UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The complete suffrage union of 1842 Bailey, Peter C.


The Complete Suffrage Union of 1842 was a brief and unsuccessful attempt to combine the middle and working classes behind a solid, well-ordered agitation for the classic programme of Parliamentary reform, at a time when economic distress was sharpening reform demands in Britain and class relations had turned sour in the penumbra of the Great Reform Bill. What were the circumstances which favoured the new movement? Firstly, the existing popular reform movements were temporarily spent; the Chartist leadership was badly fragmented and the lessons of its 1839 agitation discouraging, the Anti-Corn Law League had lost momentum after the 1841 election and Richard Cobden was searching for some 'new move' to ginger up his flagging organization. Secondly, the C.S.U. was led by the Birmingham Quaker, Joseph Sturge, who seemed to combine the necessary organisational ability, derived from his experience with the anti-slavery movement, with complete freedom from the stigma of class partiality. Thirdly, the C.S.U. was conceived in Birmingham, a city well known for its reform record and harmony between the classes, thus an ideal base for the national projection of such a movement. Given such initial advantages, why did the Complete Suffrage movement fail? It failed because it never won an effective following in its Birmingham base, as the League did in Manchester. The political thermometer in Birmingham rose and fell with economic fortunes and its citizens thought of political reform as a means to some such economic palliative as, for example, currency reform. Sturge offered no attractive economic nostrum to follow on from suffrage reform, only a sort of moral catharsis. As the moral conscience of the city he won dutiful plaudits from all and the particular affection of the shopocracy, but such pleasing breezes of approval hardly constituted a wind of change. Sturge had only a contingent relationship with the vital centres of business leadership in the city and was at best a reluctant agitator of the people at large. The old harmony and dynamic of the Birmingham reform front had been severely mauled by the disturbances of 1839 and the C.S.U. failed to attract the full reform energies of the middle class, who were regrouping between the campaign for municipal incorporation and their later battle against the Corn Laws. Neither could it attract those of the working class who shared Feargus O'Connor's misgivings that it harbored a selfish bourgeois plot. Sturge himself was an ineffective leader and the very probity which constituted a major propaganda appeal for the C.S.U. cut short the use of those tactics necessary to survival, let alone success, in contemporary politics. At the Nottingham bye-election of August, 1842, Sturge refused to sanction the normal electioneering skulduggery which would have brought the Union victory. In Birmingham and in the country as a whole, the C.S.U. failed to shut out hostile representatives to its major national conference in December, 1842. Finally the movement fell victim to the class discords it sought to allay, a defeat prefigured in the previous conference in April, and made obvious in December after the explosion of the Plug Plots, which heightened bourgeois fears of working class insurrection and confirmed the workers in their belief that the middle class sought to use them as a catspaw. The Complete Suffrage movement collapsed because it failed to establish an effective grip on its home territory; it would not use the tactics which the tough political milieu demanded; and it proved unable to survive the corrosive mutual suspicion between the classes. These defects were compounded by inadequate leadership. The C.S.U.'s failure seems incontestable but there is also a modest and significant success to be salvaged from its history. Its raison d'etre meant the occupation of a marginal position which brought it under heavy attack from both classes, but in Birmingham at least the C.S.U. contrived to restore valuable contact between the middle and working classes. The first chapter examines the industrial and political complexion of Birmingham in the 1830s, and the convulsions of 1838 and ‘39 which severely damaged the traditional harmony of the classes in the city. Chapter II introduces Joseph Sturge and considers his early moves to repair this damage in the context of both local and national reform politics. The third chapter examines the Complete Suffrage Union in action in the national conference held in Birmingham in April, 1842, and in Sturge's candidacy at the Nottingham bye-election in August of that year. It also looks at the composition and organisation of the Union's membership. The final chapter deals with the last conference of the movement, again in Birmingham, in December 1842, examining its failure in the light of the serious disturbances in the previous summer months and their effects on the climate of opinion. There is much good secondary material on this particular period in British history. This material was made available through the facilities of the Library of the University of British Columbia, and the Inter-Library Loans service. Some newspaper files were available on microfilm through the same services but the bulk of research on original sources was done in England in the summer of 1966. Private papers were disappointing but the British Museum Newspaper Collection proved invaluable, together with the pamphlet and newspaper materials in the Birmingham Reference Library.

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