Picture of Robert Gammage

Robert Gammage

places mentioned

Hampshire, Lancashire, and final reflections

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In my last I left of my labours at Alnwick, and landed safely in Newcastle. As this must be the concluding paper of the series, I will go back a short time to the South of England.

Leaving Brighton on another occasion of visiting that place, I called at the little town of Worthing. Every one who knows the coast is aware that the walk from one town to the other is most enjoyable. I had been requested by my Brighton friends to call on a gentleman who was a licensed victualler and who was said to be a good Chartist. I had apprised the said gentleman of my visit, but when I called he was not at home—that convenient excuse which answers more purposes than one. I called again and again, but there was always the same stale excuse. I extemporised a meeting in the open air and began to speak. I was soon greeted with those derisive cheers which are more annoying than the loudest groans. After due persistence I had to retire and put up at a house, the landlord of which, in old sailor-like fashion, welcomed me heartily, and charged nothing extra for his welcome. All honour to our old Jack tars of this true stamp; they are worth more than their weight in gold, as I have more than once experienced.

I paid a visit to Southampton, and had a numerous, good, and in all respects satisfactory meeting. My friend Mr. Goodman, umbrella maker, was the leading man of our party. He was a plain, simple man; void of ostentation. But true to the very core. I met here with Samuel Bartlett, a brother of George M. Bartlett, of Bath, who had fallen out with Henry Vincent at the time when the latter gentleman resided in that exquisite city, and who, poor fellow, died soon after, to the great grief of his brother. Bartlett was my chairman, and the meeting was all that one could desire—strict attention, and as much applause as I wished. Bartlett, the next morning, expressed his surprise at what he called my eloquence, and wondered how a young working man, without any particular education, could speak so well. 'Oh, my dear fellow,' I replied, 'you have only to speak what you mean, and you are sure to speak well.'

Of all towns in that quarter, the last I should have thought of visiting was Winchester, and yet from that town I got a cordial invitation. I little thought that in a military and cathedral town I should get so good a meeting; but the room was filled by an audience which for attention and enthusiasm might have satisfied a more fastidious man than I ever was. I never understood until then the influence of a garrison town upon some of its people. The friend who acted as chairman invited me to breakfast the following morning at eight o'clock. My friend had a chatty, and, as far as her political prejudices allowed, a very agreeable wife, whose mother lived with them. Both these ladies were aristocratic in their way, middle-class aristocrats who generally are worst of all. There was plenty of chat, but, as my readers will readily understand, it was not Chartist chat. The son of friend, then only a child, was present, and his mother praised him in a warm and sincere manner. It was easy to see the effect on some of living in a garrison town. This lady's principal delight was in her young son's love of the military, whose motions he often imitated. I had no love of this, as my host was well aware, and I was not sorry to bid the ladies good morning, and thank them for their hospitality.

And now I was to try my fortune in another garrison town, Portsmouth. I went to this celebrated place with some amount of misgiving. How should I address myself to people so differently engaged to what I was, and under so much Government influence? The difficulty was more in my mind than anywhere else; but for about an hour before the time of meeting I paced my room in a state of nervous agitation. My friends called to conduct me to the meeting. I went in trepidation, which as much as possible I concealed. The large room was crowded, and as we entered there was a clapping of hands, which continued as we wended ourway through the meeting, and when we ascended the platform it was renewed. All my nervousness vanished, and I sat on the left of the chairman serenely quiet. I spoke longer than I had ever before or have ever since addressed a meeting—two hours and a quarter, part of the time being taken up by the reading of statistics. Not even these frightened the meeting, which kept well compact during the whole time. I received the unanimous thanks of this large audience with a cheer which seems even now when I think of it, to be ringing in my ears.

As I was at Portsmouth, it was but a shortcut across the water to Ryde. I had often heard of the Isle Wight, and had a strong desire to visit it .It was a delightful little trip, as much so as sunshine and calm could make it until we arrived at the long plain wooden pier that stood out far into the water at that time.

I thought Ryde a pretty town even then, and more than forty years have passed over us since that time. From report, I infer that it now by many degrees surpasses its former self. There was no regularly formed Chartist society, but there was an active intelligent man, whose name, I believe, was Philip Brannon, and he contrived to get the meeting well announced. We assembled on rising ground in an ample space in front of the theatre, the steps of which made a good platform. I felt perfectly at home, and kept the large audience for an hour. The following day I took a delightful walk to the quiet village of Ventnor, not the beautiful town which I learn it has since grown to, but a very pleasant place, fit either for study or recreation. I met with a few good, true Democrats, the chief of whom was Mark Norman, noted for his honest bluntness of manner. Whether he had ever been a sailor I forget, but he was at I hat time a fisherman, and, if I mistake not, supplied those of his own catching. Mark was just such a Democrat as it was a real pleasure to meet. I addressed a meeting on the sea-sands by the light of the moon. It was a calm, beautiful evening, not sufficient coldness to render it unpleasant, and the meeting stood like a sailor to his guns.

There was one other place that I visited before leaving the little island, and that was Newport—not so interesting a spot to behold as either Ryde or Ventnor, and yet a clean, comfortable town. My friend Brannon came over, and we met a considerable number of Mends in a room, where we indulged in a free and lively talk. As those of that period (if any there be still living) will well remember, the controversy ran high between the friends of Feargus O'Connor and those of Bronterre O'Brien. The Chartists at Newport went for the most part with the former, whilst at the other places in the island they were more generally with the latter, although both regretted the division which had occurred.

The principal attraction for me in this little town was Mr. Pearce. He was a member of the Society of Friends, and was elected by consent of both Chartists and Complete Suffragists to the Birmingham Conference, called by the late Joseph Sturge, to determine the basis of a bill for securing 'a full, fair, and free representation of the people in the House of Commons'. The majority of the Conference carried an amendment to the motion brought forward by Mr. Sturge and his friends. This amendment was moved by the late Wm. Lovett and was to the effect that the People's Charter should be the basis of discussion. Lovett would have been content that both hills should on equal terms be submitted; but the 'Complete' gentlemen not giving way, he stuck to the bill of his own creation, and carried his amendment by a very large majority, on which the Sturge party followed their leader out of the room. The sturdy Pearce elected to stay with the majority. I was invited by that gentleman to tea, and spent a pleasant hour with him and his family. I could not but admire the plain, unpretending, but resolute Quaker, who, in every sentence he uttered, gave proof of his sincerity. Let me say, before quitting the pleasant little island, that most of the Chartists whom I met with in Newport were middle class men in comfortable positions, and therefore, all the better to be remembered, because it was somewhat of a phenomenon in our movement.

I went to Portsmouth again after this, and lectured in a large though somewhat smaller room than before. It was well filled, and I believe I had that night the cream of Portsmouth democracy. My lecture was chiefly argumentative, and an hour and a quarter was sufficient for my purpose. There was only one interruption throughout, and that was from a too enthusiastic friend who shouted from the bottom of the room in his rough style, 'go it, old fellow, give it the b.'s.' 'Hush, hush, hush!' ran through the meeting, proving to me the good sense and taste of the audience. I found that I had been, through the secretary, invited to stay at the house of my too exuberant friend. As I sat at supper, he said, 'Well, old fellow, you did come out to-night. I did not think of hearing such a lecture from you. When I saw you on the platform I thought you looked like a b——— fool.' I replied, you must not always take people by their looks.' 'No by G——, it appears not,' and he burst into a boisterous laugh. Bill Mitchell, as he was usually called, was a well-known character in Portsmouth, and got the reputation of being one of the roughest men in the town. He kept a beer-house, though it was thought that the trade on which he principally relied was of a more contraband kind, but he carried all things off with a jaunty air, and when he applied for a license to sell beer, the magistrates were so baffled by his off hand replies that he obtained it without a murmur. I may remark that smuggling was looked upon in those days without any great amount of disfavour in many of our seaport towns. To show the rough outspoken character of Mitchell, I may relate an incident that happened. When Dr. McDouall was expected by coach in order to lecture, Mitchell went down to meet the coach, and standing up at his full length threw out his arms, exclaiming at the top of his stentorian voice, 'Have you got a fellar named McDouall on board?' I am McDouall,' replied a gentleman from the coach. 'Come down, then, you are the man I want' Mitchell and the lecturer soon met John Leggett. 'This is our secretary,' said Mitchell 'and a d—d pretty secretary he is not to come and meet you. If it had not been for me, Jack Leggett, there would have been no one to meet the Doctor.' Arrived at Mitchell's house, the host brought out a large dish of cold veal, which, Leggett guessed was not a very tempting dish. 'Bill, give me a plate.' 'What do you want a plate for?' 'To get something for the Doctor.' 'Get something for the Doctor, why, you have had worse than that, old fellar, haven't you?' 'Oh, yes, many a time.' 'To be sure; you know nothing about it, Jack Leggett.' But the latter gentleman had his way, and got what he was sure would be more palatable. Mitchell, though rough, was a most generous man. One Christmas Day he sat with his family and some invited friends at dinner. Just as they were beginning the meal, he heard what he thought moans from the adjacent house. Knowing that the inmates had been in great poverty and distress, he bounded from the table and went to the miserable dwelling. He found every sign of impending starvation. Back he went to his comfortable home and Christmas party. Seizing the dish of meat, and telling others to follow with bread, he exclaimed, 'You must wait, for these poor devils are starving.' He cut them off a good supply, and left them with a can of his best beer. Bill was certainly one of the roughest of all the diamonds I ever encountered, but a diamond he was still.

I can only mention now a few of the many other places that I visited during my tour. When in the district, I could hardly fail to pay my best respects to Manchester, one of the great centres of the Chartist movement. I was thereon a Saturday night. The Chartist chief, Feargus O'Connor , was lecturing; the room, Carpenters' Hall, was densely crowded, and as usual he was received with almost unbounded applause. He spoke in a happy strain, to the evident delight of his hearers. I had been announced to give two lectures on the following day in the same hall. The first was given in an ante room, under the presidency of Mr. Wm. Dixon, and in the evening in the large hall, which, considering the meeting of the previous evening, I was surprised to find so well filled. I could not have thought that such an audience would assemble after the crowded meeting of the previous night. I got through my lecture with satisfaction to myself, which then, as generally, meant to that of my audience.

I went to the little town of Todmorden. As far as Chartism went, the place was historic, for here lived the large manufacturer, John Fielden, who was for many years the representative of Oldham, and who was looked upon as the successor of William Cobbett , whose opinions he generally shared. Fielden was a strenuous advocate of the Ten Hours' Bill so much discussed at that period, and he seconded Mr. Thomas Attword's motion when the People's Charter was first introduced to the House of Commons. I was quite at home in the happy valley. as Joseph Raynor Stephens, in a public speech, described it. After I arrived, I found that I had been engaged to lecture by the Female Chartist Association. There were many such associations then, and I thought it a good sign when the sexes mingled together for a common object, and that object a good one. Judging from the number of ladies present, some with their babes, I think this association was one of the strongest. The room was full, and I spoke with all the freedom that a man might be expected to speak who had a sympathetic audience. The chairman that evening was a singular man by the name of Mead. Having been in the navy, he was called by O'Connor the 'Old Commodore.' In the course of my lecture, I had alluded to a speech recently delivered by Mr.Ormsby Gore, a member of the House of Commons, in which he compared the various classes of society to the parts of a tree—the monarchy being the root, the aristocracy the trunk, the middle classes the branches, and the working classes the leaves. I sought to turn the statement upside down, and to show that the workers were the very root of society, and not the leaves, which would be blown off in autumn. At the conclusion of my lecture, the 'Old Commodore,' without finding fault with me, took a different position, as a man with large self-esteem was very likely to do. He maintained that the leaves were equal to the root, for by falling about it they afforded nourishment, without which it would inevitably die. 'If ' said he, with great emphasis, 'the root can't do without them, let the leaves withhold their nourishment, and let the tree die and bed——(Here there was a suppressed laugh; but when the chairman, perceiving the little hilarity, exclaimed in a loud voice, 'That's not swearing,' we all gave vent to a burst of merriment. When we got home to the house of Mr. Brook, the latter, who delighted in nothing more than a little good-natured fun with Mead, shouted, 'Let it die and be d——d: that's not swearing.' The 'Old Commodore' warmly contended that it was not, but a little bit of good plain English. We spent a merry evening, none the worse for our harmless banter.

I was after this at a rather out of the way town, Ormskirk, a small manufacturing place in an agricultural district. We held an open air meeting, and we were honoured by the presence of the chief constable with several of his men. I had received intimation of a probable arrest, which of course put me on my guard. I spoke with my usual freedom; but, just as I was approaching a climax, I observed the sinister eyes of the constable glisten, as if he thought. 'Now comes my chance.' But my substitution of the word 'faction' for 'Government' seemed to nonplus him, and bring on his face a look of disappointment. I enjoyed with my friends a hearty laugh at the discomfiture of the too zealous official.

I visited Leigh, famous in the days of Mr. Stephens for its physical force tendencies. We had a crowded and enthusiastic meeting, rendered merry by the speech of the chairman, who had come from Wigan to preside. He kept the meeting in roars of laughter with his ready wit and well chosen humour. I wondered what I should talk about after he was done; but, as on many previous occasions, my fears were groundless, for I spoke at good length, and my reception was all I could desire.

My visit to Newcastle and district, after leaving Scotland, occupied several months, of which many interesting matters might be related; but, for various reasons, I must for the present forbear, and bring this series of papers to a close. That they have been enjoyed by a large number of people of various classes in Sunderland I am well assured, and the same may be said of those in many other towns and village even in the South of England, where the Weekly Chronicle is more widely read than ever I had anticipated. If I have shed even a few rays of light on the hopes, aspirations, and struggles of the men who sustained a hard fight in previous days, it is as much as I can expect.

I not only do not regret the past; on the contrary, I rejoice in it. My early struggles amid poverty and discouragement of various kinds, the hair breadth escapes which I had from several evils, I can look upon as ordinary events in the life of all men who resolve at the very commencement to set principles in the foreground, and shun mere expediency as they would the plague.

Robert Gammage, 'Recollections of a Chartist', in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , Saturday, January 10 1885

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