OUTCOME OF RESEARCH Part 4

To Henry Hunt, Esq., as chairman of the meeting assembled in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, sixteenth day of August, 1819, and to the female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and fiendish attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, this plate is dedicated by their fellow labourer, Richard Carlile. Manchester Libraries.

*

Australians are not taught about Chartism. In order to counter this neglect and understanding that many people prefer history not in a plain brown paper wrapping but encased in a ‘silvered wrapping of entertainment’, events and facts were researched, then supplemented with relevant art forms and arranged in a form suitable for a staged show. By utilising format and content akin to Chartist meetings held in 1838-48, material has been assembled for a show comprised of scripted facts, songs, dances, images and cartoons using a format labelled ‘Folk Doco’ and named ‘When Democracy Danced in Workers’ Boots’.

Next year ‘Magda Productions‘, a performing Arts group based in Brisbane will be staging the showMagda’s Productions have given many successful performances of my earlier show,  ‘Dames & Dare-devils for Democracy’ in BrisbaneCOVID permitting, the two shows linked by the real-life character of Emma Millerthe suffragist whose life story introduced me to Chartism may undertake a short tour. 

This is the song I wrote as an overture for ‘When Democracy Danced in Workers’ Boots’ with booted tap dance interludes instead of a chorus: 

WHEN DEMOCRACY DANCED IN WORKERS’ BOOTS  ©  Phyl Lobl 2020 

Workers wearing working boots, trodden down through centuries,         

Rebels wearing working boots stepping up through time,                               

Fired by Tom Paine’s ‘Commonsense’ and the works of Thomas Spence,

Tommy Muir caused offence in the name of Justice. 

Stepped up to dance, stepped up to dance, stepped up to dance for Justice.

                     ( Booted Tap- Dance Interlude ) 

Need for action in their bones, for a changing century. 

Call of freedom in their tones, echoing through time. 

Asked of woman and of man ‘Pass the torch on when y’ can’,

Leading to a Chartist Plan in the name of Justice. 

Stepped up to dance, stepped up to dance, stepped up to dance for Justice. 

                     ( Booted Tap- Dance Interlude) 

In the convict boats and chains, victims of the century,  

Radicals and Chartists came, serving years of time, 

Starry skies Down-under blazed where William Cuffay’s work was praised,  

Where Eureka’s flag was raised, raised by Chartist Justice.  

Raised up to dance, raised up to dance, raised up to dance for justice.                 

( Booted Tap- Dance Interlude)

CONCLUSION  

After a long journey of research and creation, some questions remain: 

Why is there a paucity of documentation and discourse on Chartism in Australia? 

For how long will our history curriculums continue to be short-changed on reality? 

This missing Chartist history is linked to another missed history, the history of the 

Australian indigenous peoples and the effect of colonisation on their lives and their rights.  

These two missed histories are linked, because without the growth of democracy in Australia, recognition of the gross injustice inflicted on, and negligence of indigenous people could not have begun to be addressed, even though there is still a long way to go. The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ could lead us. 

There is a fragile fabric of pseudo civilisation that covers shaky spines, mediocre minds, and hardened hearts. It could be shed, and instead, wearing workers’ boots and stepping in the path of Chartists, knowing that they gave us a strong foundation for Democracy, we could see their heritage valued as part of our national identity. Hopefully the Australian community can repay the Chartists by electing people who share and practise such ideals.

The closing song in the new show is John Warner’s fine song ‘Bring Out the Banners’; a suitable line to end this article is:

                             ’How dare we lose what they have won?’

SOURCES USED

In pursuing this research towards the creation of her ‘folk doco’, Phyl consulted a wide variety of standard and other sources. She also spoke with many people across the country.

Australian

E-books

Tony Moore, Death or Liberty: rebels and radicals transported 1788 -1868

Peter Fitzsimons, Eureka: the unfinished revolution

Anne Henderson, Joseph Lyons: the peoples Prime Minister

Judith Brett, The enigmatic Mr Deakin

Judith Brett, From secret ballot to democracy sausage

K S Inglis, This is the ABC

Hard copies

Isobel Downing, Ballarat Reform League inc. (computer printout)

John Molony, Eureka and the prerogative of the people

Martin Hoyle, William Cuffay: the life and times of a Chartist leader  

Bob O’Brien, Massacre at Eureka: the untold story

Elizabeth Morrison, David Syme: a man of the Age

Other Media

Tasmanian Grassroots Union Choir, Cuffay and the brother slaves – CD

Internet searches on Chartist convicts, eight-hour day, shearers strike, Labor movement, miller, Federation, Henry Parkes …

British 

E-books

Edward Boyle, Roger Lockyer, ‘Chartism’ (seminar studies) 

Thomas Carlyle, Chartism

Julius West, A history of the chartist movement

Thomas Paine, The rights of man (illustrated)

Hard copies

James Epstein, The lion of freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement

Mike Leigh, Peterloo

Other Media 

Radical Tea Towel Co (UK), Tea towel – Six points of the people’s charter

The life and struggles of William Lovett, facsmile of original, British Library DVD

Numerous internet searches

Sources

TEN LINKS IN A CHARTIST CHAIN – A String of ‘Democracy Sausages’. Part 3

To Henry Hunt, Esq., as chairman of the meeting assembled in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, sixteenth day of August, 1819, and to the female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and fiendish attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, this plate is dedicated by their fellow labourer, Richard Carlile. Manchester Libraries.

*

Ten links to Chartism reveal how the movement developed in England from 1774 and how its ideas percolated through the Australian population from 1850 to positively influence the political development of democracy in this country.  

LINK 1 COTTON MILLS  

A black beginning from slave -picked cotton which was shipped from America, woven and spun in the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ of Manchester. There, adults and children as young as twelve slaved for 12-14 hours a day in factories filled with flying fragments of cotton that choked their lungs and brought death. 

LINK 2 THE BATTLE OF PETERLOO  

Years of exploitation of workers by the new middle-class of mill owners saw thousands of workers and their families led by Henry Hunt gather for a picnic protest in 1819 on St Peters’ Field in Manchester. Cut down by sword wielding Hussars on horseback supported by armed infantry in hundreds and bombarded by cannon-fire. Several people were killed and 600 injured including women and children. Also called the ‘Massacre of Peterloo’. 

LINK 3 THE CHARTIST MOVEMENT

By 1838 the writings of Thomas Paine found a readership willing to support reform, willing to ‘dance in workers boots’ and create a nationwide movement of millions of British people which became the Chartist Movement. Various flags were used, including the Peterloo Skelmanthorpe Flag of brown and the Chartist Welsh Tricolour.

By 1850 at least 103 Chartists, now labelled seditionists, had been transported to Australia. Among them was Thomas Muir, a Scottish radical with a hankering for democratic reform. In 1793 he was sentenced for sedition and transported to New South Wales for 14 years. 

William Cuffay was the son of a slave and an early stand-up comic who gained fame for reforms made, especially in Tasmania. With other Chartists he was transported in 1850 on the ship Adelaide

Zephaniah WilliamsWelsh coal miner and Chartist campaigner, was one of the leaders of the Newport Rising of 1839. Found guilty of high treason, he was condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Tasmania. Eventually he was pardoned, and his discovery of coal on that island earned him a fortune 

In his book Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788 – 1868, Anthony (Tony) Moore says Australia is often called a Chartist’s democracy because many Chartist leaders were transported here.

Gold fever lured free settler Chartists to join convicted Chartists in Australia. Moral and Physical Chartists combined with miners, and in their tens of thousands protested the harsh licensing Laws in ‘Monster Meetings’ along the Gold Route from Melbourne to Bendigo, the bloodless Bendigo Agitation of 1853  and eventually the bloody battle at Eureka Stockade in 1854. Peter FitzSimons in his book Eureka – The Unfinished Rebellion, wrote of Chartism in Britain, and pointed out that the same ideas were present on the goldfields, with a republican slant through ‘The Ballarat Reform League’As members of the Reform League, George Black and Henry Holyoake had both been involved with Chartism in England. They promoted radical ideas through two newspapers which were circulated on the goldfields, The Gold-Diggers’ Advocate owned by George Black and The Diggers’ Advocate printed by Ebenezer Syme, who later owned The Age. Such men as these and Ebenezer’s brother David, who also later owned The Age, did not just want to chronicle history they wanted to help make it.

LINK 6 THE EIGHT-HOUR DAY 

John Stuart Mill described Chartism as ‘the victory of the vanquished’. A saying that could be applied as well to the cause won at Eureka. The spirit of solidarity and the desire for justice was carried over from Eureka to strikes by stonemasons in a major effort to gain an Eight-Hour Day which, when won in 1856, was the first such legislation in the world. Galloway and Stevenmasons who led the push were once Chartists. A further boost to trade unions came in 1891 when striking shearers in Queensland flew the Eureka flag. Such action led eventually to the formation of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 1927. 

LINK 7 FEDERATION 

Henry  Parkes, known to history as ‘The Father of Federation’, was once a Chartist sympathiser, ‘a people’s man ‘ who believed that ‘in Australia men would not be treated like brutes while alive, nor buried like dogs when dead.’ He knew that ‘Unity Is Strength.’ He did not live to see it, but in 1901 the colonies of Australia federated as the Commonwealth of Australia’. The Federation Referendum launched in 1898-1900 had support in Western Australia from Chartist influenced  women who already had the vote there. As many others in WA were reluctant to join the Federation it is likely the women’s vote influenced the result. In 1902 all white women in Australia were awarded the right to vote and stand for Federal Parliament. Achieved without use of violence or use of the term ‘suffragette’, they came with big hearts and big hats. Regretfully, Indigenous people had to wait until 1962 for their vote. 

By 1848 Chartism, disunited by differences between Lovett and O’Connor, was gone as a movement, but not as an idea. Chartist ideas found new life in Fabianism, the political belief that socialism can be introduced by gradual reform rather than by revolution. By 1901 various state groups of people aligned to Fabian Societies had called themselves Labour parties. By 1910 the world first for such parties in power was a Labor Partyspelt so by King O’Malley an American/Canadian immigrant MP and spelling reformer. Another world -first. 

In 1924 Alfred Deakin, our second Prime Minister, and his colleague Digby Denham united to have a law passed that made voting compulsory. This added one of the most stabilising factors of our constitutional democracy. They were influenced and supported by brothers Ebenezer and David Syme who had helped launch and edit the Diggers Advocate in Ballarat, who had stood by the miners and who both, at different times, became owners of The Age in Melbourne. 

The last link, born of radio waves and electrons, is our national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporationa link that aims to provide clearly stated information through accurate and unbiased journalism. It was established in 1929 and first advocated by Joseph Lyons, who was a Fabian sympathiser and Prime minister of Australia from 1932 to 1939. Joseph had given his wife, Dame Enid Lyonsour first woman elected to Federal Parliament, a book by Fabian instigators and historians Beatrice & Sydney Webb. 

Not as direct a link as being a Chartist, but still a Chartist link. A link to a stable democracy that right-wing media and conservative politicians are trying to break today. If this link is lost Australia will be deprived of a stabilising national treasure that supplies quality journalism, nationwide emergency assistance, educational material for all ages, and support for Arts of multiple shades. 

In the next post find out the results of this quest and the range of sources used …

WHO WERE THE CHARTISTS? Part 2

To Henry Hunt, Esq., as chairman of the meeting assembled in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, sixteenth day of August, 1819, and to the female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and fiendish attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, this plate is dedicated by their fellow labourer, Richard Carlile. Manchester Libraries.

*

According to historian Isobel Dowling writing on Chartism in the 19th Century in her Ballarat Reform League, Inc.

There was no such thing as a typical Chartist. Chartists had different social, religious, educational and occupational  backgrounds.’ 

Most Chartists were intelligent and honest.’

‘All Chartists thought of themselves as workers, as bees not drones’ 

Chartist newspapers like ‘The Northern Star’ of Leeds owned by Feargus O’Connor advertised their meetings. Poets, singers, musicians and comedians performed at those meetings. Works by artists and artisans decorated Chartist homes. Beethoven, poems by Byron, Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and Robbie Burns’ ‘A Man’s a Man For a’ That’ reflected unrest and desire for social reform in Europe and Britain. These were utilised in Chartist meetings along with works created by Chartists themselves. Working class culture blossomed as Chartist organisations intended they should. Large concerts and leaders who were performers were common.

All this in spite of opposition from the new middle class comprised of mill owners, mine owners, industrialists, merchants, and wealthy landlords whose wealth and power were triggered by the Industrial Revolution. This period which had caused much economic unhappiness in communities was previously made up of agricultural workers, small farmers and self-sufficient artisans with cottage industries. Corn Laws and Poor Laws caused hunger and homelessness to spread poverty, inequality and social unrest.

Some Chartists came from the ‘working class’, people who did not own income generating property. At that time teachers, doctors, and ministers of religion were included. Others came from the ‘thinking classes’,  academics, writers, artists and artisans.  Many members came from non-conformist religions such as Methodist, Baptist and Congregationalist, as such they were abstainers of alcohol. Thinkers not drinkers? Subsequently, Temperance played a role in the fact that two forms of Chartism developed: 

Moral Chartism led by thoughtful William Lovett wanted votes for women, temperance and use of reason. ’We are of opinion’, wrote Lovett, ‘that whatever is gained in England by force, by force must be sustained: but whatever springs from knowledge and justice will sustain itself’. They used as a slogan:

 ‘Peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must.’ 

Physical Chartism, led by a fierce Feargus O’Connor, wanted the franchise only for men, was non-Temperance, and advocated violence to gain the Chartist Points. Their slogan, appropriately, had more punch:

              ‘Moral persuasion is all a humbug, nothing persuades like a lick in the lug.’ 

Although in the main it was only ‘votes for men’ that were strongly advocated, there were branches of Chartism run by women. One in Birmingham had 3,000 members.  Staunch women Chartists had campaigned as suffragists for ‘votes for women’, long before the creation of the word ‘suffragette’ by a British Daily Mail reporter in 1906 when use of violence by women became a strategy. Chartists had influenced the Pankhurst family from Manchester who were the ones who went on to lead the ‘suffragette movement’ and collect the credit from history for gaining votes for women. 

CHARTISM FADED – BUT NOT EVERYWHERE 

Bitter enmity between the two Chartist leaders created disunity within the movement, as did policy differences. Chartism’s  appeal faded from 1848 to the final National Convention in 1858. The reasons why it flamed so brightly and faded so easily are not made clear by historians. Clouded instead by the mists of time, misted history, a mystery? 

Was it opposition to temperance, or desire for use of violence that caused Chartism to fail, or did Chartism founder on the rocks of trenchant opposition to votes for women? Rocks that still exist and which, when laid bare, reveal the ‘slime of misogyny.’ As women in Britain took decades longer than New Zealand and Australian women to gain the franchise it is not surprising that such an answer seems possible. When women worldwide continue to be assaulted violently and murdered at an alarming rate and, in some places, denied education, such a thought is amplified. 

Australian women were supported by far-sighted men to gain franchise. It is tempting to ask did those men have Chartist influences? Could today’s lads look to such blokes as William Lovett as models for positive manhood? He wrote ‘Liberty in a smock frock is more than a match for tyranny in armour’ and, in 1856:

‘Would man in lovely woman ever find, 

His best adviser, lover truest friend, 

…    He must at once his gothic laws annul, 

Fling back her dower, strive only for her love. 

And proudly raise her up all rights to share.’     

Perhaps  some Chartists were stymied by the fact that in 1845, Marx and Engels left Brussels to visit the leaders of Chartists in England? Engels had already spent two years living in Manchester from 1842 to 1844. Marx in particular seriously considered whether English Chartist methods might make peaceful change possible. Did such Leftist interest alarm too many moderate Chartists? 

Although favour for Chartists dwindled in Britain, Chartism flourished elsewhere, particularly in Australia. Social unrest simmered from the French Revolution and reappeared in the uprising of thousands of miners in Bendigo and Ballarat. Chartists of both Moral and Physical persuasion, convict Chartists and free settlers took part in the Red Ribbon riots and other radical goldfields meetings. The Eureka event drove creation of our political structures, social reforms and wording of the Australian Constitution by Samuel Griffiths. 

STABILISATION OF  AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRACY THROUGH CHARTISM

This list of achievements testifies to the argument that Australian Democracy is more stable than those of the USA or UK:

1.1856 Secret Ballot —so close to first it became known as ‘The Australian Ballot’

2.1856 Universal Suffrage -Voting Rights for Men, one of the first in world

3.1856 Trade Union Success by stone masons in gaining an Eight-Hour Day, first in world 

4.1866 Five of the six points of the Chartists had been realised in Victoria and New South Wales

5.1901 Unity through Federation

6.1902  First in the world for women to both vote and stand for Federal Parliament

7. 1910  First Labo(u)r Party in power in the world

8. 1924 Compulsory Voting – only English-speaking country – only 11 other countries enforce it 

9. 1929 National Broadcaster (ABC) that guarantees at least a portion of a free press

Historian John Moloney gave a lecture in the Senate, Parliament House Canberra, on the 150th Anniversary of Eureka, 23 April 2004. After speaking about desire for a public commemoration of Eureka, he declared:

 … but there is one work that is never done, one work that will always need revivifying and defending because Democracy is much more than a system. It is an ideal, a spirit born day by day in those who believe in it. Eureka had its brief and bloody day a Century and a half ago. Eureka lives in the hearts and will of every Australian who understands, believes in, and acts on the principle that the people are the only legitimate source of political power. (John Molony ‘ Eureka and the Prerogative of the People’).

Although I was born in Ballarat, educated near and in Bendigo, it was not in history classes  where knowledge of the Eureka Stockade was given to me but from performances held through folk festivals, sessions run by Graham Seal, Keith McKenry, Warren Fahey, Jan Wositzky and information links from Gwenda Davey, Ken Mansell and Russell Hanna, as well as the works of Henry Lawson, bolstered later with knowledge gained from published books. 

In the next post find out about the Ten Links in the Australian Chartist chain …

CHARTISM DOWNUNDER – A MISSED HISTORY Part 1

To Henry Hunt, Esq., as chairman of the meeting assembled in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, sixteenth day of August, 1819, and to the female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and fiendish attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, this plate is dedicated by their fellow labourer, Richard Carlile. Manchester Libraries.

Phyl Lobl describes herself as a ‘cultural maintenance worker’. This is an apt description of a long life as a singer, songwriter, teacher and constant advocate for justice, equality and common decency. In recent years, Phyl has researched and written musical stage presentations, or ‘folk docos’ as she calls them, on radical themes. The first, ‘Dames and Dare-devils for Democracy’, debuted at the National Folk Festival in 2013 and has been performed several times since. The second show, ‘When Democracy Danced in Workers’ Boots’, concerns the influence of the Chartist movement in the development of Australian democracy.

In this series of posts, Phyl describes her research behind the latest show and makes a passionate case for the largely unacknowledged role of Chartist ideals in events and institutions such as the Eureka Stockade, Federation, the Australian trade union and Labor movements, compulsory voting and the existence of the national broadcaster, the ABC.

Phyl’s creative work can be found https://phyllobl.net

GS

WHEN DEMOCRACY DANCED IN WORKERS’ BOOTS

                                         by Phyl Lobl – Cultural Maintenance Worker 

This is history, a missed history, almost a mystery. 

It is also a quest that began with a question….this question

Does Australian Democracy have more chance of stability than others worldwide?   

No form of government is perfect because people who make up communities and countries are not perfect. Democracies run by people that for the most part are ‘reasonable’, meaning ‘able to reason’, seem to deliver fairness and freedom levels most people say they want, yet many people in nominal democracies have been left bereft, places where the value of democracy has been damaged and doubted. 

Disturbed by watching the shattering of America’s democratic ideals as they were ‘Trumped’, my mind nurtured a hunch. The hunch became a quest with the aim to identify the main participants in Chartism’s role in Australia and to document and verify Chartist actions. The quest led to discovery of historic happenings which, when stretched along a time-line, made links in a chain – ‘A Chartist Chain To Democracy Down-Under’.

The quest findings gave credibility to the claim that Australian Democracy can remain stable and able to function more fairly than those in many other countries, including the USA and the UK. This mindset was a product of the harshness of the convict culture in Australia. Australians used independence of thought and will to achieve some political world firsts and some close to world firsts. Australia became a leading country in realising and bringing into law the first five of Chartism’s six points. 

CHARTISM

Chartism was a movement that supported the principles of a political party developed in England  (1838-48). A political movement which supported six main points set out in a document called ‘The People’s Charter’ which was written by William Lovett and Francis Place through their organization, the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA). The six points of the Charter were:

  1. All men to have the vote. 
  2. Voting to take place by secret ballot. 
  3. Constituencies to be of equal size.
  4. Members of Parliament to be paid. 
  5. The property qualification for becoming a member to be abolished. 
  6. Parliamentary elections every year instead of every five years. 

THE DRIVE TO RESEARCH 

The foundation for embarking on such a quest was laid by an experience of some years ago. Fellow folk-performers who taught history in Alice Springs explained that they could not teach Australian history in their restrained history curriculum because the children of Americans working at Pine Gap needed American history to gain entry to college. As Australian children had no such requirement it seems to have been perceived that Australian children had no need of Australian History. This situation and the attitude displayed is a regrettable part-answer as to why Australians have little knowledge and less curiosity about the past and its truth. Why they do not recognise how Australian Democracy developed and how it differs from other democracies. 

I had not known of Chartism until I researched the lives of Australian suffragists for a show 

I called ‘Dames and Dare-devils for Democracy’. I discovered that as a young girl in Northern England, Emma Miller who became a prominent suffragist in Queensland had attended Chartist meetings. A Thomas Paine quote was her motto:

‘The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, to do good is my religion’.  

Thomas Paine, recognised as a radical in England, Europe and America, was inspired by the French Revolution. His thinking, writing and activism motivated the push for American independence from Britain in 1783 and helped foster the formation of the Chartist Movement established in Britain in 1838. 

The years of Chartism span the years known to historians as The Age of Enlightenment’, an intellectual, philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ideas focussed on the supremacy of reason and the evidence of the senses was seen as the foremost source of knowledge and ideals such as liberty, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of Church and State were promoted. Enlightenment ideas activated writers to express the need for Social Reform, which led to a strong push by working people and their supporters for the creation of democratic processes leading to Democratic Governments. Works inspired by these ideals were eagerly bought by thousands of people, distributed widely, and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. In particular favour were Commonsense and The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine. 

Fired by such impetus, Chartist groups spread from Northern England to most areas of the United Kingdom and beyond. With a quoted three million signatures on a giant scroll said to be close to six miles long, the Charter was eventually voted into legislation. But not before many Chartists were charged with sedition and gaoled for years, some were executed and some transported to Australia. Generations of workers and thinkers across multiple nations sacrificed much in order to gain social justice through the years encompassing the Age of Enlightenment, a time when George III was on the English throne, and Napoleon was in charge of France. 

In the next post find out who the Chartists were …

AN UPDATE ON MYRA SYKES

Join Dr Kate as she unearths the incredible story of the Toodyay Letters A heartbreaking set of ten original letters written from the perspective of Myra Sykes to her husband, William, who was transported to the Swan River Colony as a convict in 1867. Myra lived in poverty in the Sheffield area, raising four children without her husband. She was largely illiterate. It was thought other people must have scribed the letters on her behalf. The letters range from the period 1867-1879.

William died in 1891 in Toodyay, and the family was never reunited. Dr Kate explains the survival of this set of letters is a story in itself and set the scene for preserving the convict history of WA.

These letters  are not yet digitised but can be read in the books Alexandra Hasluck’s ‘Unwilling Emigrants: letters of a convict’s wife’ and Graham Seal’s ‘These Few Line: the lost lives of Myra and William Sykes’.

Recorded on ABC Radio Perth on 3 December 2021.

You can listen here

THE REDEMPTION OF MYRA SYKES

Print from The Graphic of 28 November 1874: General View of Sheffield from the east – Taken from St. John’s Church, 28 November 1874 by ‘JRB’.

Born into the smoke and fire of northern England’s industrial revolution, Myra Sykes had to earn her daily bread early in life. Working as a domestic servant, she married foundryman William Sykes in 1853. The children soon began arriving and William struggled to keep his growing family. 

Like so many other Yorkshire men of the time, William supplemented his basic wages with a little poaching. One cloudy moonlit October night in 1865, William and a few others took their snares and dogs to Silver Wood in Yorkshire. Their poaching exploit turned into a violent struggle between the armed keepers of a local magistrate’s hunting rights and the poachers. The poachers manged to get away but a keeper died and after a police investigation William Sykes got the blame. 

There were two sensational trials. Despite strong support in the local jury, William was  eventually convicted of manslaughter and transported to Australia for life. His story continued in the West Australian bush and Myra’s continued in industrial Yorkshire as she struggled to raise her and William’s three children – as well as a fourth fathered by another man.

Except for the chance survival of letters between Myra and William, their stories would have never been told. As it turned out, these nobodies of history maintained a relationship of sorts across half the planet for over twenty years. Through these few scribbled lines of recrimination, longing and a kind of love, we can read about their efforts to make some sort of a life for themselves in very different, yet difficult, circumstances. 

Myra worked hard at whatever domestic work she could get. Her love and longing for the lost William shines through her letters as she tries to feed and clothe his and her children. In the end, Myra found some peace and redemption in her troubled life. 

Her story, and William’s, is told in my book, These Few Lines. As well as a tale of triumph over adversity, it is an intense family history. Since publication, the book has revealed several of Myra’s descendants. There may well be more in England, Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere.

The award-winning These Few Lines is available in a paperback or e book edition through  https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780733324468/these-few-lines-a-convict-romance/ or the usual internet booksellers.

CONDEMNED REVIEWS

Condemned is picking up a good few reviews in the BBC History Magazine, the Literary Review (UK), Australian Book Review, Crikey and elsewhere. A few quotes:

‘a powerful account of how coerced migration built the British Empire is contained in Condemned’

‘Incisive and moving’

Methodist Recorder (UK), May 2021

‘A brilliant and moving work’

‘What good history can do, and what it needs to be to be good, is shown by Australian historian Graham Seal’s Condemned’

‘It is a rip-snorter of a book, as well as scholarly history’

Guy Rundle, Crikey, 18 September 2021

Purchase hardback, e-book, audio book or paperback (Australia only) at:

https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300246483/condemned

or from Amazon https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300246483/condemnedhttps://www.amazon.com/Condemned-Transported-Children-Britains-Empire/dp/030024648X

HOLY GRAILS!

Christ appears to a hermit in a vision, holding a book containing the true history of the Holy Grail. From History of the Holy Grail, French manuscript, early 14th century
Copyright © The British Library Board

There’s a lot of them about, Holy Grails, that is. But one in Spain has an intriguing tale to tell.

The venerable Christian relic known as the Cup of Christ, the Lord’s Chalice and, most evocatively, ‘The Holy Grail’ is the centre of a twisting tale of history and myth. Every facet of its corporeality – shape, colour, size – is uncertain, as is its origins. It is said, variously, to have been the cup or plate used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper; to have been the bowl used to collect Christ’s blood as he died on the Cross, or both. Then again, it might just be a symbol encoding the mysteries and meanings of the Holy Communion.

We first hear of this relic in medieval Europe where it appears in a number of romances from around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This is also the context in which we first hear of the involvement of the Knights Templar in the guardianship of the Grail, a notion that has fed a fecund flow of often farcical fiction right up to the present day. By the fifteenth century it melded into the Celtic Arthurian legends then very much in vogue at court and wherever people could afford books and were able to read them, or have them read aloud. Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) is the main vehicle for this transformation. In all these variations of the tale, the Grail is located not in the Middle East but in Europe.

How the Grail actually got from its original location in Jerusalem to Europe is a similarly slippery story. One version is that it was brought by the disciple, Peter, when he went there to bring the gospel to the west. This one, not surprisingly, seems to have at least the tacit approval of the Roman Catholic church given Peter’s significance in its founding. 

Another, more folkloric tradition, concerns Joseph of Arimathea, the man who is said to have taken responsibility for the transmission of the dead Jesus to the disciples who interred him in Joseph’s garden in a man-made cave.  In this version, of which there are several variants, the Grail is usually said to have been a wooden cup taken to England by Joseph, or his followers, where a Christian institution was founded at Glastonbury. This strand of the legend, which may only date from the late nineteenth century[1] also continues to have potency in the modern era as a variety of people seeking spiritual awareness and confirmation, as well as Christians, actively venerate the Glastonbury area, with its intriguing pre-Christian resonances of standing stones and paganism in general.

None of these stories have any credible historical evidence to support them. Like the obsession of the Nazis with aspects of the Cathar version of the legend,[2] they are purely the blended outcomes of belief and fictioneering, producing a potent and enduring myth.

But, relatively recently, another unexpected strand has been added to the rich narrative of the Holy Grail. In 2006 and 2010, a number of early Islamic manuscripts were said to have been discovered in Egypt and translated. They provide potentially verifiable evidence of the history of one particular object identified as the Holy Grail by Islamic sources as early as 400CE. According to Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega Del Río, the academic authors of Kings of the Grail, an object long identified as the Holy Grail in its place of imputed was kept in Jerusalem for the first thousand years or so of its existence. There, it was visited and venerated by pilgrim Christians for centuries. 

Jerusalem was under Muslim control at this point and around 1053-54 a Caliph took the Grail and gifted it to a Muslim ruler in Spain. This man wished to develop good diplomatic relations with the Christian Ferdinand 1 of León and decided to send the object to him. By then the object, described as a stone cup, was said to have medicinal powers. The great Muslim leader, Saladin ((Salah-ad-din), would later play a part in this version of the Grail story, using a ‘fine shard’ previously struck from the object to cure his daughter’s illness. The authors of the book use these documents and other evidence to trace the journey of the Grail to where, they argue, is its current resting place, the Basilica of San Isadoro in León.[3]

So, we now have a new and, it seems, authoritative historical identification of the resting place of the Holy Grail. Not Dan Brown’s Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland; not Rennes-le-Château in Cathar country; and not in the glowing mysteries of the Arthurian romances. It’s in Spain.

Whatever we might think of this argument, remembering that it is made by academics from the region, it seems that this line of Grail legend has some serious historical cred. Far more than any of the many other Grails around the world, including several in Britain and Ireland, some in Italy, one in Vienna, and another in America, among others.

Why does it all matter? For Christians, the answer is obvious. The Grail is a relic as closely associated with the body and death of Jesus Christ as possible. It’s up there with the True Cross, the reed used to give him water and the sponge used to cruelly whet his lips with vinegar as he died. As the authors of Kings of the Grail show, these relics were exhibited in the Temple together with their version of the Grail for centuries. 

Interestingly, the Grail does not seem to have been accorded any more significance in this period than the other sacred items, until around the time that it was sent off to Europe for some diplomatic ingratiation. It may be that we owe the evolution of the Holy Grail into Christendom’s most sacred relic to the power politics of the Muslim world as much as the romancing of medieval European troubadours and writers.


[1] S. Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being an Introduction to Devon and Cornwall (2 Volumes, Methuen 1899; A Book of Cornwall, Second Edition 1902, New Edition, 1906. 

A W Smith, “‘And Did Those Feet…?’: The ‘Legend’ of Christ’s Visit to Britain” Folklore 100.1 (1989), pp. 63–83.

[2] Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands, Maclehose, 2013. Chapter 8 ‘The Migrations of the Grail’ on Otto Rahn’s Nazi fantastications and also good on other aspects of Grail legendry. See also chapter 14 on the modern crypto-historical invention of The Priory of Syon and the alleged bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, as popularised in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

[3] Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega Del Río, Kings of the Grail: Tracing the Historical Journey of the Cup of Christ to Modern-Day Spain, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015. Translated from the Spanish edition of 2014 by Rosie Marteau.

A LETTER FROM YOUR ROBBER – JAMES MACLAINE TO HORACE WALPOLE, 1749

Unknown artist, etching and line engraving, 1750 or after.

Bandits, highwaymen and bushrangers, among other outlaw types, are great letter-writers. Badmen Billy the Kid and Jesse James wrote to the press. Bushranger Ned Kelly wrote, or probably dictated, the lenghty Jerilderie Letter, justifying his crimes, while the the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Guiliano even wrote several letters to the American President. Others also penned challenges to the authorities trying to capture them.  

One eighteenth-century highwayman, James MacLaine (various spellings) even wrote to one of his victims, the eminent Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, who MacLaine and his accomplice, Plunket(t), robbed one night in London’s then dodgy Hyde Park. Here it is, a tiny masterpiece of affected courtesy, bravado and defiance, the very essence of the ‘Gentleman highwayman’ image that MacLaine affected:

Date

1749

Sir

friday Evening [Nov. 10, 1749].

seeing an advertisement in the papers of to Day giveing an account of your being Rob’d by two Highway men on wedensday night last in Hyde Parke and during the time a Pistol being fired whether Intended or Accidentally was Doubtfull Oblidges Us to take this Method of assureing you that it was the latter and by no means Design’d Either to hurt or frighten you for tho’ we are Reduced by the misfortunes of the world and obliged to have Recourse to this method of getting money Yet we have Humanity Enough not to take any bodys life where there is Not a Nessecety for it. 

we have likewise seen the advertisem[en]t offering a Reward of twenty Guineas for your watch and sealls which are very safe and which you shall have with your sword and the coach mans watch for fourty Guineas and Not a shilling less as I very well know the Value of them and how to dispose of them to the best advantage therefor Expects as I have given You the preference that you’ll be Expeditious in your answering this which must be in the daily advertiser of monday; and now s[i]r to convince you that we are not Destitute of Honour Our selves if you will Comply with the above terms and pawn your Honour in the publick papers that you will punctually pay the fourty Guineas after you have Reced the things and not by any means 

Endeavour to apprehend or hurt Us I say if you will agree to all these particulars we Desire that you’ll send one of your Serv[an]ts on Monday Night Next between seven and Eight o clock to Tyburn and let him be leaning ag[ain]st One of the pillers with a white hankerchif in his hand by way of signall where and at which time we will meet him and Deliver him the things All safe and in an hour after we will Expect him at the same place to pay us the money 

Now s[i]r if by any Means we find that you Endeavour to betray Us (which we shall goe prepaird against) and in the attempt should even suceed we should leave such friends behind us who has a personall knowledge of you as would for ever seek your Destruction if you occasion ours but if you agree to the above be assured you nor none belownging to you shall Receive any or the least Injury further as we depend upon your Honour for the punctual paym[en]t of the Cash if you should in that Decieve us the Concaquence may be fattall to you–

if you agree to the above terms I shall expect your answer in the following words in Mondays Daily Advertiser–Whereas I Reced a letter Dated friday Evening last sign’d A:B: and C:D: the Contents of which I promise in the most sollemn manner upon my Honour strictly to comply with. to which you are to sign your name–if you have anything to object ag[ain]st any of the above proposalls we Desire that you’ll let us know them in the Most Obscure way you Can in mondays paper but if we find no notice taken of it then they will be sold a tuesday morning for Exportation3

A:B: & C:D:

P: s:

the same footman that was behind the Chariot when Rob’d will be Most Agreeable to Us as we Intend Repaying him a triffle we took from him–

Addressed:  To the Hon[oura]ble Horatio Walpole Esq[ui]r[e]

[James Maclaine and — Plunket]

Source: Supplement to the Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Paget Toynbee, 3 vols, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1918–1925), III, pp. 132–135 (Lightly edited for  blog-friendly reading).