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The life of Thomas Cooper of Leicester, called "the Chartist" (1805-1892), was in every way remarkable.   The son of poor parents, robbed early of his father, Cooper passed rapidly through the varied rτles of shoemaker, teacher, musician, Wesleyan local preacher, newspaper reporter, Chartist lecturer and leader, Chartist prisoner, outcast and poet, teacher of morals and politics (a more educated though less forceful Cobbett), secularist, convert, anti-secularist, dying at the great age of eighty-seven.  The mere recital gives a clue to the character of Cooper — an impulsive man but intensely loyal where his convictions or sympathies were enlisted — a hero-worshipper apt to turn iconoclast.

    Cooper's career is an extremely interesting example of how Chartists were made.  He was an entirely self-taught man.  He acquired an incredible amount of learning under the most disadvantageous circumstances.  Latin, French, Greek, Mathematics, Music, English Literature (especially that stand-by of the humble reader, The Pilgrim's Progress) — all came alike to him.  Radical notions he acquired from some trade unionists of his acquaintance, though such ideas were beyond doubt the common possession of all the reflecting members of the working classes.  Like most self-taught people, Cooper lacked that balance of judgment which comes largely by contact with other minds, and he was apt to act hastily upon half-truths.  He also had no little opinion of himself, as a glance at his autobiography will show.  A brilliant but impulsive intellect, Cooper flared up suddenly in the Chartist world, and as suddenly disappeared.  But in the years 1841-42 there was no leader so successful as he.

    Whilst acting as reporter for a Leicester paper, Cooper was requested near the beginning of 1841 to report a Chartist meeting in the town.  It was to be addressed by John Mason, a shoemaker of Birmingham.  It is remarkable how many shoemakers failed to stick to their lasts in those days; Collins, Benbow, Cooper, Mason, Cardo are all cases in point.  Cooper found some twenty ragged men in the room when he arrived, but the place quickly filled up with men and women, all equally poor and ragged.  The speeches were sensible and temperate, and they told Cooper nothing new.  On leaving the meeting, however, his attention was drawn to the clatter of the knitting-frames — and that at an hour approaching midnight.  Inquiries revealed to him the fearful poverty which drove starving men and women to toil at such a time for such wages — less than a penny an hour.  The crying injustice of the frame-rent system completed his conversion.  From that day he was a Chartist, and his Chartism grew more vehement daily.  In our days revelations of this sort would at once produce an agitation for the reform of the frame-rent system, and it is very significant of the passionate and unpractical temper of those times that Cooper seems never to have thought of any such thing.  The opposition which such a campaign would have to meet, and the poverty and recklessness of the poor employees themselves would have rendered its successful conduct all but hopeless.  To men so situated as these stockingers (who had proved their own helplessness in many a futile strike) the Charter had become a kind of charm or fetish, through which every evil would be exorcised, and every social wrong be avenged.  In the year 1841 every poor man with a real grievance tended to become a Chartist.  Chartism was the grand, all-containing Cave of Adullam for men who were too poor to build up their own barriers against economic oppression.

    So Cooper became a Chartist.  His conversion was quickly followed by the loss of his situation, and he thenceforward devoted himself wholly to the cause of the stockingers.  He ran several newspapers in succession, conducted innumerable meetings, and rapidly acquired an immense following which he proceeded to organise.  He took a large hall of meeting, and christened his flock the "Shaksperean Association of Leicester Chartists."  By the summer of 1842 he claimed 2500 members.  He divided them up into classes, which went under such names as the "Andrew Marvell," "Algernon Sydney," "John Hampden" class.  He devised a kind of uniform, gave to his adherents a pseudo-military organisation, and proudly bore the title of "Shaksperean General."  Is it too far a cry to assume that Cooper was the originator of ideas afterwards developed by William Booth at Nottingham?  By these means — the magic of uniform and badges — Cooper developed a really ferocious esprit de corps amongst his followers, who idolised him.  But he was not content with demonstrations.  He took pains to give his disciples education in an adult school, and amusement of the right sort.  Cooper has preserved for us some Chartist hymns and songs of no little merit which were composed by himself and some of his Shakespereans.  Through the comparatively prosperous days of 1811 (there was a temporary revival of trade) Cooper kept his following in hand.  He kept their minds occupied, prevented them from brooding, interested them in recreative pursuits.  A by-election provided excitement; visits from various noted Chartists afforded variety, and in general Cooper succeeded in brightening and cheering the lives of many who would otherwise have fallen victims to despair.  He believed and taught his followers to believe in the vague and vain promises of O'Connor that the Charter would yet be carried.  Even this hope did not, however, remove the feeling of desperation which began to grow during the terrible months of 1842, when starvation knocked at every stockinger's door with greater insistence than ever.  The poor folk gradually got out of hand; Cooper was equally carried away by the scenes of terror and suffering, and was hurried into the catastrophe which in August ruined Chartism for the second time.


From the Appendix to . . . .

1837 - 1854.


R. G. Gammage.


    We have received the following letter from Mr. Cooper, to which we gladly give insertion:—

10, Devonshire Place,
Stoke Newington Green,
February 26th, 1855.

Dear Sir,

    I wish to correct part of the statements concerning myself in your 'History.'  I do not blame you for want of their correctness.  It must be expected that misstatements will arise out of such a warfare as ours has been.  You say I was 'O'Connor-mad' in 1842, and while heading the Leicester Chartists.  I do not controvert the phrase, for I think we were all mad, more or less, at that time.  I only want to shew that there was method in my madness; and that my course in Leicester was not so utterly unlike the rest of my life, as to be altogether that of a blackguard: for really, if your statement be left uncontradicted, such must be the impression with the majority of your readers.

    I was about to return to London, on leaving my employment on the Leicestershire Mercury in the early part of 1841, when the Chartists entreated me to stay, and conduct the little periodical they had just started, the Midland Counties Illuminator. I had already written for them, and they believed my heart was with them.  I consented to stay; and if I know my own heart at all, my consent sprung from the purest and most devoted self-sacrifice for the poor and oppressed.  The little paper would have stopped because they could no longer raise funds to carry it on; but they gave it into my hands entirely, and I borrowed and begged money to carry it on.  I also began to deliver Sunday evening addresses in the market-place, in the form of sermons, partly religious and partly political; and these discourses were attended by thousands.  When the general election of 1841 approached, the Whigs — knowing the Chartists would oppose the return of Easthorpe and Ellis — intimidated the printer of our little periodical, and it had to be stopped.  Nor could I find any other printer in Leicester who dared to print it.  At last one was found who had only a small collection of poor types; and, rather than be beaten, I started a small halfpenny paper, and — as it was a tiny light compared with the Illuminator — I called it the Chartist Rushlight.  This was carried on weekly, until the election took place, when I was proposed on the hustings as the Universal Suffrage candidate.  While I was addressing the crowd, one of the Whig party approached me with a huge tin extinguisher fixed to a pole and attempted to place it on my head — to extinguish the rushlight!  The Whigs laughed, and their members were returned; but now I changed the title of our weekly halfpenny paper, and, to shew that I would not be 'put out,' called it the Extinguisher.  The paper in that form continued to the end of 1841.

    Just before the election I had succeeded, though with some difficulty, in getting a house and shop, in a tolerably central situation, and here I published my little paper, sold the Northern Star and other periodicals, opened coffee-rooms, and also commenced the sale of bread.  I still continued my Sunday night addresses in the market-place, divided Leicester into districts, began to press the enrolment of Chartist members; and the consequence was that I grew popular, and I may say powerful, in a certain sense.

    You observe (on page 203 of your 'History ') that there was another party of Chartists in Leicester, too intelligent to bow to my dictatorship.  Now the most intelligent men of the body were with me: witness my beloved and most faithful friends up to the day of their deaths — the two poets, John Bramwich and William Jones.  I do not like even to mention old quarrels, much less to revive them.  I and John Markham (whom you name on the same page) have long ago renewed our friendship; but if I must state the truth, it was not their 'intelligence,' but their friendship for Markham (their old leader, whom they considered I had supplanted) which made the other party of Chartists arise.  They were never more than few in number, and remained at the old meeting place, — a very little room, — while we, when the winter came on, and I could no longer talk in the market-place, hired a large room attached to the Amphitheatre, and which (from the time of its being built, years before) had always been called the 'Shakesperean Room.'  As there were now two societies, and I liked the name of Shakespeare, (for which I trust I shall be excused) I proposed that our society should be called the 'Shakesperean Brigade of Leicester Chartists.'  Thus, it was from the room in which we met, that we took our name.  The term 'brigade' was very commonly used by Chartists, in lieu of 'society;' and as for the title of 'General,' it was given me by admiring and loving working men.  I adopted it in sport, at first, but afterwards it was not easy to lay it aside.

    With midwinter, 1841-2, the severest distress commenced in Leicester.  I had seen wretchedness enough before; but now, when employ ceased for thousands, and that for months, the distress was appalling.  You say (on page 202) that when the people followed me through the streets, they halted at the doors of the shopkeepers to receive their charitable contributions.  I assure you that is a great mistake.  I never led a begging procession; but I gave away bread, and gave credit for bread to many who were never able to pay me — until I owed my baker sixty-six pounds.  I claim no praise for so doing.  It was rather a part of my 'madness.'  I ought to have been 'just before I was generous.'  I know it; and yet that is the lesson I have, all my way through life, found the most difficult to practise; and I am afraid it is now too late for me to alter — unless I could get a new nature.

    Amidst the discouragements of that winter, I ventured to start a Sunday School for adults, men and boys.  Many scores attended, and our lesson books were the Old and New Testaments, Channing's Self-Culture, and two or three of his Essays besides, Campbell on the Corn-Laws, &c., &c. Bramwich, Jones, and others of our most intelligent members, assisted me in the conduct of this school.  It was broken up when the spring came and discontent grew more rife; but, if I had remained another winter in Leicester, I purposed to revive it.  The spring of 1842 was fearful.  The lack of employ continued; and the people grew either despairing or threatening.  I continued to enrol Chartist Members, old and young, till we had three thousand names on our register.  I also began to address the people on week-nights, and on Sunday mornings and afternoons, as well as on Sunday evenings.  On some fine evenings we would sing through the streets, to shew our numbers, and also to vex our middle-class opponents.  But these were not ''daily tasks" as you term them; and they were always harmless, for we never committed any violence.  I was greatly puzzled and astonished when I read (on the same page of your 'History'), that 'when Cooper was unable to head these processions, another man took his place, dressed in a military suit;' for I never saw or heard of such a man.  Yet a Leicester friend reminds me that something took place in the spring of 1842, which your informant (whoever he may be) has distorted into the raw-head and bloody-bones shape of a 'man taking my place, dressed in a military suit.'  The crowds of poor applying for relief at the Board of Guardians became so great, that a mill was set up at the Union-House, as a test of willingness to work.  The mill had to be worked in a very laborious way and the poor men, feeling they were degraded because they were poor, formed a band with a man at their head who sometimes wore an old cast-off soldier's cap — and so used to beg, when the day's degrading labour (for which they received the most miserable pittance) was over.  But this was no Chartist affair: the men were not connected with us; and the man with the soldier's cap never 'took my place,' nor was he ever a Chartist.

    I said that my paper, called the Extinguisher, was carried on to the end of 1841.  For a few weeks I published no paper, hoping work would begin again to be given out to the men, and distress would lessen.  But I was wearied with waiting, and soon commenced the Commonwealthsman, a weekly three-halfpenny paper.  This succeeded well for a short time, but I was compelled to give it up when the summer drew near.  This succession of little papers, I should observe, was a source of strength to Chartism, and also to the cause of Labour — for the papers afforded the working men a means of exposing their wrongs, in the matter of wages, stoppages, &c.  Moreover, there was always a 'Poet's Corner,' to which Bramwich and Jones were regular contributors; and their contributions (usually in the form of Chartist Hymns) were afterwards collected into the 'Shakespearean Chartist Hymn Book,' and were sung at our meetings.

    This reminds me to correct another passage on page 203 of your 'History.'  You say, — 'On the release of his great idol, Cooper composed a song, to which he gave the the title of the Lion of Freedom,' &c.  I did not compose the song nor any line of it, nor did I give it a title.  The song first appeared in the columns of the Northern Star, and was understood to be the composition of a Welsh female Chartist.  A Leicester working man (Valentine Woolley) first set it to an air (or rather to a fragment of the melody of a glee); we adopted it; and, it is perfectly true, that I usually introduced it at our meetings — nay, I spread it wherever I went, either into the Leicestershire villages, or into such towns as Sheffield, Nottingham, &c.

    And now a word or two respecting my attachment to O'Connor.  The people taught me this attachment.  I did not teach it to them.  I was assured they had no hope in Chartism, but in him.  He won me also, by his letters, and by his conversation, in the few interviews I had with him, during my Leicester chieftainship.  I saw reason in the after time to alter my opinion of him; but during the period I am referring to, I held that union was the absolute requisite for Chartist success; and as the people cleaved to O'Connor as their leader, I became a foe to all who opposed him as the fomenters of disunion.  For this reason I opposed O'Brien.  And I regret that my opposition was not enacted in the fairest spirit.  I have since apologised to him; and have also publicly intimated to the Leicester people that I considered we did wrong towards him.  Whether O'Brien can forgive a wrong when it is acknowledged, I am not sure.  I must be allowed to correct one of your sentences, in reference to my treatment of O'Brien.  You say (on page 203) 'He had well trained and drilled his soldiers, and had made them understand the doctrine of passive obedience to his decrees.'  Depend upon it, if I had attempted to make the people 'understand' anything of the kind, they would have stoned me in the street.  If I had the 'power of a king' in Leicester, as you say, be assured it was by teaching and practising a very different kind of doctrine.  No: the truth is, I was the people's instrument, rather than their director, even in those stormy contests with O'Brien and others.  And it is thus, in all ages and in every country, whether on a large or small scale, that a popular leader keeps the lead: his temperament, nature, and powers fit him, by quick sympathy, and strong, energetic will, to become the people's mouthpiece, hand, and arm, either for good or evil.

    With regard to Mr. Sturge, I think it is pretty generally known that I long ago confessed my regret at being misled to say one word against him.  I have lived to receive proof of his kindest personal friendship; and believe him to be one of the best human beings.  To Vincent I never apologised: I still think that, under the circumstances, he deserved what he got.  I am sorry you stained your pages with the name of a man who called himself 'William Dean Taylor.'  Taylor was not his name: he only assumed it to hide himself from the law, which would have punished him for his own crimes.  He was one of the vilest and most immoral men that ever found his way into the Chartist ranks.  As for little Philp, I dare say I might call him 'a boy;' for his appearance was so delicate that many called him the 'lady Chartist.'  Depend upon it, I never 'almost went down on my marrow bones' to such a jackanapes.  When you talk about his 'calm and dignified tone,' you remind me of the man who talked of the 'majesty of a magpie.'

    I have written you at a greater length than I had intended; but hope you will, nevertheless, find room for this letter in your Appendix.  I do not ask it as a favour.  I never saw you but once in my life; but our meeting (it was at Leicester, in that troublous time,) left an impression of your intelligence and uprightness on my mind.  The impression has been confirmed by what others have reported of you; and I confide that you will not only be willing, but anxious, to correct any misstatements into which you may have been unavoidably led, in the compilation of your 'History of the Chartist Movement.' — I am, dear sir, Your's truly, THOMAS COOPER.

Mr. R. G. Gammage.


    Cooper did quite right in claiming as a matter of justice insertion for the above and also in presuming that such insertion would not be refused.  To defend oneself from attack, is the right of every man and we should be worthy only of being despised, did we refuse that right to another which we claim for ourselves; but which we regret to say, we have seldom obtained at the hands of our ruthless detractors, who disguise themselves with the cloak of Democracy, but who appear to know as much of real Democratic justice as an Emperor of Russia or a King of Naples.  We are quite willing to bear our testimony to Cooper's disinterestedness in his connection with the Chartists of Leicester.  We have had other evidence than his own, as to his sacrifices while residing in that town.  We never regarded him, in his connection with the Chartist movement, as a mercenary agitator; we always understood him to be the very reverse of that.  Our not noticing his periodicals and schools, was an omission, though not intentional.  With regard to the processions in Leicester about that period, it appears that we have confounded two different bodies of men — the Chartists and the unemployed, — though in many instances, doubtless they were the same persons.  Let us briefly explain what we know of the subject.  We were in Leicester in the spring of 1842, and called at the house of Cooper, a circumstance forgotten by that gentleman; but we actually walked with him to the first of the two meetings which O'Brien was advertised to address, and were on the platform during the evening.  At that time we had no acquaintance with O'Brien; but we were about to expostulate with Cooper in the course of the evening, when we were stopped by Beedham, who addressed us in no very courteous manner with "Leave him alone; he knows best what to do."  On that evening, while in Cooper's, we saw a large procession of half-starved men come up to the door, where they separated.  Cooper appeared very busy that evening.  The procession was headed by a man in a soldier's cap, and a red jacket.  Of course we did not mean that the military suit was anything but a mock one.  It was these processions that stopped at the houses of the shopkeepers to receive their charitable contributions; and it appears from Cooper's letter, that with these processions he had nothing to do; a great number, however, of the men engaged in the one we saw, entered Cooper's house, including their mock military leader.  With regard to the "Lion of Freedom," it was the the general impression that the song was Cooper's.  This doubtless arose from the fact, that Cooper published it in his hymn-book; and as most of the songs and hymns had the authors' names attached, and that had not, it was concluded that he was the author, as he sung it oftener than anything else at the meetings he attended.  When we said that Cooper had well trained and drilled his soldiers, and made them understand the doctrine of passive obedience to his decrees, we did not mean that he had literally told the people that they must in all instances obey him; but that, by his commanding manner, he had so influenced them that he could always be sure of their support.  We had no intention of injuring Cooper by any observations we made.  We would not do an injustice to any man if we knew it; and if our language upon some men appears hard, it is chiefly because of the injustice with which those men have treated others.  Our intense and never slumbering hatred of injustice is the cause of our apparent harshness, and not any vindictive feelings towards the individuals.  We look upon all injustice, done by one Democrat to another, as an obstacle in the way of Democracy; against such injustice we will, whatever be the issue, wage unceasing war.  We congratulate Cooper and our readers upon the admirable spirit displayed generally in his letter, which is quite sufficient to assure us of the generosity of his nature.




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