Lovett, William

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LOVETT, WILLIAM (1800–1877), British radical reformer.

Unable to find employment in the rope-making trade, William Lovett left his native Cornwall (and strict Methodist upbringing) for London to learn a second trade, subsequently gaining admittance to the elite West End Cabinet-makers Society, of which he was later elected president. The inadequacies of his formal education notwithstanding, he soon also progressed to a leading position within metropolitan artisan radicalism. In the heady days of the late 1820s and early 1830s he was in the vanguard of advanced radicals—along with Henry Hetherington and John Cleave—who adopted Robert Owen's (1771–1858) cooperative vision of a new moral world but eschewed his denigration and proscription of political reform.

While storekeeper of the First London Co-operative Trading Association and secretary of the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge, Lovett followed a militant "rational republican" line in successive radical reform organizations. Although renowned for organizational skills (he was often later described as the perfect political secretary), Lovett first came to notice for his hard-line stance against concessions to constitutionalism, gradualism, and middle-class leadership (hence his designation by the police as "a dangerous man"). In the midst of the Reform Bill crisis, he helped to draft the uncompromising rules and declaration of the significantly titled National Union of the Working Classes. The defeat of radical reform, compounded by the collapse of cooperative trading, prompted Lovett to revise his ways and means. In the disillusioning aftermath of the Reform Act of 1832, he began to move away from militant agitation and Owenite socialism toward the politics of improvement, a liberal project based on working-class education and mutual improvement, aided and facilitated by middle-class patronage—and with a strong commitment to international struggles for freedom and reform. The new alignment was evident in the London Working Men's Association (LWMA), an artisan's forum of mutual self-improvement founded in 1836 with Lovett (inevitably) as secretary: membership was restricted to "the intelligent and useful portion of the working classes" with honorary members elected from the middle class.

On behalf of the LWMA, Lovett, assisted by Francis Place (1771–1854), undertook the task (originally intended for a committee of six working men and six radical members of Parliament) of drafting a six-point parliamentary bill for democratic reform, on the agreed understanding that it would neither attack the Poor Law nor advocate socialism. At first, Feargus O'Connor (1796–1855) and the "fustian jackets, blistered hands and unshorn chins" whom he mobilized in the "factory" north regarded this "people's Charter" with suspicion, as a diversionary ploy by those opposed to the working-class thrust and tone of the anti–Poor Law agitation. However, once linked to schemes for a national petition and national convention (of which Lovett was the unanimous choice as secretary), the Charter became the symbol and focus of radical endeavor. Although scathing in criticism of O'Connor's "demagogic" leadership and "physical force" oratory, Lovett committed himself wholeheartedly to the first great Chartist agitation. Following the convention's move to Birmingham, his condemnation of police brutality toward Chartist demonstrators led to a year's imprisonment for seditious libel. Having outlined his plans in a short book coauthored with John Collins in prison, Chartism: A New Organization of the People (1840), Lovett placed himself at the head of the "new movers" on his release from Warwick Gaol, defiantly apart from vainglorious demagogues, fickle crowds, and illegal organizations of mass agitation such as the National Charter Association, which he declined to join.

By eradicating ignorance, drunkenness, and thraldom, his rival National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People offered the working class the self-respect necessary for the attainment and exercise of the franchise, "knowledge Chartism" to be promoted through a projected network of halls, schools, and libraries. The means, facilities, and methods of instruction in the virtues of working-class self-reliance, however, were assisted by middle-class patronage, at times exercised in a manner that tended to subvert the democratic ethos of collective self-help. It was this unthinking arrogance, the assumption of leadership and control, that prompted Lovett (with O'Connor in support) to reject the proposed "Bill of Rights" offered by the middle-class leaders of the Complete Suffrage Union in 1842 in place of the Charter. Thereafter, Lovett scraped a living as teacher and writer on the virtues of individual effort and personal morality, moving into a respectable Victorian liberalism, a perspective that infuses his autobiography (used rather uncritically by historians) at the expense of adequate acknowledgment of his initial militancy (or of the contribution of his wife, Mary, in sustaining his lengthy political career).

See alsoChartism; Labor Movements; O'Connor, Feargus; Owen, Robert.


Primary Sources

Lovett, William. The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, in His Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom. London, 1876.

Secondary Sources

Goodway, David. "William Lovett." In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, U.K., 2004.

Wiener, Joel. William Lovett. Manchester, U.K., 1989.

John Belchem