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John Arnott, Chartist.

A guest post by Alan Harrington about his kinsman, the Chartist John Arnott (1799 – 1868).

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This poster features in many – if not indeed most – books and accounts of the Chartist years. The easily overlooked name John Arnott is hiding in plain sight as the secretary who signed it. He originated from Chesham in Buckinghamshire, and that is where my great grandmother x4 – Esther Arnett – had also lived. An initial pondering about a possible connection led to some extensive research and it turns out that despite a slight difference in the surname spelling, yes they were cousins: making John Arnott my 1st cousin 6 times removed.

Records from the Lower Baptist Meeting House in Chesham show that he was born on the 22 October 1799; and then on the 19 October 1819 he married Sarah Allen in nearby Chesham Bois. It seems that the young couple then probably lived in Chesham until sometime in the early to mid-1830s, before they moved to the Somers Town district of London – where they spent the rest of their lives, with John working as a shoemaker.

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arnott03If they were living in Somers Town by 1834, then they can’t have failed to have been aware of the large gathering in nearby Copenhagen Fields on 21 April that year – to protest at the treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Up to 50,000 people are said to have formed a procession from there to the Home Office in Whitehall. Significantly David Goodway notes that it was the shoe and bootmakers who formed by far the largest occupational grouping within the, by then, emerging Chartist movement. Malcolm Chase also describes ‘a long tradition of shoemakers leading radical or religious activities’.

John was in the right area of London to witness large-scale protest at first-hand and he was also no doubt in the company of other shoemakers who must have helped to influence his decision to commit to the Chartist cause.

By the date of the 1841 census the Arnott family was living at Suters Buildings in Somers Town, located in an area between Ossulston Street, Middlesex Street, Phoenix Street and Chapel Street – just behind the area now occupied by the British Library. What started out with him being a Somers Town branch delegate to the National Charter Association led by 1844 to him chairing meetings of the Metropolitan Delegate Council.

John is later noted as being the secretary of both the National Charter Association and of several associated organisations. Not only was John literate, then, to the extent that he was elected to several administrative roles within the Chartist movement – but perhaps, even more surprising, was his skill at writing poems and songs in support of the cause; leading to him being referred to as the Somers Town Chartist Rhymer.

On 10 December 1844, a well-attended event was reported as having been held at the Literary Institute in John Street, to celebrate the re-location of the Northern Star (the major Chartist newspaper) from Leeds to London. Several well-known national leaders of the movement were present. John Arnott was there too and was noted as having been applauded for his rendition of what was termed ‘a patriotic song’.

1846 was a year of particular optimism for the Chartists. Feargus O’Connor had been preparing his Co-operative Land Society for a launch that, he anticipated, would place the Chartists at the forefront of land co-operatives for impoverished workers. John supported this venture too, and provided another poem that he’d composed especially for the occasion.

The first attempt at presenting a People’s Charter to parliament had been in 1838 but the much more well-known attempt, and certainly that which he was involved with, was ten years later. Preparations for the intended demonstration and procession on 10 April 1848 were reported in the press and mention was also made in The Times of 1 April of an intended procession of between 100,000 and 300,000 people.

A subsequent letter to The Times expressed alarm at the planned demonstration and called for adequate protection for the rights of shopkeepers against these ‘tumultuous proceedings’. It was this which was brought to the attention of the Chartist Committee and John was asked to strongly repudiate the accusations and to state most emphatically that it was the ‘firm determination of the committee that the demonstration shall be peaceable, orderly, and a moral display of the unenfranchsied toiling masses.’

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This famous, early photograph is of the assembled Chartist group at Kennington on 10 April 1848. I can’t say for certain that John Arnott was there – but I’d actually be extremely surprised if he wasn’t.

The ramifications of the 1848 attempt at reform were massive and are way beyond the scope of what I can attempt to convey here, but contrary to a superficial potted history that was not the end of Chartism and certainly John and others continued agitating and debating. As if pressing for the six demands of Chartism weren’t enough, other issues got dragged in too; and on the 3 March 1849 at a public meeting held at the John Street Institute on ‘The Separation of Church and State’ he highlighted the fact that the industrial classes were impoverished due to legislation forcing them to contribute to the support of the National Church, and he called for a separation between the state and the Church of England.

I’m not sure quite how he found the time alongside all his other roles, but during early 1849 John also took on the role of secretary of the National Victims Fund; that is as well as continuing to serve on the Central Regulations and Election Committee and the Committee of the Fraternal Democrats (and presumably also continuing to do at least some work as a shoemaker). So, he continued to be busy, now with the National Victims Fund: raising funds to provide 3 shillings each for the women and one shilling for every child under 12 of men imprisoned following the 1848 protest. In August 1849 it was reported that the balance sheet over 17 weeks showed receipts of £103 and expenditure of £102 – stressing how precarious the finances were. This amount had to be divided among 31 families and John issued a further appeal for funds since even the most meagre levels of support could not be met.

Quite possibly he would personally have borne the brunt of the anger and frustration that these dependent families must have felt; not only that their men were in prison for supporting the cause, but that they were getting only limited financial support from the Chartist organisation. The notion of these financial ‘hand-outs’ also conjures up an impression of John either visiting these families to give them the cash, or of them coming to him to be personally handed these small amounts of money on which to survive.

By July 1850 Ernest Jones, one of the imprisoned Chartist leaders, was due for release from prison and it is significant that it was John who, along with some others, went to meet him from Millbank Penitentiary (now the site of Tate Britain) and to celebrate.

I think that in view of all the political in-fighting and insecurity involved it was no doubt sensible that he didn’t not to give up his ‘day job’, and indeed the 1851 census return for 11 Middlesex Place, Somers Town, still shows him, then aged 51, as a shoemaker.

Recriminations from the perceived failure to make progress with the Chartists demands coupled with personal feuds and splits between those who were focussed on straightforward demands for a vote and those who were increasingly bent on more wide ranging reforms (including replacing the monarchy with a republic and repealing the 1800 Act of Union with Ireland, for example) became bitter.

By 1852 the organisation was unable even to pay its secretary’s expenses, and John was forced to hand over the position and return to full-time work in his old trade. Presumably he then spent much of the remainder of his life back as a shoemaker in St Pancras parish, and specifically in the area of Somers Town where by 1866 the Midland Railway was beginning a wholesale clearance in preparation for the new St Pancras station which was opened in 1868.

At about this time too John suffered his first stroke. He was nevertheless determined to compose another of his poems in support of the Reform League, for use at its meeting at the Agricultural Hall, Islington on 11 February 1867.

Set to the tune of ‘The days that we went gipsying’
“All hail! Reformers of the League
Ye Friends of Freedom hail…..”
it was poignantly signed ‘John Arnott (a Poor Paralysed old Chartist).

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On 30 April 1868 he was admitted to St Pancras Parish Workhouse, and died shortly afterwards, on 6 May, due to ‘Paralysis’ – so most likely a second, and this time fatal, stroke, He was 69, and his occupation was still stated as being a ‘shoemaker Journeyman’.

John was buried on the 12 May in the St Pancras Cemetery at East Finchley. There was no great, well-attended funeral, for him – such as those reported for the more well-known and charismatic Chartist leaders. His grave was a ‘communal’ (that is a pauper’s) grave, and there isn’t, and never was, any headstone.

He just lived to see the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867 – giving more men the vote – and I’d like to think that John and his Chartist colleagues in London had helped to push that forward.

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Malcolm Chase (2007) Chartism: A New History Manchester University Press
David Goodway (1982) London Chartism 1838-1848 Cambridge University Press
Mike Sanders (2012) The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History Cambridge University Press
David Shaw (2008) John James Bezer, Chartist and John Arnott National Charter Association

Alan Harrington

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