Portraits, Plates and Pigs: Representations of National Leaders within the Material Culture of Scottish Radical Procession 1832-1884

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Sonny Angus, of the University of Edinburgh. On 18 May 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Sonny will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on the material culture of Scottish radical politics, 1832-1884. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Demonstrating strength in numbers was a tactic widely used by campaigners and political activists across the nineteenth century, from moments of contention around parliamentary reform in 1832, 1867 and 1884 to the Chartist movement of the late 1830s and 1840s.

Riots and other similarly tumultuous mass gatherings were common, as in the infamous Days of May in 1832. Petitioning was another method frequently used to prove the mass support of a movement, a tactic which was common throughout the century but saw particular use by the Chartists. Forming a middle ground between the anarchy of riot and the orderliness of petition lie the mass-participatory processions, which are the subject of my paper for the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar on 18 May.

These processions were a feature of mass political movements throughout Scotland and each followed the same general pattern. They began with a marshalling of contingents from various localities across a region in a pre-organised order in a large staging area, often a park. These contingents then marched in an orderly manner through the principal streets in a town, before the procession finally terminated at another large outdoor area where speeches were given and motions passed.

An 1832 reform flag of the Edinburgh United Cabinet and Chairmakers, Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries

The processions themselves were orderly and regimented, with different contingents often marching in uniform behind bands of musicians. Such organised, peaceful marches reflected the desire of participants to be seen as possessing a ‘respectable’ form of masculinity. In doing so, they hoped to show themselves as worthy of the vote.

Also consistently present within these marches were expressions of identity based around processionists’ trades. The processions themselves were divided by workplace or trade. They were most often the result of collective efforts by local trade societies, who gathered together to elect a procession committee. This committee in turn invited other trades from the surrounding areas.

The central role afforded to the trades of processionists suggests that radical politics and the possession of skilled labour were seen as connected. This connection was sometimes visible in processional materials which mixed together work and politics. The Edinburgh United Cabinet and Chairmakers did so in 1832, when they carried a flag (above) which showed their members carrying tools above a banner proclaiming ‘let tyrants tremble while justice holds the scales’.

Another emergent feature of the period was the rise of mass interest in national politics. Where before the masses were concerned with solving local issues via direct local action, they began instead to turn towards parliament. As part of this turn, national leaders became prominent avatars for national reform politics.

Parliamentary Reform Banner, Russell, Gladstone and Bright, 1866, Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries

Leaders were consistently mentioned in political processions. The simple banner displayed above from 1866 claims Russell, Gladstone and Bright as the ‘Friends of the people’. Portraits also appeared in these marches, often alongside captions which related them to radicals’ ideologies.

For example, shoemakers in an 1884 Glasgow demonstration carried portraits of Gladstone and Bright, captioned: ‘Ye sons of Liberty unite, with Mr Gladstone in the fight’ and ‘Mr Bright, the people’s friend, the House of Lords he’ll end or mend’. With portraits such as these, processionists could reinforce both their respectable masculinity and their commitment to the national cause, sealing the connection between political gentlemen and orderly bands of radicals.

However orderly they were, it would be a mistake to understand these events as stiff-collared affairs. They were, in fact, lively and flamboyant, with banners which contained fun cartoons showing leaders in a more accessible light. Violence often played a part in this, as was the case in one 1840 banner which showed the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor holding Fox Maule, the Perthshire Whig MP, by the collar and threatening to ‘maule’ his nose.

From 1866, lorries appeared amongst participants which carried large loads of products. Lipton employees in Glasgow in 1884 brought with them five such lorries, one of which contained a processionist ‘got up a la Mr Gladstone’ who was ‘seated amongst a pile of cheese’ alongside a banner which proclaimed: ‘He is (the) cheese’.  With jovial materials such as these, the masses who made up reform movements made their champions appear accessible as well as amenable to a labour-based radical identity. Sadly, such jovial items tended to be ephemeral and do not seem to have survived, perhaps a testament to their short-lived relevance.

One pair of cartoon banners which have survived were made not to venerate leaders, but to mock enemies. Such mockery was common and generally showed hated national figures feeling the wrath of sympathetic leaders or the masses themselves. This pairing is particularly interesting for the representative range of processional themes they contain.

The Edinburgh plumbers put Christopher North under the ‘Reform Pump’ in 1832, Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries

The first of these (above) was carried originally in 1832 by Edinburgh’s plumbers in their celebration of the passing of the First Reform Act. It was carried again in 1866, alongside the second banner (below), in a demonstration in favour of the Second Reform Bill. Instantly noticeable is the plumbers’ desire to have their radical history acknowledged through large lettering which clarifies the 1832 banner’s origins. Also clear is a consistent disdain for enemies.

Robert Lowe ‘under the reform shower’ of the Edinburgh Plumbers in 1866 Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries

Both Christopher North, a prominent writer for the Tory-supporting Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and the anti-reform Liberal MP Robert Lowe find themselves on the receiving end of the plumbers’ wrath. Interestingly, the banners also show working men, in neat working clothes, plying their trade. Their stalwart respectable masculinity stands in sharp contrast to that of their cowering opponents. In these banners, we can see the easy melding of political belief, work-based identity, and an orderly masculinity.

By looking at how radicals used images of their leaders, as well as those of their enemies, we can understand both how they viewed themselves and how they viewed their relationship with national politics. Specifically, processional materials show strong attachments to a work-based identity, into which gentleman leaders were drawn. This masculine identity relied on a relationship with respectable national leadership. Cartoons and live reproductions of leaders strengthened this relationship, making national politics more accessible to local radicals. Not to mention, of course, that these materials were jovial and fun, endearing radical audiences to their leaders.

To find out more Sonny’s full length paper ‘Portraits, Plates and Pigs: Representations of National Leaders Within the Material Culture of Scottish Radical Procession 1832-1884’ is available here.

Sonny will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 16 March 2021. To register for this Virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Sonny, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

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