Organise! Organise! Organise!

Conference Review: Organise! Organise! Organise! Collective Action, Associational Culture and the Politics of Organisation in the British Isles, c.1790-1914, 20-21 July 2023

Dr Dave Steele, University of Warwick

This conference was supported by a Social History Society Small Grant. It was also supported by the British Agricultural History Society,  the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, the History of Parliament Trust, the Leverhulme Trust, Past and Present, and the Society for the Study of Labour History.

Those who made the journey to Durham in July experienced an inspiring couple of days at the Organise! Organise! Organise! Conference – let’s just call it Organise! The conference venue was the Penthouse Conference Suite at Collingwood college, about a mile up the hill from the city with its unique castle and cathedral location almost cut off by a tight loop of the River Wear. The cathedral is currently playing host to Luke Jerram’s awe-inspiring artwork, Gaia, dominating the nave. Consisting of 45, yes 45! papers running in parallel sessions, we were truly spoilt for choice. I came away wondering what I missed in the sessions I couldn’t attend.

The bar was set high with a stimulating keynote from Katrina Navickas on the struggle for the right to hold political meetings in public spaces (you can access the slides here: Employing animated charts and graphics to chart meetings from the embryonic reform movement of the 1810s through the Chartists to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) of the 1880s, Katrina argued that the constant issue was of claiming public space for the right of free speech, a right championed by some unlikely bedfellows such as the Salvation Army and the SDF. She concluded by citing Raymond Williams’s concept of militant particularism to describe the range of oppositional actions, such as strikes invoked to complement the thousands of meetings, petitions and committees championing the local at a national level.

William Edward Kilburn, The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, 10 April 1848

Panel 1 took the theme of the history of emotions, kicking off with Nicolas Barone via zoom from Princeton introducing the concept of apathy and indifference as measures of political (non) participation. Matthew Roberts cited the post Corn Law standoff between Peel and Cobden to illustrate the dichotomy between reason and feeling in the public sphere and Laura Forster introduced us to the behind-the-scenes networks of intimate politics of radical and socialist communities in nineteenth-century Britain. I couldn’t help likening this concept to the 1960s ‘Personal is Political’ notion of Carol Hanisch, popularised by yippie activist Abbie Hoffman and second-wave feminist Germaine Greer. Those in the other panel heard from Lowri Ann Rees about the Rebecca Riots, Brian Casey about Michael Davitt’s 1887 championing the Scottish crofters’ cause and Andrew Phemister about the political tactic of the economic boycott during Irish land and self-determination struggles of the 1880s.

Panel 2b was grounded in parliamentary politics. Philip Salmon introduced the practice of the post-1832 marriage franchise whereby certain women in freemen boroughs attracted husbands on the basis of the vote they inherited from fathers or former husbands. Richard Huzzey and Kathryn Rix shared their thoughts on the exclusive dealing tactics of some anti-Tory voters. In what can only be described as a nineteenth-century precursor to today’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement, we learned that blacklists of Tory voting shopkeepers and businesses were published leading some to cast votes each way to eschew voting altogether. This practice persisted post-1832, arguably strengthening the case for the secret ballot. Martyn Spychal concluded the panel with a treatise on the eccentric Harriet Grote who broke the gender barrier by exerting political power through her husband the MP George Grote 1832-41. Harriet’s tireless lobbying through networking and soirees arguably made up for George’s political failings.

Those who chose the parallel session received a crash course in Irish politics in the 1820s-30s. Patrick Duffy helped delegates navigate the complexities of frontier mentality surrounding territorial disputes at a time of growing Ulster identity and the Catholic Emancipation Act while Peter Gray discussed the Belfast Ulster Constitutional Association.

Panel 3b took us to electoral politics where James Peate discussed the fluid nature of party in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, with political affiliations regularly shifting. This was manifested in ad-hoc alliance’s forming issue-by-issue. Sarah Boote-Powell introduced us to the contested nature of post-1832 electoral registration which extended  political engagement beyond the polling period. She argued that inexperienced barristers and regional variations led to frequent vexatious legal challenges. Tom Musgrove rounded off the panel by taking us through the tortuous deliberations of the 1903-14 Balkan committee which considered partition and even ethnic cleansing as a solution to the Macedonian problem but ultimately washed their hands of the problem, arguably sowing the seeds for future conflict. Meanwhile, in panel 3a, Kyle Thompson, Shaun Evans and Niall Whelehan considered the sticky problem of four-nations politics in the late nineteenth-century.

Delegates in 4b heard about the politics of language among Welsh Cymdeithas (Socialist) groups at opposite ends of the century from Marion Löffler and Martin Wright and from Vic Clarke about the many, sometimes bizarre, adverts in the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star, including one from Julian Harney announcing his agency for Pinder’s Chartist Blacking. The other panel heard about knowledge and morality from Josh Smith, George Palmer and Olly Gough.

Discussions continued during the drinks reception and conference dinner which enabled old friends to catch up and new contacts to be made, something we have missed over the past few years. Some even hit the Durham pubs for some late-night radical historicising (is that even a word?).

So the early-to-bed may have had the head-start over those bleary-eyed of us for the plenary session which kicked off day two with visual and material cultures. Henry Miller emphasised the diversity and physicality of petitioning with a slide of a bespoke wheeled trolly made to transport a Wesleyan monster petition for presentation. Chloe Ward cited Richard Redgrave’s much copied 1844 painting The Poor Seamstress to argue that Victorian Painting could act as a social and political call-to-arms by inviting empathy from the viewer. James Thompson rounded-off the session with his paper on the visual culture of demonstrations by showing us that the theatrics of protest is by no means a new phenomenon, as evidenced by the use of visual devices to protest against the 1888 van and wheel tax and the burning of an effigy of Lord Salisbury at an 1887 Hyde Park rally.

Kate Connolly indicating ex-military peer, Sir Francis Fletcher Vane and his unlikely alliance with Sylvia Pankhurst’s militant suffragette group.

Those who chose panel 6a were treated to papers on regional politics from Simon Morgan, Kathryn Rix and Ewen Cameron, while the parallel session heard about suffragette activities from Mari Takayanagi, Erin Geraghty and Kate Connelly. Mari argued that, rather than being excluded from the Houses of Parliament, womens’ presence can be detected at many levels. She cited two such women – Mary Furlong a fruit vendor in Westminster Hall and stenographer Ethel Aria Anderson who defaced her census form in an act of suffragette protest. Erin traced solidarity between the Women’s Freedom League and Irish suffragettes, while Kate traced the unlikely alliance between the ex-military peer, Sir Francis Fletcher Vane and Sylvia Pankhurst’s militant suffragette group, The People’s Army in the London’s’ East End in the year’s preceding the First World War.

Panel 7b moved on to the politics of association with Francis Calvert Boorman sharing his thoughts on arbitration and resolution in nineteenth-century labour disputes, Dan Weinbren on fraternal democracy in Friendly societies and Graeme Morton on the politics of class Associational Culture in the ‘Stateless Nation’ of Scotland. In the other room, Mary O’Connor commented on the binary nature of the early stages of the Anti-Corn Law Campaign of the 1820s’ with an official wing seeking amendment and an unofficial one campaigning on wider issues as well as demanding repeal. Dave Steele argued that the nineteenth century reform crowd experience was predominantly a physical one with corporeal aspects of sustenance, audibility and visibility determining attendees’ endurance at remote meetings. Caitlin Kitchener introduced the concept of Political Palimpsests to advance her ideas about the interaction between past and present in geographical political event memory.

The conference rounded off with those in panel 8b hearing from Isaiah Silvers about early nineteenth-century voluntarism and political conflict in Barbados, Tom Scriven about Chartist positions on slavery and abolition and Andrea Major on mid-century colonial philanthropy in Britain and India. Panel 8a watched a zoom session from Ciara Stewart contrasting the petitioning campaigns of the Irish with the British branches of the Ladies National Associations (LNA) against the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s. Next, Natasha Booth-Johnson shared her work on socialist and suffragist Isabella Ford’s pioneering novels On the Threshold and The Ending which advanced pioneering ideas about female cohabitation and lesbian relationships. Helen Sunderland brought the conference to a close with her paper on mock elections and political culture in Edwardian girls’ schools.

This conference, as well as others this summer, have demonstrated the multiplicity of methodologies in the research community as well as the rich diversity of research techniques and theory historians in this field are drawing-on. I’d like to thank Naomi Lloyd-Jones for her excellent organisation and attention to detail which made this such a pleasure to attend, in particular the generous opportunities in the busy schedule for face-to-face socialising, something which is the heart and soul of a good conference and something which can never be emulated in video conferences. I left Durham freshly enthused about the lively and healthy state of British political history.

Apologies to those speakers not mentioned, a full list of which can be downloaded here:

About the author: Dave Steele recently completed his PhD at Warwick. His research explores the Reputational Power of 19th Century English Reform Crowds. He has spoken at the Tolpuddle Radical History School and the Kennington Chartist Project and written a chapter on 1848 in Vol. 2 of Protest: Stories of Resistance (Comma Press, 2019).

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