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Feargus O'Connor, the son of Roger O'Connor, a United Irishman, was born in 1796. When Feargus O'Connor was twenty-four he inherited an estate in County Cork. Although a Protestant, O'Connor was a reforming landlord and denounced tithes and the power of the Church.
In 1832 O'Connor's participation in the anti-tithe agitation in Ireland led to his arrest but the authorities did not prosecute him. Later that year, O'Connor, with the help of Daniel O'Connell, the leader of the Irish Radicals, was elected MP for County Cork in the General Election after advocating the repeal of the Act of Union, abolition of tithes, universal suffrage and the secret ballot.
Soon after arriving in the House of the Commons O'Connor attempted to replace O'Connell as leader of the Irish Radicals. O'Connell felt betrayed by O'Connor and the two men became enemies. In 1835 O'Connor was unseated for failing to meet the property qualifications. He tried to stand for Oldham after the death of William Cobbett, but he split the Radical vote and the seat was won by the Tories.
O'Connor now toured the country making speeches advocating annual parliaments, universal suffrage, the ballot, equal representation, and the abolition of the property qualification. O'Connor's message was particularly popular with the handloom weavers who were suffering severe economic distress in the 1830s.
In November 1836, O'Connor joined the London Working Mens' Association. The following year he moved to Leeds where he established a weekly paper, the Northern Star, that supported the reform of Parliament. The newspaper was a great success and by the spring of 1839 was selling over 48,000 copies a week.
O'Connor became active in the Chartist movement. However, he was critical of leaders such as William Lovett and Henry Hetherington who advocated Moral Force. O'Connor questioned this strategy and began to make speeches where he spoke of being willing "to die for the cause" and promising to "lead people to death or glory". In a speech in Manchester he gave a date, 29th September, 1839, for violent action if Parliament did not grant the six points of the Charter. O'Connor's speeches outraged Lovett and Hetherington and he was excluded from the platform of a mass meeting organised by the London Working Men's Association.
O'Connor responded by forming a new Chartist organisation, the East London Democratic Association. O'Connor's speeches and newspaper articles became more threatening and he was blamed by the Moral Force Chartists for encouraging John Frost and the unsuccessful Newport Rising on 4th November 1839.
Four months later O'Connor was tried at York for publishing seditious libels in the Northern Star. He was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment. O'Connor continued to edit the newspaper from his prison cell and upset the other Chartist leaders when he told his readers that from "September 1835 to February 1839 I led you single-handed and alone."
R. G. Gammage wrote: "That O'Connor had a desire to make the people happier, we never in our lives disputed. He would have devoted any amount of work for that purpose; but there was only one condition on which he would consent to serve the people - the condition was, that he should be their master; and in order to become so, he stopped to flatter their most unworthy prejudices, and while telling them that they ought to depend upon his judgment, he at the same time assured them that it was not he who had given them knowledge, but that on the contrary, it was they who had conferred on him what knowledge he possessed."
After his release from prison in August 1841, Feargus O'Connor took control of the National Charter Association. His vicious attacks on other Chartist leaders such as William Lovett, Bronterre O'Brien and Henry Vincent split the movement. Some like Lovett, who were unwilling to be associated with O'Connor's threats of Physical Force, decided to leave the National Charter Association. Following the Plug Riots of August 1842, O'Connor was tried for his part in the rebellion. He was acquitted on most of the charges and escaped being sent to prison on a technicality.
In 1845 O'Connor launched his Chartist Land Plan. His objective was to raise money to buy a large estate that would be divided into plots of three and four acres. Subscribers would then draw lots and the winners would obtain a cottage and some land. O'Connor promised that his Land Scheme would "change the whole face of society in twelve months" and would "make a paradise of England in less than five years".
By May 1847, O'Connor had persuaded 70,000 people to pay £100,000 into a fund that enabled him to purchase Heronsgate (renamed O'Connorville) in Gloucestershire. O'Connor's Land Scheme was a disaster and by 1850 the company was virtually bankrupt and the settlers were being evicted.
Undaunted by this failure, O'Connor continued to be the dominant figure in the Chartist movement. However, at the great Kennington Common rally on 10th April 1848, O'Connor began to show signs of mental strain. He told the crowd that the latest petition contained 5,706,000 signatures, but when examined by MPs it was only 1,975,496, and many of these were clear forgeries. His critics accused O'Connor of destroying the credibility of the Chartist movement.
O'Connor's behaviour became more and more irrational and after assaulting several MPs he was committed to a mental asylum in Chiswick. Feargus O'Connor died on 30th August, 1855.
(1) Feargus O'Connor, speech at Peep Green, July, 1839
Do the magistrates think of putting down our meeting by acts of violence? I for one think they do, and should we be attacked today, come what will, life, death, or victory, I am determined no house shall cover my head tonight. I am quite ready to stand by the law, and not to give our tyrants the slightest advantage in attacking us in sections; but should they employ force against us. I am repelling attack by attack.
(2) R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement (1894)
That O'Connor had a desire to make the people happier, we never in our lives disputed. He would have devoted any amount of work for that purpose; but there was only one condition on which he would consent to serve the people - the condition was, that he should be their master; and in order to become so, he stopped to flatter their most unworthy prejudices, and while telling them that they ought to depend upon his judgment, he at the same time assured them that it was not he who had given them knowledge, but that on the contrary, it was they who had conferred on him what knowledge he possessed.
No other man ever stooped to flatter them so much. This was one of the secrets of his great popularity; but it was a popularity which was as unsettled as the waves. It swelled, and bubbled, and foamed for a while, only to recede, and to be lost to its former possessor. An excessive hankering after popularity, purchased at whatever price, was the great mistake of O'Connor's life. It led him to lend his influence, whenever the time arrived, to knock down every man who promised to rival him in the people's estimation.
(3) Feargus O'Connor, speech at Kennington Common (10th April, 1848)
My children, have now for a quarter of a century been mixed up with the democratic movement - in Ireland since 1822, and in England from the year 1833. I have always, in and out of Parliament, contended for your rights, and I have received more than 100 letters, telling me not to come here today, or my life would be sacrificed. My answer was, that I would rather be stabbed in the heart than abstain from being in my place. And my children, for you are my children, and I am only your father and bailiff; but I am your fond father and your unpaid bailiff.
My breath is nearly gone, and I will only say, when I desert you may desert me. You have by your conduct today more than repaid me for all I have done for you, and I will go on conquering until you have the land and the People's Charter becomes the law of the land.
(4) House of Commons report on the Chartist Petition of 1848.
The number of signatures has been ascertained to the 1,975,496. It is further evident to you Committee, that on numerous consecutive sheets the signatures are in one and the same handwriting. Your Committee also observed the names of distinguished individuals. Among which occurs the name of Her Majesty, Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, etc. etc. Your Committee have also observed the insertion of numbers of names which are obviously fictitious, such as 'No Cheese', 'Pug Nose', 'Flat Nose'.