Lord Stanley’s diary and the riddle of Reynolds.

Reynolds’ association with Chartism is well known, but Chris Anderson asks whether there was a hidden side to it.

In the revolutionary year of 1848, Reynolds made a dramatic public debut as a spokesman at the initial disturbances in Trafalgar Square on March 6th, which led onto a couple of nights of rioting in the West End. The crowd were ostensibly gathered to protest against income tax but were soon shouting their support for the February Revolution in Paris which saw the fall of the French monarchy. Reynolds had celebrated the uprising in the 4 March issue of The Mysteries of London, hence his support from the street. A cheering crowd escorted him back along the Strand to his premises in Upper Wellington Street, from where he addressed them from the balcony, printing his speech verbatim in the next issue of Mysteries. The crowd also took up calls for the Charter (one man one vote, paid MPs; secret ballots; equal constituencies; annual parliaments; no property qualifications for MPs; all revolutionary demands by the political standards of the day).

This took the actual Chartist leadership by surprise. They were all absent from the capital at the time, some in in Paris fraternising with the new republic. Initially, they disowned the disturbances, though hurried back in time to be present at ‘Grand Meeting’ called by Reynolds for the following week on Kennington Common. Twenty thousand turned out on March 13th, and when the meeting dispersed there were riots in Camberwell and Kennington. This was the start of a long, hot summer. London was converted into an armed barracks on April 10th, when the Chartists gathered in force on Kennington Common once more, this time aiming to present their national petition to Parliament. The army and police blocked all the bridges, kettling in the main body of the Chartists, only allowing a select few to accompany the petition. Further mass gatherings, and violent disturbances followed in the early summer in Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green, and London simmered with rumours of armed revolt.

Such was Reynolds introduction to Chartism. He maintained a long relationship with the movement, though not one without frictions. From 1850 his Reynolds Weekly Newspaper was a mainstay of the radical movement, and many others on the left sought to emulate its successful blend of politics and commercial acumen. One of these was Earnest Jones, who tried but failed to launch similar papers. Imprisoned for two years following the Chartist rioting in Bethnal Green, Jones was a poet and martyr to the cause and a key Chartist leader. But there was tension with Reynolds, who used his newspaper to snipe at Jones’s integrity. Marx saw the two as rivals, judging that Reynolds “is a far greater rogue than Jones, but he is rich, and a good speculator”[1] Reynolds suggested Jones was embezzling funds raised for the cause. Eventually, in 1859 Jones sued Reynolds for libel. When the matter came to trial in June, Jones was completely vindicated, and Reynolds did not even offer a defence. Nevertheless, after decades of penury dedicating his life to the cause, Jones decided to withdraw from politics and return to the law to make a living.

Soon after the trial, the rivalry between Jones and Reynolds made an appearance in the political diaries of Lord Stanley. Stanley was a Conservative politician of impeccable credentials. He was the son of the Tory leader, Lord Derby, and close friend of Disraeli. A liberal aristocrat who took to politics as his vocation, he went on to serve as Foreign Minister twice, once under his father’s premiership in the late 1860s, and again under Disraeli in the late 1870s. This was a man steeped in the establishment, but his diaries were private, only appearing in print in the late 1970s [2]. Lord Stanley’s entry for 29 July 1860 reads:

“Ernest Jones, the ex-chartist leader, applied to me for pecuniary help, which I gave him. He had given up politics, and taken to the bar, where (1863) he is now getting on moderately well. He was heir to an estate of £2,000 a year, which he lost by joining the chartists and his motive for leaving them was the jealousy with which he was pursued by rival agitators, the most virulent of them being one Reynolds, who is believed to have given Govt. information of the plans to which he was privy in Feb and March 1848.”

It is an intriguing entry. Does it account for Reynolds quite sudden appearance on the Chartist scene in 1848? Would his long-term destabilising of rivals like Jones have motives other than the good of the cause? The dates Stanley mentions are precisely those at which Reynolds enters the political scene, in that crucial year when many feared revolution, and just as many favoured one. Queen Victoria and her family were evacuated to the Isle of Wight, and key buildings in London, like the Bank of England, garrisoned with troops, while cavalry and artillery were discretely hidden close by. Agent provocateurs and spies fanned out to gather information.

The leading London Chartist was William Cuffay, who was also the most high-profile black activist in the movement. Aged 60, the tailor Cuffay was a revered and experience figure in the movement. He distrusted Reynolds, seeing him as a middle-class interloper, perhaps at best. In the week before the mass gathering on Kennington Common in April 1848, Chartist delegates gathered to discuss tactics. Reynolds had secured himself a place as representative of Derby, despite never having been there. Cuffay moved his exclusion on the grounds that he was not a Chartist, before pushing the Convention to stand firm in the coming crisis, should Parliament reject the petition “the Executive should be prepared to lead onto Liberty or Death”.[4] On the day itself, when the Chartist leadership decided against storming the bridges to break out of Kennington and move north of the river, the crowd looked to Cuffay to lead them. He felt the leadership had sold out the movement and became the focus for subsequent plots to win the Charter by force. In August, when plans for an armed uprising were so advanced that maps had been prepared of where to build the barricades, the police swooped on the Chartist organisers (infiltrated and some say led on by police informers). Fingered as a ringleader, Cuffay was incarcerated in Newgate prison, destined for transportation for life to Tasmania.

Was Reynolds a conduit for inside information on the likes of Cuffay, and the plans and moods of the Chartist National Convention? Stanley’s diary entry suggests so, and it is an entry with no audience nor axe to grind. Tensions with committed activists as diverse as the militant Cuffay and the genteel Jones, raise questions about what Reynolds’ own motives were in the cause. Not to say he may not have had a genuine commitment to the people. But it is not unheard of for different factions within a progressive movement to play off against each other by feeding information to the nominally opposite side (Stalin was suspected of this ruse long before the Russian revolution). Did Reynolds believe in the cause but fear a more militant approach would just result in mayhem? Or was Stanley simply wrong? An intriguing entry, whatever the truth of it.


Chris Anderson – Dec 2020

[1] Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 10 Oct.1858, MECW xl.345-7.

[2] Disraeli, Derby and the Conservative Party, The Political Journals of Lord Stanley 1849-69 Ed. J.R.Vincent

[3] Royal Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[4] Quoted in Chartism A New History, Malcolm Chase pp304

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s