The right to public assembly is the Chartists’ legacy in Croydon

By - Friday 19th July, 2013

Social historian Sean Creighton sets out one of the aims of the new Croydon Radical History Network – to unearth as much as possible about Croydon’s links to the first mass political movement in the world

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common in 1848: What did the attendees from Croydon go on to do?

Freedom of speech and the right to public assembly were important parts of the campaign for the vote. From 1838 into the 1850s the Chartists protested against the ban by local authorities on them meeting in public squares, town halls, and other public buildings. This neglected aspect of our understanding of Chartism was highlighted by Croydon-based historian Katrina Navikas at the annual Chartism Day conference in Sheffield on Saturday 29th June.

The contested issues of the closure and regulation of public space have been a long part of popular protest in Britain, against enclosures,  for the right of assembly in Hype Park, in Trafalgar  Square (1886-8), through to the contemporary Occupy movement. Rules governing demonstrations have been tightened in recent years. More and more of what appear to be public spaces are now under the control of private enterprise and ‘policed’ by their own security guards.

Our current political system has become at least as corrupt and as unaccountable as the system the Chartists were seeking to reform

The Chartist movement was important as a mass campaign for the extension of democracy – and equally as a campaign against the rule of elite cliques and the corruption that often went along with it. Its mass petitions were ignored and derided by their opponents in parliament. It is therefore ironic that from next month there will be exhibition about Chartism in the lobby of the House of Commons. Two of the leading historians of Chartism, Malcolm Chase and Owen Ashton, will give talks at a meeting in the Speaker’s House. It is doubly ironic, because our current political system has become at least as corrupt and as unaccountable as the system the Chartists were seeking to reform.

One of Croydon’s links to Chartism is the Gerald Massey collection in Upper Norwood Library, which until recently was jointly funded by Croydon and Lambeth Councils until Croydon pulled out. On Saturday at the Chartism Day there were two sessions of the poems of Gerald Massey set to music and performed by Manchester student James Horrocks.

The newly formed Croydon Radical History Network will be seeking to find out about Chartism in Croydon

At Chartism Day two years ago I gave a talk on Chartism in Wandsworth. The newly formed Croydon Radical History Network, which Katrina is now part of, will be seeking to find out about Chartism in Croydon. Key challenges include finding out who the leaders and activists were, who their rank and file supporters were, and the relationship with agricultural labourers. An often overlooked matter is what Chartists did after the 1850s as the movement began to fragment. Many started putting their energies into other political and social welfare and mutual organisational activities – what happened in Croydon? The Croydon Radical History Network will endeavour to find out.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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