THE PEOPLE'S CHARTER
Being the outline of an act of parliament embracing "the six cardinal points of Radical Reform."
So while the council of the BPU sat back and awaited results, the task of preparing Scotland to join the Chartist Movement was more or less left to John Collins. Luckily, he proved to be an energetic and skillful speaker in the same league as Vincent, Taylor, Lowery and O'Connor. By April 1838 Collins was reporting a highly successful tour of Scotland.
In 1838 ".... John Collins reported to the Birmingham Political Union that they had political unions in Bradford, Coventry, and in Scotland, but soon they would have unions in all the major town."
Alexander Wilson, Chartist Movement in Scotland
"In 1838 a rapid mobilization of the working classes was the outcome of the preparation of the Charter and National Petition and of the foundation of the Chartist press. The whole populace seethed in a state of fermentation."
Max Beer, History of British Socialism.
Collins would have traveled north on a horse drawn stage coach. It would have been quite precarious sitting outside on the top of a speeding, swaying conveyance, and even worse if it was raining. If he had the money he might have paid the extra to sit inside. The BPU council had agreed to pay him for his work [Birmingham Political Union p 133, Flick].
Additionally, Collins was a comparative newcomer to the political scene. His previous experience in public speaking was limited to that of local preacher and Sunday school teacher - and lately political debates and meetings within his home ground of Birmingham, Coventry, and the Midlands.
Unlike the mostly middle class council members of the Birmingham Political Union, Collins had the advantage of coming from a humble, working class background that resonated with the trade unions and the common man he had come to recruit.
He was "one of them." He was straightforward and honest, and he was sincere in his desire to change things for the better - all traits appreciated by the traditionally dour and taciturn Scotsmen living in abject poverty. Collins was the perfect spokesman for the newly emerging reform movement, and people came out in their thousands to hear him speak.
Collins encountered great support in Edinburgh and Dundee, as well as successful visits over many weeks at Paisley, Barrhead, Kilbarchan, Strathaven, Johnston, Beith, Kilburnie, Houston, Lochwinnoch, Parkhead, Ayr, Glasgow (more than once), Kilmarnock, Newmilns, Mauchline and Cumnock - the list goes on and on.
He met with local radicals, gave rousing speeches before huge, organized crowds, and departed those venues with much fanfare (bands and flags) and literally thousands of cheering inhabitants.
Collins' forthright and passionate speaking style was founded on a lifetime of witnessing deprivation, squalor and wretchedness on the streets of Birmingham. That, together with his use of scripture and amusing anecdotes with a political twist, made Collins a man worth listening to. People came in droves to hear him speak. Thanks in large part to him, England won the large scale support of the Scottish laborers of whom he once wrote "there is misery enough, and intelligence enough, and zeal enough in Scotland alone ..."
The Commencement of the Chartist Movement
The meeting at Glasgow Green (at which some 3,000 colliers were said to attend) was one of the first large-scale demonstration of the Chartist Movement, and when the Birmingham delegation - consisting Thomas Attwood and the other BPU leaders - stepped onto the hustings (raised platform) on 21 May 1838 they were virtually guaranteed a grand and receptive welcome due in large part to John Collins' incredible recruiting mission. He had even forewarned the Birmingham leaders they would not be sent for if there was any doubt about its success.
At the demonstration on the Green there were resolutions condemning the outcome of the 1832 Reform Bill; the BPU's National Petition was presented for approval and signatures of the Scottish people; and representatives of the London Working Men's Association announced they had drawn up a "Charter" that incorporated the demands of the BPU's National Petition as well as some additional points.
The monster crowd on the one hundred acre site was told the men of Birmingham were revived and ready to lead again. That they would petition, and petition, and petition again! And if the government dared to ignore the prayers of a famed "2 million men," Thomas Attwood told the cheering crowd he would call a National Strike.
John Collins was undoubtedly the (unsung) hero of the day at the Glasgow Green Radical Demonstration in that he majorly helped bring together the Birmingham Political Union, the radicals of Scotland, and the first public appearance of the LWMA "People's Charter" in Scotland.
Without his tremendous efforts who can say whether or not those three major forces would have come together or cooperated at that particular point in time. Certainly it was John Collins alone who did all the groundwork necessary to unite them.
Even Thomas Attwood (the mostly absentee figurehead of the BPU) admitted he had never been an agitator, and that the Glasgow Demonstration was the first political meeting he ever attended outside of Birmingham.
Again, one has to wonder about that apparent "slight." The BPU, especially Thomas Attwood, had a history of taking centre stage, claiming the success of others for their own and studiously ignoring the contributions of others.
Ever the opportunist, Attwood subsequently told Parliament that he went to Glasgow for the purpose of trying the feelings of the men of Scotland. This of course was not strictly true. He did go to Glasgow - but only after John Collins had already established Scottish sentiments and paved the way to success. Thomas Attwood took the credit that really belonged to John Collins.
As it turned out some of the limelight fell on Collins when the local Glasgow chairman, James Purdie, showed appreciation on behalf of the men of Scotland and proposed a toast to "John Collins and the men of Birmingham" at the very end of the Hope Street banquet that evening. The proposal was greeted with several rounds of applause.
There were others too, who recognized Collins' contribution to the reform movement in Scotland. He was made an Honorary Member of the Glasgow Suffrage Association along with the well-known Francis Place and William Lovett. Some two years later, Scottish representatives, including Arthur O'Neill (who eventually relocated to preach in John Collins' Chartist Church in Birmingham) journeyed to Birmingham to honor Collins on his release from Warwick Gaol where he had been held political prisoner for twelve months.
The day after the Great Glasgow Demonstration three of the Birmingham delegates, John Collins, Thomas Attwood and George Edmunds, attended the Grand Renfrewshire Meeting on the sacred grounds of Eldeslie, the reputed birthplace of that Scottish hero Sir William Wallace.
It had rained incessantly since the day before and the delegates were an hour late for the meeting having spent the morning receiving representatives from various Scottish towns, many of whom Collins undoubtedly would have met before. Nevertheless, when the Birmingham trio finally arrived at Eldeslie they were escorted by an "enthusiastic" crowd to an outdoor venue some four miles into the countryside.
The procession included people from seventeen towns and trades together with numerous bands, some in uniform and some who had traveled many miles the day before, and in spite of the inclement weather 20,000 turned up for the meeting. Compared to the tens of thousands at the Great Glasgow Demonstration, the Renfrewshire meeting was considerably smaller. Nevertheless, it showed enormous support for the Birmingham men and the Chartist Movement that these many people were willing to walk four miles in the pouring rain to the grounds of the country estate loaned for the occasion by Mr Campbell Snodgrass, a local coalmine proprietor.
The meeting itself was conducted along much the same lines as Glasgow with speeches and approval for the National Petition. Afterwards, Collins and his colleagues were entertained by Snodgrass in his country mansion, where they toasted the renowned Wallace. Then it was onto Paisley for an evening party with several hundred ladies and gentlemen.
Newcastle-on-Tyne - June 2nd
Following the success of the Great Glasgow Demonstration and Eldeslie our indefatigable John Collins headed to the north of England stopping off in Newcastle-on-Tyne on 2nd June 1838 to drum up support for yet another massive outdoor meeting on the nearby Town Moor. Scheduled for June 28th, it would coincide with Queen Victoria's Coronation Day.
In announcing the Town Moor meeting and the Birmingham speakers - including John Collins - The Northern Liberator took the opportunity to remark on the burden of taxes on the poor and working class, as well as the immense cost of the Coronation versus the starving millions of British and Irish people.
The Tree of Taxation
An engraving published in the Northern Liberator gave its readers a visible representation of the unfair tax system! The top, Highest Class, escape from the Roots of the Tax Tree altogether.They get back, in the shape of Windfalls, more than they pay. The Second Class, the Roots touch but lightly. The Third, or Labouring Class, is the source of the whole nourishment drawn up by the Tax Tree. The Fourth Class, the very Poor, it touches but to destroy.
Excerpt from Collins' Speech at Sunderland
"Some time ago — and this was another instance of legislative wisdom — a committee was appointed to inquire into agricultural distress. Well, they came to the sage resolution that distress was caused by a superabundance of food, and commenced the cure by throwing 100,000 quarters of corn into the sea.
"There was another committee appointed to inquire into the distress of the hand-loom weavers, and they (the committee) came to a conclusion that it arose from over-population, and recommended that £10 to £15 a-head should be expended in removing people to South Australia.
"Thus they found too many mouths on the one side, and too many loaves on the other — (loud cheers and laughter) — but then they proceeded to legislate so as to keep the mouths and the loaves from coming together! It was high time that such fools were plucked from their usurpation!"
John Collins - 4 June 1838
In spite of the differences between the threesome, consisting the BPU, LWMA, and GNU, they were all in accord with the need for reform. At this point in time they recognized the need for each other. They were stronger together than on their own. At the June 5th meeting and official formation of the northern unions into one Great Northern Union held on Hunslet Moor, just outside Leeds in Yorkshire, John Collins of Birmingham was welcomed as one of the main speakers.
The other leaders of the Birmingham Political Union chose to stay away - Collins being the only one brave enough to attend O'Connor's physical force stronghold [Thomas Attwood: The Biography of a Radical by David Moss] .
The BPU's National Petition was adopted at that June meeting, and Collins spoke of his missionary tour since the Great Glasgow Demonstration to launch the Petition, and plans for more mass meetings throughout the country. O'Connor moved a vote of thanks to Collins, and O'Connor pledged his support on behalf of Leeds and the North, thereby linking himself and the newly formed GNU to the men of Birmingham and their National Petition.
O'Connor published critical and inflammatory articles about moderate (moral force) Chartist leaders, and on more than one occasion he published lies about John Collins (Henry Vincent 1st March 1841), even charging Collins with being one of the most physical force men (Northern Star 8th May 1841). Nothing could have been further from the truth, and through his smear campaign O'Connor totally shattered Lovett and Collins' 'New Move' and 'National Association' attempts to educate the working man and unite the classes.
Feargus O'Conner once said his newspaper was the way to keep the "party" together and for everyone to know what was going on. It could justifiably be said he used The Northern Star to attack and destroy those reformers who showed independent action or challenged O'Connor's leadership.
"The Chartists, unlike the Radicals, must be reckoned not only a separate political group but a separate political party. They (the Chartists) stood quite independent of the Whig and Tory organizations, and maintained a party machinery of their own.
"The general politics and tactics of the (Chartist) party were determined in conventions of delegates chosen by local Chartist associations, and their execution was left to a permanent executive committee and to paid lecturers and propagandist agents.
"The organization was the product of a merger between the London Working Men's association, led by William Lovett and Henry Vincent; the Birmingham Political Union, including John Collins; and the political unions organized by Feargus O'Connor."
(Preston W Slossom, Decline of the Chartist Movement )
An historic moment for the working class, and the country as a whole, was the so-called "birth" of the Chartist Movement (The Chartist Movement, Hovell p107) that took place when the people of Birmingham and surrounding districts met on 6 August 1838 for the Great Midland Demonstration at Holloway Head - yet another outdoor meeting place. Successful reform meetings in support of the National Petition earlier that year at Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle, all attended by John Collins (Birmingham Political Union, Flick p143) and other important places provided the impetus and confidence previously lacking for the Birmingham Political Union to call for a grand kick-off demonstration on their home turf.
The day began with a BPU meeting in the Town Hall, at which time John Collins (the only working man already on the council) was re-elected to serve in the forthcoming year. Other working men were additionally elected to serve on the council, some of whom would later aid in the downfall of the Union.
This was followed by a massive procession to Holloway Head which Collins and Pierce led on horseback through the streets of Birmingham.
From the Town Hall the procession "set off at a brisk pace" heading down Suffolk Street, up Exeter Row (past the Dog & Duck), on up Holloway Head, and along the line of streets to the hustings in the fields at Holloway Head.
Among the reported 250,000 crowd at Holloway Head, many women (or 'bonnets' as they were often called) were said to have attended the Grand Midland Demonstration. There were arrangements to accommodate the press, and a raised platform (or hustings as it was usually called) was erected for the speakers as well as two trumpeters "to give notice when silence was required." However, there was little or no disruption, and the trumpeters were never called on!
There were grandiose speeches by the leading reformers of the day, including some that dragged on. Like all top orators, including John Collins, they were masters at igniting and holding a crowd - and even though it would have been hard for everyone at the huge gathering to hear the speakers, the excitement and the reaction of those within hearing distance would have brought forth great rolls of applause and cheering.
The Dog & Duck Public House (1800-1872c) on Holloway Head at the time of the Grand Midland Demonstration. Behind it was open farm land. The pub was located between Florence Street and Windmill Street which was named for the nearby windmill built by a Mr Chapman the century before. [Image courtesy Library of Birmingham - 19th century artist unknown]
In comparison with the other leading speakers, John Collins' speech was relatively short and to the point. He said he would not dwell on the misdeeds of the Whigs and Tories, or the sad state of affairs which everyone knew all too well when they looked in the faces of their starving children.
He said it was no child's play they were engaged in, no subject to be trifled with, but that it involved what was best for the country as a whole and ultimately the destinies of Europe. He told the cheering crowd he was confident in their support, and there was no doubt of their success so long as they stuck together.
Unfortunately, in one respect, Collins' speech eerily predicted the government's eventual clampdown on the Chartist Movement when he warned that Delegates (elected to represent the people at the National Convention) were at risk for reprisals. He called on the people to stand by their Delegates, to which the crowd responded with cries of "We will." To which Collins added if he were to become a victim, it would not stop him declaring his duty to the cause.
In addition to speeches promoting the National Petition and political reform, the people attending the Grand Midland Demonstration were asked to approve a Resolution appointing Delegates to attend the first ever Chartist Convention, to be held in London the following year.
John Collins and several other BPU leaders were elected Delegates to represent the people of Birmingham. The Resolution stated the General Convention of the Industrious Classes should not exceed forty-nine in number, since more than that made it illegal. Essentially, the purpose of the Convention was the organization and delivery of the National Petition into law.
Resolution was also passed in support of a National Rent to help fund not only the Convention in London, but also to pay those Delegates who went out on lecture tours promoting the new reform movement.
COLLINS - DELEGATE FOR OTHER TOWNS
As Collins traveled to other towns throughout the Midlands and elsewhere, his popularity as a Birmingham leader increased.
In addition to representing Birmingham, he was elected Delegate for Northampton (elected 20 May 1839), Coventry and Cheltenham (elected 24 Jan 1839).
[History of the Chartist Movement, J West]
In spite of a veritable downpour and a four mile walk from Manchester (not to mention banners with threatening words and symbols) the Kersal meeting on the Lancashire moorland was as orderly and successful as the Grand Midland Demonstration in Birmingham. Factories were closed and people poured in from virtually every village in the Lancashire district.
Both sides of the Chartist aisle were in attendance with John Collins (as a moral force man) joining O'Connor and Stephens (physical force men) and several other speakers from major towns including London and Newcastle.
The meeting at the Merseyside town of Liverpool, though apparently not as well attended as Kersal Moor, was well represented by all factions and viewpoints, including a little additional excitement when some rogue speaker interrupted proceedings and attempted to throw the whole into disarray.
Here again, John Collins stood on the platform alongside the likes of O'Connor, Bussey, Lowry, and Cobbett. Collins' speech on universal suffrage and the enormous support of the Birmingham people brought forth much cheering from the crowd gathered on the Old Infirmary Grounds near the Railway Station on Lime Street in Liverpool.
Hartshead Moor (later known as Peep Green) in the West Riding of Yorkshire was the site of yet another huge Chartist meeting. As to be expected there was a plethora of top Yorkshire speakers (O'Connor, Pitkeithly, Stephens, Bussey and White) and more. Many of them talked-up the use of physical force if needed, and Stephens actually advised arming, and he said there were 5,000 armed in his district.
John Collins (the lone representative from Birmingham) and John Fielden the radical Member of Parliament for Oldham, Yorkshire both called for caution and peaceful means to obtain reform, but they were easily outnumbered by the militants of the North. During the course of this meeting Fergus O'Connor and other Delegates were elected to represent the West Riding of Yorkshire at the 1839 National Convention in London.
Like many such 'monster' meetings the numbers in attendance varied depending on Chartist propaganda and newspaper bias. Estimates for Peep Green were anywhere between 30,000 and 300,000! A letter in the Northern Star dated 16th October 1838 put it at even more. Nevertheless, support for the National Petition and the People's Charter was gaining momentum.
In his speech at Hartshead Moor, Collins likened the momentum to " .... a snowball which was first made in Scotland, rolled down one of the mountains, and gradually kicked into England. He had no doubt they would get it to London ..."
Collins talked of the support of the women of Birmingham, who had signed the National Petition and enrolled in their own union. He also referred to the "few rotten £10 sticks " casting aspersions on the House of Commons (the elected body of Parliament) and the middle class voters who qualified for the franchise (under the Reform Act of 1832) through property valued at £10 a year.
The 1832 Reform Bill (or Great Reform Bill as it was known) extended the vote to the middle classes. It benefited the middle class leaders of the Birmingham Political Union but did nothing for the mass of working men they supposedly represented.
Hartshead Moor at Peep Green, West Riding of Yorkshire. Such open places were much favoured by the Chartist Movement, providing space for large crowds away from the watchful eye of the authorities. In those days people were used to walking long distances.
Even so, John Collins commenced regional campaign efforts. On 11 August 1838 at a meeting called by the local town-crier Collins appeared at the Sea Lion Inn, High Street, Hanley in Staffordshire, which resulted in the formation of the Potteries Political Union and their support for the National Petition at a massive demonstration later that year. At Bristol he was once again on the platform with Fergus O'Connor, and at a meeting in Cheltenham John Collins was referred to as one of the apostles of the Chartist Movement.
At a crowded Union meeting on 9th April 1839, Thomas Salt, one of the middle class leaders of the BPU, said the campaign which John Collins had conducted in Scotland had been a total failure. [Birmingham Journal 13 April] The real truth of it was John Collins had been highly successful in motivating the Scots to support the National Petition and join the rising Chartist Movement, so much so that at the end of Collins' tour (even before he returned home to Birmingham) the middle class leaders of the BPU very loudly claimed credit for Scotland's success.
National Rent Committee
In December 1838 John Collins was officially in charge of the Managing Committee for collecting 'National Rent' or funds on behalf of the Birmingham Political Union. National Rent was used to support the activities of the Union, including the Birmingham Delegates elected to attend the General Convention of the Industrious Classes.
In essence the Managing Committee was a breakaway working class group that resented the BPU's middle class leadership.
4 February 1839 saw the assembly of the first General Convention of the Industrious Classes at the British Coffee House, 27 Cockspur Street, in Charing Cross, London, (which is between Pall Mall and The Mall which leads to Buckingham Palace).
Later the Convention met in the hall of Dr Johnson's Tavern, 8 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, London which, as a tavern, would have been less expensive than the coffee house.
The purpose of the Convention (which was the brainchild of the Birmingham Political Union) was to prepare and coordinate the presentation of the National Petition to Parliament, and to take whatever steps legally possible to bring the demands in the Petition into law - including universal suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by ballot, and wages of attendance and abolition of property qualifications for Members of Parliament.
It was at this Convention that The People's Charter (later referred to as The Charter), which was an outline of a parliamentary bill for political reform, was officially launched. It was a defining moment in the beginning of the Chartist Movement, but it also heralded the decline of the Birmingham Political Union when three of the Union's middle class delegates (Douglas, Salt and Hadley) resigned from the Conference due to differences in strategy and opinion (Birmingham Journal 6 April 1839).
On 4th July a "posse" of 60 London police suddenly arrived on the scene, and in their attempts to disperse the crowds in the Bull Ring a riot broke out. Many were hurt and injured. The Convention met the next day and issued a set of Resolutions that condemned the actions of the police and local authorities.
William Lovett, signed the Resolutions, and John Collins, who had chaired the meeting, took the Resolutions to a local printer and arranged for a Bill Sticker to post copies of them all over the town.
As a result Lovett and Collins were arrested and imprisoned for libel and sedition. The irony of it was that two of the most moderately voiced, non-violent men in the Chartist Movement paid the price for the violent rhetoric of Fergus O'Connor and other rabble rousing militants.
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