Mad dogs and mackerels: Chartists at St Ives

Maxwell Adams 2005

You might also like to read The people's bitterest enemies: the distinctiveness of Cornish Methodism to 1850 and Off with the tyrant's head in Hayle!.

In the spring of 1839 two "poisonous and prowling animals" (Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal 23 March 1839, page 4, column 3) were abroad in west Cornwall and heading for St Ives. Robert Lowery and Abram Duncan arrived in Cornwall that March to propagandise Chartism. Much of what we know about this visit comes from the intemperate local papers and from Lowery's memoirs which he published in the mid-nineteenth century (Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement 15 April 1856-23 May 1857. The St Ives visits are recounted at 25 October 1856, page 250, columns 1 to 3). The Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal called for them to be hunted down like "mad dogs" (23 March 1839, page 4, column 3).

They planned to visit the industrial areas of Cornwall, including St Ives and Hayle, where they expected converts to Chartism among the workers. Chartists, who got their name from a Charter written for the London Working Men's Association, alarmed the small minority who ruled Britain but today we have accepted all but one of their principles. Broadly, the Chartists were political democrats and wanted every adult male to have the right to vote, hoping that such a reform would also bring social and economic justice. William Lovett from Newlyn largely wrote the Charter and there had been some Chartist activity in Cornwall before the pair arrived (West Briton 1 February 1839, page 3, column 2), and indeed there were political reformers here before the Chartists (Jenkin 1982, 53-80). In 1839 only one in about five adult males could vote, and no women at all. Lovett wished to give women the vote but was overruled by the other Chartists (Lovett 1876 and 1967, 141 footnote). At that time the idea that the likes of you and me should actually have the right to vote for the government of our choice was revolutionary. John Russell, the Whig Home Secretary, said that the right to vote should depend on how much property you owned and your intelligence (Debate in House of Commons 21 March 1839). By intelligence I suspect he meant, as people usually do, those who shared his beliefs and belonged to his social and economic class.

The Chartist pair held their meetings, many of them, and say that vast numbers came to listen and went away believing. Lowery says that around fourteen thousand listened to them at Gwennap and there was a "large, enthusiastic" crowd at St Ives although it rained (Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement 25 October 1856, page 250, columns 3 and 2). In letters to the London organisers, written while in Cornwall, Lowery gives large figures. I do not know how far his figures are accurate and how far he is exaggerating but support for largish numbers comes from inadvertent comments in the hostile newspapers; and the hostile parson at Gwennap, writing slightingly of the Chartists to the Home Secretary on 17 April 1839, refers to "a large crowd" at their meeting there (PRO; Thompson 1971, 189). The vehemence of the responses of the hostile also suggest that the Chartists were having an impact on the general people. It does look as though the meetings attracted large and responsive crowds. Clearly enough people went to the Chartist meetings to concern the established powers.

The Chartist pair came eventually to St Ives. They have three stories to tell about their two visits to the town, one of them comic, one heartening, and one extremely unflattering. (The next four paragraphs are derived from the Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement 25 October 1856, page 250, columns 1 to 3.)

On their first visit, walking in the town they met a man who said he was the town crier, parish clerk, and sexton. In his history Matthews says Thomas Williams was parish clerk at this time so it was probably he (Matthews 1892, 34). He promised to get the people to come to their open-air meeting. So far, so good. They then asked him if there were any Chartists or political radicals in St Ives. He looked vacant and did not understand so they asked him again. This time he shook his head and said, No, we only catch pilchards and mackerel here. The Chartists fell about laughing at his political innocence and ignorance and I suspect that the story was told by them to their friends everywhere in England. Another town crier near Falmouth was very much smarter. When the pair asked him to announce a meeting he said that the parson had told him that if he did he would be sacked so he could not. However, cannily he went round the houses and told people that the parson wouldn't let him announce the meeting, and as a result many more people came. Alas, the name of this crier is unknown to us, a pity, for he should be celebrated.

Hearteningly, Lowery's second story is that at St Ives on 12 March on that first visit a large crowd stood in the rain listening to them for about two hours. Whatever the numbers, vast or slight, if the people were politically ignorant and couldn't tell a fish from a parliament, this showed an eagerness to learn. Again, it suggests many working people did understand the injustice of their circumstances and wished to right their wrongs. Lowery said that Duncan and he were asked to stay for a couple of days more, but they moved on to Penzance, promising to return as they were assured that people in St Ives liked their message.

At the end of March they paid a second and farewell visit to St Ives. Unfortunately for them a Methodist religious revival had just broken out. Lowery's description of St Ives in this state is startling, his description of the scene in the chapel is damning. Many of the shops had closed and many of the people had stopped working and "night and day" were filling a "large chapel." The two Chartists went to the chapel to see what was happening. At the door were some unenthused people looking in and commenting, presumably adversely, on the hysteria inside. And inside the full chapel all was noisy "delirium." People were babbling nonsense. In the gallery some people were singing vigorously and simultaneously some were praying aloud. There were three people in the pulpit. "Similar proceedings" were going on in the body of the chapel. One incident among this bedlam struck them hard. A young woman was tearing her dishevelled hair and crying out loudly. She sank to the floor, foaming at the mouth, exhausted, struggling for breath. As she quieted, a man, whom Lowery describes in the most damning terms, knelt down and urged her to shout and shout until the devil was cast out. She began raving again. As she quieted again, he did the same again. Lowery makes it plain that he saw this as exploiting not helping the woman. The Chartists were told that such revivals and scenes and stopping of work happened often.

Presumably many of the enthusiasts inside the chapel had been eager listeners at the Chartists' earlier meeting in St Ives, people who snatched at any hope or consolation on offer.

Interestingly, Lowery says, apparently after talking to what he calls some "intelligent" local people in St Ives, that after religious revivals many of the converts reverted to their old life and that the revivals led to some good but also to "much evil and immorality." He does not elaborate, merely teases us with the words, but most likely, a teetotaller when he writes his memoirs, he's talking about drink and possibly sex too. You'll have to imagine the details for yourself, along with the psychological mechanism. Other nineteenth-century observers have remarked hostilely on the short span of many such conversions and on the unruly emotion in revival meetings (Field 1997, 85-86; Bunton 1860 and 1966; Edwards 1968, 31-32).

Of course, the local ruling class did not quietly sit back and let the Chartists talk about a political emancipation which threatened their power and economic privileges. The Truro MP, Edmund Turner, called it an "insane movement" (West Briton 12 April 1839, page 3, column 2). Most of the newspapers denounced Chartism, often in demonising language. The Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal, an anti-democrat paper, in an editorial on 23 March 1839 (page 4, column 3) execrated the pair in extravagant language (discontented, dangerous, mischief-seekers, rabid notions, traitorous designs, wicked designs, revolutionists, incendiaries, delegates of mischief).

Letters from Cornwall magistrates - and from magistrates elsewhere - to the Home Secretary have survived in the Public Record Office (HO 40/41). What were they to do about Chartists who apparently were persuasive speakers using both the tigers of wrath and the horses of instruction to advance their democratic ideas? Petty hindrances were all the alarmed Cornish authorities of the day came up with. None of it seems to have worked.

The ruling class was worried by these Chartists: remember, only two years before in July 1837 people in St Ives had protested over two days to the point of riot against the poor law and the new workhouse system, a system that waged war not on poverty but on the poor (West Briton 21 July 1837, page 2, column 7, and Royal Cornwall Gazette same date, page 2, column 5). The parson at Ludgvan and the mayor at Penzance, both magistrates, assured the government that the workers were content but they go on to show an anxiety about the response of the workers to the Chartists which contradicts their own easy assurances (PRO HO 40/41; Thompson 1971, 187-188). And Chartists sometimes hinted within the law at violence.

While Lowery and Duncan laboured in Cornwall, the House of Commons voted down a proposal to extend the vote modestly to one man in three (West Briton 29 March 1839, page 4, column 2).

Lowery was a Christian and used the Bible to support his arguments for political justice, but the clergy, Anglican and Methodist, in Cornwall, appear to have been anti-democratic.Walking around St Ives, Duncan saw many Methodist chapels and was consequently despondent about the likelihood of support for democracy among what he thought to be a "priest-ridden" people (Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement 25 October 1856, page 250, column 2). In an interesting comment on deferential customs of the time, Duncan also says of his walk round Saint Ives, "As I was walking ever so many of the working men lifted their hats to me in passing; it could only be because I had a good coat on. I cannot bear such servility to the appearance of wealth." Lowery points out that Duncan was wrong in his despondency and assumptions as very many came to their meeting despite the rain.

Although the Anglican and the Methodist leaders in Cornwall opposed the Chartists, it is difficult to know what ordinary Methodists felt. The Wesleyans were conservative and safely unradical. Nevertheless in the early 1800s Richard Polwhele, a local Anglican priest, had feared the social and political views of Methodists, what he called traitorous "levelling tendencies" though he said later that in Cornwall they had changed (Field 1997, 77, 87). He might well have been wrong anyway in his early fears as far as the Cornish Methodists were concerned (Edwards 1967, 152-153). Elsewhere, Luddite rebels executed in 1813 at York died singing a Methodist hymn (Peel 1895, 263).

By the time the Chartists came Cornish Methodist leaders at any rate were anti-democratic. Richard Treffry, Junior, a Cornish Wesleyan minister, was thoroughly bigoted and reactionary. He described the 1829 civil emancipation of Catholics as "an atrocious measure" and opposed the 1832 Reform Bill, which increased the number of voters very modestly, writing, "I trust that so awfully democratic and revolutionary a measure will never pass" (Treffry 1838, 71). HJ Longmaid, a Truro Chartist, said at a county meeting of the National Charter Association on 26 December 1840 at Redruth, "The Wesleyans, too, as far as my experience goes, are the people's bitterest enemies" (Northern Star 2 January 1841 cited in Jenkin 1982, 64).

Thomas Phillpotts, the Anglican parson at Gwennap, told the Home Secretary that the Wesleyan leaders had worked with him against the Chartists. I am not sure whether he is using Wesleyan as a general word for Methodists or singling out that branch of them. The Royal Cornwall Gazette crowed that the senior Methodist minister of the area went with the parish constables to Gwennap Pit "and kept the gates against all intrusion" by the Chartists (5 April 1839, page 2, column 3). It was one of the most shameful incidents in the history of Cornish Methodism. The meeting was consequently at the Pit not in it and "many thousands attended" (Falmouth Packet and Cornish Herald 6 April 1839 page 8, column 4).

A few weeks later a Methodist local preacher opened a huge Chartist rally in Yorkshire with a prayer (Harrison 1984, 282). Most of the Tolpuddle agricultural trade unionists of Dorset, transported in 1834, were Methodists, and Primitive Methodists played a central role in creating and sustaining the farm labourers' trade union in the midlands later in the century. What the Gwennap Methodist minister made of this radicalism, I cannot say. There seems to have been a significant difference in the views of Primitive Methodists and Bible Christian Methodists on the one hand and Wesleyans on the other; and between Methodists in Cornwall and those elsewhere in England.

It all came to nothing for the time being though a few years later a Chartist organisation was formed at St Ives (Northern Star 25 January 1845, cited in Jenkin 1982, 71) in which John Endean, a shoemaker, was a leader. Lowery and Duncan returned to London. Many of the working people of Cornwall were apparently keen on Chartism but needed leaders and organising and that did not happen then. Chartism in any case did not seek directly to promote the social and economic change which was of more immediate concern to them. Unorganised and unled by radicals, when economic depression set in many of the energetic had no response other than emigration and for a while many turned "to listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope" (Johnson 1759, Chapter 1) offered by religion. But that St Ives parish clerk, town crier, and sexton, wasn't he something!


Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal 2, 16, 23, and 30 March 1839
Falmouth Packet and Cornish Herald 9 and 23 March, 6 April 1839
Royal Cornwall Gazette 21 July 1837; 8, 15, and 22 March, 5 April 1839
West Briton 21 July 1837; 1 January 1839; 8, 15, 22, and 29 March 1839

Northern Star and Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement are in the British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale, London

British Library, Euston, London: Letters from Chartists are in Additional Manuscripts 34245A, folios 120-121, 148, and 169-170; the Gwennap Pit address of the Chartists is in Additional Manuscripts 34245A, folio 178; and the letters are also printed in HARRISON and HOLLIS 1979, 232-237

BUNTON William 'A visit to Dr Palmer's revival meetings at the Wesleyan Chapel 1860' reprinted in Cake and cockhorse, autumn 1966 (the magazine of Banbury Historical Society)

EDWARDS Michael (1967) 'Bible Christians, political radicals, and Cornish Methodism' in the Journal of the Cornish Methodist Historical Association for May 1967

EDWARDS Michael (1968) 'The diary of the Reverend Thomas Lockley1881-1884' in the Journal of the Cornish Methodist Historical Association for October 1968, 31-33 (Lockley writes about a revival at Lady Downs in January and February 1882)

FIELD Clive D (1997) 'The mania of Methodism reconsidered' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1997, Truro

HARRISON Brian and Patricia HOLLIS (1979) Robert Lowery Europa (Lowery's autobiography which includes his Chartist activities, and some Chartist letters from the British Library)

HARRISON JFC (1984) The common people Fontana

JENKIN Alfred (1982) 'The Cornish chartists' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1982

JOHNSON Samuel (1759) Rasselas

Letters from Magistrates: Public Record Office, Kew, HO 40/41; the Cornwall ones are printed in THOMPSON 1971, 187-190

LOVETT William (1876) Life and struggles of William Lovett

LOWERY Robert 'Passages in the life of a temperance lecturer' in Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement 15 April 1856-23 May 1857 (Copy at the British Library Newpaper Library, Colindale, London)

MATTHEWS JH (1892) History of the parishes of St Ives, Lelant, Towednack, and Zennor

PEEL Frank (1895) The risings of the Luddites, chartists, and plug-drawers John Hartley, Brighouse

THOMPSON Dorothy (1971) The early Chartists Europa

TREFFRY Richard, Senior, (1838) Memoirs of the reverend Richard Treffry, Junior John Mason, London (Copy at Morrab Library, Penzance)

Comments on the Chartists' visit to Cornwall in the local newspapers

Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal January 1838
Opposed to extension of the franchise, opposed to "democratic inroads into the constitution" January 1838, first publication of the paper

Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal 2 March 1839 page 4, column 4
"A notice was put into the hands of the bellman that they (Lowery and Duncan) would hold a public meeting on Tuesday last, at one o'clock in the afternoon. But the belllman had scarcely announced it before he was ordered by the proper authorities to desist."

West Briton 8 March 1839 page 2, column 5
"Two itinerant Chartists, of the name of Duncan and Lowry (sic), are now on a visit to this county, and on Tuesday night last, harangued the populace for a considerable time, in the High Cross, Truro. Their addresses evinced considerable talent, but were highly inflammatory. We hope the good sense of Cornishmen will prevent them from being tainted with notions so wild and visionary as those of the Chartists."

Royal Cornwall Gazette
8 March 1839 page 2, column 2 Notes the Chartist meetings in Truro and the Chartists' "seditious and inflammatory style."

Falmouth Packet and Cornish Herald 9 March 1839 page 4, column 3
Carries an advertisement from Lowery and Duncan, delgates of the National Convention of the Industrious Classes, saying that they "have arrived in Cornwall, and intend to hold Public Meetings in the principal towns of the county, where they hope, that all true Reformers will aid them in support of the principles of Radicalism."

West Briton 15 March 1839 page 2, column 4
Notes the Chartist meeting on "Thursday evening last," at Truro town hall hired with the mayor's permission.

"Mr Heath, an operative, was called to the chair, and the meeting was then addressed by Mr Spurr, who read and proposed the adoption of the national petition. Mr Wm (sic) Rowe seconded the motion, which was unanimously carried." The speeches of Duncan and Lowery were described as "inflammatory...but marked by considerable ability."

Royal Cornwall Gazette 15 March 1839 page 2, column 2
"The Chartists. The two delegates from the North, who have been figuring in other parts of the county, made their appearance at St Ives on Tuesday last, in a flood of rain. The attendance on their lecture was therefore very slight."

Royal Cornwall Gazette 15 March 1839 page 2, column 5
Notes that the town crier of Falmouth was "very properly" forbidden by the Falmouth authorities to announce the Chartist meeting. Refers to the Truro Chartist meetings as "disgraceful proceedings."

Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal 16 March 1839 page 4, column 4
"The Chartists. The two delegates from the North, who have been figuring in other parts of the County, made their appearance at St Ives on Tuesday last, in a flood of rain. The attendance on their lecture was therefore very slight." (identical report in Royal Cornwall Gazette 15 March 1839, 2/2)

West Briton 22 March 1839 page 2, column 5
Amocking article about a drunk who thought he was signing a teetotal pledge not the Chartist petition.

Royal Cornwall Gazette 22 March 1839 page 3, column 1
Refers to "These vagabonds" and to Chartist meetings in Devon.

Falmouth Packet and Cornish Herald Saturday 23 March 1839 page 3, column 2
The paper said that speeches at a meeting on Monday by Lowery and Duncan "pregnant with sound political axioms, mixed with much that is unsound and unphilosophical, were for the most part temperate in tone and manner."

Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal 23 March 1839 page 4, column 3
An editorial attacking the Chartists in extravagant language: "discontented, dangerous, mischief-seekers...hunt them down that like mad dogs they may be destroyed ere they have the power of infecting others with their rabid notions...these revolutionists...their traitorous designs...these poisonous and prowling animals...crush the treason, and bring the conspirators to justice...their wicked designs...these incendiaries"

The editorial attacked the Whig Government for inactivity towards the Chartists and for allowing them to propagandise, and attacked "the town-council magistracy" for "tamely" allowing the Chartists to hold meetings.

"The Chartist attempt at Falmouth...was a complete failure. At no time did the meeting exceed four hundred persons." "It is odd enough that these delegates of mischief were harboured while in Falmouth by the only gunsmith in the place." Very concerned about Chartist threats of physical force.

West Briton 29 March 1839 page 2
Editorial Refers to Hume's bill to extend the franchise and his statistics: 25.5 million people in Britain, 6.148 million males above twenty years of age, 0.956 million with the vote. Hume said his proposals would give the vote to 1/3 adult males. West Briton argues: "The best way to stop the cry for universal suffrage is to render it unavailing, by gradually extending the franchise so as to meet the just demands of those who are now deprived of it." It rejected the Russell idea that the 1832 reform was "final."

Reports that on 21 March 1839 Hume's bill was rejected by the House of Commons by 85-50 votes. Disraeli voted against it. Russell (Home Secretary) said the franchise should be based not on numbers only but on property and intelligence.

In a letter to the paper, Ed. Turner, a Cornwall MP who voted for Hume's bill, described Chartism as an "insane movement" which would retard reform of the franchise.

Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal 30 March 1839 page 4, column 3
Chartists at Saint Just in Penwith. "They harangued a considerable assembly" who attended out of "motives of curiosity." "Their language...was most disgustingly violent and inflammatory...these vagrants sow seeds of sedition." The Chartists stayed at the Mumpers' Hotel in St Just.

Royal Cornwall Gazette 5 April 1839 page 2, column 3
An editorial described the two Chartists as "mischievous people" and said they had "shocked and disgusted all right-minded people by their inflammatory harangues." On Easter Monday they had a meeting at Gwennap Pit where they sought "to gather together such idlers as the neighbouring beer shops could furnish...the senior minister of the (Methodist) circuit very properly repaired to the spot, with the parish constables, and kept the gates against all intrusion." Newspaper recalls Gwennap Pit as where Wesley preached.

Falmouth Packet and Cornish Herald 6 April 1839 page 8, column 4
"On Monday last the Chartists held a meeting at the Gwennap Pit, pursuant to notice -this was at the pit, not in it, in consequence of a prohibition notice having been stuck on the gate by a Wesleyan preacher in the neighbourhood. Notwithstanding the wetness of the day, many thousands attended, and were addressed by several speakers, besides Messrs Lowery and Duncan, the delegates from London. A vast accession of signatures was obtained to the petition. If it be safe to judge from the tone of the neighbourhood, public sympathy is rapidly on the increase, with the errand of these men." (Italics in the original. I could not surely read the underlined words on the film of the paper at Cornwall Studies Library.)