The Chartists

from A teller of tales by Karl Dallas

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Feargus O'Connor (1794–1855) was a leading light in the "physical force" element within 19th Century Chartism. Their slogan was "peaceably is we may, forcibly if we must". His Leeds-based newspaper, the Northern Star, attracted a world-wide readership, including the young Karl Marx, who contributed some articles to it.

He had a high opinion of himself, characterised by the chant he composed:
The Lion of Freedom is come from his den;
We'll rally around him, again and again;
We'll crown him with laurel, our champion to be:
O'Connor the patriot: for sweet Liberty!

Who strove for the patriots — was up night and day
To save them from falling to tyrants a prey?
Twas fearless O'Connor was diligent then:
We'll rally around him, again and again.

However, when peaceful methods failed, he campaigned against a general strike. He died penniless and insane on August 30, 1855. 50,000 people attended his funeral.


O’Connor, the bastard!
Called himself a radical
but once a squireen, always a squireen.
Ready to rat on us, who put him up there,
us, foolish enough to trust him, gave him authority over us,
him and his fourpence-ha’penny rag.
They say he sold over thirty-two thousand copies of his newspaper,
and these were passed round from hand to hand in alehouses and mechanics' institutes
so the readership was easily ten or twenty times higher than that.
All that power!
And when push came to shove,
he walked away,
took the People’s Charter with him
into the dustbin of history.
He died in bedlam. Serve him right.
Hope he rots in hell.
. . .
Millions signed up to the Charter.
When it was rejected in Parliament
by 287 votes to 49
it was over six miles long
and bore the names
of 3,317,702 of the disenfranchised.
Feargus O'Connor's newspaper, the Northern Star,
put it at 4,800,000 names
(in a country of 19 million men, women and children)
but was lukewarm to the call for a general strike.

We struck anyway.
We marched from town to town
knocking out the boiler plugs
in the factories which would not join us.
Three thousand drilled in Wilsden,
under a black flag.
In Bradford we beat the police in a straight fight.
Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, the Potteries, Warwickshire, Wales.
Workers as far north as Aberdeen
were about to join
when the Northern Star denounced the strike
as a government provocation:
fifteen hundred strikers were arrested
and 79 of them transported to Australia.

We began to realise that
as long as we relied upon people like the Irish squireen, O’Connor,
we would never regain control of our own lives:
out of that realisation, the Labour Party was born.

But that is another story.


from A teller of tales, released August 25, 2012


all rights reserved


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