Seminar on Chartist Archives held at Houses of Parliament

As part of its commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the People’sCharter, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History (administeredby the Archives and Records Association UK and Ireland) organised a seminaron Chartist Archives on 22 October 2013

The seminar was held in the Palmerston Room, Committee Room 6 of the Houses of Parliament.

Chartist Archives: an overview, past and present, was led by Professor Owen Ashton, Emeritus Professor in Modern British History at Staffordshire University.

There were about 20 attendees, from a number of organisations including Gwent Archives, The National Archives, The Library of Birmingham, The Working Class Movement Library and Bishopsgate Institute. Professor Malcolm Chase, Professor of Social History at Leeds University, who was to give the 2013 All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History lecture on ‘The People’s Charter of 1838: The Chartist Legacy to Parliamentary Democracy’, was also present.

Professor Ashton was introduced by Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History Dr Hywel Francis and delivered his paper.

Read Professor Ashton’s paper Chartist Archives: An overview, past and present.

There was a wide-ranging discussion following Professor Ashton’s introduction.

Colin Gibson described work underway at Gwent Archives, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, to digitise Chartist trial documents. The  ‘From Trails to Trials (Chartism in Gwent)’ project opens up access to a unique collection of documents relating to the Chartist march of 1839 in Newport (the only time that Chartists ‘took up arms’). Original documents were discovered in 1915, in a tin trunk in a Newport office. They form records of the committal proceedings or magistrates’ examinations held after the uprising.

The project will transcribe detailed accounts from over 300 people questioned as part of the treason trials following the march, which will then be geo-tagged to the tithe maps and displayed on the People’s Collection Wales website. Read more about the project here.

The good work of the Heritage Lottery fund was noted, but it was regretted that, more and more often, organisations struggled to meet the costs of maintaining digitised collections. It was a common myth that digitisation was a one-off solution, but organisations had to store, maintain and refresh such collections and so sustainability was always an issue. 

Paul Carter of The National Archives (TNA) at Kew believed there was much still to be uncovered in the central government collections held at TNA. In particular information will be found in the early MH 12 volumes (poor law union correspondence) as many people became involved in Chartism through the anti-poor law movement.

There was discussion about how the legacy of the Chartists might be brought into more schools; it was noted that few pupils had the opportunity to learn about the Chartists, though a question on the Chartists had recently appeared on the Common Entrance examination for public schools.

How large a role did women play in the Chartist movement?

Malcolm Chase noted that ‘archival material is usually men writing to and for other men’ and that our history is largely one of ‘male decisions’. So while women were clearly vital to the movement there was a not a ‘clear thread’ by which to follow their activities or impact.

Is Chartist material safe in archives?

It was noted that the UK had some outstanding Chartist archives but many archives were currently facing difficult times. Cuts were putting various aspects of archival work at risk and, despite good work by funders such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, there were collections that might never be digitised and/or made freely available for study.

Professor Ashton had noted that Chartist material was to found across the globe: in Russia, in America, in Australia. There were tantalising stories about material which may be in Russian archives and was still to be found. It was noted that, at one time, there was no interest in the UK for the study of Chartism so material was moved abroad.

The 2012 All Party Group lecture had been about Charles Dickens. Given that a book existed about ‘Charles Dickens and….nearly everything’ (!) was there any study of whether Dickens was influenced by the Chartists?

Barnaby Rudge was ‘Chartism in code’ said Professor Malcolm Chase. There is a book by Denis Paz: 'Dickens and Barnaby Rudge: Anti-Catholicism and Chartism' (Monmouth, Merlin Press, 2006 hardback ISBN 978 0 85036 575 7)

The Chartists, like other unions and movements, were known to have carried banners. It was widely believed that none survived. Incredibly, someone in the room believed her organisation did have a Chartist banner. This was very exciting news and a number of those present would be visiting very soon.