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Chartist - Feargal O'Connor (1794-1855)

‘Upwards of six feet in height, stout and athletic, and…invested with a sort of aristocratic bearing, the sight of his person was calculated to inspire the masses with a solemn awe’.

R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, 1854

Feargus O’Connor was probably born on the 18 July 1794 (some give it as 1796) in County Cork, Ireland. He came from a wealthy Protestant family. His father Roger O’Connor had supported Irish independence and been a leader of the United Irishmen, for which he spent nearly three years in a Scottish prison.

O’Connor’s early years were mainly spent in Ireland. In 1820 he inherited a share of his uncle’s estate, Fort Robert in County Cork. He apparently enjoyed the life of a rural farmer and is said to have spent time working in the fields with his tenants.

He studied law at the King’s Inns in Dublin and later at Gray’s Inn in London. He was admitted to the Bar in 1830.

O’Connor had published his first political pamphlet A State of Ireland in the early 1820’s. In it he had denounced the Church and State for their oppressive and brutal rule of the Irish people.

In 1831 O’Connor was involved with the agitation for the Reform Bill. He supported parliamentary reform and campaigned for Irish rights, repeal of the Act of Union and against church tithes.

In the General Election of 1832 O’Connor stood as a Repeal candidate. He was elected MP for County Cork in the Reformed Parliament and was initially a follower of the Radical MP Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connor frequently criticised the policies of the Whig Government. He promoted the Irish cause but he also spoke up for the Tolpuddle Martyrs and defended the freedom of the press.

O’Connor was re-elected MP for County Cork in 1835 but was unseated after it was discovered that he did not meet the property qualification.

Later that same year he stood as a candidate for Oldham in the by-election triggered by the death of William Cobbett. Also standing was Cobbett’s son John Morgan Cobbett. Despite O’Connor having withdrawn from the poll early on, the radical vote was split allowing the Tory candidate to narrowly win the seat.

After he lost his seat in the House of Commons O’Connor became more involved in English radical politics. He had become increasingly aware of the need for further parliamentary reform and already had connections with the London radicals.

In September 1835 O’Connor helped found the Marylebone Radical Association, which campaigned for five points of reform (what would become the Six Points minus the payment of MPs).

He then went on a successful tour of the industrial north, establishing further associations. O’Connor became an honorary member of the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) but he disliked their involvement with Daniel O’Connell, with whom he had had a very public falling out.

It was in the northern textile manufacturing districts where O’Connor proved to be most popular. In 1837 he frequently shared a platform with the Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens and Richard Oastler speaking out against the New Poor Law. For O’Connor, the solution to this and other working class grievances was political reform.

He also took up the cause of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners, even attending their trial.

He spoke out against Daniel O’Connell after he called for a parliamentary enquiry into the operation of the trade unions and criticised the LWMA for supporting (as O’Connor saw it) the enquiry.

This was the beginning of his falling out with William Lovett. Lovett considered O’Connor to be the ‘great I AM of politics’.

In November 1837 O’Connor launched his radical newspaper the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser. Aimed at the working classes it was initially published to support the anti-Poor Law campaign before evolving into the main Chartist newspaper.

O’Connor wrote a regular column in the form of a letter addressed to the ‘fustian jackets, blistered hands and unshorn chins’.

In 1838 Feargus O’Connor began to establish himself as one of the leaders of the Chartist movement.

In June, at a mass meeting on Hunslet Moor near Leeds, he founded the Great Northern Union. This was an affiliation of radical associations from across the northern manufacturing towns. By February 1839 it had 62 000 members.

During the winter of 1838 to 1839 O’Connor spoke at many mass meetings promoting the Petition for The People’s Charter. Francis Place referred to him as the ‘constantly travelling dominant leader’.

He excelled as a public speaker and was extremely popular with working class audiences who would come in their thousands to hear him speak.

Labelled a ‘physical force’ Chartist, O’Connor often used menacing language during his speeches. He made ambiguous threats if the Petition should fail and argued that it was the constitutional right of Chartists to defend themselves if the Government used violence against them.

However O’Connor did not advocate revolution. He realised the folly of an armed uprising by an ill-equipped and untrained crowd against the concerted forces of the State.

In 1839 O’Connor was elected as one of the northern delegates to the first Chartist Convention.

He supported the use of ‘ulterior measures’ should the Petition get rejected. Although he also thought that whatever the Convention did it should be ‘within the law’.

However, after the failure of the National Petition in July 1839 O’Connor, along with Bronterre O’Brien, successfully persuaded the Convention not to call for a general strike (the sacred month). He argued against any form of armed protest and denied having any knowledge of the Newport Rising.

In May 1840 O’Connor was sentenced to eighteen months in York Castle for seditious libel.

O’Connor was treated comparatively well in prison. Although forbidden to do so, he continued to write for the Northern Star and tried to direct Chartist policy from gaol. He supported the formation of the National Charter Association (NCA) in July 1840, which O’Connor and his supporters would come to dominate.

Feargus O’Connor was released from prison on the 26 August 1841, earlier than expected, but the planned celebrations still went ahead on the 30 August.

The Lion of Freedom, probably written by Thomas Cooper (he later denied authorship), was published in the Northern Star to commemorate his release. It became a popular song at Chartist meetings.

The rank and file maintained their loyalty to O’Connor. O’Connor however clashed with other Chartist leaders, notably William Lovett, over what form the movement should take.

O’Connor believed the Chartists needed to remain unified and support the new National Petition to Parliament which was being coordinated by the NCA.

He denounced the ‘new moves’ such as Lovett’s scheme for a national system of education (Knowledge Chartism) and Henry Vincent’s campaign for temperance (Teetotal Chartism). He considered such strategies to be divisive and feared they would compromise the movement.

In the wake of the Plug Riots O’Connor was arrested for seditious conspiracy and tried along with fifty eight others at Lancaster in March 1843. He was acquitted of all but one of the charges, but due to a technicality was never called up for sentencing.

After the failure of the 1842 Petition O’Connor increasingly devoted himself to his Land Plan. O’Connor saw a return to the land as a way to reduce unemployment and ease the plight of the workers in the industrial towns. He would give the working classes the opportunity to farm their own small-holding and gain their independence.

With the approval of the NCA the Chartist Co-Operative Land Society (later renamed the National Land Company) was formed in 1845. The scheme proved incredibly popular. In May 1847, the first families settled at O’Connorville near Watford, the first of five Chartist communities.

In the 1847 General Election O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham, the first and only Chartist MP.

On the 10 April 1848 O’Connor led the Chartist mass meeting at Kennington Common in London. When the procession to present the third Petition to the House of Commons was declared illegal O’Connor persuaded the crowd to disperse rather than risk a violent confrontation.

In 1848 a Select Committee was appointed by the House of Commons to investigate O’Connor’s Land Company. The Company was found to be badly managed but they did not believe O’Connor had acted dishonestly, in fact he was owed a significant sum of money.

The Company was judged to be illegal and in 1851 was wound up by an Act of Parliament. Ernest Jones believed that it was the failure of the Land Company which led to O’Connor’s decline in health as ‘his whole soul seemed bound up in the undertaking’.

By this time Feargus O’Connor was displaying signs of a serious mental illness.

In May 1852 he went to America, where his ‘insanity’ appeared ‘unquestionable’ according to the New York Herald. On the 1 June, the day after his return to London, he went to Westminster Hall where he interrupted the proceedings in several of the law courts.

On the 8 June during a sitting of the House of Commons he struck a fellow MP on the side. The Speaker made O’Connor apologise to the House. The following day he disrupted the House with his irrational behaviour before striking one MP in the side and another lightly in the face. This time O’Connor was taken into custody by the Sergeant at Arms.

Found to be of unsound mind O’Connor was admitted to a private asylum in Chiswick run by Dr Harrington Tuke. Shortly before his death his sister Harriet had him moved to her house in Notting Hill. Feargus O’Connor died there on the 30 August 1855.

O’Connor never married. At his funeral on the 10 September, fifty thousand people turned out to pay their respects. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.