The Dignity of Chartism


By Richard Brown, published 27th April 2015

The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson

Stephen Roberts (ed.) (Verso), 2015 xxx, 206pp, £14.99 paper, ISBN 978-1-78188-849-6

The historian Dorothy Thompson, who died aged 87 in 2011, was best known for her writing on the social and cultural aspects of the nineteenth-century Chartist movement. The documents she edited in The Early Chartists (1971) brought to life the intense and dangerous interior world of working-class meetings, conventions and newspapers, while The Chartists (1984) revealed greatly neglected areas such as middle-class involvement, women's role, the part played by Irish radicals and schemes for land settlements. Her collection Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation (1993) demonstrated a mix of exacting scholarship and conceptual clarity.

The volume is divided into five parts.  ‘Interpreting Chartism' includes six essays that consider various aspects of the historiography of the movement.  ‘Chartism as an Historical Subject', a succinct discussion, originally published in 1970 a decade before ‘the linguistic turn', examines the nature and importance of Chartism and, linked with her essay on historiography published in Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation makes an excellent introduction to the subject.   This is followed by a characteristically combative review of ‘The Languages of Class' through a critical analysis of Gareth Stedman Jones' work.  The remaining four essays in this section extend what is, I think, the most innovative section of The Chartists-‘Who were the Chartists?'  ‘Who were ‘The People' in 1842?', first published in 1996, examines the use of language as a major historical ‘source' against the backdrop of the climatic events of 1842.  ‘Women Chartists' is an excellent summary of her findings on what was, until she resurrected them, a neglected dimension of radicalism.  The other two essays are reviews of Gregory Claeys' six volume collection of Chartist tracts and David Vincent's book on working-class autobiographies.

The second section, in many respects the heart of the book, consists of two essays originally written in the 1950s.  There is a short essay on ‘Chartism in the Industrial Areas', still a valuable synopsis.  It is, however, the study of Halifax as a Chartist Centre, from which the book gained its title, which is the jewel of the collection.  Originally written with her husband Edward Thompson as part of Asa Briggs' Chartist Studies and unpublished until now, it is a detailed study of how Chartism developed in one community.  At over 30,000 words in the original that is available on the Internet, the essay, which was never completely finished, has been sympathetically edited to make it a more manageable length. Although it reflects the historiography as it stood in the 1950s, it remains a model for how the local study of Chartism should be written and its publication is important.

The third section examines the leaders of the people.  There is a short essay on O'Connor, for Thompson the most important of Chartist leaders originally written in 1952 when he remained under a Gammage-Lovett-Hovell dominated cloud and two decades before his resurrection to his rightful position at the heart of the movement as an innovative, combative, if erratic, radical leader.  This is followed by a chapter that combines two reviews on George Julian Harney ‘a radical to the end of his days', something evident in David Goodway's recently published collection of Harney's journalism.  Miles Taylor's book on Ernest Jones is subjected to a review originally published in 2003 while books on Joseph Sturge and John Fielden, two middle-class supporters of the movement, were subjected to not uncritical review in 1987.

The three essays in the next section ‘Repercussions' consider Chartism from the perspective of 1848 and beyond.  ‘The Chartists in 1848' published in 2005, and one of the final things Dorothy Thompson wrote on the movement, places greater emphasis on the role played by Irish radicals as a stimulus to continued Chartist activity after Kennington Common.  There is a valuable review of John Saville's 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement that has much to say about her view of the significance of 1848 and her criticism of Saville's notion of the ‘radical triangle' of Paris, Dublin and London.  ‘The Post-Chartist Decades' combines reviews originally published in 1994 and 1995 of Margot Finn's After Chartism and Miles Taylor's The Decline of British Radicalism and considers the question of what happened to Chartists after Chartism ceased to be a mass political movement-‘Poor people's movements do not have the resources to sustain a permanent organization: they gain their effect in particular short-term ways...'

The collection ends with a section appropriately entitled ‘Looking Back', an essay in which Dorothy Thompson reflected in 2003 on how Marxist ideas shaped her thinking both as a political activist and as an historian.  This essay exemplifies much about how Dorothy Thompson approached the writing of history and particularly the humanity and elegance of her writing.  It is a fitting way to end this invaluable collection.  There is also a valuable and succinct bibliography and an excellent index. 

The Dignity of Chartism collects together Dorothy Thompson's essays and reviews, previously published in many different places, into a single volume making her writing on Chartism easily available.  Stephen Roberts, one of Dorothy's postgraduate students, has done a great service for historians of nineteenth century radicalism in bringing this material together which he does with considerable aplomb in his introductory essay, a combination of personal reminiscences and historiographical analysis, and in the sureness of his editing.  This is volume that all historians of Chartism should read and provides further evidence, if any was needed, that Dorothy Thompson was the most important historian of Chartism in the past half century.