Memoirs of a Social Atom (04)

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IT has already been mentioned that I found myself very early in life whirling and swirling round the political maelstrom.  I was a very youthful atom indeed when, fired by the enthusiasm that seemed to impregnate the air, I became a member of the National Chartist Association—the association that was formed to demand the immediate adoption of the People's Charter.  The Chartist movement was the only movement of the time that seemed calculated to captivate the imagination of young and earnest politicians.  I had not then reached the mature age of seventeen.  Before I was two years older I was taking the chair at Chartist meetings and corresponding with members of Parliament concerning the treatment of Chartist prisoners.  But even at that time I was "a Chartist and something more," for it appeared to me that the Charter fell far short of the ideal that ought to be sought and must be attained before society could be constituted on a proper basis.  And so, while still active in Chartist circles, I was at the age of eighteen years and a half elected president of a Republican Association!  Of course I had all the confidence of youth.  What did statesmen or philosophers know about the way to manage national affairs, or the principles on which governments should be based, compared with what I and my comrades knew?  We had generous impulses in those days at all events.  We lacked judgment, discretion, every sort of prudent virtue; but we despised all mean and sordid interests.  It is perhaps the only excuse that can be offered for the conceit and presumption with which we of the younger race of politicians astounded and affronted our elders.

    The Chartist movement was some eight or ten years old when I entered it.  The history of the movement—probably the greatest popular movement of the nineteenth century—has yet to be written.  Materials for a work worthy of the subject are perhaps not abundant. The "Life of Thomas Cooper," the "Life and Struggles of William Lovett," the sketch published many years ago by R. G. Gammage, will assist the future historian.  But the story of that stormy episode in the political life of the working classes could only have been told with effect by a writer who shared in its passions and was a witness of its weaknesses.  And one by one all those who possessed the requisite acquaintance with the period have disappeared from the scene.  John Arthur Roebuck was (with an exception to be presently named) the last survivor of the politicians who, meeting in conference in 1837, passed the resolutions which afterwards formed the basis of the People's Charter.  But as the most interesting period of the Chartist movement did not commence till after the Charter had been formally approved at a great meeting in Birmingham in 1838, there were others besides Roebuck who could have related as it ought to be related the history of the great agitation.  These, too, however, have also disappeared.  So it is extremely unlikely that any competent or satisfactory narrative of a stupendous national crisis will ever now be given to the world.

    The demand for universal suffrage and other changes in the mode of representation grew out of the natural discontent of the masses of the people with the Reform Bill of 1832.  That great measure—for, after all, it was a great measure—satisfied the middle classes; but it made no change whatever in the political position of the bulk of working men.  There had been a sort of understanding that the power which would be acquired by the passing of the Reform Bill would be used afterwards for securing still further improvements in the distribution of the franchise.  But when the expectations thus formed were not realised, the working classes established associations of their own.  One of these had been initiated by a Cornish carpenter named William Lovett.  The People's Charter, as intimated above, was the outcome of a conference between representatives of Lovett's association and certain members of Parliament who sympathised with the popular demand.  The members of Parliament comprised Daniel O'Connell, Charles Hindley, John Temple Leader, [15] William Sharman Crawford, John Fielden, Thomas Wakley, John Bowring, Daniel Whittle Harvey, Thomas Perronet Thompson, and John Arthur Roebuck.

(From a contemporary print.)

    Having agreed to certain propositions, the conference appointed a committee of twelve persons—six members of Parliament and six members of the London Working Men's Association—to draw up a Bill embodying the principles that had been approved. The working men so appointed were Henry Hetherington, John Cleave, James Watson, Richard Moore, William Lovett, and Henry Vincent, while the six members of Parliament were O'Connell, Roebuck, Leader, Hindley, Thompson, and Crawford. The document which was drawn up by the committee, and which came soon to be known as the People's Charter, made formal demands for six points—universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, equal electoral districts, payment of members, and the abolition of the property qualification.  The Charter, adopted at a great meeting held in Birmingham on Aug. 6th, 1838, was submitted to a meeting held in Palace Yard, London, in the following month, when one of the resolutions was moved by Ebenezer Elliot, then famous as the "Corn-Law Rhymer."

    It was resolved at both gatherings to call a Convention of Delegates, and to obtain signatures to a National Petition beseeching Parliament to enact the Charter.  The Convention, which consisted of fifty-five delegates, said to have been elected by three millions of persons, met first in London, and subsequently in Birmingham.  The meeting in London was held at the British Coffee House, Feb. 4th, 1839.  A print of the scene, giving portraits of some of the principal members of the Convention, was published at the time.  All the members are now dead, George Julian Harney, who died in 1897, being, I believe, the last survivor.  The National Petition, bearing, it was alleged, 1,280,000 signatures, was placed in the hands of Mr. Thomas Attwood, then member for Birmingham, the leading spirit of one of the Political Unions which had been chiefly instrumental in carrying the Reform Bill.  There were probably exaggerations as to the numbers which took part in the election of delegates; but the rapidity with which the movement spread to every part of the country, and the enthusiasm with which it was received in all the great centres of population, could not be exaggerated.  The portentous agitation was viewed with some alarm by the Government, which set about an attempt to arrest it.  Unfortunately, the purposes of the Government were assisted by the Chartists themselves; for they indulged in foolish language, resorted to foolish threats, and commenced preparations for still more foolish proceedings.  Arms were bought; bands were drilled; the "sacred month" was suggested.  But the Convention dissolved in the autumn of 1839, and the Charter was as far off as ever.

    The popular power which the movement had developed, however, did not dissolve with the Convention.  Many men of mark and vigour, besides the originators of the Charter, joined the agitation.  Not the least eloquent of these was Thomas Cooper, and not the least energetic George Julian Harney.  But the most prominent of them all was an Irishman—Feargus O'Connor.  Gifted with great talent for winning the favour and applause of the populace, O'Connor was then and for long afterwards the idol of the day.  Hundreds of thousands of working men were almost as devoted to him as the better spirits of Italy at a later date were devoted to Joseph Mazzini.  When he addressed in the rich brogue of his native country "the blistered hands and unshorn chins of the working classes," he appeared to touch a chord which vibrated from one end of the kingdom to the other.  Wherever he went he was sure of a vast and appreciative audience.

    The popularity of the Northern Star, which O'Connor had established as the organ of the movement, was almost equal to his own. But, powerful as O'Connor was, and vast as was the circulation of the Northern Star, no great progress seemed to be made in influencing either the Ministry or the Parliament. A new Convention was subsequently summoned in London—John Frost having in the meantime made his abortive attempt at Newport—and a new association was projected by Lovett. Bitter feuds, however, broke out between O'Connor and the rest of the Chartist leaders, so that much of the strength of the agitation was wasted in personal squabbles. Moreover, the most absurd schemes were proposed for forcing the Government to yield to the popular demands.

    I have alluded to the "sacred month."  This was a proposition that the working classes should enter upon a strike for that period throughout the whole country.  Thomas Cooper tells us how an old Chartist, who had been a member of the first Convention, proposed at a meeting in the Potteries "that all labour cease till the People's Charter becomes the law of the land."  The same wild scheme, not long subsequently, was submitted by Dr. McDouall, who had then become a prominent leader of the movement, to a meeting of the Chartist Executive in Manchester.  Another singular device was that the people should abstain from consuming excisable articles, so as to paralyse the financial arrangements of the Government.  There were partial strikes in Lancashire; Chartist families here and there (my own included) abstained for a time from using tea, coffee, sugar, spirits, and tobacco; but the attempt to obtain the Charter by these means failed as utterly as the attempt of Frost to promote an insurrection of the labouring classes in Wales.

    The aims and claims of the Chartists were, to a certain extent, shared and approved by middle-class Radicals.  With the view of separating what was reasonable in the movement from what was ridiculous—the principles of the Charter from the violent means which were advocated to secure them—there had been formed what was called the Complete Suffrage party.  Joseph Sturge, an estimable Quaker of Birmingham, was the chief figure in the new party.  Associated with Edward Miall, Laurence Heyworth, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, and the Rev. Patrick Brewster, Mr. Sturge had entered into negotiations with Lovett, Collins, Bronterre O'Brien, and other old Chartists who dissented from O'Connor's tactics.  The result was another conference—the Birmingham Conference of 1843.  Four hundred delegates assembled on the occasion.  The Conference was, perhaps, the most important—certainly the most influential—gathering of the kind that had been held since the Charter had been promulgated.  Thomas Cooper, who was present, informs the readers of his biography "that the best orator in the Conference was a young friend of Lovett's, then a subordinate in the British Museum, but now known to all England as the highly successful barrister, Serjeant Parry."  But neither Parry's eloquence nor Sturge's good intentions could evoke harmony out of the discordant elements that had then met together.  If there had been anything like union, the political future of England might have been changed.  As it was, the Conference broke up in confusion.

    The divisions which were manifested in Sturge's Conference became more marked in the councils of the Chartists themselves.  O'Connor added to these divisions by mixing up with the demand for the suffrage his disastrous and preposterous Land Scheme.  Nevertheless, he kept his hold of the movement down to the time of the great demonstration on April 10th, 1848.  Excited by the events which had just taken place in France, the Chartists thought they saw an opportunity of impressing the Government with the extent of their numbers, if not with the justice of their claims.  Unfortunately, they only succeeded in frightening the Government into acts of trepidation and terror.  Nor did the new National Petition they promoted produce any effect on the Legislature.  The failure of the demonstration on Kennington Common marked a turning-point in the history of Chartism.  Down to that time it had at least maintained its position in the country; but after that time it began to decline.
    The authority and influence of the great Feargus, weakened by the events of April 10th, weakened still further by the gradual collapse of his land ventures, rapidly faded away.  Other men became prominent in what remained of the movement—Ernest Jones, Gerald Massey, and the founder of Reynolds's Newspaper.  Various attempts were likewise made to resuscitate the agitation—notably by Thornton Hunt and George Jacob Holyoake.  But Chartism as a political force was beyond redemption.  Julian Harney and Ernest Jones helped to keep it alive by means of publications—Red Republicans, Friends of the People, Vanguards, Notes to the People, People's Papers, and other periodicals whose very names are now almost forgotten.  But the few that continued the struggle quarrelled among themselves.  Harney at last abandoned the now hopeless business.  Jones, however, supported by a declining number of adherents, maintained the fight down to 1857, when he too was starved into surrender.  Penury was the lot also of one of the best known of the Chartist officials.  For many years during the latter period of the agitation the name of John Arnott as general secretary appeared at the foot of all the official notices of the Chartist Association.  Some time about 1865 I was standing at the shop door of a Radical bookseller in the Strand.  A poor half-starved old man came to the bookseller, according to custom, to beg or borrow a few coppers.  It was John Arnott! Chartism was then, as it really had been for a long time before, a matter of history.



FEW men now living, I fancy, had an earlier introduction to Chartism than I had.  My people, though there wasn't a man among them, were all Chartists, or at least all interested in the Chartist movement.  If they did not keep the "sacred month," it was because they thought the suspension of labour on the part of a few poor washerwomen would have no effect on the policy of the country.  But they did for a time abstain from the use of excisable commodities.  There were other indications of their tendencies.  We had a dog called Rodney.  My grandmother disliked the name because she had a curious sort of notion that Admiral Rodney, having been elevated to the peerage, had been hostile to the people.  The old lady, too, was careful to explain to me that Cobbett and Cobden were two different persons—that Cobbett was the hero, and that Cobden was just a middle-class advocate.  One of the pictures that I longest remember—it stood alongside samplers and stencilled drawings, and not far from a china statuette of George Washington—was a portrait of John Frost.  A line at the top of the picture indicated that it belonged to a series called the Portrait Gallery of People's Friends.  Above the head was a laurel wreath, while below was a representation of Mr. Frost appealing to justice on behalf of a group of ragged and wretched outcasts.  I have been familiar with the picture since childhood, and cherish it as a memento of stirring times.

    Another early recollection is that of a Sunday morning gathering in a humble kitchen.  The most constant of our visitors was a crippled shoemaker, whose legs were of little use except to enable him to hop or hobble about on a pair of crutches.  Larry—we called him Larry, because his Christian name was Laurence, and we knew no other—made his appearance every Sunday morning, as regular as clockwork, with a copy of the Northern Star, damp from the press, for the purpose of hearing some member of our household read out to him and others "Feargus's letter."  The paper had first to be dried before the fire, and then carefully and evenly cut, so as not to damage a single line of the almost sacred production.  This done, Larry, placidly smoking his cutty pipe, which he occasionally thrust into the grate for a light, settled himself to listen with all the rapture of a devotee in a tabernacle to the message of the great Feargus, watching and now and then turning the little joint as it hung and twirled before the kitchen fire, and interjecting occasional chuckles of approval as some particularly emphatic sentiment was read aloud.  But Larry had other gods besides Feargus.  One was William Cobbett.  Among his cherished possessions were two little volumes of Cobbett's works—the "Legacy to Parsons" and the "Legacy to Labourers."  These volumes, I recollect (for Larry, though I was but a lad, loaned them to me as a special and particular favour), were preserved in wash-leather cases, each made to fit so exactly and close so tightly that no spot or stain of any sort should reach the precious pages within.  Poor old Larry had a brave and wholesome heart in a most misshapen frame.  Dead for fifty years, he yet lives in at least one loving memory.

    The humble shoemaker, though he longed for the emancipation of his class, and made what sacrifices he could to achieve it, turned his modest circumstances to the best account.  No pot-house politician he.  Larry and his wife were as cheerful a couple as could be found in the town.  Riches are not necessary to produce the blessings and comforts of home.  A bright fireside is not incompatible even with poverty, or at least with the very humblest of means.  This was demonstrated in Larry's cottage.  It consisted of just two rooms—a kitchen and a loft—though it had what are almost unknown advantages in large towns: a plot of ground for flowers in front and a bigger plot for fruits and vegetables at the back.  But it is Larry's kitchen—at once his parlour and his workshop—that lives in my recollection.  To say that it was as "clean as a new pin" is to give but a faint idea of the spotless brightness of everything in it.  The very floor, brick though it was, was better scrubbed than many a dining table I have seen since.  The pots and pannikins, the cans and canisters, those simple tin or pewter ornaments of the mantelshelf, shone like silver.  All else about the apartment, where there was a place for everything and everything was in its place, was equally conspicuous for the polish that was given to it.  Larry's cottage, as the result of the industry of Larry's wife, was a veritable palace for cleanliness and comfort.  Even the old cripple's low shoes were a wonder; for they shone so brilliantly that a cat, seeing her reflection in them, as in the pictorial advertisements of Day and Martin's blacking of that time, would have almost arched her back for a conflict with her counterpart.  And the venerable couple, in spite of their penury, were probably as happy a couple as any in the kingdom.  If all Chartist homes had been as well kept as Larry's, there might have been less discontent in the country, but there would have been more force and vitality in the movement to which the masses of the people gave their sanction.  As a striking example of devotion to political ideals among the poor, the lame old shoemaker retains a treasured place in the recollection of the days that are gone.

    While I was still a boy, though even then interested in political affairs, our town was visited by two of the Chartist chiefs.  One was Feargus O'Connor, the other Henry Vincent.  Some excitement was caused by the intimation that the former gentleman was expected to arrive by a certain route at a certain time.  I joined a party of elder people to go out and meet him.  We went to a neighbouring village, sat on a bridge, and waited.  Our visitor did not come—at least, not our route.  That night or the next night I have a faint recollection of seeing an orator in his shirtsleeves addressing a crowd in the markets.  It was Feargus.  He was expected again in the first month of 1848, when a procession of carts and waggons passed through the town on the way to Snig's End, one of the estates which had been purchased under the Land Scheme.  This time, however, he did not come at all.  Vincent's visit occurred about 1841.  It was after the "young Demosthenes," as he was called, had suffered two periods of imprisonment—first in Monmouth Gaol, and afterwards at Millbank and Oakham.  The meetings he addressed were held in a stable or coach-house—at any rate the room or building was in a livery stable yard.  I recollect the locality well, though not a word that was said there.  What I do recollect also is the suspicions that were expressed in our household as to the cause of the change of tone observable in Vincent's utterances before and after imprisonment.  The fiery and reckless orator of 1839 had become sober and restrained.  The simple people of that day could only account for the change on the ground that the Government had somehow found means to influence or corrupt him.  When Vincent next appeared in the town, it was as the spokesman of the Peace Society, not of the Chartist Association.

    Chartism had interested me as any other stirring movement with which my friends and relatives were connected would have done.  But the time soon arrived when I became interested in it on my own account.  The local leader of the party was a blacksmith—J. P. Glenister.  Others with whom I became associated—all much older than myself—were shoemakers, tailors, gardeners, stonemasons, cabinetmakers, the members of the first-named craft greatly predominating.  There had been an earlier leader of the name of Millsom, a plasterer; but he, I think, was then dead.  Next to Glenister's the names I best remember among my old associates—all forgotten now save by a very few—were those of Hemmin, Sharland, [16] Glover, Hiscox, Knight, Ryder, and Winters.  They were earnest and reputable people—much above the average in intelligence.  Glenister was probably the least educated among them.  But he had one qualification which the others had not—he could make a speech.  Not much of a speech, perhaps, though the speaker generally contrived to make his audience understand what he wanted to say.  The old blacksmith usually, in virtue of his standing among us, presided over our meetings.  One night, while he was so presiding, somebody spoke of Tom Paine.  Up jumped the chairman.  "I will not sit in the chair," he cried in great wrath, "and hear that great man reviled.  Bear in mind he was not a prize-fighter.  There is no such person as Tom Paine.  Mister Thomas Paine, if you please."  Glenister soon afterwards emigrated with his family to Australia, and one heard of him occasionally as doing well in his new home—which, being an honest and industrious man, he was every way likely to do.

    It came to pass that the insignificant atom who writes this narrative, having all the effrontery of youth, took a somewhat prominent part in the Chartist affairs of the town.  The first important business in which he was concerned was the National Petition for the Charter which was set afloat immediately after the French Revolution of 1848.  It was alleged to have received 5,700,000 signatures; but the number was subsequently reduced to 2,000,000, which included many fictitious names—the work of knaves and enemies in order to bring discredit on the document.  The animated scenes at our meetings where the petition lay for signature are still fresh in the memory.  Then came active operations for getting Chartist leaders to the town.

    Thomas Cooper was rather a frequent visitor.  Two impressions remain—one, that he recited Satan's speech from Milton with magnificent effect; the other, that he had a most irritable temper.  I had been concerned with another youth in organizing a lecture at the Montpellier Rotunda.  We had occasion to whisper to each other about some matter of business while the lecture was being delivered.  Cooper caught sight of us, stopped, and then covered us with confusion as he solemnly assured the company that he would only resume his discourse "when those two young men have finished their conversation."  The matter of business, whether it suffered from the delay or not, had to stand over till the close of the meeting.

    Cooper's visit happened in March, 1851.  Three months later came Ernest Jones.  Our gathering, in default of a better place, was held in a market garden.  It was not a large gathering—only 150 or 200 present, the result, probably, of showery weather.  Jones had been in prison the year before for uttering seditious language.  The treatment he had suffered was abominable.  Petitions for inquiry were promoted; a select committee of the House Commons was appointed to investigate; a blue book containing the evidence was printed; and there, I think, the matter ended.  As chairman of one of the meetings, I had some correspondence with Mr. Grenville Berkeley, then member for Cheltenham.  The hon. gentleman was courteous in his replies, sent me a copy of the blue book, but could not, or at any rate did not, do anything else.

    Our next Chartist visitor, I recollect, was Mr. R. G. Gammage, the author of a sketch of the history of Chartism [Ed.—"History of the Chartist Movement"], who subsequently studied medicine under great difficulties, and settled down as a practitioner in Sunderland.  Gammage's visit coincided with the occurrence of the General Election of 1852.  We therefore got him nominated so that he might have an opportunity of making a speech from the hustings.  This was all we wanted, for of course it would have been utterly useless to go to the poll in the then state of the franchise.  Suffice it to say that Gammage made what we all thought a capital speech for the Charter.

    There will be other occasions for describing the old electoral methods.  But I may perhaps be excused for referring in this place to an affair preliminary to the contest of 1852 in which I bore a small part.  The Chartists, even though they had few votes, were at that time numerous enough to make their favour worth cultivating.  The agents of the Whig party therefore organized an open-air meeting of the working classes in the Montpellier Gardens.  It was attended by about 2,000 persons.  The resolutions were ingeniously framed to propitiate the Chartists and at the same time assist the candidature of the Whig nominee.  Having, I suppose, made myself conspicuous at some of our meetings, I was invited to take part with Glenister in this gathering of working men.  One of my aunts happened to be passing the Gardens, heard the cheers and saw the crowd, and so went to see what was the matter.  Great was her astonishment to observe her precocious nephew on the platform proclaiming at the top of his voice the inalienable right of every man to the suffrage!  The agents of Mr. Craven Berkeley, then the Whig candidate for the town, turned the meeting to good account, advertising in all the local papers the resolutions that had been adopted, with the names of the working men and others who had proposed and seconded them.  I was told I had done well on the occasion. [17]  If so, it was the only time I ever did well in like circumstances.  But I had an uneasy consciousness that we had been "used" by the party wire-pullers; as, indeed, we no doubt had been.  Used or not, however, we had the satisfaction a few weeks later of hearing our own candidate propound the true doctrine from the hustings.



CHARTISTS were of many sorts.  There were moral-force Chartists and physical-force Chartists; there were Chartists and something more; there were whole-hog Chartists, bristles and all; and there were Chartists who cried aloud, "The Charter to-day, and roast beef the day after!"  Indeed, the divisions among them were almost endless—at least as endless as the men who set up as leaders, for every little leader had his little following, while the bigger leaders had bigger followings.  It was these divisions that robbed the movement of the power it would otherwise have wielded and of the success it would otherwise have achieved.  But the chief cause of dissension was the means that should be pursued to attain the end desired.  While the wiser heads were advocates of moral pressure, the more foolish and furious contended that carnal and lethal weapons were the only weapons Governments could be made to fear or understand.

    There was, no doubt, some excuse for the wilder spirits of the movement, inasmuch as the middle classes not long before had set the example of truculence.  The men of 1832, who demanded "The Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill," were just as violent in the language they used as the bitterest of the Chartists.  Nor did they scruple to threaten the direst consequences to the aristocracy, and even to royalty itself, if reform should be denied.  An instance of the desperate measures to which the middle classes were prepared to resort at that period was disclosed to William Lovett by one of the principals engaged to carry out the scheme.  "When," writes Lovett, "the Duke of Wellington was called to the Ministry, with the object, it was believed, of silencing the Political Unions and putting down the Reform agitation, an arrangement was entered into between the leading Reformers of the North and Midland Counties and those of London for seizing the wives and children of the aristocracy and carrying them as hostages into the North until the Reform Bill was passed.  My informant, Mr. Francis Place, told me that a thousand pounds were placed in his hands in furtherance of the plan, and for hiring carriages and other conveyances, a sufficient number of volunteers having prepared matters and held themselves in readiness.  The run upon the Bank, however, having been effective in driving the Tories from office, this extreme measure was not necessary."  Moreover, the surrender of the Duke of Wellington, who confessed that he had to choose between civil war and compliance with the wishes of the people, had gone a long way to warrant the conclusion that Governments were more amenable to force than to reason.

    The Chartists had, perhaps, another excuse in the ferocious sentiments which a minister of religion had uttered in the course of the agitation against the New Poor Law.  This agitation was in full swing when the Charter was framed.  The year which witnessed the inception of that instrument witnessed also the unrestrained eloquence of Joseph Rayner Stephens.  This reverend firebrand, whose biography has been written by George Jacob Holyoake, was not a Chartist.  As a matter of fact, he seemed to care little for the political rights of the people so long as certain of their social and domestic rights were not infringed.  But it was no fault of his that he did not plunge the land into fire and bloodshed.  Speaking at Hyde on Nov. 14th, 1838, just after the Charter had been promulgated, he advised his hearers to "get a large carving-knife, which would do very well to cut a rasher of bacon or run the man through who opposed them."

    Earlier in the same year (on January 1st) Mr. Stephens was in Newcastle.  This is what he is reported to have said there:— "The people are not going to stand this (the New Poor Law), and he would say that, sooner than wife and husband, and father and son should be sundered and dungeoned and fed on 'skillee'—sooner than wife or daughter should wear the prison dress—sooner than that, Newcastle ought to be, and should be, one blaze of fire, with only one way to put it out, and that was with the blood of all who supported this abominable measure."

    Mr. Stephens declared in the same speech—"He was a revolutionist by fire; he was a revolutionist by blood, to the knife, to the death.  If an unjust, unconstitutional, and illegal parchment was carried in the pockets of the Poor Law Commissioners, and handed over to be slung on a musket or a bayonet, and carried through their bodies by an armed force or by any force whatever (that was a tidy sentence), and if this meeting decided that it was contrary to law and allegiance to the Sovereign—that it was altogether a violation of the Constitution and of common sense—it ought to be resisted in every legal way.  It was law to think about it, and to talk about it, and to put their names on paper against it, and after that to go to the Guildhall and to speak against it.  And when that would not do, it was law to ask what was to be done next.  And then it would be law for every man to have his firelock, his cutlass, his sword, his pair of pistols, or his pike, and for every woman to have her pair of scissors, and for every child to have its paper of pins and its box of needles—(here the orator's voice was drowned in the cheers of the meeting)—and let the men, with a torch in one hand and a dagger in the other, put to death any and all who attempted to sever man and wife."

    With such examples before them, it was not surprising that the Chartists also used violent language.  Nor was it surprising, perhaps, that they went further, and conceived violent projects.

    Violent projects were certainly conceived in many parts of the country.  A plot was formed to seize Dumbarton Castle; Frost, Williams, and Jones endeavoured to raise an insurrection in Wales; there was even a scheme to burn down Newcastle.  The story of the Tyneside episode is told by Thomas Ainge Devyr.  The book in which it is recorded is rightly enough named—"The Odd Book of the Nineteenth Century."  It was published by its author in New York in 1882.  Patrick Ford had at that time accorded Devyr "the privilege of having letters addressed to him at the office of the Irish World."  It was in that office in that year that I made his acquaintance.  The acquaintance was renewed some years later, when Devyr, then a very old man, revisited the scene of the agitation in which he had taken an active part fifty years before.  My old friend had led an adventurous life—in Ireland, in England, in America.  He was a Nationalist in Ireland, a Chartist in England, a kind of revolutionist even in America.  Anyway, he had only scorn and contempt for the politicians of America.  "Democrats?" he said to me: "they call themselves Democrats, but they are all thieves."  While in England, he served on the staff of the Northern Liberator—a Radical newspaper which had been established in Newcastle by Augustus Beaumont, a member of the Jamaica Legislature, but which was afterwards acquired by Robert Blakey, then a prosperous furrier in Morpeth, later a professor in an Irish College.  Devyr, as a writer on the Liberator and the corresponding secretary of the revived Northern Political Union, seems to have written most of the turgid manifestoes of the party that appeared during 1838.  Many are set out at length in his "Odd Book."  It is clear, too, that he was closely associated with the sanguine or sanguinary men of the period—Thomas Horn, Robert Peddle, John Rewcastle, Dr. Hume, William Thompson, John Mason, Thomas Hepburn, James Ayre, Richard Ayre, John Blakey, Edward Charlton, and a blind orator named Cockburn—down to the time when he deemed it prudent to seek safety across the Atlantic.  Now to his story.

    Disturbances occurred in Birmingham early in August, 1838.  "Then," says Devyr, "commenced the work of 'preparation,' and from that time to November we computed that 60,000 pikes were made and shafted on the Tyne and Wear."  The number, he admits, would seem to be exaggerated.  But—"I was present in some part of nearly every Saturday at the pike market, to take sharp note of the sales.  The market was held in a long garret room, over John Blakey's clog shop in the Side.  In rows were benches or boards on tressels, among which the Winlaton and Swalwell chain-makers and nail-makers brought in their interregnum of pikes, each a dozen or two, rolled up in the smith's apron.  The price for a finished and polished article was two and sixpence.  For the article in a rougher shape, but equally serviceable, the price was eighteenpence."  Besides pikes and pike-shafts, caltrops, intended to be strewn over the roads for the purpose of laming the horses of the cavalry, were manufactured at Winlaton.  On one occasion, as Devyr tells us, a case of fifty muskets and bayonets was imported from Birmingham.  And shells and hand-grenades were manufactured to scatter destruction all around.

    The conspirators meant business, or at any rate mischief.  One of the orators had declared—"If the magistrates Peterloo us, we will Moscow England."  The secret organization, according to Devyr, took the form of classes of twelve, each with a captain, and all sworn to obey orders, maintain secrecy, and execute death upon traitors.  "It was strongly urged that on the night of the 'rising' all the Corporation police should be slain on their beats."  The outbreak was to begin on a Saturday night.  But only seventy men out of ten times that number who had enrolled themselves gathered on the night preceding it.  "Finding they were not in a condition for a stand-up fight, it was strongly urged that the torch should be resorted to."  Newcastle was to be reduced to a heap of blackened and smoking ruins.

    Meantime, news had arrived of the failure in Wales.  It was resolved to await events.  But the old desire for burning and bloodshed came back again.  "We have resolved to do it," cried John Mason: "we must rouse the people by some desperate action, and the torch is to be the action."  Devyr protested; but the conspirators informed him that "flame and combat would have full possession of Newcastle before midnight."  All the same, the day dawned without disturbance, and soon afterwards the conspirators were either in flight or in hiding.

    Such is the story of my Irish friend, Thomas Ainge Devyr.  It is a story I have heard old Chartists dispute, and other old Chartists say they believe.  Devyr concludes his narrative with the mention of two humorous incidents.  One was that James Ayre, a builder to trade, declared when he was arrested that he would agitate no more in the old way, but for the time to come would "agitate the bricks and mortar."  The other incident was that Robert Peddle, "a man of all work or any work," threatened Devyr and Rewcastle with the scaffold, because they would not furnish him with a horse and carriage to capture Alnwick Castle!  The castle, Peddle averred, contained arms and treasure, while "its pastures were filled with just such rations as the revolutionary forces required."  "A young butcher followed in his train for several days to take charge of this department!"

    The spirit of violence, or rather to threaten violence, animated some of the physical-force Chartists long after the Newcastle conspirators had fled or been imprisoned.  When George Julian Harney was nominated on the hustings at Wakefield against Lord Morpeth, an old friend of mine who was present describes the striking effect produced as a forest of oak saplings rose in the air in answer to the call for a show of hands for the Chartist candidate.  Nor was it the Government alone that was apprehensive of disorder on the day of the memorable demonstration on Kennington Common.  The fear was general that the great gathering would end in a deluge of blood.  I remember reading in the newspapers of the time (and not without a glow of satisfaction on my own part) how an Irish orator had exclaimed that London would be in the hands of the Chartists on April 10th, and that that would be the signal for insurrection in all parts of the kingdom.  A later friend of my own, I know, went armed to the gathering.  Happily, neither he nor others had occasion to use their weapons.  An echo of the trepidation among simple folks was heard as late as 1854.  When a deaf old lady in Gateshead was alarmed by the great explosion of that year, she hurried away to her friends in Sunderland.  Asked what was the matter, she replied: "Aa's afeared the Chartist bodies hev brokken lowse!"



THE usual notion of an agitator is that he is a man with the "gift of the gab"—what the Americans call a spellbinder.  But five of the six representatives of the Working Men's Association who assisted in framing the People's Charter were not platform people at all.  None of the five—John Cleave, Henry Hetherington, William Lovett, James Watson, Richard Moore—made any pretence to oratory, and seldom appeared before the public in person.  But every one of them was as thoroughly honest and single-minded as any similar number that ever entered a public movement.  Moreover, they had all been concerned more or less intimately in the great struggle for a free press.  Lovett, a born organizer, organized many political and social associations of an advanced character—advanced, I mean, for that time.  Cleave and Hetherington were printers—Hetherington the printer of that Poor Man's Guardian which helped so much to establish the liberty of unlicensed printing.  I had the honour of the acquaintance of Moore and Watson.  Moore, married to a niece of Watson's, lived a life of industry and great domestic happiness in Bloomsbury, took an active part in the Radical affairs of the Borough of Finsbury, and served his day and generation effectually as the chairman of the committee of the Society for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge.  But of Watson, whom I knew intimately for twenty years, I must write at greater length.

    James Watson was a native of Malton, where he was born in 1799.  His mother, who was left a widow soon after he was born, obtained a situation at the parsonage, where she read Cobbett's Register and "saw nothing bad in it."  James himself was apprenticed to the clergyman to learn field labour; but his indentures, owing to the reverend gentleman leaving Yorkshire for another part of the country, were cancelled before he had finished his time.  Thereupon the youth set out for Leeds in search of friends and employment.  While working in a warehouse, he too began to read Cobbett's Register and "saw nothing bad in it."  Besides Cobbett's writings, he early made the acquaintance of other Radical literature of the day—Wooler's Black Dwarf and Carlile's Republican.  He made the acquaintance also of some of the Radical politicians of Leeds.  Richard Carlile was at that time fighting the Government for the right of free discussion.  When the intrepid bookseller, his wife and sister, were thrown into prison, he appealed to his political friends in the country to come up and help him.  Watson was the second volunteer who went from Leeds.  For the heinous offence of selling publications of which the authorities did not approve, he was, as I shall have occasion to show, thrice condemned to imprisonment.

    It was while assisting in the agitation for a free press that Watson learned the art of a compositor, in the office in which the Republican was printed.  There was then in London, associated with all the fearless movements of that exciting time, a young man of rare talent and large fortune—Julian Hibbert.  When Watson was attacked with cholera in 1825, Hibbert took him to his house, nursed him, and saved his life.  After his recovery, Hibbert, who had set up a press of his own, employed him to print some works in Greek.  Watson's friend and saviour, around whom there hangs a haze of mystery and romance that can never be penetrated, died early, leaving Watson his press and printing materials.  With the help of Hibbert's legacy, after an interval of propagandism on behalf of the views of Robert Owen, the Yorkshire Radical commenced business as a printer and publisher on his own account.  For something like a quarter of a century, assisted by his estimable wife, who was as devoted as himself to the propagation of Radical ideas, he sent forth a flood of the most advanced literature of the day.  The works he issued were the classics of the working classes—such as Paine's "Rights of Man," Godwin's "Political Justice," Lamennais' "Modern Slavery," Volney's "Ruins of Empires," and Owen's "Essays on the Formation of Character."  His little shop, too, was the rendezvous of Radical writers and thinkers.  We shall see presently that he did not neglect other duties while attending to his own business.  Watson contrived, by printing and folding as well as selling his publications, to make Radicalism pay its way.  So that when he retired from the publishing trade in 1854 he had realised a small but sufficient competence.

    Thereafter, with one or two exceptions, as when he assisted in 1858 to form a committee of defence for Edward Truelove, then being prosecuted by the Government for publishing an alleged libel on Louis Napoleon, he lived a life of quiet enjoyment and well-earned ease.  Dying in 1874, he left behind him a name and fame that ought not, even by Radicals of a later era, to be allowed to perish or sink into oblivion.  If I devote a little further space to recollections of James Watson, it is because the exposition will serve to elucidate the dejected condition of the press when he and other daring men of the period undertook its emancipation.  Radicals of our day have had no experience, and can form but a poor conception, of the trials, difficulties, and privations to which the Radicals of a former generation were exposed.  The struggle for an unstamped press was maintained with a courage and enthusiasm which almost excite one's wonder—which certainly arouse one's admiration—as its incidents are recalled to mind.  It was the policy of the Government of that date to repress alike liberty of thought and liberty of speech.  The former of these objects was sought by prosecutions for what were then called blasphemous and seditious publications; to attain the latter, no newspaper was allowed to be issued without a fourpenny stamp.  Carlile, Hetherington, Cleave, and Watson, aided by a host of Radicals in the provinces—notably Abel Heywood in Manchester—fought the Government on its own ground.  We have seen how Carlile, his wife and sister, were all in prison at one time.  Carlile himself spent nearly ten years of his life in prison altogether.  The number of his shopmen and assistants, men and women, who shared his fate, could be counted by the score.  Hetherington, publishing his Poor Man's Guardian in defiance of the stamp law, brought another contingent for the Government to prosecute and imprison.  No fewer than five hundred persons were sent to gaol in the course of three years and a half for selling the unstamped Guardian alone!  Mr. Spring Rice, at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer, informed the House of Commons in 1836, that three hundred persons had been imprisoned in the course of a few weeks for selling unstamped papers in the streets, and that, too, without in the slightest degree decreasing the sale!  Indeed, the gaols of the country were almost choked with political prisoners, when the Government, assigning as a reason the impossibility of enforcing the law, surrendered to the champions of a free press.

    It was during this magnificent agitation that James Watson underwent his three imprisonments—twelve months in 1823 for selling Palmer's "Principles of Nature," six months in 1833 for selling the Poor Man's Guardian, and six months again in the following year for selling the Conservative, another of Hetherington's papers.  What he suffered in these repeated incarcerations is told in the memoir which Mr. W. J. Linton wrote and published in 1880 [Ed. possibly this article].  Suffice it to say that he was "subjected to the same treatment as pick-pockets, swindlers, passers of bad money, committers of rape and other criminal acts of a like kind."  It will perhaps surprise many who read what I am now writing that it was through such tortures as these, inflicted on hundreds of the best people in the country, that we eventually came into possession of an untaxed and unfettered press.  Owing to the exertions of Watson and his comrades, the stamp duty was reduced from fourpence to a penny.  But the agitation did not stop here, though it afterwards took another form.  As everybody knows, or ought to know, the efforts of the Society for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge resulted on the total abolition, not only of the stamp duty, but of the paper duty as well.

    And now I may be pardoned a few words on the personal qualities of the man.  James Watson had the purity of a saint, the spirit of a hero, the courage of a martyr.  He was not only free from reproach—he was, like Cæsar's wife, above suspicion.  The trying period during which he was most prominent was fatal to many reputations.  It was an age of imputation.  But nobody, from first to last, ever questioned Watson's sincerity.  While lying in prison, he wrote to his wife that "the study of the cause and remedy for human woe engrossed all his thoughts."  The man who thus wrote while surrounded by some of the lowest criminals of a metropolitan city had literally no ambition—none, at least, of a vulgar or even a personal sort.  He neither cared for the platform nor sought reputation as a writer.  It was his business and his pride to give currency to thoughts and opinions which were calculated, he believed, to improve and elevate mankind.  From his shop, almost always in an obscure thoroughfare in the centre of the publishing trade, most of the Radical literature of the last generation was distributed over the country.  But the work for which he will be best held in remembrance is the service he rendered to the cause of the freedom of the press.

    The sixth member of the Working Men's Association which originated the People's Charter was Henry Vincent.  And he differed from his five colleagues in that he was an orator, or at any rate a speaker who could, as it were, carry his audiences off their feet.  Mr. Vincent, also a printer to trade, very early in life threw himself into the political agitation which then prevailed in the country.  An earnest and impassioned advocate of the extension of the franchise, he was only about twenty-four years of age when he joined the committee which formulated the Charter.  Of the movement which followed the promulgation of the demand for the famous six points, he was, as already mentioned, designated the Demosthenes.  It was in that character that he denounced the Government of the day as a set of knaves.  Using still stronger language at Newport, Monmouthshire, he was prosecuted and imprisoned in 1839.  The riots in that town, for which Frost, Williams, and Jones were condemned to death, were alleged at the trial of the three prisoners to have had for their object, not an armed insurrection of the people, but the rescue of the Demosthenes of Chartism.

    Reference has been made in a previous chapter to the suspicions that were entertained to account for the marked moderation in the tone of Vincent's speeches after he came out of Monmouth Gaol.  So far as the change was ascribed to the effect of improper influences, I have not the least doubt that the imputation was absolutely unwarranted.  Mr. Vincent had grown wiser in prison—that was all.  It was no long time subsequent to his release that he turned his great talents as a speaker into other channels, though, I believe, he never altered his opinions as to the justice of the principles he had formerly done so much to spread abroad.  Within a month of his restoration to liberty, he married a daughter of his old colleague, John Cleave.  A man of fine presence, of powerful voice, of impressive delivery, Henry Vincent became one of the most popular lecturers of the day.  Towards the end of the sixties he was lecturing in the Music Hall, Newcastle.  I went to hear him.  It was a fine performance—splendid as a piece of declamation, but neither pregnant with thought nor of much value as a literary effort.  But the torrent of words, poured forth with the skill of a master, brought down thunders of applause.  Henry Vincent died in 1879, save John Temple Leader the last survivor of the Chartist Fathers.

(From a contemporary engraving)



ONE of the most stirring events in the history of Chartism occurred at a very early stage of the struggle.  I allude to the riot at Newport.  The People's Charter was adopted at Newhall Hill, Birmingham, on August 6th, 1838.  Within twelve months of that date Henry Vincent had been arrested in London, brought to Newport, tried at Monmouth, and sentenced to a year's imprisonment in Monmouth Gaol.  Great was the excitement thoughout Wales, for the prisoner was a prime favourite in that quarter of the country.  There were disturbances in Newport when he was brought there in custody, and there were disturbances again when he was brought before the magistrates.  The popular excitement increased from the time of Vincent's conviction on August 2nd, till it culminated in an armed attack on Newport on November 4th.  It is probable that the explosive character of the people of the Principality lent itself then, as it has lent itself frequently since, to turbulent proceedings.  Be this as it may, Wales became for the time being the cockpit of the kingdom.  And the name of the chief actor in the turbulent proceedings which marked the close of 1839 was for many years honoured and revered by the working people as no other name in England was.

    John Frost, a prosperous linen-draper in the town, had been Mayor of Newport in 1836.  Three years later he had so completely identified himself with the popular movement that he was one of the leading figures in the first Chartist Convention.  Furthermore, he exercised great influence over the working people in the Welsh mountains.  Associated with Williams and Jones, he put himself at the head of an operation which was presumed to have had for its object the overthrow of the constituted authorities, but which the legal defenders of the prisoners at the subsequent trial at Monmouth contended had no more serious design than the rescue of Vincent from prison.  Miners and others, armed with muskets and pitchforks, descended from the mountains many thousands strong.  The seizure of Newport by the Welsh Chartists, so the agents of the Government alleged, was to have been taken as a signal for the Chartists of the Midlands to rise in insurrection also.  Whatever the intention, the attempt at Newport was an entire failure.  A great storm in the hills delayed the march of the reputed insurgents, frustrated the intended surprise, and enabled the authorities to prepare for the defence of the town.  But much blood was shed, and some dozen lives were lost, during the attack on the Westgate Hotel.  Occupied by the mayor and magistrates, and defended by constables and soldiers, the hotel was never captured.  Marks of the conflict, however, remained for years afterwards in the wooden pillars which supported the porch.  When the hotel was rebuilt some years ago, the old pillars, pierced with bullet-holes, were considered of sufficient historic interest to be preserved in the hall of the new building.  There they will probably remain for many generations to testify to the tragic scenes that were witnessed around them in 1839.

    The leaders of the movement—Frost, Williams, and Jones—were arrested, tried for high treason, and sentenced to be executed.  I remember my elders telling me as a boy the horrifying detail, that the condemned men could hear in their cells the noise of the carpenters erecting the gallows.  The extreme sentence, however, was commuted to transportation for life.  As a consequence of these occurrences, John Frost was regarded as a hero and a martyr throughout the Southern and Midland Counties.  The three companions in adversity were despatched in a convict hulk with a cargo of other prisoners to a penal colony at the Antipodes.  Fifteen years were spent by them among those unhappy culprits who in due course helped to found some of the settlements that have now become flourishing communities of free and honoured citizens.

    First a conditional and then a free pardon having been granted to him and his companions, Frost returned to this country in 1856.  It was a period of public apathy.  An attempt was made to give him a popular reception.  But by that time the Chartist movement had practically died out, Ernest Jones, with scarcely a shirt to his back, vainly striving to keep the cause alive.  The exile had come back to a country that had almost forgotten him.  Still there was a procession in London.  I remember seeing it pass through Fleet Street.  It was a sorry affair.  What was worse, it excited the derision of the shopkeepers who bestowed any notice on it at all.  Two or three hundred people at the most constituted what was intended for a great democratic demonstration.  Poor Frost retired to Stapleton, near Bristol, whence he contributed to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle fragmentary accounts of his experiences and sufferings, and there, nearly twenty years later, he died at a very advanced age.

    But Frost's name and memory are still respected in Newport.  Only a few years ago a later Mayor of Newport was presented with a watch that had been presented to Mr. Frost at the time he occupied the same position.  And the new owner of the watch, as he informed the dinner-party at which it was handed to him, was present when the old Chartist was arrested.  "John Frost," he added, "was a very clever fellow; but unfortunately he got carried away by his feelings until he lost himself."  Though nobody doubts now, even if anybody ever doubted, that the project of the Welsh Chartists was utterly lacking in prudence and foresight, the man who led them and shared in their dangers must at least be credited with generous impulses.

    The condition of our penal settlements was at that date indescribably horrible.  Humane ideas in regard to the treatment of offenders had then hardly even begun to enter the minds of people in authority.  After his return home, Mr. Frost endeavoured to arouse the attention of the public to the gravity of the ulcerous iniquities we had established in the southern hemisphere.  For this purpose he published a pamphlet on the subject.  Therein he described, as far it was permissible for any decent person to describe, the infinite horrors of convict life.  I must have written to him about the publication, for I find a reply in a letter dated December 4th, 1873.  "You tell me, my dear sir," he says, "that you have read my pamphlet with great interest.  I cannot explain to you my feelings when I found the utter indifference to the state of society among the convicts and the cause which produced it.  I sent this pamphlet to members of both Houses of Parliament, and the only notice taken was by a member of the House of Commons, who sent me the pamphlet back again."  But the old Chartist's exposures may have had an effect of which the author was unaware.  Certain it is, at any rate, that the system of transportation has long since been abolished, and with it have disappeared the penal settlements themselves.  No more will any political or any other offender suffer tortures such as must have driven to distraction all but the coarsest and most degraded of the prisoners subjected to it.

    I have said that some fragmentary papers of Mr. Frost's were published in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.  They were the outcome of a suggestion that the venerable gentleman should write out his recollections of the exciting events in which he had taken part.  "I have received your letter," he replied on December 4th, 1873, "and shall feel pleasure in complying with your request."  The fragments already mentioned were the result.  Then came the following letter, the handwriting of which betrayed no sign of age or weakness :—

STAPLETON, Dec. 15, 1873.

MY DEAR SIR,—I have received your letter and the Chronicle which accompanied it.  I have seen no newspaper so full of useful and interesting matter.  I shall be happy if I can to extend the circulation.  I have for years been thinking on the subject of my long and suffering life, and I feel anxious that the circumstances should be placed before the public in a way likely to be interesting to the rising generation.

    The plan I propose is this:—In the letter which I sent you I describe my situation after the escape from Newport, my return to the town, my apprehension, and my being placed in Monmouth Gaol.  The next letter should contain an account of the trial, the verdict of the jury, the committal of myself and my companions to the condemned cell, what took place during our confinement there, our removal to Chepstow and passage to the York hulk at Portsmouth, our passage to Van Dieman's Land on the Mandason convict ship, our passage to the penal settlement at Port Arthur, my residence there as clerk to the magistrates, my transfer without any offence to one of the gangs, and other interesting matter connected with the treatment of the convicts and the terrible effects resulting from it.  Then should follow an account of the various situations I filled in the colony for fifteen years, my conditional pardon, the voyage from Hobart Town to Callao, the voyage from Callao to America, my residence there for twelve months, my free pardon, and the events from 1856 to 1873.

    I will endeavour to render the narrative instructive and amusing.  However, one thing must not be forgotten.  I am in my eighty-ninth year: therefore it can hardly be expected that the narrative will be such as a younger man would produce.  A few weeks ago I had a terrible fall, which has shaken my mind and body terribly, and from the effects of which I shall not recover.  My memory has suffered, but not as to past events: these are almost as fresh as ever.  I am also much troubled about my eyes.  I am apprehensive that I shall become a poor blind old man.  May God avert it!

I am, dear sir, respectfully your obedient servant,


    The fears which crossed Mr. Frost's mind when he penned this letter were unhappily realised.  I heard from him no more.  Nor did any further instalment of the narrative he sketched for himself ever reach the Chronicle office.  Mr. Frost died a few weeks later.  It is much to be regretted that he did not live to complete the task he had planned.  Had he so lived, many inaccurate statements that were made at his trial would have received authoritative correction, while much interesting light would have been thrown on a somewhat obscure phase of Chartist history.

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15.    John Temple Leader, the last survivor of the twelve politicians who initiated the People's Charter, died at Florence in March, 1903, at the advanced age of 93.  Mr. Leader, once member for Westminster, was as well known in his day as Mr. Labouchere is in ours; yet he had so long outlived his fame that few papers announced his death, and fewer still could recall anything about him.

16.    Edward Sharland, now nearing ninety years of age, is still living at Cheltenham.

17.    The juvenile orator was a nine days' wonder—at least he thought he was.  Just about that time we used to read in the newspapers of the exploits of "the boy Jones," a pertinacious imp who could not be kept out of the Queen's apartments in Buckingham Palace.  It was suggestive of similar notoriety, though of a less undignified sort, that a section of the people of Cheltenham for the space of a week or more talked of "the boy Adams."



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