Parallels between OWS and Chartism

There is a contemporary parallel to the Chartist movement in nineteenth century England.  That parallel is the Occupy Wall Street movement, and although the specific goals are different, at their hearts, these two movements are linked despite the intervening 173 years.  These movements are both about representative government and the demand to see fair and equal representation.  In the case of Chartism, the protestors argued that suffrage be expanded to include voting rights in the middle and lower classes (although at this time women were still excluded), while Occupy Wall Street seeks, in one sense, to remove corporate control over legislative bodies.  Both of these goals stem from a great economic inequality.  In early 19th century Britain, as clearly represented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, “the most deplorable… evil that arose out of the period… was this feeling of alienation between the different classes” (127).  That same feeling appears again today with the Great Recession and the beginnings of the Occupy movement.  The parallels between the two movements, and the media coverage thereof, extend beyond the reach of this essay, but should be readily apparent by the conclusion.

Gaskell’s Mary Barton provides great insight into the conditions which gave rise to the Chartist movement, but her actual treatment of the movement reads as more of a side plot.  There is a short dramatization of John Barton’s journey as part of the Manchester delegation to petition Parliament, most of which is subtext.  Gaskell does offer the sentiments of those signing up with Chartism by writing that “they could not believe that government knew of their misery…the very existence of their distress had been denied in Parliament” (128).  John’s “levee” the night before his trip contains none of the six complaints held in the Peoples’ Charter[1], but a broad cross section of the issues which lead to this movement.  Each of the issues brought to John touch in some way on the economic stresses and divide at this time, from the price of food to the length of the work week.  Gaskell continues the oblique treatment of Chartism with John Barton’s return.  His report of failure is never directly given, but instead his depressed manner and the tale of abuse by yeomen clearly indicates his experience.  While Mary Barton addresses Chartism, the novel’s sympathies are more focused upon those suffering the consequences of economic depression, those workers, weavers, and seamstresses who comprise the characters of the novel.  The people these characters represent became the signers of the petition sent to Parliament, while the movement gathered followers and the newspapers portrayed primarily negative views of them.

One particular issue of Examiner is very interesting on this subject, containing several columns related to Chartism.  As a weekly periodical, the Examiner was just covering the Chartist riot which occurred in Birmingham on Monday of the previous week, and much of the coverage parallels what is seen in main stream media today regarding the Occupy movement.  Three main stories in the issue deal with Chartism: “Beauties of Chartism,” “The Birmingham Outrage,” and “The Birmingham Riots.”  These three stories also represent a range of negative coverage of the Chartist movement.  “Beauties of Chartism” offers a satirical view of the movement, and constructs this tone by contrasting the supposed ideals of the movement with hypocritical statements made by individuals at a Chartist meeting in Manchester on the 13th of July.  It is interesting to note here that if Mr. Barton were a real person and not a fictional character, he would have likely been in attendance at this meeting.  Furthermore, even though there are clearly records of some type of these Chartist meetings, Gaskell chose not to use them in her novel.  The text of this particular article may explain why.  For example, under the heading “Improved Advice,” the author quotes a Mr. Rawson changing his advice from ““not to hurt the police”” to ““have at them, lads!”” upon being called a coward (451).  A Reverend W. V. Jackson is quoted as saying ““if the police must be fed by the people, let them be fed with bullets”” under the heading “Diet for the Police” (451).  The author of “Beauties of Chartism” then continues into an editorial regarding the underlying motivations of the movement, and whether Chartists were intentionally going hungry while there were jobs to be had:

They may throw themselves out of employment easily enough, but do they see their way to return to it again, if starvation should chance not to succeed, and if… “universal sufferage [sic] should not invigorate the cause…”  (451)

In a less satirical, but no less biting, article, the author of “The Birmingham Riots” begins with the slanted statement “The outrages committed at Birmingham have not surprised us” (449), clearly indicating the author’s perspective.  By calling the riot and protest an “outrage,” the author begins in judgment.  A few sentences later, a brief analysis of the role of rhetoric in the case of government officials purports that “neither to underrate nor overrate acts of violence is the aim of the prudent Statesmen” (449).  Here, the author is attempting to establish a “fair and balanced” voice, to borrow a slogan.  The author of “The Birmingham Riots” directs most of his analysis at the Duke of Wellington’s and Lord Melbourne’s reactions to the riot in Birmingham, the former overreacting after the fact and the latter for “not having dealt with threatening Chartist meetings” (449).  The political analysis continues to investigate speeches given by various nobles, and focuses on the “Tory connivance…joined in clamour against the Poor Law” (449).  The author is accusing the political machinations of the Tories against the Poor Law of having a large hand in Chartism and “the Poor Law agitation [which was] nursed by the Tories” (449).  The final major article takes a slightly different stance, instead attempting a direct reportage of events that occurred during the riot.  The author of “The Birmingham Outrage, and Chartist Proceedings” includes comments of the timing of events, offering a play-by-play of the riot which would be familiar to any baseball fan.  Although the author restrains himself from using any judgmental words, the focus on the violence and negative actions of the protest (though it is certainly possible that there were no moderating voices) offers the reader little chance to observe the movement in more depth.

This lack of depth may be one reason Gaskell decided to keep out detailed descriptions of Chartist meetings and actions.  An even better reason is that Chartism was still pursuing its goals when Gaskell was writing Mary Barton.  As of 1848, concurrent with the publication of the novel, three petitions had been delivered to Parliament (Roberts).  It was not until the latter half of the century, however, that most of the aims of Chartism were accomplished.  In addition to Parliamentary Reform, reform bills were passed regarding labor, child labor, sanitation, and education in the latter half of the 19th century.  These reforms were a culmination of a population exerting pressure on Parliament by exercising its rights.  While Chartism may not have been very successful in the short term, in the long term it offered the basis for these changes by inducing reform in the representation of constituencies at the Parliamentary level.  This long-term success offers a glimpse of what may become of the contemporary Occupy movement.  One clear difference, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, is that technology has the ability to catalyze reform.


Works Cited

 “Beauties of Chartism.”  Examiner 21 July 1839: 451.  Proquest.  Web.  15 September 2011.

“The Birmingham Outrage, and Chartist Proceedings.”  Examiner 21 July 1839: 456-57.  Proquest.  Web.  15 September 2011.

“The Birmingham Riots.”  Examiner 21 July 1839: 449-50.  Proquest.  Web.  15 September 2011.

Gaskell, Elizabeth.  Mary Barton.  Ed. Jennifer Foster.  Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2000.  Print.

Roberts, Stephen.  “The Chartist Story.”  BBC – History – British History in Depth: The Chartist Movement 1838 – 1848.  BBC, 20 June 2011.  Web.  15 September 2011.


[1] The six demands of the Peoples’ Charter were: 1- the vote for every man over 21, 2- a secret ballot, 3- no property requirement for MPs, 4- salaries for MPs, 5- equal representation, and 6- regular elections (Roberts).

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