The Irish Chartist who Led Britain Towards Revolution

Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor took Britain closer to revolution than at any point in its history – yet, almost two centuries later, the Irish-born radical who led the first mass workers' movement is often denied the status he deserves.

Feargus O'Connor was the Irish-born leader of the Chartists, the first mass working-class movement in the world. (WCML Archive)

There are few more remarkable movements in the history of radical politics than the Chartists, which dominated the middle part of the nineteenth century in Britain. Not only were the Chartists the first mass working-class movement—built on the foundations of the early Working Men’s Associations—but the People’s Charter which gave them their name was arguably the most popular document in British history. To put it into context, the second Chartist petition of 1842 amassed 3.3 million signatures, the equivalent of one third of the adult population of the time. It is the equivalent today of roughly 18 million people, and all achieved without the benefit of high-speed travel or instant communication.

The demands listed in the People’s Charter might seem moderate today, but in the nineteenth century they were at the heart of a debate over the nature of democracy. The early part of the 1800s had been rocked by political uprisings demanding reform of parliament, the most famous of which was the Peterloo massacre, which saw 18 people killed in 1819 by a cavalry charge into a crowd of 60,000 demanding democratic rights. It had also been a harsh economic climate, with the rise of industry coming alongside biting conditions for workers in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

In an attempt to satiate this appetite for change, the British ruling class brought forward what became known as the Great Reform Act of 1832—a piece of legislation which this magazine’s former editor Michael Foot would quip was neither great nor reforming. The Act extended the franchise from 400,000 to 650,000 but maintained the vote as the exclusive right of the propertied. In addition, its requirements for candidates for election ensured that only the truly wealthy could stand, while voting was public and constituencies remained substantially gerrymandered.

It was against this backdrop that the Chartists devised their six demands: universal suffrage for adult men; voting by secret ballot; annual parliaments; constituencies of equal size; a wage for MPs; and the abolition of the property requirement for MPs. These were presented to parliament first in 1839, after a whirlwind campaign of mass rallies which had seen six figure turnouts in successive events in Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, and Peep Green in Yorkshire. The rejection of that petition by parliament took Britain as close as it has ever come to revolution, with a tumultuous 1839 of torchlight meetings across the country culminating in the Newport Rising, which saw 22 Chartists shot dead and more than 50 injured in a confrontation with the army.

Chartism dominated a decade of British life, consuming all around it from 1838 to 1848 and recasting the political landscape along class lines. But the repression which followed led to the movement almost being written out of history. Indeed, it was almost five decades after 1848 before a substantial book was written about its legacy. Today, by contrast, the Chartists are celebrated and widely understood as a groundbreaking democratic movement. But one aspect of their history remains curiously neglected.

Although it was a British movement made possible by the specific conditions of this country’s Industrial Revolution, Chartism counted as its most prominent leader—and some would say founding father—an Irishman, Feargus O’Connor. His name is little known in Ireland, and his Irish roots are little analysed in England. So how did the first genuinely working-class movement in Britain’s history come to be led by an Irish radical?

Radical Roots

To describe Feargus O’Connor’s background as colourful would be an understatement. At the time of his birth in Castletown-Kinneigh, west Cork, in 1796, his family was thoroughly involved in one of Ireland’s landmark political revolts. His father, Roger, and uncle, Arthur, were both United Irishmen, republican revolutionaries inspired by the French example who plotted an insurrection to free Ireland from British rule. Roger, in fact, was editor of one of the movement’s journals, The Harp of Erin, a trait he would pass down to his son.

Later in his life, Feargus would often cite memories of raids on the family home and his father’s incarceration as formative experiences—though how much he truly remembered of that time is hard to say. Certainly, there was enough radicalism in the air to impact a number of Roger’s children, with Feargus’ brother and closest sibling also going on to lead a storied life. Francisco Burdett O’Connor enlisted in the Irish legion of Simon Bolívar’s army and fought for the independence of Latin America, later becoming the minister of war in the new state of Bolivia.

Feargus himself began his political life in radical circumstances. The Ireland he grew up in was the product, in many ways, of his father’s failed revolution of 1798. In its aftermath, Ireland had lost its regional parliament and seen its domestic capitalist class decimated through integration with the far more efficient British economy. The resulting economic decline led to increased agitation against injustice, particularly in rural Ireland. Tenant organising was a mainstay of Irish radical politics for centuries and one of the most famous agrarian movements was the Whiteboys, a secretive farmer organisation renowned for night raids against landlords in signature white smocks.

The People’s Charter of 1838, compiled by the London Working Men’s Association. (Charter Archive)

Although mostly active in the 1700s, they were still at large by the time a young Feargus O’Connor was emerging as a political figure in the 1820s. In 1821, he wrote his first pamphlet, A State of Ireland, which eviscerated the country’s landlords, clergy, and politicians, and was promptly confiscated by the magistrates. This didn’t deter O’Connor and he followed it up with a speech which he admitted in later years carried ‘a little spice of treason’. Soon afterwards, he was involved in what became known as the Battle of Deshure—a Whiteboy raid against a local landlord and tithe collector which resulted in a skirmish with the yeomanry. O’Connor would later say that he was shot in the melee, although no records survive to substantiate the claim.

Shortly afterwards, he fled Cork for England to escape any unwanted attention. There, he set about studying law at Gray’s Inns and became acquainted for the first time with the urban slums of Industrial Revolution Britain through his experience of Holborn, then a district of poorer Irish and English workers. He would return to Ireland after passing the Bar and follow his father into practicing law with a particular eye for the poor, providing free legal assistance to those who couldn’t afford it. Feargus would later record a particularly harrowing case in which he defended a man who stole a goose to feed his family and was threatened with transportation to Australia. Simply practicing law, he concluded, would not be sufficient to bring about the change needed.

Path to Parliament

In 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act passed into law, removing the last of the Penal Law restrictions on Catholics and permitting them to sit as MPs in the House of Commons. That was the crowning achievement of Daniel O’Connell’s political life but, to O’Connor, it was a dupe—a false promise of equality for the vast majority of Irish people who were still denied the right to vote. O’Connor would go on to campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, as well as reform of voting rights across Britain itself. He would say that he was a Repealer in Ireland and a Reformer in England, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.

Although disappointed by the limits of the Great Reform Act, O’Connor immediately seized upon its opportunity of a larger franchise to begin an election campaign. The same year, in a staggering upset which bewildered the propertied establishment in Cork, he won a landslide victory in a race shaped by Paineite rhetoric about the rights of man and lengthy oration over social inequality. Though he was elected to parliament alongside Daniel O’Connell, he soon became a rival force among the Irish delegation—pushing the great ‘Emancipator’ to throw his weight fully behind repeal. This earned him the contempt of much of Ireland’s Catholic establishment, which had little time for a Protestant radical in the mould of Wolfe Tone after achieving its own seat at the table.

O’Connor arrived in Westminster as Britain’s trade union movement was in the early stages of its magnificent journey towards prominence. Trade unions were legalised in 1824, but already by 1820 there had been a general strike in Scotland which saw up to 60,000 workers walk off the job. The year before O’Connor’s election had seen the Merthyr Rising in Wales, when thousands of workers confronted authorities over wage cuts, were violently repressed by the yeomanry and flew the red flag for the first time. The 1830s was also an era when the first Working Men’s Associations began to appear, often influenced by Owenite socialism.

A depiction of a Chartist riot following the rejection of the petition in 1839 by Alfred Pearse. (Charter Archive)

It was in this milieu where O’Connor moved first, acquainting himself with working-class politics. By 1834, he was attending the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, convicted for swearing a secret oath to their trade union. In classically flamboyant style, O’Connor would remark in parliament that the bosses and bureaucrats who had convicted these workers should be sent ‘on board the hulks in place of those men.’ Then, in a foreshadowing of what was to come, he dedicated himself to taking up the cause of the people’s petitions to parliament, which he believed were ‘thrust into a bag under the table,’ in an insult to the public.

In 1835, he worked with trade unionists to found the Marylebone Radical Association. Soon afterwards, he lost his seat in parliament—he had won the vote but, ironically, was deemed ineligible due to lack of property. Undeterred, he set about organising a tour of Northern England, the country’s industrial heartland. The famous orator, described by his contemporaries as being ‘over six foot in height, broad of shoulder and red of mane’, set off to campaign for what he described as the ‘Five Cardinal Points of Radicalism’—the demands, minus pay for MPs, which were to become the People’s Charter.

The Rise of Chartism

O’Connor’s tour was a blistering success, with 50 radical associations set up in three weeks across Lancashire and Yorkshire. When he returned to London, he became an honorary member of the London Working Men’s Association, the organisation which ultimately drafted the People’s Charter, but by then it was clear that O’Connor was the movement’s leader. His experience in parliament having convinced him that fundamental change to the political system was needed, he took the decision not to align this cause with either of Westminster’s main parties—remarking ‘We can be bought by either party at a fair and equitable price… universal suffrage.’

On these visits to Northern England, O’Connor was seeing for the first time the conditions described by Friedrich Engels a decade later in urban, industrial Britain. Engels would write of how the textile workers had their ‘knees are bent inward and backwards, the ankles deformed and thick, and the spinal column often bent forwards or to one side’ from backbreaking labour, and how the factories were ‘impure, heavy, deficient in oxygen, filled with dust and the smell of the machine oil, which almost everywhere smears the floor, sinks into it, and becomes rancid.’

As exposure to these conditions sharpened Engels’ own class analysis, so too did O’Connor become increasingly convinced that the Chartist struggle was one for working-class liberation. Although an ‘honest aristocrat’ himself, the movement he led was a workers’ one. When campaigning against the hated Poor Laws in the North in the months which followed, he made a telling remark, ‘injustices such as the new poor law [are] merely part of a larger system of oppression and exploitation which would only be ended when the working class had political power.’

He had, by this stage, completed further tours to promote his ideas to Scotland and Nottingham. It was clear that he was at the forefront of a burgeoning national movement. In 1837, he sought to give this movement expression by founding the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, a weekly newspaper. Paying tribute to his roots, the paper was named after another radical publication—his uncle’s Northern Star, which had been the voice of Belfast’s United Irishmen before it was suppressed in 1797.

An 1839 cartoon by Desmond Evans of the Chartists failing to have their petition accepted by parliament. (Charter Archive)

Once again, the Northern Star proved to be a spectacular success. He brought into its pages many voices of radicalism, reform and trade unionism, as well as another Irishman—the more thorough-going socialist and writer James Bronterre O’Brien, who made his name with super columns in the first working-class newspaper, the Poor Man’s Guardian (and to whom I hope to return with another essay of this sort one day). The Northern Star, however, far exceeded the Guardian’s reach. It began with a circulation of 11,000 per week in 1838, but by 1839 had reached 36,000 and was setting the tone of the national political conversation.

O’Connor was rightly proud of the Northern Star, which he used as a tool for organising as well as propagating his ideas. His critics argued that this was a vehicle for his egotism, and occasionally it was, but it remains the case that the O’Connor letter became the most popular column of any sort in the country during its time, being regularly read out in public gatherings in towns and cities across Britain. The Northern Star was truly a movement publication and fit the description O’Connor made of it—‘fifty-five columns a week, to yourselves, of yourselves, and for yourselves.’

The Northern Star’s success made possible the monster meetings of 1838 and those, in turn, gave the People’s Charter its more than a million signatures to take to parliament. It was at this time that the rather pretentiously named General Convention of the Industrious Classes was formed as a small but influential Chartist representative body to decide on the future direction of the movement. Disagreements broke out in particular over the question of what to do if the petition was rejected by parliament.

The Chartist leadership was split between those who believed in solely constitutional action and those who believed that violence was justified once the petition was rejected. O’Connor attempted to mediate between the two, but refused to rule out the use of violence—something which his time in Ireland had persuaded him was a necessary option. However, when the largest outbreak of violence in that period took place in Newport, O’Connor was in Ireland, attempting to organise a Chartist movement in his homeland, where it had gained less purchase.

An Irish Prisoner

Throughout this period, O’Connor had been consistent in his belief that the struggles of workers in England and Ireland were tied up together. He rejected efforts to paint the issues of Ireland as ‘religious questions’ and insisted that they were political and economic. The Irish masses, he believed, could play a key role in the fight for democratic rights and any British movement that excluded them risked ‘turning oppressor itself.’

In his speeches, O’Connor would often cite the Irish Coercion Bill as an example of the repression which could befall British workers, arguing that what began in Ireland would be unlikely to remain there. He also addressed Irish Repealers, urging them to align with the Chartists more closely. A repeal of the union with Britain which left Ireland subject to its own landlord class and petty tyrants would not benefit the people. As Engels would later write, ‘O’Connor shows that the Irish people must fight with all their might and in close association with the English working classes and the Chartists in order to win the six points of the People’s Charter… Only after these six points are won will the achievement of the Repeal have any advantages for Ireland.’

Unfortunately for O’Connor, these messages never fully landed in Ireland, where there was a great deal of sympathy for Chartism but fundamentally different conditions: industry was weak, peasant farming was in crisis, state repression and discrimination was far deeper, and the power of the Church was a constant obstacle to those seeking to challenge property. Disappointed, he returned to Britain—where he soon found himself embroiled in the aftermath of the Newport Rising. Staying true to his earlier defence of violence in certain circumstances, he defended the Rising’s leaders, and embroiled himself in charges of sedition for his trouble.

The Chartist procession of 1842 brings the second petition, with 3.3 million signatures, to parliament. (Charter Archive)

As Paul A. Pickering writes in his excellent biography, Feargus O’Connor: A Political Life, O’Connor defended himself at trial in the style of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, fellow Irishmen tried on similar grounds in the decades beforehand. His mammoth, eight-hour long speech was aimed for public consumption as much as legal defence, weaving as it did through history, evoking the often-repeated sentiment in English radical history that the people had once had a freedom which was stolen from them, either by Norman yolk or royal decree. It did little to aid his cause, however, and O’Connor was soon imprisoned for fifteen months.

The public outcry over his treatment in jail—when he was initially denied the right to contribute to the Northern Star or publish any writing, as well as forced to do prison labour—undoubtedly aided O’Connor’s reputation as a martyr of Chartism, with even the young Tory Benjamin Disraeli taking to parliament to plead his case. The idea that the movement had a leader prepared to go to prison for his beliefs also helped Chartism to sustain itself in the difficult period after the failure of the first petition and the repression of the 1839 uprisings. Upon his release in 1841, O’Connor’s stature in the movement and as a public figure had never been higher.

The Zenith and Nadir of Chartism

After the failure of the first petition, the Chartists organised themselves into a formal structure around the National Charter Association. It was one of the first mass political parties, with elected representatives, branches and membership fees, and a major feat of working-class organisation. By 1841 it had 282 branches, by 1842 this has risen to 401 and over 50,000 members. It was this organisation that collected the 3.3 million signatures for the Chartists’ second petition, by far the movement’s greatest achievement.

However, when this failed, the question of tactics arose once again. Despite the fact that the Chartists, including O’Connor, had previously cancelled a planned National Holiday which would have been the equivalent of a national general strike, they soon found themselves in the midst of another one as a labour dispute in the Potteries spilled over and engulfed much of the rest of the country. The 1842 general strike began as a demand for wages but quickly fused with the Chartist demands, combining a growing industrial strength with a political cause.

The wave of repression which put down the 1842 general strike was the most significant of the nineteenth century to date, with thousands of workers brought to trial—and, in famous incidents like Preston in August, four workers shot dead by the army. In response to the scale and determination of this repression O’Connor began to turn away from strategies of direct confrontation and towards a new idea: the Land Plan.

The last great Chartist meeting on Kennington Common in 1848. (Charter Archive)

O’Connor, who had grown up in a rural setting, believed that little progress could be made in improving conditions for workers while they remained in the degradation of industrial life. He thus formulated a plan to return the working class to the land through a co-operative ownership scheme, something which enjoyed significant popularity amongst the Chartist base—many of whom were maimed or driven towards early graves by the appalling brutality of Britain’s factories and mines.

Unlike the Chartist movement in general, however, which seemed to ride a great wave of history, the Land Plan was an attempt to turn back the tide. The more Marxist-inspired Chartists like Northern Star editor George Julian Harvey tried to warn O’Connor that spurning the opportunity to organise the workers in the factories and cities, and instead attempting to reverse the entire process of industrialisation which underpinned the nascent capitalist system, would be a fool’s errand. O’Connor, who had previously resisted all attempts to mix new causes with Chartism had now, himself, diluted the struggle.

The Land Plan predictably failed, relying as it did on the good will of landlords, the government, and the stock exchange, as well as the contributions of workers squeezed by meagre wages. Despite this, O’Connor was elected as MP for Nottingham in 1847. The Chartist movement made one last heave—inspired by revolution in Paris—during 1848, as another petition was drawn up to be presented to parliament. But, facing enormous police mobilisation, the mass demonstration they organised became a mass meeting in Kennington Common, and although the images from the day remain impressive, it marked the end of the movement as a force.

There was some legitimacy in the criticisms made of O’Connor’s leadership during these years. Certainly, the Land Plan now seems romantic to the point of naivety. But it can’t be underestimated how great the obstacles facing the Chartists were. Time and again, not only through parliamentary dismissals, but through organised state violence, the British ruling class made it clear that they would not accept universal suffrage.


There is a common question asked about the Chartists: did they succeed? In the immediate sense, clearly, the petitions failed, and their dream of a working-class democracy went much the same way. But within a century all of their demands—except for annual parliaments, the most direct-democratic of the lot—had been met. And some even exceeded; after all, the Chartists hadn’t called for votes for women.

Perhaps the most meaningful legacy of Chartism, however, is its place in working-class history. After the Chartists, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, came a wave of worker organising which culminated in more tumultuous confrontations with the state, mass rallies, and a powerful trade union movement. Chartism also provided great foundation for socialism—in Britain and internationally—through its influence on Marx and Engels.

But what can we say about the legacy of Feargus O’Connor? Writing in 1848, Marx would say that ‘O’Connor, like all revolutionaries, is held in very bad odour.’ Indeed, it was something that O’Connor was aware of in his own life, once remarking that his name ‘literally stank in the noses of the middle classes.’ He had, after all, led a movement which for the first time genuinely threatened their class position, and offered them the prospect of an organised opposition in those they exploited. Those sins were not easily forgiven.

In the 1840s, during his imprisonment, medals were produced in his honour bearing the slogan ‘Feargus O’Connor — Universal Suffrage and No Surrender.’ His name had even become popular for children. In one famous incident, which Dorothy Thompson recounts in her groundbreaking work about the Chartists, a Mrs. King from Manchester had a run in with a Mr. Webb, the registrar for the district. ‘What is the child to be called?’ he asked. ‘James Feargus O’Connor King,’ she replied. ‘Is your husband a Chartist?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know, but his wife is,’ she replied.

But this high esteem, which O’Connor certainly courted but also largely deserved, was not to last. After the demise of the Chartist movement, O’Connor was ridiculed in the bourgeois press, began to drink heavily, and collapsed into mental illness. He quarrelled with many of his comrades and bolstered his reputation for being a difficult and impetuous leader. Many of those comrades began to abandon him and, in turn, write unflatteringly about his role in the entire movement, something which was picked up by later historians and used to undermine his standing.

Workers from Nottingham Trades Council pay tribute to O’Connor at his statue in 1955, one hundred years after his death. (Getty Images)

When he died, his funeral was well attended—40,000 in total took to the streets of Kensal Green to pay their respects. He was remembered with a fine grave in the local cemetery and a statue in Nottingham. But by the end of the 1850s, he was beginning to be written from history, and would only re-emerge many decades later in the role of a foolhardy egotist who had led a great movement astray. Of course, the material conditions of deprivation created Chartism in the first instance. However, any recollection of the movement that neglects the seminal role O’Connor played, often travelling thousands of miles across the country to hold multiple meetings a day for months, is lacking.

It is maybe most tragic that O’Connor does not enjoy a greater reputation in his home country of Ireland. Throughout his time as a Chartist leader, he maintained that his struggle for Reform in England was concurrent with a struggle for Repeal in Ireland, and that the fate of the working-class of both countries was tied together in a ‘universal struggle for freedom.’ Certainly, O’Connor was a far better champion of Irish workers in the workplace and parliament than the anti-union and anti-Charter Daniel O’Connell, after whom Dublin’s main street is named today.

But O’Connor’s political influence lingered, even if it is scarcely recognised today. When the Fenians wrote their proclamation in 1867, it was littered with Chartist rhetoric. The document called for a republic based on universal suffrage, condemned the aristocracy who had stolen the soil (in almost identical language to a tract published by John Noakes in the Northern Star itself), and appealed directly to the workers of England, who had provided such a light during the decade from 1838 to ’48.

‘As for you, workmen of England,’ it read, ‘it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.’ There could hardly be a more fitting tribute to O’Connor’s politics. But if there was one, it could be found in the obituary of Ernest Jones, the legendary Chartist poet. His is an epitaph befitting of the leader of the world’s first mass working-class movement:

‘Here was a man who broke away from rank, wealth, and station; who threw away a lucrative and successful practice; who dissipated a large fortune, not in private self-denial, but in political self-sacrifice; who made himself an eternal exile from his own country, where he owned broad acres and represented one of its largest Counties; who was hated by his family because he loved the human race; whose every act was devotion to the people; and who ends almost destitute after a career of unexampled labor… There is his life. Now look at his work: At a time of utter prostration, of disunion, doubt and misery, he gathered the millions of this country together, as men had never yet been gathered… O’Connor, without noble, priest or trader, rallied and upheld one downtrodden class against them all! Without even the leverage of national feeling to unite them! La Fayette had the merchants, Lamartine had the shopkeepers. O’Connor had the people! But the people in the nineteenth century, in Constitutional England, are the weakest of all. He taught them how to become the strongest.’