The Chartist Trials

The Sydney Morning Herald Thursday 18 January 1849 p. 3.

THE CHARTIST TRIALS. (From the Times, September 29.)

 THE trials at the Old Bailey present a singular contrast to the 10,000 prisoners, the 12,000 files of correspondence, and the 1,000,000 interrogatories of the judicial proceedings upon the Paris insurgents. Considering that London is now squaring accounts with a whole year's treason, the show is very poor. A dozen or two shoemakers, tailors, and joiners are discovered to constitute the nucleus and mainstay of that Chartism which last spring was to upset and remodel this empire. The most respectable criminal is a foolish young portrait-painter ; and the most spirited a mulatto, bred and born in the service of Her Majesty's dockyards. No strolling players, after strutting for an hour as kings, queens, and great warriors, ever fell lower when the curtain dropped, and when they returned to their-own proper selves.

Last April, besides soldiers and cannon, 150,000 men of peace stood up to defend the metropolis from a mysterious foe. There have since been conspiracies, threats, demonstrations, and almost collisions ; but within six months the whole power and terror of revolution has shrunk into a few ill-conditioned fellows quietly tried in the routine of a criminal court, with several false Chartists testifying against them in the witness-box, and another Chartist, real or pretended, conducting a very lame defence.There has seldom been a conspiracy without a spy in it, and so it is here. The most secret proceedings of the Chartists have from day to day been reported to the police by at least four volunteer informers, each of whom fancied himself alone in his treachery.

The story of one will stand for all four. Mr. Thomas Powell, struck by the utter failure of the demonstration on Kennington-common, conceived the somewhat singular ambition of mastering all the secrets of this noisy but impotent faction so he immediately joined the Chartist Society, whom he soon found out to be a "very rum lot." His promotion was rapid. He was elected one of the Quinqueviri, vested with the management of the Cripplegate Association. Shortly after he was one of the secret committee at the Black Jack, in Portugal-street. He was then appointed to the Seven-dials, with some equally competent authorities, to plan the defence of that central position against the Queen's troops. He afterwards sat in committee on Saffronhill, and in a sort of sanctum sanctorum (an "Ulterior Committee") in Bride-lane; at the Lord Denman beershop in Suffolk-street, at the Orange Tree beershop, and at the Crispin beer shop, Milton-street, where a plan was laid down for the capture of the Artillery Ground, in the teeth of the very respectable company charged with its defence.

Mr. Powell appears to have seen a good deal of the world ; and to be a man of ready wit and versatile powers. Though enjoying a certain degree of notoriety, he found no difficulty in attending these meetings and taking part in the discussions in a feigned name. In the first instance he was proposed by a stranger whom he had never seen, and has not since seen. He was once or twice asked for his credentials ; sometimes suspected ; once actually challenged as a spy. He contrived, however, to turn the tables on his accuser, who was forthwith expelled. The presence of such a person in the head-quarters of a conspiracy appears rather unaccountable, but it is a fact of invariable occurrence. There were four such in this instance. If any twenty persons are conspiring in this metropolis, they may have a comfortable assurance that there is at least one spy in their number, and that every sentiment, opinion, and intention they utter is forthwith reported to those whom it chiefly concerns. Had the resources of these gentlemen been in the smallest proportion to their wishes, it would by this time have fared ill with the metropolis. But their means were singularly inadequate to their end. Maps of London were produced at their meetings, and plans of localities with pencil marks for barricades.

Mr. Powell himself exhibited a certain magic circle, with dots all round to represent men, but whether insurgents, or soldiers, or people in general, he cannot now remember. As to intentions there was no mistake. The chairman at the Seven-dials opened proceedings with the casual remark, "Mind, gentlemen, our object is, if possible, to destroy the power of the Queen, and establish a republic." Another gentleman then and there expressed himself as follows: - "We must first assassinate the police, pull down the station-houses, and build barricades." At one meeting a resolution was passed that a "visionary" president be elected, without either place, office, or name ; and for the maintenance and dignity of this important functionary every member was to subscribe a farthing a week. The rest of the arrangements, however, were not so visionary. On several occasions every member of the committee was required to make a return of the "fighting men" in his district. Bullets were as plenty among them as blackberries ; and committee- men showed one another their pockets full of ball-cartridges. Ginger-beer bottles, blacking bottles, and ink bottles, which are usually so hard to get rid of, were filled with gunpowder and old nails, and laid up in store for policemen's legs. To the ladies were committed these extempore grenades. A corps of "Luminaries" took charge of the fire-balls. The eleven gentlemen at the Orange Tree were armed with pistols and pikes, and with bludgeons loaded with lead. But, to judge from the copious stores discovered by the police, they must have passed all their leisure in trying various combinations of gunpowder, tow, brown paper, pitch, turpentine, broken glass, old iron, and printing types.

Mr. Powell everywhere tendered his services, which were freely and gratefully accepted. Being a carpenter and a handy man, he became a leading engineer in the service. In particular he exhibited some portable contrivances to lame cavalry horses. He usually elicited that others had been beforehand. In fact, the general invention was at work. Every man was casting his bullets, sharpening his " tooth-pick, " bottling powder and nails, sopping tow in turpentine, or covering the map of London with pencil barricades. As to Mr. Thomas Powell's part in these discoveries, that is his own look out. Government had no alternative but to accept his useful and spontaneous services. It is a matter of every day occurrence that a murderer or a housebreaker turns informer, defeats the plans of the gang, and thus rescues life or property from destruction. Many a murderer has been hung on the evidence of a much worse villein than himself. Who would refuse to hear the man who offered to tell how and by whom his life was menaced ? Treachery is the natural and providential antidote for treason. The evidence of all four informers is harmonious, and also strongly corroborated. It is not even denied. We have therefore no alternative but to take it. It would indeed be madness to decline it. So we see there was mischief enough. The virus, or vitriol as it should now be called, was not wanting. Nor was the activity. The object was an entire subversion of the present form of Government. Mr. Kenealey, indeed, now pretends that Dowling and the Irish Confederates intended nothing more than a good street row by way of diversion, to frighten Government and draw troops from Ireland. That does not mend the matter. War is war, whether for diversion or for a direct object ; and it would be a poor consolation to the metropolis to be told it had been burned and pillaged merely for a feint. Mr. Cuffey's charity, at any rate, began nearer home. But why did all this end in smoke ? Why did the rebellion confine itself to the score or two rascals in whom it first began ? We can only say the fact is so, has ever been so, and will ever be so.

The English are not conspirators, with the exception of perhaps one Thistlewood in a century. The nation abhors it. Cuffey, the very chief of the conspiracy, is half a "nigger." Some of the others are Irishmen. We doubt if there are half-a-dozen Englishmen in the whole lot. On great provocations the English will rise, openly and en masse—but they will not and cannot conspire. The least appearance of conspiracy draws down upon itself the national suspicion and resentment. We apprehend nothing from conspiracy in this country. It is one of those reptiles that can never be naturalised amongst us.

(From the Times, October 2.)

The Chartist trials are over at last, and the conclusion is of a more decided character than we are apt to expect from a protracted inquiry. Lacey, Fay, and Guffey [Sic.] have been found guilty, and, together with Dowling, the young Irish portrait painter previously convicted, have been sentenced lo transportation for life. This is a severe sentence, but a most just one. The guilt of these men is about as great as could be imagined, and if they have provoked a degree of ridicule, and so far a trivial way of regarding their crime, that is owing to the ridiculous insufficiency of their means to their end. Whatever may be thought of the witnesses, no sane person can doubt after reading their evidence that these four men did really attempt to raise an insurrection against Her Majesty's servants, authority, people, and person ; and that the three latter, at least, attempted to take possession of a part of this metropolis, and defend it by conflagration and slaughter against any force that could be brought against them. After a trial properly conducted this moral certainty has been attained. There could, therefore, be no doubt as to the verdict or as to the sentence. Transportation for life is thought a slight punishment for ordinary cases of arson or attempted murder. The whole metropolis was aimed at in this instance. If the crime vastly surpassed the ability of the criminals, it is not the less heinous on that account, or less to be punished.

There is already some controversy, and there is likely to be more, about the character of the chief evidence for the prosecution. It is the evidence of approvers and spies. The private motives and sentiments of spies is a point which must be left to themselves and to public opinion. Whether Powell, Davis, and the others felt a perverted curiosity and a hankering after a guilty mystery, whether they did really feel a sort of patriotic impulse to sacrifice themselves to the state by a very dirty piece of public service, or whether they looked simply and solely to the 20s. a week till the conviction, and after that to a good outfit to the borders of civilization, it is impossible and most unnecessary to decide. The use of spies, however, in such atrocious conspiracies as these, is a disagreeable necessity, There is no help for it.

We need not imagine an instance to prove this, for instances abound. In the spring of 1829 a club of small farmers met from night to night at a public-house in Doneraile, in the county of Cork, to concert the redress of their grievances and the enforcement of an agrarian code by assassination. They solemnly tried the gentry of the neighbourhood one after another. Such as were found guilty were sentenced to death, and arrangements were forthwith made for the execution of the sentence. But every night they sat there was a spy in their number, who met the necessities of his horrid position by playing the murderer as fiercely as the rest, but who reported everything to the police. In the morning half the gentry of the neighbourhood read at their breakfast tables the arrangements for their assassination at the earliest opportunity. They took care to disappoint the murderers, accepted beds after dinner parties instead of coming home, varied their routes, and went out well attended. Would they not have been absolutely insane to close their ears against the information on which their own existence hung ? Would they not have been equally insane to let the affair run for ever on that perilous footing, always dodging a conspiracy and fencing with murder ? They had no possible choice but to use the private information, and eventually the public evidence of the spy.

The conspiracy in the present instance was only more extensive, more destructive, and more murderous. But if the spy is generally a viler character than the men he betrays, whose fault is that ? The Chartists reckoned ou the assistance of 50,000 thieves and rogues. They were assisted by one scoundrel more than they bargained for. The most agreeable aspect of these trials is that suggested by the French parallel. Instead of four miserable, wrong-headed fellows, with perhaps a few more to follow, the French Government has to dispose of some eight or ten thousand convicts. What it is to do with them nobody knows. To crowd them into hulks within sight of a sympathizing population, to let them loose on Algeria, or send them to sure death by fever on the western coast of Africa, are alternatives presenting only different forms of inconvenience and hardship.

But to pursue the contrast. With us, a mere room-full of miscreants stood on one side, and 200,000 men on the other. The trials of the past week record the triumph of the latter over the former. Both England and France, it may be said, are expelling their revolutionists. But in France the subjects of this transportation en masso are the very men who did the work in February. Republican France is forced to stigmatize and banish her own so-called deliverers. Who are the men who revolutionized France, who provoked the fatal discharge at the Hotel des Affaires Etrangères, who paraded Paris with cries for vengeance, who massacred the Municipal Guards, who attacked and devastated the Tuileries, who invaded the Chamber, and denounced the Regency as " too late," who elected the Provisional Government, who surrounded the Hôtel de Ville and extorted its decrees ? Who are they but the very men whom France is now obliged to banish from her soil, with the disagreeable certainty that many more such are at large waiting their opportunity to revolt ? The Republic and its authors are parted. The institution remains at home; the men are on their way to Algeria, to Senegal, or wherever the sun strikes from above and pestilential vapours from below. With us, it is the nation that ejects one or two unnatural exceptions to the universal sentiment.

France exhibits the result of a civil war. A moiety of the Parisian people, after a desperate conflict, has overcome the other. Ten thousand prisoners of war attest the painful and perplexing victory. What will most strike foreigners is the utter absurdity of the Chartist military calculations. Any dozen French children playing at soldiers in the gardens of the Tuileries or of the Luxembourg, under the surveillance of their bonnes or their elder sisters, would do the thing better than the desperadoes of the Orange Tree public-house or the would-be insurgent! of the Seven Dials. The east end of London was to be divided against the west by means of a gun, bought at a sale, and ruffled for at a shilling a ticket ; by some pistols picked up hero and there at 3s. a-piece ; by a few hundred cartridges tied up in pocket handkerchiefs ; by some pike-heads and various preparations of gunpowder that might possible have set fire to a house if they should happen to go off near a bed curtain. How a barricade was to be made and how defended, was another question. These amateurs did not even consider what purpose was to be answered by firing a dwelling, and whether a conflagration might not do them more harm than good. In the faubourgs the houses were occupied by the insurgents, and stormed with cannon by the army.

Throughout all the tactics and preparations of the Chartists theirs was the frivolity of children and the malice of men. Danger to the public peace of course there was, seeing that for many months this year the whole European society has been in such a state that a spark might fire or explode it. But the epidemic has passed, and with it the peril. " Physical" Chartism is now nothing more than the blackened remains of a squib on the morning after a Fifth of November, trodden under foot and sopped by the rain. It has had an opportunity such as it could never have expected ; it has done its best to profit by that opportunity, and has utterly failed.