The Leicestershire Historian : 1975 : CHARTISTS IN LOUGHBOROUGH Paul A Smith

4 references to Hathern shown in red. Also see notes 1 and 2 at end for related information.

The initiative for Chartism in Leicestershire was taken in Loughborough in August 1838. Late in that month a meeting of Loughborough Radicals was held at which it was decided to form The Loughborough District Branch of the National Union, centred on Birmingham'. In the chair at this meeting was John Skevington and speeches were made by the well known local radicals Thomas Smart, George Turner and J Culley. The aims of the association were simply the 'five radical principles'.

This quickly caught the imagination of the 'lower orders' and by November a Chartist meeting in Loughborough could attract crowds estimated at being between three and seven thousand. Newspapers still referred to it as the 'Loughborough Radical Association'; for they sang the Corn Law hymn and waved an assortment of banners proclaiming different aims. On November 19th, however, the adoption of the national Charter was officially made, following a motion put before another meeting by Thomas Smart.

The local press, especially the Leicester Journal and Midland Counties General Advertiser with its Tory bias, was intent on attacking the Chartists in any way possible. For instance reports about the Chartists linked them with the hated Roman Catholics.

The Chartist activity did, however, cause considerable alarm among the 'respectable inhabitants' of Loughborough. The Chartists were arming in February 1839, and one magistrate reported that 'Pikes are being fabricated in Shepshed and Loughborough. In this latter place pikes were seen this morning in Chartist houses. Two blacksmiths are employed, I have their names . . .' As a result the magistrates made a request for some Metropolitan police and special constables. Again in March the 'Chartists . . . use the most violent and threatening language against the peace, and ... are collecting FIREarms and other deadly weapons'. Forty special constables were appointed for six months and one of the Metropolitan police reported to his Superintendent: The Chartists who are well armed with pikes, many of them with muskets and swords, have a club into which every member pays 1d per week, and when the subscription is sufficient they send to Birmingham for firearms, and then they draw who shall first be supplied with them. Being over in the village the other day, I bought a pike, and thinking you and the Commissioners would like to see I have taken the liberty of sending one which cost 2/3d. There are some which cost only 1/9d, some much less. They are fixed on a shaft about six feet long, which is made of young ash trees.' In the face of this the young constables were supplied with arms, the request being for 'sufficient arms to effectively arm one hundred men One Hundred Muskets and Bayonets, One Hundred Brace of Pistols and Fifty Cutlasses'. A request was also made for a troop of the Leicestershire Regiment to keep order for the day on May 23rd.

Although the magistrates were scared and well equipped, there were no actual riots, as there were in Birmingham, for instance. But tension was mounting and in late July they and the 'respectable inhabitants' applied to the Home Secretary to send troops. The grounds for their fear of 'the turbulent spirit of the lower orders' were: The peculiar situation of the town, the focus and rendezvous of the disaffected from the large villages in the neighbourhood, altogether furnishing a population of about thirty thousand, chiefly employed in the manufacture of stockings, a class of workmen now suffering considerably from depression of wages, and at all times extremely open to revolutionary principles. There are also within ten miles of the town several hundred colliers employed constantly, and a large body of railway labourers is now at work on the Midland Railway both these are classes of men whose aid the rioters rely on. . .'

At the same time they arrested the two Chartist leaders, George Turner and Charles Jarratt, both frame-work knitters, on a charge of using seditious language at a public meeting. The main evidence for the prosecution was that of James Harris, a police officer: 'Charles Jarratt . . . spoke for more than half an hour. He asked whether they would cease work agreeably to the orders of the Convention. Yes was the general cry. Asked 'Are you all ready when called upon? . . . Yes Yes . . . Have you any arms,if not pawn yourself and your clothes and buy them .. .applause ... We will. We will ... We are ready now . . We will have what we want... We will never cease till we get it. 'I do not mean to be content with a sheep's head, I will have leg of mutton, and a ham, and a pig too. I have worked hard for twenty years and I should be better off by ceasing to work.' Some persons in the crowd cried: 'Let us begin now!'; some rebuked them saying, 'Not yet'. The evidence was not, however, thought sufficient for a prosecution, 'owing to the refusal of witnesses to come forward through intimidation and fear'.

There was dissatisfaction with the steps taken by the Home Secretary to protect the town: 'It is true that you placed arms in the hands of about forty pensioners, mostly aged and infirm men, as well as in the hands of about fifty Special Constables, persons wholly unaccustomed to the use of arms and discipline.' The troops that were asked for arrived and the large sum of one thousand pounds was spent in converting a workhouse into a barracks for them. Chartist activity continued in Loughborough and the surrounding villages. A haystack belonging to Mr Poynder was set on fire after Mrs Poynder had refused to contribute to Chartist funds. In August, according to the evidence of the same police officer, James Harris, one Isaac Simpkin of Shepshed, a framework knitter, had been found at work on a Sunday by Robert Kirkby of Loughborough, who had told him to stop work and join the Chartists. Simpkin told Harris that, on his refusing: 'Immediately the door was forced open, and Kirkby entered and struck him a violent blow in the mouth which cut his gums severely and loosened several of his teeth.. .he also said that because he would not join the Chartists he had had his windows broken and was obliged every night to place boxes at his bedroom windows to prevent his being injured by stones being thrown in. He was in continual fear and alarm.'

With the onset of winter, however, it appears that Chartist activity was on the decline: 'The complete extinction of this body at Lough borough, where for some time past they have ceased to hold meetings, has induced the magistrates to release Garratt and Turner from their sureties ... The body has dwindled into nothingness and there is no doubt that before long the Chartists will be quite extinct.' Certainly there were no more mass meetings in the Market Place, but the hardliners kept meeting 'in secret'. In November James Harris reported that They do assemble in small bodies of about ten or a dozen, holding private meetings at each other's houses, which they denominate Class Meetings'. There were eight regular class meetings in Loughborough, which seems to indicate about eighty or ninety devoted Chartists, ten at Shepshed and six at Hathern.

By late February 1840 the winter was over and the large public meetings recommended. On the 17th James Harris attended one of the meetings, which were generally held in a large room in Baxter Gate, which they denominated the Chartist Room. Harris thought the language more violent and inflammatory than he had heard before. One Baker, a nailer from Hathern, was in the chair and said he was ready to die for the cause. Another speaker was John Skevington. He spoke for about half an hour and was well cheered by the meeting, several persons exclaiming 'Let's go at it now.'

The magistrates once more became alarmed and complained that 'unless effectual measures be taken without delay to punish language seditious as that above, and such meetings are either wholly suppressed or duly restrained, we cannot answer for the continuance of the peace in Loughborough'. The 'respectable inhabitants' later petitioned the government to station troops in Loughborough permanently, but, with an eye to their purses, asked also for a grant of thirty five pounds for the maintenance of the barracks.

1841,on the other hand, was a peaceful year; but 1842 was not. Meetings were held on all the Sundays in June and early July at Hathern, Cotes and Mountsorrel. Numbers attending varied from two to seven thousand. Throughout June the Chartists held nightly meetings in the Market Place at Loughborough. At one meeting there in August 'the rumours of a strike in Yorkshire and Lancashire produced great excitement, which kept the crowds in the streets until after midnight'. Following this meeting.special constables were again sworn in and a few days later a meeting there, at which about one thousand five hundred were present, was addressed by John Skevington. He was later arrested and bound over for fifty pounds for six months. The Chartists 'Having gone all over the town to call people out on strike . . . decided to go to Shepshed and Hathern for the same purpose' A Police Sergeant gave evidence that at one point. They began to brandish their sticks over their heads, in the air'. This seems to have been an insignificant affair when it is remembered that in 1839 the Chartists possessed firearms.

During the mid 1840s the Chartist public meetings and demonstrations died out. Once again, however, it seems that the Chartist organisation still remained intact, and many local working men remained faithful to their belief in Chartism. Their activities were largely unknown, but the strength of the movement in 1848 is hardly explicable in terms of an organisation that had been dead for five years.

The stimulus to the 1848 revival was the news of revolutions in Europe. From April 3rd daily meetings once more took place in Loughborough market place. Alarm at the first of these led to a troop of dragoons being sent to be stationed in the town. On Sunday the 9th a Chartist camp meeting was held. The magistrates were in attendance and the County Police and five hundred special constables; and two troops of Yeomanry were ready at hand in Mountsorrel. About six thousand people attended the meeting. John Skevington took the chair and made a moderate speech, as 'He wished to show the middle classes that their object was not to injure them, but to better themselves'.

Women also had a part in Loughborough Chartism; 'Some women Chartists collected their half-pence and sent out a Bell Man to announce a women's Charter meeting. The novelty of this caused many people to assemble, whom Skevington addressed'.

Meetings continued throughout April. On the 11th, shops and banks were closed for three hours for fear of the Chartists. In May there was talk of enlisting a National Guard from among the Chartists in Loughborough. With the failure of the Monster Petition on April 10th, however, the main impetus of 30 Chartism was gone and it gradually died out in Leicestershire, as it did in the rest of the country. Meanwhile the local press, true to form, reported with great glee that John Skevington had been found dead drunk in a gutter in High Street, lying face down.

Note 1 :You can see how some of these events were reported by looking at our newspaper archive.

Note 2: A fascinating article by Derek Benson can be found on the website of the Bristol Radical History Group which describes the life of William Morris Moore (1813-1841) a firebrand Chartist born in Hathern who moved to Tewkesbury and, it seems, became Secretary of the Tewkesbury Working Men's Association.  In one of his speeches he remarked that Queen Victoria "Knew nothing of the misery now prevailing in England" . William's health declined in 1841 and he died of consumption in the Workhouse. 

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