Radicalisation of a Morpeth doctor

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Robert Blakey spent his teenage years in Alnwick. When he came back to Morpeth, he did so as a confirmed radical reformer.

“I left Alnwick in 1815, and went to my native town, Morpeth. In 1817 and the following years I wrote several political articles for the ‘Black Dwarf,’ conducted by Thomas Jonathan Wooler. It had a wide circulation, chiefly on account of the suppression of Cobbett’s Register. Wooler’s agent at Newcastle, Mr John Marshall, bookseller, sold between twenty and thirty thousand a week of this publication.

“Among the papers I furnished was one on the Ballot. This year (1873) this mode of taking votes has been enacted by Parliament. I do feel a little proud that this measure I advocated so long back has become the law of the land.”

The Black Dwarf, 1817-1824, was a satirical political magazine, but though Robert says he wrote several articles for it, there are only a few that I feel confident are from him.

Newcastle Central Library's bound set was given to it by George Julian Harney (1817-1897), the Chartist politician and journalist. It is part of a collection of works that he donated, including a copy of Dr Blakey’s History of Political Literature.

The earliest piece from Dr Blakey that I can find is on March 22, 1820. This was before the Great Reform Act so the only electors were the freemen of the borough.

The bailiffs that year, who were also the returning officers, were Robert Fenwick and James Watson. The election was not contested, and the Hon William Howard and William Ord Esq were returned, as they had been in all of the last five elections.

Robert’s letter is anonymous, but is dated from Morpeth, and I have no doubt it is his:

“Mr Dwarf, One of the most disgusting scenes of perjury and corruption was exhibited here this day that was ever witnessed, yet so familiar are the performers with such vices, that no-one starts at their perpetration with feelings of indignation.

“About two hundred borough-voters assembled to return two members to the honourable house. The two bailiffs took the bribery oath without shaking, and swore that they had neither received nor expected to receive, either money or favour for their votes, and the whole herd of virtuous freemen assented to the same.

“Now what do you think, Mr Dwarf, is the result? Why as soon as the oath was bolted, each resident freeman received two guineas; and the non-residents four guineas. The two bailiffs are paid 50l each, some say more: the town’s serjeant 10l and the constables two guineas each for preserving order amongst the rabble.

“The wages of corruption would be trifling did they stop here: but there are pensioners at from 4 to 8 shillings per week. Others enjoy a profit by sub-letting fields and farms of from 10l to 30l a-year. Besides, one has a milliner’s bill, and now and then something pretty for miss or master.

“No wonder then that a Morpeth freeman should be an advocate ‘for things as they are’.

“Yours, &c., A Looker-On.”

Three months later, on June 28, he wrote another letter headed The Whig Meeting for Reform, of the County of Northumberland. It is dated from Morpeth so the meeting must have taken place in the Town Hall.

As an aside, we may notice the benefits such meetings brought to Morpeth. They meant good business for the innkeepers on the day, and if some of those present brought their wives and families for a summer outing, good business for the shops as well.

“Sir, There was a meeting here on the 15th inst. of the leading whigs in the county, to consider of, and adopt, a petition and resolutions for a ‘moderate’ and ‘constitutional’ reform of the House of Commons. The principal speakers were Sir John Swinburne, Sir Charles Monk, and Mr Bigge.

“A great part of the speeches were taken up with the important affair of disfranchising the borough of Grampound. Will the disfranchising of this place relieve the country of any part of its burden?

“These gentlemen really seem to view political events with microscopic eyes. They never look to those general and comprehensive measures of reform which alone are capable of effectually restoring happiness and tranquillity. These their narrow and contracted vision is unable to distinguish.

“But who, I would ask, has so amply discussed the subject? Who has enlightened the majority of the people? Was it the Whigs? Was it by what are called, with ludicrous affectation, the respectable part of reformers?

“Oh! no; it was by none of these. It was by the radical press, and the demagogue orators, that the necessity of a parliamentary reform was made manifest, and its principles clearly developed. Yes, it is to the ‘wild and visionary schemes’ that the public owe their knowledge of reform, and of the true state of the country.

“I cannot, however, conclude without noticing the vast superiority in knowledge and talent the ‘lower orders’ possess over the aristocracy and the country squires — Let any man who heard the speeches at the radical meeting at Newcastle in October last, compare them with those delivered by the possessors of rank and wealth, and say where the difference lies. In my opinion, the former were as much superior to the latter in point of matter, style, and delivery, as the discourses of a rational man, are to the ravings of an idiot.

“I am Sir, Your most obedient servant, B.”

Robert’s reference to a radical meeting at Newcastle in October last is to a great meeting on the Town Moor on October 11, 1819, to protest against the Peterloo Massacre.

One of our pictures comes from the Black Dwarf. The other, showing the chairing of a member after a corrupt election, is from Political Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that Robert published, though did not actually write, after he became the proprietor of his own radical newspaper, the Northern Liberator.