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’.