Sophie Franklin, a Research Assistant on the Project, writes about an Edwardian Conservative poem which gives a revealing view of attitudes towards the disrupters of political meetings:
Five days before the General Election in January 1910, the Conservative bi-weekly Manchester Courier published a curious poem titled ‘Radical Rowdyism’. It begins with a challenge to those loud ‘Socialistic gang of interrupters’, the Radicals of the poem’s title, who cause disturbance during hustings. Using the term ‘Radical’ in a derogatory fashion had a long tradition behind it, describing in various instances Chartists, staunch Liberals, and boisterous non-electors in general. The first stanza claims that those making the most noise were in fact the most well-fed, hinting at a kind of “champagne Socialism”, an accusation which runs throughout the poem:
The poem appears to be targeting more affluent members of the ‘respectable’ working classes here, namely skilled workers with stable employment. These men were not necessarily part of the electorate, as, prior to 1918, only men paying £10 in annual rent or owning land worth over £10 were eligible to vote. What the poem does suggest here, however, is that the working classes in the early twentieth century were far less monolithic than is often assumed. These men, despite being ‘voteless’, are still treated with suspicion by the poet and evidently viewed as a real threat by Conservative supporters. Given the trajectory of parliamentary reform since 1832, with multiple expansions of the franchise, they feared that they would not be voteless forever.
The poem becomes increasingly disparaging of the ‘unwashed’ crowd, accusing them of being narrow-minded and ill-informed.
Newspapers have a history of publishing political poetry, particularly in the mid-nineteenth century which saw the Chartist newspaper, Northern Star, publish over 1,000 poems between 1838 and 1852. Working-class women poets, such as Mary Hutton, are also now thankfully recognised as important political commentators throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Courier also had a poetical history, as one of its early editors was the Conservative poet and journalist, Alaric Alexander Watts, in 1825–26. As this rhyme comes from a Tory paper, we can read the poem as a possible satire of Chartist creativity and ideals, especially as Chartism campaigned for (primarily male) universal suffrage, which the poem undermines. The author is unknown, but the poem comes under the heading ‘Concilio et Labore’ (‘Wisdom and Effort’, Manchester’s motto) suggesting that this section encapsulates the ideology of the paper and claims to reflect the attitude of Manchester as a city.
This stanza takes the poem’s accusations up a notch, claiming that these rowdy Radicals are in fact rioting ‘lawbreakers’. While they are apparently happy to cause an electoral disturbance and even to obstruct voting, they are allegedly less inclined to take responsibility for the realities of their desired policies and reforms. Radicalism was at time increasingly associated with both political democracy and socialism, as suggested once again by the reference to a ‘red flag’. Although twenty-first-century parties are not quite the same as those of 1910, this challenging of how ambitious manifesto promises will actually be paid for feels oddly familiar in today’s British political environment.
The General Election of 1910 was called because of a constitutional crisis arising from the rejection of the Liberal prime minister, Lloyd George’s People’s Budget. This was a radical proposal which aimed to eliminate poverty by more heavily taxing the wealthy. The Tory-leaning House of Lords rejected the budget; the Conservative party’s pet issue at this time was advocating instead for the imposition of trade tariffs on imports. This final stanza is a bit of propaganda, hoping to (perhaps further) convince its readership of the “dangers” of social reform and the comparative “fairness” of the Conservative perspective. This spin failed in the long run, as the People’s Budget was passed in April 1910. The January 1910 General Election returned a hung parliament, however, with Conservatives receiving the most votes and the Liberals winning the most seats.
Poetry is political and, while often associated with more liberal – indeed, radical – outlooks, this poem, ‘Radical Rowdyism’, proves that poetry can be used as a tool by those across the political spectrum. Indeed, there are perhaps hints of a performance poetry in the established rituals of rowdy disruption, in political meetings across the country.
Sophie Franklin is in the final year of her PhD at Durham University, funded by an AHRC Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership studentship, supervised by Dr Sarah Wootton and Dr Peter Garratt. Her thesis considers the violences of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontës’ work in order to establish a genealogy between their fiction, conflicted nineteenth-century understandings of violence, and the cultural legacies of violence in recent artwork and adaptations inspired by their prose. Her first book, Charlotte Bronte Revisited: A View from the Twenty-First Century, was released in 2016.
(Sources: Manchester Courier, 10 Jan 1910. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)
Jon Lawrence, Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867 – 1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Meagan Timney, ‘Mary Hutton and the Development of a Working-Class Women’s Political Poetics’, Victorian Poetry, 49.1 (2011), 127 – 46.