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An intercepted Chartist letter, 1839

This is an intercepted letter - "you must not enquire too scrupulously how" - forwarded to the Home Secretary, and to former prime minister Charles 2nd Earl Grey by his kinsman John Grey of Dilston (1785-1868). The transcribed letter, now within the Grey Papers, purports to be a communication between campaigning - or conspiring - Chartists, J.M. and a Miss Neil, identified by Grey as a pseudonym of Dr John Taylor (1805-1842), and was written within days of the failed uprising at Newport on 3-4 November 1839.

The Greys' suspicions about the movement can only have been confirmed by this armed action, but in fact the overwhelming majority of Chartists sought to achieve their programme of political reform through constitutional means: a series of petitions were submitted in 1839, 1842 and 1848, though with little result. But Taylor was a real 'physical force' Chartist, and there was strong militant support for Chartism in the north east and particularly in Newcastle at the time. In addition to speaking in support of political reform and republicanism Taylor was also determined to organise an armed rising in the north to coincide with that at Newport and other places in the country. After a short period on the run he was arrested in Newcastle in late November. Even after his release on bail he continued to organize, with the aid of "Chartist missionary" Robert Peddie as John Grey reports. Another rising was planned for the night of 11-12 January, but this fizzled out in Newcastle due to insufficient support. The authorities were better able to gauge the threat of an armed uprising by this time, and after charges of sedition against Taylor were dropped he left the country for Germany in February 1840.

The intercepted letter was followed in December by another to Lord Grey in which John Grey offered his thoughts on Chartism and why he considered it received far greater support in coal mining communities than in lead mining areas. Grey himself was an agriculturalist and for thirty years managed the Greenwich Hospital estates in Northumberland and Cumberland, estates largely located in lead mining areas. He chiefly attributes the difference to their different modes of living, the lead miners being in dispersed settlements and with strong traditions of self-reliance, and particularly to the lead miners' better education and stronger religious principles. Grey was a reformist himself with a history of involvement in northern campaigns to abolish slavery and in support of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. How familiar he was with coal mining communities is not known. Grey completely ignores the Chartists' very specific programme of democratic reforms, commenting instead on "a restless spirit of discontent which aims at some indefinite change in their condition, the means of obtaining which, seem quite unintelligible to themselves". It is perhaps as a means of blunting or deferring the power of their "interested & influential Leaders" that he urges, at the end of his letter, the importance of widening access to education. Grey's daughter was Josephine Butler, the feminist and social reformer, and after whom one of the colleges in the university is named. Transcripts of all the letters referred to are provided below.

Sources: William Henry Maehl, Jr., 'The Dynamics of Violence in Chartism: A Case Study in Northeastern England', Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1975), pp. 101-119; Dictionary of National Biography.

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