Picture of Robert Gammage

Robert Gammage

places mentioned

Becoming a Chartist speaker, and first leaving Northampton in 1840

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When, as related in my last, my old friend, Wm. Jones, said we should go by steam, we regarded it as the expression of an enthusiast; but the visit of Henry Vincent , and the numerous meetings he addressed, aroused the sluggish blood, and speedily 400 members were enrolled in the Northampton branch of the Chartist Association. The movement went on with accelerated speed, and it soon became evident that it could not be confined to the town. Many of the villages in the vicinity wished to know what the charter meant.

At the outset I was a timid speaker. When at 18 years of age I was appointed to second a resolution at a public meeting held in our association room, I only spoke for about two minutes. As I left off, several from the meeting cried out, 'Go on.' But having nothing more to say to the purpose, I thought it better to go off, and I went off accordingly, to the disappointment of my friends, who said I was 'a promising young man'. After my maiden speech, I soon lost some of my diffidence, and got more into the way of speaking, not by studying the great orators, ancient or modern (for of them I know nothing), but by bringing into play the essential faculty of common sense, and making that one of my chief reliance's. All the rest followed with but trifling difficulty.

It had been arranged that a public meeting should be held in the village of Brixworth, a distance of six miles. It was a bright Sunday morning in June 1839, when we set out on our walk, and my friends, H. and W., kept up with me a lively conversation all the way. After having partaken of what to an Englishman, and perhaps to most other men, is a very agreeable meal, a good substantial dinner, we made our way to the meeting, which had been announced to be held in front of some steps opposite to the fine old village church. The number attending not being to our satisfaction, it was proposed to adjourn until six o'clock, so that the news of the meeting might get spread.

At the time for service in the afternoon, I proposed to go to church, giving as one reason that the minister might have something to say of us. My colleagues agreed, and to church we went in good time, so as not to cause any interruption to the service. We were not in the least disappointed. We noticed, as the reverend gentleman ascended the pulpit stairs, that he bestowed on us a quick and searching glance. As we were strangers, he no doubt concluded that we were the intruders upon the peace of his quiet village. That glance did not in the least disconcert us; but it gave us to understand that he was about to bestow on us some attention. He had brought with him a sermon ready to hand, which, as he announced, he had preached a few years before, at the time that the great trades union was exciting so much attention and agitation throughout the country, and during which six poor Dorchester labourers were convicted of taking unlawful oaths, and sentenced to seven years' transportation [sic] I well remember his text, 'They promise them liberty, who are themselves the servants of corruption.' We did not see the force of the text as applied to us. Some may say that our want of sight was caused by our moral and political blindness. The sermon was all that we expected, and, after it was read through, the reverend gentleman announced that he would now address a few words to the individuals who had come there that day. We very respectfully rose to our feet, amid the astonished gaze of the general congregation. But we did not feel ourselves as culprits at the bar. After some gentle words of admonition, he assured us in very emphatic tones that if we persisted in addressing the meeting we should be handed over to the proper authorities, and he called upon all peaceable and well disposed persons to aid and assist in our arrest. This seemed to be more like a declaration of war than a message of peace. I doubt if the Meek and Lowly One would have advised such a course, even with the world at his back.

We went from church more than satisfied, and the question now was, what is to be done? W. thought it would be better to go home. H. replied that W. could do as he pleased, but that he should stay and address the meeting if the people were willing to listen. I at once seconded his resolve, and the matter was settled. Then came another question, should we persist in our first intention to hold the meeting in front of the village church? I suggested that we should not make ourselves needlessly offensive, and proposed, in order to avoid this, that as soon as the meeting assembled one of us should get up to announce an adjournment to the roadside. This was agreed to, and proved to be the best policy; for as we walked through the village, followed by our friends, our numbers increased until we arrived at the place of meeting, where several hundreds of people were before us from Brixworth and the surrounding hamlets.

I led off, and spoke about three quarters of an hour, and then followed H., in what I still think a masterly speech. He spoke about an hour and a half. Whilst he was talking, the clergyman who had with so high a hand condemned us in the afternoon came up with some friends. When the speaker saw the minister, he drew out of his pocket a little hook. 'By the way,' he said, 'I will read an extract from this book which will bear out my argument—Cobbet's [sic! 'Legacy to Parsons'. And then he challenged the minister to refute his contention; but the reverend gentleman shook his head, as much to say, 'I decline'.

We got out of Brixworth safe and sound on a beautiful summer evening, most agreeable after the various heats of the day. We heard afterwards that the minister went to the constable to order our arrest. The officer declined, unless he had proper legal authority. He had no such authority; therefore we stood on legal ground in our defence of the rights of public meeting. It must be noted that for several days after this both of us who had spoken thought we might be arrested at any moment; for things were not always done legally in those days, even though what was done was said to be in the name of the law; but all our fears on this score proved to be groundless. I remember seeing the reverend gentleman, shortly after his fulminade against us at Brixworth, walking in a procession at the opening of St. Katherine's Church, Northampton. He had a very stiff appearance—not such as I thought, and still think, became a minister of the gospel of lowliness.

A short time after this, we went to address a meeting at Kingsthorpe, not more than a mile from Northampton. One might well have thought that there we should meet with something like civilization, and, as far as the mass of our hearers were concerned, we did. But there is always a small number who, under the influence of a pot of beer, are ready to break up any meeting and upon whom even the most glowing eloquence is lost. We had to contend with this patent foe to good order. The brewer of the village (whether incited to do so I know not) had supplied the stimulant, which was continued to be administered on the spot. As we proceeded to address the meeting, our voices were speedily drowned by the drunken clamour. We tried and re-tried to gain a hearing; but the uproarious shouts of the rioters increased, and we were compelled, much against our will, lest worse consequences should ensue, to depart.

The 'respectable' rioters were not yet content. Under the influence of the stimulant of which they had so copiously partaken, they followed us on the road home, and pelted us with stones. They stoned their political 'prophets'. Not caring whom they struck, they hurled a large stone at one of our female friends. She was an undaunted women, and in a minute or two recovered her serenity.

I cannot help noticing here the cowardly conduct of one of our most blustering advocates of physical force. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him, and that was not very fast, so much did they fail him. 'There is a physical force Chartist,' shouted one who shared his views on that subject, but who was disgusted with his cowardice. We, however, got safely home, and the rioters were left to their drink and their reflections on the following morning.

We had many other excursions into the villages around, and always, when we were not put down by brute force, our principles were adopted by the unsophisticated people whom we addressed.

My life at that time was not an easy one; for, in addition to the ever recurring fears of my mother as to my safety, I had to contend with my employer, who was a Tory. There was a meeting on the Market Square, just in front of the shop where I worked. As a matter of course, I attended. The meeting was addressed by John Collins, of Birmingham, and Charles Jones, from Wales. They made excellent speeches, neither too hot nor too cold. My friend Robins announced that a tea party would be held, and afterwards a public meeting to form a Female Chartist Association, when the chair would be taken by a young man warm in the cause.

We met and drank tea to the delight of our female friends, who, like most women, were voluble [sic] under the influence of the cheery cup—a comparative harmless mode of intoxication. I presided over the public meeting, which was a good one. Being young, I was naturally bashful. Collins and Jones addressed the meeting with good effect, and the association was formed. Jones, in the course of his address recited the following rhyme:—

'And canst thou love me?' the Whig Lord cried
To the beautiful creature by his side.
'Oh! no,' said the lady and turned away;
'The Whigs never promise but to betray.
You've betrayed the country, betrayed the Queen,
And can never be true to me, I ween.'
'Canst thou love me?' the Tory said;
'I've wealth to boast and power to dread.
I might command, though I stoop to sue;
And, erect to others, I kneel to you'
'The wolf by the lamb shall be ruled,' she said,
'Ere I with a robber consent to wed.
You've robbed the country, you've robbed the poor,
And can never prove true to me, I'm sure.'
Canst thou love me?' said the Chartist youth,
'I boast no wealth but a soul of truth;
No titles but what are accorded me
By the willing vote of a nation free.'
'I've loved thee long,' said the lady fair;
'I shall love thee long by the dauntless air
With which you plead in the poor man's cause,
And stand by a nation's insulted laws.
If true to them, you'll be true to me—
I'll trust my life and my love with thee.'

The rhyme illustrates the spirit with which numbers of women joined with men to forward the great movement of the day.

I have no more to say about my dear native town, except that I left it on February 6th 1840. My valued old friend, Wm. Jones, accompanied me as far as the celebrated Queen's Cross, a mile distant from Northampton. We took a hearty farewell of each other. I was young, not much more than 19; but I felt depressed after the parting when I reflected that I had left my home and those who loved me best. It was two o'clock when I left, and I walked on to Newport Pagnell, a distance of 15 miles, which I got over without difficulty in the darkness of the evening. I stayed at The Ram Inn, the coachmaker's club house, once more in front of a beautiful church, the chimes of which, playing every three hours, I heard, despite my sleepiness, with delight.

Newport Pagnell was not a town in which a Chartist could expect much comfort. It was an old-fashioned Tory town, in which everybody was expected to be orthodox in politics, or keep his opinions to himself. It was not long after I had sat down in the parlour, amid a company of respectable middle class men, when I began to find my level. The company soon fathomed me, and I equally soon fathomed them. I let them distinctly know that I was a Chartist. There was little noise that night. It required time for the wrath to gather up.

Passing a day in Newport with some friends who had known me in Northampton, I was at The Ram on the following evening, when the enemy was prepared for assault. It was not long after I entered the room ere the first shot was fired from the tongue of one of the company, and I was afterwards greeted with sounds anything but pleasant. As the beer got up and good sense got down, I was furiously assailed. I did not budge from the position I had taken. The scene of that night remains firmly fixed in my memory, for I thought I was going to get something much stronger than words; but, fortunately, I did not. The company, with one exception, rose to their feet. This man sat in his chair and sympathized with me. He did it in weak and gentle tones; but small help is better than none. The evening passed stormily throughout, and I was not sorry when the hour arrived for bed. Some time after that I learnt from the secretary of the Coachmakers' Club what a danger I had escaped. A man of the company went up to him and said, 'Jem, what sort of a fellow is this that you have brought here?' 'I have not brought him here,' replied the secretary; 'but I know him to be a decent young fellow.' 'Well, we are thinking about taking him down to the river to give him a ducking.' The secretary was a shrewd man, who had gone through what I think more serious troubles than any connected with politics. 'Oh, no.' said he, 'you will get yourselves into trouble if you do.' It was not until a few years afterwards that I saw my friend the secretary again, and he informed me that he saved me that night by tapping his forehead and giving a wink. It was understood that I was insane! 'Well, poor fellow, if that is the case, we won't do him any harm.' Thus I escaped a plunge, which at that time of night might have ended in drowning. I was reminded of the circumstance when not long after, I read an account of a temperance procession passing through the same town, when the flags were seized and some of their bearers were actually ducked in the river.

I lectured in Newport Pagnell in 1848 to 600 people in the open air and with unanimous applause. I must say that I was pleased at this triumph over the unreasoning prejudice which I had previously experienced. The last time I was in that little town was, as I have already stated, at a lecture by Ernest Jones. So much for Newport Pagnell, which I have never seen since, but which I hope to see once again for old acquaintance sake.

I went from Newport to Bedford, a distance of thirteen miles. I stayed with my friend Mr. Westley, and on the following day went over to the pretty little town of Ampthill, where we spent a very agreeable evening in a large private company, to whom I expounded in my youthful way the principles of the Charter, which they all applauded.

How curiously we meet with people whom we never knew! I was taken to a little farmhouse a mile away. The hostess was very chatty, but evidently not at ease. The husband was suffering from what I call 'religious mania'. He had a constant idea that he was doomed to be damned. My friend Westley handed him over to me, and I argued with him in a gentle way, very much to the comfort of his loving wife, but I never heard of him after that time.

Monday was the Queen's wedding day, the 12th of February. When we got to Bedford, the little town was in a state of excitement, and after supper my friend would go out into the streets. We met with many strange scenes, but the strangest of all was at the close. The street was very dirty because of the rain that had fallen. Two men were running a race, and each knocked the other down in the mud. 'Well,' I said, 'I did not think of seeing a donkey race in the quiet town of Bedford.'

I must not omit to mention that on our way to Ampthill my friend pointed out to me a cottage about a mile distant. 'You see that cottage; that is the home in which John Bunyan was born.' I thought of the great man's long imprisonment and the immortal Pilgrim's Progress,' and thought that, much as we had to suffer for the expression of our views, our sufferings were light compared with those of the men of his day.

From Bedford I went to Huntingdon, where I met with the mother of an old friend. I pushed on over a pleasant road to the seat of superior learning, Cambridge, where I was much struck with the grandeur of the University buildings. On going into a coachmaker's shop to see an old friend, I was introduced to the foreman, who, after passing the usual civilties, said he hoped Frost, Williams, and Jones would be hung. He would, he added, like to have the pleasure of 'stringing them up'. I did not envy him the office for which he was so desirous.

The following day I pushed on to Hertford, a distance of 3 miles, and on this journey I felt my legs somewhat pain me; the distance was too great. I arrived at Hertford in the dusk of evening. My friend, Mrs. Clifford, whose husband had forewarned her of my arrival, received me with true hearted cordiality, and said, in her open way, 'My boy, you shall have the best I have in my house'.

I spent the evening joyously, and on the following day went over to Hatfield to see a cousin whom I had never seen since my childhood. I took tea with her and her husband, and after that walked back to Hertford in the darkness of the evening, where I spent another joyous night, and next day walked on to London.

Various were my feelings on entering the modern Babylon. I stayed at my club house that night, and on the following morning went to my aunt Clark's at the Mall, Kensington Gravel Pits. Afterwards, in company with my brother and six cousins, I paid a visit to my uncle at Turnham Green. A joyous time we had, but, to show how slow political men were at that day, I need only mention that my uncle, who was one of the old Whig school, a worshipper of Lord John Russell, stated in a conversation that vote by ballot was not a measure of reform, but of revolution!

Robert Gammage, 'Recollections of a Chartist', in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , Saturday, May 3 1884

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