Feargus Edward O’Connor (1794 – 1855) was a Chartist leader and advocate of land reform. In 1847 he was elected MP for Nottingham, making him the first and only Chartist to get elected to Parliament.
While largely forgotten today, when a statue in his memory was unveiled 150 years ago on August 26th 1859 many people came to mark the event.
O’Connor’s involvement with the city must be seen within the wider context. Nottingham has a long tradition of political radicalism. Professor John Beckett notes, “Support for Parliamentary reform first surfaced in Nottingham politics during the 1780s, and the town remained committed to electoral reform through the following decades.”
The moderate parliamentary reform resulting from the ‘Reform Bill Crisis’ of 1830-2 enfranchised many middle class men, but left the working classes without a vote. Chartism emerged in response to this inequality and found a strong base of support in Nottingham. In November 1838, a meeting held on the Forest drew around 3,000 people with further gatherings following in 1839. Beckett notes, “Of the 1.3 million signatures on the first Chartist petition to the House of Commons in July 1839, 17,000 were said to have come from Nottingham.” When this petition was rejected, Chartism was temporarily stalled.
In February 1842 Feargus O’Connor spoke in Nottingham. People came on foot from across the country to hear him speak. The following August, Chartist disturbances in the city grew into what became known as the Battle of Mapperley Hills when some 5,000 Chartists assembled on Mapperley Plains, with 400 being arrested by troops. This led to another riot. It was in this context that O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham in 1847, becoming the only Chartist to enter Parliament.
O’Connor had been born in Ireland in or around 1796. His family were Protestant, but nonetheless Irish Nationalist. He cut his political teeth during struggles for democratic reform and Irish rights. In 1832 he was elected MP for Cork (then part of Britain), but was disqualified because he failed to satisfy the property requirement for MPs (i.e. that he own property worth more than £300). His career as an MP brought him to London were he allied himself with popular radicals and after losing his seat, he began campaigning for electoral reform in the UK.
In 1837 O’Connor, along with Julian Harney, founded the London Democratic Association (formed in true Monty Python fashion as a solidly working class counterbalance to the London Working Men’s Association which O’Connor reportedly claimed was made up of skilled mechanics.) The Association advocated universal suffrage, freedom of the press, repeal of the Poor Law, the eight-hour day, and prohibition of child labor, positions which it promulgated through the Northern Star, which began its life in Leeds in November 1837. This would go onto become the most important of the Chartist newspapers and at its peak had a readership of more than 50,000.
O’Connor made his name as a Chartist leader, both through the Northern Star and by travelling the country giving speeches. Either a great orator or a populist demagogue, depending on the perspective of the biographer, O’Connor was a prominent advocate of “physical force” Chartism. Opposing the “moral force” Chartism of William Lovett and others who believed in effecting change through the legislative process only, O’Connor and his supporters accepted the need for political violence in the struggle against the prevailing order.
The rejection of the 1.3 million strong petition in 1840, fueled violent clashes culminating in the Newport rising when rioters attempted to release Chartist leader Henry Vincent from prison. Although evidence suggests that O’Connor was ignorant of the event, he was tried along with others for seditious libel and found guilty for which he was sentenced to 18 months in York Castle. Inside he continued writing for the Northern Star, his articles being smuggled out. When he was released in August 1841, he ascended to leadership of the whole Chartist movement.
O’Connor was a longstanding advocate of land reform. He came up with his own quixotic suggestion which he articulated in his book ‘A Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms’. He argued for resettling surplus factory workers on smallholdings, unconcerned by the limited agricultural skills of these workers, he believed this plan would drive up wages by restricting the supply of labour. In 1846 the Chartist Cooperative Land Company, which would later become the National Land Company, was inaugurated. This organisation received some £112,100 in subscriptions, with which six small estates were purchased and divided into smaller parcels. In May 1847 the first of these estates was opened and dubbed O’Connorsville.
The National Land Company was not the overwhelming success O’Connor had envisaged. When he was elected to Parliament he proposed in The Labourer that the government take over the organisation to resettle the English peasantry on a large scale. This didn’t happen and when difficulties began to set in and farmers were struggling to make a living, Parliament ordered an investigation. This report concluded that the National Land Company was an illegal scheme that could not fulfil the expectations of shareholders and was critical of the bookkeeping.
During this time, O’Connor was closely involved in organising a new petition supporting the Chartist demands. This ostensibly produced around 6 million signatures, but a subsequent investigation suggested that it contained less than 2 million genuine signatures, still a considerable figure. It is not clear that O’Connor had been aware of the problems with the petition, but this did not stop critics accusing him of undermining the credibility of the Chartist movement.
At this point, O’Connor’s health was deteriorating. He reportedly attacked several other MPS and following a scene in the House of Commons in 1852 involving Becket Denison MP, O’Connor was removed by the Sergeant at arms, pronounced insane, and sent to Dr. Tuke’s private asylum in Chiswick, where he remained until 1854. He was removed from this institution by his brother, against doctors’ advice, in 1854. He moved to his sister’s house in Nottting Hill where he would die on 30th August 1855. A public burial held at Kensal Green on 10th September 1855, attracted more than 50,000 people.
Although he spent little time in Nottingham, it is apparent that O’Connor had a major impact on its people and in 1859 they got together and had a whip round to raise the funds to errect a statue in the Arboretum. It was unveiled on Monday August 22nd 1859. An article published in the Cabinet the next day asserts that “there could not, however, have been fewer than from 12,000 to 15,000 persons present.” Indeed, it states, “The numbers would have been far larger, however, had not the most assiduous steps been taken to prevent it. The Arboretum Committee forbade the delivery of any address on the unveiling of the statue, and, although some railroad companies had promised to run special trains for the occasion, and even gone so far as to advertise them, at the last moment they rescinded their resolutions, and nothing could induce them to appoint such trains.” The information in the Cabinet Newspaper is partly contradicted by other newspapers reporting about the event (see comment).
It is clear that O’Connor is a complicated figure and unlikely to be taken up as a model by modern radicals. While clearly committed to the Chartist cause there are recurring implications of egotism in many of the online biographies and the way in which he came to dominate his own Northern Star, particularly after his arrest is arguably telling. His commitment to electoralism is also something many people nowadays would question, but in his defence he did not have the long failed history of electoralist campaigns to call on that we do today.
Incidentally, although unquestionably radical for his time and generally a supporter of the working classes, O’Connor was strongly critical of socialism. He claimed, “I have generally found that the strongest advocates of communism are the most lazy members of society, — a class who would make a division of labor, adjudging to the most pliant and submissive the lion’s share of work, and contending that their natural implement was the brain, whilst that of the credulous was the spade, the plough, the sledge and the pickaxe.” It’s probably safe to assume that he would have levelled the same accusation against any libertarian movement.
Whatever his flaws, O’Connor remains interesting because of the radical milieu which he points to. Largely unknown to the most of the city’s modern residents and even to most of the activists who live here, Nottingham has a long history of radicalism, stretching at least as far back as the Civil War when the city, a Parliamentary stronghold was on the frontline. It is hard today to imagine several thousand people turning out in Notttingham to commemorate anybody, let along a political figure. Remembering our history demonstrates what we are capable of. Just think what we could do with those numbers.
The three articles below report on the inauguration of the O’Connor statue and partly contradict claims made by the Cabinet article and information contained in the memorial database. If you are interested see below for further (although slightly pedantic) deliberations on these contradictions.
The Nottingham Free Press (27th August 1859): The O’Connor Monument; p4.
The following text discusses two questions regarding the statue of Feargus O’Connor in the Arboretum in Nottingham which came up in the group:
1) When was the statue inaugurated/unveiled?
2) How many persons gathered for this ceremony?
Aside from the sources listed above the following sources were used to come up with our answers:
Nottingham Journal (26th August 1859): Inauguration of the Monument to Feargus O’Connor; p6.
The Nottinghamshire & Lincolnshire Advertiser (27th August 1859): The O’Connor Statue – Inauguration Ceremony; p3.
1) When was the statue inaugurated/unveiled?
The Cabinet Newspaper (27th August 1859) claims in the article Immense Demonstration – Inauguration of the Statue of Feargus O’Connor in Nottingham that “Monday was a great day for Nottingham […], for on that day the statue the working men of Nottingham erected to their departed champion, was inaugurated.” As the 27th August 1859 was indeed a Saturday, said Monday would have been the 22nd August.
This contradicts the information provided by the database of the Public Monument and Sculpture Association which states that the statue was “Unveilled 26 August 1859”.
The Nottingham Telegraph (27th August 1859) states: “On Monday last the statue erected in the memory of Feargus O’Connor was publicly inaugurated, and a dinner and a public meeting took place.” The inauguration started: “At half-past two o’clock […]”, the dinner “At three o’clock in the afternoon […]”.
The Nottinghamshire & Lincolnshire Advertiser (27th August 1859) reports (almost identically): “On Monday last the statue erected in the Arboretum to the memory of Feargus O’Connor was publicly inaugurated, and a dinner and a public meeting took place.” According to this article the statue was brought from Derby on Friday, the 19th August 1859 and placed on the pedestal “about one o’clock on that day, remaining uncovered until Saturday or Sunday when it was veiled.” According to the Advertiser, the ceremony started at 2.30pm, the dinner at 4pm.
The Nottingham Free Press (27th August) also states in almost identical wording, that the ceremony took place on said Monday, around 2.30pm, followed by a dinner at around 4pm.
In the Nottingham Review (26th August 1859) it can be read that: “[…] the O’Connor monument is at length upon its legs in the Arboretum. […] Two o’clock on Monday was the time fixed for the unveiling, and at that hour it took place, […].” The dinner started, also according to this article at 4pm.
The Nottingham Journal (26th August 1859) states the inauguration took place “On Monday afternoon […]” and that the dinner started at 3pm.
According to these sources, it seems to be clear that the inauguration/unveiling ceremony of the statue did take place on Monday 22nd August 1859 (even though the statue was apparently positioned Friday 19th August). The ceremony started around 2.30pm and finished before either 3pm or 4pm when a dinner, which was at first not open to the public started at St. Georges Hall. According to e.g. the Nottingham Telegraph “the general public” had to pay to attend St. Georges Hall after the dinner was finished.
The data provided by the Public Monument and Sculpture Association has to be corrected, as Friday 26th August was not the date of the inauguration/unveiling. Furthermore, in the database, unlike any of the newspapers at the time “Feargus” is spelled “Fergus”.
2) How many persons gathered for this ceremony?
According to The Cabinet Newspaper, “a stupendous concourse of the working classes, who gathered to be present at the inauguration” was so large that the “shrubs and flower-beds” were “like islands of verdure in a living sea”. The article states that “there could not […] have been fewer than from 12,000 to 15,000 persons present”. At the dinner at St. Georges Hall: “The large T-shaped table occupied […] the Hall, and was completely crowded. […] After the banquet the public was admitted, and the room was soon filled.”
The other sources suggest a much smaller crowd present at the inauguration. According to the Nottingham Telegraph and the Nottingham Journal there were 500 persons present in the Arboretum and 120 persons at the dinner. The Nottingham Review also estimates the number of persons at the dinner at 120 and, according to them, there was an unspecified “large company” present for the inauguration, “among whom, however, the principal local Chartist leaders were ‘conspicuous for their absence.’” Unspecific is also the Nottingham Free Press according to that article “a large number of persons” attended the unveiling ceremony and 100 persons the dinner. Only 80-90 persons were at the dinner if one believes The Nottinghamshire & Lincolnshire Advertiser, but in this article the number of persons present at the Arboretum is supposed to have been 2,000.
According to the available sources the number of persons present at the dinner in St. Georges Hall can be estimated at about 100 before members of “the general public” were able to enter the hall. The number of persons present in the Arboretum is much harder to estimate. Judging by the tendency of publications sympathetic to a specific cause to overestimate the number of persons present at an occasion related to that cause and the opposite tendency in publications hostile to that cause it is likely that both the numbers of 500 and 15,000 persons are false. Judging by the fact that two newspapers did not give a specific number, two gave the number of 500, one of 2,000 and one of 12,000-15,000 it is our (vague) estimation that a few thousand persons were indeed present, but much fewer than 10,000.
It seems that the ceremony on the 22nd August 1859 was not as spectacular as described in The Cabinet Newspaper, but does not deserve the de facto neglectance of some of the local newspapers. The fact that the story was mostly printed towards the end of the issues – in the Nottingham Free Press even one page behind a story of a local woman injured by a cow – is probably evidence of the hostility against the chartists and O’Connor himself, also evident in the opposition by the Town Council and the Inclosure Committee against the statue and the ceremony which is mentioned in several articles. Very interesting was the sentence in The Nottingham Free Press stating that many local chartists were not present. If that is true, the question is why and the answers might lead on to further insights of the local history of Chartism.