By Stephen Basdeo
I once heard it said (in a book somewhere, tho’ I’ve never the time nor the inclination to look up the reference), that if you’re a politician or an activist (in its broadest sense) and people are mocking you, then you probably have them rattled.
Such was the case with G.W.M. Reynolds, the subject of my next book.A leading Chartist activist who spent the years leading up to and after 1848 touring the country and speaking publicly on the need for political reform, his newspapers and novels were so incendiary that the army banned sales of them to soldier.
So, in 1848, the year of the great Chartist rally, a poor imitation of Punch, a magazine called The Man in the Moon, decided to mock Reynolds and imply that he was a bit of a wimp.
Dips into the Diary of Barabbas Bolt, Esq.
APRIL 1. — This day I left that cradle of infant freedom, the city of Smokely-on-Sewer, to proceed to London, there to help in the glorious work of overthrowing the tyranny which holds to the grindstone the flattened face of merry England. I was accompanied to the station by a band of patriots who, as I paid the three pewter half – crowns, destined by the local association for my third – class fare, knelt upon the earth and solemnly swore never to wash their faces until the Charter became the law of the land. For my own part, I vowed to return with the glorious tidings, or be brought back pickled in a cask, a corpse to the cause of freedom.
In a moment I was on the platform. There stood train, its three classes, first, second, and third. “Good Heavens!” I exclaimed, and are not men equal? Have not these cursed distinctions of rank been yet levelled by the roar of the speeding steam? But I, for one, will never give in to aristocratic institutions.
So saying, I got into the coupée of a first-class carriage. A myrmidon of tyranny—a guard, advanced and asked to see my ticket, and I was forced to submit. Gracious heavens! And is this a land of liberty? Under the vile and insidious pretence of its being a third-class ticket I was dragged—yes dragged, for I refused to walk—from my seat, and forced into a miserable uncushioned sheep pen upon wheels! In a moment I saw a bloated aristocrat take what ought to have been, what was my place. Ha! Ha! Ha! But I forbear. Leaning back in the carriage I muttered “Oh! For one hour of Maximillan Robespierre.”
April 3.—I have been two days at London. The Convention is sitting, and the regeneration of humanity may be expected next week. The operation is to take place on Kennington Common,—that Eden, where first will stir the enfranchised limbs of Republicanised Britannia. In my leisure hours, I pace the streets of the vast Metropolis. I see stately mansions, while I live in a “two pair back.” How is this? Are not all men descendants of Adam and Eve? Are not all men flesh and blood? Are not all men brothers? Why then should I be debarred from my brother’s house? Oh! The accursed system of worldwide primogeniture, which prevented me from smoking my evening pipe in the boudoir of the Duchess of Devonshire. Oppressed with these feelings this evening, I hurried home, and caught my landlady drinking tea with a female friend in my parlour. I was paralysed. Could such things be? Here was I, paying, or promising to pay, a certain weekly stipend for the possession of a room, and within it were ensconced a couple of fat, elderly, vulgar females. But I soon bundled them out, and sat down to write these reflections—to pierce and impale upon my steel pen, and to roast before the furnace of my virtuous indignation, the bloated satyrs who revel in gilded halls, in which were an unbidden patriot to set foot, he would be kicked down stairs by plush-clad flunkeys! Out! Out! Vile aristocracy of England! But thank Heaven, I sigh not for luxuries or for wealth.
Wrote down to my constituents for more cash.
April 4.—A great day at the Convention. Government are evidently besides themselves with terror. We have determined to do or die. Ha! Ha! Ha! Blood! Blood! Blood! I spoke for an hour and a half. I spoke as a slave to slaves. I demanded whether they were prepared to undergo the rack, and to be broken on the wheel. With a hoarse shout of acclamation, they roared “We are.” That Convention will march to death, as to a jubilee. In a week from this day we shall be sitting as a Provisional Government, either in Buckingham Palace, Downing -street, or Somerset House. All is determined upon but the choice between these three seats of power. There is a strong party for Buckingham Palace; the more moderate men incline to Somerset House; I stand up for Downing-street. This question must be decided; it is the only one in which our minds are not thoroughly made up.
Purchased a democratic cravat, ornamented with blood-red representations of the guillotine.
April 5.—This day I devoted to the composition of a grand Chartist Anthem, destined to be sung by that magnificent barrow-tone, the Vox Populi, during the convulsions which will herald the installation of a Provisional Government. I subjoin a stanza or two:—
Sons of labour!
Pass the Charter.
That’s what you should
All be arter.
We’ve been smarters;
Cut it short—or
Die like martyrs.
Plunder toilers’ hard-earned hordes,
Down with Peers; but live like Lords!
Brandish pikes, and
Patriots should not
Stick at trifles.
Blazon rich with
Destined to outflaunt that rag,
The tatter’d, worn-out, British Flag!
Talk of your old “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia” after that! I should even say that the “Marsellaise” was inferior; and as for the “Mourir pour la patrie,” it’s mere doggerel in comparison. I leaned thoughtfully back, and wondered how it would sound, sung, as it will be on Monday next, by a million and a half of men, on Kennington Common. Ha! Ha! Ha! You won’t hear the roar of artillery through such a choral crash.
But I could not give up the day to the inditing of patriotic songs; a more prosaic, but not less necessary duty was before me.
Ere midnight had struck (it is one o’clock now), I had manufactured 3981 signatures for our monster petition. Call this not an unworthy artifice. It is a patriotic contrivance. Under the monstrous system which oppresses us, education is neglected, and many of the people cannot write their own names. Is it not, therefore, the part of a brother to set down their signatures for them?
April 8.—This is Saturday night. In eight-and-forty hours I will be Minister for the Home Department. The dispute I hinted at is settled. Downing-Street is to be the seat of the Provisional Government. I must see about a van to transport my things, as I presume the pressure of business will be so great as to necessitate my sleeping there.
The speeches to-day have been of a cheering description. Every second word was “blood,” and every third “bayonets.” We are now pledged to fight. What do we care about artillery? What’s artillery, grape shot, canister shot, chain shot, against Liberty? Hurrah! Victory and Power, or Immortality! The country is ready for a rising. Upwards of 1,341,789 armed men will come by special train from Manchester—907,518 from Birmingham—3,000,421 from Liverpool—and 2,619,433 from Leeds. Against such an array, added to the quota of 4,999,999 which the Metropolis alone is expected to furnish, what are a handful of disaffected troops, cook-maid-courting police, or whipper-snapper Specials? Glorious France! We follow in thy wake. With a prophetic eye I see the future. Monday has come. Seven Millions of fighting men are in arms. The Queen has abdicated. Lord John Russell has fled. Buckingham Palace is in flames. The Tower in ruins. Wellington is trembling in a cellar of Apsley House; and the Convention are filling their pockets in the Mint. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Liberty or Death! Blood! Blood! Blood! I can hardly keep myself down: I want to fight—to fight the troops of England, of Austria, of Russia—to fight all the word! Hip hip hip hurrah!
But I must calm myself. This is the last night but one of aristocracy in England—I shall go and see how it looks, in one of its accustomed haunts—I shall go to spy at it—to wink at it—to spit at it—I shall go to the Italian Opera, at Covent Garden.
Midnight.—“Waiter, “Three-ha’porth of Coffee, and pen, and ink.”
I am in a humble coffee-shop. Gods! For calm to write what has happened. Oh! Aristocracy of—But I forbear; your days are numbered. Kicked! Shade of Danton! I went to the Royal Italian Opera; I paid my money honourably; because I could not have got in if I did not; I walked through spacious salons and brilliant corridors, soon destined to be the halls of Equality, and vestibules of Liberty; until, just as I was turning to the right towards the pit, at a low grated entrance, I was stopped.
“You cannot pass, Sir,” said the malignant minion of despotism.
“What!” I exclaimed, “and is it come to this?”—
“Gentlemen must be in evening dress,” scowled the fiend of oligarchy, and he pointed to my guillotine cravat.
“Liberty or Death!” I shouted, making a rush past. In an instant a ferocious policeman dragged me back.
“Very sorry sir, but rules must be attended to,” grinned the hypocritic savage. “Black or white cravat, sir;” and I was handed into the street. Yielding to necessity, I purchased a white cravat and took my seat. The opera was “Semiramide” – a story of Kings, and Queens, and murder. I glared round at the boxes — I gnashed my teeth — I muttered “Aristocrats, your hour is come.” The curtain fell only to rise again to the peal of Grisi’s voice singing “God save the Queen,” aye, and singing it too as though she meant it. The house rose — as a man. Hurrah after hurrah from boxes, pit, and gallery answered every gushing note. Now was my time — “Hiss-s-s-s-s! The Charter for ever! No more Queens! No more tyrants!” The rest is a whirl of half-remembered riot. The crash of the band, the deep rolling surge of Alboni’s voice, the howling of the rascal loyalists around me, their scowling faces, their threatening arms, the toes of their boots . Yes, I felt them — kicked — kicked from the pit half down Bowstreet! Vengeance!
A French patriot sits opposite me. I know he is a patriot, for he emptied the sugar-basin into his pocket when the waiter’s back was turned. He sees me—understands me—we fraternize—we embrace—I am soothed. He is an emissary from a club in the Rue aux Feves. Hurrah we shall have vengeance!
Sunday Evening—In twelve hours the tocsin is to sound. I am armed—eight pistols, a rifle, a pike, a broadsword, and a rapier. I had tied the bolster to the bed-post, and passed the day lounging at it with the pike, crying “Thus will I serve the Duke.” My enthusiasm rises as the time draws on. I can scarcely keep from cutting my landlady’s throat. Blood , gore! Ha! ha! ha! Robespierre, axes, nooses, gallows! Hurrah! Oh for morning!
Monday—The glorious day has come. How I regret that a cold in the head prevents my joining the band of patriots. I listen for the cannon. Ha! What’s that? A rap at the door! A policeman! Good heaven, what have I done? I am not at the procession. I’m a loyal man. God save the Queen! Please sir, it wasn’t me. I’m a special constable. Oh o’o’ogh! Let me go and I’ll never do the like again. Let me this once, and I’ll be one of the Queen’s flunkeys without wages. Oh—oh—oh. I’ll be hanged for treason.
“You’re not wanted for treason, but for smashing. See these three bad half-crowns, paid by you at the Railway Station at Smokely-on-Sewer. Come along.”
The pen falls from my hand. Tyrants! Tyrants! Ty——“
We have reason to believe that Mr Bolt is now resident at the Middlesex House of Correction, where any visitor (with a magistrate’s order) will be sure to find him at home.
 Anon. ‘Dips into the Diary of Barabbas Bolt, Esq.’ The Man in the Moon, Vol. 3 (1848), pp. 236–44.