Sunday, 10 March 2013

Chartist poetry and song in HEART Café

Sheila Chapman writes:
The Voice of the People 9 March, Heart Café

We were all Chartists on Saturday night. We listened to a talk about their movement, their beliefs and their values, we listened to their poetry/lyrics, we discussed their ideals amongst ourselves during the break, we sang their 'hymns' and we endorsed their six-point charter demanding suffrage for the working man with three rousing cheers.

Jeff Beaumont, Ian Parks, Richard Wilcocks, John Hutton
Ian Parks, drawing on research for his new anthology of Chartist poetry The Voice of the People, evoked not only the history and intellectual core of the Chartists but also their humanity and their love of poetry. The Chartists were the voice of the people but their poetry cannot be found in anthologies of English verse - it was poetry by the people for the people and it is largely ignored. 

For the Chartists, poetry was not an inaccessible 'highbrow' activity but an essential part of their movement. The movement grew out of unrest about the conditions of the working classes, the restriction of suffrage to the middle and upper classes and various oppressive measures such as the Poor Law of 1834. 

They spread their message in a number of ways: through mass meetings e.g. the Kennington Common meeting of 1848 (the first crowd photograph ever was taken of this meeting); through smaller local meetings; through discussion groups and through newspapers - now more widely available because of reduced taxation. Poetry was an important of the message. It was published in their newspapers, it was written in response to important events and it formed the lyrics for their songs. Song was a binding force in the movement and it was underpinned by poetry.

Ian's talk was accompanied by sung poems. These songs (vocalist Richard Wilcocks, with Jeff Beaumont, mandolin, and John Hutton, guitar) were set to the tunes actually used by the Chartists and where these were unavailable alternative appropriate tunes had been sourced. The songs roused us today as they would have roused the Chartists of the mid nineteenth century. As one member of the audience said, they made sense of the Chartist poems. One such song was called The Steam King by Edward P Mead sung to the tune of We Plough the Fields and Scatter. It contains memorable lines such as:

There is a King, and a ruthless King;
Not a King of the poet's dream:
But a tyrant fell, white slaves know well,
And that ruthless King is Steam.

Like the ancient Moloch grim, his sire
In Himmon's vale that stood,
His bowels are of living fire,
And children are his food.

We listened to these songs as Ian unfolded the history of the Chartists. There were two tendencies within the movement. William Lovett espoused the 'moral force' tendency arguing that working men would get the vote through self improvement, temperance and hard work while Feargus O'Connor was more revolutionary and supported the 'physical force' tendency calling for direct action and armed insurrection. The activities of the Chartists reflected these two tendencies ranging from: peaceful mass demonstrations and petitions to parliament, to the Newport rising in November 1839, in which 22 Chartists were shot dead by soldiers. The poetry also reflected these tendencies some of it being 'quietist' and some more revolutionary.

The poetry appeared in Chartist newspapers and notably in The Northern Star newspaper edited out of Leeds and owned by Feargus O'Connor. Every edition of this eight page newspaper carried a page of poetry.

The Chartist movement culminated in its final petition, with six million signatures (although a number of these were later found to be fake), presented to Parliament on 10th April 1848 after the huge meeting on Kennington Common.

The demands of the Chartists were
1. A vote for every man over the age of 21;
2. A secret ballot;
3. No property qualification for members of Parliament;
4. Payment for MPs (so poor men could serve);
5. Constituencies of equal size;
6. Annual elections for Parliament.
None of these demands were granted during the lifetimes of most Chartists, and Chartism gradually faded away, or was absorbed into other movements, but all of us now take the first five of their demands for granted. 

We ended the night singing (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) the chorus of All Hail Fraternal Democrats written in 1846 by John Arnott, who was General Secretary of the National Charter Association, and a noted singer:

That mitres, thrones, misrule and wrong, 
Shall from this earth be hurled, 
And peace, goodwill, and brotherhood, 
Extend throughout the world. 

All in all this was a moving, educational and uplifting evening! Thankyou to Ian, Richard, Jeff and John.


  1. You look to have got off to a
    very good start!

  2. Both thought-provoking and entertaining. Ian paced his commentary very well, giving us enough of the background to understand the passion in the poems, some sung to appropriate music. An original presentation!

  3. Wonderful singing!