Physical Force Chartists

In November 1836, Feargus 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.

Feargus O'Connor was highly 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". O'Connor had been influenced by the tactics that had previously been adopted by people like Henry 'Orator' Hunt and Daniel O'Connell. Although these men did not advocate the use of force, they had constantly warned those in power of the dangers of violence if reform did not take place.

In a speech in Manchester, Feargus O'Connor 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.

Other supporters of Physical Force such as James Rayner Stephens and George Julian Harney were imprisoned during 1839. Feargus O'Connor was also arrested and in March 1840 he was tried at York for publishing seditious libels in the Northern Star. He was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.

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 Thomas Attwood, William Lovett, Bronterre O'Brien and Henry Vincent split the movement. Some like Attwood and 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.

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."

Feargus O'Connor and other supporters of Physical Force were also willing to use those methods that were associated with Moral Force Chartists. For example, on 10th April 1848, O'Connor organised a large meeting at Kennington Common and then presented a petition to the House of Commons that he claimed contained 5,706,000 signatures. However, when it was examined by MPs it only had 1,975,496, signatures and many of these were clear forgeries. Moral Force Chartists accused O'Connor of destroying the credibility of the Chartist movement.

The failure of the April 10th demonstration severely damaged the Chartist movement. In some areas Physical Force Chartism still remained strong. A meeting addressed by Feargus O'Connor in Leicester in 1850 was attended by 20,000 people. There were also large meetings in London and Birmingham. However, the revival of trade reduced the amount of dissatisfaction with the parliamentary system. Chartist candidates did very badly in the 1852 General Election and sales of the Northern Star dropped to 1,200. By the time Feargus O'Connor died in 1855, the Chartist movement had come to an end.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Rev. Joseph Rayner Stephens, speech in Stalybridge (February 1839)

If Abraham was ready to kill his only child, shall we falter when God commands us to draw the sword and never to sheath that sword until it is sheathed in the hearts of his enemies? God wills the death of no man; neither is it the will of God that a Poor Law Commission, of the kind that now curses England, should ever be established. I pray God to cast them all to hell.

(2) Secret Report of a police spy who attended a Chartist meeting in Birmingham on 5th November, 1839.

Fussell said they should petition the Queen to give them universal suffrage or they would take it by force. Many said we will have it or die for it. Smallwood then addressed the meeting. He said if the Queen would not give them universal suffrage they would join the insurrection and declare themselves a republic. Parks then addressed the meeting. He said he would rather die fighting for his country than live a slave. He asked how many there was in the room armed and prepared. About 12 to 20 said they was.

(3) 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.

(4) George Julian Harney, speech at Derby, 28th January, 1839.

We demand Universal Suffrage, because we believe the universal suffrage will bring universal happiness. Time was when every Englishman had a musket in his cottage, and along with it hung a flitch of bacon; now there was no flitch of bacon for there was no musket; let the musket be restored and the flitch of bacon would soon follow. You will get nothing from your tyrants but what you can take, and you can take nothing unless you are properly prepared to do so. In the words of a good man, then, I say 'Arm for peace, arm for liberty, arm for justice, arm for the rights of all, and the tyrants will no longer laugh at your petitions'. Remember that.

(5) J. Phillips, a Newport magistrate, wrote a letter to the Home Secretary on 12th March 1839.

I have made minute inquiries into the subject of the guns which have been received by coach in this place and I have come to the conclusion that the information which was conveyed to me on the first instance was calculated to give a some what exaggerated impression of the real facts of the case. The inquiries I have made have only enabled me to trace with certainty three distinct packages of guns and muskets, all of which appear to have arrived here from the neighbourhood of Birmingham and one of which was accompanied by a heavy hamper. Of those packages, two were sent from here to Pontypool, two to Tredegar, both towns in this county surrounded by iron works. It is extremely probable that hawkers passing through the county finding a great demand for guns and muskets order them in the usual way of business without knowing or caring for the purpose to which they are intended to be applied. I understand that clubs have been recently established in this neighbourhood to which men contribute small periodical payments in order to obtain arms in their town, and I was informed sometime back that guns and muskets were purchased with eagerness at the neighbouring iron works.

It is also within my own knowledge that active efforts are making to incite the workmen employed at the Collieries to violence and to persuade them that in any course they may pursue they will not be opposed by the soldiers who would not act against them. There has existed in this town for some months a Chartist Society - some of the members whereof make circuits periodically into the neighbouring villages and mining districts to obtain signatures to the Chartist petition and contribute to the national rent. The missionaries attend at public houses and beer shops where a party small or large as the case may be has been assembled. The missionary expounds to them the grievances under which they labour tells that half their earnings are taken from them in taxes, that these taxes are spent in supporting the rulers in idleness and profligacy - that their employers are tyrants who acquire wealth by their labour, that the great men around them possess property to which they are not entitled that these evils are to be cured by the Chartists but that the people must sign the Chartist petition and contribute to the Chartist rent, that if their demands are not peaceably conceded they will be justified resorting to force and that they need not fear bloodshed because the soldiers will not act and a letter is normally read to confirm the statement made with respect to the feeling of the soldiery.

(6) Edward Hamer wrote about the Newport Rising in a pamphlet, The Chartist Outbreak in Llanidloes, that was published in 1867.

Strengthened by the arrival of the men sent by the Home Secretary, the magistrates assembled at the hotel, and decided upon arresting the individuals against whom the warrants were out; and, to be prepared for the worst, had sent the town crier to request the immediate presence of the special constables then in the town. Between forty and fifty obeyed the call, and, loitering before the inn, watching the proceedings, were the identical men whom the authorities were so anxious to apprehend: they were pointed out to the police, who at once took them into custody, and secured them inside the hotel. Upon this the tocsin of alarm was given, and the news of the arrest reached those assembled at the bridge in a very short time. This crowd, with their numbers swelled on the way, soon arrived in sight of the hotel, where they saw the police and special constables drawn up to receive them. The sight took them aback, but it was only the momentary impediment which dammed up the waters for a more impetuous rush.

Without arms of some description, their great number was no match for the police and specials, armed with their staves of office. They accordingly withdrew for a few moments to procure whatever they could lay their hands on in the form of weapons - guns, staves, pikes, hay forks, sickles, and even spades were hastily seized by the excited and turbulent mob!

Some of the women who had joined the crowd kept instigating the men to attack the hotel - one old virago vowing that she would fight till she was knee-deep in blood, sooner than the Cockneys should take their prisoners out of the town. She, with others of her sex, gathered large heaps of stones, which they subsequently used in defacing and injuring the building which contained the prisoners. When the mob had thus armed themselves, the word 'Forward!' was given, and as soon as they were within hearing of the police, they imperatively demanded the release of their friends, which demand was of course refused. What took place during the next few minutes cannot be easily ascertained; both parties afterwards accused the other of commencing the fray. The special constables, many of whose acquaintances were among the crowd, were seen to give way on the approach of the Chartists, and to seek their safety either in the hotel, or by trusting to their legs. When their request was denied them, the mob set up a terrible shout, and pressed forward towards the door of the inn; the rioters asserting that the London police began the conflict by striking one of their number, which only exasperated them the more, and caused them to shout out for 'revenge!' as well as the release of the prisoners. They further state that the Ex-Mayor, on finding that he was locked out, to ensure his own safety, suddenly appeared to sympathize with the mob, by crying out 'Chartists for ever'; and, with a stick which he had in his hand, broke the first pane of glass, thus initiating the mob in the work of destruction.

The women followed the example thus set them by throwing stones at every window of the house, while the men pressed forward and tried to burst in the front door, through which the police had retired. The thought of their prey slipping through their fingers infuriated the mob, who sent repeated showers of stones at the door and windows; the latter were soon shattered into a thousand fragments. Guns were next fired through the door, which, after resisting all their efforts for some time, was ultimately burst open. The mob quickly spread themselves over the house in search of their comrades, whom they found handcuffed in the kitchen. They were at once led off to a smith's shop, where their gyves were knocked off. Finding themselves masters of the house, the rabble proceeded to hunt out the policemen, against whom alone their animosity was now directed. The Mayor with one of the police had retired to the bedrooms, but the latter (Blenkhorn) was soon found, and dragged from under a bed; his pistol and staff were wrested from him, and the former was presented at his head. He was then most savagely abused by all who were within reach of him, till his bruised and bleeding features moved the hearts of some of the most compassionate, who managed at great risk to save his life, for only with his life would some of the ruffians be appeased.

The Mayor (a surgeon by profession) was also discovered in one of the bedrooms. He was rather frightened when brought out into the street; but a happy idea occurred to him, - he appealed to their better nature, by recalling to their memories how he had saved their mothers' lives in ushering them (the Chartists) into the world. He touched the right string; their hearts were softened, and they allowed him to proceed to his home without injuring him.

(7) 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.