburn first photographed the Royal family at Buck­ing­ham Palace on 22 April 1847.30Journal entry dated 22 April 1847, Queen Victoria’s Journals (Princess Beatrice’s copies), Vol. 23, p. 122, Royal Archives, Bodleian Libraries & Proquest digital version. Despite utilising the Palace green house to make the most of a clear Spring day, he was unable to successfully capture Victoria and Albert’s relatively young children; on the other hand, Victoria found her likeness ‘very successful’ and, a few months later. Kilburn claimed to have been appointed ‘Photographist to Her Majesty and His Royal Highness Prince Albert’.31Journal entry dated 22 April 1847, Queen Victoria’s Journals (Princess Beatrice’s copies), Vol. 23, p. 122, Royal Archives, Bodleian Libraries & Proquest digital version; John Bull, 5 June 1847, p. 360; Times, 9 June 1847, p. 9; Wooters, ‘Daguerreotype Portraits by William E. Kilburn’, p. 21. By early 1852, however, Victoria had become overtly self-conscious about her appearance, describing her likeness in one Kilburn family portrait taken at Windsor Castle in February 1852 as ‘horrid’ (as can be seen from the surviving Daguerreotype, she also seems to have erased her face from the offending image).32Journal entry dated 17 January 1852, Queen Victoria’s Journals (Princess Beatrice’s copies), Vol. 33, p. 33, Royal Archives, Bodleian Libraries & Proquest digital version. Further, in two roughly contemporaneous Kilburn portraits, also of the monarch and her five eldest children, Victoria completely obscured her face in a most uncon­ven­tional manner by posing in profile while wearing a bonnet. The Queen’s plainly unsettled relationship with the camera c. 1852 perhaps explains why Kilburn seems to have disappeared from Royal orbit at about this time.

Composition and Content

When the Daguerreotype process was introduced to the public in 1839 it required excessively long exposure times that precluded even controlled studio portraiture; however, chemical processing innovations by various early photographers in Europe and the USA soon reduced exposure times substantially and made commercial studio portraiture viable from 1840.33A classic account of early technical developments can be found in Beaumont Newhall, The history of photography: from 1839 to the present, New York, 1949. Despite being complex—and potentially very hazardous—the Dag­uerreo­type process was used by the majority of early professional photographers and, by 1848, William Kilburn was able to utilise the maturing technology to capture the large outdoor demonstration with surprising clarity. How­ever, there is also some obvious ghosting of moving detail in both the Chartist images (suggesting that exposures of a couple of seconds or so were required on the day). Although very little documentary evidence appears to have survived in relation to the capture of Kilburn’s Chartist photographs, considerable planning and preparation likely were required to execute them so successfully.

Both Daguerreo­types are standard half plates (11 by 15 cm) but also are quite detailed (particularly under magnification, a characteristic of the form). The rear of Figure 2 is inscribed ‘Great Chartist Meeting at Ken­ning­ton April 10, 1848’ and ‘Taken from nature’ (the adjunct intimating the extraordinary technical achievement represented by both photographs). When examining Daguerreo­types it’s important to note that most (in­clud­ing Kilburn’s Chartist photographs) are laterally reversed media. The composite landscape image of Figures 1 and 2 below (Figure 5) has also been digitally reversed to give a more natural perspective of the total panorama Kilburn captured at Kennington, looking east from near the Common’s western boundary.

Figure 5: Composite and laterally reversed image of Kilburn’s Chartist photographs.

Both photographs are similarly composed but Figure 1 (at left in composite Figure 5) has a more northerly aspect than its twin. Presumably, the main portion of the Chartist crowd features in each; substantial bodies of people also are visible at the Common’s eastern periphery. The similar extent of the crowd boundary at mid frame in the composite image suggests that both photographs were taken at about the same time. Two speech making platforms are evident: one clearly is a horse-drawn wagon (in the middle ground of Figures 1 & 5); the other appears to be either a larger wagon/dray or a hustings located to the southeast of the aforementioned wagon; this larger speaking platform is only captured in Figure 2 (at right in composite Figure 6). David Goodway surmises that the wagon in both images is not the main processional car as the one slogan that is partly visible—‘LABOUR IS THE SOURCE OF ALL WEALTH’—does not tally with quite detailed press accounts of the leaders’ carriage.34Goodway, London Chartism, pp. 141–42. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Goodway doesn’t mention the second larger platform visible in Figure 2.

As noted earlier, another wagon was used to transport to Kennington the large paper ‘bales’ constituting the Chartist petition.35Times, 11 April 1848, p. 5; Northern Star, 15 April 1848, p. 6. While this wagon isn’t evident in either photograph, it does appear to be depicted in a wood­cut engraving explicitly derived from a Daguerreotype (probably a third image taken by Kilburn, extending his panoramic view further to the north) published in the Illustrated London News on 15 April 1848 (Figure 7 below).36Illustrated London News, 15 April 1848, p. 239.

Engraving of Chartist meeting at Kennington Common 10 April 1848.
Figure 6: The meeting on Kennington Common, Illustrated London News, 15 April 1848, p. 239. The petition wagon is pictured at middle left.

It’s interesting to note that one of this newspaper’s most capable early engravers, William Linton, was by 1848 a reasonably prominent Chartist activist.37See F. B. Smith, Radical artisan: William James Linton, 1812–97, Manchester, 1973. The engraver of Figure 6 isn’t identified but, in any case, Linton’s biographer indicates that he had moved on to other work by April 1848.38Smith, Radical Artisan, p. 81. If a third photograph was taken its fate is unknown; that said, Kilburn’s relationship with the Illustrated London News continued into the early 1850s, when a series of engravings made after his portraits of various English politicians also were published.39Wooters, ‘Daguerreotype portraits by William E. Kilburn’. Given the disputation over the atten­dance at Kennington (and, more generally, the highly polit­icised press represent­ation of Chartism), it’s worth noting that the photo­graph chosen for mass circulation appears to give a some­what truncated view of the actual extent of the meeting.

Newspaper sources variously state that the Chartist leaders arrived at the centre of the Common between about 11.30 am to midday; if one of the speaking platforms I’ve described is, in fact, the specially fitted out leaders’ car, Kilburn exposed the images between about 11.30 am and 1 pm.40Daily News, 11 April 1848 p. 3; Era, 16 April 1848, p. 13. Both photographs clearly were taken from a somewhat elevated position near the Common’s western boundary. While no explicit documentary evidence appears to survive on this point, a first or second-floor window of the Horns Tavern (then located on the northern corner of what are now Ken­ning­ton Park and Ken­ning­ton roads) is a likely candidate; Jo Briggs notes that a slightly more southerly location is also possible.41Briggs, ‘Representing the Chartist crowd’, ch. 2, fn. 30. The engraving below (Figure 7, made c. 1843), provides a view of both potential locations and their physical relationship to the Common.

Engraving of Kennington Common near Horns Tavern about 1843.
Figure 7: Engraving of the vicinity from which Kilburn’s photographs were taken, looking south from the western boundary of Kennington Common c. 1843. St Marks Kennington is at left and the Horns Tavern at right.

In 1848 Kennington Common was about 20 acres (8 hectares) in extent; in the mid 1850s, partly under Prince Albert’s influence, it was converted into Kennington Park and the area photo­graphed by Kilburn now forms part of the park bounded by Kennington Park Road, Kennington Park Place and St Agnes Place. The map below shows the site of the Horns Tavern and other features captured by Kilburn. Note that few (if any) of the buildings photo­graphed in 1848—including a sulphuric acid factory with the prominent chimney—appear to have survived. Had one done so with a relatively un­mod­ified façade, it may have been possible to calculate Kilburn’s position more precisely by way of mathematical analysis.42See Katherine Byers and James Henle, ‘Where the camera was’, Mathematics, vol. 70, no. 4, 2004, pp. 251-59. As we’ll see below, this point is important when speculating upon Kilburn’s reasons for taking these photographs.

Why Did Kilburn Photograph the Chartists?

Due to a lack of extant documentary evidence we can only speculate upon Kilburn’s motives for taking the Chartist photographs. That said, the widely anticipated (and widely feared) showdown between Chartism and the state would seemingly have offered significant commercial and promotional opportunities for a photographer willing to push the boundaries of the relatively new form. In this context it’s worth remembering that no other British photographer appears to have undertaken a similar experiment—at least successfully—in the entire Daguerreotype era (c. 1840–57). And, in hindsight, Kilburn likely was well rewarded for his efforts. Daguerreotypes are inherently reflective media and were difficult to copy by photographic means in the 1840s. This meant that (for practical purposes) each image was unique and photographers couldn’t expect to generate additional income from the sale of copies.43The few photographers using the competing Calotype process commercially in the 1840s were at an advantage in this respect as positive paper prints could be made from the original (paper) negatives. On the other hand, the advent in 1842 of Herbert Ingram’s Illustrated London News (and its imitators) provided an avenue for some of the earlier photographers working in England to dis­trib­ute their work in a new kind of mass media (albeit in relatively low resolution woodcut-engraved form).44The Illustrated London News‘ first commissioned use of photography (published in supplementary form in January 1843) consisted of two large panoramas of London derived from a series of Daguerreotypes taken by Antoine Claudet from the top of the Duke of York Statue Column in Pall Mall. See Peter Sealy, ‘After a photograph, before photography (takes command)’, Journal of Architecture, Vol. 21, No. 6, 2016, pp. 931 & 933. Thus in 1848 Kilburn likely received two payments for his Chartist images: one from the Illustrated London News and another from Prince Albert. However, it should be remem­bered that the Kenning­ton Common photographs did not bring Kilburn to Royal notice—as one notable reference source incorrectly claims.45John Hannavy, ed., Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography, Vol. I (A-I), New York, 2008, p. 797. Rather, Kilburn first photographed the Queen and her family in April 1847—almost a year before the Chartist meeting.46Journal entry dated 22 April 1847, Queen Victoria’s Journals (Princess Beatrice’s copies), Vol. 23, p. 122, Royal Archives, Bodleian Libraries & Proquest digital version.

During the turbulent 1790s Kilburn’s grandfather William had been very much opposed to the democratic radicals of his day.47Christie, ‘A taste for seaweed’, p. 303. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the photographer thought of the Chartists in 1848. David Wooters suggests that William junior likely was interested in politics given the Chartist photographs and his subsequent portraits of politicians also published in the Illustrated London News.48Wooters, ‘Daguerreotype portraits by William E. Kilburn’. However, I’ve not come across any explicit evidence of William Kilburn’s politics during the Chartist era. That said, we do have one indicator for his later life. As mentioned earlier, William retired to the Isle of Wight and a poll book which survives for the June 1870 by-election there shows that he voted for the successful Con­serv­ative candidate, Alexander Baillie Cochrane (as did his younger brother Frederick, who also lived on the Isle of Wight).49Election committee for George Moffatt, Poll book at the election of a knight of the shire for the County of the Isle of Wight (10 June 1870), Southampton, 1870. Of course, poll books reflect the fact that voting was then still conducted in public: the secret ballot (a key Chartist demand) largely was implemented in Britain in 1872.

Even before his connection to the Royal family and apparent conservatism in later years is taken into account, in terms of his class, his family’s busi­ness connections and his age (29) William Kilburn would have been a very likely candidate to have enrolled as a special constable during the April 1848 crisis.50See generally Swift, ‘Policing Chartism, 1839–48’. Tens of thousands of his peers did so in London at this time; regrettably, there doesn’t seem to be any way of exploring this possibility either due to a lack of extant pertinent documentary evidence. Whether he enrolled as a special constable or not, it’s likely that Kilburn required police cooperation to photograph the Chartists. In short, he needed to get above the crowd to do so effectively. Interestingly, the Horns Tavern was closed and requisitioned for public order adminis­tration purposes on 10 April: according to the Times it was ‘occupied and exclusively engaged … by the police authorities, military officers, and others interested in the pro­ceed­ings of the day’.51Times, 11 April 1848, p. 5. See also London Standard, 10 April 1848, 11 April 1848; Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, 16 April 1848, p. 9; John Saville, 1848: The British state and the Chartist movement, Cambridge, 1990, p. 118. Once again, however, we face the basic problem that no documentary evidence appears to survive in relation to exactly where the photos were captured—or linking Kilburn to the metropolitan police or the large voluntary force raised to meet the Chartist challenge.

Similarly, it’s not clear whether Prince Albert knew of Kilburn’s inten­tions to record the Chartist meeting; in any event, a few days beforehand the Royal family were removed to the Isle of Wight as part of the government’s defensive measures.52Times, 6 April 1848, p. 5; 10 April 1848, p. 3; Saville, 1848, p. 105. While the lack of additional evidence relating to Kilburn’s Chartist photographs is a little frustrating, the likelihood that he required police cooperation to execute the Kennington Common photo­graphs raises another possible rationale—political surveillance. Jo Briggs briefly discusses this question, noting John Ragg’s observation that during the nineteenth century photography increasingly was used for surveillance purposes.53Briggs, ‘All that is solid melts into air’, pp. 45–46. The state certainly viewed Chartism as a serious threat to political and social stability in 1848 and, from the beginnings of the move­ment in the late 1830s, it had been subject to covert surveillance by spies and informants as well as overt legal suppression. This same surveillance network easily foiled the revolut­ionary ‘Orange Tree Conspiracy’ hatched by a group of militant London Chartists (possibly under the influence of agents provoc­ateurs) in the summer of 1848.54See John Belchem, ‘The Spy System in 1848: Chartists and Informers—An Australian Connection’, Labour History, No. 39, 1980, pp. 15–18.

On the whole, however, it’s unlikely that the Chartist photographs were taken with surveillance in mind (at least at the individual level). As Briggs suggests, photographic technology simply was not up to this task so early in its development.55Briggs, ‘All that is solid melts into air’, pp. 45–46. While Kilburn did manage to capture the Chartists without excessive motion blur, very few people in either photograph would seem recognisable. Had early rain not cleared into bright midday sun it’s likely that motion blur would have been markedly increased due to the probable need for longer exposures. Kilburn’s photographs may well have been intended as a record of historic events, but the two new technologies successfully deployed by the British state for security purposes in the Chartist era were the burgeoning railway network and the electric tele­graph. Railways enabled military forces to be posted to ‘troubled’ districts much more rapidly than before while the recently established private telegraph network was commandeered by the state during the political crisis of early April 1848.56See F.C. Mather, ‘The railways, the electric telegraph and public order during the Chartist period, 1837–48’, History, Vol. 38, Issue 132, 1953, pp. 40–53; see also Weisser, April 10, p. 66 and Saville, 1848, p. 112. In sum, commercial and promotional oppo­rtun­ities likely spurred William Kilburn to Kennington Common on 10 April 1848.

Was Insurrection Intended on 10 April 1848?

Due to the considerable array of military and police force marshalled in London on 10 April,57For a summary see Goodway, London Chartism, tables 10 and 11; see also Saville, 1848, pp. 111–12. it’s likely that considerable violence would have ensued had the massed Chartist body tried to force their way across the Thames to the parliamentary precinct.58In the event, the dispersing crowd was allowed to pass various bridges under strict supervision. A considerable police/military force was also marshalled near Kennington Common (but largely kept out of sight).59Times, 11 April 1848, p. 6; Morning Chronicle, 11 April 1848, p. 6; Goodway, London Chartism, Table 10. Despite its emphasis upon universal male suffrage, one of the features of early Chartism in the late 1830s had been the participation of women—hundreds of local female radical associations sprang up in these years.60See generally Jutta Schwarzkopf, Women in the Chartist movement, Basingstoke, 1991. But when the 1848 Chartist petition hastily was scrutinised by parliament, the Tory MP William Cripps claimed that only about 8% of a random sample of signatures were female.61Parliamentary Debates (Commons), 13 April 1848, col. 292. Heated contention in the Commons over the petition’s legitimacy led O’Connor to challenge Cripps to a duel which resulted in O’Connor being arrested by the serjeant-at-arms (the matter was quickly settled after apologies were made). Parliamentary Debates (Commons), 13 April 1848, cols 284–301. Times, 14 April 1848, p. 3. In fact, it’s clear that by 1848 the active participation by women had declined quite markedly.62Anna Clark, The struggle for breeches: gender and the making of the English working class, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 243-47. In an earlier scholarly reference to the Kennington photographs the eminent historian of Chartism Dorothy Thompson noted that few women are visible in the crowd.63Thompson, The Chartists, p. 122. ‘There were not among them 100 women’, said the London Standard at the time.64Standard, 11 April 1848, p. 1; the Morning Chronicle, 11 April 1848, p. 6 also commented upon a lack of women in the procession. Some women certainly are visible near the Com­mon’s western fence (in the foreground of both photo­graphs); however, their peripheral position tends to suggest that they were spectators rather than participants.

While very few women seem visible in the crowd on the Common proper, if you look closely at the wagon/speaking platform prominent in both photographs (Figure 8) some rather surprising detail comes into focus: a number of women and quite young girls (at least six, identifiable by their bonnets and dresses) were on board.

Excerpt of William Kilburn Daguerreotype of Chartist meeting at Kennington Common 10 April 1848.
Figure 8: Detail of wagon (from Figure 1).

Very likely, these were family members of prominent Chartist leaders. Women disproportionately were injured by cavalry, infantry and police during the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 181965M.L. Bush, ‘The women at Peterloo: the impact of Female Reform on the Manchester Meeting of 16 August 1819’, History, Vol. 89, No. 294, 2004, pp. 209–32. and over twenty Chartists were killed in an insurrectionary clash with the military at Newport in late 1839.66For Newport see David Jones, The last rising: the Newport rising of 1839, Oxford, 1985. By 1848, large Chartist crowds in London were associated with the metropolitan criminal underclass and sporadic looting and rioting (as had occurred in Glasgow and London in March of that year).67John Belchem, Popular radicalism in nineteenth-century Britain, New York, 1996, pp. 91-94. The presence of women and girls (in particular) on the wagon is thus quite surprising: as a focal point of a potentially insurrec­tionary massed body, this particular space might be expected to have been an exclusively masculine (and adult) domain? Overall, this visual evidence tends to support the conclusion that the Chartist leadership did not expect violence to erupt on 10 April.

The First Photographs of a Crowd?

In 1982 David Goodway stated that Kilburn’s Chartist images were ‘the earliest known crowd photographs’.68David Goodway, London Chartism, 1838–48, p. 141. Likewise, in 2000 I claimed that they were ‘perhaps the first photographs ever taken of a large crowd’.69Andrew Messner, ‘Chartist Political Culture in Britain and Colonial Australia, c. 1835–60′, PhD thesis, University of New England, 2000, p. 145. More recently, Jo Briggs has also suggested that Kilburn’s images were ‘perhaps the first ever photographs of a crowd’.70Briggs, ‘All that is solid melts into air’, p. 48. However, it’s now clear that Kilburn’s Chartist images were not, in fact, unprecedented. To the contrary, very occasional photographs of outdoor religious and military events were made in continental Europe from 1841. These innovative uses of the new medium took advantage of processing refinements that reduced exposure requirements and, probably, optical improvements (particularly the avail­a­bility from 1840 of a relatively fast [or bright] Vöightlander lens designed by the mathematician Josef Petzval). For example, a public procession was photographed by Johann and Josef Natterer in Vienna in 1841.71Timm Starl, ‘A new world of pictures: the use and spread of the Daguerreotype process’ in Michel Frizot, ed., A new history of photography, Cologne, 1988, p. 41. Similarly, Philibert-Joseph Girault de Prangey’s 1841 Daguerreotype of a military review at the Tuileries Palace in Paris (Figure 9 below, held by the Biblio­thèque nationale de France) depicts a small crowd and predates Kilburn’s Chartist images by quite a few years.72Philibert-Joseph Girault de Prangey, Revue dans la Cour des Tuileries, 1841, digital Daguerreotype reproduction, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Figure 9: Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Tuileries, c. 1841. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

A skilled amateur from an aristocratic background, Girault de Prangey’s substantial catalogue of pioneering photographic work in Europe and the Middle East in the 1840s also was virtually forgotten until the late twentieth century. This image is one of a number of views of the Tuileries Palace believed to originate in 1841, prior to Girault de Prangey’s extended photo­graphic travels outside France (primarily undertaken 1842–45).73For a short recent and illustrated account of Girault de Prangey’s work see Jason Farago, ‘An 1840s road trip, captured in lustrous silver‘, New York Times, 31 January 2019. Like Kilburn’s Chartist photographs, it was exposed from a somewhat elevated position, in this case probably the Hôtel de Nantes, a building then situated near the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.74Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the Calotype process, likely also used this location to photograph Tuileries Palace a few years later. See Édouard de Saint-Ours, ‘Doing the Django – and Finding Talbot’s Calotype School in 1843 Paris’, 18 May 2018.

While the pictured Tuileries crowd is substantially smaller and does not have the physical immediacy or detail of Kilburn’s Chartist images, the military formation and its audience does seem surprisingly stable for such an early a photograph. In fact, both photographers’ work is remarkable given the acute technical problems social subjects presented in non-controlled environments in the 1840s. To my mind, Kilburn’s work pri­mar­ily is significant for capturing a mass political protest so early in the history of photography (the question of whether the Kennington images were the first of a crowd ultimately seems to miss the point in some respects). Perhaps one of the reasons why Kilburn’s Chartist photographs have not been studied in the detail they deserve is that so little primary evidence directly related to them has survived. Moreover, a close comparison of the Daguerreotypes with detailed newspaper accounts of the Chartist meeting at Kennington actually raises a number of conundrums for the historian. One of these is whether the wagon featured in both images was, in fact, the one used by O’Connor and other leaders for their speeches. However, the presence of women and young girls on this obviously prominent vehicle does suggest that the Chartist leadership had nothing more that a ‘moral force’ demonstration in mind on 10 April 1848.

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