Last Monday, I took part in an event organised by Dr. Katrina Navickas of the University of Hertfordshire and British Library Labs called Following the Chartists around London. Dr. Navickas won a competition run by the Labs to develop a project that makes use of the British Library’s digital resources. As a result she is currently working on the Political Meetings Mapper, a project mapping all of the Chartist meetings listed in the Northern Star, one of the most popular Chartist newspapers. The Following the Chartists event was part of this project.
The afternoon began with lunch and a series of talks. Mahendra Mahey, manager of the British Library Labs project, introduced the British Library Labs and their work. Dr. Navickas explained the Political Meetings Mapper and gave a brief history of the Chartists. Dr. Matthew Sangster (Birmingham University) talked about his website romanticlondon.org, which uses contemporary maps and representations to explore romantic-era London. Finally, Professor Ian Haywood (Roehampton University) discussed the visual representations of ‘monster’ meetings- large, outdoor political meetings. The Chartists used this tactic frequently. We then embarked on a rather damp walking tour of Bloomsbury and Soho, visiting the sites of Chartist meeting places. In some cases, the pubs are still there, in others they have become stationary shops, or the building sadly no longer exists. The tour ended at the Red Lion in Kingly Street in Soho, which hosted meetings of both the Chartists and the London Corresponding Society.
At the Red Lion we re-enacted a Chartist meeting that took place in December 1838. This is where I came in; I played the roles of a female Chartist of St. Pancras/ Mr. Cardo, who proposed the following resolution:
This is the most important crisis that has existed for the working classes. At the present moment we possess a power most mighty in its operation, one that is to be viewed by us with the highest feelings of delight and by our enemies with dread and alarm (Cheers.) … the Radicals are determined to be staunch to a man, and the people united will carry the day.
RESOLUTION: That this meeting considers a perfect union among all the Radicals absolutely necessary for the accomplishment of Universal Suffrage.
A recent Chartist conference in Edinburgh had proved devisive, and there was a sense that all the various groups and factions needed to get back on the same track, quickly. Only with a united front could universal (male) suffrage be won. Mr. Cardo’s motion was passed unanimously by our meeting.
The whole afternoon was great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed wearing a bonnet and apron, even if we did get some funny looks as we wandered around London. The talks highlighted the potential of digital research methods in relation to archives. Around 2% of the British Library’s collections have been digitised, which may not sound like a lot, but considering the Library holds well over 150 million items, it is a huge amount. Dr. Navickas has used computer programmes to transcribe newspaper articles, date meetings, and create maps that begin to interpret the data. The transcription software still needs a human to check its results, and all of this could have been done by hand, but it would have taken an awful lot longer. When it is finished, I think the Political Meetings Mapper will be a valuable tool for academics, students, and the simply curious; a resource which others can use to develop our understanding of the Chartist movement.The walking tour and re-enactment demonstrated how the Political Meetings Mapper could be used.
The British Library Labs project is doing valuable work raising awareness and promoting engagement with the Library’s digital collections. I learnt a lot about the possibilities of digital research methods, and would love to try and work it into my own work somehow!
If you want to do the walking tour yourself, see Dr. Navickas’ guide here.