[Thanks to Margaret Chase for sharing material from her John Collins, Chartist website with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on images to enlarge them.]
John Collins (1802-1852) was a leading spokesman for the Birmingham Political Union during a time of great political unrest. Passionate about the rights of the working class, he was a leading orator in the emerging Chartist Movement who was largely responsible for bringing together the Scottish Radicals and the English Chartists. He was one of the original 49 delegates who attended the first General Convention of the Industrious Classes held in 1839 in the British capital whose purpose was to oversee and then deliver a National Petition to Parliament proposing specific political reforms.
Although he came from the lower echelons of nineteenth-century English society, John Collins was a thinking, self-educated man. Throughout much of the Victorian years, the ruling aristocracy believed education and intelligence were exclusive to that elite class, which had an inalienable right to make laws and decisions without representation or input from those they considered as an uneducated rabble. Collins, who strongly disagreed with this exclusion policy, became a vigorous campaigner for the Chartist Movement, for he believed there would be no security for the working class until its members had the right to vote, and he was prepared to risk his life and liberty for that cause.
Chartists leaders fell into two main groups: Physical Force Chartists who stood for intimidation and physical force and Moral Force Chartists, like John Collins, who preferred more peaceful and intellectual means of achieving reforms. The government approved of neither group, and in the summer of 1839 Collins and fellow moral force chartist, William Lovett, fell foul of the establishment when they criticized police brutality during a Chartist convention in Birmingham. Arrested on charges of sedition for rebellious conduct and writings, the two men were sentenced to twelve months in Warwick Gaol. Their mistreatment in gaol was the subject of much debate in Parliament and in newspapers nationwide.
In spite of their wretched prison existence, Lovett and Collins used their time in gaol to write a small book entitled Chartism: A New Organization of the People, which offered a detailed blueprint for improving society by, for example, providing the working class access to education and (non-alcoholic) entertainment. Far ahead of the times, it called for such things as government schools and libraries as well as recommending clean, wholesome living. The content of the book, with its emphasis on education, eventually became known as the "New Move." which in turn led to the formation of The National Association of the United Kingdom.
John Collins was not unique, for many Chartist heroes played important roles in the struggle for political justice including those more important and famous, those like him who were either imprisoned or those transported from their homeland, and still more who have long since been forgotten. Nevertheless, Collins has a place of honour in the annals of the British Chartist Movement, and especially in the history of his home town of Birmingham. His name is scattered throughout literature and on the Internet, but most of that is brief and, including certain errors, often repetitious. This is not surprising since he never sought the limelight and there is no autobiography or memoir, and no large collection of letters or memorabilia (that we know of) regarding Collins and his public or private life.
Last modified 1 May 2018