Feargus O'Connor, Tour of the North in the Northern Star

Picture of Feargus O'Connor

Fergus O'Connor was born in 1800 and died in 1855. He was the most important leader of the Chartist movement of the late 1830s and 1840s. The historian Dorothy Thompson said of him, 'remove him and his newspaper [the Northern Star] from the picture, and the movement fragments, localises and loses its continuity'. He has long suffered from being judged as a conventional British politician; given his propensity for rows with colleagues, not to mention the inglorious end to his career when he only escaped prosecution for attacking another MP in the House of Commons by being declared insane, it is perhaps unsurprising that his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography concludes that 'the absolute failure of chartism may indeed be traced very largely to his position in the movement'. His greatest contribution was made not in the coffee houses of radical London but on public platforms around the country, and this required remarkable mobility.

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GENTLEMEN, — To you I dedicate my nine days tour in order to prove your oft-repeated assertions — while I show you at the same time, that your practice has in nowise corresponded with your theory. Your theory is, that moral force is quite sufficient to effect all necessary changes; to this I subscribe, while I assert that your want of moral courage, your want of energy, and your denuncia- tion of better men than yourselves, has made the words moral force synonymous with — bear patiently, wait submissively, endure slavery, turn not upon your op- pressors, and the like. The sum and substance of your advice reminds me of the nurse's appeal to the child — "Open your mouth and shut your eyes, and see what God will send you." In making my recent tour to Scotland and the North of England, I had two objects in view:— Firstly, I resolved to defend myself in person against the charges of some of your fraternity; and secondly, I thought it of vast importance that the public mind should be set right upon the subject of Mr. STEPHENS's arrest — not as regarded Mr. STEPHENS himself, because the feeling of the country was sufficiently expressed upon the general feeling that had been formed of that great and excellent man. But, gentlemen, you will bear in mind, that the Tory press, wishing to smother the question of Universal Suffrage, attributed Mr. STEPHENS's arrest, and the whole of our agitation, to an opposition to the poor Law Amendment Act. In this course I saw the seeds of dissension which were likely to be sown between the Universal Suffrage Radicals and the Poor Law Amendment party, consisting of different shades of politicians; and still further, I saw the consequences which were likely to arise, if our Scotch brethren imbibed the notion that English agitation was but for the purpose of repealing a law which did not effect [sic] them, instead of ensuring a state of things which would prevent a recurrence of such an enactment. I found that I had not made a wrong calculation; for some of the Scotch Malthusians, who are opposed to the Suffrage, had made the best use of the perfidy of the English press, by endeavouring to separate the Radicals of Scotland from those of England. I succeeded, however, in convincing our Northern brethren that neither the government, the Whigs, the Tories, or the Moneymongers, felt the same interest in the question of the Poor Laws that they do in the question of questions — Universal Suffrage. As it would be im- possible to give anything like a report of my tour and the proceedings at each place, I offer for your perusal the following condensed narrative. After having worked for fifteen days without intermission in London, in Bristol, and in Manchester, I proceeded on Saturday morning, the 5th inst. at half past eleven o'clock from Leeds on my way to the North. I travelled to Berwick, a distance of 160 miles, without stopping. On Monday morning, at ten o'clock, started for Edinburgh. On our way, the storm raged so fiercely, that at one time, had it not been for the promptness with which one of my fellow travellers let down the glass of the carriage, we must have been blown over, and precipitated a distance of from three to four hundred feet into the sea. There was no defence — the horses were unmanageable, and we were upon the brink. So violent was the storm in that exposed part of the country, that the coachman was obliged to tie himself upon the box, while the coach was trimmed with the luggage. From the spot to which I refer we saw a vessel labouring in great distress — losing sight of her occasionally for four or five minutes, and every now and then, the sea breaking over her masts with indescribable fury. It is impossible to convey any notion of our feelings upon the reappearance of the vessel; and all seemed to forget personal danger in the apprehension entertained for the sufferers.

At four o'clock; arrived in Edinburgh, saw some of my friends and companions, the poor, and industrious, honest, and useful people. At eight o'clock, proceeded to the Freemasons' Hall, where from seven to nine hundred well-dressed respectable men and women has assembled at a soiree, in compliment to my humble self. I was cheerfully received, and rejoiced that I had merited the approbation of so many worthy individuals. The affair passed off as parties of a similar character always do, with good breeding, harmony, and satisfaction. When I rose to defend myself, I was acquitted before I spoke. You have seen a report of the speeches, but in justice to the speakers, I must acknowledge its insufficiency. Mr. SANKEY, delegate for Edinburgh, and master of Arts of Cambridge, made one of the most classical and eloquent speeches I have ever heard, and produced upon all, your humble servant included, a most powerful effect. Mr. SANKEY is a man in middle age, of extremely prepossessing appearance, and highly gifted by nature: to a voice full and melodious, is added graceful action and an appearance of extreme earnestness. I consider the working men of Edinburgh most fortunate in holding the undividing confidence of such a man. The people know when their superiors in rank mix with them from choice, and when to serve a purpose. Mr. SANKEY, eminently qualified to shine in any society, seems more at home with the operative than with the operative's master; from the one he learns virtue, to the other he could not impart it. Mr. WILSON, an operative, of Leith followed Mr. SANKEY, and quite astonished us, as well by his eloquence, as by his originality and cutting sarcasm. He, too, made a most powerful speech. We sat to a late hour, all going off beautifully and orderly, when not observing any of my accusers present, I gave notice that I would address the people of Edinburgh on the following night, when I expected those who denounced me in my absence, would substantiate their charges in my presence. On Tuesday, I received addresses from the Radicals of various towns, transacted some business with the committee, and had the pleasure of dining with Mr. W. TAIT, of whom, for the present, I shall not treat, as it is my intention next week to give the opinion which I have formed of this man, not suffi- ciently known to the world. Mr. TAIT accompanied me to the place of meeting, and was loudly cheered upon making his appearance. The room was crowded to suffocation, and our valuable and honest friend, DUNCAN — JOHN, not ABRAHAM — was again unanimously called to the chair. Hearing that FRASER and DUNCAN were present, I entered into the question of the Edinburgh resolutions, addressed the meeting at considerable length, justifying my conduct and the conduct of Mr. STEPHENS, to the entire satisfaction of the meeting. Mr. FRASER then came forward, and was received with cheers for his manliness. He evidently felt the awkward position in which he was placed, for that fluency so peculiar to FRASER when a Radical, had now deserted him, his words not yet being suited glibly to the expression of his newly-adopted principles. He was there, however, as a man, while the traitor, DUNCAN, dared not face the storm of his own gathering. In vain did FRASER try to creep out of the responsibility which the traitorous motions had imposed upon him;—in vain did he compliment O'CONNOR, and endeavour to heal the wound inflicted upon STEPHENS;— in vain did he hope that a half apology would satisfy the insulted feelings of his own townsmen, for his every allusion to the Carlton Hill resolutions was met by a hedge- fire of groans and hisses. When FRASER concluded I replied, and, as the meeting thought, successfully and tri- umphantly; after which the following resolutions were proposed and carried, with three hands only held up against the last. I insert the resolutions below, as, from the last number of the Star , it would appear as though they had emanated from the Soiree; but, on the contrary, they were the result of a meeting of which FRASER and his friends had due notice. FRASER did not attempt any amendment, but he proposed a substantive resolution, to the effect that moral force was sufficient to carry Universal Suffrage, and mixed up with it something like the same sentiments expressed in the Carlton Hill resolutions; and to one fact I beg most particularly to draw your attention. FRASER declared that he would vote for a motion declaring the Carlton Hill resolutions "injudicious" , if we did not rescind them. Here was self-condemnation with vengeance. For FRASER's resolution about five hands were held up, out of a meeting of between 1,500 and 2000; and not 20 hands for and 200 hands against him as he has stated in the True Scotsman . The meeting broke up at a very late hour, highly delighted with what had been done, and I got to bed at half-past three o'clock. On Wednesday, I rose at eight o'clock, started for Glasgow at twelve, and Paisley at six, and now I come to the most important part of my tour. Dr. BREWSTER, a Minister of the Scotch Kirk, resides at Paisley. He is the parson who gained some popularity with one party, and incurred the odium of another party for having attended a public dinner given to Mr. DANIEL O'CONNELL when Mr. O'CONNELL was supposed to be a Radical, and now that the said DANIEL has turned a nondescript, the said BREWSTER, not having the same versatile powers as the said DANIEL has, completely lost himself in the O'CONNELL maze. BREWSTER was the delegate from Paisley to Carlton Hill, and BREWSTER was most loud in his denunciation of myself, STEPHENS, and the English Radicals. I took no part whatever in getting up the meeting which was to decide between BREWSTER and the question of Universal Suffrage. The only notice which I gave of my intention to visit Paisley was a notice to readers in the Northern Star . Upon my arrival at Paisley, I was met by the worthy working men, and by large numbers from the spirited village of Barrhead and others in the neighbourhood. I was told that a meeting was convened in the Philosophical Hall, by tickets issued by, and to Mr. BREWSTER's friends; a Mr. Baillie HENDERSON was sent to pump me, but he found his mistake, and seemed rather taken by surprise. Hearing that the Hall was crammed and many outside, a deputation waited upon the managers of the Old Low Church, an immense building, the result was that, being occupied till ten, we were informed that after that hour it was at our service. I was requested to wait until ten, when a person came to say that the meeting was becoming most impatient. My friends again, and again, requested of me not to go to the Philosophical Hall, and hazard a decision involving the whole question of Universal Suffrage, at a packed meeting. I replied that, whoever wished might follow me, for if I went alone I would meet BREWSTER wherever he was to be found. I accordingly went to the Hall, and was received with deafening cheers — it was overflowing. BREWSTER was well backed by his friends, but the body of the meeting overawed them, and before I had spoken ten minutes, assigning my reasons for being there, BREWSTER and his crew, many of whom were the young Church Tories of Paisley, appeared thunderstruck. Hope gave way to despair, and when BREWSTER, one of the most confident, insolent bullying-men in existence rose to reply, I found that I had paralyzed him and began to feel contemptible at a triumph over so insignificant a foe. He complained at the smallness of the jury which he had empanelled, and asked for an adjournment. I at once consented, and requested him to name time and place, when BREWSTER himself named that night. The question of adjournment was put and carried unanimously, when BREWSTER declared that he had no chance with a practised orator, and more especially with one, who, in the course of a few minutes, had completely secured the ears and the feelings of the meeting. He literally refused to go to the Low Church. When BREWSTER was addressing me, he called me Mr. O'CONNELL, whereupon the whole meeting hissed and groaned. And now I am about to recount the feelings of DANIEL's coadjutor with reference to Irish justice:— "Aye, aye," said this serpent, "I mention Mr. O'CONNELL's name, he is a friend of mine, but I am not for Irish agitation , as I am against Ireland being placed upon an equality with England, and England must always be in an ascendant." To the honour of Scotchmen, I must say, the groans which followed this statement of opinion, were the most awful I ever heard, and the doctor, feeling his position, began to get alarmed. After various entreaties and promises of protection to my accuser in his own town, occupying the office of Christian Minister, which, if honestly discharged, would have given him a great advantage over a stranger, I failed in all attempts to bring the pious agitator to Church , the congregation not suiting his taste or purpose; and so, indeed, he de- clared.

I proceeded to the place of meeting, and, for the first time in the annals of jurisprudence, the prisoner was the only party in Court. In vain did I call for my accusers; none daring to answer, I addressed the meeting for about two hours, exposing the weakness and perfidy of BREWSTER and his gang, and asserting that BREWSTER and his moral cheats were the cause of STEPHENS's arrest. Several cheers were given for STEPHENS, when Baillie HENDERSON stood in the midst of the storm like a dripping statue, asking loud and oft for a hearing. He talked some incoherent nonsense for a few minutes, and after a most clumsy appeal to the passions of his hearers, he cautioned them against rescinding the Carlton Hill resolutions; all appeals, however, were fruitless; the following short but pithy resolution was put and carried almost unanimously:— "That the Carlton Hill resolutions be rescinded." I must in justice state that Mr. PATTERSON, the Chairman of both meetings, at the Philosophical hall and in the church, showed the utmost boldness, patience, and impartiality. He is a glorious, fine- looking, and determined Radical; and in the present discomfited state of the moral philosophers, we anticipate great strength to our party by the assistance of such a man. I remained with my friends at Paisley, about 120 sitting down to refreshment, till half past two o'clock in the morning; and then, having spent a delightful morning, afternoon, and night, I proceeded to Glasgow, and got to bed at a little before four having travelled sixty miles, and been in crowded meetings for six hours of that day. On Thursday, rose early, received and answered several invitations and addresses. The good men of Glasgow had provided a glorious mental banquet for that night. The town was posted with bills, announcing that I should that night address the people on the subject of Mr. STEPHENS's arrest, and other matters, in the Great Bazaar, admission 2d. each. Mark that, Gentlemen, these bad times. I had invited Dr. BREWSTER to come to Glasgow, if he required a larger jury. He did come, and now hear the result. The Bazaar, capable of containing seven thousand persons, was crowded to suffocation at twopence each. The good and excellent JAMES MOIR was unanimously called to the chair. The Whigs and the Tories flocked in hundreds, and never did human being behold a more glorious spectacle. It was arranged that BREWSTER should take his own course, provided that he could rest satisfied with the decision of the jury. He replied that he would first see. When I entered the building, it shook with cheers; when BREWSTER appeared, he was received with cheers, and groans that lulled them. After the Chairman had opened the meeting in an admirable and straightfor- ward address, BREWSTER presented himself, and was again cheered and hissed. He would and he wouldn't. He would like to speak, but not to allow the meeting to decide, as it could not speak the sentiment of all Glasgow, and it was not composed of exactly the materials which he could wish. After much valuable time lost in listening to the sophistry of this pious Radical, it was put to the meeting whether or not he should be heard, when, upon the show of hands, it was decided that he should not be heard. I was then called for, and commenced by informing the meeting of Mr. BREWSTER's opinion with respect to Irish Justice, and whereupon the rush to the platform was so great, and the groaning and hissing so tremendous — at once giving the lie to DANIEL's oft repeated charge against the Radicals — that the Doctor's life became in danger. For several minutes it was impossible to restore order; repeated cries of kick him out, turn him out, throw him out, the traitor — interrupted the proceedings, till at length the storm so raged that Mr. Moral Philosopher BREWSTER retreated, without his hat, through the back door, amidst the execration of assembled thousands. I then proceeded to enter upon my defence, and the defence of STEPHENS and the English Radicals, which I did so far successfully, as to produce the resolutions unanimously, which will be found below. Many other speeches, and good ones, were made, after which I was presented with an address from Auchairn, which will be found in the eighth page, to which I replied; and after a vote of thanks to the Chairman, three cheers for STEPHENS and other friends to the working classes, three terrific groans were given, at my request, for both Whigs and Tories, when the vast assemblage separated, much pleased with the proceedings. I was then entertained at an excellent supper, by my good friends, at which about one hundred and thirty sat down, Mr. MOIR in the chair. Dr. JOHN TAILOR, the BREWSTER pill, acting as Vice- chairman, and a most delightful evening and part of the next morning was thus wiled away — many patriotic toasts were drunk, and admirable speeches made. I got to bed before half past two and rose at half past five, to start for Carlisle, a distance of 95 miles, and where a public meeting had been announced for that evening. Here I shall endeavour to break the monotony of this dry detail, by giving a short account of the extent of the damage done by the recent hurricane, in those parts adjacent to the road, leading from Glasgow to Carlisle. The plantations there appear to be of about 30 or 35 years growth; they are fir, and by bad management, and with worse taste, they have been pruned to a considerable distance from the ground, thereby depriving them of that anchorage, which nature had designed in assaults such as the late storm. In almost all these cases we find those firs which have been pruned and left with a heavy and over-balancing top, having an inclination to that point, to which the prevailing wind waft them, but in cases of violent storm, they are sure to fall. About two in every ten of those trees were levelled along the line of the road; and in the neighbourhood of Moffatt, a plantation of about two acres was felled, not a tree remaining. Within about fourteen miles of the borders of a village, the name of which I regret to have forgotten, the coach was surrounded by a vast concourse of persons, who had been deputed to watch the opportunity of changing horses, in order to present me with an address, which terminated thus, "and, tell the Rev. Parson Stephens, Sir, with our love, that if the tyrants attempt to hurt a hair of his head, we will retaliate ."

Between the village and Carlisle, the sea had broken down many fences, and washed away a great portion of the soil from recently ploughed fields, leaving the land completely valueless. One poor farmer lost nine score sheep, and another lost four score. The thorn fences for many miles were completely matted with hay and straw, lodged there by the flood, — and all presented a scene of the wildest and most indescribable horror I ever witnessed. Houses unroofed, windows mashed, fields uncovered, stacks floating, chimneys lying prostrate, and mourners looking on in despair.

I arrived at Carlisle at four o'clock — learned all the news from my good friend, Mr. ARTHUR — heard that a large sum had been paid for the use of the aristocracy's principal ball room, and that 3d. was to be charged for admission. I do not like those charges; nevertheless, the payment of 3d. at the end of the week, for the privilege of standing some five or six hours in a heated atmosphere, listening to the old story, is some proof that, at last, the people are in earnest. I had some dinner, and sat down to be shaved; and now, moral philosophers, prepare to laugh. I was so thoroughly exhausted, that the barber was obliged to shake me out of a sound sleep to inform me that his part being done, mine was to follow. Thus has the barber of Carlisle caught a Radical asleep, and shaved him. The large room was crowded to suffocation. We had good speeches. About 200 well-dressed females were present, who did me the honour to present me with a very beautiful scarf of their own manufacture, and tastily embroidered with their own hands. The scarf was presented by one of the female association, with a very well arranged and beautiful address.

The meeting went off triumphantly, and the resolutions below were the result. A village apothecary attempted to disturb the meeting, but was most politely handed the door, when the landlord of the house handed him down stairs. Nothing could surpass the indignation of the meeting at DUNCAN's conduct, and the arrest of Mr. STEPHENS, who, in spite of the your worst, holds a firm place in the affections of ninety-nine in every hundred of the inhabitants of Carlisle. The resolution of the inhabitants of Carlisle calling upon the men of Dumfries to oust DUNCAN was read with pleasure. I went to bed very late, and rose at eight o'clock in order to reach Newcastle, a distance of sixty-six miles, in good time, as a public meeting was to be held upon the same night. Upon getting up, I felt rather queer, and, upon sitting down to breakfast, I found that I had a violent pain in my chest, and no appetite, which with me is unusual. The pain in my chest increased and I felt a very disagreeable taste, upon which, I left the room and discovered that I had ruptured a blood vessel, either in the chest or upon the lungs. I was very sorry, for I did wish to see Universal Suffrage. I discharged about a wine glass of blood, and set off for Newcastle. Reached Newcastle at two, saw Dr. HUME, who advised me by no means to speak, so I decided upon having a short sketch of my tour written and read to the meeting, but the visitors were so numerous, and the tidings so good, that eight, the hour of the meeting, had arrived, without narrative, and contrary to the advice of my doctor, I set off to the meeting, in the new and spacious Music Hall, which was overflowing. I spoke for more than an hour, and felt very weak, however, I got through and lived to hear the resolutions below passed unanimously.

I was glad to attend the meeting at Newcastle, because some misunderstanding was commencing in the Radical ranks, and I availed myself of the that opportunity of pointing out the necessity of Union, and of advising them upon the very first appearance of a dispute to expel the disputants from their body. An attempt was made to get up a paper in opposition to the Northern Liberator , one of the best papers in the world, and that I hope I prevented. I was very ill on my return from the meeting, and was obliged to have a person sitting in my room all night; however, the spirit prevailed, for I awoke and got up at half-past five, started eighty miles on my way to PETER BUSSEY's dinner, at Bradford, which took place on Monday last, a report of which will be found in the Star .

On Monday, I travelled from York to Bradford, 34 miles, and had the honour to preside as Chairman, at one of the most splendid public entertainments I have ever witnessed. On Tuesday morning, I left Bradford for Leeds, to beat NEDDY BAINES and the Whigs; which, let them say what they may, I did most effectively. After the meeting, I returned to Bradford, thence to Queenshead, where a dinner was given to me by the virtuous mountaineers of that district, the whole village was a dinner party, for every house was full, and 1,000 would have dined if accomodation could have been procured. I left them at eleven o'clock, and the only drunken man which I had seen in my tour was a manufacturer, lying in the middle of the road, with his horse standing over him. He is one of the electors. Thus, Gentlemen, ends my eight days tour, during which time I attended nine public meetings, travelled over seven hundred miles, slept, upon an average, three hours a night, and once again united the Scotch and English Radicals in a union more lasting than brass, and one which, I trust, even your malicious ingenuity will not be able to break. I have not been able, in the space allotted, to do justice to my subject; however, I trust that I have said enough to prove the impossibility of successfully attacking our ranks. And now, Gentlemen, although you have put me to considerable trouble and expense, I thank you. From the 18th of December to the 15th of January, I have attended in London, Bristol, Manchester, Queenshead, Bradford, Leeds, Newcastle, Carlisle, Glasgow, Paisley, and Edinburgh, 22 large public meetings, and have travelled over 1,500 miles; and I can say that your moral philosophy has been the greatest enemy to our cause. You are advocates of Moral Force. I have set you an example of what Moral Force can affect, and to you many of whom are more wealthy than myself, but who, nevertheless, travel for the people as post horse for their masters, at so much a mile, to you, Gentlemen, I say, "Go and do likewise;" and then all thought of physical force will vanish.'

Your obedient servant


P.S. To my friends I beg to say that I am now fresh and ready for the winter's campaign, when I shall be prepared to meet the friends of the people in Council, or their enemies in the field. I now conclude, returning thanks to God that I feel better than ever I did in my life. F. O'C.

Feargus O'Connor, Tour of the North in the Northern Star , Vol.2, No.62 (19th of January, 1839), p.4