Picture of Robert Gammage

Robert Gammage

places mentioned

Working and Campaigning in Chelmsford in 1841-2

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Having left Sherborne in the latter part of 1840, I became engaged in a long and arduous search for work, and during that time felt the full force of my remark to Mr. Hill on the value of a trade society to support men when seeking employment. I travelled no less than 1,400 miles in different parts of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland before I again obtained work, with the exception of four days in Halifax and three in Bradford, but even this was a great relief.

I was again at Northampton and London, at both of which places I was cordially received by my friends. But I must go back a little, and speak of Scotland and Ireland. I spent New Year's Day in Edinburgh, and such a New Year's Day I never spent before or since—a fact the meaning of which my Scottish readers will well understand. I thought the people were nearly mad, and I was not sure that I was not so myself. I went on to Bathgate, and from there to Glasgow. On Sunday night I embarked on a steamer to Belfast. I had provided myself with food and whisky, but nothing in the shape of money was left. As the voyage was ordinarily one of only twelve hours, I thought but little of that. But as we steamed down the Clyde the vessel struck the ground. There was no danger, but we had to wait several hours for the rising of the tide. It was a cold, snowy night, but I preferred the deck to the stifling second cabin below. About seven in the morning we arrived at Greenock, and now another misfortune befell us, for the steam pipe was out of repair, and there was nothing for it but to wait until matters were remedied, and that was not until a quarter past ten at night. I went into the town, making my way to the coachmaker's shop, asking for work. there was none. I stated my case to the employer, who referred me to the men, but not a coin passed from their hands to mine. I had in the morning sold a little whisky I had left to a fellow-passenger for the munificent sum of one penny, of which more hereafter.

After going along for about two hours, the steam pipe was again out of repair, and we had to move by aid of the sails at the rate of four miles an hour. There are always some good Samaritans to be met with, and on talking over the misfortunes of the voyage to an honest-looking, good-natured workman, he pulled out a profusion of bread and meat, of which I heartily partook with him. In the morning I walked on deck, when an equally good-natured lady came up from the first cabin, approached, and asked me to partake of bread and cheese. I gratefully accepted her kind offer. No danger now of being starved before arriving at Belfast. By my trouble was not yet ended, for we could not get up to the town because of the shallowness of the water, and it would be six hours before the boat could steam up the harbour. The passengers had to pay 3d. and 6d. each to be rowed up, and I had nothing but the penny I taken for the whisky on the previous day. I own that I had too much pride to ask to be taken for that small sum, and made my mind to wait for the tide. A boatman shouted and asked if I was not going ashore. I stated my inability to pay more than a penny. 'Jump in,' he exclaimed. We were soon at the landing-place, but he seized my bundle and demanded more payment. I appealed to a fellow passenger as to whether he had heard him offer to row me for a penny. He answered truthfully, and I threatened the boatman with legal proceedings. After a little choice wrangling, he gave it up, swearing lustily at me all the way as I went up the steps. But just as soft words 'butter no parsnips,' his hard words 'broke no bones'.

One more incident, and I have done with Ireland. When about six miles from Dublin—(I was now travelling in company)—we encountered a man going to that beautiful city. He was a small farmer, and was laden with butter. He asked us in to a roadside house to get refreshment, called for bread and a knife and a quart of porter. 'Now, boys, help yourselves.' (Every man is a boy in Ireland.) There was no need for a second invitation. From our entertainer we learnt the excessive bitterness to which religious bigotry gave rise in Ireland. He was a thorough Protestant and an Orangeman. Learning that we were not Catholics, he told us of a plot which he and two others had some years before entered into to assassinate Daniel O'Connell, whom they expected to pass along a certain road. It so happened that O'Connell travelled along a different road. 'Lucky for him,' he said, 'for it would have been his last journey.' Most likely he thought that in such an act he would only be performing a religious and political duty, such is the blindness of fanaticism.

As I have already stated, I was again in London. After staying there a little time without employment, I walked to Chelmsford, a distance of 29 miles. Here I was fortunate enough to obtain work, which lasted over a period of nine months. This town, like the county of Essex generally, was Tory. It was here that John Thorogood, the celebrated church-rate martyr, lived. He refused on principle to pay a church rate, amounting only to 5s. 6d. The amount was trifling, but he refused to pay on the ground that all State support of religion is wrong. He was summoned before the Ecclesiastical Court, but, with the firmness which impelled him to resist the rate, he paid no heed to the summons. He was arrested and imprisoned for contempt of court, and condemned in heavy costs. How far this succeeded, may be judged from the following letter written to John Cleave:—

My Dear Cleave, — I am here, and mean to remain here until death, rather than pay or sanction the payment of one farthing towards that horrid system of priestcraft—an Established Church.

The friends of Mr. Thorogood, without his consent or knowledge, ultimately paid the rate and all expenses, and he was released from custody. A large subscription was raised, and with the money he built a row of good stone houses, at one end of w hich could be seen in prominent letters the words 'Gepp's Folly,' Gepp being the name of the churchwarden who, in the outset, had instituted the proceedings against him.

Chartism was not entirely unknown to the people of Chelmsford. Before I was there, the ice had been broken by a public meeting held on the racecourse, which was addressed by some local speakers, and by Henry Vincent and others from London. What would not be very likely to occur at this day, occurred then. Three poor working tailors who, without asking leave, had taken a part in the meeting, were dismissed from their employment; and, to show that there was nothing against them but their politics, they were all after a time reinstated in the very shop from which they had been discharged. When I was there, I had the liberty of going in my leisure time and talking to them, as they sat at work, on Chartism or whatever else I chose. There was improvement in this on former days.

I was not idle. I soon found a few on whom I could make an impression. My friend Thomas Gilbert, from Birmingham, was one of these. He was a man whom one could easily understand—'Heart on his lips and soul within his eyes.' Another was Mr. Brooks, who worked with him. He, however, was rather a follower of Joseph Sturge, but fearless in his assertion of the principles of the Charter.

I managed to get what for Chelmsford was a good circulation for the Northern Star , Cleave's English Chartist Circular , Vincent's Vindicator , and other Democratic publications, a parcel coming to me direct from London every week.

We formed a debating society at The Golden Lion, the landlord of which was a reputed Liberal. But it had not been formed long, when our host got a polite intimation that the society was not approved of by some of his would-be aristocratic friends, and in very courteous terms he informed me that the meetings could no longer be held. This mattered little, for we met in the parlour every night, and to a much larger company our principles were taught and their justice enforced. Those principles were still further enforced by the formation of a Chartist Association, at the house of Mr. Brooks, who was delighted that we had, as a debating society, been dismissed from the room at The Golden Lion, for he was one of the most extreme of all the teetotallers I ever met. We met at his house weekly, for reading and discussion. He took in the Nonconformist , edited by Edward Miall, in which appeared a series of most brilliant articles on 'Complete Suffrage.' The term might very well be objected to, for although it was similar to the 'Universal Suffrage' of the Chartists, it is now acknowledged, and that extensively, that until woman possesses the suffrage equally with man, it is impossible for it to be complete. But the articles as far as they went were unexceptionable in point of argument, eloquence, and vigour.

But it was not long before it reached the ears of Mr. Pearson, the vicar, or whatever he was, of Springfield, a suburb of Chelmsford, that Chartist meetings were being held in his parish, and he was at once on the alert. Even one of his Sunday school teachers was a member of our association; my employer, too, was his principal Sunday school teacher, and to him he soon sounded the note of alarm, which he was in no way averse to repeating. I was told by him, in what I thought wrathful terms, that if I continued to attend the meetings he must dismiss me from his employment. I reasoned with him, but, I need hardly say, to little purpose. He thought me very presumptuous, and denounced all the Chartists as a set of poor ignorant fellows. Whether he thought so, I cannot say, but my impression was that ignorance was more on the opposite side.

My career at Chelmsford came to a close in an unexpected way. We had every morning a quarter of an hour for luncheon, when we all met in the smith's shop. Our employer had informed us that this privilege would no longer be allowed, but on the following morning we went down as before, his own brother being one of the numbers. He soon came and told us to come up and take our wages, and, fixing first on me, said, 'Come up, Robert.' I implicitly obeyed, and in ten minutes was paid and out of the shop, never to return. I was, however, in Chelmsford twice after that—the last time in 1850, when, by invitation, I addressed a large meeting on temperance, after a lecture by a London doctor whose name I forget. It was thought that the affair of the luncheon was a plan to get rid of the obnoxious Chartist. Be that as it might, all the rest of the men were soon again at work, but I bade farewell to the town, being accompanied on the road for several miles by my most intimate friends. I must here remark that during most of the time that I was in Chelmsford I lodged at a coffee-house, where several of the leading Tories assembled. I was often in discussion with them. One of them, an attorney, was very friendly, and used to say what a pity it was I was in my then position, for there was no doubt that, if I were agreeable, I could he sent to college and educated for the church. 'Alas!' I said, 'for the church that ever has me for its minister.'

I passed through Colchester, Stratford St. Mary, Ipswich, Bury St. Edmunds, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Bedford and on to Northampton, where I obtained work for about three months. I continued to expound the principles of the Charter in many of the hours not devoted to my usual work. It was at that time that I first met with Dr. McDouall and Feargus O'Connor . Both of them were then at their best. I had generally looked upon O'Connor as a wild, erratic sort of speaker, and so he often was; but when I first heard him he was calm and deliberate, and though the lecture was delivered from the balcony of The Peacock Inn (the room having been crowded out and unbearable), it was given in a style which made it difficult to detect that the speaker was the same O'Connor whose fiery speeches had so often appeared in the pages of the Northern Star .

Robert Gammage, 'Recollections of a Chartist', in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , Saturday, June 21 1884

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