The People’s Journal 34 (Aug. 22, 1846). London: John Bennett. Periodical Articles Meynell Collection. Browning Guide #A1834

Rare Item Analysis: Progressive, Pragmatic Redemption: The People’s Journal

By Samantha Kiser

Click here to visit an interactive timeline and map related to this post on Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE).

The Armstrong Browning Library contains an issue of The People’s Journal from the week of August 22, 1846. According to The Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, this journal, started by John Saunders and William Howitt in 1846 and published as The People’s and Howitt’s Journal until 1851, “gives testimony to the hopes and ambitions that concerned metropolitan journalists had of the power of periodicals to elevate, encourage and educate the urban working classes.” The journal published poems, stories, reports about urban life, and “extensive and thoughtful articles on contemporary issues and political thought” (Dictionary). It is probably best remembered for publishing work by Elizabeth Gaskell, whom Howitt, something of a spiritual pilgrim, knew through Unitarian connections. The issue housed in the Armstrong Browning Library exemplifies the social concerns, educational strategies, and progressive optimism of the journal in general. These tendencies, interesting in themselves, are even more so in the context of the larger conversation about labor conditions and inequality in mid-nineteenth century England.

In an earlier post, Aubrey Morris describes a sermon and a book review that represent two fairly hostile middle-class responses to Chartism, a national workers’ movement that flourished between 1838 and 1848. During this time, the Chartists petitioned Parliament three times, with vast and increasing popular support, to accept a “charter” that would allow working men to vote. Each petition was ignored, and the movement petered out after the final rejection in 1848, though remnants of it remained until 1858. The responses Morris highlights characterize the Chartists as insignificant, hypocritical, irreligious, illogical, envious, and ranting, and they defend the upper classes whose greed and hypocrisy the Chartists saw as the cause of their suffering. Although the journal I am considering does not mention the Chartists directly and indirectly critiques some of their ideas, it acknowledges that the poverty and inequality to which the Chartists are responding are real and unjust. Thus, this journal could be seen as an attempt to mediate between the sources Morris cites and the Chartists. The authors reject the political aspirations of the Chartists while acknowledging the justice of their complaints and suggesting an alternative response: education, fidelity to basic economic principles, and cooperation.

This issue of The People’s Journal makes this commentary most directly in a review of Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy; or, the Age of Might and the Age of Right by J.F. Bray. The anonymous reviewer first asserts the importance of Bray’s book as “a work by one of the people themselves” which displays a “vigorous, great, and cogent” logic and a style “bold yet temperate, clear and comprehensive” (108). This commendation is important for two reasons. First, it highlights this journal’s subtle plea for civility. As Morris points out, Ernest Jones, a Chartist leader, was criticized for “singular looseness of thought, and want of consecutiveness.” Although Bray, as a member of the working-class (unlike Jones), could also be seen as speaking for the people, his style is different—and the reviewer implies more effective—than the emotionally charged rhetoric of the Chartists.

The second thing that is noteworthy about the reviewer’s enthusiasm is that he emphasizes Bray’s working-class origins, which he sees as confirmation that society is getting better: “There is nothing which is so full of assurance of the future position of the masses, as seeing such works as the present issuing from their midst” (108). Later in the review, he again assures his readers that a better society is quickly emerging—“This state of things [the ignorance that fosters inequality] is fast passing way” (109). Chartist hymns, in contrast, emphasize collective action and pray for God to bring about a dramatic reversal in a deeply unjust society: “How long shall babes of tender years / Be doomed to toil for lazy Peers— / The locusts of our land? / Make bare thine arm, O Lord! defend / The helpless, and, be thou their friend / And shield them with thine hand!” (Hymn Eighth, National Chartist Hymn Book). This author, therefore, in the process of affirming that inequality exists, also asserts that it will vanish as society continues to progress through education and individual effort, rather than through collective action and political change.

Inequality will disappear because education will spread. This analysis of the cause of inequality also contrasts with that of the Chartists. As I mentioned earlier, Chartists saw themselves as oppressed. In an article published in the Northern Star, the main Chartist newspaper, Chartist sympathizer John Watkins retold the Parable of the Good Samaritan as that of a working man who fell “among thieves—say among Tories or Whigs” (6). The rest of the article excoriates the indifference and complicity of the middle-class clergy and urges laborers to rely on one another and not on bourgeois institutions. In contrast, this reviewer attributes inequality to ignorance: “it is because the working classes were, till lately, too ill-informed of their rights or of the great principles of social life, that they have not been able to secure the fair exchange of their labour” (109). When this ignorance is remedied, partly through the reading of Bray’s book, “[i]ntelligence amongst employed as amongst employers will produce its natural fruits. There will be a more equal exercise of the faculties of business, which will secure justice to all parties” (109). It should be noted that this analysis, in blaming inequality on the poor, perhaps elides Bray’s insistence, in the passage the reviewer quotes, that inequality is not due to “the assumed inequality of bodily and mental powers in individuals” (109). Instead, it affirms the principle of enlightened self-interest that underlay the laissez faire economic theory that was dominant in this time. It also accords with the ethos of optimism and harmony that underlies the journal as a whole.

For example, Henry F. Chorley, in an article about Robert Browning’s Bells and Pomegranates, praises it for illustrating virtue instead of focusing on vice, for “’to dwell for aye ‘mid images of Pain’” only breeds insensitivity and manifests bitterness, while “the healthy and hopeful” execute their literary duties by “exalting yet more than by depressing the spirits of those who trust in them” (106). Browning’s collection in particular does this by being “chivalrous,” a term Chorley expands to include “a recognition that there are few who have not some touches of a higher nature than distinguishes the churl and worshipper of Mammon” (106). Read in light of Chartist rhetoric, this praise could be seen as plea for the poor to recognize the good will and nobility—or at least the potential for such—in their middle-class “oppressors.” For the authors of this journal, the restoration of justice does not require the punishment of the rich.

If Chorley subtly urges the working-class audience to which this journal was at least ostensibly directed to reject class animosity, an article at the end of the issue, a report of several mutual improvement societies, further exemplifies the optimism Bray’s reviewer also expresses. The reporter sees the flourishing of these societies, at least one of which was inspired by a previous report published by this journal, as evidence that “[t]he influence of example propagates itself with wonderful rapidity, and, aided by the press and public opinion, it is enable to exercise a power almost omnipotent” (15). Although indirect, this could be read as another response to Chartist assertions of the need for a great reversal that will establish justice: justice is in fact being established by the partnership of middle-class journalists and “energetic” (15) workers.

We see, therefore, that, although Bray’s reviewer sympathizes with Chartist complaints, he also agrees with the sources Morris cites that their responses are unnecessary and unhelpful. Instead of condemning them directly, however, he provides a different analysis of the problem that suggests an alternative response. Thus, in the first paragraph the reviewer quotes from Bray himself, Bray denounces political strategies: “Had these conditions [standard economic principles] been fulfilled by men … there would now be no occasion for forming associations to obtain political rights” (109). This reviewer, then, largely avoids condemning either the rich or the poor and suggests that patience, virtue, and intelligence will create social institutions in which everyone can flourish.

There is, no doubt, much to criticize in The People’s Journal. It is patronizing and naïve and perhaps too soothing to rich consciences. However, it acknowledges the reality and injustice of inequality, and it attempts, however clumsily, to provide a peaceful solution that is also, perhaps, ultimately more pragmatic (at least in the short term) than the Chartists’ prayers for revolution. These reformers didn’t have a great answer to inequality—but neither did (does?) anyone else, and they did at least attempt to propose a constructive solution.

I have tried to sketch how this journal might have participated in some of the social and political debates that were raging when it was originally published. However, it may interest people pursuing other questions as well. For example, it may be interesting to students of British imperialism because it contains a story detailing the horrors of indigenous attacks on settlers in South Africa, which ends with an appeal for “the reestablishment of the former broad band of Neutral Territory which is all that is needed to render the colony a delightful residence” (104). It may also be of interest to students of transatlantic food culture because it includes cornmeal recipes sent by American women to a certain Rev. Owen Lovejoy of Illinois (at his request) in order to add “to the comfort of a great many families” by showing them how to make “an almost infinite variety of nutritious and delicate articles of food of the cheapest and most prolific species of grain that any part of the earth can produce” (15-16). Thus, while I think this journal is relevant to the Chartist debate that was agitating England, it participated in a number of other cultural phenomena as well.

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Works Consulted

Law, Graham. “Saunders, John (1811–1895), writer and editor.” 23 Sep. 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Mandler, Peter. “Howitt, William (1792–1879), writer.” 23 Sep. 2004. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Morris, Aubrey. “Responses to the Chartists.” 19CRS Blog. Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.

National Chartist Hymn Book. Caldervall Libraries, 1845. Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.

PEOPLE’S JOURNAL (1846-1848); PEOPLE’S JOURNAL IN WHICH IS INCORPORATED HOWITT’S JOURNAL (1848-1849); PEOPLE’S AND HOWITT’S JOURNAL (1849-1851). Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism. The Nineteenth Century Index. Accessed 16 October 2019.

“Power, Politics & Protest: The Growth of Political Rights in Britain in the 19th Century-Chartists.” Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.

Saunders, John. People’s Journal. Google Books.

Watkins, John. “Scriptural Chartism No. IV.” The Northern Star. Feb. 1841. Pp. 6. The British Library Newspaper Database. Gale Centage Learning. Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.