150th anniversary of statue to chartist leader

Feargus Edward O’Connor (1794 – 1855) was a Chartist leader and advocate of land reform. In 1847 he was elected MP for Nottingham, making him the first and only Chartist to get elected to Parliament. While largely forgotten today, when a statue in his memory was unveiled 150 years ago on August 26th 1859 thousands of people came to mark the event. A contradictory figure, the statue to O’Connor which still stands in the Arboretum is a reminder of Nottingham’s long, proud tradition of political radicalism.

Further Reading: BBC: Historic Figures | Spartacus Educational | Wikipedia

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O’Connor’s involvement with the city must be seen within the wider context. Nottingham has a long tradition of political radicalism. Professor John Beckett notes, “Support for Parliamentary reform first surfaced in Nottingham politics during the 1780s, and the town remained committed to electoral reform through the following decades.” In March 1831, after a public meeting, more than 9,000 people signed a petition calling for reform and when in October of that year the second Reform Bill was rejected by the House of Lords,the city responded by rioting. Locals targetted their ire against Colwick Hall, the residence of prominent anti-reformer John Musters before turning to the castle then owned by the Duke of Newcastle who had voted against the Bill in the House of Lords. The castle was burnt to the ground. It was followed, a day later, was a silk mill in Beeston. Three men found guilty of being involved in these events would later be executed.

When a third reform bill was passed in 1832, this was greeted in Nottingham with celebrations. The corporation voting 150 guineas to the festivities. These early reforms enfranchised the middle classes, but left the working classes without a vote. Chartism emerged in response to this inequality and found a strong base of support in Nottingham. In November 1838, a meeting held on the Forest drew around 3,000 people with further gatherings following in 1839. Beckett notes, “Of the 1.3 million signatures on the first Chartist petition to the House of Commons in July 1839, 17,000 were said to have come from Nottingham.” When this petition was rejected, Chartism was temporarily stalled.

In February 1842, Feargus O’Connor, spoke in Nottingham. People came on foot from across the country to hear him speak. The following August, Chartist disturbances in the city grew into what became known as the Battle of Mapperley Hills when some 5,000 Chartists assembled on Mapperley Plains, with 400 being arrested by troops. This led to another riot. It was in this context that O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham in 1847, becoming the only Chartist to enter Parliament.

O’Connor had been born in Ireland in or around 1796. His family were Protestant, but nonetheless Irish Nationalist. He cut his political teeth during struggles for democratic reform and Irish rights. In 1832 he was elected MP for Cork (then part of Britain), but was disqualified because he failed to satisfy the property requirement for MPs (i.e. that he own property worth more than £300). His career as an MP brought him to London were he allied himself with popular radicals and after losing his seat, he began campaigning for electoral reform in the UK.

In 1837 O’Connor, along with Julian Harney, founded the London Democratic Association (formed in true Monty Python fashion as a solidly working class counterbalance to the London Working Men’s Association which O’Connor reportedly claimed was made up of skilled mechanics.) The Association advocated universal suffrage, freedom of the press, repeal of the Poor Law, the eight-hour day, and prohibition of child labor, positions which it promulgated through the Northern Star, which began its life in Leeds in November 1837. This would go onto become the most important of the Chartist newspapers and at its peak had a readership of more than 50,000.

O’Connor made his name as a Chartist leader, both through the Northern Star and by travelling the country giving speeches. Either a great orator or a populist demagogue, depending on the perspective of the biographer, O’Connor was a prominent advocate of “physical force” Chartism. Opposing the “moral force” Chartism of William Lovett and others who believed in effecting change through the legislative process only, O’Connor and his supporters accepted the need for political violence in the struggle against the prevailing order.

The rejection of the 1.3 million strong petition in 1840, fueled violent clashes culminating in the Newport rising when rioters attempted to release Chartist leader Henry Vincent from prison. Although evidence suggests that O’Connor was ignorant of the event, he was tried along with others for seditious libel and found guilty for which he was sentenced to 18 months in York Castle. Inside he continued writing for the Northern Star, his articles being smuggled out. When he was released in August 1841, he ascended to leadership of the whole Chartist movement.

O’Connor was a longstanding advocate of land reform. He came up with his own quixotic suggestion which he articulated in his book ‘A Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms’. He argued for resettling surplus factory workers on smallholdings, unconcerned by the limited agricultural skills of these workers, he believed this plan would drive up wages by restricting the supply of labour. In 1846 the Chartist Cooperative Land Company, which would later become the National Land Company, was inaugurated. This organisation received some £112,100 in subscriptions, with which six small estates were purchased and divided into smaller parcels. In May 1847 the first of these estates was opened and dubbed O’Connorsville.

The National Land Company was not the overwhelming success O’Connor had envisaged. When he was elected to Parliament he proposed in The Labourer that the government take over the organisation to resettle the English peasantry on a large scale. This didn’t happen and when difficulties began to set in and farmers were struggling to make a living, Parliament ordered an investigation. This report concluded that the National Land Company was an illegal scheme that could not fulfil the expectations of shareholders and was critical of the bookkeeping.

During this time, O’Connor was closely involved in organising a new petition supporting the Chartist demands. This ostensibly produced around 6 million signatures, but a subsequent investigation suggested that it contained less than 2 million genuine signatures, still a considerable figure. It is not clear that O’Connor had been aware of the problems with the petition, but this did not stop critics accusing him of undermining the credibility of the Chartist movement.

At this point, O’Connor’s mental health was clearly deteriorating. He reportedly attacked several other MPS and following a scene in the House of Commons in 1852 involving Becket Denison MP, O’Connor was removed by the Sergeant at arms, pronounced insane, and sent to Dr. Tuke’s private asylum in Chiswick, where he remained until 1854. He was removed from this institution by his brother, against doctors’ advice, in 1854. He moved to his sister’s house in Nottting Hill where he would die on 30th August 1855. A public burial held at Kensal Green on 10th September 1855, attracted more than 50,000 people.

Although he spent little time in Nottingham, it is apparent that O’Connor had a major impact on its people and in 1859 they got together and had a whip round to raise the funds to errect a statue in the Arboretum. It was unveiled on Monday August 22nd 1859. An article published in the The Cabinet the next day asserts that “there could not, however, have been fewer than from 12,000 to 15,000 persons present.” Indeed, it states, “The numbers would have been far larger, however, had not the most assiduous steps been taken to prevent it. The Arboretum Committee forbade the delivery of any address on the unveiling of the statue, and, although some railroad companies had promised to run special trains for the occasion, and even gone so far as to advertise them, at the last moment they rescinded their resolutions, and nothing could induce them to appoint such trains.” The information in the Cabinet Newspaper is partly contradicted by other newspapers reporting about the event (see comment).

It is clear that O’Connor is a complicated figure and unlikely to be taken up as a model by modern radicals. While clearly committed to the Chartist cause there are recurring implications of egotism in many of the online biographies and the way in which he came to dominate his own Northern Star, particularly after his arrest is arguably telling. His commitment to electoralism is also something many people nowadays would question, but in his defence he did not have the long failed history of electoralist campaigns to call on that we do today.

Incidentally, although unquestionably radical for his time and generally a supporter of the working classes, O’Connor was strongly critical of socialism. He claimed, “I have generally found that the strongest advocates of communism are the most lazy members of society, — a class who would make a division of labor, adjudging to the most pliant and submissive the lion’s share of work, and contending that their natural implement was the brain, whilst that of the credulous was the spade, the plough, the sledge and the pickaxe.” It’s probably safe to assume that he would have levelled the same accusation against anarchists had the term been in use prior to his death.

Whatever his flaws, O’Connor remains interesting because of the radical milieu which he points to. Largely unknown to the most of the city’s modern residents and even to most of the activists who live here, Nottingham has a long history of radicalism, stretching at least as far back as the Civil War when the city, a Parliamentary stronghold was on the frontline. It is hard today to imagine several thousand people turning out in Notttingham to commemorate anybody, let along a political figure. Remembering our history demonstrates what we are capable of. Just think what we could do with those numbers.