Sunday, April 13, 2008

Looking back, an historical reflection

I’ve been distracted by some historical research of late. I’ve long been a genealogist, but more concerned with the social issues than who begat who. Like many issues, this latest burst was inspired by a stray question. In the event I found a vital trial transcript, decided I’d like to storify this marvelous tale. But the first part is doing the research, some I’ll share here.

Manchester, England, during the1830s and 40s is in many ways the birthplace of the modern era. The rapid transition from an agrarian economy, the destruction of eons of village communities was replaced with close packed communities totally dependent on factory and mine owners for virtually every aspect of life.

Manchester was undisputed capital of the world’s working class. If feudal life was onerous, at least it offered opportunities to supplement food supplies; it offered clean air and a measure of freedom and space factory towns like Manchester never provide. Work hours were long and dangerous, wages low and living conditions almost unimaginable

Manchester was also a magnet for the dispossessed of Ireland and Middle Europe, creating a melting pot of ideas as well as squalor; the contrasts were incredible. The Chartists were demanding electoral and parliamentary reforms, workers were beginning to recognize power in numbers and ideas of socialism were starting to form.

It was through this period that Friedrich Engels began developing theories, to be joined a little later by Karl Marx as a socialist movement began to bud. But it was the Chartists who first became prominent. The Charter was a straight forward surge for democracy, calling for:

  • Universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21
  • Equal-sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
  • Pay for members of Parliament
  • Annual election of Parliament

While the Charter called for specific parliamentary reform it was caught up in the first major economic depression. The Industrial revolution’ was changing the way we live and that revolution was far more reaching than the steam engine and iron bridges.

My great-great-grandfather found out, to his cost, the dangers of being politically active during this period. James had risen to delegate to the National Chartist Association just at a time when competing forces were active in the movement.

As a local official in Manchester James had been focused o the aims of the Chartists, he failed to understand the changes in the movements executive, at war with each other, were usurping the association for their own aims. On one side was the emerging labour movement, on the other political hopefuls like Feargus O’Connor.

It was during the misnamed ‘plug riots’ that the world began to unravel for James. The association had agreed to support the ‘Great Strike’ of 1843 and James was required to support the organisation at mass meetings, including Mottram Moor where he was arrested.

These arrests led to a major trial in 1843, at the Lancaster Assizes; The trial of Feargus O'Connor and 58 other Chartists. James had been turned before the trial commenced, and made a point during his evidence that his support was solely for the Charter.

Those on trial were charge with sedition and perhaps James realised that the Charter he supported had been taken over by other forces. These forces were advocating continuing the strike across Britain, but more worrying was advocating a run on savings banks. In short they were wiling to cripple the country’s economy.

James was acquitted. 40 or so found guilty were never sentenced, showing the political sensitivity of the events. Certainly many chartists before and after this period were transported to Van Diemans Land. James was ‘sent’ as a free settler, but certainly had no life ahead of him after testifying against some of his fellow chartists.


abi said...

Looks like your sense of democracy and equality is well bred in you.

Terrible choice your ancestor had.

Cart said...

Abi, it is a great heritage, though hit and miss in the family tree. Trying to untangle the man behind the history and myth is fascinating, and I fear I might well overlay some of my own beliefs.
At least I can work with a sympathetic character while looking at a seminal period in our modern western history.
It is wonderful stuff.

D.K. Raed said...

This is a fascinating era, Cart. I've never heard of the "plug riots". I should do more digging myself.

Of course you will inject yourself into whatever ancestor you research. How can you not? History always comes down to the personal. There must be many traits common to both you & your ancestors, in fact it's highly unlikely there is not.

If your ancestor James was "sent" as a free settler, does that mean he was free to return after a certain amt of time? I keep thinking once all the transportees saw the bright sunshine, the unltd land, the clean environment, they wouldn't want to return. But they did, didn't they? I'm trying to get a feel for the isolation they must've felt, the desperation of trying to make a go of it, starting from scratch.

And here's a stupid question: when did great hordes of flies arrive in Australia? Were they always there, or did they only achieve legendary status after all the sheep were brought in? Such is the way the curious mind works ... especially when I see late-night aussie TV specials where everyone in constantly batting away flies.

Cart said...

“If your ancestor James was "sent" as a free settler, does that mean he was free to return…” I honestly can’t find any reference to the deal between James and the authorities. It seems unusual, as he was sent with paid work on the boat and when he arrived.
There is that missing year, prior to the departure. I’m tending to think in terms of witness protection, except that despite the number of guilty findings at the trial, with James a witness for the crown, no sentences were ever passed.
It is obviously al highly political and James turned under the authority of the leading crown counsel, the Attorney General of the United Kingdom at that time. The stakes were high on all sides.
James brother also went on the ship, apparently just for a look see. He intended on returning fairly quickly, but instead settled. I don’t think it was as bad as imagined, at least for non convicts. Although many convicts at that time were chartists and James seemed to have suffered at their hands at times.

Flies, bloody flies. I wasn’t here before, but I expect a rapid increase in ovine, bovine and equine body waste might have increased the fly problem. I notice here, with ads for pasture sprays, they all claim to be safe for the introduced dung beetle. They are one of the few introduced critters that didn’t become a pest.

D.K. Raed said...

"body waste" ... that's the nice phrase I was looking for! I'm guessing the abo's didn't have the livestock to produce such waste, hence much less flies to deal with. 'roos & such probably don't produce that much fly bait. I bet some original colony or prisoner info would tell. If the early diaries didn't refer to a fly problem, that would seem pretty definitive.

ahh, you have dung beetles! we've been unsuccessful introducing them here, hence the proliferation of so much shite out of D.C., enough to drown the globe! (though something is tickling the back of my mind about dung beetles being considered sacred by the egyptians & we all know there is NOTHING sacred in DC).

Cart said...

body waste, such a refined term. You wouldn't here/see some of us say 'shit for sixpence'.

Dung beetles are out friends :)