The Chartist press reports the return of a convict to the city

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Yesterday myself and a colleague from the University of Northampton visited the London Academy school in Edgware to talk to their Sixth form students about Chartism (a topic they are study for A level history). We found them to be a very engaged and articulate group of young people, who had some firm opinions about the world they live in.

The Charter  was supported by several petitions to parliament and its signatories demanded 6 things from the government of the day:

  • a vote for all men (over 21)
  • the secret ballot 
  • no property qualification to become an MP
  • payment for MPs
  • electoral districts of equal size
  • annual elections for Parliament

All but one of these are now things we pretty much take for granted but in the 1830s they were deemed quite revolutionary.

The Chartists knew the value of good media and had to put up with some very biased reporting which portrayed them as alternatively dangerous and violent, or inept and disorganised. The Chartist Land Scheme was ridiculed and those responsible  for the Newport Rising in November 1839 harshly punished.

On 2 February 1839 James Thompson began publication of a short-lived 4 page newspaper that reported the Chartist movement from a positive perspective. Unlike some more famous organs of Chartism The Chartist was cheap (at 2 and half pence), so arguably it had the potential to be more accessible to working people.

It seems to have existed briefly though (it died out in July of 1839, at the end of the Chartist Convention), and it seems Thompson  was very concerned at the actions of so-called ‘physical force’ Chartists that dominated the news agenda after riots in Birmingham following the general strike of that year (the so-called ‘sacred month’).

In February 1839 The Chartist reported the goings on at the London Police Courts just like every other paper did. At Mansion House a ‘dejected man’ named Thomas Lee was presented to the magistrate by the police as a returned convict.

Lee had been picked up by a City of London copper (PC 133) when he found him ‘loitering around the neighbourhood of Watling-street’. The Lord Mayor criticised the policeman; telling him he had ‘exceeded his duty’ by arresting a man for doing nothing.

The officer’s sergeant now interjected to say that he had instructed his man to detain Lee because he had seen him going into shop and suspected he was a thief. At the station the man had told the sergeant that he was a ‘returned convict’ and had only recently arrived back in England from Australia.

‘Is that true, prisoner?’ asked the Lord Mayor.

‘Yes, my lord, it is’.

‘How did you get back?’ asked the justice.

Lee replied that he had worked his passage on a ship.

Now the clerk asked him how long ago he had been sentenced. It was eight years previously Lee explained. Did he have a discharge order? No, he didn’t.

The Lord Mayor was clearly perturbed by this. If he had no papers how was he to know that he hadn’t escaped from his sentence of transporttaion (rare as it was to escape from Australia, unlike the Americas in the previous century)?

Lee said nothing.

The sergeant informed the court that Lee had originally been convicted in Cornwall and  added that the prisoner had admitted that he was so destitute if was quite likely to commit a crime that would have seen him transported again anyway.

The magistrate ordered a message to be sent to Cornwall to check the validity of the man’s story and sent him to Newgate gaol in the meantime. Did Lee have to make the long journey back to Oz? I’m afraid I will have to leave that to someone else. If he had he may well have met with some of the ringleaders at Newport. Following their trial at the Shire Hall in Monmouth John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, were found guilty on the charge of high treason and were sentenced  to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fortunately for them this was commuted to transportation for life.

We asked the pupils at the London Academy for their six points and among their responses were the abolition of university fees, better opportunities for graduate employment and the lowering of the voting age to 17. All of these are sensible ‘demands’ (as were the Chartists’) and demonstrate that 17 year-olds can identify with politics outside of party and we should probably trust them with the franchise in the way that working men demanded to be trusted in the 1830s and 40s.

[from The Chartist, Saturday, February 2, 1839]

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One thought on “The Chartist press reports the return of a convict to the city

  1. Fascinating story. Good to hear the students were able to come up with such thoughtful comments. Thanks for the link to the Shire Hall, in Monmouth.

    Like

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