BRITISH ASSOCIATION FOR LOCAL HISTORY – JULY 2019 BOOK REVIEWS
Writing in the 1950s in The Amateur Historian (as The Local Historian was known in its early days) Dorothy Thompson issued a clarion call for research into Chartist localities and offered tips on how to go about this work. This was part of a wider effort organised around Asa Briggs—at the time Professor of History at the University of Leeds—to encourage local studies of a movement that up to that point had been generally presented from the viewpoint of the London Chartists Francis Place and William Lovett. The culmination of this effort was the publication of Chartist Studies (1959) which put examinations of local campaigning before that of national dimensions of the movement. This book, which is still essential reading for students of Chartism sixty years later, prompted a flurry of investigations into local centres of support, a trend that did not slow down for two decades.
During the 1980s and 1990s the study of Chartism was convulsed by the repercussions of what was termed ‘the linguistic turn’. Writing biographical or local studies became unfashionable. Yet, as bibliographies released in 1995 and 2017 amply demonstrate, such approaches did not entirely disappear. The book under review reveals that there is still much to be learned from studies of local Chartist communities. The essays make important points about Chartism as a national movement, but do so using thorough research and in a style that is determinedly readable. There is no jargon here to bog down readers.
Previously, John A. Hargreaves has done a good deal to illuminate the Chartists of the West Riding and here he sets the scene with a useful overview of events in Huddersfield. He has recruited four scholars with form on the subject. Malcolm Chase’s work is extensive and well-known, including an unimpeachable history of the movement, and he has also come up with the perfect definition of Chartism as Britain’s civil rights movement. Matthew Roberts is on the way to establishing a major reputation as an historian of nineteenth century protest movements. His forthcoming book is eagerly awaited. This book opens with an essay by Alan Brooke who, like Hargreaves, is deeply rooted in the local history of the area. Well-researched and clearly written, it sets the tone of the book, showing how Huddersfield Chartism grew out of the agitations of the 1830s for factory reform and opposition to the new poor law.
As part of an effort to go beyond studying Chartism through the written word, Roberts has been compiling a database on banners at radical demonstrations (they were usually green in colour) and has already published an interesting essay on the subject in relation to Manchester. Now he extends his work to Huddersfield, hanging his discussion on an attempt to seize the banner of the working class politicians of Paddock. Among other useful points, he shows how the supply of textiles and skills enabled communities in the West Riding to make banners and how the inscriptions on these demonstrates the importance of religion for working people. The study of banners has enabled Roberts to reach some important conclusions about Chartism as a national movement: he concludes that the time taken to produce banners meant that protests were less spontaneous than has been assumed and that the virtual disappearance of banners after 1842 shows that the character of Chartism changed from one of mass outdoor meetings to lecture tours and indoor meetings.
The output of Chase in recent years has been phenomenal. His enjoyable contribution here discusses the cultural dimensions of Huddersfield Chartism and, as ever, his work is highly readable, deeply considered and based on a mastery of detail gleaned from an assiduous examination of the sources. In the final essay John Halstead examines the career of Joshua Hobson, printer and, for a time, editor of the Northern Star. It has often been stated that Hobson did not follow the path of many former Chartists into Gladstonian Liberalism but instead became a Tory editor: Halstead marshals interesting material to cast doubt on this interpretation. This stimulating and well-illustrated book is a lineal descendant of the approaches first set out in the volume edited by Asa Briggs. It is highly recommended.
Stephen Roberts is Honorary Associate Professor in the Research School for Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University. He has spent many years studying the Chartists and recently edited the Annotated Bibliography of Chartism 1995-2018.