Picture of Robert Gammage

Robert Gammage

places mentioned

How and Why I Became a Chartist; Schooldays

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How and Why I Became a Chartist

Before I go further with my recollections of the Chartist movement, it may be better to describe the steps by which I was led to take a part in it. It is seldom that things connected with human life transpire suddenly; generally they have their antecedents.

I was sent to school at a very early age—not perhaps for what I could learn so much as to keep me out of mischief, and as some sort of discipline. My parents were doubtless right. It was better for me to go to school than to ramble about with nothing to do but gaze at signboards and listen to the not over choice language of the streets. At six years of age I entered the Central National School, Northampton, which was in connection with the Church as by law established. I was generally considered a good, obedient boy. When I was about nine years old, my parents sent me to what was called the Blue Coat School—a charity school, where the boys were dressed in blue clothes trimmed with red. My mother tried to get me into this school, but failed, which I was thankful for, as I disliked any badge. I was entered as a pay boy, my parents paying sixpence a week for my education, which might just as well have been saved, for at this superior school I learnt nothing but how to read. That important branch of learning I fell into naturally, having a liking for it. I conned over the pages of the Bible, Aesop's Fables, and a ghost story, in which I think a Mrs. Bargrave was the principal figure. These constituted the library. I was enraptured with all these books, and I read them many times.

My father (bless his memory!) was a Tory of the true stamp. He was no milk and water man any more than I am. My mother was also a Tory. My grandfather was of the sternest Tory cast, and so was my uncle. I was thus brought up in a very hotbed of Toryism, and yet my grandfather had, amid all his love for the good old Tory creed, a sense of justice. I remember that when the news came that the 'righteous and religious king,' George IV, was dead, he came and said with an exulting shout, 'The King is dead.' The old man had long been disgusted with his treatment of Queen Caroline. I remember that, when the Tory bands at election times went through the streets, those behind them waving the orange and purple flags, I was in raptures.

When I was about eleven years of age I was engaged to go to The Rose and Crown— a house still standing in Gold Street, and carried on as then in the public line. But how different then! Every licensed victualler brewed his own beer. I often had to superintend some of the processes through which the liquid had to pass, and I must say that everything in that line appeared to me to be honest. It was genuine home brewed, stronger than the beer of the present day, and without adulteration.

During the time I was at The Rose and Crown, I came in contact with men of almost every class, from aristocratic candidates for Parliament to the humblest plebeian. A Conservative Club was held there. The males of my family were members; for it was then the fashion, as it is now, to bespeak the good-will of the working classes, and to set them down as the pillars of the State—a truth that is more believed in than acted upon, as many truths are. My good father died. What was to become of me? Both my master and mistress were anxious to provide for my future. A gentleman was in the habit of coming to the house. He was a coachbuilder, and it was agreed that, with my mother's consent, I should go to work for him, with the view of becoming a coach trimmer. I was delighted with the prospect, being then but a little over twelve years of age. Mr. Billing, one of my old schoolmasters, who had given me many a gentle slap in the hand with his inevitable strap, left The Rose and Crown, and went to keep the Hind Hotel at Wellingborough, the principal inn at that time, and perhaps still so.

But a change was soon to come over my political life. I heard in the shop where I worked the various ideas expressed by the workmen, and these ideas soon overcame my robust but boyish Toryism. It was an exciting time. The working classes were disgusted with the failure of the Reform Bill to secure to them representation, and meetings were held in various quarters to protest against its exclusive character. It has been related in the Weekly Chronicle how one of the meetings terminated in the death of Fursey a London policeman. I shall never forget the excitement in the shop when one of the men rushed in and announced that the prisoner charged with the death of Fursey was acquitted on both indictments. A London jury decided that the police had no right in law to disperse a peaceable meeting. I have seen the names of the men who composed this jury, printed in letters of gold and suitably framed, hang over the mantelpiece of my old friend, Wm. Jones, at that time the Radical bookseller of Northampton.

There were all sorts of men in the shop, both in politics and religion—Tories, Whigs, and Radicals, Atheists', Deists, Catholics, Church of England men, and those who did not profess anything. Amid all the debates that went on in the shop my young ears were always open. I caught the sound of every voice, and took in and compared the various ideas expressed. The bulk of these men were radically inclined. I cast in my lot with them. It was not long before I became a thorough Radical in politics, to the surprise of my mother, who had so carefully instructed me in the Tory creed.

About this time came out the unstamped newspapers. Readers of modern political history will understand me when I say I was fascinated by these papers. It was a bold venture, and boldness generally commends itself to a boy. Watson, Cleave, Hetherington, and others in London, Abel Heywood, of Manchester, and others in the provinces, were presented. My friend Wm. Jones was imprisoned two months in Northampton. 'Only two months!' said the fearless man, as he came out of the hall after sentence. His wife sent out an advertisement, that she would supply cheap knowledge during the imprisonment of her husband, and this knowledge was accordingly supplied. It is well known that, after the resolute battle of the unstamped, the Government was compelled, if not in words, yet in deeds, to confess itself beaten. The stamp on papers was reduced from four pence to a penny, and ultimately abolished altogether. 'Thanks to the Government,' say some. I say, no thanks to the Government, which was forced by a stronger will and power than its own, as governments generally are before they submit to public right and justice.

I read with avidity the unstamped papers. They were exactly suited to the state of my mind. All Radical articles, and all Radical news were eagerly devoured. During this period, I came across two little pamphlets which served to confirm me in my now cherished principles. One was 'Common Sense', by that great but much maligned man, Thomas Paine, 'Tom Paine,' as he is even yet often called in the polite language of the pulpit. The other was the speech of Robert Emmet, the eminent Irish patriot—a young gentleman with good promise of success in life, but who before he was 22 years of age led an insurrection in Ireland which proved itself a failure.

Poor Emmet was engaged to Miss Curran, a daughter of the celebrated barrister and wit. She afterwards married, but never ceased to mourn over the death of the man who was her all in all. The thorough honesty of Emmet may easily be seen by some quotations from his speech, when he had no prospect but a speedy death. He was asked if he had anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced upon him according to law. He commenced his address, but he had not long proceeded before he was interrupted by Lord Norbury, the presiding judge, who told him that his language and sentiments disgraced his family and education, more especially his father, who, if alive, would repudiate such sentiments. Emmet replied:— 'If the spirits of the illustrious dead participate in the cares and concerns of those who are dear to them in this transitory life, oh, ever dear and venerated shade of my departed father! look down with scrutiny on the conduct of your suffering son, and see if I have ever, even for a moment, deviated from those principles of morality and patriotism, which it was your care to instil into my youthful mind, and for which I am now to offer up my life.' On being again interrupted by the judge, he said— 'I do not fear to approach the Omnipotent Judge to answer for the conduct of my whole life, and am I to be appalled and falsified by a mere remnant of mortality here, by you, too, who, if it were possible to collect all the innocent blood which you have caused to be shed in your unhallowed Ministry in one great reservoir your lordship might swim in?' Emmet further said—'Your lordship has given me credit for being the keystone to the combination of Irishmen, or, as your lordship expressed, it, the life and blood of the conspiracy. You do me honour over much. There are men engaged in this conspiracy, not only superior to me, but to your own conception of yourself, my lord—men before those whose genius and virtues I should how with respectful deference, who would feel themselves dishonoured by being called your friend, and who would not disgrace themselves by shaking your blood stained hand.' It was no wonder that Lord Norbury often interfered. The veriest criminal would interfere if he felt his conscience touched; and it would be too much to suppose that even Lord Norbury, much as he delighted in inflicting death on Irish patriots, was proof against all feeling.

The judge was called the 'bloody Lord Norbury.' Not that he had ever shed any blood with his own hand. His work was easier. He sat on the bench and condemned prisoners. That to him was a very light task. Norbury has been compared with Jeffries [sic] of bloody memory. The comparison is just, if we take into account the different ages in which they lived, for both seemed to feel a delight in condemning political prisoners to death.

I often wish those who so lustily censure Irish political offenders would cast their eyes back over the pages of history, and view the events that transpired with impartiality. Then they might see much to modify their views, and come to the conclusion to which I and thousands of others have come—that it is not in a generation or two, even under the most favourable circumstances, that the cruel memories of the past can be blotted out.

So much did I admire the daring courage of the young Irish rebel that I was never weary of reading his speech. I read and re-read until every word was fixed in my then tenacious memory.

Thus I went on, reading all I met with that had a Democratic tendency, and at seventeen my principles were as fixed as in one of mature age. Amid all the vicissitudes of after life, I have never receded. I have often heard it said that as we grow older we become more Conservative. That, doubtless, is often the case with those whose principles were not thought out and well grounded. I was once in company with a gentleman in the city of Coventry, who was a Tory, but who had been a Radical in his youth. He said that, radical as I then was, I, like him, would yet become a Tory, unless I was stupid. I told him I was afraid I was so. 'Oh, no,' said he 'the fact of your imbibing such principles when young shows the contrary; but, like me, you will yet become a Tory.' A long time has rolled over since then, and I don't perceive that my friend's confident prediction is a single day nearer to its fulfilment.

After reading and thinking, a distinct shape was now to be given to my thoughts. There had been, from the passing of the Reform Bill, a Radical element in the House of Commons, which could not be quelled by any Whig sops. The mass of the people found themselves as much political serfs as ever, and this, as a matter of course, caused discontent. Roebuck, Leader, Wakley, Duncombe, Harvey, Sharman Crawford, and others, kept up the fire in the cold and unsympathetic House of Commons. The Irish Coercion Bill inflamed the minds of the friends of the Emerald Isle. The establishment of rural police fanned the flame, and the enacting of the Poor Law Amendment Act utterly condemned the Whigs as a political party. Radical dinners were sometimes held, when the following after-dinner toast was proposed—'The Queen, her rights, and nothing more; the People, their rights, and nothing less.' These dinner parties were often presided over by a member of the 'Reformed House of Commons.' Thus the democratic movement rolled gradually on, until at last it culminated in the production of the People's Charter.

I did not hesitate a moment in embracing the principles of that memorable document, and when Henry Hetherington came down to Northampton to found a Working Men's Association, I attended the meeting, at which a committee was appointed to take the necessary steps for that purpose. I was soon proposed as a member. When my trade (coach trimmer) was called out by my proposer, old Wm. Jones shouted, 'Ah, we shall go by steam now.' The association greatly increased in numbers. I attended every meeting with feelings of delight. Many were the subjects discussed, and the working men brought to bear on political and social subjects an amount of intelligence which would have been surprising to anyone who did not reflect that they had been educated in that hardest of all schools, the school of necessity.

When I look back, and think of the prejudice which prevailed against us at that period, I may well congratulate myself and our democrats generally on the amount of success we have achieved. When I think that out of our six leading points of the People's Charter—Universal Manhood Suffrage, Vote by Ballot, Annual Elections, No Property Qualification, Payment of Members, and Equal Electoral Districts—we already have vote by ballot and no property qualification for members of Parliament; when I think, too, that the last Reform Bill extended the right of voting to all householders in boroughs, and that before any long time elapses the same right of voting will be extended to householders in counties, and that there will soon be a substantial approach towards equal electoral districts, I cannot but congratulate myself that I was one of those who held steadfastly on their way, and who saw that, even through trial and difficulty, sooner or later truth and right must prevail.

Robert Gammage, 'Recollections of a Chartist', in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , Saturday, March 29 1884

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