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Reference group
London Working Men's Association (act. 1836–1842) was founded on 16 June 1836 by a small group of skilled artisans meeting at 14 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, the home of a Scottish-born carpenter, James Martin (b. 1810/11), and his wife, Mary, a milliner. The group had gathered two months earlier to agitate for newspapers to be exempted from taxation. However, following a substantial reduction of newspaper stamp duty in May, they turned their attention to promoting equal political and social rights.

The founding membership had an impressive record in co-operation, the National Union of the Working Classes, Owenism, vestry politics, and the unstamped press, and ranged in age from young family men (Martin was twenty-five, and father of a two-year-old) to the 63-year-old veteran John Gast. Although chief among the association's objectives was ‘to draw into one bond of UNITY the intelligent and useful portion of the working classes in town and country’ (Address and Rules, 6), its activities were limited to central London and its membership never exceeded 318. At its heart was its ‘library of reference and useful information’ at Upper North Place, Grays Inn Road, where its various discussion classes met regularly. However, the public face of the London Working Men's Association (LWMA) was defined by its secretary, William Lovett, through a publishing campaign consisting mainly of printed addresses (almost invariably his work) on contemporary politics to like-minded groups across Britain and Ireland. The association acquired enduring significance as the originator of The People's Charter (1838), a pamphlet that lent its name to Chartism, the mass reform movement that swiftly became a powerful and controversial presence in early Victorian domestic politics.

Lovett's energy and intellect drove the LWMA and it effectively collapsed during his year's imprisonment from July 1839; but during its brief life the association embraced many of the most notable London radicals of the day, including John Cleave, Gast, Henry Hetherington (its treasurer), Richard Moore, Henry Vincent, and James Watson. Convinced that ‘division of interests in the various classes’ destroyed the ‘union of sentiment which is essential to the prosecution of any great object’, the association confined its membership to working men (Address and Rules, 6). Yet it was consciously élitist: membership was by election, cost a shilling a month, and was restricted to ‘persons of good moral character’. It sought to extend its influence by admitting ‘honorary members not of the working classes’. These included the Sunderland bookseller George Binns (1815–1847), William Carpenter, E. T. Craig, John Epps, John Fielden, W. J. Fox, G. J. Harney, D. W. Harvey, J. T. Leader, William Molesworth, Richard Oastler, Bronterre O'Brien [see O'Brien, James], Feargus O'Connor, Robert Owen (1771–1858), Francis Place, John Roebuck, T. P. Thompson, Arthur Wade, and Thomas Wakley. However, of the honorary members only Carpenter, Place, Wade, and George Rogers (a Soho tobacconist and snuff manufacturer) and the St Pancras vestryman Thomas Murphy (a coal merchant) were closely involved in the association's activities.

Place and Roebuck helped draft The People's Charter but it was overwhelmingly Lovett's work. The LWMA had agreed to publish a reiteration of the long-familiar six points of parliamentary reform as early as February 1837. However, finalizing the text was repeatedly delayed and there is little evidence that the association or Lovett conceived the publication as anything out of the ordinary. Finally endorsed by the executive committee on 8 May 1838, the text was entrusted to Wade and Murphy to launch at a mass rally organized by the Glasgow trades in honour of Thomas Attwood and the Birmingham Political Union on 21 May 1838. Even then an embarrassed Wade could only wave a set of proofs in front of the crowd. The People's Charter finally appeared a few days later, printed by Hetherington.

The LWMA had been dilatory in producing The People's Charter but it quickly caught the burgeoning mood for radical reform over the months that followed. Its ‘missionaries’ were sent first to Yorkshire and the east midlands, and then to western England and Wales. These missionaries—Cleave, Hetherington, Vincent, and Robert Hartwell (1811/12–1875), a printer—made considerable headway, promoting not only the Charter but the case for a nationwide campaign for its adoption. Missionaries were similarly deployed by the Birmingham Political Union, notably John Collins in Scotland and in Lancashire Thomas Clutton Salt (d. 1859), a lamp manufacturer and honorary member of the association. However, such initiatives were inevitably atomized. Britain was as yet without a national railway network; regional differences mattered immensely and were reflected and intensified by a newspaper press overwhelmingly provincial in character. It needed a person of very distinctive qualities to overcome these obstacles.

That person was Feargus O'Connor. However, his honorary LWMA membership had been swiftly eclipsed by a blazing controversy earlier in 1838 when he accused the association of complicity in hostile calls for a parliamentary committee of inquiry into trade unionism. This was occasioned by the controversial trial of leaders of Glasgow's cotton spinners' union for the murder of a strike-breaking worker. O'Connor was the antithesis of everything characterizing the LWMA. The wire-pulling micro-politics Lovett favoured was completely at odds with the mass political mobilization O'Connor espoused. While his defence of the spinners was principled, his direct attack on the LWMA was patently intended to cement his growing popularity in Scotland and among Lancashire cotton operatives. Lovett and the LWMA executive replied with scorching condemnation: ‘You carry your fame about with you on all occasions to sink all other topics in the shade—you are the great “I AM” of politics, the great personification of Radicalism’ (Northern Star, 17 Feb 1838). Harney was among those who resigned in protest from the LWMA. O'Brien followed soon after, when the executive sought to discipline him for criticizing its Malthusian sympathies.

Despite its formative influence on the movement, the LWMA was superseded as a major force within Chartism by 1839. O'Connor and his weekly Northern Star constituted Chartism's main focal points. Even within London the association was eclipsed by the (O'Connorite) Marylebone Radical Association and, especially, the muscular republican London Democratic Association. Furthermore the fissiparous character of metropolitan popular politics meant it played a limited role during Chartism's period of greatest importance, 1838–42. The LWMA's role in revitalizing interest in parliamentary reform properly commands posterity's respect; but historians have almost habitually exaggerated its importance within Chartism. To understand why The People's Charter captured the popular imagination it is necessary to look beyond London and the LWMA.

The LWMA's sole venture into newspaper publishing, the Gazette of the Working Men's Association, was short-lived. Although prominent members, led by Hartwell and Carpenter, managed the highly regarded weekly The Charter, its best circulation figure of 6000 copies was little more than a tenth of Northern Star's at its peak. LWMA activists (Carpenter, Cleave, Hartwell, Hetherington, Lovett, Moore, O'Brien, Rogers, Vincent, and Wade) were the largest contingent among delegates to the Chartist general convention of 1839, but they never operated as a caucus, though Lovett was its indefatigable secretary up to the moment of his arrest.

Early historians of Chartism tended to exaggerate the importance of the LWMA in order to contrive a moderate counterweight to O'Connor, whose influence on the movement was almost uniformly seen as baleful until the 1970s. This narrative trope depends on reading back into early Chartism the moderate gradualism of Lovett's later career. West's early History of the Chartist Movement even went so far as to equate the LWMA with the Fabian Society (West, 288). Lovett himself obscured his, and the association's, militancy in his autobiography. Manifesto of the General Convention, written by him and bearing his portrait, was an uncompromising justification of ulterior measures, including the right to bear arms. Elsewhere Rogers called for the convention to seize power by force in 1839; two other members of the association, Henry Ross and Richard Spurr, were involved in insurrectionary plans in January 1840 following the ill-fated Welsh Chartist rising at Newport, while Hetherington also clearly knew of a great deal of insurrectionary moves at this time. Since the 1970s interpretations of Chartism have tended to marginalize the LWMA, even at the risk of overlooking its seminal role in helping to mobilize Chartism. Clearly a mass reform movement would have emerged without the LWMA, but it would have lacked both its key unifying concept and eye-catching title.

Malcolm Chase

Sources  

Address and rules of the Working Men's Association: for benefiting politically, socially, and morally the useful classes (1836) · D. Goodway, London Chartism, 1838–1848 (1982) · I. J. Prothero, Artisans and politics in early nineteenth-century London: John Gast and his times (1979) · M. Chase, Chartism: a new history (2007) · [W. Lovett], Manifesto of the general convention of the industrious classes (1839) · The life and struggles of William Lovett, in his pursuit of bread, knowledge, and freedom (1876) · J. West, A history of the Chartist movement (1920) · The people's charter: being the outline of an act to provide for the just representation of the people of Great Britain in the Commons House of Parliament (1838) · census returns, 1841 · Lovett collection, Library of Birmingham · ‘historical narrative’, LWMA, BL, Add. MSS 27819–27821 · minute books of the LWMA, BL, Add. MSS 37773–37776 · BL, Place collection, set 56, vol. 1