The Romance of the ‘Whig Dungeon’


This long essay is an updated chapter from my PhD thesis (University of New England, 2000). It examines the rhetoric and symbolism of the radical propaganda mobilised around Char­tist leader Feargus O’Con­nor at his trial for seditious libel at York in 1840, his imprisonment at York Castle and the extensive celebrations that followed his release from prison (dressed in a fustian suit) in 1841. Chartism’s political fortunes traditionally have been attributed to material deprivation and, more recently, the first revival of the movement in 1841–42 to the organisational innovation that accompanied the formation of the National Charter Association in 1840. I argue that the ‘romance of the “Whig dungeon”’ constructed around O’Con­nor’s travails was also a significant factor of renewal in this instance.


Historians, Char­tist Renewal and Feargus O’Con­nor

Chartism’s resurgence as a mass movement in 1841–42, following its widespread legal repression in 1839–40, generally has been attributed to two factors. As Edward Royle has noted, influential earlier historians such as Mark Hovell, G.D.H. Cole and W.W. Rostow tended to link fluctuations in Char­tist or radical political mobilisation to fluctuating trade cycles and attendant material hardship.1Edward Royle, ‘Chartism’ in Anne Digby and C.H. Feinstein, eds, New directions in economic and social history, Basingstoke, 1989, pp. 157–58; Mark Hovell, History of the Char­tist movement, Man­ches­ter, 1918, pp. 251–52; W.W. Rostow, The British economy of the nineteenth century, Lon­don, 1948, ch. 5. See also G. Kitson Clark, ‘Hunger and politics in 1842’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1953, pp. 355–74. Rostow’s well-known social tension chart only looked at Chartism in broad terms that failed to recognise the extent of the repression pursued by the Melbourne Whig administration but Cole’s memorable phrase is illustrative of the consensus: ‘Hunger and hatred—these were the forces that that made Chartism a mass movement of the British working class.’2G.D.H. Cole, Char­tist Portraits, New York, 1965, p. 1.

By the 1970s and 1980s, however, historians had become wary of putting too much weight upon material explanations of politics and increasingly the rejuvenation of Chartism culminating in the 1842 National Petition was linked to organisational innovation and consolidation—particularly the formation of the National Charter Association (nca) at Man­ches­ter in 1840. Although sometimes challenged by other forms of Char­tist and near Char­tist organ­isa­tion, the nca was the backbone of the movement throughout the ‘hungry forties’, to some extent professionalising radical activism at the local level and surviving (albeit in a marginalised form) into the late 1850s. While the cooperative, religious and social ‘movement culture’ that flow­ered under nca auspices now has been explored in some depth,3For a representative selection of work on these themes see David Jones, Chartism and the Chartists, Lon­don, 1975; Eileen Yeo, ‘Christianity in Char­tist Struggle’, Past and Present, No. 91, 1981, pp. 109–39; various essays in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson, eds, The Char­tist experience: studies in working-class radicalism and culture, 1830–1860, Lon­don, 1982; Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, New York, 1984; Jutta Schwarzkopf, Women in the Char­tist movement, Lon­don, 1991. perhaps the most important contribution to our understanding of its historical significance was James Epstein’s The lion of freedom (1982), a revisionist account of Feargus O’Con­nor’s leadership of the early Char­tist movement.4James Epstein, The lion of freedom: Feargus O’Con­nor and the early Char­tist movement, 1832–42, Lon­don, 1982. For O’Con­nor see also Donald Read and Eric Glas­gow, Feargus O’Con­nor: Irishman and Char­tist, Lon­don, 1961; Glenn Airey, ‘Feargus O’Con­nor 1842–1855: a study in Char­tist Leadership’, PhD thesis, Staffordshire University, 2003; Paul A. Pickering, Feargus O’Con­nor: a political life, Monmouth, 2008.

Portrait of Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor.
Feargus O’Connor, 1837. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Earlier historians such as Hovell and Cole portrayed O’Con­nor (c. 1796–1855) as a ‘disastrous leader’ whose ‘autocratic’ or ‘dictatorial’ methods were at odds with the progressive, modernising and democratic character of Char­tist organ­isa­tion.5Unsympathetic accounts of O’Con­nor’s leadership include R.G. Gammage, History of the Char­tist movement, 1837–1854 [1894], New York, 1969 reprint; Hovell, The Char­tist movement; Julius West, A history of the Char­tist movement, Lon­don, 1920; Cole, Char­tist portraits, ch. 11; J.T. Ward, Chartism, Lon­don, 1973. On this view, O’Con­nor personified ‘half-starved’ northern mill and outworker anger that teetered upon insurrection which could be contrasted with rational, metropolitan, incremental ‘moral force’ activism personified by William Lovett.6Royle, ‘Chartism’, p. 158; Dorothy Thompson, ‘Chartism and the historians’, in Outsiders: class, gender and nation, Lon­don, 1993, p. 28. Similarly, until the late twentieth century O’Con­nor’s intriguing but ill-fated Land Plan tended to be interpreted as a hopelessly idealistic response to the march of industrial capitalism (five villages of cottage smallholdings were built 1846–49, but the cooperative administrative structure binding the 70,000 members was deemed illegal).7See, for example, Hovell, The Char­tist movement, pp. 267-84. For more recent scholarship see A.M. Hadfield, The Char­tist Land Company, Newton Abbot, 1970; Thompson, The Chartists, ch. 12; Malcolm Chase, ‘“We Wish only to Work for Ourselves”: the Char­tist Land Plan’ in Malcolm Chase and Ian Dyck, eds, Living and learning: essays in honour of J.F.C. Harrison, Aldershot, 1996, pp. 133–48; Malcolm Chase, ‘“Wholesome Object Lessons”: the Char­tist Land Plan in retrospect’, English Historical Review, Vol. 118, No. 475, 2003, pp. 59–85. Finally, O’Con­nor’s complete mental breakdown and institutionalisation in pathe­tic circumstances in 1852 (likely attributable to syphilis) only tended to confirm his character flaws for generations of historians.8For O’Con­nor’s illness and institutionalisation see L.M. Geary, ‘O’Connorite bedlam: Feargus and his grand-nephew, Arthur’, Medical History, Vol. 34, 1990, pp. 125–43.

Rosedene, a relatively unmodified Char­tist Land Plan cottage near Dodford, Worcestershire, now managed by the National Trust. Source: © Paul Shreeve, (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Epstein, on the other hand, painstakingly detailed O’Con­nor’s considerable organ­isa­tional abilities and achievements in the first phase of Chartism—particularly the unification of disparate, localised radical associations leading to the formation of the nca.9Epstein, Lion of freedom, especially ch. 6. The son and nephew of prominent United Irish rev­o­lu­tion­aries,10Frank MacDermot, ‘Arthur O’Connor’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 15, 1966–67, pp. 48–69. O’Connor successfully contested the seat of Cork in 1832 campaigning on a Repeal, anti-tithe and radical-democratic platform.11Read and Glas­gow, Feargus O’Connor, ch. 3; Epstein, Lion of freedom, ch. 1. After falling out with Daniel O’Connell, O’Connor retained and then lost his seat in 1835 for (allegedly) failing to comply with property qualifications.12Read and Glas­gow, Feargus O’Connor, ch. 4; Epstein, Lion of freedom, ch. 1. From this point O’Connor threw his energies into extra-parliamentary activism and, by time Chartism emerged in the late 1830s, he had succeeded Henry Hunt (1773–1835) at the head of the radical-democratic mass platform.13Read and Glas­gow, Feargus O’Connor, ch. 6; Epstein, Lion of freedom, chs. 1, 3. For Hunt see John Belchem, ‘Orator Hunt’: Henry Hunt and English working-class radicalism, Oxford, 1985.

More than any contemporary, O’Connor exploited the rapidly expanding railway network to fulfil unprecedented speaking tours and schedules.14Philip Howell, ‘“Diffusing the light of liberty”: the geography of political lecturing in the Char­tist movement’, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 21, 1995, pp. 23–38. O’Connor was involved in a railway collision at Masborough in March 1843, apparently narrowly escaping serious injury. See Northern Star, 25 March 1843, p. 5. As Epstein stresses, equally important was O’Con­nor’s establishment in late 1837 of the Leeds-based Northern Star, a stamped but militantly democratic weekly newspaper which soon achieved a large national circulation and which became the unofficial organ of the nca.15James Epstein, ‘Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 21, 1976, pp. 51–97; Epstein, Lion of freedom, ch. 2. Note that the Northern Star, named after its United Irish forebear, was published in Lon­don from late 1844. The Star was the main conduit of Char­tist propaganda and figured prominently in the mediation of O’Con­nor’s imprisonment. Another relevant theme explored by Epstein in The Lion of freedom and later work16John Belchem and James Epstein, ‘The nineteenth-century gentleman leader revisited’, Social History, Vol. 22, 1997, pp. 174–93. was the apparent paradox at the heart of radical-Char­tist political culture—its reliance upon gentleman leaders.

As Epstein reminds us, in striking contrast to Char­tist precepts, ‘O’Connor was not elected to the platform, he was unpaid and possessed no formal man­date.’17Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 92. Rather, by 1840 O’Con­nor was the latest incumbent of a time-honoured popular radical leadership tradition most recently cultivated by Hunt, both men forming what might be termed honour-based demagogic contracts with their overwhelmingly working-class supporters. While social or cultural difference was the basis of Hunt and O’Con­nor’s authority, the demagogic contract was founded upon reciprocal understandings of unflinching loyalty. O’Con­nor expected unwavering support from the Char­tist rank and file and they expected their hero would respond in kind. This is why O’Con­nor constantly would ‘rehearse his achievements, his steadfastness, his sufferings, his intention to continue undaunted by persecution, danger, pecuniary loss and regardless of the apathy, desertion or betrayal of others’ in both speeches and published missives.18Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 93. These themes certainly litter the romance of the Whig dungeon—and, undeniably, they can seem rather melodramatic when taken out of their cultural context. However, the almost institutionalised public avowals of loyalty and sacrifice effectively supplanted the robustly democratic formal processes that governed most other aspects of Char­tist organisation. Finally, when examining language, rhetoric or propaganda in this context we should remember that Chartism was a partly literate, partly oral political culture where leader-heroes had to present as larger than life to convincingly embody popular will.19See generally Walter Ong, Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word, Lon­don, 1982.

While Epstein’s biography did much to reclaim O’Con­nor’s place in the radical-democratic leadership pantheon, he largely avoided the ‘more problematic’ last decade of the Irishman’s career (the Land Plan’s travails and O’Con­nor’s descent into insanity would seem to loom large here). However, The lion of freedom remains the best and most detailed account of O’Con­nor’s central role in establishing the nca which despite considerable legal, economic and political impediments, amounted to probably the first independent working-class political party in the world.20Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 4; Thompson, ‘Chartism and the historians’, p. 19. So obvious now is the nca’s historical significance that it has perhaps obscured another important element of the first major Char­tist revival—a remarkably rich and coherent quest narrative or romance cultivated around O’Con­nor’s trial at York in 1840 for seditious libel, his conviction and fifteen-month imprisonment in York Castle County Gaol in 1840–41, his staged ‘liberation’ from prison dressed in a fustian suit in late August 1841, and the re-mobilisation of the Char­tist mass-platform inherent in the extensive celebratory speaking tours O’Connor undertook in late 1841 and early 1842. This neo-Gothic romance of the ‘Whig dungeon’, which cast O’Connor as the popular hero in a protracted battle with a tyrannical state, was a concerted political campaign that played a significant role in the rejuvenation of Chartism as a mass movement.

Sentimental Romance

Chartism now boasts a very large and mature historiography and the roman­tic tenor of much of the movement’s literature and poetry has been recognised for some time.21For bibliographic information see J.F.C. Harrison and Dorothy Thompson, eds, Bibliography of the Char­tist movement, 1837–1976, Hassocks, 1978; Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson, and Stephen Roberts, The Char­tist movement: a new annotated bibliography, Lon­don, 1995. For Char­tist poetry see Martha Vicinus, The industrial muse: a study of nineteenth century British working-class literature, Lon­don, 1974; Brian Maidment, The poorhouse fugitives: self-taught poets and poetry in mid-Victorian Britain, Man­ches­ter, 1987; Anne F. Janowitz, Lyric and labour in the romantic tradition, Cambridge, 1998, chs. 4–6; Timothy Randall, ‘Char­tist poetry and song’ in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson, and Stephen Roberts, eds, The Char­tist legacy, Rendlesham, 1999, especially pp. 177–79. See also various essays published under the heading ‘The Poetics of Chartism’ in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 39, No. 2, 2001. Romantic forms of popular political discourse and identity in Victorian England also became central concerns of the postmodern ‘new political history’ that emerged in the wake of Gareth Sted­man Jones’s influential 1982–83 argument upon the origins and limitations of Char­tist language or rhetoric.22Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘The language of Chartism’, in Epstein and Thompson, eds, The Char­tist experience, ch. 1; this essay was revised and republished as ‘Rethinking Chartism’ in Stedman Jones’s Languages of class: studies in English working class history, 1832–1982, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 90–178. Patrick Joyce, Visions of the people: industrial England and the question of class, 1848–1914, Cambridge, 1991; James Vernon, Politics and the people: a study in English political culture, c. 1815–1867, Cambridge, 1993; Patrick Joyce, Democratic subjects: the self and the social in nineteenth-century England, Cambridge, 1994, part 3. In this essay, however, I am interested primarily in the political utility of the simple and ubiquitous narrative form Northrop Frye has termed ‘sentimental romance’.

The essence of this ancient popular genre is the journey of a hero between two imaginative worlds set apart from ordinary existence: one is an idyllic world associated with happiness, security and peace; the other is a night world associated with loneliness, separation and pain. As Frye stressed in The secular scripture, fixed identities have no place in the story:

It is existence before ‘Once upon a time’, and subsequent to ‘and they lived happily ever after’ … Most romances end happily, with a return to the state of identity, and begin with a departure from it. Even in the most realistic stories there is usually some trace of a plunge downward at the beginning, and a bounce upward at the end. This means that most romances exhibit a cyclical movement of descent into a night world and a return to the idyllic world, or to some symbol of it like marriage.23Northrop Frye, The secular scripture: a study in the structure of romance, Cambridge MA, 1976, p. 54.

‘The complete form of the romance’, adds Frye, ‘is clearly the successful quest’. This genre has three main elements: ‘the agon, or conflict, the pathos or death struggle, and the anagnorisis, or discovery, the recognition of the hero’.24Northrop Frye, Anatomy of criticism: four essays, Princeton, 1957, p. 187. Formally speaking, symbolic metamorphoses often denote the hero’s entry into the contrived and polarised imaginative worlds of sentimental romance. But how might an understanding of the framework and characteristic motifs of this story telling formula illuminate the neglected subject of Char­tist propaganda?

The typical romance hero, writes Frye, ‘moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, un-natural to us are natural to him’.25Frye, Anatomy of criticism, p. 33 and elsewhere. This description fits O’Con­nor’s public persona perfectly. R.G. Gammage, the Char­tist activist whose pioneering narrative history of the movement prefigured later scholarly antagonism toward O’Connor, considered that the ‘sight of his person was calculated to inspire the masses with a solemn awe’.26Gammage, History, p. 45. O’Con­nor’s booming voice, Gammage added, ‘out-Stentor’d even Stentor himself’.27Gammage, History, p. 45. ‘His figure was tall and well proportioned, and his bearing decidedly aristocratic’, recalled the Barnsley Char­tist John Vallance, of the first time he saw O’Connor in the mid-1830s:

He wore a blue frock coat and buff waistcoat and had rings on the fingers of each hand. In a graceful manner, and in emphatic language, he told the Radicals of Barnsley that he had sold off his horses and dogs, had greatly reduced his establishment, and come weal or woe, he would henceforth devote his whole life to promote the well-being of the working classes.28Cited in Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 34.

‘Feargus, of high-born patriotic zeal, of fearless gait, and matchless fortitude’, gushed an unknown Char­tist poet.29Northern Star, 24 October 1840, p. 3. O’Connor’s gentlemanly visage, his mastery of the stagecraft of the mass platform, and the considerable political capital bound up in his family’s close links with the revolutionary leadership of the United Irishmen certainly made him a good choice to build a narrative of renewal around.

It should be noted that quest motifs were common elements of radical-Char­tist rhetoric in the 1830s and 1840s. On one hand, the Antipodean ordeals of the Dorchester labourers, the Newport Rising leaders and other Char­tist transportees were presented (particularly in autobiographical narratives) as descents into an inhuman and tyrannical netherworld.30George Loveless, The victims of Whiggery … [1837], Lon­don 1969 rep.; William Ashton, A lecture on the evil of emigration and transportation, Sheffield, 1838. I am indebted to Dr John Knott for providing me with a copy of this pamphlet. John Frost, The horrors of convict life [1856], Hobart, 1973 rep. See also Andrew Charles Messner, ‘Char­tist political culture in Britain and Colonial Australia, c. 1835–60’, PhD thesis, University of New England, 2000, ch. 6. On the other hand, in the mid-to-late 1840s the Char­tist Land Plan rhetorically was construed as a collective journey of deliverance to the ‘promised land’.31See, for example, Northern Star, 22 August 1846, p. 8; Chase, ‘“We Wish only to Work for Ourselves”’, pp.  136–37. The story cultivated around O’Con­nor’s imprisonment and liberation, however, was perhaps unmatched in its creative usage of the formula. Intriguingly, both the ‘descent’ phase of the narrative (O’Con­nor’s trial, sentencing and incarceration) and the return (his release and the liberation tours of 1841–42) involved highly publicised metamorphic episodes. These carefully fabricated transformations of identity—whether rhetorically cultivated in print, or visually mobilised in Char­tist counter pageantry—lent the dungeon odyssey much of its distinction.

The Fall

O’Con­nor’s Trial At York, 1840

Among the thousands of Chartists who were arrested and prosecuted for political activities between 1838 and 1848, many hundreds were imprisoned or transported for significant periods.32Christopher Godfrey, ‘The Char­tist prisoners, 1839–41’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 24, 1979, pp. 189–236; Jacqueline Fellague Ariouat, ‘Rethinking Partisanship in the Conduct of the Char­tist Trials, 1839–48’, Albion, Vol. 29, No. 4, 1998, pp. 596–621. George White’s political recalcitrance was rewarded with three separate gaol terms in 1840, 1843–44 and 1848–49.33Godfrey, ‘The Char­tist prisoners, 1839–41’, p. 225. Many ‘victims’ experienced considerable privation during their incarceration, often being treated as felons and forced to endure the rigours of early Vic­torian prison discipline including the ‘silent system’, picking oakum (recycling rope) and treadmill labour.34Godfrey, ‘The Char­tist prisoners, 1839–41’, pp. 218–19. Perhaps the most prominent of a number of Char­tist ‘martyrs’ who died in prison was Samuel Holberry, who succumbed to tuberculosis at York Castle in 1842, having been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment after leading the abortive Sheffield insurrection in early 1840.35Gammage, History, p. 213; Thompson, The Chartists, pp. 141,  280–81. Holberry appears to have contracted tuberculosis at the North­allerton House of Correction (where initially he was imprisoned). John Frost, originally sentenced to death for high treason in 1840 with two other Newport Rising leaders Zephaniah Williams and William Jones, ultimately was exiled to Van Diemens Land (Tasmania from 1856) for sixteen years (Williams and Jones remained in Tasmania until their deaths). Although Chartism’s decline usually is dated from 1848, the public celebrations marking Frost’s return to Britain in 1856 perhaps represented its last throes as a mass movement.36See David Williams, John Frost: a study in Chartism, Cardiff, 1939.

Historians long have recognised how O’Connor managed to cement his leadership of Chartism while imprisoned at York in 1840–41. ‘From his first day in gaol’, wrote Donald Read and Eric Glas­gow, ‘Feargus began through the Northern Star to surround himself with an aura of martyrdom’.37Read and Glas­gow, Feargus O’Connor, p. 90. ‘Trial and imprisonment pro­vided the acid test of Char­tist leadership and commitment’, adds James Epstein:

in contrast to the history of earlier working-class movements, the removal of Chartism’s national leadership and many of its local militants did not precipitate the collapse of radicalism. When the ‘People’s Champion’ emerged from York Castle in September 1841, he was greeted by a mass movement … which during his imprisonment had laid the foundations of the first working-class political party in world history.38Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 212.

But how was failure undone, allegiance cemented, and hope raised once again? We need to look beyond the formation of the nca, significant as it was, to properly understand the invention of Char­tist rebirth in 1841–42.

In later work on early nineteenth-century radical culture Epstein stresses the importance of the courtroom as a political forum. Often defendants could ‘draw on historical and legal precedents that seemed to ensure certain key rights and liberties’.39James Epstein, ‘Narrating liberty’s defense: T.J. Wooler and the law’ in Radical expression: political language, ritual and symbol in England, 1790–1850, Oxford, 1994, pp. 29–69. ‘More than occasionally’, Epstein continues, ‘authorities were embarrassed as radicals turned their tables on their accusers’.40Epstein, ‘Narrating liberty’s defense’, p. 32. Outside the metropolis, however, such victories rarely were won. One of many prosecutions launched against Char­tist activists in 1840 following the Newport insurgency of November 1839 and instances of drilling and rioting in Yorkshire, an ex officio information was laid against O’Connor for publishing seditious libels in the Northern Star, the case commencing before Justice Coleridge at the York Lent Assizes on 17 March 1840. Accor­ding to the Yorkshireman, ‘a greater degree of excitement was probably never before witnessed in the Nisi Prius court’.41Yorkshireman, 21 March 1840 cited in A.J. Peacock, ‘Feargus O’Connor at York’, York History, Vol. 2, 1975, p. 66. The Attorney-General, Sir John (later Lord) Campbell prosecuted O’Connor in person, assisted by three councillors. O’Connor, a barrister by profession, appeared for himself although it was noted in the Star that he was accompanied by a Lon­don solicitor.42Leeds Mercury, 21 March 1840 (Supp.), p. 2; Northern Star, 21 March 1840, p. 1; Peacock, ‘Feargus O’Connor at York’, p. 66. Despite regaling the court with a marathon defence speech lasting almost five hours, O’Connor was found guilty and bound over for sentence in Lon­don.43Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 211.

Given the sense of inevitability about the verdict, it is no surprise that the themes of persecution and injustice ran through O’Con­nor’s defence. In fact, his courtroom rhetoric seems to have been aimed at the national Char­tist body rather than the special jury of local gentry and merchants.44For the jury list see Leeds Mercury, 21 March 1840 (Supp.), p. 2. Supported by a vocal group of York activists (who were threatened with removal from the courtroom by Coleridge), O’Connor remonstrated with the jury from the outset:

Gentlemen, I have already learned, from your countenances, that you have attached to me the odium and guilt of every word contained in the many speeches of others which are set forth in this boundless information … in the outset let us understand each other. We are of different politics. I neither court your sympathy, desire your pity, or ask for your compassion. I am a Char­tist—a democrat to the fullest sense of the word; and if my life hung upon the abandonment of those principles, I would scorn to hold it upon so base a tenure.45Northern Star, 21 March 1840, p. 1.

Other prominent Chartists were expected to make similar stands. The second (1894) edition of Gammage’s History of the Char­tist movement contains a portrait (originally distributed with the Northern Star) of a Byronic looking Peter Murray McDouall in a courtroom setting (see below), perhaps in the midst of the four-hour defence speech Gammage suggested was his undoing, ‘for the Attorney General alluded to it as a proof of the danger in allowing men of such talent to be at large’.46Gammage, History, p. 158. For McDouall see Paul A. Pickering and Stephen Roberts, ‘Pills, pamphlets and politics: the career of Peter Murray McDouall’, Man­ches­ter Region History Review, Vol. 11, 1997, pp. 34–43. Thomas Dunning, who witnessed McDouall’s 1839 trial at Chester, compared his defence speech with that of Robert Emmet, the tragic Irish revolutionary many active Chartists held in particular awe.47Thomas Dunning, ‘Reminisces of Thomas Dunning’ in David Vincent, ed., Testaments of radicalism: memoirs of working class politicians, 1790–1885, Lon­don, 1977, p. 140.

Peter Murray McDouall at trial. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

At the beginnings of the typical sentimental romance, Frye notes, there is often a ‘sharp descent in social status, from riches to poverty’, particularly after the hero has suffered some kind of false accusation.48See Frye, The secular scripture, pp. 97–104. O’Con­nor’s journey began in precisely these terms. However, the Home Office and the York magistracy may have inadvertently enriched the tale waiting to be told when O’Connor entered York Castle County Gaol on the evening of 19 May 1840, having been sentenced by Coleridge at the Queen’s Bench to eighteen months’ imprisonment.49Northern Star, 23 May 1840, p. 4. Upon being escorted by rail from Lon­don to York, O’Con­nor’s captors indulged him with a sight-seeing tour of York Minster and the city.50Times, 26 May 1840, p. 3. As A.J. Peacock has noted, the day after Feargus’s somewhat unusual excursion the Minster was engulfed in a spectacular conflagration, the second such disaster in little more than a decade.51Peacock, ‘Feargus O’Connor at York’, p. 74. For the Minster fire see also Owen Chadwick, ‘From 1822 until 1916’ in G.E. Aylmer and Reginald Cant, eds, A history of York Minster, Oxford, 1977, p. 280. Despite the obvious concessions made to O’Con­nor’s fame and status in transit, upon classification he was denied the traditional indulgences made to political prisoners of gentlemanly rank and was placed in a tiny cell on the ‘Felons’ side’ of the gaol (a relatively new radial-wing penitentiary demolished in 1935). Immediately, O’Con­nor’s employees on the Northern Star set about exposing the scandal of Chartism’s gentleman leader ‘herding and feeding with convicted felons’.52Northern Star, 23 May 1840, p. 4. Emphasis in original. ‘No surer mode of attracting the public sympathy towards Mr. O’Connor’, noted the Times, ‘could have been devised than this cruel treatment’.53Times, 26 May 1840, p. 3. As James Epstein emphasises, ‘O’Connor rarely failed to exploit the full potential of any pretext for agitation’ and Char­tist propagandists could hardly have hoped for better ammunition.54Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 268.

Francis Bedford view of York Castle Precinct looking north c. 1840. The Assize courts are at left, Clifford’s Tower in the centre distance and the Felons’ prison gatehouse at right. Source: York Castle Museum.

The Struggle

Mediating O’Con­nor’s Imprisonment

The sensational news of Feargus’s fallen state certainly provoked an outcry in Char­tist strongholds. As soon as the Star arrived in Man­ches­ter ‘the news spread all over the town with the rapidity of lightning’.55Northern Star, 30 May 1840, p. 1. Indignant protest meetings were held at Carlisle, Bradford, Rochdale, Bir­ming­ham and else­where.56Northern Star, 30 May 1840, pp. 1, 8. At a gathering of ‘Socialists, Chartists and Radicals’ in Leeds, William Hick ‘threw himself into a theatrical attitude, and quoted the oration of Mark Antony lamenting over the body of Julius Cæsar’ [‘O mighty Cæsar! dost thou lie so low?’] while moving for the adoption of a petition calling for O’Con­nor’s immediate liberation.57Leeds Mercury, 6 June 1840, p. 7. Note that the Northern Star’s account of Hick’s motion (6 June 1840, p. 6) does not mention this flourish. Bradford Chartists avowed their belief

that Mr. O’Connor was subjected … to the same treatment as burglars, felons, and reputed murderers. They stated that he is obliged to lie on an iron bed, without any sheets to cover him, or a pillow to repose on. That he is obliged to undergo many menial offices, such as cleansing his own utensils—that he is not allowed to receive any visitors, and that while suffering severely from rheumatism he … was obliged to sit on a cold stone. The petitioners believed that this harsh treatment would tend to destroy his life.58Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 1.

Soon after his incarceration O’Connor forwarded a letter and then a petition outlining his travails to Thomas Talfourd, a member for Reading who, with Daniel O’Connell and other parliamentary radicals such as Thomas Duncombe and Thomas Wakley, spoke out on the matter in the Commons on 27 May.59For the petition text see Northern Star, 30 May 1840, p. 3; see also ‘Treatment of Mr. O’Con­nor’, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), (House of Commons), Vol. 54, 27 May 1840, cols. 648–56. Home Office Under-Secretary Fox Maule attempted to defuse the situation by deflecting responsibility for O’Con­nor’s treatment on to local authorities.60Leeds Mercury, 30 May 1840, p. 4; Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 1. Maule made little headway, however, against the popular opinion that the Whig administration was pursuing a malicious course against the Char­tist leader.61See Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 6 for reprints of criticisms made by the Man­ches­ter Times, Satirist, Examiner, Spectator, Dublin Freeman’s Journal, Standard, World, Weekly Dispatch, Sun, Weekly Chronicle, Sunday Times, United Services Gazette, Argus and Sheffield Iris.

Under some pressure, the government appears to have decided to neutralise the issue and on 3 June O’Connor stated that he had been moved to a room in the prison hospital.62Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 4. He wore his own clothes, paid to have his food (and furniture) brought in from outside the Castle, and was given access to books, newspapers and visitors.63See Normanby’s statement in the Lords on O’Con­nor’s prison conditions in Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), (House of Lords), Vol. 54, 22 June 1840, cols. 1366–68. See also Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 4; Read and Glas­gow, Feargus O’Connor, p. 91; Peacock, ‘Feargus O’Connor at York’, pp. 70–73; Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 218. Accor­ding to William O’Neill Daunt, O’Con­nor also was excused from chapel attendance after he ‘scandalized the parson by bellowing the responses in stentorian tones’.64W.J. O’Neill Daunt, Eight-five years of Irish history, Lon­don, 1888, p. 159. ‘It is a large vaulted stone cell at the very extremity of the building’, O’Con­nor wrote to William Hill, then editor of the Northern Star, ‘quite out of earshot, and shut out from human observation, or communication’.65Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 4. In this letter O’Connor also mentioned that his new accommodation was located directly above the condemned cell, a morbid image he later appropriated (thoroughly licentiously) for political purposes.66Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 4.

The precise locations O’Con­nor was held at York Castle Gaol are difficult to clarify due to the fragmentary nature of extant evidence (not to mention the difficulty in taking some of O’Con­nor’s published claims at face value!). Ostensibly, his references to the close proximity of the condemned cell and prison cemetery in his letter of 3 June 1840 suggest that after being moved from his first cell in the Felons’ penitentiary he was held in the western wing of the Debtors’ prison (where the gaol’s condemned cells appear to have been situated at that time). However, an Inspectors’ Report return of prisoners held on the ‘Felons’ side’ made on 19 December 1840 shows that O’Con­nor then was the solitary occupant of ‘Ward 1’ of that section (prisoners were not named but offences were and O’Con­nor can be identified as the only inmate convicted of seditious libel).67Sixth report of the Inspectors (Prisons of Great Britain), Northern and Eastern Districts, Vol. 2, Lon­don, 1841, p. 150. See also page 155 for O’Con­nor’s written account of his conditions. The same return contains the only references in the Report to a prison hospital. Further, it noted that ‘The Misdemeanant [O’Con­nor] is at present classed with the felons for trial: the state of the gaol not allowing for a separate ward for one prisoner’.68Sixth report of the Inspectors, Northern and Eastern Districts, p. 150. It would thus seem that in late 1840 O’Con­nor was again held in the Felons’ penitentiary—albeit in a relatively large and comfortable room/cell. Whatever the case, the main features of the York Castle precinct are indicated in the map below.

J.H. Lee view of the Castle yard looking south, 1841. The Felons’ prison entrance is at near left, the Female prison at far left, the Debtors’ prison in the middle distance and the Assize courts at right. Source: York Castle Museum.

William Hill and Joshua Hobson, the Star’s publisher who also visited O’Connor on a regular basis, were important allies in the rendering of the dungeon romance.69Northern Star, 2 January 1841, p. 1. Although the Home Secretary Lord Nor­manby originally decreed that O’Connor should not write political articles from prison, he ultimately had extensive printed contact with the Char­tist rank and file through the Star’s pages.70Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 218. Why this interaction was tolerated is not clear, but O’Con­nor’s experience of incarceration plainly was mild when compared to the great majority of Char­tist prisoners.71York’s visiting Magistrates seem to have regarded themselves powerless in this respect, and recommended to the Home Office that O’Connor be removed to a distant gaol to prevent contact with Hill and Hobson. See Public Records Office, Home Office Papers, Class 52/47, E. Harper to Nor­manby, 21 June 1840.

The complaints made about O’Con­nor’s treatment were motivated not only by the assault on his gentlemanly status, but also the perils of his ‘living tomb’. Soon after arriving at York O’Connor complained of rheumatism in his legs and back, chest pains and a cough. His physicians made depositions stating that confinement in the Castle would probably shorten his life.72Northern Star, 6 June 1840, p. 4. Nor­manby’s view, however, was that none of the representations made on O’Con­nor’s behalf warranted his transfer to another prison.73Times, 26 May 1840, p. 3. The true state of O’Con­nor’s health at this time is also difficult to determine. As his sentencing hearing at the Queen’s Bench court in Lon­don was adjourned twice for medical reasons, there seems little reason to doubt that he was in some distress at that time.74Northern Star, 2 May 1840, pp. 3, 8; 9 May 1840, p. 8. Yet illness could also be fashioned into a political tool—even respectable parliamentary radicals such as Thomas Duncombe and John Bright portrayed their broken constitutions and mental break-downs as part of the sacrifice they endured on behalf of ‘the People’.75Antony Taylor, ‘Modes of political expression and working-class radicalism 1848–1874: the Lon­don and Man­ches­ter examples’, PhD thesis, University of Man­ches­ter, 1992, pp. 162–74; Vernon, Politics and the people, p. 280. One of the characteristics of the dungeon romance, moreover, was contempt for prosaic reality.

Just before he was incarcerated at York Castle O’Connor penned an open letter to the Char­tist body who, on this occasion, he addressed as ‘THE MEN WITH FUSTIAN JACKETS, UNHORN CHINS, AND BLISTERED HANDS, THEIR WIVES, AND CHILDREN’.76Northern Star, 16 May 1840, p. 6. O’Con­nor’s open letters were published in the Star on an increasing basis in the 1840s, and by the middle of the decade regularly were read aloud at Char­tist meetings and social gatherings (note that the Star, which cost four pence halfpenny, was a comparatively expensive radical newspaper).77Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 61. Messner, ‘Char­tist Political Culture in Britain and Colonial Australia’, ch. 3. In his final pre-imprisonment letter in 1840 O’Connor informed his followers that physicians had cupped, blooded and drugged him at prodigious levels—enough to have killed a lesser man. This routine communication, however, then took a strange twist. Deploying a singular rhetorical tactic, O’Connor recounted a nightmare he said he had suffered while ill and awaiting sentence:

For four nights I raved incessantly … I thought I was forced out of bed to go to the Queen’s Bench; and in trudging through highways and byeways, across the fields, I was pursued by a hedgehog. At last I turned on my pursuer, who, in his turn, retreated. At length I ran it down; and in endeavouring to catch it, its bristles stuck to the palm of my hand … and in that situation I made my way to the Queen’s Bench, where I saw the Attorney General without his wig, and who, the moment I entered, claimed the hedgehog as his wig, charged me with the theft … and there I remained with my handful during the whole of a long trial, after which I was found guilty of being a physical force Char­tist … Now, that is true as the gospel.78Northern Star, 16 May 1840, p. 6.

This passage makes strange reading at first—even by O’Con­nor’s idiosyncratic standards. But in the evolving context of the romance of the Whig dungeon, the dream and the false accusation make some sense. Many of those who read (or heard O’Con­nor’s letter read aloud) would have recognised the apparent function of the similitude: it was a narrative beacon, drawing upon symbolic conventions found in the allegorical literature working people knew best such as the Bible and The pilgrim’s progress. As Northrop Frye stresses, dreams often mark the transformations of identity so important to the narrative movement of the romance form.79Frye, Secular scripture, pp. 102–03. We can only speculate whether O’Connor had any inkling of the impolitic decision to place him on the ‘felons’ side’ at York Castle; in any event, this challenge to his status, honour and well-being was exploited most effectively.

York Castle County Gaol had a predominantly neo-classical character in 1840–41. The Castle yard consisted of the thirteenth-century Clifford’s Tower, the renowned English Baroque Debtors’ prison dating from the early eighteenth century, the later Palladian Female prison and Assize courts and the radial Felons’ prison. The latter had a central castellated Gatehouse near Clifford’s Tower and this section of the Castle was surrounded by stone walls (including a gatehouse in the north western corner of the Castle precinct also demolished c. 1935).80Robin Evans, The fabrication of virtue: English prison architecture, 1750–1840, Cambridge, 1982, p. 255. Royal Commission on historical monuments, York Castle: an illustrated history, Lon­don, 1973. Despite the architectural complexity of the precinct, the pathos phase of the dungeon romance was littered with overtly Gothic images of dank, smoke-filled cells, labyrinthine stone corridors, echoing irons and tormented felons. Even the mighty O’Connor was not safe from creeping death. In June 1840 William Hill proclaimed:

We saw him on the 9th; but he was wonderfully changed. In the presence of the Under-Governor, who waited on our visit, he held up his limb and said: ‘the villains say I’m better; look here’. It was not like O’Con­nor’s limb —it was a poor, shrunken, emaciated thing which we could not have recognised for his.81Northern Star, 20 June 1840, p. 7.

Recounting O’Con­nor’s avowed belief that he would indeed perish in his ‘stone coffin’, Hill continued:

He then told me a tale which might have made the stones to mutiny, and when we said the people should be roused about it, he seized our hand and said, ‘The people must not know it. It is imposed upon me not even to publish even the state of my health … if I do, all visits will be stopped … FROM ME NOT A WORD MUST APPEAR.82Northern Star, 20 June 1840, p. 7. Emphasis in original.

‘We pledged ourselves it should be so’ wrote Hill in the process of breaking his vow.83Northern Star, 20 June 1840, p. 7. In the absence of the physical hardships endured by working-class Char­tist prisoners, some ‘refined cruelties’ directed at O’Connor were documented in the Star. On one occasion Joshua Hobson’s elderly mother journeyed from Leeds to visit the ‘caged lion’, only to be denied admittance. ‘O’Connor stormed furiously on being informed’, the Star dutifully informed its readers.84Northern Star, 29 August 1840, p. 4.

‘Sentimental’ romance pits honourable heroes against evil villains, and O’Connor invariably presented his struggle as a personal duel with the Home Secretary, Lord Nor­manby.85For Nor­manby see R. Davenport-Hines, ‘Phipps, Constantine Henry, first marquess of Nor­manby (1797–1863)’ in H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds, Oxford dictionary of national biography, Oxford, 2004, Vol. 40, pp. 176–78. He ‘aimed a dagger at my heart’ claimed Feargus of his aristocratic foe, ‘and having failed to murder me, he then assaulted my honour’.86Northern Star, 11 July 1840, p. 7. See also 18 July 1840, pp. 6–7; 1 August 1840, p. 4; 8 August 1840, p. 1. Previously Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Nor­manby had developed a close working relationship with Daniel O’Connell. Although O’Connell and O’Connor initially had co-operated in the Repeal cause, and although O’Connell had actively supported the programme of parliamentary reform encapsulated in the People’s Charter, he had also alienated many Chartists due to his pro-Whig stance upon a succession of radical grievances.87Hovell, The Char­tist movement, pp. 70–73; H. Treble, ‘O’Connor, O’Connell and the attitudes of Irish immigrants towards Chartism in the north of England, 1838–48’ in J. Butt and I.F. Clarke, eds, The Victorians and social protest: a symposium, Newton Abbot, 1973, especially pp. 34–43; Epstein, Lion of freedom, pp. 126–28. The links between Nor­manby and the Liberator were not lost on the Whitby Char­tist activist, preacher, and poet John Watkins, a gentleman whose home (Aislaby Hall) was located near Nor­manby’s Yorkshire seat (Mulgrave estate).88Stephen Roberts, ‘Who wrote to the Northern Star?’ in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts, eds, The duty of discontent: essays for Dorothy Thompson, Lon­don, 1995, p. 57. In September 1840 Watkins denounced his neighbour as a ‘four-eyed, haggard, tyrant’ who had won ‘Dan’s broad, brazen smile’.89Northern Star, 12 September 1840, p. 7. Somewhat ironically, Nor­manby had published a number of romance novels in the 1820s and 1830s, leading to William Hill’s denigration of the ‘namby pamby Lord—the novel writer’.90Northern Star, 4 July 1840, p. 4. Nor­manby’s novels included Matilda: a tale of the day, Lon­don, 1825, Yes and no: a tale of the day, Lon­don, 1828 and The contrast, Lon­don, 1832. ‘Vile tyrant-boss! Hotspur’s scorn’d fop art thou’, spat Watkins rather more vehemently.91Northern Star, 12 September 1840, p. 7.

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Among the wider Char­tist leadership there were a number of critics of O’Con­nor’s theatrical yet militant leadership style. William Lovett’s espousal of ‘moral force’ Chartism, his disdain for O’Con­nor’s often illiterate support base (‘unwashed faces, unshorn chins and dirty habits’), and his rationalist objections to the spectacle and menace of the radical-Char­tist mass platform are well known.92William Lovett, Life and struggles of William Lovett in his pursuit of bread, knowledge and freedom, Lon­don, 1920 rep., Vol. 2, p. 252; Paul A. Pickering, Chartism and the Chartists in Man­ches­ter and Salford, Basingstoke, 1995, pp. 168, 170. Despite Lovett’s reputation as the respectable face of metropolitan radicalism, he was one of the first Char­tist leaders to be imprisoned (for twelve months in 1839–40, for seditious libel). After also being arrested, but escaping conviction and imprisonment, during 1840 John Watkins made regular contributions to the Star on subjects such as ‘SCRIPTURAL CHARTISM’ and ‘CHARTISM FROM SHAKESPEARE’.93Northern Star, 4 April 1840, p. 6; 18 April 1840, p. 3; 25 April 1840, p. 2; 2 May 1840, p. 3; 9 May 1840, p. 3. For ‘SCRIPTURAL CHARTISM’ see Northern Star, 12 September 1840, p. 7; 19 September 1840, p. 7; 3 October 1840, p. 6; 31 October 1840, p. 7. For ‘CHARTISM FROM SHAKESPEARE’ see Northern Star, 25 April 1840, p. 7; 2 May 1840, p. 7; 9 May 1840, p. 7; 23 May 1840, p. 7; 6 June 1840, p. 7. In 1841 he became a vociferous critic of William Lovett, but within a few years Watkins too was warning of the perils of ‘MAN WORSHIP’, and in 1844 he attempted to ‘impeach’ O’Connor for ‘treason to the people’.94John Watkins, John Watkins to the people in answer of Feargus O’Connor … [1844] New York, 1986 rep. For ‘MAN WORSHIP’ see Northern Star, 7 January 1843, p. 7; 14 January 1843, p. 4; 21 January 1843, p. 7; 28 January 1843, p. 7; 11 February 1844, p. 7.

Watkins’s criticisms of O’Connor give us a rare insight into the cleavage between the latter’s prison experiences in 1840–41 and their rendering for public consumption. ‘I thought O’Connor all that he seemed’, Watkins recalled, ‘a self-denying, disinterested, devoted friend of freedom and virtue’:

Indeed, I regarded him as a personification of the Cause … With a view to raising his spirits, which seemed very low, I conceived the romantic idea of performing a pilgrimage to his cell, as to the shrine of a martyred patriot.95Watkins, John Watkins to the people, p. 4.

Having then changed his mind, Watkins only decided to proceed after his literary efforts suddenly began to be passed over by the Star. He eventually found O’Connor in a spacious room ‘with many singing birds to cheer his captivity’:

He showed me his portrait [see below], which had just come from the engraver’s … it was just the crying look which he wore in prison. He had many books and papers to beguile his time, with a sofa and easy chair to comfort him, and he was constantly cheered by congratulatory addresses from all parts of the country. His dinners were brought to him hot from a tavern in the city. The place looked more like a parlour than a prison.96Watkins, John Watkins to the people, p. 4.

Accor­ding to Watkins’s contemporaneous account of his pilgrimage, he was prevented by the Under-Governor from delivering to his hero an address from the ‘best workmen of Whitby’.97Northern Star, 17 October 1840, p. 7. ‘This piece of petty vexation’, of course, ‘annoyed the noble O’Connor’.98Northern Star, 17 October 1840, p. 7. Watkins visited O’Connor again in early 1841. See Northern Star, 20 February 1841, p. 4. Not to be denied, Watkins rapidly composed a fawning sonnet to ‘that man of men!’ which William Hill duly published in October 1840.99Northern Star, 17 October 1840, p. 3.

Portrait of Feargus O’Con­nor at York Castle County Gaol, 1840. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Watkins’s apparent financial reliance upon the Northern Star (and thus O’Connor) in the early 1840s was shared by other local activists engaged in the ‘Trade of Agitation’.100Paul A. Pickering, ‘Chartism and the “Trade of Agitation” in early Victorian Britain’, History, 76, 1991, pp. 221–37. Nor should commercial aspects of the dungeon romance be overlooked. The Star sold more copies in 1840–41 than at any other period apart from the millenarian year of 1839.101Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 86. The prison portrait Watkins viewed subsequently was distributed to Star subscribers in April 1841, after O’Connor had reduced the original supplementary price from eight pence to sixpence-halfpenny.102Northern Star, 16 January 1841, p. 5; 6 March 1841, p. 5. Later, medals celebrating the O’Connor liberation ceremony were distributed with the paper (see  image below).103Northern Star, 20 November 1841, p. 5; 11 December 1841, p. 4. Other entrepreneurs also saw opportunities in O’Con­nor’s torment. His trial (like that of the Newport leaders, Frost, Williams and Jones) was included in popular chronicles of sensational cases and infamous miscarriages of justice such as Wilson’s remarkable trials.104See the advertisement in Northern Star, 20 June 1840, p. 6. For similar literature upon the Newport leaders’ trial for treason see John Warner and W.A. Gunn, John Frost and the Char­tist movement in Monmouthshire, Newport, 1939, pp. 19–20. In late October 1840 the Star was forced to parry a scurrilous pamphlet circulating in Man­ches­ter which alleged that O’Connor had been poisoned and found dead in his cell.105Northern Star, 31 October 1840, p. 5. Char­tist identity and pride, ultimately, were closely tied up with O’Con­nor’s virile demagogic persona. Despite the pervasive images of persecution, illness, lethargy and death mobilised around his imprisonment, it was also emphasised (without any sense of contradiction) that O’Con­nor’s spirit remained undiminished, that he would conquer adversity, and that hope remained for the faithful.

Feargus O’Con­nor Liberation Medal, 1841. Source: Whyte’s, Dublin.

The basic romance elements of alienation, struggle and return had a number of advantages as political propaganda. First, everyone knew how the story was supposed to end; second, a sense of hope was inherent in the form. Consider some verse ‘composed on the miserable and noisy loom’ by Samuel White­locke of Glas­gow over a year before O’Con­nor’s release. This ode not only reflects the ‘night-world’ themes of alienation O’Connor and his conspirators were busily propagating, but also pre-empts O’Con­nor’s eventual ascension from his ‘dungeon’. After some ritualised flattery (‘All hail O’CONNOR! Freedom’s hero, hail!’) White­locke conceded the fall of his champion: ‘And thou art from thine own bright lofty sphere/ Flung down at once, amid earth’s vilest things’.106Northern Star, 27 June 1840, p. 7. In sentimental romance, however, what goes down must come up:

Yet from the darkness of the present hour,
Thou shall emerge still more sublimely bright,
Clothed with fresh lustre, and terrific might …
For hope, even now, in whispers sweet reveals
The morn that comes on gold careering wheels …
Garlands and triumphs await thy advent day,
When sorrow’s clouds shall part and flee away.107Northern Star, 27 June 1840, p. 7.

With these lines an otherwise anonymous Glas­gow weaver actively contributed to the narrative of hope being cultivated by O’Connor, Hill, Hobson, Watkins and company. The almost oracular quality of White­locke’s verse (see below) also evokes what Northrop Frye has called the ‘special knowledge’ embedded in the romance form.108Frye, The secular scripture, pp. 6–7.

The ‘Lion Of Freedom’ Awakes

In 1840 Chartists began to reorganise. The subsequent battle between the O’Connorite nca and the alternative, neo-Owenite plan of national association authored by William Lovett and John Collins (the ‘New Move’), has long been a staple of the movement’s historiography.109Compare Gammage, History, pp. 195–96; Hovell, The Char­tist movement, ch. 15; Ward, Chartism, ch. 6; Epstein, Lion of freedom, ch. 7; Thompson, The Chartists, ch. 10. O’Con­nor’s victory in the test of leadership which eventuated in 1841 was all the more remarkable given his circumstances. From about the time of the formative Man­ches­ter Char­tist conference of July 1840, in fact, a distinct change in the tone of some of his dungeon correspondence is discernible. In a long series of letters supposedly smuggled out of York Castle in a mirror carried by a released prisoner, O’Connor detailed his criticisms of a Home Office investigation of his treatment (apparently undertaken by William Crawford, the influential advocate largely responsible for the re-introduction of penal solitude in the 1830s).110Parliamentary Debates, 22 June 1840, cols. 1365–68; Northern Star, 20 June 1840, p. 4; 11 July 1840, pp. 6–8. These ostensibly illicit ‘LOOKING GLASS’ letters also carried O’Con­nor’s ideas about political re-organisation, including the establishment of a metropolitan daily Char­tist paper.111Northern Star, 18 July 1840, p. 6. This proposal was rejected by delegates, although O’Connor later established the short-lived Char­tist daily, the Evening Star, in 1842. See Epstein, Lion of freedom, pp. 80–81; Thompson, The Chartists, p. 54. But perhaps the most interesting feature of the letters is not so much their content, but rather the triumphant tone which surrounded their publication. ‘My voice has burst the dungeon walls; once more you shall hear it’, O’Connor proclaimed at this important juncture.112Northern Star, 11 July 1840, p. 7.

Iorwerth Prothero and James Epstein have pointed out that the Star was not particularly critical of Lovett and Collins’s ideas when they were first published in 1840, and William Hill (a Swedenborgian minister) freely dissented from O’Con­nor’s strictures on ‘CHURCH CHARTISM’ the following year.113Iorwerth Prothero, ‘Chartism in Lon­don’, Past and Present, No. 44, 1969, p. 98; Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 260. For Hill’s criticisms of O’Connor see Northern Star, 16 January 1841, p. 5; 3 April 1841, p. 4. After somewhat clandestine moves to sound out support for the alternative plan of National Association, however, an intense attack upon ‘CHURCH CHARTISM, TEETOTAL CHARTISM, KNOWLEDGE CHARTISM, AND HOUSEHOLD SUFFRAGE CHARTISM’ was launched in the Star.114Northern Star, 3 April 1841, p. 7; 24 April 1841, p. 7. The ‘New Move’ was denounced as an affront to Char­tist unity, a form of appeasement to attract middle-class liberal support, and a ploy designed to remove O’Connor from the head of the movement. Eventually, Daniel O’Connell was implicated as the malign architect behind the challenge and the O’Connorite rank and file groped for words with which to execrate ‘the arch-traitor Dan, his dupes, slaves and hungry tools’.115Northern Star, 1 May 1841, p. 1. The attack upon the New Move was soon reflected in the public addresses of the O’Connorite faithful: ‘Let it be known to the world, that there is not one man in the parish of Ripponden’, wrote a correspondent, ‘who cares one straw for the “New Move”. Feargus O’Connor is our star pilot, and shall and will be ours’.116Northern Star, 1 May 1841, pp. 1–2. See also 8 May 1841, pp. 1–2.

This mobilisation of opinion against the New Move was actually the second successful tactical assault O’Connor had initiated through his prison letters. Early in 1841 the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association (LPRA), a potential competitor to Chartism which had been founded in May 1840 by a number of wealthy industrialists and parliamentary liberals, invited O’Connell to speak at a large meeting to be held at J.G. Marshall’s enormous factory premises in Leeds. From his cell O’Connor exhorted Yorkshire Chartists to hold a ‘Welcome to Dan’ counter-demonstration on Holbeck Moor, before attending the LPRA festival in force.117Northern Star, 16 January 1841, p. 1; Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 268. In the end O’Connell failed to attend the meeting, where other prominent liberals sympathetic to Chartism such as J.A. Roebuck, Sharman Crawford and Thomas Perronet Thompson were joined on the platform by a number of comparatively obscure working-class radicals. In triumph, and at ‘enormous expense’, the first page of the Star was emblazoned with a large satire depicting ‘THE GOOSE SHOW’.118Northern Star, 23 January 1841, pp. 1, 5, 8. See also Times, 23 January 1841, p. 5. As James Epstein notes, this manoeuvre effectively ‘marked the end of the LPRA’.119Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 270.

Well before these controversies over political collaboration and direction gained momentum, however, O’Con­nor’s hardships began to be overshadowed in the Star by accounts of celebratory mass demonstrations in England and Scotland following the release of a number of prominent Char­tist prisoners.120For typical demonstrations see Northern Star, 1 August 1840, pp. 8, 1; 12 September 1840, pp. 1, 6; 19 September 1840, p. 1; 26 September 1840, pp. 7–8; 3 October 1840, pp. 7–8; 10 October 1840, p. 3; 24 October 1840, p. 1; 11 November 1840, p. 1. One of the biggest public shows of support was the triumphal entry held at Man­ches­ter for Peter Murray McDouall and John Collins in August 1840. Large bodies of radicals from local towns first marched to the traditional central meeting place of Stevenson Square, before proceeding westwards to Salford Crescent where the liberated patriots were met en masse. McDouall, who ‘bore evident marks of the shameful treatment he had received from the merciless Whigs’, was presented with a ‘splendid green scarf’ (green being the traditional colour of radicalism) and a satin rosette by a deputation of the Hulme Female Radical Association.121Northern Star, 22 August 1840, p. 7. On the return march to the Carpenters’ Hall in Man­ches­ter, ‘considerable groaning’ and ‘loud cheers’ were given as the throng passed the Man­ches­ter Guardian and Advertiser offices respectively.122Northern Star, 22 August 1840, p. 7. At the Exchange ‘the “nobs” came running out to witness the sight’.123Northern Star, 22 August 1840, p. 7. And as the marchers passed the Mosley Arms Hotel (Piccadilly) ‘three cheers were given for Feargus O’Connor, that being the house where he stops on his visits to Man­ches­ter’.124Northern Star, 22 August 1840, p. 7.

These aural manifestations of opprobrium and approval mingled with the visual symbols which demarcated Char­tist incursions upon public streets and other civic spaces—the ubiquitous green sashes and ribbons, the flags and banners inscribed with radical slogans, menacing threats and Biblical quotations. Often these visual symbols had rich historical resonances. For example, when McDouall was given his green scarf he first had to remove a white top hat presented to him earlier in the day by ‘the men of Audenshaw’.125Northern Star, 22 August 1840, p. 7. Clearly, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt’s famed visual signature still had a meaningful currency for the children of Peterloo. None­the­less, by 1841 the term ‘fustian jacket’ had also became a byword for militant Char­tist allegiance—primarily through O’Con­nor’s cultivation of the appellation at the head of his open letters penned from the ‘condemned cell’. In mid-1841 a now comparatively forgotten Char­tist National Petition was borne to the Commons by a delegation of 18 stonemasons exclusively dressed in fustian.126Northern Star, 29 May 1841, p. 4. This plain and hard wearing material predominantly was utilised in working men’s apparel, and was produced in areas where Char­tist activity and allegiance was marked. Requesting the release of all political offenders and a free pardon for the transported Newport rising leaders, the 1841 memorial (said to be signed by 1,300,000 people) demanded the adoption of the People’s Charter ‘without any alteration’.127Northern Star, 29 May 1841, p. 1. When the Commons divided the numbers appeared 58 apiece, and Thomas Duncombe’s supporting motion (which he limited to the release of political prisoners for expedience) was only lost by the speaker’s casting vote.128‘Political Offenders’, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), (House of Commons), 25 May 1841, cols. 741–64. William Hick, the Leeds radical, put the unexpectedly close finish to verse:

But joy to the ‘fustians’ who sign’d!
And joy to the glorious ‘eighteen’!
And joy be to him in whose heart were enshrin’d
Though a barrier of bolts is between.129Northern Star, 5 June 1841, p. 3.

Daniel O’Connell, who supported Duncombe’s motion in debate, managed to infuriate Chartists again by leaving the house before the division took place.130Northern Star, 5 June 1841, p. 7.

As he read and heard of these demonstrations O’Connor must have begun to think very carefully about the creative possibilities of his release (scheduled for November 1841).131An anonymous correspondent was assured that O’Connor received the paper regularly. See Northern Star, 12 September 1840, p. 5. Yet one of the most striking features of the unfolding dungeon romance was its participatory character. A ‘Dem­onstra­tion Committee’ had been formed by local democrats at York, for example, as early as March 1841.132Northern Star, 3 April 1841, p. 3. For Char­tist organisation and activity see A.J. Peacock, ‘Chartism in York’, York History, Vol. 3, n.d., pp. 118–46. This body was responsible for planning and implementing local celebrations accompanying O’Con­nor’s November release. However, following a sudden decision to remit the remainder of his sentence due to additional medical evidence, O’Connor was freed with comparatively little fanfare on Thursday, 26 August 1841—or just as Robert Peel’s new Tory administration was about to assume office.

This unexpected turn of events appears to have thrown the Dem­onstra­tion Committee’s plans into disarray. Some reports even claimed that O’Connor bluntly refused to quit York Castle when first informed of his release.133Times, 31 August 1841, p. 5; Leeds Mercury, 28 August 1841, pp. 4, 7. ‘MR. O’CONNOR has broken loose sooner than we wished, or than he had originally intended’, a curious note in the Star subsequently revealed.134Northern Star, 11 September 1841, p. 5. On Monday the 30th, however, O’Connor took leave of his apartment at Etridge’s Royal Hotel in Blake Street, and at one o’clock in the afternoon re-appeared before a large body of Chartists assembled at one of the Castle gates (the O’Con­nor liberation medal depicts the Felons’ prison gatehouse). Accor­ding to the Star, the fustian suit he wore that day ‘had been manufactured expressly for the occasion, and was presented by those who had not only his welfare at heart, but were imbued with his principles, and with his spirit—the blistered hands and fustian jackets of Man­ches­ter’.135Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6.


The York Liberation Demonstration, 1841

In 1986 Paul Pickering published an innovative article upon Char­tist symbolic communication which included a fascinating vignette on the meaning of O’Con­nor’s liberation suit.136Paul A. Pickering, ‘Class without words: symbolic communication in the Char­tist movement’, Past and Present, No. 112, 1986, pp. 144–62. This essay was one of the earlier critical responses to Gareth Stedman Jones’s assessment of Char­tist rhetoric which, undeniably, conceived of ‘language’ in fairly literal terms. O’Con­nor’s choice of fustian, Pickering argued, amounted to a momentous historical gesture:

Fustian represented a new-found working-class consciousness in popular radicalism that had been forged in the bitter experiences of the 1830s … The appearance of Feargus O’Connor, the most popular leader of Chartism, dressed as a working man was one of the most significant public declarations of the early 1840s: it was a statement of class without words.137Pickering, ‘Class without words’, p. 162.

This argument, of course, owed much to Edward Thompson’s classic thesis charting the development of a working-class consciousness by the early Char­tist period.138E.P. Thompson, The making of the English working class, Harmondsworth, 1991, ch. 16 and elsewhere. Tellingly, O’Con­nor’s fustian suit could be contrasted with Henry Hunt’s white top hat. Whereas Hunt’s hat befitted his gentlemanly status, O’Con­nor’s ‘dressing down’ to fustian ‘encapsulated the development of an exclusively working-class radicalism during the 1830s’.139Pickering, ‘Class without words’, pp. 159–60.

York was by no means a Char­tist stronghold, and much of the visual paraphernalia used at the O’Connor liberation demonstration had to be requisitioned from other localities. Nevertheless, a carnival-like atmosphere seems to have been imposed upon the ancient city: ‘nearly all the shops were closed in’, claimed the Star. ‘In fact, the day was an entire holiday’.140Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6. Apart from the considerable numbers of supporters who travelled from various communities in the West Riding—and despite the short notice necessitated by O’Con­nor’s early release—approximately 100 delegates from various Char­tist localities made the pilgrimage to witness his return. Lon­don sent one of the stonemasons who had helped carry the 1841 National Petition.141Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 8. Some visitors followed the example of O’Con­nor’s barnstorming speaking tours, making the journey to York by rail. Joseph Linney, on the other hand, walked all the way from Man­ches­ter.142Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6. Each of the delegates carried a flag denoting their place of origin, adding to the array of colour. ‘Mr. William Martin, of Bradford, was particularly conspicuous: he had a large green flag, on which was inscribed— “William Martin, M.P., formerly an inhabitant of Northallerton Hell-hole, delegate for Bradford”’.143Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6.

This inscription recorded Martin’s contestation of the recent general election where he won the show of hands but, like nearly all Char­tist parliamentary candidates, failed at the poll.144Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. 8. See generally Malcolm Chase, ‘“Labour’s Candidates”: Char­tist Challenges at the Parliamentary Polls, 1839–1860’, Labour History Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, April 2009, pp. 64–89. Before his imprisonment at the Northallerton House of Correction, Martin had also spent six months in York Castle, having been arrested in Sheffield just prior to the tumultuous ‘silent protests’ of 1839. At the conclusion of his trial in March 1840, Martin facetiously beseeched the judge to let him remain at York, where he had been ‘very comfortable’.145Leeds Mercury, 28 March 1840, p. 7; Godfrey, ‘The Char­tist prisoners’, p. 216. At Northallerton, however, the Irish Char­tist found himself placed upon a treadmill and subjected to the ‘silent system’.146Northern Star, 6 March 1841, p. 7. Martin had unsuccessfully petitioned Norm­anby to be transferred from Northallerton to York Castle, although he was later removed to Lancaster Gaol. See Northern Star, 13 June 1840, p. 1; 25 July 1840, p. 2; 19 December 1840, p. 5. Described by a prison inspector as a ‘most dangerous, violent and unprincipled man’, in October 1840 the Times fleetingly portrayed Martin ‘unlike his lucky friend Feargus O’Connor … seated on his stool picking oakum and preserving a total silence’.147Times, 24 October 1840, p. 6; Dorothy Thompson, ‘Ireland and the Irish in English radicalism before 1850’ in Epstein and Thompson, eds, The Char­tist experience, p. 134.

O’Connor himself had been tried twice at York. The first prosecution of July 1839, for publishing a criminal libel in the Star, largely has been passed over by historians.148Compare Read and Glas­gow, Feargus O’Connor, p. 85; Epstein, Lion of freedom, p. 173. Hovell, The Char­tist movement, p. 222 confuses the first and second trial. A.J. Peacock does not mention the first prosecution in either of his articles on O’Con­nor’s imprisonment and York Chartism. For the proceedings see Northern Star, 27 July 1839, p. 6; Charter, 27 July 1839, p. 418; Leeds Mercury, 20 July 1839, p. 5. The case was brought by the Guardians of the Warminster Union over a reprinted report which claimed that a child inmate had eaten his own flesh before starving to death. See Northern Star, 22 December 1838, p. 7. This neglect is not surprising, because the case commenced just as potentially momentous ‘ulterior measures’ such as the ‘Sacred Month’ (or a general strike) were being debated following the rejection of the original 1839 Char­tist National Petition. At his first appearance O’Connor was also found guilty, although he was never called up for sentence.149Leeds Mercury, 21 March 1840 (Supp.), p. 2. None­the­less, in the context of the creative possibilities drawn upon in the romance of the Whig dungeon, it is important to remember that Feargus had contested two legal battles with the state at York.

Assize sittings traditionally were complemented by a considerable degree of pageantry, and at York these customs had survived relatively intact.150For assize cavalcade and ceremonial procedures see J.M. Beattie, Crime and the courts in England, 1660–1800, Oxford, 1986, pp. 314–18. Visiting judges dressed in their professional attire of scarlet, ermine and periwig were generally met by local dignitaries just south of the city walls at Dringhouses, before proceeding via Micklegate Bar to the Castle complex where the Assize was formally opened. This mobile display of the majesty of the law was a substantial visual and aural spectacle involving bailiffs armed with javelins, liveried attendants, trumpeters and pealing bells. Prior to O’Con­nor’s first trial in 1839, for example, the judges were met by the High Sheriff ‘in his state carriage with trumpeters, halberdiers, and tradesmen, the City Sheriff … in his state carriage, with his friends and tradesman on horseback, the Lord Mayor’s carriage, and several private carriages’.151Leeds Mercury, 13 July 1839, p. 5. Prior to his second trial in March 1840 a similar display took place, the High Sheriff being attended by 100 of his tenantry, ‘all well mounted, and their bridles trimmed with blue and yellow favours’.152Leeds Mercury, 7 March 1840, p. 5. The geography of this tradition at York is also arguably quite significant, because the O’Connor liberation demonstration almost seems to have been designed as a radical contestation of the local Assize cavalcade.

While radical-Char­tist processions in industrial cities and towns with strong radical traditions usually took well-worn (and thus meaningful) routes, few precedents existed at York. An oppositional display had to be manufactured from scratch—and what better model to appropriate and usurp than the Assize, the forum of repeated Char­tist persecution? Provocative symbolic confrontations with this arm of the law were not unknown: ‘God save the People!’ exclaimed a Char­tist billposter calling upon Newcastle radicals to invade (peaceably) an Assize sermon graced by visiting judges in July 1839.153Times, 6 August 1839, p. 6; Gammage, History, p. 149; Yeo, ‘Christianity in Char­tist struggle’, p. 131. The route of the York liberation procession, claimed by the Northern Star to have comprised 20,000–30,000 people (possibly an inflated figure), was clearly described in the paper, and can be traced quite accurately.154Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6. Intriguingly, the O’Connor demonstration commenced approximately where Assize cavalcade traditionally ended—and vice-versa.

The Char­tist starting point of the Castle gates, of course, primarily was governed by the visual pretence of O’Con­nor’s fustian-clad ‘liberation’. Upon greeting O’Connor, the 8–9 km procession route then traversed the four principal walled entry points to York (Walmgate, Monk, Bootham and Micklegate Bars), as if the demonstrators were symbolically taking possession of the ‘the most benighted and corrupt city in the empire’.155Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 4. As can be seen from the map above, the route also took the rough form of a cross. The destination of the Knavesmire racecourse grand stand south of the City walls, it must be said, may have been determined by entirely practical imperatives. A large meeting place evidently was required, and Chartists often had great problems obtaining suitable accommodation for their political activities, particularly in a ‘priest-ridden’ city like York.156Peacock, ‘Chartism in York’, pp. 119–20. None­the­less, the contestatory tendencies implicit in the geography of the liberation procession also extended to some of its most striking visual features.

An eighteenth-century engraving of John Carr’s grand stand at the York racecourse at Knavesmire. The ground floor façade survives. Source: York Castle Museum.

Consider O’Con­nor’s triumphal carriage, specially built for the occasion by York Chartists. Highly decorated, it was ‘composed of green velvet, on a pink velvet ground work’, was drawn by six horses, and was attended by postilions in green and white livery. The Star described the car as being in ‘the form of a conch-shell’, while another newspaper report said that it was in ‘the form of a cornucopia’.157Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6; Peacock, ‘Chartism in York’, p. 130. Note again the use of the traditional colour of liberty and radicalism, as opposed to the livery of the local aristocracy. The conch-shell design is more interesting, as there is no obvious precedent in the radical-Char­tist symbolic repertoire. However, John Watkins’s reverie written after his first visit to O’Con­nor’s cell did include a similar metaphor:

O’CONNOR! I have made my pilgrimage
Across the lonely mountain moor to thee;
Thoughts, hallow’d as my steps, did me engage
As onward where, enshrin’d with liberty,
Hope’s path I paced and won my scallop shell.
Oh holier than the ‘House of Houses’ far Is now the Castle with its altar cell.158Northern Star, 17 October 1840, p. 3.

The scallop shell reference would appear to allude to the tokens traditionally worn by pilgrims who journeyed to a supposed tomb of James the disciple at Compostela in Galicia.159Jonathon Sumption, Pilgrimage: an image of mediæval religion, Lon­don, 1975, p. 174 and elsewhere. Watkins also probably alluded to the opening lines of Walter Raleigh’s ‘The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage’, a meditation possibly written while Raleigh was under the sentence of death in 1603, but commonly ascribed to his last hours in 1618: ‘Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,/ My staff of faith to walk upon’.160See A.M.C. Latham, ed., The poems of Sir Walter Raleigh, Lon­don, 1951, pp. 140–42. The image of a condemned hero certainly accords with O’Con­nor’s carefully cultivated prison persona in 1840–41.

The ornate triumphal car used by Daniel O’Connell in his release demonstration procession from Richmond Bridewell, Dublin, in 1844. Source: National Museum of Ireland.

Unfortunately, no visual representation of O’Con­nor’s triumphal carriage appears extant. However, we can get an idea of its general ornate form from the surviving triumphal car used by Daniel O’Connell upon his release (also staged) from Richmond Bridewell prison in Dublin in September 1844 (pictured above and below).161Times, 6 September 1844, pp. 5–6; O. MacDonagh, The emancipist: Daniel O’Connell, 1830-47, Lon­don, 1989, pp. 247–52; see also G. Owens, ‘Constructing the image of Daniel O’Connell’, History Ireland, accessed, 2 December 2020. In O’Con­nor’s case, the cornucopia description does suggests a spiral or horn-like design which would seem to have differed somewhat from O’Connell’s chariot (but note the scroll-like features of the latter). Perhaps O’Con­nor’s car was intended as a visual summons, calling the faithful to bear witness to his return? Traditional symbolic associations of the cornucopia with prosperity and fecundity and the conch with rebirth may appear tenuous in isolation, but they were not inconsistent with the return phase of the dungeon romance.162A. de Vries, ed., Dictionary of symbols and imagery, Amsterdam, 1974, pp. 110, 419.

Daniel O’Con­nor’s 1844 liberation demonstration in Dublin. Source: Illustrated Lon­don News, 14 September 1844, p. 165.

Like a number of radical demagogues before him, O’Con­nor’s private life was unconventional: never married, he none­the­less is said to have fathered a number of children to different women (including the prominent actor Edward O’Con­nor Terry [1844–1912]); he may also have been romantically involved with the renowned actress Louisa Nisbett (1812–58).163James Epstein, ‘O’Connor, Feargus Edward (1796?-1855)’ in Matthew and Harrison, eds, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 41, p. 463; James Dunkerley, Americana: the Americas in the World, around 1850, Lon­don, 2000, p. 460. Accor­ding to W.E. Adams, there ‘was as much gossip in Char­tist circles about the two as there were in Irish circles forty or fifty years later about Mr. Parnell and Mrs. O’Shea’.164W.E. Adams, Memoirs of a social atom [1903], New York, 1967 rep., p. 208. James Epstein and John Belchem, ‘The Gentleman Leader Revisited’ in James Epstein, In practice: studies in the language and culture of popular politics in modern Britain, Stanford, 2003, p. 132. But if O’Con­nor’s exotic chariot of deliverance invoked the libertine—the ‘Lion of Freedom’ roused for battle, his frugal attire seemed to imply a stoic, solitary and celibate incarceration. These paradoxical associations were further juxtaposed by fleeting ceremonies that had religious overtones. Piety played little part in O’Con­nor’s demagogic persona but when he appeared at the Castle gates he raised his arms and thanked god for his release; later in the day, when the liberation procession arrived at the racecourse, ‘several carrier pigeons, charged with important news of his appearance amongst the people, were let off’.165Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6. Given that this assignment was virtually redundant, the release of the birds must have implied the idea of resurrection to those present.

We should thus remember, as James Vernon has emphasised, that symbolic political meanings are ‘invariably ambiguous or diffuse’.166Vernon, Politics and the people, p. 114. The plain cloth of labour no doubt worn by many at York in harmony with O’Connor might be seen as another radical inversion of the lavish costumes associated with civic pageantry. The potentially contradictory meanings latent in O’Con­nor’s suit and his triumphal carriage are also interesting in that they perhaps point to competing claims about what he personified to Chartists hailing from different locations. Too often the rank and file are treated as an impossibly homogenous body. The exotic triumphal car, manufactured by a small band of activists at one of Chartism’s English outposts, arguably accentuated the cultural divide between the gentleman leader and his radical constituency. Alternatively, the Mancunian gift of fustian not only temporarily undercut O’Con­nor’s gentlemanly identity, but fused the formative industrial and class connotations of that city to his person.

In symbolic terms, O’Con­nor’s appearance in fustian also had an obviously metamorphic quality that (once again) aligned with the basic narrative mechanics of the sentimental romance form. But was the costume his idea? There doesn’t seem to be any positive evidence on this point although an intriguing snippet buried in the Northern Star’s correspondents’ column in early July 1841 hints that it may have been suggested to O’Con­nor by a Man­ches­ter fustian cutter: ‘GEORGE FITTON.–His hint about the “fustian” shall be sent to Mr. O’Connor’.167Northern Star, 3 July 1841, p. 8; Fitton was born c. 1788 and in 1841 lived in Great Mount Street, Man­ches­ter (very close to the site of the Peterloo Massacre). His wife Sarah and three elder daughters residing at the same address were also fustian cutters. Digitised Image (, Household of George Fitton, 1841 Census, England, Civil Parish of Deansgate, Man­ches­ter, Class HO107, Piece 570, Book 13, Folio 31, Page 11, GSU roll 438722. For Fitton’s trade activity see also Northern Star, 20 April 1839, p. 6; 31 October 1846, p. 2. In any event, O’Connor wrote about another kind of transformation of identity in his last prison letter. This contained a number of familiar ‘night-world’ motifs: exile, tyranny, solitude, the ever-present spectre of death. An incipient return to a superhuman demagogic identity, none­the­less, was also intimated:


On the 11th of May I was snatched from you by the ruthless arm of tyranny; on Monday next I shall be restored to you by the hand of Providence, and upon that day you will judge for yourselves whether nearly sixteen months of solitary—mind, solitary—confinement in a condemned cell, in a felon’s prison, and treated brutally and in violation of every rule by which prison discipline is administered to the worst of felons, has damped my ardour, or slackened my zeal. On Monday you shall judge whether oppression has broken O’Con­nor’s heart, or O’Connor has broken oppression’s head. Till then, farewell. On leaving you, my motto was Universal Suffrage and no Surrender. On joining you once more, the same words will be upon my banner. O! Monday next will be a great and glorious day for Chartism and right. I shall, with God’s help, aided by the people’s prayers, gain a giant’s strength, ‘twixt this and the hour for which I pant.

Ever your fond and devoted friend,
To the death,
York Castle, 25th of the 16th month of con[-]
finement in the Condemned Cell.168Northern Star, 28 August 1841, p. 1.

While O’Connor found it convenient to continue the mock-fiction of his ‘Condemned Cell’, the images of bodily degeneration so important in the early phase of the dungeon romance are no longer apparent. Given the return to a virile demagogic identity hinted at the end of his letter, this element of the narrative had simply lost its relevance.

As might be expected, O’Connor spoke of the meaning of his extraordinary attire during the first public speech he made outside the Castle gates. His words at this point surely were carefully chosen, and primarily signalled his allegiance and loyalty to the Char­tist body:

I have appeared, Brother Chartists and working men, amongst you in fustian, the emblem of your order, in order to convince you, at a single glance, that what I was when I left you, the same I do return to you.169Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6.

O’Connor then re-deployed the metaphor of a dream, another significant rhetorical tactic in the cyclical progress of the dungeon romance:

I pass over what has occurred as a dream; I turn my back on York Castle; I forget the past, and shall devote my mind to the future … ‘Onward we conquer, backward and we fall’.170Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6.

The nightmare had passed. Not only had O’Connor survived his life-sapping journey into the bowels of Whiggery; he had returned the same man, proudly dressed in a badge of militant Char­tist allegiance. Unity, constancy, rebirth and a revitalised sense of political agency and momentum: these were the main political themes of the York liberation demonstration.

Synchronised Celebrations And Char­tist Christenings

Throughout Britain Chartists replicated the festivities at York. A number of these local demonstrations were rather aggressive displays of political will: at Bromsgrove, the morning ‘was ushered in by the firing of cannons, which continued at intervals during the day’.171Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1. Another martial tribute comprising ‘fourteen small cannon’ rent the air at Winlaton, where participants pledged themselves to the nca and unceasing agitation. The exact timing of the counter-pageantry at York was crucial to the authenticity of some of the local celebrations. At precisely one o’clock in the afternoon of 30 August, for example, a large crowd which had taken hold of Leicester’s marketplace ‘burst into a spontaneous shout, which was repeated three times three’.172Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1. In Nottingham, at the same moment, a group of Chartists assembled in the King George on Horseback Hotel ‘commenced firing a fue de joie of small arms from the window looking into King Square, and kept this constantly up for an hour’.173Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1. The ‘college youths of Ashton’ also decided upon a boisterous gesture of solidarity when some scholars invaded the parish church and rang ‘a true and complete order in beautiful style, consisting of as many changes as Mr. O’Connor had been confined days and nights in the Whig Bastile—954’.174Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1. And at Boston, just as the clock struck one, a Char­tist ‘backboner’ had his daughter, ‘aged fourteen years, christened Emma O’Connor O’Brien Frost’.175Northern Star, 11 September 1841, p. 5.

Historians have noted the spate of political christenings that occurred in the early 1840s, and their place within a broader radical-Char­tist tradition.176 Jones, Chartism and the Chartists, p. 24; Schwarzkopf, Women in the Char­tist movement, p. 124; Pickering, Chartism and the Chartists in Man­ches­ter and Salford, pp. 40–42. Yet little comment has been made upon the specific historical context in which these political rites of passage were performed. In July 1840 O’Connor concluded one of his ‘LOOKING GLASS’ letters with the exhortation: ‘Let every man sing my Charter song, and call every child, whether boy or girl, that shall be born to you this year, Feargus, that we may keep a record of Whig villainy’.177Northern Star, 11 July 1840, p. 7. Within weeks an infant was christened Charles Feargus O’Connor at York’s Roman Catholic chapel.178Northern Star, 1 August 1840, p. 6. A few weeks later Ayrshire Chartists informed their brethren that they had also christened a young Feargus, ‘in order that ‘the patriot’s name may be transmitted, unimpaired, to posterity’.179Northern Star, 22 August 1840, p. 4. ‘If our governors were wise’, wrote another, ‘they would learn something from these slight things’.180Northern Star, 29 August 1840, p. 5.

The ‘Young Patriots’ column which soon appeared in the Star duly recorded hundreds of political christenings—and some conflicts over the choice of name. ‘I think if you refer to the Bible you would not have named this child Feargus O’Connor’, two parents were admonished by a curate at Sprowston, near Norwich.181Northern Star, 1 May 1841, p. 6. Determined to ‘perpetuate his Char­tist faith’ but not ‘prostrate his conscience to the hireling of the state’, a radical at Johnshaven on the Scottish coast ‘reserved his “two bairnies” for baptism’ until a Char­tist missionary could perform the service about the time of O’Con­nor’s release.182Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6. Volunteer transcriptions of Public Record Office birth registration indexes provide a way to systematically identify and map children named after Char­tist leaders in the early 1840s and I’ve examined the phenomenon in much more detail in another essay. As can be seen in the chart below, the birth registration data I’ve gathered for 1840–42 demonstrates how the political christening phenomenon bloomed after O’Con­nor exhorted his followers to honour his struggle in this manner in July 1840.183Northern Star, 11 July 1840, p. 7.

Chart showing increase in children named after Char­tist leaders in the early 1840s
Number of ‘Char­tist’ birth registrations per quarter, England and Wales, 1840-42.

While O’Con­nor clearly was the most popular choice, hundreds of children also were named for John Frost in the 1840s (and Frost was, it should be recalled, a convicted traitor). The registration data for 1840–42 also shows that a significant number of parents took heed of O’Con­nor’s exhortation to commemorate his struggle regardless of the sex of their child—over 30% were girls. As the heatmap below shows, the christening phenomenon was most marked in Char­tist heartlands in Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Interest­ingly, birth regis­tration records show that children continued to be named for O’Con­nor well after his death in 1855 (although some later nineteenth-century examples likely were named for parents or relatives originally christened after O’Con­nor).

Heatmap of Char­tist Children, England and Wales, 1840-42

Fire, an emotive symbolic tool, was deployed in various ways on the evening of the York demonstration: at Kinross a torch lit procession was held, echoing the menacing and proscribed Char­tist parades by night of late 1838. At Macclesfield, Hebden Bridge, Diss and Parkhead, Char­tist meeting rooms were illuminated. So too was the Leicester activist Thomas Cooper’s shop window, which was further decorated with ‘arches of flowers, O’Connor portraits and inscriptions such as ‘“O’Connor our pride and glory”’.184Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1. Macclesfield radicals held a typical ‘grand festival’:

The rooms were decorated with evergreens, flowers and appropriate devices; the walls were hung with portraits of O’Connor, O’Brien, Emmet, and other illustrious patriots. In the evening the rooms were most brilliantly illuminated in every part. Dancing, patriotic speeches, and singing and recitations, were continued to a late hour.185Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1.

Of Anglo-Irish heritage, Feargus None­the­less claimed descent from ancient Irish royalty, and these adornments did have something of the trappings of a royal entry, despite the absence of the regal democrat himself.186O’Neill Daunt, Eighty-five years, p. 165; Read and Glas­gow, Feargus O’Connor, pp. 9–10. For the pageantry of royal entries generally see Robert Withington, English pageantry: an historical outline, 2 vols, New York, 1963 rep. and D.M. Bergeron, English civic pageantry, 1558–1642, Lon­don, 1971. This deficiency of all the synchronised celebrations, however, was soon to be remedied.

O’Con­nor’s Liberation Tours

In spite of his stated ill-health, in late 1841 O’Connor embarked upon one of the busiest speaking tours of his entire career. ‘I have plunged’, he declared, ‘into the agitation ocean’.187Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1. First he addressed a number of meetings in and around Lon­don, and then was given tremendous public welcomes in Bir­ming­ham, Man­ches­ter, Leeds and Sheffield. As 1841 drew to a close, O’Connor made his way through Char­tist strongholds in Scotland before returning to industrial centres in northern England.188Posters promoting O’Con­nor’s public entries into Bir­ming­ham and Halifax can be found in Public Record Office, Home Office Disturbance Papers, Classes 45/52 and 45/43. The following year further speaking tours were undertaken and the sum of these large urban rallies was the reinvigoration of the Char­tist mass platform.189See Public Record Office, Home Office Disturbance Papers, Class 45/254 for similar demonstrations at Nottingham in February 1842.

One of the initial public celebrations was held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in Lon­don, where John Watkins moved the first resolution (he now lived in the capital). Other speakers included two of the stonemasons who had borne the National Petition in May, Armstrong Walton and Alexander Wilson.190Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 1. Despite ‘a bad sore throat and violent inflammation of the chest’, O’Connor also made a point of addressing the masons at the Craven’s Head Tavern, Drury Lane, on 11 September 1841.191Northern Star, 18 September 1841, p. 1. In that month nearly 400 builders employed on the new Houses of Parliament commenced a long strike over the manner of the timing of their work and the conduct of a despised foreman.192David Goodway, Lon­don Chartism, 1838–1848, Cambridge, 1982, p. 180. This particular industrial protest by a trade now closely associated with Chartism had obvious symbolic overtones. It should also be remembered that the 1842 Char­tist National Petition, the most militant document of its kind and signed by well over three million Britons, was mobilised in the wake of the O’Connor liberation tours of 1841–42.

At the Bir­ming­ham mass rally in September 1841 the York ceremonial carriage was again used to ferry O’Connor through the city, this time to a hustings built near Holloway Head.193Northern Star, 25 September 1841, p. 1. ‘It was not a procession’, boasted a Northern Star correspondent, ‘it was a town full of people’.194Northern Star, 25 September 1841, p. 5. A palpable sense of triumph was bound up in O’Con­nor’s appearance in his liberation carriage: ‘The fiat has gone forth, and the assembled thousands at Bir­ming­ham have decided the question. CHARTISM IS OMNIPOTENT’.195Northern Star, 25 September 1841, p. 1. Emphasis in original. A slightly chaotic scene ensued at Holloway Head, however, when part of the hustings suddenly collapsed and had to be hastily repaired.196Northern Star, 25 September 1841, p. 5; Bir­ming­ham Journal, 25 September 1841, p. 5. Significantly, neither the Bir­ming­ham Journal or the Northern Star made any mention of O’Con­nor’s dress on this occasion although the Journal did note that the Wolverhampton stonemason and Char­tist, Henry Candy, appeared on the platform attired in ‘his working dress’.197Bir­ming­ham Journal, 25 September 1841, p. 5.

Paul Pickering suggests that O’Connor wore a fustian suit a number of times after the York liberation.198Pickering, ‘Class without words’, p. 156. Yet in all the many Char­tist mass rallies, indoor meetings, political dinners, tea-parties and balls that O’Connor attended in England and Scotland during the liberation tours of 1841–42, only one of the lengthy accounts of proceedings invariably published in the Star actually makes any mention of his attire.199For liberation demonstrations O’Connor attended in England and Scotland in 1841 see Northern Star, 11 September 1841, pp. 1,p. 5, 8; 18 September 1841, p. 1; 25 September 1841, pp. 1, 4–5; 2 October 1841, pp. 4, 6, 8; 9 October 1841, pp. 1, 5; 16 October 1841, pp. 4–5; 23 October 1841, pp. 3–4; 30 October 1841, p. 3; 6 November 1841, pp. 1, 7; 13 November 1841, p. 7; 20 November 1841, p. 3; 27 November 1841, p. 5; 4 December 1841, pp. 4, 6; 11 December 1841, pp. 4, 6; 24 December 1841, p. 1. This exception was the great demonstration held at Man­ches­ter approximately one month after O’Con­nor’s release from prison.

After preliminary celebrations at Eccles, O’Connor was escorted by a large crowd to Salford Crescent; a second procession originating at Stevenson Square took a route westwards similar to the McDouall-Collins liberation demonstration held the year before.200Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. 6. The united celebration at Salford Crescent, opined the Star correspondent, ‘was almost without parallel in the history of Man­ches­ter’.201Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. 6. James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien and William Benbow, both also recently released from prison, took part in proceedings but O’Connor was the main attraction—despite purportedly having received a signed death threat from an Irish compatriot.202Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. 6. O’Connor did not publicly reveal the name of his foe. John Belchem has noted that both Hunt and O’Connor deployed supposed assassination threats for rhetorical purposes. See Belchem, ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the collapse of the mass platform’ in Epstein and Thompson, eds, The Char­tist experience, p. 282. For O’Brien see Alfred Plummer, Bronterre: a political biography of Bronterre O’Brien, Lon­don, 1971; for Benbow see Iorwerth Prothero, ‘William Benbow and the concept of the general strike’, Past and Present, No. 63, 1974, pp. 132–71. Recently released Man­ches­ter Char­tist activists William Jackson, John Livesey and William Barker were also formally honoured during the festivities. ‘I am here; where is the assassin?’, O’Connor boasted to great approbation.203Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. 6. Five bands ultimately enlivened proceedings and banners and other visual devices abounded, including a large oil painting of ‘Feargus O’Connor, with Henry Hunt pointing from the clouds, and giving him the following charge—“Welcome Feargus! thou has been found faithful; now lead my people on to victory”’.204Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. 6.

‘I don’t lead; I am driven by the people’, O’Connor once remarked to William Lovett.205A. Briggs, ‘The local background of Chartism’ in Asa Briggs, ed., Char­tist studies, Lon­don, 1974, p. 10; Pickering, ‘Class without words’, pp. 150–51; M. Vicinus, ‘“To live free or die”: the relationship between strategy and style in Char­tist speeches, 1838-39’, Style, 10, 1976, pp. 487–88. This particular portrait had been commissioned in mid-1841 by some Mancunian Char­tist women.206Northern Star, 10 July 1841, p. 1. In early July the Star noted:

They have been subscribing liberally themselves, and collecting from their friends, in order to raise a fund to enable them to do their share in due honour to Feargus O’Connor, Esq., at the coming demonstration. They have purchased a piece of canvas which measures eight feet by seven, and engaged a first-rate portrait painter to paint a full-length portrait of that gentleman, dressed in fustian, with the People’s Charter in his hand. At a short distance from him appears a large assemblage of people, the males dressed in fustian; and to his right there is an imitation of a castle; and at the corner of the picture there is a large figure representing Henry Hunt, the departed, coming through the clouds, and speaking to O’Connor.207Northern Star, 10 July 1841 p. 1. Accor­ding to this account, mottoes had yet to be inscribed on the portrait. Finding that the women had ‘stolen a march upon them’, Man­ches­ter’s fustian jackets hastily commissioned the same artist to execute a similar sized portrait of James Bronterre O’Brien for the liberation demonstration. See Northern Star, 17 July 1841, p. 1; 2 October 1841, p. 6.

This account was published in the Star soon after George Fitton’s mysterious note to O’Con­nor about fustian was mentioned in its columns (and may have reflected a general understanding among Man­ches­ter Chartists in late June 1841 that O’Con­nor would appear in fustian upon the occasion of his release). It is not clear, however, whether the portrait was carried in procession at York as well as the later Man­ches­ter demonstration (the Man­ches­ter Female Union participated at York under a banner somewhat blandly inscribed ‘McDouall is our friend’).208Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6. But note how O’Connor was expected to appear in fustian at York, like his supporters, and how the liberation scene was accurately imagined some time prior to the event. Once again, we see a glimpse of the ‘special knowledge’ embedded in the romance form.

Having seemingly pre-empted a central element of the festivities at York, Char­tist women no doubt encouraged O’Connor to publicly acknowledge the children who had been christened in his honour. At Man­ches­ter he was presented with several infants bearing his name and at least one took part in the procession.209Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. 6. The Man­ches­ter Guardian, no friend of Chartism, reported that

a child, not more than two years of age, called ‘the young patriot’ was carried in the procession, not like other patriots, in portraits, but in person, surrounded by garlands of flowers, and his name given as follows, in conspicuous characters:—‘Feargus O’Connor Frost O’Brien McDouall Hunt Taylor.’ The young patriot did not, however, enjoy the distinction forced upon him, and the restraint it involved, for he cried bitterly, and seemed to feel as much impatience as if he had read and understood the motto on one of the banners near him, namely, ‘Patience under undeserved suffering is a crime’.210Man­ches­ter Guardian reprinted in the Examiner, 2 October 1841. A banner bearing the same motto was used at the York liberation demonstration. Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p. 6.

Interestingly, the conch-shell carriage used at York and Bir­ming­ham was not to be seen at Man­ches­ter. And, Accor­ding to the Leeds Mercury, the fustian suit O’Connor wore on this occasion was presented to him by ‘the Char­tist ladies of Man­ches­ter’.211Leeds Mercury, 2 October 1841, p. 7. Emphasis in original. Ritualised forms of flattery were significant elements of the demagogic leadership style O’Connor had inherited from Hunt, and O’Con­nor’s sole recorded appearance in fustian may simply have been a chivalrous act of demagogic diplomacy, rather than a concerted feature of the liberation tour. The final movement of the dungeon romance, moreover, was saved for O’Con­nor’s entry into Scotland.

The Finale: A Glas­gow Wedding

Like McDouall and Collins before him, Feargus voyaged north from Liverpool by sea, arriving at Greenock on Saturday, 9 October 1841. On the following Monday Glas­gow Chartists rose before dawn, and bands were sent crashing their way around the streets of Gorbals, Calton and Bridgeton to stir the populace into action. Later in the morning a large procession left Greenock for Port Glas­gow. Veteran radicals chose to meet there ‘in consequence of many of them having witnessed the departure of Mr. O’Con­nor’s father and uncle from that port, when, forty-three years ago, they were consigned for seventeen months to Fort St. George’.212Northern Star, 16 October 1841, p. 4. Back at Greenock, Feargus was presented with another collection of infant namesakes (who were all ‘kissed very affectionately in rotation’) before he was taken to Glas­gow on the Royal Tar, a steamer manned by a hand-picked Char­tist crew, and bedecked with ever-greens, laurel, ‘branches of birch and Royal Oak’.213Northern Star, 16 October 1841, p. 4. Note the use of laurel to distinguish the vessel, and its traditional associations with conquest, peace and rebirth.

While O’Connor spoke of his ‘changed appearance’—as opposed to his unchanged principles—the extensive Star reports of the meetings, processions and social festivities held about Glas­gow again reveal nothing about his attire. However, another report of the outdoor mass-meeting held on Glas­gow Green was published in the Glas­gow Courier and subsequently reprinted in the Times. Although also hostile to O’Connor and Chartism, this account does reveal something of the fair-like atmosphere typical of larger Char­tist gatherings:

The road to the hustings was lined on either side with standings and barrow-loads of apples, speldings, soda-water, gingerbread, and sundry bonbons; and there was not wanting the charms of minstrelsy to cheer on the knights of tomfoolery, for at the four entrances to the green were ballad-singers, with lusty lungs, singing—

‘Come away, come away’,
‘This is O’Con­nor’s day’;
‘We’ll give him a great demonstration’.214Times, 14 October 1841, p. 5. The report estimated the crowd at 10,000.

Revealingly, this account stated that O’Connor ‘appeared not, as many expected, in the fustian dress in which he has been meeting the English Chartists of late, but dressed like a gentleman—blue surtout, with velvet collar, and yellow vest’.215Times, 14 October 1841, p. 5. Evidently, Feargus had re-assumed his native demagogic identity—despite his earlier ceremonial use of fustian at York and Man­ches­ter.

Later that evening O’Connor consummated his pact with the people. At an indoor soirée attended by about 3,000 Chartists at Glas­gow’s newly opened Bazaar Hall (now City Halls), three young women ascended the stage and addressed the liberated hero. After inevitable comparisons with William Wallace were relayed, Feargus was presented with a ‘truly massive and valuable’ diamond ring.216Northern Star, 16 October 1841, p. 5. While a Mr. McFarlane, ‘for twenty years an exile for the advocacy of their principles’ was also rewarded for his constancy, O’Connor briefly retreated from centre-stage.217McFarlane, who hailed from Condorratt, was presented with a ‘handsome ebony staff, silver mounted, and a sovereign for travelling expenses’. He appears to have been Thomas McFarlane, one of the insurgent Stirlingshire weavers transported to New South Wales in late 1820. See Margaret Macfarlane and Alastair Macfarlane, The Scottish radicals tried and transported to Australia for treason in 1820, Sydney, 1975, pp. 38–40. Then, after ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was sung by the assembly, he returned to thank his audience:

It requires a man to calm himself for a moment when he receives an impulse in the cause of liberty such as this. When the name of Wallace is made use of by female lips, and when the sons of Scotia are asked if they would not rather fight for their liberty than pine in slavery, what arguments have I to use to impress upon this large assembly the necessity of working out their political salvation? (Loud Cheers) As I have not words to express my feelings, I shall pass from this point, simply returning my heartfelt thanks to those ladies who have done me the honour to present me with these tokens of regard. I would say, that if before I was engaged to the people, now I am wedded to their cause. (Renewed cheering).218Northern Star, 16 October 1841, p. 5.

The romance of the Whig dungeon was thus resolved with the classic symbol of unity. Once again, the creative inspiration behind the fleeting ‘wedding’ ceremony is unclear.219The issue of presenting O’Connor with an undisclosed ‘testimonial of esteem’ had been discussed at a public meeting convened by Chartist women at Glas­gow in late September 1841. An opinion was voiced that ‘O’Connor would not accept any present; but the ladies present declared their determination of compelling him to accept a present from the lasses of the Queen of Chartism’ (Northern Star, 2 October 1841, p. ⁠1). Note that Peter Murray McDouall and his wife had been given ‘massive’ and ‘splendid’ gold rings by members of the Aberdeen Female Union during their visit there in late 1840. See Northern Star, 19 December 1840, p. 2. But perhaps this question is immaterial: for here we are touching upon one of the most expressive moments of a long struggle.

Conclusion: Imagination In Action

Many years ago John and Barbara Hammond wrote that the ‘Char­tist movement, like Owen’s movement, was imagination in action’.220J.L. and Barbara Hammond, The age of the Chartists, 1832–1854: a study of discontent, Lon­don, 1930, p. 276. The romance of the Whig dungeon was a vulgar and often mendacious fantasy cultivated for an often illiterate and potentially insurrectionary audience. Yet the Char­tist quest—like any romance—spoke an enticing language of purpose and hope. Despite the litany of failure synonymous with Chartism, the cyclical nature of this politicised narrative form helped manufacture a sense of triumph over repression in 1841, and then played an important role in Chartism’s first major revival in 1841–42. While there is little evidence that O’Connor or his staff on the Northern Star planned various threads of the dungeon romance, there is much evidence of the reflexive use of formulaic motifs in response to circumstance—and not only by O’Connor and his lieutenants, but also by the Char­tist rank and file.

The question of whether Chartism exhibited a working-class consciousness in the early 1840s goes beyond this essay. It is clear, however, that O’Connor did not don fustian regularly in public in 1841–42—or thereafter. This absence appears to hold for the most propitious of junctures. Newspaper accounts of the demonstration accompanying the delivery of the 1842 National Petition to the House of Commons, for example, make no mention of O’Con­nor’s attire—despite the reprised role of trade delegates in bearing this famously gigantic document through the streets of Lon­don. Nor does O’Connor appear to have worn fustian during the mass Char­tist trial at Lancaster in 1843—despite many of his co-defendants being relatively obscure working-class activists from Man­ches­ter and surrounding towns. O’Con­nor’s somewhat unexpected election to the Commons as a member for Nottingham in 1847 offered another apparently spurned chance to don the plain cloth of labour—this time in parliament itself. Finally, none of the detailed press reports of the momentous Char­tist demonstration at Kennington Common on 10 April 1848, in the wake of revolutionary tumult in Europe and fears of the same in Lon­don, suggest that O’Con­nor’s dress was unconventional. Had he worn fustian on any of these occasions, it almost certainly would have been reported: the York and Man­ches­ter liberation demonstrations in 1841, after all, were purely Char­tist counter-cultural assemblies. Like Henry Hunt before him—and Ernest Jones after—Feargus O’Connor retained a gentlemanly leadership persona until the end.

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