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Brunel and the Chartists

Brunel and the Newport Rising

                                                                                                          Source: Old UK photos

4 November 2019 marks the 180th anniversary of the Newport Rising, the final large scale demonstration by Chartists in Great Britain.


Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform that existed between 1838 and 1857. With millions of supporters at the movement’s peak, the demands made by those 19th century Chartists seem very modern to us today. These included a call for a secret ballot during voting, equal-sized parliamentary constituencies and for MPs to be paid, making it realistic for ordinary working people to take up the position. Some demands, however, sound outdated to our modern ears – their idea of ‘universal’ suffrage only extended to men, and the Chartists’ push for parliamentary elections every year seems both impractical and, frankly, exhausting.

The movement did not achieve its goals at the time, but its legacy did live on and parliamentary reforms did follow in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s therefore easy for us to underestimate just how much of a threat the Chartists were seen as at the time. This threat is tangible in a letter currently displayed in the Being Brunel museum; writing to his brother-in-law, the MP Benjamin Hawes, Brunel shows his concern over potential violence and even future rebellion from “the working class, not merely those men whom in large numbers I employ but the mechanics artisans &c engaged in manufactures”.

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Brunel on the working class

The letter is dated April 1848, and in it, Brunel discusses the possibility of civil unrest, offering his insights into the working population:

“I am tolerably familiarly acquainted with their habits & lately I have taken some pains to ascertain the state of their feelings and their probable conduct in case of any disturbances – I speak now of the south & south west of England and from my general knowledge of this class I believe the result of my observation would apply more or less to the manufacturing districts of the north.”

Brunel was writing ahead of a large meeting in London, known as the Kennington Common Meeting, which saw tens of thousands of Chartist supporters gather on 10 April 1848 to push for the acceptance of their demands.

Brunel’s letter reveals that, in general, he regarded the working class to be “wonderfully well disposed in favour of order and having no desire for change or disturbance”, but that this could change depending on outside influences, seeing them (quite unflatteringly) as “blank sheets of paper on which any day or any hour sedition & treason – or order and obedience may be written at the will of whoever first seizes upon them”.

Brunel believed that “if asked by their foremen they would band themselves into bodies of special constables and defend the property of their masters”. However, he also remarked that, if these same working class people were to attend a Chartist meeting “and get into a row – from that time forward they are confirmed chartists and the bad ones”.

 

Preparations for unrest

In the letter, Brunel goes on to reveal just how seriously he saw the possibility of trouble, describing how, in his house, he has ready to act upon his orders “thirty one able bodyed [sic] young men – besides a dozen of youngsters… very respectable force either for self defence or for assisting general order”.

Speaking to his parliamentary brother-in-law, he asks for advice from the government as, despite having this small army at his disposal, he is “not quite prepared to risk the destruction of valuable property and go into the streets in search of adventure like a knight errant where I am likely to do mischief by swelling the dimensions of the mob and get shot or knocked down by mistake”.

Being an engineer, Brunel thought he had identified a source of danger that the government was neglecting – “the possibility of interruption of the railways & telegraphs”. In his letter to Hawes, he suggests a way of secretly overcoming this problem without even workers from the railway companies knowing about the plans:

I think I could point out six men who could thus in concert and under the advice of the proper Government officer make the necessary arrangements over the whole country – to meet the emergency should it arise – and without exciting any attention whatever” – how I would love to know which six men he was thinking of!

Brunel ends the letter slightly abruptly, but not without revealing the magnitude of his agitation: “If I go on I shall warm myself up into open rebellion so adieu”.

 

The toll of the Newport Rising

The Kennington Common Meeting in April 1848 ended peacefully, despite the government enlisting thousands of extra Special Constables and posting troops in key areas of London. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the Newport Rising in November 1849; this demonstration resulted in the deaths of at least 10 men (some say up to 22), with others facing charges ranging from ‘High Treason’ and ‘Conspiracy and Riot’, to ‘Theft’ and ‘Sedition’. Some of those found guilty were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, although this was later commuted to transportation to Australia.

Author: Nick Booth, Head of Collections


FInd out more

Discover the letter and even more fascinating objects from the collection in Being Brunel.