To the Working Men of England [Shortly after the liberation of John Collins from Warwick Gaol.]
"By the liberation of our friends, W Lovett and J Collins, a new era in the march of infant liberty has commenced; the principles and conduct of these devoted men have already excited the bosoms of millions those feelings of gratitude and veneration, so beautifully expressed in the words of Job, 'When the ear hears them, it blesses them; when the eye sees them, it bears witness to them.' Their influence will call into action the elements of intelligence which the past year of seeming sleep has, like nature's winter, been preparing. Anticipation points us to the glorious position we shall occupy in a few months, when our present dignity shall be illuminated by the light that our liberated friends will throw upon it."
Arthur O'Neill, Birmingham Journal, August 15 1840
Like all imprisoned Chartists and militants, the working class public saluted them and their victimized families. Upon John Collins' release from Warwick Gaol on Saturday 25th July 1840 a crowd of family, friends and well-wishers met him outside the prison gates. He and his friend and co-prisoner, William Lovett, were subsequently wined and dined by the Warwick Chartists.
Later, the two men visited the Whig Member of Parliament for Warwick who had championed their cause for better prison treatment; Lovett was seen off to London; and Collins and his wife and family were entertained by 120 dinner guests, including delegates from various towns, at the Saracens Head on Parkes Street in Warwick.
The following Monday Collins received a true hero's welcome when 70,000 people turned out to welcome him into Birmingham. The Commissioner of Police cooperated with the organizers and promised the police would not interfere with the welcoming demonstration so long as there was no disturbance.
There was a grand procession that stretched over two miles along the Warwick Road and into the town, where Collins made a speech at an outdoor venue at Gosta Green. (Lovett declined an invitation to attend, having been advised against it by Francis Place acting on behalf of Lovett's wife. ) This was followed by a public dinner for 800 people in Collins' honour given on the grounds of the future People's Hall on Loveday Street.
The Chartists Return
"The whig-government have repeatedly boasted that they have put down the chartists; but it seems they have scotched the snake, not killed it. It [Chartism] still preserves all the principles of vitality; and, in some parts of the country, appears to be determined again to bring them into troublesome action. In London, the release of John Collins and William Lovett from prison was made the pretext of public entertainment the other day, at which the Queen's health was received with hisses and uproar; .. .. At Birmingham, too, and Manchester, symptoms of a revival agitation are to be seen; .. .."
The Hull Packet - Friday August 21 1840.
In August 1840 Collins and Lovett were honored at a dinner at the White Conduit House in London. It was an impressive event attended by over 1,250 guests including Members of Parliament Thomas Wakley and Thomas Duncombe whose efforts had helped bring about improved conditions for the two prisoners. Upon entering the room Lovett and Collins were hailed "with the most enthusiastic cheering and affectionate demonstration of respect and esteem...."
When it was time for Collins to speak he was received with the "most rapturous delight, and he said he could scarcely command his feelings so as to address the meeting in anything like plain and intelligible language."
Not surprisingly, Collins had lost weight during his brutal twelve months' imprisonment, but in his usual self-effacing style he did not dwell on his own personal suffering. Instead he talked of his friend and co-prisoner's spirit and endurance. Collins pointedly told of the deceitful conduct of the Warwick Magistrates who had published outdated dietary tables and claimed the prisoners' petition regarding their treatment was greatly exaggerated.
Collins said he was sure the right of his and Lovett's principles helped them cope with the many indignities heaped on them, and that they had "smiled" at the Magistrates' petty tyranny and attempts to "crush" them - to which there was much cheering, and "hear, hear" throughout Collins' speech.
Within a month of Collins' release his influence and good judgement was felt when certain strange proceedings threatened to make a mockery of Chartist activities in Birmingham. Thomas Attwood's brother, Charles Attwood, who was dubbed the "hair brained theoretician," (British Workingclass Movement & Europe 1815-48, p 105 Weisser) called a public meeting at Holloway Head specifically to impeach the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, on charges of treason! It was a ridiculous charge, not least because it muddied the waters and detracted from the Chartist Movement. In spite of reported flattery and financial reward to join the Palmerston witch hunt, John Collins let it be known at a pre-meeting held on 8th August 1839 at Dee's Hotel & Posting House on Temple Row that he opposed the Palmerston action.
In usual Collins' fashion he armed himself with facts and figures to refute the charges. On the day of the public meeting at Holloway Head he proved himself a strong-minded, independent thinker when he, and other influental Chartists, voiced opposition even though Charles Attwood asked him not to do so. When Attwood took his turn to speak the shout went up: "we don't believe you!" Attwood was defeated and a resolution was passed to agitate for nothing but universal suffrage. Such was the people's continuing trust and respect for John Collins.
Collins brought forth gales of laughter and cheering when he referred to a Manchester newspaper he had read that morning that said "Collins was again blowing the dying embers of Birmingham Chartism to a blaze."
To the delight of the audience Collins said if the display of support in Manchester was anything to go by it did not require much blowing on his part to blow Chartism in Manchester into a blaze!
Yorkshire men were equally supportive, and even though their own chartist hero Feargus O'Connor was incarcerated in York Castle they made sure to recognize and welcome Collins and other Chartist ex-prisoners McDouall and White.
In Leeds, a notice in the Northern Star informed the radicals and working men of that Yorkshire town there was to be a dinner honoring Collins and the others to be held in the Music Saloon at precisely 8 o'clock on the evening of 7th September. Headed "Universal Suffrage and No Surrender" the notice said the "Victims to the brutal treatment of the the cowardly and dastardly Whigs" had been released from their dungeons!
Similar events were planned in Middleton, Bradford, Bolton, York and a dozen more towns.
It was said [Northern Star & Leeds General, Aug 29 1840] that O'Connor, the owner of the newspaper, had written a letter from his prison cell in which he exhorted the people to name their children after him and other Chartist leaders, and that the people "have complied with this request and hundreds of children, both male and female, have been christened Fergus O'Connor, Collins, Vincent, etc, etc."
This was followed by a very personal and feeling speech in which Collins spoke from the heart. He talked of the distress and misery of the working class, and not knowing if this could be the fate of his own children, he had come out in the public cause - and he had done so knowing there would be a cost. He talked of his thoughts in prison about his wife, and urged the audience not to forget the wives and families of their own imprisoned townsmen because nothing more could ease a prisoner's mind than knowing his family did not starve.
John Collins was no stranger to Scottish soil. Prior to imprisonment he had successfully campaigned for the suffrage and the National Petition in numerous towns and villages across the border. Nor had the hard working Scots forgotten him, and he soon embarked on a tour of Scotland where they celebrated him - and his wife - in the utmost style. [Northern Star 3 & 10 Oct 1840].
Thickly attended meetings (4,000 in Strathaven) were held in his honour in public rooms, halls, chartist churches, even a school-room, and the venues were invariably decked out with banners and portraits of chartist heroes. Music too played an important part of the Scottish tour, and Collins was frequently honoured with performances of Robert Burns' best loved songs such as 'Scots Wha Hae' (Scots Who Have) and 'A Man's a Man for All That.'
Edinburgh At a dinner for 200 at the Calton Convening Room in Edinburgh, the ladies presented Collins with an engraved gold ring and a green cravat embroidered in silk. Collins tells of the unethical tactics of the crown prosecution at his trial. How they used weapons and treasonous language to sway the jury. That same evening, 2,000 came out to attend a meeting at Dunedin Hall where Collins gave a humorous and powerful speech.
Link to the National Library of Scotland - Map Images
Stirling A month later and Collins was still doing the rounds in Scotland. This time he was in Stirling near the iconic Battle of Bannockburn where the Scots won a key victory over the English long ago.
In the hall of the Corn Exchange Hotel, with its six beautiful chandeliers and seating for several hundred men and women, Collins addressed a delighted audience "with his pointed remarks and humorous anecdotes."
Blairgowrie Even when Collins was noticeably unwell he was determined to travel and attended a celebration in Blairgowrie, a town at the gateway to the Scottish Highlands. Like previous events, his reception at Blairgowrie was no less spectacular. By prior arrangement Collins and fellow Chartist White arrived at the Wallace Hotel having traveled from Perth in the Defiance Coach. After dining at the Hotel they were taken "at a rattling pace" in a "handsome carriage and pair, with postilion in rich livery" to meet up with the procession.
People had walked a mile to greet the Chartist patriots, and upon Collins' arrival at Blairgowrie there were hearty cheers, a band of music, banners waving, and two Highland pipers who led the procession through the town and onto The Green.
This was followed by the proverbial "soiree" held in the Hall of an impressive pile of new buildings lent for the occasion by one of the largest manufacturers in the area before an audience that included brawny Highlanders and wealthy businessmen!
In Glasgow the reception in honour of Collins was quite extraordinary. Numerous groups had worked together, ensuring a wonderful welcome as thousands poured in from surrounding districts. In an amazing display, over 40 trades and bands from the area came out to greet Collins, his wife and another Chartist named White upon their arrival. People did not know much about White, but when the carriage opened up and Collins stood up the response was deafening. Crowds lined the road into the distance, and people swarmed around the carriage to shake Collins' hand and his lady wife. If there was ever any doubt that John Collins lacked a sense of humour, it could be laid to rest on this occasion when he reportedly said to the women vying for his hand that he wished they had one mouth so that he could kiss them all in one go - which brought forth much laughter and cheering!
At a grand soiree that evening for Collins, White and Peter McDouall the chairman Mr William C Pattison (of the steam-engine makers union who worked to unite the trades and chartist associations in Lanarkshire) said they all knew John Collins - honest John Collins - and that he must be styled "the father of agitation." [Northern Star, 26 September 1840]
People's Hall - Artist rendition
Elevation Princip & Loveday Streets
People's Hall - Scaled back
"In 1840 a group of Birmingham artisans announced that they intended to build a People's Hall of Science on Loveday Street containing a library, a lecture room, school rooms, reading rooms, committee rooms, dinner and tea or refreshment rooms, and kitchen and other conveniences for the use and instruction and amusement of the people and the improvement of their understanding, morals and health and for promoting their rational enjoyments."
[British History Online]
The People's Hall of Science was designed by Joseph Hansom (of Birmingham Town Hall and Hansom Cab fame), and the architect was William Ford of Birmingham. When the building was finally completed (there are several conflicting dates for this) on the corner of Princip and Loveday Streets, it was considerably scaled back from the original sketch, probably due to costs. The Birmingham Journal said events were being held in the People's Hall in July 1843, and other reports indicate it opened earlier still.
It cost £2,400 to build and was used for lectures, public meetings, trades and friendly societies, tea parties, etc at a low rate. At some point they tried concerts, but that failed to interest working people. Another time it was used as a temporary place of worship until completion of the unitarian Church of the Saviour.
In 1849 the People's Hall was sold (The Building News, June 1860) to a Mr Greenway for commercial use, its original purpose having been abandoned. It became known as The People's Hall Works. Later it was taken over by a Mr Gill.
Having become greatly influenced by "Bible Chartism" (aka "Christian Chartism") John Collins is credited along with Arthur O'Neill of Glasgow with founding the Chartist Church at 32 Newhall Street, opposite the Newhall Coal Wharf, in Birmingham after Collins' release from prison [History of Chartism, J West]. O'Neill was a well-liked Chartist lecturer and preacher in Scotland, and his views and beliefs lined up with Collins' approach to political reform
As "moral force" organizer behind the Great Glasgow Demonstration of May 1838 Collins developed a relationship with O'Neill, a member of the Church of Scotland's first Central Committee. In July 1840 O'Neill was sent to Birmingham to represent the Glasgow Chartists at the celebrations of Collins' release from prison. [Birmingham Journal, 1 August 1840], and O'Neill gave a rousing speech at Collins' celebration dinner. Later that year, when the two men met again in Glasgow, Scotland, Collins invited O'Neill to join him in running the Chartist Church in Birmingham [Looking at History, Richard Brown].
Christian Chartist Programme
In any event, the Newhall Street Church opened on 27 December 1840 and was the most famous of the Chartist Churches until it closed down several years later. The Church combined moderate, democratic thought together with knowledge, morality and temperance. Collins was not a member of the Teetotal Movement, but in the book he and William Lovett wrote they promoted temperance in the form of "drink free" halls and recreation.
The Newhall Street Church had schools for children and young men, and also supported its own benevolent sick club (Historical Series #31 University of Manchester). It had a respectable attendance and was made up largely of upper working class artisans. The Chartist Church attracted the support of like-minded christians associated with the Chartist Movement such as Henry Vincent who was said to be a visiting preacher at the Chartist Church in Birmingham, and whose arrest in Wales helped contribute to the Newport Rebellion. One supporter called himself a 'Christian Socialist' [History of the Chartist Movement, J West].
Arthur O'Neill and John Collins ran the Birmingham Chartist Church on Newhall Street (O'Neill's story is told in The Chartist Prisoners by Stephen Roberts) and they and their church events frequently appeared in the newspapers. In February 1841 the local newspaper reported Collins chaired a Tea Party meeting at which the ladies of the church presented O'Neill with a fancy waistcoat, and on another occasion reported the church was so full that a number of females fainted during a funeral service!
Support for Colliers & Chartist Prisoners
In March 1841 Pastors John Collins & Arthur O'Neill and Deacons Benjamin Hill & George Style of the Birmingham Chartist Church petitioned the British House of Commons calling for the early released of Chartist prisoner Henry Hetherington. He had been imprisoned for publishing blasphemous letters, the content of which the Chartist Church "highly disapproved" but nevertheless defended his right to freedom of speech.
During the South Staffordshire colliers' strike of 1842, the Committee for collecting donations for the strikers sat in the Church schoolroom every evening, and in September of that year the Birmingham Chartist Church offered bail (which was turned down) for the Chartist prisoner, George White. O'Neill was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in August 1843 after attending a government-prohibited strikers' meeting at which he said he refused to pay income tax to a government that wasted money on wars.
Upon emerging twelve months later from Stafford Gaol, O'Neill resumed as pastor of the Chartist Church which had survived during his incarceration. However, in 1846 O'Neill and the congregation underwent a religious conversion, becoming a Baptist Chapel with premises on Livery Street. The following year they returned to Newhall Street joining up with Zion Baptist Chapel, at number 34½ on the east side of the street (Osbornes Guide 1838 and Kelly's Post Office Dir, 1878). The Chartist Church had finally ceased to be.
Collins perceived Household Suffrage to be a compromise (not unlike the 1832 Great Reform Bill that gave the vote to the middle class but not the working masses), and akin to enfranchising the people by installments.
As a result he at first declined an invitation from the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association to speak at a festival the purpose of which was to bring together all classes of Reformers in a show of unity demanding Household Suffrage and the repeal of the Corn Laws.
Following the exchange of letters (to the right), Collins and fellow preacher Arthur O'Neill did attend the Leeds Reform Festival on Thursday 21 January 1841, bringing with them much of the political weight of the Chartists of Birmingham who had publicly elected them.
In spite of the above civil exchange of letters between Collins and the LPRA, there was an innate sense of mistrust on the part of working men for the middle class men who had organized the Leeds festival for "friendly debate" on the merits of Household Suffrage.
Consequently, the leading Chartists of the day held a procession and counter-demonstration on Holbeck Moor at which resolutions were passed to continue agitation for the People's Charter and Universal Suffrage. So by the time the NPRA festival got under way at Marshall's Mill the crowd of several thousand was all fired up.
As expected, when it was John Collins' turn, he advocated Universal Suffrage saying he rejected the doctrine of expediency "that if we cannot get all we want, let us get all we can." He had been entrusted with an address, which O'Neill read out, that the people of Birmingham stood on principle, and Collins called on the patriotism of the middle classes who already had the protection of the franchise, to extend that power to their poorer fellow men. And, for those who feared giving the vote to the people, Collins pointed to the success of the system in America.
Following their release from Warwick Gaol, William Lovett and John Collins spoke at various public meetings of their intent to form a National Association of the United Kingdom as soon as their health and circumstances permitted. [Northern Star May 1st 1841] Accordingly, they wrote to the leading radicals and working men's associations in different parts of the country asking them to join in forming the proposed association based upon the plan set forth in their little work entitled Chartism (A New Organization of the People) including education and people's halls." The so-called "little work" was written in Warwick Gaol, and published after Lovett and Collins' release in 1840.
London, 183, Tottenham Court Road
The following Address is intended to be submitted to all the leading Chartists throughout the kingdom that we can have access to, in order to obtain their signatures, when it will be printed and published as their joint address; previous to which it will be considered a breach of honour for any individual to cause its publication. It is also intended that the persons signing it shall form a provisional board of management for six or twelve months, (as may be deemed advisable,) to aid in forming the association by the sale of cards, or otherwise, after which the board of management is to be elected by the members according to the rules and regulations. By returning this to Mr Lovett, 183, Tottenham Court Road, signed or otherwise, by return of post, you will oblige.
The National Association of the United Kingdom became known as Education Chartism, or Knowledge Chartism. Unfortunately, the Association came in for a deal of sneering and angry criticism from Fergus O'Connor and the Northern Star who denounced the scheme as a worthless "New Move." O'Connor belonged to a similar fledgling organization called the National Charter Association (NCA) which Lovett and Collins were unwilling to join because there were concerns regarding the NCA's legal status (Leeds Times May 1 & 10 1841).
O'Connor ridiculed the People's Halls (venues for the education of working people and general public meetings) and condemned Lovett and Collins for forming a separate association. He believed their "New Move" would detract from the Chartist Movement. This in turn caused several leading members to withdraw from the National Association of the United Kingdom. Henry Hetherington, a leading London Chartist refused to be intimidated, and he staunchley defended the "Lovett and Collins' Address" publicly calling the defectors poltroons and imbeciles!
Throughout 1842 John Collins lectured in support of complete suffrage in many towns in England and Scotland including Glasgow's city hall (before 1,200 and several town councilors), Paisley (2,000 in attendance), and in Pollockshaw where Collins spoke in "his best style" and a Complete Suffrage Association was formed.
Meanwhile, Fergus O'Connor, a demagogue who persistently wrested leadership of the Chartist Movement from potential rivals and competitors, insinuated the members of the CSU had dishonest intentions and in particular denounced its leader, Joseph Sturge, as "cunning tool." [Memoirs of Joseph Sturge by Henry Richard] In typical soap-box fashion, O'Connor called the CSU "the Complete Humbug."
The Queen's Hospital, Birmingham, Meeting of Artizans
"Mr John Collins rose to move the first resolution. He commenced congratulating the Chairman on presiding at the meeting called for so excellent a purpose, and also expressed his delight at seeing so many of his fellow-workmen present. That however was no more than he expected, for he knew the benevolence of the men of Birmingham, and that they all contributed towards a good object so far as their means allowed them.
"Hospitals they were aware, were erected for the reception of persons afflicted with disease, or who met with serious accidents in following their trades Those noble institutions afforded them relief from mental anguish, and removed their disease. He knew several individuals who had been obliged to have recourse to the Queen's Hospital, and they all spoke in the highest terms of the kindness and attention paid to them by the officers, who at the same time regretted that, from the confined state of the funds of the institution they could not not, in some instances, order for them things which were indispensably necessary.
"He felt sure that the working classes would not suffer such a state of things to continue. He found that during the four years the hospital had been in existence 14,376 cases had been registered - and for the first six months no register had been kept.
"He found also that the medical and surgical officers had given up no less a sum that 2220 shillings of their fees, for which the public owed them a deep debt of gratitude.
"Mr Collins concluded by moving a resolution recognizing the utility of hospitals, regretting the state of the Queen's Hospital and pledging all present to support it."
(Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 30 November 1846).
In 1847 John Collins was elected Town Councillor for Birmingham, which gave him an opportunity to help curb council spending.
The following year he was renting premises on Livery Street for the purpose of carrying on business as a Grocer and Provisions Dealer for which the well-known Chartist, Feargus O'Connor accused Collins of joining the middle classes! By 1851 Collins was in decline and no longer able to do business because of illness.
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