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London Workingmen's Association

London Workingmen's Association

Great Britain 1836

Synopsis

Some of the leading figures of working-class radicalism founded the London Workingmen's Association (LWMA) in 1836. The organization remained an exclusive body comprising skilled craftsmen who supported the political reform demands common to the radical movement. LWMA members also emphasized the deserving character of the respectable workingman and his worthiness for the vote. The group is chiefly remembered for its formative role in Chartism. A public meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in February 1837 formalized the key radical demands that were later incorporated into the People's Charter that was drawn up by leading members of the Association in the following year. In London, more radical elements formed the London Democratic Association, which challenged the LWMA. More significantly, beyond the capital, the growing and more assertive working-class reform movement, which the LWMA had helped to establish, increasingly marginalized the LWMA. As the working-class character and radicalism of the Chartist movement developed, the LWMA's artisanal "respectability" was criticized as too moderate. The association was castigated, in particular, for its willingness to cooperate with middle-class reformers. Although many of its leaders became estranged from later Chartism, the LWMA's initial role and its representativeness as an exemplar of respectable working-class radicalism remain important.

Timeline

  • 1812: The War of 1812, sparked by U.S. reactions to oppressive British maritime practices undertaken in the wake of the wars against Napoleon, begins in June. It lasts until December 1814.
  • 1820: In the Missouri Compromise, Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state, but slavery is prohibited in all portions of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30' N.
  • 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
  • 1833: British Parliament passes the Slavery Abolition Act, giving freedom to all slaves throughout the British Empire.
  • 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
  • 1836: Boer farmers embark on their "Great Trek" into the hinterlands of South Africa, forming the enclaves of Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State.
  • 1836: In Texas's war of independence with Mexico, the defenders of the Alamo, among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, are killed in a siege. Later that year, Texas wins the Battle of San Jacinto and secures its independence.
  • 1836: Charles Dickens publishes the earliest installments of The Pickwick Papers, his first novel.
  • 1837: An Illinois mob slays abolitionist publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy.
  • 1842: In Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, British reformer Edwin Chadwick draws attention to the squalor in the nation's mill town slums, and shows that working people have a much higher incidence of disease than do the middle and upper classes.
  • 1846: American inventor Elias Howe patents his sewing machine.
  • 1848: Discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California starts a gold rush, which brings a tremendous influx of settlers—and spells the beginning of the end for California's Native Americans.

Event and Its Context

The roots of the LWMA lay in the radical movement that had developed by the end of the eighteenth century. Manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, and a secret ballot had formed the core of a radical reform program whose demands were a restoration of the supposed traditional rights of the "freeborn Englishman" that, it was claimed, had been usurped by a corrupt and greedy governing elite. Government repression and wartime patriotism extinguished the early activities of the radical movement in the 1790s, but after 1815 political agitation and organization revived powerfully in the period of economic depression and social unrest that culminated in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

Though protest declined in the 1820s, the fundamental grievances remained and working-class discontent revived once more in depressed economic conditions of the late 1820s and early 1830s. In the reform campaign that led to the 1832 Reform Bill, the National Union of the Working Classes, founded by Henry Hetherington and William Lovett, played a leading role in London. Members of the National Union formed the nucleus of both of the principal London radical organizations of the late 1830s. The 1832 act itself, passed by the Whig Government of Earl Grey, was deliberately and precisely designed to extend the vote to "solid" middle-class men of property while denying the vote to the "dangerous" working classes. Working-class radicals who participated in the cross-class protest movement that had forced reform, were bitter at the "great betrayal." In the aftermath of 1832, some workers looked to economic means of self-defense. The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) that formed in 1834 existed for less than a year. Overall, its brief life owed more to practical trade union concerns than to the utopian ideas of Robert Owen. The union was strong, however, among the tailors and shoemakers of London, who saw in it a means of defending their livelihoods and craft prerogatives. Its collapse was instrumental in refocusing working-class radicalism in London back to political agitation.

The organizational genesis of the LWMA lay in the "War of the Unstamped." The Stamp Act, which was passed in 1815 and strengthened under the Six Acts of 1819, placed a 4 pence tax on newspapers and journals as a deliberate means of suppressing the circulation of the radical working-class press. Hetherington's Poor Man's Guardian and other radical journals of the day flouted the tax. The struggle against the duty (a "tax on knowledge" according to radicals) became an important concern of London radicalism. In April 1836 the American middle-class radical, Dr. J. R. Black, instigated the formation of the Association of Workingmen to Secure and Cheap and Honest Press; Francis Place and William Lovett played vital role in securing artisanal support for the association. Its failure to strengthen the government's modest reform (which reduced the newspaper Stamp Duty to 1 penny) caused its founders to reformulate its objective more broadly to that of working-class self-improvement. In June 1836 they launched the LWMA.

The LWMA was initially an exclusively working-class body; full membership was limited to workingmen. It was exclusive also in that new enrollees had to be proposed by existing members and supported by the membership as a whole. It was designedly, therefore, an elite body, and membership stood at no more than 279 in 1839. Members were overwhelmingly literate and earnest men of the London trades, comprising many of the leading London radicals who had participated in previous campaigns for political reform, Owenism, trade union rights, and the unstamped press. The LWMA's chief aim was the political, moral, and social improvement of the "useful classes" and its primary activity was educational. Lectures, discussions, and readings formed the staple of the Association's regular program; members were welcome in the reading room, which was open daily. Education, however, was intended not only to convince the upper classes of the workingman's respectability but also to instill in the workingman himself a consciousness of his rights.

In February 1837 the LWMA organized a public meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern to adopt a petition for universal suffrage, annual parliaments, a secret ballot, equal electoral districts, and the abolition of the property qualification for members of Parliament (MPs). The meeting was a great success. In April LWMA members and sympathetic Radical MPs convened a joint meeting to agree a parliamentary bill. The LWMA's decision to send "missionaries" to the Midlands and Northern England to form provincial workingmen's association based on the London model helped to maintain the reform momentum. By the end of the year, 100 such bodies had been formed. In April 1838 Place and Lovett drew up the great unifying symbol of the nascent movement, the six-point Charter of radical demands (payment for MPs was added). With the support of the Birmingham Political Union and the adoption of LWMA's national reform petition to parliament in May, the essentials of Chartism were in place. Ironically, when delegates assembled in London in February 1839 at the Chartist National Convention, they were struck by the frigid atmosphere. Chartism was weak in London and the LWMA had failed to propagandize in the capital.

A split emerged between the LWMA and both more radical elements in London and the broader Chartist movement. In January 1837 George Julian Harney founded The East London Democratic Association (ELDA). Though not established in opposition to the LWMA, the focus of the ELDA's activity and politics was to create conflict between the two. The ELDA sought to recruit membership from among the unorganized poor of London's East End. The organization concerned itself with social and economic issues (notably the Poor Law) that were largely ignored by the independent craftsmen of the LWMA. The ELDA was also suspicious of the links of the Working-men's Association with middle-class radicals. Middle-class reformers were politically radical but economically liberal and were therefore hostile to trade unionism, which they saw as an infringement of the laws of the free market. The Glasgow cotton spinners strike in 1837 provided the litmus when it provoked Daniel O'Connell, radical Irish MP and ally of the LWMA, to attack trade unionism in a parliamentary debate. The LWMA (though unsympathetic to O'Connell's argument) refused to criticize him or to sanction a letter from Harney condemning his views. In March 1838, Harney resigned from the LWMA, denouncing its moderation and its emphasis on working-class self-improvement. The ELDA, renamed the London Democratic Association in August 1838, was revived as a deliberate rival to the LWMA.

A mutual antagonism developed between the self-conscious respectability of the LWMA and the coarser character of national Chartism. London's diverse and small-scale economy and its sheer size (population two million) impeded the growth of the more cohesive working-class consciousness that had developed particularly in Britain's industrial heart-lands. In the Midlands and North, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act with its workhouses dubbed the "new Bastilles" by critics, had aroused fierce opposition and had provided the early political momentum of Chartist growth. In London, the new Poor Law had far less impact. The respectable tradesman radicals of the city lacked understanding of the emotions that the act had fired and deprecated the "extremist" rhetoric and threats of violence of northern-based leaders such as O'Connor, Oastler, and Stephens. The LWMA shared the radical belief in the popular right of self-defense against the oppressive violence of the state, but they opposed the sporadic violence of the anti-Poor Law Movement and disliked what they saw as the militancy of provincial Chartism.

Though the LWMA was able to secure the election of eight of its own supporters as delegates to the Chartist National Convention in 1839, by 1840 it was fading from significance. The growth of Chartist organizations in London increasingly eclipsed the LWMA as well as the London Democratic Association. The LWMA's leading lights, Lovett and Place, were marginalized from the Chartist mainstream by their gradualist and reformist temperament and by their stress on self-improvement as the means to working-class emancipation.

Key Players

Harney, George Julian (1817-1897): Harney was born in London and imprisoned three times for his role in the Un-stamped Press in the 1830s. A member of the LWMA alienated by the body's moderation, he founded the London Democratic Association in 1838 and became a Chartist radical, advocating a general strike. He was arrested in 1839 and 1842, and then became an editor of the Northern Star in 1845. Active in international working-class politics and a convert to socialism, he published the Red Republican and Marx's Communist Manifesto in 1850.

Hetherington, Henry (1792-1849): Hetherington was a London radical best known as publisher of the Poor Man's Guardian and a leading campaigner for repeal of the Stamp Duty. Disappointed by the 1832 Reform Act, he demanded further political reform as a member of the LWMA and a leader of early Chartism. A critic of O'Connor's leadership, Hetherington founded the People's Charter Union in 1849.

Lovett, William (1800-1877): A Cornish cabinetmaker who moved London aged 21, Lovett participated in most of the radical working-class movements of his time and supported Owenism, the National Union of the Working Classes, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, and the London Workingmen's Association. He played a significant role in the drafting of the People's Charter and was jailed in 1839 for seditious libel. Lovett's advocacy of working-class education and temperance isolated him from the mainstream of the movement and he retired from active politics after 1842 when he founded the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.

Oastler, Richard (1789-1861): A Tory paternalist employed as a land agent in Yorkshire, Oastler was horrified by child labor in the textile mills. In the 1830s he became the main spokesman of the Ten Hours movement to restrict factory hours and subsequently was leading opponent of the 1834 Poor Law. Jailed for debt between 1840-1844, he continued his campaign from prison and after his release.

Owen, Robert (1771-1858): Born in Wales, Owen was celebrated for his success as a humanitarian factory manager in New Lanark, Scotland. Owen argued that environment shaped character but his attempt to create an ideal cooperative community in New Harmony, Indiana in 1825 failed. Owen returned to found the National Equitable Labour Exchange in 1832 and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834 as means of promoting working-class self-sufficiency but both collapsed. Owen continued to promote a communal socialism, later dubbed Utopian by Marx.

Place, Francis (1771-1854): A London tailor whose long career in radical politics began in the London Corresponding Society in 1794, Place played a leading role in the repeal of the Combination Laws (against trade unions) in 1824 and in the campaign for the 1832 Reform Act. A founder of the LWMA and drafter of the People's Charter, Place was linked with middle-class radicals through his Malthusianism (he wrote one of the earliest tracts on birth control in 1822), and his stress on working-class respectability and self-improvement divorced him from the Chartist mainstream but his perspective, conveyed in the mass of papers he left behind, influenced later historians.

See also: Chartist Movement; Owen Model Communities; Peterloo Massacre.

Bibliography

Books

Bennett, Jennifer. "The London Democratic Association: AStudy in London Radicalism." In The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working-Class Radicalism andCulture, 1830-60, edited by J. Epstein and Dorothy Thompson. London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1982.

Prothero, I. J. Artisans and Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Periodicals

Rowe, D. J. "The Failure of London Chartism." The Historical Journal 11, no. 3 (1968): 472-487.

——. "The London Working Men's Association and the People's Charter." Past and Present (1967): 73-85.

Additional Resources

Books

Wright, D. G. Democracy and Reform 1815-1885. Harlow:Longmans, 1970.

—John Boughton

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