Gerald Massey: a biography - Chapter 1.

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SWEET—NUMBERED poet, proudly we thy name
Behold among the British bards inscribed,
In golden letters, on the List of Fame!
A second Burns that never could be bribed,
By Fear or Favour, to forsake the class
Whence thou didst spring – the lowly labouring mass,
Whose feelings, fears, and hopes have tipped with flame
Thy potent pen! Let not occasion pass –
Portray their wrongs, regardless of the blame
Which Cant may cast on thee, in hope to tame
Thy scathing indignation!   Let thy tongue
Be ever heard in humble Worth's defence,
And may the Muses still inspire thy song
With truth, and love, and life—instilling eloquence!

William Billington (1861)





All day, though you never see it shine,
    You must travel, nor turn aside,
Through blinding sunlight and moonbeams fine,
    And mist and darkness wide.

(George Meredith)

THE fire at the five storey silk mill in Brook End, Tring, was first noticed at 1.30 p.m. on 21 January 1836.  Smoke, quickly followed by flames was seen to be issuing from the east part of an upper floor, and the fire spread rapidly to the fourth floor.  Messengers were dispatched immediately to Aylesbury, from where two fire engines were sent, together with an additional two from Tring.  Lady Bridgwater at nearby Ashridge and another Tring resident, both of whom had private engines, also volunteered their assistance.  Fortunately there was an ample supply of water available from a lake close at hand, without which the fire would have been a complete disaster.  Nevertheless, the flames remained vivid until well after eight in the evening when, after eight hours of hard work, the fire was eventually extinguished.

    The aftermath presented the owners, David Evans & Co., silk—mercers of 121 Cheapside, London, with a depressing scene.  It was determined that the fire had started when some boys left a candle burning in a lumber loft, immediately over the storeroom.  Although many of the mill's employees had given valuable help in removing a lot of the lighter equipment, the damage was considerable.  Floors collapsed, breaking machinery, and the main building was left a roofless ruin.  Only the western part of the building, with the offices and dwelling house, remained intact.[1]  Of the 600 employees, it was reckoned that for at least three months only 200 would be able to continue in part time work, while the cost of the damage was calculated at around £4,000.


Tring Silk Mill c. 1890.
From the collection of the late R. G. Grace, Esq., Tring.

    Although this would cause much distress to those who relied on the mill for their sole employment, the fire was regarded as a saviour from weary toil by many children and adolescents who worked there as operatives.  Indeed, at another fire at the mill in January 1842, it was reported that it was:

Very discouraging ... to see the poorer class of persons of Tring standing by and viewing the progress of the enemy with apparent satisfaction ... which was scarcely to be wondered at when the system was known to be productive of the subversion and destruction of all that is moral and useful in the female part of the labourers therein ... labour is so inadequately paid for that young women from 16 to 20 years old do not obtain for a long day's work more than from 4d to 6d per day.[2]

    This did not please David Evans, the owner, who wrote at once to reply that young women who understood the trade could and did earn from 5s to 7s 6d per week.  He added, sharply, that it would be admitted by those most conversant with the estate of Tring itself that its morals were better now than they were before the establishment of the mills.[3]  A few local residents supported his remark, commenting that, whatever might be the individual opinions as to the working of the factory system in general, it would not be easy to find a factory in the country that was not better run, or where the employees were altogether more satisfied.[4] The 'progress of the enemy' at the first conflagration was viewed with special delight by the child operatives.  Ragged and shivering in the cold and sleet, they watched as the destruction of their hated workplace promised a release from the deafening noise of machinery, the heat, and the all pervasive smell of oil.  At that exciting time there was no immediate thought given to the effect the loss of their meagre wages would have on their families.

    Ten years before this, on the 19 December 1826, William Massey was married to Mary Rooker, in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Tring.[5]  Tring was then a small country market town having a population of some three thousand, with mechanical industry limited to silk throwing, brewing, and flour milling.  William was an illiterate labourer and boatman, relying constantly for his sometimes uncertain periods of work on the wharfingers and Tring Wharf flour mill, situated by the side of the Wendover Arm of the Grand Junction Canal.  Mary had a determined nature, a more refined mind, and could even read and write a little, to a low average attained then by most of the poor.  The home they set up together on Gamnel Wharf was rented from William's employers, probably William Grover & Sons, Millers and Wharfingers, for a shilling per week.  For this money they were given a flint cottage in a row of four flint cottages and four houses, that included good gardens.   Their cottage was next to a house rented by Elizabeth ('Mam') Rowe that was used also as a small dame school. [5a]  Having paid the rent, nine shillings remained from William's weekly wage to provide a minimum subsistence.  This was tolerable until the family started to increase, and William's idea of bliss was to indulge in the occasional gallon of beer.

    Thomas Gerald was their first child, born on Thursday, 29 May 1828, and was followed by Edwin, Frederick and Henry at approximately three yearly intervals.  Because of his parents' increasing responsibilities and living costs Gerald was sent when he was eight, in common with many other local youngsters of a similar age, to wage earn as a throwster at the silk mill.  Filament silk was prepared for weaving by 'throwing' or twisting the thread in varying degrees to the left or right.  Each twist was called a turn, with more turns per inch tightening the thread.  The four main stages in throwing were winding, doubling two or more threads, twisting to increase the number of turns, and skeining.  The skeins were then soaked to make them more pliable, dried, and reeled on to bobbins.  Tram, organzine and crepe were the most used types of thrown yarns.

    By Act of Parliament in 1833 the employment of children less than nine years old was prohibited, and from nine to thirteen years restricted to forty—eight hours per week.  Although civil registration of births and deaths became operative from 1837, it was not until 1875 and a fine of £2 for non—registration that this could be enforced.  Until then many parents had of necessity to lie about the ages of their children.  Gerald therefore was up at five in the morning for six days a week, reminded by the mill bell at half—past—five in case he had overslept, returning home at six—thirty in the evening.  Half—an—hour was allowed for dinner, that the operatives brought with them from home, and two short breaks permitted for 'drinking time'.  For his first week's work, Gerald received 9d, or 4p in today's coin, but in attempting to increase his wages by the easier method of pitch—and—toss, he lost it all before he arrived home that day.  In recounting the incident to a reporter many years later, he admitted to having been an inveterate gambler in his young days, but did not record any comments that his parents must have made.[6]

Pleasantly rings the Chime that calls to Bridal—hall or Kirk;
But Hell might gloatingly pull for the peal that wakes the babes
        to work!
'Come, little Children,' the Mill—bell rings and drowsily they run,
Little old Men and Women, and human worms who have spun
The Life of Infancy into silk; and fed, Child, Mother and Wife,
The Factory's smoke of torment, with the fuel of human life.
O weird white face, and weary bones, and whether they hurry
        or crawl,
You know them all by the Factory—stamp, they wear it one and all.


    A short account of work in Tring silk mill in 1858 experienced by an eight year old girl, confirms the bell's imperious call of 'Come to the mill' at half—past—five.  But at that time, being under the age of eleven, she had only to work half days; during the remainder of those days she was supposed to be attending school.  After the age of eleven she was of necessity working a twelve—hour day for wages of 2s 6d per week.[7]

    Compared with Gerald's counterparts in the heavily industrialised areas of Britain, the workers at Tring mill were well treated.  From contemporary accounts by workers and from official reports of the time, many factory operatives, particularly in the Midlands, were subjected to degradation, brutality and grossly excessive hours.  The Sadler Committee, appointed to collect first hand evidence on conditions in factories, discovered extraordinary cases of such maltreatment combined with social privation.  A tailor's three daughters aged 12, 11 and 6 years worked in a worsted mill near Leeds.  During the busy time, six weeks in the year, they were at the mill from 3 a.m. until 10 p.m. with a quarter of an hour for breakfast, half an hour for dinner, and a quarter of an hour for 'drinking'.[8]  Overseers with a cruel disposition would make the children's life a misery, beating and flogging them for the slightest inattention to their work.  One young girl of nine was beaten for going to the toilet.[9]  It was not until 1847 that legislation was able to be enforced, albeit slowly, to end the exploitation of child labour.

    Mary tried her best, despite the family's poverty, to inculcate the decencies in her children.  Being religiously Calvinistic, Sunday School was an essential part of their upbringing.  Devotional pamphlets were brought to homes by local preachers, and old copies of the Bible, the Pilgrim's Progress and the religious Penny Post were distributed.  Gerald was sent first to a 'penny school' that may have been held in the Baptist Chapel, New Mill (known as the New Mill Sabbath School in 1833), located near the wharf, and later to the National School in the town.  Although he learned to read well, he achieved little else.  In common with most youngsters he was made to memorise chapters of the Bible; he also assumed as true the allegories of John Bunyan, and accepted as fact the statements set out in Wesleyan tracts.  At that early age he showed an appreciation for music and had a good singing voice.  His parents were proud to take him to chapel to show his ability in the choir, although to be seen and heard properly, being of short stature, he was made to stand on the pew.[10]

    While the silk mill was being repaired following the fire, it was necessary that Gerald's earning power that had reached 1s 3d per week, be redirected.  Next to silk manufacturing, the main occupation in Tring was straw plaiting.  This also was a children's employment, taught often to those as young as three years.  By early school age, youngsters who could not plait the minimum three straws were regarded as being very dense.  Parents commonly taught plaiting at home, or the children were sent to plaiting schools, that were sometimes no more than a large cottage room.  A good, usually adult worker could make thirty yards of plait a day, although it took about twelve hours work each day to earn between three and four shillings a week.  The plait was then sold to local dealers to be made up into hats, bonnets, or dress ornamentation.[11]

    Gerald found this new labour to be equally as oppressive and financially unrewarding as silk throwing.  During the few years he worked at plaiting, he suffered several attacks of fever, which was common to the inhabitants of that low—lying area.  At one time the whole family lay prostrate, too weak even to obtain a drink or get help from neighbours.  When William was out of work, the family income could be as low as 5s 9d per week, the cost of one course of a meal on a rich man's table.[12]

    Those harsh conditions which were testified in press and official reports between the 1830s and 1850s, gave many literate working men the impetus to make an initial step towards active social radicalism.  Of his own environment, Massey commented:

Having had to earn my own dear bread by the cheapening of flesh and blood thus early, I never knew what childhood was.  I had no childhood.  Ever since I can remember, I have had the aching fear of want, throbbing in heart and brow.  The currents of my life were early poisoned ... I look back now in wonder, not that so few escape, but that any escape at all ... so blighting are the influences which surround thousands in early life, to which I can bear such bitter testimony.[13]

    By 1841 the family had moved temporarily to Fleet Street, West End, off the present day Chapel Street, near the centre of Tring.  Their wharf home may by then have become uninhabitable.  After three years working at straw plaiting, Gerald obtained a domestic post at a local boarding school in Market Street.[14]  But he had not worked there long before he was sacked because, as he recounted later, the girls used to hug and kiss him![15]

    It was about that time, approaching the age of fifteen, when he realised that none of his strongly progressive but yet ill—defined hopes would be achieved by staying in Tring.  Being uneducated, he had no prospect of obtaining employment other than returning to the silk mill, or continuing in inferior and uncertain positions.  Hence, during late 1843 or early 1844 he decided to chance his fortune in London.

O mighty mystery London, there be Children still, who hold
Her Palaces are silver—roofed, her pavements are of gold;
And blindly in that dark of fate, they grope for the golden prize
For somewhere hidden in her heart the charmèd treasure lies.


    It was in 1843, when he was depressed and probably thinking about leaving for London, that he said his first poem on 'Hope' had been accepted by the Aylesbury News.[16]  Provincial papers received poems submitted by local writers and published them either with signature, or anonymously.  These were included with poems by better known names such as Ebenezer Elliott and Eliza Cook that often indicated the political stance of the paper.

The Nelson Column,  c. 1860  (Print by T. Nelson & Sons.)


Cloth Fair , near the Barbican.

    If he had saved his wages for a few weeks Massey could have made his move to London probably by one of several horse coach services that passed through or commenced at Tring.  On entering London via the Edgware Road, these travelled along Oxford Street, 'the road to Oxford', and on to one of the several coaching inn termini in the City area.  'The Old Bell', Warwick Lane, 'Clemet's Inn', Old Bailey, and the 'King's Arms', Holborn Bridge were used on the Tring run.  Alternatively, and more likely, he could have secured a lift on a Carrier's cart, travelling along the same route.  From old prints of the period, the London streets were as busy then as they are today.  Pedestrians had to be agile when crossing main roads to avoid being knocked down by one of many horse carriages and carts.  Hawkers, street vendors, crossing sweepers and prostitutes were continually occupied.  Years of division between rich and poor was immediately noticeable, and formed one of the long—standing basic causes of radical discontent.  Oxford Street, although shabby, separated the more wealthy class to the north from the slums of St Giles and Spitalfields to the south and east.  Trafalgar Square, a haven for vagrants, was soon to have its Nelson Column, to be followed later by the lions.  Smart Regent Street was proud of its covered colonnade, though the shopkeepers had to keep an eye open for thieves and pickpockets for whom it was a profitable attraction.  Away from the more select areas, the pervasive evidence of inadequate sewerage systems was made clear to all, particularly in the densely populated labouring districts.  A civil engineer, commenting on the parish of St Giles, referred to houses whose yards were covered with sewage from the overflowing of privies.  In Westminster, cellars were flooded by sewage water.[17]  Before the construction of New Oxford Street and Endall Street, the area around St Giles known as the 'Rookery' was one mass of garbage and stagnant gutters, bordered closely by dilapidated and overcrowded dwellings.[18]

Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)  This (now part of Shoe Lane) ran from Holborn to Saffron Hill, and was an area favoured by thieves for the sale of their stolen goods, particularly handkerchiefs.  Some of these can be seen in the picture, hanging outside shop windows.  Charles Dickens had recorded the street in his Oliver Twist (1837).


Near Field Lane c. 1844
Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding
(Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)


A court near Berwick Street
(London Shadows, 1854— )


A Clerkenwell interior.
(London Shadows, 1854)

    The cause of cholera outbreaks had not then been medically determined.  Some thought it was connected in some way to vapours emanating from those areas, and a doctor considered that:

". . . . It is strictly an epidemic . . . prevailing most in those localities of a town where the drainage is most defective, and where, at the same time, the population is most destitute ... it is not infectious, nor admitting of being controlled by any of the means that are reputed to exercise a power over infectious diseases . . ."[19]

    Similar to St Giles were the areas 'Jacob's Island', in Bermondsey, and Saffron Hill, between Leather Lane and Farringdon Road.  These were also brought to life in Dickens' Oliver Twist, and the original film of that name.  Jacob's Island was described by Dickens in the 1830s as being full of 'Crazy wooden galleries ... with holes from whence to look on the slime beneath ... rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter'.  Clerkenwell's water supply was thought to contain water draining from Highgate cemetery and other burial grounds and cess pits in the area.  In an account of two cholera cases: was afterwards found that the cellar of the house in which the patient resided had been burst into by a cesspool; whilst in the other, a fine, stout, healthy man, lived at the back of a graveyard, the mouldering remains of the dead were level with the window—sill in the parlour in which he was constantly living . . .[20]

    Even the Thames was so fouled that the stench on one hot summer's day forced the adjournment of the House of Commons.  Poverty, squalor and cruelty; each was co—existent on the other.  The cruelty was apparent in the markets, especially Smithfield, and in Spitalfields, the home of the silk weavers.  They were noted bird catchers and suppliers of singing birds, which they often blinded with hot wires, as it was considered to make them sing better.  In his later years, Massey wrote a poem for his granddaughter, after telling her of that cruel custom:

Listen, my little one, it is the lark,
Captured and blinded, singing in the dark.
His nest—mate and his younglings are all dead:
Their feathers flutter on some foolish head.
Of some lost Paradise, poor bird, he sings
Which for a moment back his vision brings: ...
He sings his fervid life out day by day;
Imprisoned in an area underground ...
As if with floods of music he would drown
The dire, discordant roar of London Town.

    Massey's previous connection with the manufacturing of yarn may have helped him to obtain his first post as a draper's errand boy.  Because of a rise in the amount of manufactured cotton at that time, retail outlets had increased, giving rise to greater competition between these shops.  Drapers, tailors and haberdashers in the main thoroughfares had therefore to be smart in appearance.  Many of the shop assistants, sharing a cramped and often unsanitary room over the premises, were up early in the morning, cleaning, polishing and arranging displays.  Gas lighting flared brilliantly through plate glass windows, displaying carefully arranged bolts of cloth, yarn and made up materials.  Brass fittings on the counters shone to perfection.  Errand boys, in whatever type of shop they were employed, were kept very busy, often working a fourteen—hour day.  The majority of customers required their goods to be delivered, some to quite a distance, and within that same day.  The errand boy had therefore to carry a large number of parcels to varying addresses, which could cover a wide area.  He then returned to the shop for further deliveries, or to clean until further items were ready.[22]

    As Massey's arrival point in London was near to High Holborn, which had a number of woollen and other drapery shops, it is possible that this was the area in which he found his first of several jobs.  He made no mention of the name of the shop, although he indicated that it was not small, having several staff and a supervisor.  In spite of the long hours, that was the opportunity for which he had been longing for several years.  'Now I began to think that the crown of all desire, and the sum of all existence, was to read and get knowledge.  Read, read, read!  I used to read at all possible times, and in all possible places; up in bed till two or three in the morning — nothing daunted by once setting the bed on fire.'[23]  Being continually short of money, he used to read from books in the numerous street bookstalls, probably even using his employer's time while travelling on errands.  When he was out of work, he often went without a meal to purchase a book, and self—education became a constant obsession.  English, Roman and Greek history, French tuition books and the instructive Lloyds' Penny Times built on the foundation of his earlier meagre schooling.  Everyday encounters with people, and observations of the stratified social setting initiated critical reasoning concerning fundamental social anomalies.  In particular, the oppressive injustice between the position of master and servant that he viewed and endured, focused and sharpened his investigations to that area.  In common with most forthcoming young radicals of the time, he found the causes of iniquity, political, social and religious, defined in the writings of Thomas Paine, William Howitt, and the French Republicans Constantin de Volney and Louis Blanc.  Publication of Paine's Rights of Man and Richard Carlile's The Age of Reason in the early 1800s had resulted in Carlile's imprisonment for sedition and blasphemy.  The Chartist leaders used Paine's works as a theory of reference in the formulation of their principles.  Volney's Ruins: or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, and New Researches into Ancient History, stressed Republican ideas and Biblical questioning, as did Howitt's A Popular History of Priestcraft.  Louis Blanc emphasised the division between capital and labour in The Organisation of Labour in and his periodical the Monthly Review, in the late 1840s.  Those and similar works were read by working class radicals against a background of social privation, injustice and unrest.  Under those circumstances it is understandable that the political system that caused such inequality should result in a powerful call for democratic reform.  Thomas Carlyle had written, 'Chartism is one of the most natural phenomena in England,' and this statement remained evident until the early 1850s and the movement's rapid decline.

    Massey entered a turbulent political scene dominated by Sir Robert Peel's Conservatives who were facing trade recession, the Anti—Corn Law League, and Chartism.  There were two main causes of unrest at that time.  First was the outcome of the Reform Act of 1832.  Although this allowed more people to vote, it introduced minimum property and rental restrictions, thus effectively disqualifying many working men who were previously entitled to vote.  The second was the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834 that increased the number of workhouses to end the cost of parish relief given to needy individuals.  It was hoped that policy would make the poor more thrifty, and encourage them to seek work in industry.  But the segregation of men, women and children, together with strict discipline in harsh conditions caused much opposition.  This was particularly evident in the early 1800s when young workhouse inmates were transported from cities as 'apprentices' to even worse conditions as cheap labour in country factories.[24]  The Anti—Corn Law League was founded in 1839 from the Association's Manchester headquarters.  The Corn Laws of 1815 had prohibited the import of wheat until the home price reached 80s per quarter.  Despite a sliding scale introduced by the government in 1828, the League blamed the laws for raising the price of food.

    The Chartist movement with which Massey came into particular contact was a force that had a long history due to social unrest.  Its roots lay in the radical London Corresponding Society, founded in 1791 for working men, and gathered strength through successive organisations, the most powerful of which was the London Working Men's Association.  This organisation was founded in 1836 by William Lovett who, with John Roebuck MP, was responsible for drafting the 'People's Charter' published in 1838, giving recognition to the term 'Chartist'.  The Charter consisted of a programme of political reform that had six main points: a vote for every man over twenty—one; vote by ballot; no property qualifications for MPs; equal electoral districts; payment of members of Parliament and annual election of Parliament.  By these points it was hoped that power would be given to the working classes that had been denied to them by the Reform Act.

    During his first years in London, Massey had not forgotten the success of having his first poem printed which, he said, had been due to him falling in youthful love.  Prior to that he never had any fondness for poetry, and skipped over verse when he came across it in books.  From that first experience his emotions developed with particular sensitivity to form and colour; he delighted in the countryside with its flowers and wildlife; was entranced by golden tints of sunlight shimmering through the trees.  The contrasting streets of London induced feelings of nostalgia for the countryside he had left and, to compensate, between work and study he found time to compose more poems that he compiled and published by subscription in Tring.  The private printing by Garlick of Tring in 1847 of Original Poems and Chansons by Thomas Massey was priced at one shilling and, surprisingly, was reported to have sold 250 copies locally, but no copy has been traced (Appendix A).  The title was suggested to him by the French Republican, Pierre de Béranger, who had been imprisoned twice for his political verse. His Chansons de P. J. Béranger was published in English in 1837.

    After some time served as an errand boy in various shops, Massey was promoted to attend behind a shop counter that brought him into closer contact with a particularly arrogant and strongly disliked supervisor.  Having a lively sense of humour, Massey could not help making jokes to the other staff, impersonating this person's self—importance.  Unfortunately, following a particularly pungent jest, this came to the ears of the supervisor who immediately bundled an unrepentant Massey, together with his belongings, into the street.  The shop may have been Swan & Edgar, the large draper's store that was sited at the corner of Regent Street and Piccadilly.[25]

    London in the 1840s was a centre for meetings, lectures and oratory, particularly in the broad sphere covered by the term 'radicalism'.  There were protests against the Corn Laws, support for Robert Owen's socialism with its anti—Christian overtones, and publicity for advocates of temperance.  Of greatest importance were the Chartist meetings.  These were held in local halls, such as the National Hall, High Holborn. The Metropolitan Delegate Council of the National Charter Association met weekly at the City Chartists' Hall in the Barbican, and smaller meetings were held in coffee houses.  The Charter Coffee House, High Holborn, Denny's Coffee House, Seven Dials, and the London Coffee House, Ludgate Hill, were popular.  The Arundel Coffee House in the Strand was hired by the Chartist National Convention.[26]  Educational and political lectures were held at the Hall of Science, 58 City Road, which moved, following termination of lease in 1866, to 142 Old Street, and became the headquarters of the National Secular Society.  The equally prestigious Social, Literary and Scientific Institution, at 23 John Street, Fitzroy Square, was used also by many radicals.  This building had opened as such in 1840 — thought originally, and from an engraving, to have been a chapel — and was replaced a short distance away by the Cleveland Street Hall in 1861.  Many of the Chartist leaders lectured in these and similar halls in the suburbs, particularly Feargus O'Connor, editor of the Northern Star, and Thomas Cooper, following his two years' imprisonment for sedition in 1843.  From reading Massey's earliest works, it is obvious that he attended many of those meetings and lectures, which influenced the idiom of his written and oral styles.  The radical press had an equally great effect on him, particularly the Northern Star that had the young, ultra—radical George Julian Harney as sub—editor.

    It was the year of 1848 and the final stand of Chartism that had the most profound effect on Massey, and which was to determine the direction of his life for the following five years.  The repeal of the Corn laws the previous year had diverted more attention to Chartism.  Increasing unemployment gained it more supporters, as did the general election when O'Connor was elected for Nottingham and Harney opposed Palmerston for Tiverton.  In February it was heard that King Louis Philippe of France had been deposed, and that France had become a republic.  Two national petitions for the Charter had been made previously to Parliament, in 1839 and 1842, but without success.  With events now appearing to favour workers' rights, the Chartists hurriedly organised a third, and plans were made for a national convention to meet in April, and present the petition to Parliament.  Protests by the Trades' Meeting against unemployment, and by G. W. M. Reynolds, a later Chartist leader, against income tax added even more to working class unrest.  Simultaneously there was an increase of violence in several northern cities, with sporadic outbreaks in London sufficient to cause extended police activity and governmental concern.  Queen Victoria was advised to stay at the Isle of Wight until stability had been restored.  The meeting, during which the petition would be presented, was held on the 10 April at Kennington Common, near the site of the present Oval cricket ground, and was attended by about 100,000 people.  Massey was present, and was nearly run down by the police.  Despite the failure of the petition, he said later that it had a greater effect on him than anything previous in his life.  'It scarred and blood—burnt into the very core of my being.'[27]  For his support of the Chartists at that meeting, he was again sacked from his job.  There is no record when Massey became a member of the National Charter Association, which was formed in 1840, but due to his involvement in Chartist interests it probably dated to around 1848 or 1849 when he was twenty.  Lecturers of radical organisations travelled widely throughout the provinces, and Massey undoubtedly met with a number of these speakers in informal discussions when the merits of particular groups and radical centres of activity were compared.  Consequently, he moved to Uxbridge where John Bedford Leno, a printer and later branch secretary of the local Chartists, together with some other local helpers had in 1845, started a Young Men's Improvement Society.  In 1846, then aged twenty, Leno was promoter and joint editor of a manuscript newspaper the Attempt, of which seven issues were produced up to 1849.  Massey immediately joined the Society, which had then a membership of a hundred, and gave it considerable support.  Books and newspapers were bought from members' weekly subscriptions, and gifts of reading matter readily accepted.  Massey donated seven books for their library, and wrote one rigidly structured article for the Attempt.  'Shelley and his Poetry', although unsigned, can be recognised by his early, more copybook style handwriting.

    Early in 1849 the Society decided to start a monthly printed journal of literature and general information, the Uxbridge Pioneer, to open 'a medium of communication between the learned and ignorant' for the benefit of the working classes.  Massey, Leno and some other elected members of the Society were appointed as editors, and the first issue, price 3d, was published in February.  A substantial amount of the material was written by Massey, who signed himself as 'T.G.M.' or 'Gerald', and some unsigned items can be identified also as by him.  'A Few Words on Poetry' shows lack of depth and maturity, but has a colourful, metaphorical style.  It is possible that he regarded poetry as a form of escapism at that time when he wrote that 'Poets seek a world of thought to live in, because the world of reality is harsh and cold.'  'A Romaunt of Ancient Woxbrigge' has a particularly jocular form.  A rich patriarch was extremely jealous of attention given to his two daughters who, despite his care, became pregnant.  Intending to obtain his revenge on the man responsible, he pretended to go away on a journey, but hid near the house until evening.  On noticing a length of knotted scarves coming from his daughters' bedroom window, he held on to the end, and found himself pulled rapidly upwards.  The daughters, in shock at meeting this unexpected face, released the scarves, which resulted in the demise of their tyrannical father.  In 'May Dawson' Massey wrote on the perils of London prostitution.  That was probably a mainly fictional item, taking the form of a personal encounter in London with a young Tring girl who had been seduced, and who later committed suicide.  An unsigned editorial 'To Our Readers' has Massey's style, and contains some lines from later published poems.

Uxbridge High Street.

    Shortly after publication, political differences alienated the more radical Massey and Leno from the other editors.  A letter received, and published in the second issue, mentioned 'T.G.M.' in particular, and referred quite obviously to his 'Woxbrigge' and 'May Dawson' articles:

I will not quote the passages from the Pioneer, which to my mind are highly objectionable ... I find they occur in papers bearing the same initials; and I cannot but regret that the alternate blush of the reader should suffuse his cheek, the moment after his mind has been charmed with the germs of elegance and vigour which characterize the style of their author ... a little more moral precision, and he will 'write to profit'.  I trust ... a second number ... may be with safety and profit placed in the hands of the younger members of our families.[28]

    Massey and Leno, together with colleagues Edward Farrah and George Redrup became increasingly opposed to the policies advocated by other active members of the Society.  Accordingly they decided to commence in April a paper to counter the Pioneer.  With the assistance of some political sympathisers they raised fifteen shillings with the promise of one shilling per month from each, to finance continuing issues.  A thousand copies of the first issue of the Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom and Working Man's Vindicator conducted by Working Men, price one penny, was offered for sale on Thursday market day.[29]  To promote their paper with the minimum of cost, some pretentious publicity was devised by Massey for the occasion.  Having obtained an imitation uniform of the republican Paris civil corps, he persuaded Leno's brother to dress in this uniform, march around the town, and help to sell the paper.  This proved to be sound advertising, and the paper's many treasonable contents were certainly noted by its readers.  There was a predictable mixture of agreement from the workers, dissent from the more affluent Tory townspeople and condemnation from the vicar's pulpit (in the name of God) the following Sunday.[30]  In their introductory editorial Massey and Leno had stated clearly their intent to 'Call a man a man, and a spade a spade'.  An ironmonger responded by placing a shovel outside his door with 'This is a spade' written on it, and a baker changed the title of the paper to the 'Spirit of Mischief: or Working Man's Window Breaker.'  That publicity ensured the sale of 900 copies, sufficient for the young#editors to judge the venture a moderate success. After seven issues Massey reported that the sales had doubled.[31]

The Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom
(Columbia University Library, Seligman Collection)

    The majority of radical papers published notices of similar publications, and it was the Northern Star that gave the most comprehensive reviews of the Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom throughout its nine monthly issues.

The following review of the first edition of the Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom appeared in the Northern Star, 4th April 1849:

"Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom, and Working Men's Vindicator. Conducted by Working Men.  No. 1. April.  Published by J. Redrup, Uxbridge, Middlesex.  London: J. Watson Queen’s Head—passage, Paternoster Row.

A NEW monthly publication, of thoroughly democratic character conducted by Working Men.  We shall let our friends speak for themselves :—

We shall be accused of class—feeling, and party spirit; well, be it so.  We would fain clasp the whole world in the arms of love: but ye will not, ye who spit upon us and flout us with being the “swinish multitude.”  What can be the nature of that union where the subjection of the one party is maintained by the force of the other?  This is treason to the sovereignty of the people, and treason to God, by destroying that moral beauty of unity which the creator intended for mankind.  We are slaves socially and helots politically: and if to work out our own redemption be called “party feeling,” we accept it.  We call upon true democrats of all ranks to support us: but especially on the working class: we invite them to contribute to our pages, for we want the sledge hammer strokes which working—men who do think can give, and, if we cannot reach the head of the present system of things, why we’ll let drive at the feet!  Keep at work, and the mighty Triune which crushes us now, shall, ere long, make way for an educated and enfranchised people, who shall yet make Old England a land worth living and worth dying for.

Such a publication appearing in Manchester or Leeds would be nothing wonderful: but we must say we are agreeably surprised to find a small town like Uxbridge containing men who not only dare think for themselves, but who also, are determined to give their free thoughts utterance, with the view of hastening the political and social emancipation of their order.  Such men claim our respect and good wishes: and most earnestly we wish them success.  The whole of the article in the number are well written: their titles are significant – “The Labour Question”, “Letter of a Labourer,” “Emigration and the Aristocracy,” “Where is Religion to be found?” &c., &c.  We must make another extract from this boldly—written “Vindicator” of the rights of the proletarians:–

We have to play a grand part in the history of the future.  Our gallant brothers of Paris, Vienna and Berlin, must not bleed on the barricades for Labour’s rights in vain.  The problem will again and again force itself on the world, and, if our rulers dare not grapple with it, we must do the work ourselves.  Working men, we must understand each other – let us learn what wrongs have been perpetrated, for that is the first step towards redress.  We must, ourselves, assert our rights or we shall never win them. We have been listeners in the political arena – now let us mount the platform.

The Schoolmaster is abroad.  Let the enemies of Justice look to it.  Work on ye 'MEN OF THE FUTURE' .

    The local Bucks Advertiser, commenting later on the paper, referred to it as juvenile but daring, adding that 'We take the liberty of suggesting that a good deal of what they write does not look as if it came from men of temperance and peace.  The principles are sound and true, but we don't think it worth while to commit sedition in order to expound them. . . '[32]

    The Northern Star, reviewing the second issue, noted an increase of four pages, and favoured Massey's 'first—rate poetry.'  It gave also, in issues through to December, the titles of a number of articles in each issue.  These indicated strongly the paper's political stance: 'To the Thieves and Robbers of both Houses of Parliament', 'The Poor and the Rich', 'Why has the cause of the People not triumphed?' and 'What have the Clergy been doing?'  The Northern Star emphasised these and other progressively heretical titles by quoting part of an article by John Rymill of Nottingham, who had pronounced scathingly:

Is it not monstrous that an age which permits a handful of antiquated lords to eat up the soil, and a swarm of red and black coated thieves to swallow up the taxes; an age in which England's true nobility have to starve in the midst of plenty, in order that certain useless things called lords, dukes, esquires, and reverends, may be fed on dainties, and be clothed in crimson; an age in which poor paupers are worse clad, and more scantily fed than criminals . . . is it not monstrous,  I say, that such an age should be sanctified with the name of civilization![33]

    The majority of Chartists held those opinions of the clergy, nobility and royalty.  The established church, politically conservative and against any further extension of the suffrage, had an annual income of some nine million pounds, which was termed 'pious robbery' by the Chartists.  Bishops and other leading church ministers had Tory connections that indicated that they worked solely for money, while the working clergy had little interest in working class social conditions.[34]  Nobility and royalty were condemned for living in idle dissipation, while the working classes starved.  The Court Journal recorded detailed descriptions of grand state balls and banquets held in Buckingham Palace, in some depth:

The range of tables displayed a gorgeous assemblage of gold plate ... massive centre pieces, candelabra, vases, wine coolers ... flowering plants in golden vases...  On the buffet surrounding the centre shield were ranged vases, cups, chalices, tankards, and salvers in profusion, some of them glittering with precious stones, others enriched with exquisite carvings ...

    A bill of fare in French, included turbot, turtle, prawns, fillets of sole, peacock, pigeons in aspic, smoked salmon, braised beef, ham, haunches of venison and other luxuries. In a bitter but well meant contrast, the chef of the Reform Club suggested improvements for the soup that was provided for the inmates in charitable institutions.  This could be made in thousand gallon quantities, distributed to the poor once or twice a day, and cost no more than two or three farthings a quart.[35]  These and similar items were reported over the years with scorn and condemnation by the Chartist press, and noted with resentment by readers.  G. W. M. Reynolds commented on the building in Hyde Park that had been put up in preparation for the 1851 Great Exhibition.  He had reason to refer to an 1844 file of the Weekly Dispatch that gave an almost Christian account of the interment in 1840 of Queen Victoria's favourite spaniel, Dash.  An expensive marble monument ordered by Prince Albert had been erected over its resting place.  Reynolds asked what readers thought of that, when a poor working man's widow reflects upon the pauper funeral of her husband.  The coffin knocked up with a few thin boards and old nails; the hurried ceremony; the heartless apathy exhibited by the undertaker who contracts for the parish; and the turfless grave on the 'poor side' of the churchyard.  He concluded, 'But a foreign Prince, for whom British industry is taxed to raise him from a state of German pauperism to a condition of English aristocratic opulence, can do all this with impunity.'[36]  The Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom received support from W. J. Linton, engraver, Chartist sympathiser and editor in 1839 of the National: a Library for the People, and Thomas Cooper was pleased with the first number he received.  Throughout his time at Uxbridge Massey submitted during twelve months from December 1848, a selection of his more roughly lyrical and less radically contentious poems to the Bucks Advertiser, some of which were published also in the Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom.

    Towards the end of 1849 Massey had come into particular contact with two Chartist lecturers, Walter Cooper, a tailor by trade, and Thomas Shorter, watch finisher.

Mr. Walter Cooper was born in Aberdeenshire in 1814, being brought up as a Wesleyan Methodist, and was employed very early as a herd boy.  His parents were very poor, and he stated, "Many a time have we all been ill in bed together, racked and parched with fever, each crying for water, and each too weak to help the other; no medical aid was available, and no friend or neighbour nigh to assist us.  Hey, man! I shall never forget the death of my old grandmother who loved me so dearly; we had no fire in the house, and I had to nestle close to her to give her some warmth while she shivered in the cold clutch of death."

    Whilst searching for employment in London in 1834, he got married.  He discovered before long that there was one religion for the rich and another for the poor; that the same distinction existed in a chapel as in a court of justice; that a wide and impassable gulf separated the richly clad idler from the hard—working labourer clothed in fustian.  He found that he had been religiously duped, deceived and misled.  Discovering the social and political wrongs endured by the humbler classes, he became an eloquent and ardent debater at the Sunday gatherings held in Smithfield Market.

A tailor by trade, he was thoroughly experienced in the miseries attendant upon the slop and sweating system.  When a child was born to him, and he was willing but unable to obtain work, he had no bed, no bedclothes, no food, and no fire.  At the same time he was toiling long and painfully over a pair of trousers, for the making of which he was to receive seven—pence.  That caused him to become a stubborn denouncer of tyranny.

At the present time he is engaged in the management of the new co-operative Association of Working Tailors, recently established in Castle Street East, Oxford Street, London, practically, and we trust successfully, illustrating the principle he has long enunciated on the grand and all—important question of labour. (Abridged from Reynolds's Political Instructor, 16 March, 1850.)

    In December, Cooper and Shorter informed Massey of a proposal made by J. M. Ludlow to commence Working Associations that, they hoped, would end capitalist owners' exploitation.  Ludlow, a lawyer and socialist, had been joint editor for the Rev. Charles Kingsley's Politics for the People, and was instrumental in starting meetings with workers in which social views could be discussed.  These received greater impetus following reports by Henry Mayhew in the Morning Chronicle of the conditions and poverty of, among others, the journeyman tailors.[37]  Kingsley's pamphlet Cheap Clothes and Nasty, written under the name of 'Parson Lot' just after Mayhew's exposure, owed much to Mayhew's report.  On 8 January 1850 at a meeting in London that included F. D. Maurice, Thomas Hughes and Kingsley, it was decided to appoint Walter Cooper as manager of their first association, the Working Tailors' Association.  A three-year lease was signed on the 18 January on a spacious building at 34 East Castle Street, Oxford Street.  This property was sited in a line opposite the Pantheon, the main entrance of which was on the south side of Oxford Street, next to Poland Street, the main entrance of which was at 359 Oxford Street.  The Pantheon, previously a theatre, was being used at that time as a bazaar and picture gallery.

Pantheon, Oxford Street, c. 1830. Demolished in 1937 for a Marks &
Spencer store.

    Walter Cooper then invited Massey to take up the appointment of secretary.  During his editorship at Uxbridge, Massey had been sacked twice from his job for using a candle late at night preparing copy for the paper, and three times for the radical opinions that the paper contained.  This no doubt influenced his decision to accept Cooper's offer and return again to London where, he expected, there would now be a greater opportunity for the expression of his radical idealism.

[Chapter 2]



Bucks Gazette, 23 Jan. 1836, 1, and 30 Jan. 1836, 4. The Times, 23 Jan. 1836, 3.


The Times, 6 Jan. 1842, 5.


Ibid. 7 Jan. 1842, 6.


Ibid. 11 Jan. 1842, 4.


Bishop's Transcripts, Tring Church.

5a. John Mead : miller, farmer and merchant of Tring, Hartsfordshire 1846-1937: an autobiography. 1989


Bookman, Nov. 1897, 33.


London Mercury, 13, 76, (Nov. 1925 — Apr. 1926). Reprinted in Burnett, J., (ed.) Useful Toil (London, Lane, 1974), 67—77. For a history of Tring Silk Mill, see Wendy Austin's Tring Silk Mill (Tring, 2008).


Report from the Committee on the Bill to regulate the Labour of Children in the Mills and Factories of the United Kingdom: with the Minutes of Evidence. 1832. Minutes 5045—61.


Ibid. 3430—33, 5280—83.


In Samuel Smiles' Brief Biographies (Boston, Osgood, 1876), 445.


See the note on Massey in J. E. Cussans' History of Hertfordshire (Wakefield, E. P. Publishing, 1972 ed.), 3, 13—14. For local straw plaiting, see L. L. Gróf's Children of Straw (Buckingham, Barracuda Books, 1988).


Article on Massey in Meliora, 5, (1863), 53 and fn.


A biographic sketch from Eliza Cook's Journal, 102, (12 Apr. 1851), 372—74. Also included in The Ballad of Babe Christabel (London, Bogue, 1854) and later editions of Massey's collected works.


PRO Census Returns HO 107/442/5, f.31, 17. He was listed as a M.S. (Male Servant)


Bookman, Nov. 1897, 33.


Not positively identified by signature or initials.


Chadwick, E., Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. 1842. (Edinburgh, EUP, 1965, ed. Flinn, M.). These conditions were not related solely to London. All major cities with areas of dense population had similar comparable areas, with Edinburgh particularly noted. See Chadwick, above.


Published photographs from archives show examples of frontages of some of these slum courts. A rear view of a conglomerate of such dwellings in Cloth Fair, between Smithfield and Aldersgate taken in the 1850s is in The Making of Modern London 1815—1914 by Gavin Weightman and Steve Humphries (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1983), p. 26.


Morning Chronicle, 8 Oct. 1849, 4.


Ibid., 5.


In 'A Poet of Yester—year', Milne, J., Pages in Waiting (London, Bodley Head, 1926), 35—6.


See 'The Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848' in Testaments of Radicalism ed. Vincent, D., (Europa Publications, 1977). Reprinted from the Christian Socialist, 2, (6 Oct. 1851 — 13 Dec. 1851) and again in John James Bezer Chartist, and John Arnott, National Charter Association by David Shaw (, 2008).


From his Biographic Sketch. Op. cit.


A representative account of an orphan boy transported from St Pancras Workhouse to a Nottinghamshire cotton mill is given in 'A Memoir of Robert Blincoe' published serially in the Lion, 1828. Reprinted in The Slaughter House of Mammon. An Anthology of Victorian Social Protest Literature. Ed. Winn, S., Alexander, L. (West Cornwall CT, Locust Hill, 1992).


Medium and Daybreak 10 Oct. 1873, 450. This is mentioned in Wendy Austin's More Tring Personalities (2003). Correspondence with the author gives this reference from Tring Church Magazine, November 1906. However, no confirmation of this has so far been found.


Lillywhite, B., London Coffee Houses (London, Allen & Unwin, 1963).


George Julian Harney in his Democratic Review of June 1850, 35, considered that the enormous publicity given to the petition, which was found to contain many 'ridiculous, ribald and filthy inscriptions', should have been checked prior to presentation, and was the 'worst evil that befell Chartism'.


Signed pseudonymously as 'Aliquis', this was George Gwynne who later contributed to theistic discussions in George Jacob Holyoake's Reasoner. See Holyoake's Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life 2 vols. (London, Fisher Unwin, 1906 ed.), 1, 301.


See J. B. Leno's The Aftermath (London, Reeves & Turner, 1892), 42—44. Existing copies of the Attempt no. 1, 1846, no. 6, 1847 and no. 7, 1848 together with the Pioneer nos. 1 and 2 are held at the Local Studies Unit, Uxbridge Public Library. The Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom nos. 6—8 are held at the Columbia University Libraries, Seligman Collection with photocopies at Uxbridge Public Library. A notice in Cooper's Journal of 2 Mar. 1850 refers to the USF as being edited by Massey who has very high poetic talent, now being published as a monthly periodical — formerly a weekly. However, from Jan. 1850 the USF changed its name to the Spirit of Freedom, omitting the 'Uxbridge'. It ceased publication apparently after the second monthly issue in February, when Leno moved to London. It contained an article by Massey, 'The Middle—class expediency'. See the Northern Star, 5 Jan. 1850, 3, and 9 Feb. 1850, 3.


Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom, 8, (Nov. 1849), 122.


Uxbridge had then a population of some three thousand. The Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom was published also in London, Bristol and Windsor, and presumably did not rely solely on the Uxbridge locality for its sales.


Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News, 15 Dec. 1849, 3.


Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom, 6, (Sept. 1849), 81—85.


See H. U. Faulkner's Chartism and the Churches (Columbia U.P. 1916) for a full study of this theme.


The Court Journal, 15 May 1847, 397. 10 Jul. 1847, 585. 13 Feb. 1847, 108.


Reynolds's Weekly Newspaper, 10 Nov. 1850, 6.


Mayhew's reports commenced in the Morning Chronicle of 18 Oct. 1849. The account of the operative tailors are in the papers for 11 Dec. 5—6, 14 Dec. 5—6, and 18 Dec. 4—6.