Picture of Robert Gammage

Robert Gammage


places mentioned

Gammage's first letter to the Chronicle

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THE CHARTIST MOVEMENT

In the Weekly Chronicle of October 20th there appeared a letter on the above subject from the pen of Mr. James Burn. Mr. Burn's letter contains some mistakes, which may, perhaps, be excused at this distance of time. Mr. Burn states that 'among those who were in gaol for having preached sedition to the people was John Collins and a London compositor, whose name has passed out of memory'. The only man arrested with John Collins on the occasion in question was my late lamented friend, William Lovett. But he was not a compositor. He was a cabinet maker when he threw himself into the movement which culminated in the production of the People's Charter, a document drawn up almost solely by Mr. Lovett. The Government had resolved to strike a blow at the public meetings which were so frequently held at that time in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, in which town the Chartist Convention was then holding its sittings. They sent down a formidable force of the Metropolitan Police, a step not calculated to assuage the feelings of the Birmingham Chartists, but very well calculated to intensify them. A working man had just mounted a platform to read a newspaper to the people present, and there was no indication of a riot. But the police sent down for a special purpose soon began to perform their part, and headed by the Mayor and another magistrate began to disperse the meeting. Men, women, and children were assailed. The unarmed people were, of course, highly indignant at this attack of the metropolitans, for which there was no justification. The assailed, but unarmed, multitude returned to set themselves against the police with fury depicted in their faces. Some of the force were wounded, and more mischief might have been done on the spot but for the timely arrival of Dr. Taylor, who did his best to calm the excitement of the infuriated people. The Mayor read the Riot Act, protected by the military. The scenes which followed need not be here described. Suffice it to say there were buildings burnt down, and that the town was in a state of great excitement.

Dr. Taylor was arrested without a warrant. This showed the high-handed policy of the Government of that day, of which Lord John Russell was a prominent member. Dr. McDouall also took part with Dr. Taylor. They were both reputed physical force men, but neither of them wished for useless bloodshed. Dr. Taylor was arrested at two o'clock on the following morning. The Convention met at nine o'clock. Of course the proceedings of the authorities were discussed, and the following resolutions were passed:—

  1. This Convention is of opinion that a wanton, flagrant, and unjustifiable outrage has been made upon the people of Birmingham by a bloodthirsty and unconstitutional force from London, acting under the authority of men who, when out of office, sanctioned and took part in the meetings of the people, and now when they share in the public plunder seek to keep the people in social and political degradation.
  2. That the people of Birmingham are the best judges of their own right to meet in the Bull Ring or elsewhere, have their own feelings to consult respecting outrage given, and are the best judges of their own power and resources to obtain justice.
  3. That the summary and despotic arrest of Dr. Taylor, our respected colleague, affords another convincing proof of all absence of justice in England, and clearly shows that there is no security of lives, liberty, or property, till the people have some control over the laws they are called upon to obey.

Every member of the Convention requested leave to sign these resolutions. But William Lovett said they could ill spare victims, and a sacrifice of one being sufficient, he would alone sign them. Mr. Collins undertook to get them printed. Both Lovett and Collins were, of course, arrested.

Dr. Taylor, although not a convicted prisoner, was treated as such. His fine flowing locks were cropped in gaol fashion, and he was subjected to all the indignities of the common felon. I can well believe that the doctor laughed at this, and, being a jovial man, he might rather enjoy it; but that did not excuse the despotic proceedings of that period. Neither Lovett nor Collins uttered a word militating against any other members of the Convention, though they admitted all done by themselves. They were, of course, committed for trial, and on being tried and found guilty, were each sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment. Their detention in Warwick Gaol was not merely nominal; they were subjected to cruel treatment. There was some amusement on the part of some, and disgust on the part of others, when, after their liberation, Collins related at various public meetings, that when Mr. Lovett one day was taking his soup, he found a black beetle in it. Lovett assured me only a few years ago, in a conversation I had with him in his house, that such was the fact.

Messrs. O'Connor and Smith became bail for Dr. Taylor. About the same time, Mr. George Julian Harney was brought into Birmingham under arrest, having been taken into custody in the colliery village of Bedlington, Northumberland. A crowd assembled at Carlisle as Mr. Harney passed through late at night, and demanded his release. He exhorted them not to interfere on his behalf. The crowd was resolute, but a chaise being brought to the back of the inn, Harney was driven off. He was charged with sedition on very slender evidence, for the speech on which the charge rested was of a moderate tone, but everything spoken or written by a leading Chartist at that time was thought to be seditious. This reminds me of a few episodes in my own career.

In 1848, I was engaged by my friend, Mr. Burgess, of Woburn, to lecture for a month in the quiet agricultural counties of Buckingham, Bedford, and Northampton—by no means physical-force districts, as far as the Chartists were concerned. I spoke to meetings at Woburn, Ridgmont, Ampthill, Toddington, Shefford, and other places in Bedfordshire, including Leighton Buzzard; in Fenny Stratford, Newport Pagnell, Hanslope, Olney (immortalized by the poet Cowper), and other places in Bucks; and in Paulerspury, Towcester, and other villages in Northamptonshire. The first time I went to Leighton Buzzard I had an audience of about 2,000 persons. They not only listened to me attentively, but frequently cheered. I went there again in a few days, but in the interval opposition was organised. A gang of roughs were made drunk, and though the bulk of the people were anxious to listen, my voice was drowned in the barrels of beer imbibed by the disturbers, and the general audience and myself were reduced to silence.

In the little town of Toddington, five miles from Woburn, matters were still worse. A meeting had been arranged; I went. The only friend known in the place—a shoemaker, whom I had never seen—had published the meeting, but under fear he was absent when I arrived. The meeting was announced to be held in the Market Place. The surveyors of the place forbad my speaking there. The district superintendent of police said to me—'Mr. Gammage, I have been sent for, and I have order to arrest you if you speak'. 'Oh!' said I, 'I shall not resist your authority.' 'No, I am quite sure of that', he replied; but Mr. Gammage, I shall be very glad when you are out of this district, for you give me a great deal of trouble.' 'My dear sir, I give no trouble. I could do very well without you. 'No doubt,' he replied with a smile, 'but don't attempt to address a meeting here. If any violence is offered you, I shall do my best to protect you; but you see they are drunk, and I might not be able to do much.' Just then a young man spoke up, and offered me a field in which to speak. We went, the people increasing in number; but as soon as I began the drunken party from the town interrupted me, and the hedges around the field were being damaged. The young man came to me and said, 'Mr. Gammage, I wished to hear you speak, but this field is my father's, and I shall get into a scrape.' Then up rose a man, one in practical authority (the constable of the town), 'Well,' he said, 'I am not a Chartist; I am not a politician at all; but I am an Englishman and like fair play, I have a yard Mr. Gammage, aside my house. If you choose, you can speak there. I will admit all who are willing to hear you and keep all others out.' and Mr. Faulkner (the name of the constable) was as good as his word. He stood at the gate handcuffs in hand. He knew all in the town. His own brother (a brewer of the place) was one of the ringleaders, but he shared the fate of the rest. Only one of the enemy was admitted, and he was of course harmless among 300. I addressed the meeting for an hour amid silence and cheers, the only opponent declaring to Mr. Faulkner he could not see any objection to my principles.

I must notice here the courageous conduct of the daughter of my host, a young and beautiful girl. The middle-class 'mob' asked her to admit them through the house door into the yard. She resolutely refused. They threatened her with the loss of custom. 'Oh', she replied,' I should despise my father if he turned coward for the sake of selling a few loaves of bread.' I went into the house after the meeting and had refreshment, and, after cordially thanking the family, retired, but not front way, where the mob, now more frank, was collected. My friend conducted me through a garden and through a field, and I was then on the road to Woburn, and when I arrived at the end of my dark journey enjoyed a hearty laugh with my friend Burgess before retiring to bed.

I had still another encounter in Towcester. By the arrangements of Mr. Burgess, a meeting was called in the Market Place, where a platform was erected for me. Mr. Burgess took the chair, and he besought for me a patient hearing. I spoke about three-quarters of an hour. I had understood previously that the magistrates were sitting at the police station, so that with open windows they could hear every word I said. I had just made a humorous poetical quotation, when out bounced the superintendent of police. (A true superintendent, with burly form and very red face.) 'You must get down sir,' he cried; 'I have orders to disperse the meeting.' 'Where is your order? 'I asked. 'Never mind, sir.' I got down, and said to him 'I will adjourn the meeting.' 'You must not get up again.' 'I will disperse the meeting,' I replied; 'I can do it more easily than you.' And up I got and adjourned the meeting to a future day, of which I assured the people they should have due notice. When the superintendent appeared, many people from the meeting shouted, 'Go on, we will protect you.' Had I stood my ground, the working people would have got into serious trouble, and, of course, the chief onus would have been thrown on the 'heartless and unprincipled demagogue'. I may mention that the wise authorities, in order to make the most of this affair, had summoned a great number of the police from the adjacent villages, and had sworn in fifty-two special constables, taking all the street lamps out of their sockets, as if they expected a siege.

Determined, however, not to abandon the right of public meeting, it was announced that I would again address the people. Not to exasperate the authorities, it was announced that the meeting would take place in the yard of my friend, Mr. Law It was all the same. When I had spoken but little more than half an hour, up came the superintendent (not the former one, who had been supplanted by another, who in 1839 was a furious physical-force Chartist.) 'Mr. Gammage,' he said, 'you must leave off.' 'I will not leave off.' 'Then I must arrest you.' And I was politely taken by the collar, and, guarded by several constables, walked off to the police station. Lord Southampton recognized me in the room, and gave his orders.

I laid myself down that night on a hard mattress, but not to sleep, for I could not get a wink, so I rose up and sang the song of my friend, John Leatherland:—

Base oppressors, leave your slumbers

And I sang it at intervals through the whole night. It was a delightful season — beautiful weather, it being the 11th of August — so I felt no cold. I was treated the following morning with every attention and respect by the matron, who provided me with water, soap, and faultlessly clean towels, and made me feel myself almost at home. I was taken that morning before the magistrates. While the police were giving their evidence, I attempted to speak a few words in contradiction. 'Hold your tongue, sir' exclaimed a magisterial gentleman known by the appropriate name of Stone.

The case was adjourned, and I was brought up on the following morning. 'Well, sir,' said Lord Southampton (chairman of the bench), 'we have decided to commit you for trial at the assizes, but we are willing to take bail for your appearance.' No bail being at hand, I was taken down to my cell. I had not been down more than three minutes when the superintendent came and informed me that bail had been offered. Mr. Law was my bail, and he had only refrained from offering himself before because he thought, being a political friend, his bail would not be accepted. I was bound over in the sum of 50 and Mr. Law in an equal sum for my appearance at the assizes. I was at Northampton at the appointed time, with many friends from Buckingham, Stony Stratford, and other places. After waiting two days, my attorney came out, and (with pleasure, of course) informed me that the prosecution was abandoned. I may here say that I had from the first resolved to conduct my own defence. My attorney (Mr. Becke) tried to persuade me to employ counsel. 'You know,' said he, 'the old proverb.' 'Oh yes,' I replied, 'I know that a man who pleads his own cause has a fool for his client, but I shall be that fool.' I must here note that the evidence of the three policemen (the only evidence offered at my examination) was at least three-fourths of it absolutely false.

The Chartists of Northampton raised a fund to defray the expense of my defence. There was a balance of 1.4s., which at my suggestion was sent to an old persecuted Chartist. I caused to be circulated a printed address to the people of Towcester, telling them that the right of public meeting had been successfully vindicated by the abandonment of the prosecution, and that if ever the people of Towcester wished me to address them I should always be ready to do so.

I cannot here avoid alluding to the remarks of Mr. Burn upon my late respected friend Dr. McDouall. He alludes to his propensity for drinking. I can only say that, if the doctor and others in the Chartist movement fell into that error, they did no more than thousands of men of other parties without a tithe of their excuse. Men who are buffeted about in every direction, who have left their usual walk in life to engage themselves in a popular movement, when they cannot expect to gain, deserve some amount of sympathy even in their errors. I can say for myself, that although I have been frequently in the company of McDouall, and listened with delight to his well-reasoned and eloquent lectures, I never saw him in anything approaching a state of intoxication. Respecting his emigration to Australia, I may mention that a few months ago a gentleman was spending a couple of hours in my house, who told me a story which much astonished me, but which he evidently believed. It was that McDouall, after money had been raised to take him to Australia, fell in with another well-known Chartist leader (now no more); that between them they drank till all McDouall's money was expended; and that he never got to Australia, but died in poverty somewhere about Manchester. I have been in that city since McDouall's reported emigration, and had the above statement been correct, I think I should have heard of it. I set it down, as I have been compelled to do many other statements, as having no foundation in fact.

I may here mention that at the general election in 1841 McDouall was brought forward as the Chartist candidate for my native town (Northampton). He polled 170 votes—a large number at that time, when we consider the restriction of the franchise; for although Northampton had, previously to the Whig Reform Bill of 1831-2, enjoyed household suffrage, it was one of the privileged boroughs. That Act diminished by degrees the number of the old electors, who, in the order of nature, gradually died off; and the constituency became be degrees a middle-class one, with such a sprinkling of the working men as placed them literally in the hands of their masters, who were generally Whigs, and nothing more. Still, there was a democratic spirit existing. A few of the working class electors could not be ignored, and they were always appealed to with that flattery which we are all acquainted with.

I remember when the Municipal Corporations Bill was under discussion I went to a public meeting in the Peacock Yard (I was then only a boy). Mr. Dennis, a man with voluble speech, appealed to the 'lads of wax'. The 'lads' were, of course, highly flattered, and cheered him lustily. The working classes had been cajoled by specious promises of a better state of things, especially as regarded the public charities. The Municipal Bill passed. Perhaps it was well that it did; still the Whigs should not have roused men's minds by holding out false hopes, and this is what they did. All sorts of statements were made as to what would be the altered condition of the poor if this bill passed. It did pass, but the poor found themselves much as before, as they would have expected had they been sufficiently informed of the many dodges of political parties.

As I have already said, McDouall polled 170 votes. He was afterwards a candidate for Carlisle, where he polled a much smaller number of votes. But these two contests prove that McDouall was thought to be no small man in the Chartist movement. And I will say this; if there was a man who threw himself heart and soul into that movement, fearless of personal consequences, that man was Peter Murray McDouall.

I can quite endorse, as far as my limited acquaintance permits, all that your correspondent, 'B' says of the late James Moir. Supposing that he did charge a pound for his visit to Greenock, if it cost him that amount he had a perfect right to charge it. I can only say of Mr. Moir, that from the one interview I had with him, I thought him one of the most thoughtful and sincere Democrats I had met with.

Nothing in your correspondent's letter please me better than his reference to my late lamented friend Bronture [sic] O'Brien. Your correspondent is quite right when he says: 'O'Brien, as a political instructor, was unequalled and unapproached.' In all the efforts politicians of this day are making to understand the land question, the principle O'Brien laid down is cropping up day by day—must and will crop up, even if aristocrats frown and millionaires wince. It is quite true, as he says, that the views formerly held of Robespierre and those associated with him are materially changed, thanks to O'Brien. He was the earliest in England to bring about that change. Whatever others may have done since that time, he was the first man in England to boldly set forth that Maximilian Robespierre was the great man of his age, and, accordingly, acted on his principles. O'Brien was not understood except by a few at the time he defended Robespierre; but even then he was never daunted, and throughout an eventful and troublous life he stuck to his political and social principles. But O'Brien was no system monger. He was no Communist. He believed in individual responsibility, and taught it.

I have already gone to such length that I must break off. Much more might be written, and at a future time the subject may with propriety be resumed.

Robert Gammage, 'Recollections of a Chartist', in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , Saturday, November 24 1883

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