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School of History, Philosophy and Culture
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Phone number: +44 (0)1865 483712
Location: Tonge Building, Headington Campus
The case of the Dorchester Labourers, the six agricultural labourers arrested and transported in 1834 for establishing a trade union among farmworkers in the vicinity of Tolpuddle in Dorset, remains one of the best remembered aspects of labour history. Nevertheless, study of the Labourers and their union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers (FSAL), has overlooked their role within a longer context of labour unrest and political activism within the region. This article argues that the FSAL was rooted in the Swing Riots of 1830, when labourers across the south of England protested against low wages and mechanisation, and was perceived by its leadership as being a means of both continuing the objectives of Swing and overcoming its failed methods. It was resurrected upon the Labourers’ return to Dorset in 1838, and illustrates a series of agitations in the region initiated by Swing and culminating in Chartism. This case study therefore suggests that the current emphasis on the Swing protests as a series of parochial and isolated disputes should be aware of a longer context in which these isolated protests led to a movement organised inter-parochially along class lines, and in response to national events.
In 1836, American actor Thomas D. Rice first arrived in Great Britain to tour the creation that had made him famous in the USA, Jim Crow. This blackface depiction of a raggedy, runaway slave, with his infectious songs, eccentric dancing and demotic appeal soon took London by storm. The Jim Crow craze lasted for three years, with Rice finding fame, fortune and success and his imitators becoming ubiquitous in the capital's theatres and on its streets. Although the act and its character have been acknowledged as a precursor to the evolution of British minstrelsy and blackface traditions throughout the Victorian period, the craze itself has not been substantially studied in its British context. This essay will look beyond Rice's act and the performance of Jim Crow in the theatres to look instead at Jim Crow's appropriation in print satire and street performance. It will argue that these requisitions of Jim Crow illustrate how Georgian traditions of carnival and grotesque humour were redeveloped for the early Victorian context. In print, Jim Crow was widely utilized in caustic bodily humour that attacked insincere politicians. On the streets, this same humour was seen as obscene and was repressed and contained, paving the way for the respectable, mainstream Victorian blackface act. However, integral to both appropriations of Jim Crow was the figure of the black buffoon, and the act rapidly provided an archetype for the belittling and persecution of London's black population.
Histories of Chartism have tended to emphasize the hegemony of respectability within the movement, and with histories of the popular press have seen the 1830s as a decisive break with older radical traditions of sexual libertarianism, bawdy political culture, and a satirical, sometimes obscene print culture. However, the basis of this position is a partial reading of the evidence. Work on London Chartists has emphasized their moralistic politics and publications at the expense of their rich populist and satirical press and the clear survival of piracy and romantic literature well into the Chartist period. The neglect of an important early leader, Henry Vincent, has meant the bawdy, sensual, and sometimes scatological letters he sent to his cousin in London have been overlooked as a source on the moral life of the Chartist generation. This article will address this by studying Vincent's letters in the context of London's populist press, particularly the work of his friends John Cleave and Henry Hetherington. Vincent's humour and attitude towards sexuality clearly reflect a broader tendency in London radicalism, while his own efforts as a newspaper editor in Bath indicate that acerbic humour was an important aspect not just of Chartism's political critique, but of its appeal to the provincial working class.