While the main focus of this website is crime, since the publication of my book, The Life and Legend of Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018), I have been increasingly interested also in nineteenth-century radicalism; what was once a passing interest now shares equal space (in my head) with the lives of brave Chartists and rebels. There is of course much overlap with Robin Hood and radicalism (see my post on Joseph Ritson), and in the story below, you’ll see that the local Tories probably did set fire to someone’s business in order to win an election.
While I was researching the book on Wat Tyler, I came across this biography of an old Chartist leader named “Rex” who was interviewed by a correspondent for The Social Democrat (a socialist publication, although the Chartists were not socialists) in the 1890s and was recalling his youthful activist days.
For those who do not know: Chartism was the first mass working-class political reform movement who had six demands on their Charter:
- votes for all men;
- equal electoral districts;
- abolition of the requirement that Members of Parliament be property owners;
- payment for M.P.s;
- annual general elections; and.
- the secret ballot.
While the movement had fizzled out by the 1850s–and perhaps succeeded by the emerging socialist movement–it will be noticed by eagle-eyed readers that all-but-one of their demands have been implemented in Britain. So, not a “failed” movement after all.
This may not shine a light on the lives of forgotten criminals, but as a social historian, it does shine a little light on those forgotten from history (and even rare in that we have a picture of him!)
The following article appeared in The Social Democrat in 1897:
REX THE CHARTIST
“This strange, eventful history.”—SHAKESPEARE.
Who is he?
One who fought that you may be
Bore the Torch of Liberty
Bore it well and bore it long,
In a world where Greed and Wrong Curse the Weak and aid the Strong
This is he!—R
An old man sits before me. His hand is shrivelled, but his mind is strong; with a heart as responsive as over to Reason and to Right!
“Who is he?” He is none other than “Rex, the Chartist!” Born March 31, 1806—ninety-one years ago.
Rex lost his mother at the early age of six. He received no actual school education; it was only for the absolutely well-to-do children of those days. Yet Rex was fortunate in having for his grandfather a remarkable man; in politics an ardent radical, in religion a thorough Tolstoyite—ignoring the Old Testament, but accepting the precepts of the New, and, what is more, thoroughly practising his Christianity. Rex also received much enlightenment from an exiled Irish schoolmaster who, suspected of stealing a pheasant from a preserve, had to quit his native land whore, as a matter of fact, he had never stolen anything. It was this Mr. Kelly, a very clover man, who, with his exceptionally able grandfather, a Jacobin, and famous fighter for Freedom, nominated young Rex as a member of the famous Quakeress, Hannah Pink’s Select Library. Therein Rex revelled, reading and acquiring knowledge. Indeed, at the age of seventeen he know the histories of Greece and Rome by heart, besides many other and varied masterpieces of English literature, reading until two o’clock in the morning—a practice he long continued.
In 1820, Rex was apprenticed to the cabinet-carving, in which he excelled. But what a reward! Ono shilling a week for the first year; half-a-crown for the seventh! And the hours—four a. m. until six p.m., with a continuous “overtime” until ten!
And it was Britain who freed the blacks!
The absolute integrity of Rex caused his master’s customers to prefer the employee to the dissipated employer. So they set Rex up in business and gave him their custom. It was then the young man married; becoming too the acknowledged sage of the village, where at the inn would gather the “advanced democrats” to hear Rex read the famous Bronterre O’ Brien’s journal, The British Statesmen, and other literature.
Perhaps no better proof of Rex’s sincerity can be given than in the fact of his becoming a total abstainer. Hearing John Cassell, as famous then as a temperance crusader as his children now are as publishers in London, Rex, on economic as well as ethical grounds, felt he had no right to be asking for Democracy greater rights when the rights they already possessed were prostituted by the abuse of alcoholic drinking. Thus, in November, 1833, Rex became an ardent abstainer, remaining so ever on ward.
In 1837 Rex went to Taunton. Here he met Benjamin Lucraft. Thanks to Rex, with whom he worked, Lucraft became an active member of the Working Men’s Peace Association, to which, of course, both men belonged. Of that association Lucraft eventually became secretary, receiving a true reward for his long services. In Taunton, Rex worked hard for the cause of the people; and this notwithstanding he was employed by those utterly opposed to him. His fame as a workman brought him next in the employ of the member for Bridgewater, Colonel Tynt, yet he never lost a moment in expounding his political theories.
About now Rex joined the Complete Suffrage Association, the difference between this body and the Chartists being that, whereas the Chartists were in favour of annual, the Complete Suffrage Association were in favour of triennial Parliaments-neither, by the bye, accomplished facts as yet! Rex next became an employee of the Earl of Egremont, where he proved himself an excellent craftsman and agitator! At length our study settled in Taunton.
In Taunton Rex met Chartists. A society was formed and the fact that no employee could vote without the risk of displeasing his employer, who knew exactly how that employee voted, so annoyed the Chartists that they determined to force local Liberals into pressing upon their party the necessity of the [secret] ballot. Brannan, a Bideford man, and Rex were deputed to wait on the Liberals.
“We were,” said Rex, “treated with scorn and contempt, being told we were only an insignificant body of men!”
”Ah,” said Rex in retiring, “You have refused our appeal, but we will make you repent it!” And, by Jove, they did, for at the next General Election, Sir J. Labouchere, relative of the present member for Northampton, and a member of the Government, with Sir John Colebrook, were severely punished—the Chartists who, on poll-day, had gone for a holiday into the country, returning in the evening to learn Colebrook bad been succeeded by Arthur Mills, the Tory, by five votes; while Sir J. Labouchere had his former majority reduced. “Give us our demands, and not play with us,” said Rex, and that demand the Liberals granted after being punished for their jeer and sneer!
In 1848 a meeting was called “for the reconciliation of the working and middle classes (comrades, don’t laugh!). To that congress Rex was sent, and it was there, Rex thinks, he met George Julian Harney, the brilliant journalist, democrat, and humanitarian, of whom Rex had heard so much and read a deal.
Perhaps of all the treasures which adorn the wall of Rex’s humble habitation, none are held as sacred as the portrait of the eloquent Ernest Jones, given to Rex by the veritably great democrat lawyer on his appearance at Exeter many years ago. There is a deep pathos Rex’s opinion of Jones: “He was a noble fellow—a grand man. I really loved him!” One of those wonderful indomitable spirits whose whole being is a continuous sacrifice for others. Like Rex, who was repeatedly offered a permanent sinecure by aristocrats and the Government if he would “only renounce his stupid views,” Jones, as every student of history knows, refused a heritage of £2,000 a year rather than abjure the faith reason had endowed him with. Proudly Rex points to the life and writings of Jones, laying special emphasis upon the fact that what the advanced thinker is still struggling for Jones long ago advocated at the cost of being prematurely killed by bigotry and persecution in its vilest form.
Here I cannot help expressing my surprise at the fact that, as in the case of Shelley, no monument commemorating the splendid life of Ernest Jones, poet, patriot, politician, has been erected by neglectful democracy. And here I must express passages of Jones’s, doing so at the desire of Rex himself:—
“I believe in the progressive development of the human mind. I believe the human race possesses one great collective life, having its infancy and ripening to its manhood; and I protest against demanding from the infancy of nations that which their maturity alone can achieve. I protest against measuring the child by the standard of the man … I will meet him [Professor Blackie] on the ground he himself has chosen. I will go with him to ancient Greece. I will follow him to classic Rome. I will accompany him to revolutionary France … And I will undertake to show that in them all democracy has been the founder and saviour of the people’s greatness.”
“I proclaim a new crusade; a great crusade; the greatest ever known. Not for the mouldering tomb of a buried God, but the fresh green altar of the living Deity. Arise! Sound with me the signal note tonight which shall make those ramparts rock on their foundation. The people’s land shall be the people’s own!”
“What gross injustice, for society counts woman as nothing in its institutions. And yet makes her bear the greatest sufferings infested by a system in which she has no voice. Brute force first imposed the law, and moral force compels her to obey it.”
Finally, Ernest Jones’s opinion on labour and capital:
“Two things are necessary for the production of wealth—labour and capital. It is, therefore, argued that capital has paramount claims, since without capital, labour would be useless. Perhaps so, but let us examine what capital is, whence it arises, and to whom it belongs. The earth itself is the fundamental capital of the human race, which, in return for labour, yields them, as interest, the means of life. Labour is capital; every working-man, the poorest in existence, is the capitalist of labour-power, and claiming as a right a share in the general capital of mankind—the soil, the air, the waters, and the things that in them are. The only fair day’s wage is the wage you pay yourselves. The only fair day’s work is the work that is free.”
Wonderful prophet, Ernest Jones. It is 1851, and thus he writes:—
“Men of America, the sad ruin is germinating in your land. You are following in the wake of Tyre, Carthage, Rome-of Venice, Spain, England!”
“He know then what America of today would be,” says Rex, who is not wrong. This is the genius Rex loved, who was, too, his bosom friend! Any wonder?
The city of Exeter is a cathedral city. It was a cathedral city when Rex resided in it. And it had a bishop and it had a blackguard! Semper Fidelis is the motto of Exeter. Yes, and “Ever Faithful” it seems to have been to the poor, honest, well-intentioned democrat. Not only was he maligned and derided and stoned, but he was, with premeditation, absolutely ruined by a vagabond who, without doubt, was aided and abetted by men of position who hated Rex because of his political views. At Exeter Rex was well known as an eloquent and earnest reformer. Here, on behalf of the Local Optionists, he was deputed, with a schoolmaster, to wait upon the sitting members for the city—Mills, ex-Tory MP for Taunton, who, of course, knew Rex, and Sir J. Karslake, the well-known lawyer. On being introduced, Arthur Mills said significantly, “Oh yes, I know Mr. Rex; I have met him before!” But he knew ”Mr. Rex” still better, perhaps, after the election, for the future Lord Chief Justice Coleridge and Edward Bowring, having agreed to the desire of the deputation, were preferred to the sitting members, and sent in their places to Parliament. And the Rex who had caused the Tories of Taunton joy in seeing Arthur Mills their MP caused the Tories of Exeter the mortification of seeing the same Arthur Mills their ex-M.P. You can comprehend, then, why Mr. Mills knew of Rex, can you not?
“We shall never get our men in Parliament till Rex is gone,” said the Tories of Exeter. To get rid of him, of course, was the subject for consideration. Rex does not say the Tories burned his house down and ruined him and his family. He does not say so. He prefers to be the sailor’s parrot. That same parrot who heard Shakespeare utter in one of his philosophic moods—”Give thy thoughts no tongue.” Two or three times the factory of Rex was fired; eventually it was destroyed. And the vagabond whose name Rex gives to me as having done the deed never worked again, possessing means ever after. The fire insurance offices, too, refused, after the first attempt, to further insure, saying the factory would surely be burned. Rex, driven from Exeter, left a ruined man, having lost in all twelve hundred pounds. And this, too, in this boasted land of liberty. Yes—assuming that liberty is dominated by political orthodoxy.
Since 1875, I think it is, Rex has eked out an existence in Plymouth. As I hear the lark soaring to salute the light of heaven, I think what a war and what a peace! A plebeian fighting for the poor and rewarded with poverty. Nor stands Rex alone, for as I write comes an appeal to aid noble, old George Julian Harney, who gave wealth, leisure, happiness to the same cause as Rex. And as I look at the excellent wood engravings Rex has lent, and which were given away with the Commonwealth, “the organ of the Reform movement”—portraits of The O’Donoghue, M.P., Charles Braudlaugh, Potter, MP., Ernest Jones, E. O. Greening, Colonel Dickson, Langley, Merriman and others—I ask myself, “Is Demos worth serving?” and from the grand great dead of a buried past, and this fine old veteran before me, comes one united voice:—”Fear no man; follow truth!”
I confess I felt cynical as I bade adieu to the grand old subject of my paper. There, surrounded by his books, in which he still takes a deep interest, I feel how neglectful of the honest, brave, good this world is. Here is a man—a man to the backbone—one who has given his life—money, pen, time—for the benefit of his fellow-being, yet who has been left to eke out an existence that would have spelt poverty itself were it not for a few friends and two clever girls of his, who hold premier positions on the English stage as ladies of the ballet, who have been admitted by the London and provincial Press to be excellent in their art—girls true to their honourable profession, as their father was to his. The reverence of these children is only equalled by the love of the parent, who proudly points to their photo, saying, ”They are good girls, with all the old strength and fire of their father—”
“Not yet dead, yet!” I interject.
“My dear boy, not yet begun to grow old, who will run over to Heath’s and have his photo taken for you—ay, will write you an article for the paper, if you like! What are you laughing at? I mean it. Why, what do you think me, a confirmed in valid?”
“Goodbye, Rex, old fellow, you are a masterpiece!”
I passed into the busy street with mixed feelings of wonderment and regret—wonderment at the still fiery old fellow of ninety-two and regret, disgust that the lives of Jones, of Harney, and of Rex should have been thrown away on behalf of Carlyle’s thirty millions—mostly fools!
Yet, when I take a farewell glance of this old veteran, whose love for his fellow-creatures is still phenomenal, I think—
In the dawn of that tomorrow when this hollow age is past-
Greed, the God alike of Pagan and the Christian, dies at last;
Then, perchance, no more this struggle will the myriad toilers see,
But the prayer of One who uttered “As in Heaven on Earth for Thee”
Not the hypocritic churches, not the bigotry around,
Not the mother and the maiden and the child in serfdom bound,
Nor the noblest once of Nature, Man, as now the brute and worse,
Sacrificed on Mammon’s altar, victim of the robbers’ curse:
In the dawn of that Tomorrow, then, perchance, the race may learn
What THE CHILDREN OF THE DESERT did to win The Promised Bourne! — Rean
Citation: Anon., ‘Rex: The Chartist’, The Social-Democrat, no. 4 (1897), 99–103.