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Feargus O'Connor was born on 18 July 1794 in Connorville house, near Castletown-Kinneigh in west County Cork, into a prominent Irish Protestant family who claimed to be the descendants of the 12th-century king Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair. His father was Irish nationalist politician Roger O'Connor, who like his uncle Arthur O'Connor was active in the United Irishmen. His elder brother Francis became a general in Simón Bolívar's army of liberation in South America.
Much of his early life was spent on his family's estates in Ireland. He was educated mainly at Portarlington Grammar School and had some elementary schooling in England. He was financed on a farm in Ireland by Francis Burdett, a friend of his father, but was unsuccessful. He studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, before inheriting his uncle's estate in 1820. He took no degree, but was called to the Irish bar about 1820. Since he had to take an oath of allegiance to become a member of the Bar, his father disinherited him because he regarded it as inconsistent with the dignity of a descendent of the Kings of Ireland
O'Connor's first known public speech was made in 1822 at Enniskene, County Cork, denouncing landlords and the Protestant clergy. During that year he composed a pamphlet State of Ireland. Around this time he was wounded in a fight with soldiers, perhaps as a member of the Whiteboys covert agrarian organisation. Going to London to escape arrest, he tried to make a living by writing. He produced five manuscripts at this time, but none were ever published.
In 1831 O'Connor agitated for the Reform Bill in County Cork, and, after its passage in 1832, he travelled about the county organising registration of the new electorate. During the 1830s he emerged as an advocate for Irish rights and democratic political reform, and a critic of the British Whig government's policies on Ireland. In 1832, he was elected to the British House of Commons as Member of Parliament for County Cork, as a Repealer candidate in opposition to a Whig.
Feargus O'Connor came into Parliament as a follower of Daniel O'Connell, and his speeches during this time were devoted mainly to the Irish question. He was described as active, bustling, violent, a ready speaker, and the model of an Irish patriot, but as one who did nothing, suggested nothing, and found fault with everything. He voted with the radicals: for tax on property; for Thomas Attwood's motion for an inquiry into the conditions that prevailed in England; and in support of Lord Ashley's 1847 Factory Bill. He quarreled with O'Connell, repudiating him for his practice of yielding to the Whigs, and came out in favour of a more aggressive Repeal policy.
In the general election of 1835 O'Connor was re-elected, but disqualified from being seated because he lacked property qualifications. However, it appears that he did have property valued at £300 a year. O'Connor next planned to raise a volunteer brigade for Isabella II of Spain in the First Carlist War, but when William Cobbett died in April 1835, he decided to run for Cobbett's seat. He lost, and his candidacy drew enough support away from John Cobbett, son of William, to allow the Tory candidate to win. In 1837 he stood unsuccessfully at Preston, dropping out after the hustings, where John Crawfurd was splitting the anti-Tory vote.
Radicalism and Chartism
From 1833 O'Connor had spoken to working men's organisations and agitated in factory areas for the "Five Cardinal Points of Radicalism," which were five of the six points later embodied in the People's Charter. In 1837 he founded at Leeds, Yorkshire, a radical newspaper, the Northern Star, and worked with others for a radical Chartism through the London Democratic Association. O'Connor was the Leeds representative of the London Working Men's Association (LWMA). He travelled the country to meetings, and was one of the most popular Chartist orators. Some Chartists named their children after him. He was at various points arrested, tried and imprisoned for his views, receiving an 18-month sentence in 1840. He also became involved in internal struggles within the movement.
When the first wave of Chartism ebbed, O'Connor founded the Chartist Cooperative Land Company in 1845. It aimed to buy agricultural estates, in order to sub-divide the land into smallholdings which could be let to individuals. The impossibility of all subscribers acquiring one of the plots effectively meant it was a lottery, and the company was declared illegal in 1851.
When Chartism again gained momentum O'Connor was elected in 1847 MP for Nottingham, and he organised the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common, London, in 1848. This meeting on 10 April proved a turning point: it was supposed to be followed by a procession. When the procession was ruled illegal, O'Connor asked the crowd to disperse, a decision contested by other radicals such as William Cuffay.
The Charter Movement
O'Connor and the New Poor Law
As early as 1833, while MP for Cork, O'Connor had delivered an address to the National Union of the Working Classes, a political society of London workingmen, in which he expressed radical sentiments and made strong attacks on the Whigs. At the same time he had fought the New Poor Law Bill in Parliament with Cobbett and a handful of Radicals and Tories.
O'Connor began to spend a large part of his time travelling through the northern and midland districts, addressing huge meetings, denouncing the New Poor Law, and advocating the "Five Cardinal Points of Radicalism". He had decided that the best centres for popular agitation were the northern factory districts. It was there that the Poor Law Guardians began to enforce administration of the Poor Law. The main body of workers wanted higher wages, shorter hours, better factory conditions, more assured employment, and release from the Poor Law regime. They were not simply interested in the vote as such.
Speaking in populist style, O'Connor used absurdities and seditious talk, flavoured with comic similes and anecdotes. He maintained a good natured expression on his face, as though he expected all would be done in good humour and fair play. His physique was to his advantage: over six feet, muscular and massive, the "model of a Phoenician Hercules".
Along with his agitation against the New Poor Law O'Connor revealed his hate of machinery:
This act was framed by Lord Brougham, as the champion of the middle classes, who were most strongly represented by the steam producers, and it was framed purposely with a view to seduce those into a delusive market who would have risen in their might and annihilated any government that dared thus violate their trust by the commission of wholesale plunder, had it not been for the safe retreat promised to the abandoned in the artificial market.
Brougham, the father of the New Poor Law, was a firm believer in the wisdom of Malthus, and frankly stated that the Law was designed to prevent unlimited increase in population. O'Connor openly showed contempt for him:
Harry [Brougham] said they wished no poor law as every young man ought to lay up provision for old age; yet, while he said this with one side of his mouth, he was screwing the other side to get his retiring pension raised from £4,000 to £5,000 a year.
In 1837 O'Connor and George Julian Harney founded the London Democratic Association, which appealed to the "unshaven chin, blistered hands, and fustian jackets" for membership as a counterbalance to the previously founded London Working Men's Association which O'Connor claimed consisted of skilled mechanics. The association's objects, besides universal suffrage, included agitation for liberty of the press, repeal of the Poor Law, eight-hour work day, and prohibition of child labour.
The voice of the organization was the Northern Star, which first appeared on 18 November 1837 in Leeds. It met with immediate success and at the peak of Chartist strength it had a circulation of 50,000. Its editor was William Hill, an Owenite Socialist and former Unitarian Church minister; Joshua Hobson, another Owenite, was printer and manager; and Bronterre O'Brien, former editor of the Poor Man's Guardian, became the principal leader-writer. The Star began as an expression of working class protest against the Poor Law and for factory reform. It advocated, when it became an organ of Chartism, the Chartist demands primarily as a means to these ends. O'Connor wrote of "a means of insuring a fair day's wages for a fair day's work, which, after all is the aim and end of the People's Charter."
When the London Working Men's Association drafted the Charter, the London Democratic Association consolidated with other radical working men's associations and officially took up the Charter, but O'Connor and the Star were not ready to accept the political leadership of the London Working Men's Association. He knew that the workers wanted something more immediate than political education. He became the "constant travelling, dominant leader of the movement" from the first, and his paper practically became the official organ of Chartism.
Physical Force vs. Moral Force
From the beginning O'Connor was attacked by William Lovett and other leaders of the London Working Men's Association. He answered them with charges that they did not really have the labourer's cause at heart. When the Chartist convention assembled in London on 4 February 1839, O'Connor became the dominant force from the beginning. Despite the attempt of Lovett and others to confine the meetings to a gathering of peace, O'Connor used words that threatened violence against those who resisted acceptance of the Charter, while claiming to want to try peaceful means first. He caused a split of the delegation and leadership of the convention into those who favored forceful means and those who would only work for the Charter through peaceful channels. O'Connor called for cessation of political action on behalf of the Charter at the end of Michaelmas. On this question of moral and physical force he said:
I have always been a man of peace. I have always denounced the man who strove to tamper with an oppressed people by any appeal to physical force. I have always said that moral force was the degree of deliberation in each man's mind which told him when submission was a duty or resistance not a crime; and that a true application of moral force would effect every change, but in case it should fail, physical force would come to its aid like an electric shock — and no man could prevent it; but that he who advised or attempted to marshal it would be the first to desert it at the moment of danger. God forbid that I should wish to see my country plunged into horrors of physical revolution. I wish her to win her liberties by peaceful means alone.
The inner circle of revolutionaries of the movement distrusted O'Connor. He knew that threatening an armed insurrection was bluff, but never faced up to the consequences. When the Chartist petition with 1,283,000 signatures was rejected by Parliament, tension grew. A few clashes resulted, and culminated in the Newport Rising, the purpose of which was to release a favoured leader, Henry Vincent, from prison. Evidence points O'Connor's ignorance of the event, but he was tried with the others involved for seditious libel, and was found guilty. A sentence of 18 months in York Castle was passed on him in May 1840. In his farewell message, he discounted the activities of the other leaders of the movement when he said:
Before we part, let us commune fairly together. See how I met you, what I found you, how I part from you, and what I leave you. I found you a weak and unconnected party, having to grace the triumphs of the Whigs. I found you weak as the mountain heather bending before the gentle breeze. I am leaving you strong as the oak that stands the raging storms. I found you knowing your country but on the map. I leave you with its position engraven upon your hearts. I found you split up into local sections. I have levelled all those pigmy fences and thrown you into an imperial union...
While in prison O'Connor continued to write for the Northern Star, and was able to keep the Chartists who rallied around him united.
After his release on 30 August 1841, O'Connor had personal supremacy in the movement. Earlier, Thomas Attwood and his followers had left the movement because they only admitted legislative means. It was not long before Lovett's group also left. As soon as he was released, O'Connor started out on a major speaking tour. He received great ovations, and his speeches were almost entirely vituperations against other Chartist leaders of the movement who disagreed with him. He succeeded in driving Lovett and the rest of the "moral force" elements out of the movement. Leaders who had worked closely with O'Connor at the start finally found themselves at odds with him.
A convention of the newly formed National Charter Association was held in order to draw up a new petition that was finally signed by 3,315,752 persons. The petition was denied a hearing, which added strength to the "physical force" elements since it became apparent that signatures would not change Parliament's mind.
The Anti-Corn Law League
From its inception the Anti-Corn Law League vied with the Chartists for the support of the workers. Bread was dear, and the League claimed that repeal would cause the price to drop. Chartists argued that without the Charter a repeal of the Corn Law would be of little use. Other factors in their favour were the distrust by workers of anything supported by the employers; and the fear that free trade would cause wages to drop still lower. This last point was stressed by O'Connor. He made biting attacks on the Anti-Corn Law League. Thomas Cooper, a Chartist leader, revealed in his autobiography that "it was a part of Chartist policy, in many towns, to disturb Corn Law repeal meetings". When hope of Corn Law repeal was strengthened by statements from Robert Peel, many Chartists left the movement for the League.
The National Land Company
Discouraged with the slow progress and declining strength of Chartism, O'Connor soon turned to an idea of land parcelling that he had developed earlier. While in prison, he had written in the Northern Star under the heading "Letters to the Irish Landlords", and advocated a scheme of peasant proprietorship. Even before this, in 1835, he had moved in Parliament for a bill:
to compel landlords to make leases of their land in perpetuity — that is, to give to the tenant a lease for ever, at a corn rent; to take away the power of distraining for rent; and in all cases where land was held upon lease and was too dear, that the tenant in such cases should have the power of empaneling a jury to assess the real value in the same manner as the crown has the power of making an individual sell property required for what is called public works or conveniences according to the evaluation of a jury.
He felt that the "law of primogeniture is the eldest son of class legislation upon corruption by idleness". However, at the same time, he was opposed to socialism:
I have ever been, and I think I ever shall be opposed to the principles of communism, as advocated by several theorists. I am, nevertheless, a strong advocate of cooperation, which means legitimate exchange, and which circumstances would compel individuals to adopt, to the extent that communism would be beneficial.
O'Connor declared that Great Britain could support her own population if her lands were properly cultivated. As has been pointed out, he had no use for cooperative tillage; his plan was for peasant proprietorship. In his book A Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms he set forth his plan of resettling surplus factory workers on little holdings of from one to 4 acres (16,000 m2). He held that the only possible way to raise wages was to remove surplus labor out of the manufacturers' reach, and thus compel him to offer higher wages. He had no doubts of the yields obtainable under such spade-husbandry.
A stock company in which working men could purchase land on the open market was proposed by him. The land was to be reconditioned, broken up into small plots, equipped with appropriate farm buildings and a cottage, and the new proprietor was to be given a small sum of money with which to buy stock. Consideration was not given to the difficulty that would be encountered by town people, many who had never lived in the country, in becoming farmers. O'Connor's plan was built on assumptions that land could be bought in unlimited quantities and at reasonable rates, and that all subscribers would be successful farmers who would repay promptly.
O'Connor's plan to push the Charter in the background in favour of his land plan caused a storm in the movement. On 24 October 1846 the Chartist Cooperative Land Company, later known as the National Land Company, came into being after three years of preparation. A total of £112,100 was received in subscriptions,</ref> and with this six small estates were purchased and divided into smaller parcels. In May 1847 the first of the estates was opened with ceremony at Herringsgate, renamed O'Connorsville. Of the development, O'Connor's assistant, Ernest Charles Jones, wrote:
See there the cottage, labour's own abode,
The pleasant doorway on the cheerful road,That bears its produce for the hands that toil.
The airy floor, the roof from storms secure,
The merry fireside and the shelter sure,
And, dearest charm of all, the grateful soil,
The subscribers who got the land were chosen by ballot; they were to pay back with interest and ultimately all subscribers would be settled. 'The Labourer magazine was started by O'Connor and Jones to promote the project. Soon hundreds of households were settled, and an outcry of opposition went up from hostile Chartists, the press, the Poor Law authorities who feared the weight of their failures, and other quarters. Among the working men the promotion saw the prestige of Chartism growing again.
In the same year O'Connor ran for parliament again and defeated Thomas Benjamin Hobhouse for the Nottingham seat. When he had taken his seat he proposed in The Labourer that the government take over the National Land Company to resettle the English peasantry on a large scale. Opposition within the Chartist movement accused him of being "no longer a 'five point' Chartist but a 'five acre' Chartist." O'Connor replied to his critics during a mass meeting of his partisans in Manchester. When O'Connor's mismanagement began to take its toll, and the new farmers were having difficulties making a living, Parliament ordered an investigation.
In the meantime, in April 1848, a new petition was produced with about 6 million signatures. An investigating committee in Parliament concluded that it contained not quite 2 million genuine signatures. Shortly after that, on 6 June 1848, the House of Commons investigation found that the National Land Company was an illegal scheme that would not fulfil the expectations held out to the shareholders and that the books had been imperfectly kept; in fact, O'Connor had lost by the company. The land plan was ended and the strength of the Chartist movement declined rapidly.
O'Connor took to drink. In July 1849, the House of Commons finally voted on the Chartist petition, and rejected it by 222 votes to 17, a major loss of support compated to the 46 and 49 votes, respectively, received for the two previous petitions. In 1850 O'Connor once more made a motion in favour of the Charter, but would not be heard.
O'Connor quarrelled with his aides, including Ernest Jones and Julian Harney. The NorthernsStar's circulation dropped and it began losing money. His actions became more and more erratic. In the spring of 1852 O'Connor visited the United States, partly to avoid steps being taken to have him committed to an asylum. He attracted negative publicity by his behaviour, and returned to London in July.
Involved in then in a scene in 1852 in the House of Commons with Edmund Beckett Denison, O'Connor was removed by the sergeant at arms. He was pronounced insane, and sent to Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke's private asylum at Chiswick, where he remained until 1854. His nephew, against doctors' advice, then took him to his sister's house in Notting Hill. He died penniless and insane on 30 August 1855. A public burial was held at Kensal Green on 10 September 1855, and 50,000 people attended. Most Chartists preferred to remember his virtues rather than his faults.
O'Connor never married, but according to his biographers had a succession of affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. They included Edward O'Connor Terry, later known as a music hall artist and theatre owner.
Most of the early historians of Chartism were quite negative about his role. In recent years, however, there has been a trend to reassess him in a more favourable light.
According to his biographer, Cole, O'Connor's fatal defect was his inability to formulate a consistent policy.He hated oppression, and was regarded by the poor of England as a friend. They continued to forgive and love him whatever he did amiss.
Lovett, the drafter of the Charter, felt nothing but disgust for O'Connor, considering him to be the type of gentleman adventurer to be kept out of the movement. Lovett had called him "the great 'I am' of politics"; Bronterre O'Brien nicknamed him "the dictator"; Leeds MP Roebuck called him "a cowardly and malignant demagogue," "a rogue and a liar"; Francis Place said of him that he would use every means he could to lead and mislead the working people. George Holyoake characterised as "the most impetuous and most patient of all tribunes who ever led the English Chartists."
- G. D. H. Cole, Chartist Portraits (London, 1941), p308
- Thomas Frost, Forty Years of Recollection (London, 1880)
- Frazer's Magazine, Vol. 37, 1848, p. 173.
- F. Rosenblatt, The Chartist Movement (New York, 1916), p.105.
- Cork Southern Reporter, 4 June 1835.
- James Epstein (1 January 1982). The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O'Connor and the Chartist Movement, 1832 - 1842. Taylor & Francis. pp. 47–8. ISBN 978-0-85664-922-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
- William Dobson (1856). History of the parliamentary representation of Preston: during the last hundred years. Dobson. pp. 70–. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
- The six points of the Charter
- See Chartist website List of children's names.
- Hansard, 30 May 1851
- Fryer, Peter. "Cuffay, William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/71636. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Poor Man's Guardian, 1833, p.91.
- Cole, p. 304.
- Mark Hovell, The Chartist Movement (London, 1918), p. 94.
- Frazer's, p. 175.
- English Chartist Circular, II, No. 64.
- Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, XXV (1834), p. 211-251.
- R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1894), p. 26.
- Rosenblatt, p. 110.
- Cole, p. 312.
- Feargus O'Connor, Trial of Feargus O'Connor and 58 others at Lancaster (1843), Introduction.
- Place, p. 135.
- , p. 23.
- Place, p. 282.
- The Nonconformist, 8 June 1842.
- English Historical Review, (1889), p. 642.
- Cole, p. 315.
- Cole, p. 318.
- Northern Star, 25 April 1840.
- Cole, p. 320.
- Hovell, p. 220.
- Cole, p. 300.
- P. W. Slosson, The Decline of the Chartist Movement (New York, 1916), p. 61.
- Gammage, p. 102-104.
- Thomas Cooper, Life of Thomas Cooper (London, 1872).
- Rosenblatt, p. 108.
- English Chartist Circular, II, No. 67.
- Feargus O'Connor, Remedy for National Poverty Impending Nationalization (1841).
- The Labourer, 1, (1847), p. 149.
- Northern Star, 1 January 1842.
- Slosson, p. 86-87.
- Cole, p. 326.
- Graham Wallas (1895). "O'Connor, Feargus". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 41. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 847.
- Northern Star, 22 August 1846.
- The Labourer, III, p. 57.
- Slosson, p. 87.
- The Labourer, II, p.154.
- John Watkin, Impeachment of Feargus O'Connor (1843), p. 20.
- Parliamentary Papers, XIX, 207 (1847-48), p. 34.
- Frost, p. 183.
- Cole, p. 334.
- Ray Boston (1 January 1971). British Chartists in America: 1839 - 1900. Manchester University Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-7190-0465-0. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
- Cole, p. 325.
- Dorothy Thompson: The Chartists, p. 96.
- Cole, p. 301.
- Rosenblatt, p. 107-108.
- G. J. Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (London, 1900), I, p. 106.
- Cole, G.D.H., Chartist Portraits, London, 1941. 378 pp.
- Cole, G.D.H. and Postgate, R.W., The Common People, London, 1938. 671 pp.
- Cooper, Thomas, Life of Thomas Cooper, London, 1872. 400 pp.
- Frost, Thomas, 40 Years of Recollection, London, 1880. 347 pp.
- Gammage, R.G. History of the Chartist Movement, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1894. 438 pp.
- Hammond, J.L. and Barbara, Age of the Chartists, London, 1930. 386 pp.
- Holyoake, G. J., Sixty Years of an Agitators Life, London, 1900. 2 Vols.
- Hovell, Mark, The Chartist Movement, London, 1918. 327 pp.
- Lovett, William, Life and Struggles of William Lovett, London, 1876. 473 pp.
- Rosenblatt, F.F., Chartist Movement in its Social and Economic Aspects, New York 1916. 248 pp.
- Slosson, P.W., Decline of the Chartist Movement, New York, 1961. 216 pp.
- West, Julius, History of the Chartist Movement, London, 1920. 316 pp.
- O'Connor, Feargus – some books
- Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms. 1843.
- Remedy for National Poverty Impending Nationalization. 1841.
- O'Connor, Feargus – some pamphlets
- England's May-Day. 1847.
- State of Ireland. 1822.
- The Land...
- Trial of Feargus O'Connor and 58 Others at Lancaster. 1843.
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Feargus O'Connor
- Spartacus entry on O'Connor
- Spartacus entry on the Kennington mass meeting
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Richard Boyle, Viscount Boyle
|Member of Parliament for Cork County
With: Garrett Standish Barry 1832–1835
Garrett Standish Barry
|Member of Parliament for Nottingham
With: John Walter (third)
John Walter (third)