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John James Bezer (1816–1888) and his Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848 (1851)

John James Bezer (1816-1888) et son Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848 (1851)
Madeleine Pham-Thanh

Résumés

Cette étude interprète The Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848 (1851) de John James Bezer en tant qu’intervention politique dans le mouvement radical post-chartiste. Elle postule notamment que l’inventivité stylistique de son auteur constitue un idiolecte qui contribue à la (re-)formation d’un sociolecte où s’esquisse une contre-culture populaire. Elle se concentre sur ce Chartiste méconnu, issu du peuple, autodidacte dont le radicalisme est sans concession, et souligne surtout ses efforts pour retrouver, grâce à la reconstruction autobiographique, l’agentivité dont ce marginal, autant au niveau social que politique, s’est vu privé. Tout en expliquant l’origine et la nature de son engagement, et en donnant corps à la figure du « rebelle chartiste » présente dans l’imaginaire populaire, le récit est l’occasion pour Bezer d’enraciner le discours radical dans une expérience vécue. À cette fin, son écriture oscille entre le « je » égotiste de l’autobiographie et un sujet générique indissociable d’un destin collectif. Dans une certaine mesure, l’intervention politique de Bezer et son influence potentielle doivent se mesurer à l’aune des conditions faites à la publication de son Autobiography, sérialisée dans les colonnes du Christian Socialist, hebdomadaire aux accents à l’occasion anti-chartistes. En définitive, cet article tente de prouver qu’une voix populaire radicale est à même de conserver son indépendance, en dépit de cette marginalisation et quand bien même le militantisme post-quarante-huitard se détourne du Chartisme, de son programme et de ses modes d’action.

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  • 1 ‘What do poor people want? Isn’t there a prison for those who do grumble, and a workhouse for those (...)

1Born into poverty and obscurity, this ‘rebel’, who also goes by the name of John James Bezer (1816–1888), identifies himself, respectively, as a Chartist until at least 1848 and an ex-convict from the London Newgate prison, in the title of his autobiography and the prologue to the narrative of his own birth as an event marked by a ‘strange’ correlation between his mother’s and his father’s fates on that day—implicitly foreshadowing his own. While playing on two acceptations of ‘confinement’, referring to both pregnancy and detention—to which one might add internment in the workhouse, as evoked in the prologue (Bezer 1851, 59)1—Bezer draws on the phraseology of Malthusian irresponsibility (‘surplus population’) to criticize the ideological and economic forces that consign him to being ‘superfluous’, ‘encumbering’ or ‘redundant’. Counterpointing family affection (‘the reward of twenty years’ matrimonial love’) and economic pressure (the brokers’ inauspicious intrusion), the autobiographer’s case study dramatizes, in a programmatic fashion, the bias of social and economic forms of valuation. With his idiosyncratic linguistic ingenuity, Bezer blends perfunctory formal humility and ironic self-deprecation, while establishing an ethos that is both generic (part of the ‘surplus population’) and singular (‘of one’), without ever claiming either exceptionality or exemplarity but rather justifying, in a somewhat defensive way, that ‘One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848’ is entitled to write his life narrative.

  • 2 See for instance David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: Nineteenth-Century Workers’ Autobiogr (...)
  • 3 This happened following Bezer’s meeting at the City Lecture Theatre, Milton Street, Cripplegate, wh (...)
  • 4 The first issue appeared on 2 November 1850. Printed by the Working Printers’ Association, the pape (...)
  • 5 George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) was an English secularist, advocate of co-operation, and newspape (...)
  • 6 For further biographical information on Bezer, see David Shaw (ed.), John James Bezer, 7–56.

2In tune with the ‘biographical turn’ taken by labour history, following G. D. H. Cole’s Chartist Portraits (1941), and more recent historiographical interest in the recovery of working class autobiographies as historical sources,2 this study pays particular attention to the way Bezer formulates his political intervention, showcasing his stylistic inventiveness, and resting on the assumption that his idiolect contributes to the (re-)making of a popular counter-cultural sociolect. But most of all, this paper is an attempt to shed light upon the struggles of a popular, self-educated, unrepentant radical, to regain, through autobiographical writing, the agency he was denied as a social and political marginal. In The Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848, Bezer explains the origin and nature of his political commitment, fleshing out the figure of the ‘Chartist’ in popular imagination. Although his text is no straightforward call to open rebellion, it reads as a legitimation of his own ‘rebelliousness’, which did eventually lead him to prison. In fact, the autobiography builds up to an account of his conviction for sedition3 in August 1848 and subsequent two years’ imprisonment in Newgate—in the aftermath of the April 10th ‘monster demonstration’ on Kennington Common, called by Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor. However, Bezer’s Autobiography was prevented from reaching a dramatic climax, as the narrative remains unfinished, at least in its published form. Issued anonymously in instalments (Numbers 45–59) in The Christian Socialist: a Journal of Association, Bezer’s Autobiography was cut short on 27 December 1851, owing to the demise of this cheap (one penny) weekly, which had been launched in 1850 by the Society for Promoting Working Men’s Associations to ‘diffuse the principles of co-operation as the practical application of Christianity to the purposes of trade and industry’, with John Malcolm Ludlow as editor and leader writer.4 The second volume of the Christian Socialist, in which the Autobiography appeared, was printed by Bezer himself, who had been put in charge of the Christian Socialists’ printing and publishing business earlier in 1851. Bezer had earned some notoriety for the radical bookshop on 183 Fleet Street which he had opened upon his release from prison in April 1850. He remained active in the later years of the Chartist movement, as a Chartist lecturer and a member of the National Charter Association Executive, to which he was elected at the end of 1851, resigning in April 1852 though, as the NCA was steered by George Jacob Holyoake5 towards co-operation with middle-class reformers.6 The tenets of Bezer’s political involvement hinge on a class-based vision of ‘the people’, redefined as the un-enfranchised, or more specifically the under-privileged.

3The Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848 is made up of a succession of more or less self-contained episodes—formally best suited for serialisation—where scenes of conflicts are often stylised for both dramatic and didactic purposes, while adversity and hardship are rhetorically presented as metonymies of class antagonism. As political and personal drama, Bezer’s Autobiography not only makes for genuinely pleasant reading, but also offers substantiation of the radical discourse as something drawn from lived experience. Still, this political outlook oscillates between the individualistic ‘I’ of autobiography, and the generic subject indissociable from collective destiny. Such ambivalence of the autobiographical ‘I’ is further complexified by the ambiguity of Bezer’s own political and practical motivations, namely in having his Autobiography inserted in the Christian Socialist. The partnership between Ludlow and Bezer involved at least some amount of opportunism, with on the one hand, an editor trying to gain Chartist credentials to widen his readership and base within the post-1848 radical movement, and on the other hand, a committed printer with a personal and political tale both to tell and to publish.

Relating the ‘simple annals’ of a Poor and Singular Rebel7

  • 7 ‘What I have already written, and what I shall write for a little time, is not very interesting to (...)
  • 8 This less ideological, more concretely human approach is in line with, for example, Mike Sanders’s (...)

4High on Bezer’s agenda is the fleshing out of the figure of the ‘Chartist’ as seen in the popular imagination. Releasing the memoirs of a self-proclaimed Chartist provided Bezer with an opportunity to go into the details and specificities of a real life experience. Beyond—or perhaps beneath—a collective identity (‘One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848’) whose ethos is proudly and somewhat provocatively vindicated, Bezer’s reminiscences offered him a way out of the anonymity of the crowd and the invisibility of the socio-economic margins. The text breathes life into the figure of the generic Chartist so as to make it more concretely human, endowed with a unique personality, common feelings, pains, hopes—in an underlying effort to ground more general points about the ‘Condition of England’ on personal testimony.8 Doing so, he gave a counter-narrative, sanctioned by popular authority, whose superior epistemic value was drawn from personal experience, implicitly challenging the paternalistic, compassionate though inevitably external discourse, drawn from observation, held in Parliamentary committees, royal commissions and government inquiries, or by middle-class social reformers of every description. In this respect, Bezer’s direct confrontation to the Poor Law system and its inadequacies, or his recollections of life in the urban squalor of the Whitehall slums he and his mother were reduced to staying in, may advantageously be contrasted with the scores of reports on sanitary conditions and their rather sanitized vision, or the somewhat tear-jerking social novels from the 1830s on, which turned social misery into novelistic material and had ‘[begun] to show how it was possible to incorporate the lowest elements of society into the highest form of literature’ (Vincent 1981, 23).

  • 9 Incidentally, he indignantly refuses these ‘rules’, turns down the offer and ‘rush[es], like one ma (...)
  • 10 See for instance Charles Kingsley’s 1856 preface to Alton Locke, referring to ‘the great drag [on p (...)

5While shedding light on the condition of England through personal testimony, Bezer’s story is a chronological sequence of self-contained episodes staging the genealogy of his growing sense of moral outrage and social injustice, retracing the elements from his past which aroused his indignation and awakened his political conscience, fuelling his ‘rebelliousness’, for which Chartism provided an outlet. Looking back on his personal hardships as a pauper, child-labourer, or beggar, he evokes the circumstances and influences that shaped his contemporary self, that is to say, a self-proclaimed ‘Chartist Rebel’. The tenth and final instalment, ‘How I became a Rebel’, provocatively dedicated to the Whig Prime Minister, ‘my Lord John Russell, for he ought to know why men become Rebels’, ends with a sweeping conclusion: ‘Politics, my Lord, was with me just then, a bread-and cheese-question’ (Bezer 1851, 109). This was probably written hurriedly, as a conclusion of sorts, with the awareness that the demise of the Christian Socialist would keep the rest of his autobiography unpublished. Here, John James Bezer takes up the standard phraseology of Chartism, which links social unrest to hunger and unemployment, originating in a famous speech delivered by the Rev. Joseph Rayner Stephens in 1838: ‘Chartism is no political movement, where the main question is getting the ballot. . . . This question of universal suffrage is a knife and fork question, . . .  a bread and cheese question’ (Northern Star, 29 September 1838, 6). Bezer’s work operates to show that this rallying cry is not a mere formula, since in this final section, it actually takes on a literal meaning, thus adding a ring of truth to a phrase that may have turned suspiciously metaphoric. Indeed, Bezer stages the appalling treatment of paupers when he reports that after being a beggar for some six months, he appealed to the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity for ‘food, work and clothing’ (Bezer 1851, 103), as advertised; after much queuing up, and working his way over a succession of procedural hurdles, he was declared eligible to some ‘bread and cheese’ (Bezer 1851, 108), provided he ate it on location rather than took it out to ‘share it with those [he] loves, who are as hungry as [he] is’ (Bezer 1851, 108)9. On this occasion, he addresses the ‘bread-and-cheese-question’ in the light of his frustrating and infuriating encounter, uncovering the element of raw truth behind catchwords. The insertion of somewhat anecdotal details and scenes cumulatively highlights how the moral outrage and resentment inflicted on the Chartist rebel-to-be really arose spontaneously, from the direct experience of social and political marginalization, rather than from the interference of so-called outside agitators. Such criticism was repeatedly levelled at the movement’s leaders in anti-Chartist rhetoric, a view whereby Chartist supporters were denied any agency or independence of mind, and were manipulated or even harassed by opportunistic demagogues.10 However, Bezer is anxious to specify that Chartism is no mere spasmodic reaction to dire conditions of life, but a self-preserving, though desperate, necessity: ‘Let me not, however, be mistaken; I ever loved the idea of freedom,—glorious freedom, and its inevitable consequences,—and not only for what it will fetch, but the holy principle’ (Bezer 1851, 109). He thus extols ‘freedom’ in its dual dimension—as both an ideal to revere and a political means to a social end, emphasizing its value through repetition (‘freedom’, ‘glorious freedom’). Quite in keeping with the modes of expression and argumentation specific to (periodical) print culture, Bezer opts here for a rhetoric based on oratorical effects, where repetitions do not necessarily add any shade of meaning but are meant to galvanize the audience.

6While Bezer’s narrative reads as a self-conscious gesture loaded with political intentions, it also includes highly personal recollections which are not fully subordinated to the Chartist-oriented reconstruction. In an effort to balance public and private life, which is a typical feature of working-class autobiographies, Bezer identifies himself as ‘one of the Chartist Rebels of 1848’, but also means to showcase how he is not a mere ‘[insurgent] existing only at a moment of insurrection, but [a] complete human [being]’ (Vincent 1977, 16). One of the more poignant pages recounts his father’s death and his mother’s subsequent psychological as well as physical collapse:

On the 16th day of April, 1833, I was helping the servant to shake a carpet, in the lane, when her attention was directed to a woman who had fallen on the ground a little way off. I ran with her to assist, and it was mother—poor mother! (Bezer 1851, 91)

  • 11 ‘Chartism’s scribes in the early years [of the movement] demonstrated a firm commitment to poetry a (...)

7The scene is reported with an attention to detail which gives an authentic ring to the depiction and strikes an emotional chord, with the repetition of the word ‘mother’. The fainting of the poor enfeebled woman is reminiscent of popular melodrama, a kinship analysed by Sally Ledger in her essay on mid-nineteenth-century popular Chartist aesthetics.11 This dramatic scene is in keeping with the autobiographer’s self-dramatization as a ‘Chartist Rebel’, which appears not only in the title but also as a signature for each instalment of his work in the Christian Socialist. It should be noted that when writing for The Northern Star and National Trades’ Journal, the main Chartist press organ, Bezer adopted the denomination ‘J. J. Bezer, from Newgate!!’, with the sensational reference to the London prison, emphasized by the double exclamation mark. His posturing manifests a form of self-aggrandizing bravado, and more specifically, it highlights his status and experience as a committed radical activist that justifies a claim to authority. The ‘Newgate affair’ is referred to as a distinguishing feature of Bezer’s life as early as the opening sequence. In reply to ‘Tory Bill’ inquiring whether there is ‘anything remarkable then in [his] life?’, he answers: ‘No, not very; except, perhaps, the Newgate affair—it is the life of millions in this “happy land”, “the admiration of the world, and the envy of surrounding nations” . . .’ (Bezer 1851, 59). Bezer eschews the introspective gaze characteristic of autobiographical writing, and, as in most Chartist life narratives, the private, intimate sphere either recedes into the background or operates as a context, if not a pretext, for more explicitly political concerns (Gagnier 1987, 335–63; Bensimon 5–21).

Revisiting the Spiritual Autobiography Tradition in the Light of Popular Radicalism

8Bezer articulates a sweeping denunciation of the conflict-ridden society he grew up in, through a series of episodes, anecdotes or seemingly trivial details which relate the way he was brought into repeated conflicts with enforcers of social order—constables (chapter 1), Poor Law administrators (chapter 3), church ministers (chapter 7), or dispensers of charity (chapter 10). His progress through the obstacle course of 19th-century England is depicted with all the wrathful indignation of a vocal member of the underprivileged class, which legitimizes his own rebelliousness—though he remains cautiously evasive about condoning rebellion. The causal order that organizes his life-narrative tends to blur the distinction between self-justification and an underlying moralization of physical force. Meanwhile, he consistently condemns, by blunt comments or witty satire, the way social superstructures arouse feelings of shame and guilt in their main victims, thereby keeping them in an alienated state of submission. This radical criticism of covertly coercive institutions remains rhetorically linked with the spiritual autobiography in its reliance on trials, temptations and predicaments, as stages for the soul’s development and the individuation process. In one of his most bitter moments, Bezer recollects how the teachings of his Raven Row Dissenting Sunday School in Spitalfields once misled him even into wearing ‘sackcloth and ashes’. Feelingly mocking the naivety of his younger self, he recalls ‘imploring for [the] mercy of the ‘God of vengeance’ (Bezer 1851, 80) out of fear of the ‘hell-fire, and eternal brimstone’ (Bezer 1851, 65) that awaited all sinners, ‘children [being] brought to compare themselves to the Manasseh and the “Chief’ of sinners”’ (Bezer 1851, 180). Drawing from the longstanding tradition of spiritual memoirs (Vincent 1981, 1–38), though reworking it in the light of popular radicalism, Bezer’s text proclaims his faith in ‘a God of justice—of love—of mercy’ (Bezer 1851, 65). In Vile Doings in Newgate, an 1850 pamphlet based on his prison journal, the concept of a transcendent hereafter remains, but it is described in secular terms with marked bitterness and a definite political leaning as the place ‘where the Whigs cease from troubling, and the Chartists are at rest’ (Bezer 1850, 12), thereby conflating the bliss of the after-life with the actual telos of political action here below.

  • 12 ‘Strange to tell, mother and father were both confined on the same day . . .’ (Bezer 1851, 60).
  • 13 On the importance of Kingsley’s Alton Locke in shaping the memory and early historiography of Chart (...)
  • 14 Thomas Cooper’s autobiography, The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself, was written much late (...)

9During a somewhat picaresque journey made up of a series of seemingly fortuitous events, Bezer overcomes the adversity he is confronted with. The tale might indeed be ‘strange to tell’12 (Bezer 1851, 60), were it not for the autobiographer’s overarching efforts to (re)construct the coherence of his life, trace the genealogy of his political commitment (Bensimon 5–21), and motivate or justify his self-proclaimed identity as a ‘Chartist Rebel’, subsumed under a collective identity in the title, ‘One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848’. Regenia Gagnier’s distinction between the picaresque and the teleological (1987) sheds light on the way the text can be read as a secularized version of a spiritual memoir, typical of Victorian working-class autobiographies, with its ternary pattern of sin-conversion-salvation (Peterson 1–3; Vincent 1981, 19). Bezer’s retrospective approach highlights more or less serious incidents and reflections that fuelled his resentment, and progresses towards his political conversion and active involvement within the Chartist movement, which provides an interpretive frame for most of the twists and turns in the narrative. In this respect, Bezer might be responding to Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet, a fictional Chartist autobiography written by Christian Socialist thinker and novelist Charles Kingsley and published anonymously just one year earlier.13 It is based on second-hand knowledge of social struggles and Chartist militancy, and loosely modelled on the life of Thomas Cooper.14 Kingsley’s Bildungsroman, and Künstlerroman, stages the eponymous character’s journey, from Chartist militancy to disillusioned detachment—‘That dream is gone—with others’ (Kingsley 305)—and ultimately, to Christian Socialism—a denouement which is described in terms of both political and religious conversion, and coupled with a new-found poetic voice.

  • 15 ‘I read you in Newgate,—so I could, I understand, if I had been taken care of in Bedford jail,—your (...)

10The literary tradition of spiritual memoirs, both secularized and politicized in most working-class autobiographies of the 19th century, stretches back to the 17th century, in the wake of the political and religious crisis of the Civil War period. Of course, the paradigmatic work is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which Bezer evokes dutifully and affectionately as the most inspirational work he would read in his Sunday School and then later in Newgate.15 He stresses how much it guided and emboldened him whenever the sense of defeat threatened to overwhelm him:

My own dear Bunyan! If it hadn’t been for you, I should have gone mad, I think, before I was ten years old! Even as it was, the other books and teachings I was bored with, had such a terrible influence on me, that somehow or other, I was always nourishing the idea that ‘Giant Despair’ had got hold of me, and that I should never get out of his ‘Doubting Castle’. . . . Glorious Bunyan, you too were a ‘Rebel’, and I love you doubly for that. (Bezer 1851, 79)

  • 16 This intertextuality is reminiscent, among other instances, of Thomas Doubleday’s The Political Pil (...)
  • 17 On Sunday Schools as ‘precursors’ to political involvement, see Griffin 587–89.

11However, Bunyan’s influence is clearly neither wholesale nor unqualified, and it is The Pilgrim’s Progress once re-appropriated (‘my own dear Bunyan!’, my emphasis), rather than the one inculcated in his Calvinist Sunday School, which Bezer adopts and adapts devotedly. Bunyan’s allegorical topology maps out his own religious as well as political imaginary, and provides him with an interpretive grid to rephrase powerlessness in terms of the disempowerment which one can and shall overcome. Nonetheless, Bezer does not so much identify with Bunyan—or with Christian, the ‘Pilgrim’, for that matter—as he iconoclastically identifies Bunyan with himself, an avowed ‘Rebel’. By doing so, he glorifies him (and himself, in the process, bearing in mind Bunyan’s status of unimpeachable authority) as an uplifting figure of insubordination.16 Bezer’s subversion of his Sunday School teachings echoes his overall non-compliance with the norms and tenets of the Establishment, both political and literary, but it also testifies to the vigour of Victorian popular autodidact culture.17 It stands in stark contrast with the cross-class ventriloquism at work in Kingsley’s Alton Locke, with its praise of ‘high’ literature (as opposed to Pharisaism or a popular poetic voice committed to radical politics) and its somewhat quietist message:

‘Yes,’ she continued, ‘Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood are here. Realise them in thine own self, and so alone thou helpest to make realities for all. Not from without, from Charters and Republics, but from within, from The Spirit working in each; not by wrath and haste, but by patience made perfect through suffering, canst thou proclaim their good news to the groaning masses, as thy Master did before thee, by the cross and not the sword’. (Kingsley 307)

Vindicating a Non-Compliant, Unrepentant Form of Popular Radicalism

  • 18 Among the scattered, one-off mentions of Chartists who rallied around the Christian Socialist cause (...)
  • 19 Christian Socialist, No. 45, vol. II, Saturday, September 6, 1851. ‘Tennyson and his Poetry, II’, b (...)
  • 20 ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci. A Ballad’ (1819), by John Keats: 158–59. While Chartists were both avid (...)
  • 21 See Christian Socialist, Saturday, November 1, 1851, No. 53, Vol. II, 274: ‘Had [The Christian Soci (...)

12As a matter of fact, one may wonder why the prominent figures of Christian Socialism (among whom Kingsley himself, who, together with John Malcolm Ludlow, founded the movement in 1848) agreed to publish The Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848 in the columns of the Christian Socialist, the official press organ of the London Working-Men’s Association. Ludlow, its editor, may actually have been motivated by mere pragmatic considerations, and might even have attempted to have the best of both worlds, in other words, to secure additional, popular, openly radical credentials, in order to appeal to Chartists or their sympathizers and gain their support.18 Meanwhile, in an effort to make Bezer more palatable to middle-class readers, the editorial board may have been trying to muffle the more radical implications of Chartist principles and tactics, to reorganise its discourse and meaning by smuggling in a Christian Socialist subtext. In this respect, there is something quite telling about the layout of the paper, given that the first instalment of the Autobiography is wedged between a lengthy and erudite essay on ‘Tennyson and his Poetry’,19 and John Keats’s ballad, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’,20 reproduced in full in the poetry column. The idea that Bezer’s popular, fractious voice is dwarfed, and thus perhaps neutralized, by its proximity to such canonical representatives of high literature, underlies Alf Louvre’s in-depth analysis of the subversive power of Bezer’s wit and irreverent tone, when he states in a vitriolic comment: ‘Ludlow’s praise of Bezer (“our friend” with his “truthful, manly” “homeliness”) reeks of tokenism’ (Louvre 29–30).21

  • 22 ‘Mr Ernest Jones on Co-Operation’ by ‘J. T.’ (John Townsend, Ludlow’s pen name), Christian Socialis (...)
  • 23 See Bezer’s letter sent to George Julian Harney for publication in his Friend of the People, 13 Mar (...)

13In their effort to fill the relative vacuum left by the collapse of the Chartist mass platform after 1848, the Christian Socialists also had to face the onslaught against their co-operative ventures, made by Ernest Jones22 in his Notes to the People. Bezer himself actively supported Jones against George Jacob Holyoake, who was then urging the Chartist Executive to join forces with the National Parliamentary Reform Association.23 Though in the Christian Socialist, Bezer never explicitly takes sides, his rejection of political co-operation, compromise and class-conciliation is dramatized in a dialogue with an anti-Chartist bigot aptly called ‘Tory Bill’:

‘Oh you had nought to lose in 1848, and so your motto was, “Down with everything, and up with nothing but anarchy, confusion, and civil war”. Thank God, however, and the Special Constables, the 10th of April showed’.
‘Showed what?—that class had arisen against class, where there ought to be no classes; that the lower orders had to wait a little longer. . . .’ (Bezer 1851, 59)

  • 24 Tory Bill’s outlook was not exclusive to Tory opinion, but rather echoes the standard—bi-partisan—W (...)

14In an attempt to rectify the prevalent misconceptions about the events of April 10th, Bezer shows in condensed terms how Chartists, their activities and discourses, have been indiscriminately deemed unintelligible (‘confusion’), recklessly unruly (‘anarchy’) and disruptive of the social fabric (‘civil war’).24 Conversely, he bitterly sneers at all those—among whom the Christian Socialists—who preach the virtue of patience to the un-enfranchised and promote a gradualist approach to social progress and political emancipation. Meanwhile, he resorts to a schematic vision of binary class antagonisms, which is echoed by the binary opposition between ‘class’ and the classless society of ‘no classes’.

Conclusion

  • 25 ‘Is Ireland Up?’, 26 July 1848 at the City Lecture Theatre, Milton Street, Cripplegate.
  • 26 ‘I had a long tongue once and got into Newgate through it’, Christian Socialist, No. 58, vol. II, S (...)
  • 27 Report of a public meeting held in Finsbury, Northern Star, Saturday 25 January 1851, 1.

15Bezer’s Autobiography bears witness to the possibility for a popular radical voice to retain its independence, even within the marginalizing context of its publication and the shift of militancy away from Chartist politics toward co-operatives, especially, from the 1850s on, in the tailoring and printing trades of London, friendly societies, or trade-unionism, notably in the textile industry. Bezer’s conviction for his inflammatory rhetoric and the ‘seditious speech’ he delivered on 26 July 1848,25 showed that refusing to hold that ‘long tongue’26 of his (Christian Socialist 356) came at a cost. Here, the autobiographer’s attempt to shape his own life, and potentially the course of history as well, meets the activist’s claim to being represented—in his own terms. Picking up on a long-standing demand of the radical movement, Bezer is reported to have ‘developed the operation of the press upon the interests of the working-classes, and, in a humorous manner, [to have] showed how even the most liberal of the press, excepting the Northern Star, and other Democratic journals, misrepresented and distorted every meeting of working men, when they condescended to notice them’.27 In fact, there was still no full-length history of Chartism by the late 19th century, with the early exception of Robert George Gammage’s History of the Chartist Movement, which however Gammage had written in the immediate aftermath of his bitter quarrel with Ernest Jones, and whose first edition, in 1854, could not have been widely distributed. Meanwhile, most of the published Chartist autobiographical material was not written before the last quarter of the century (Saville 1969, 45). Without overestimating the impact that Bezer’s Autobiography would have had, if only it had been finished, one must still acknowledge it as a contribution to the collective endeavour not to let Chartism be ‘submerged, in the national consciousness, beneath layers of false understanding and denigration’ (Saville 1990, 202).

  • 28 See footnote 13.
  • 29 William Burns, The Age of Equipoise: A Study of the Mid-Victorian Generation. London: Allen & Unwin (...)
  • 30 Such are the terms used by Lawrence Goldman in Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain: T (...)
  • 31 See for example John Belchem, ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’ in The (...)

16It was in fact Kingsley’s fictional Chartist autobiography that would prove prevalent,28 in the so-called ‘age of equipoise’, as William Burns put it.29 As post-1848 Britain was widely hailed as the era of ‘stability, optimism, social solidarity, relative affluence, and liberality’30 (Goldman 59), Chartism was recast as a movement of the past, despite its persistent activity into the 1850s—disqualifying Chartist tactics of extra-parliamentary agitation on the mass platform, and subduing the enduring radical strand of a popular autodidact culture which Bezer so vigorously represents.31

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Bibliographie

Belchem, John. ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’. Ed. James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson, The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working-Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830–1862. London: Macmillan, 1982. 269–310.

Bensimon, Fabrice. ‘Présentation’. Ed. Fabrice Bensimon, Les Sentiers de l’ouvrier: Le Paris des artisans britanniques (autobiographies, 1815–1850). Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2017. 5–21.

Bezer, John James. ‘Is Ireland Up?’, 26 July 1848 at the City Lecture Theatre, Milton Street, Cripplegate.

Bezer, John James. Vile Doings in Newgate, Or, Political Prisoners Versus Murderers & Thieves: Being Extracts from My Newgate Journal. London, 1850.

Bezer, John James. ‘The Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848’. 1851. Ed. David Shaw. John James Bezer, Chartist and John Arnott, National Charter Association, lulu.com, 2008: 57–109.

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Notes

1 ‘What do poor people want? Isn’t there a prison for those who do grumble, and a workhouse for those who don’t [. . .]?’ David Shaw (ed.), John James Bezer, Chartist and John Arnott, National Charter Association, lulu.com, 2008.

2 See for instance David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: Nineteenth-Century Workers’ Autobiographies (1981); Regenia Gagnier, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832–1920 (1991), or C. Waters, ‘Autobiography, Nostalgia, and the Changing Practices of Working-Class Selfhood’ (2000).

3 This happened following Bezer’s meeting at the City Lecture Theatre, Milton Street, Cripplegate, which had been advertised ‘Is Ireland Up?’ (26 July 1848). See the details of the trial which took place, and namely how Bezer was charged with ‘inciting resistance to lawful authority and tending to cause the disruption or overthrow of the government’ in ‘Regina v. Bezer 1848, The Trial of John James Bezer for Sedition’. David Shaw (ed.), John James Bezer, Chartist, 15–23.

4 The first issue appeared on 2 November 1850. Printed by the Working Printers’ Association, the paper rose from an initial circulation of 1,500 to above 3,000 copies.

5 George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) was an English secularist, advocate of co-operation, and newspaper editor for The Reasoner and then The English Leader.

6 For further biographical information on Bezer, see David Shaw (ed.), John James Bezer, 7–56.

7 ‘What I have already written, and what I shall write for a little time, is not very interesting to the readers of this journal, I dare say—it is merely one of “the simple annals of the poor”’ (Bezer 1851, 78).

8 This less ideological, more concretely human approach is in line with, for example, Mike Sanders’s study of Chartist poetics, based on over one thousand poems published between 1838 and 1852 in the Northern Star. See Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).

9 Incidentally, he indignantly refuses these ‘rules’, turns down the offer and ‘rush[es], like one mad, through the crowd of astonished beggars, right into the street, without one stopping [him]’ (Bezer 1851, 108).

10 See for instance Charles Kingsley’s 1856 preface to Alton Locke, referring to ‘the great drag [on progress for the good cause], namely demagogism’ and rejoicing in seeing that ‘Since the 10th of April, 1848, (one of the most lucky days which the English workman ever saw), the trade of the mob-orator has dwindled down to such last shifts as these . . .’ (Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, 1857, v).

11 ‘Chartism’s scribes in the early years [of the movement] demonstrated a firm commitment to poetry and the literary tradition of Romanticism, but by the late 1840s there was a distinct shift toward the writing of popular novels that drew heavily on the conventions of melodrama’. (Sally Ledger, ‘Chartist Aesthetics in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Ernest Jones, a Novelist of the People’. Nineteenth-Century Literature 57.1 (2002): 31).

12 ‘Strange to tell, mother and father were both confined on the same day . . .’ (Bezer 1851, 60).

13 On the importance of Kingsley’s Alton Locke in shaping the memory and early historiography of Chartism, see John Saville’s introduction to Robert George Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, 1837–1854, (London: Holyoake, 1854), 34–45. Kingsley’s distorsion of the Chartist movement was also denounced by Holyoake in his autobiography, Bygones Worth Remembering, vol. I. Ch. VIII ‘The Chartists of Fiction’.

14 Thomas Cooper’s autobiography, The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself, was written much later, by the end of his life, and published in 1872.

15 ‘I read you in Newgate,—so I could, I understand, if I had been taken care of in Bedford jail,—your books are in the library of even your Bedford jail. Hurrah for progress!’ (Bezer 1851, 79).

16 This intertextuality is reminiscent, among other instances, of Thomas Doubleday’s The Political Pilgrim’s Progress (1839), narrating the journey of Radical from the City of Plunder to the City of Reform, and aligns with E. P. Thompson’s analyses of the corpus of references that shaped the making of late 18th and early 19th century radicalism (Thompson 31–35), or Jonathan Rose’s study of working people’s reading and writing practices.

17 On Sunday Schools as ‘precursors’ to political involvement, see Griffin 587–89.

18 Among the scattered, one-off mentions of Chartists who rallied around the Christian Socialist cause, see for example J. M. Ludlow, ‘Notes of a Co-Operative Tour Through Lancashire and Yorkshire’, Christian Socialist, Saturday, October 25, 1851, No. 52, vol. II, 259: ‘[William Bell] is an old Chartist, but now sees, as he told me, his way to the Charter far more clearly through co-operation than he used to formerly’.

19 Christian Socialist, No. 45, vol. II, Saturday, September 6, 1851. ‘Tennyson and his Poetry, II’, by Gerald Massey, a working-class poet and radical: 155–57.

20 ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci. A Ballad’ (1819), by John Keats: 158–59. While Chartists were both avid readers and writers of poetry, Keats’s poem, though it borrows from the popular form of the ballad, is at odds with the Chartist literary ‘canon’. See Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism.

21 See Christian Socialist, Saturday, November 1, 1851, No. 53, Vol. II, 274: ‘Had [The Christian Socialist] served no other purpose than that of bringing before the public that simple, truthful, manly Autobiography of our friend the “Chartist Rebel”, written in a style so strong and striking in its homeliness, I believe it would have still done good service’. (‘Appeal to Our Readers’)

22 ‘Mr Ernest Jones on Co-Operation’ by ‘J. T.’ (John Townsend, Ludlow’s pen name), Christian Socialist, No. 57, Vol. II, Saturday, November 29, 1851, 339–40; No. 58 Vol. II, Saturday, December 5, 1851, 354–56. Ernest Jones (1819–1869) was an English poet and the main leader of late Chartism. Working in close association with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in the early 1850s, he spearheaded the more radical ‘Charter and Something More’ program adopted by the National Charter Association at the London Convention of March 1851. For his criticism of the Christian Socialists, see Ernest Jones, ‘Co-Operation, What It Is, and What It Ought to Be’, Notes to the People, 20 September 1851, 407–11; ‘The Co-Operative Movement. Being a Letter from E. Vansittart Neale, and a Reply Thereto’, Notes to the People, 11 October 1851, 470–76; ‘The Co-Operative Movement’, Notes to the People, 8 November 1851, 543–46; ‘Reply to Mr Vansittart Neale’, Notes to the People, 22 November 1851, 584–88.

23 See Bezer’s letter sent to George Julian Harney for publication in his Friend of the People, 13 March 1851, ‘The Chartist Executive To the Editor of the Friend of the People’.

24 Tory Bill’s outlook was not exclusive to Tory opinion, but rather echoes the standard—bi-partisan—Whiggish view of history. See for instance T. B. Macaulay ‘To the Secretary of the Committee for the Liberation of Frost, Williams, and Jones’, The Times, 16 February 1846, in The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, September 1841–December 1848, 292–93.

25 ‘Is Ireland Up?’, 26 July 1848 at the City Lecture Theatre, Milton Street, Cripplegate.

26 ‘I had a long tongue once and got into Newgate through it’, Christian Socialist, No. 58, vol. II, Saturday, December 5, 1851, 366 (‘Circulation of the Christian Socialist. The Chartist Rebel Turned Spy – But Not in the Pay of the Government. – A ‘Free’ Letter, Partly Auto-Biographical, but Very Much Out of Order’).

27 Report of a public meeting held in Finsbury, Northern Star, Saturday 25 January 1851, 1.

28 See footnote 13.

29 William Burns, The Age of Equipoise: A Study of the Mid-Victorian Generation. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964.

30 Such are the terms used by Lawrence Goldman in Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association, 1857-1886 to offer a usefully synthetic characterization of Burns’s phrase ‘age of equipoise’.

31 See for example John Belchem, ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’ in The Chartist Experience.

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Madeleine Pham-Thanh, « John James Bezer (1816–1888) and his Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848 (1851) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/10817 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.10817

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Madeleine Pham-Thanh

Madeleine Pham-Thanh is a former ENS Lyon-student, agrégée in English. She is currently an A.T.E.R. at the University of Strasbourg. She is working on a PhD dissertation on the history and memory of Chartism under the supervision of Neil Davie and Frédéric Herrmann.
Madeleine Pham-Thanh, ancienne élève de l’ENS Lyon, agrégée d’anglais, est ATER à l’université de Strasbourg. Elle prépare une thèse intitulée De quoi le Chartisme est-il le nom ? Historiographie d’un mouvement, entre enjeux de mémoire et enjeux de pouvoir (1848-1906), sous la direction de Neil Davie et de Frédéric Herrmann. 

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