David Morison – Chartist Leader & Trade Unionist and Chartism in Perth

During the 1830s and 1840s a number of popular radical movements known collectively as Chartism became a revolutionary force in British society. Meetings, demonstrations, petitions and other political actions took place under its name across the British Isles and involved millions of workers and members of the petty-bourgeoisie. The Chartist petitions presented to the British Parliament called for political reform and in one case had some six million signatures. It was the position of the Chartist Society that any legal means could be used for the promotion of this reform of parliamentary democracy – moral force. It is from one of these petitions – the People’s Charter of 1839 – that the movement got its name. Parliament rejected the People’s Charter by 235 votes to 46.

The objects of that charter, drafted in the main by William Lovett and other members of the London Working Men’s Association, are shown below:

1. Universal Suffrage – To obtain for each man of 21, the right of voting for representatives to serve in the Commons’ House of Parliament.

2. Electoral Districts – That for the purpose of securing a fair and equal representation of the people, it is necessary for the whole country to be divided into districts, each containing as nearly as may be an equal number of electors.

3. Annual Parliaments – That it is of great importance to secure and maintain the responsibility of members to their constituents, and that the annual Parliaments are a proper means for securing this object.

4. No property Qualification – That every elector shall be eligible to be elected.

5. The Ballot – That the right of voting for a representative shall be exercised secretly by ballot.

6. Payment of Members – That each representative of the people shall be paid for his services.

The Times Newspaper, 20 August 1842

A second petition of 3.25 Million names presented by Thomas Duncombe on 4 May 1842 was rejected by Parliament in 1842. This petition raised not only the six Chartist demands, but also drew attention to the divisions between rich and poor in British society. it attacked the wealth of the Queen, the 1834 Poor Law, factory conditions and called for the repeal of the church taxes on Non-Conformists. The third and final petition met the same fate. It was the rejection of the last petition in 1848 that nearly triggered a revolution in Britain.

A huge crowd assembled in Kennington Common in London on 10 April 1848 just before the presentation of the third Chartist petition to Parliament. Set in the context of several revolutions across Europe, the mass meetings held across Britain and the size of the petition placed the British ruling class in a state of terror; this despite the Chartist Movement’s avowed commitment to peaceful action. When the Chartists assembled in London, Queen Victoria was whisked away to the Isle of Wight and the Duke of Wellington placed at the head of thousands of troops and paramilitaries. The State understood the revolutionary events that were taking place across Europe – especially those in France – and feared the like at home. In fact, the Chartist Movement offered solidarity to the French revolutionaries and attempted to pressurize the British government not to interfere. A Chartist delegation was sent to Paris to meet the Provisional Government.

Every rejection of a petition was followed by a series of strikes and protests across Britain. After the failure of the second petition, whilst a Chartist Conference was convened in Manchester, workers in Scotland, miners in the Midlands, nail makers and potters in the Black Country and Potteries, and weavers in the textile factories of Lancashire and Yorkshire withdrew their labour under the banner of political reform and universal suffrage – the first strike to start was in Ashton, Manchester. Workers’ Committees were set up to coordinate activities in what effectively became a general strike. When in August 1842, some strikers began to remove the plugs from boilers so that the steam engines which required them could not function, the name Plug Pot Riots was coined – although the name is inaccurate; the strikers neither rioted nor organised any plot.

As a consequence of the failure of the three Parliamentary petitions and of differences over the future of the movement, an inevitable split occurred in its ranks. One group, the Moral Force Party pursued reformism through lobby and persuasion, whilst the other, the Physical Force Party took a more syndicalism approach. Even Feargus O’Connor the leader of the Physical Force Party took a opposition view of the 1842 general strike and renounced it. He like many of the other Chartist leadership thought that the strike might actually benefit the factory owners due to over-production in British industry and were also concerned that the strike was being fanned by the Anti-Corn League. Nevertheless, the Chartist leadership by and large lent their weight behind the strikers.

The Prime Minister, Robert Peel (1788-1850) initially cautious, was persuaded by his Home Secretary, James Robert Graham (1792-1861) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) a Minister without Portfolio to employ the army against the strikers. Troops were dispatched to Manchester. Fifteen hundred people were arrested and put on trial, including many of the Chartist leadership (amongst them was Feargus O’Connor, George Julian Harry, Thomas Cooper and David Morison) that had made the link between the strike and the Chartist Movement. Seventy-nine were found guilty of serious crimes and given transportation sentences of between seven and twenty-one years.

By the end of August 1842, the Plug Pot Riots were over – the workers unable to polticise their strike into a revolutionary for were beaten by hunger and attrition. Only the cotton workers in Lancashire and Staffordshire held out, and they for only one month more.

When hundreds of Chartist supporters marched upon Newport Prison to demand the release of the movement’s leadership it was brutally attacked by the army. Twenty-four were killed and forty wounded.

Chartism achieved its eventual aims over a gradual period. Today, only clause 3 of the People’s Charter – Annual Parliaments – is not established as a rule of law in the UK.

The most well-known of the Chartist organisations was the National Charter Association, and in fact it was one of the longest lasting within the Chartist movement – being in existence for some 20 years after its 1840 founding conference in Manchester.

In 1843, a convention of 30 members of the National Charter Association elected the following persons onto the executive committee :

Jonathan Bairstow; Thomas Clark; Christopher Doyle; George Julian Harney; Joshua Hobson; Philip McGrath; Richard Marsden; David Morison; T. Martin Wheeler (secretary); Feargus O’Connor (treasurer). Feargus O’Connor was later elected to Parliament in July of 1847.

One of these executive members, David Morison (also known as Morrison) was born in Perth on 10 February 1814. David Morison was not only a senior member of the Chartist movement, but he was also a very active trade unionist. He married a Janet Niven in Glasgow on 18 September 1835. Together they had 7 children:

David – 10 April 1838 – born in Manchester

Robert – 20 May 1840 – born in Manchester

David – 18 June 1844 – born in Swindon

George – 11 May 1846 – born in Swindon

Jane – 22 May 1848 – born in Swindon

and 2 other girls that died in infancy.

A metalworker by trade, David Morison spent much of his working life in the industrial heartlands of England. In late 1830s he began work at the Nasmyth and Gaskill (Bridgewater) foundry in Patricroft, Manchester. After his time at this foundry he went on to be employed by the Great Western Railway in Swindon. Industrial militancy in the early 1840s culminated in the general strike of 1842. As a trade unionist at Nasmyth and Gaskill, David Morison was at the forefront of the strike (began 11 August 1842) at the foundry against wage cuts. He was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE). As a delegate to the Great Delegate Trades Conference of 15-16 August 1842, David Morison played a significant role in many of the strikes that were taking place.

When the strike was suppressed, David Morison and 58 other men were put on trial at Lancaster Assizes in March 1843, charged with sedition, inciting rioting and encouraging and organising strikes. After a trial that lasted eight days, 16 of the accused were found guilty of threatening language, another 15 guilty of encouraging a strike, 7 men had their charges dropped and 19 were found not guilty. The British Attorney General was the prosecutor for the Crown, and he was supported in his prosecution by two Chartists who gave evidence against their former comrades. However, due to a legal technicality – there was a mistake in the charges – not one of the 31 convicted men went to prison. David Morison was found guilty on the fourth of the nine counts of the indictment against him – the charges against the Chartist leaders was described as the ‘Monster Indictment’ by the press of the time.

Despite the failure by the Crown to gain the imprisonment of the Chartist leadership, the suppression of the general strike and attack on the Chartists was a sufficient blow to damage the movement for some time.

A decade later, the ASE was yet again involved in wide-scale industrial action. This time it was the Great Lock-Out of 1852. A series of strikes that lasted several months, but were ultimately a failure of the workers involved.

After the end of the strike it was made a condition on all workers that they sign a declaration renouncing the union and accepting never to join a union again. Only by signing this declaration would any worker be allowed to return to their place of employment. The vast majority of workers signed the declaration. David Morisonand 26 others refused to do so. With a donation of £1,042 from a Christian Socialist group, the 27 defiant trade unionists and Chartists boarded a ship (Frances Walker) with their families at Gravesend (in Essex) bound for Australia. After 112 days at sea – the ship left England on 30 June 1852 – David Morison and his compatriots arrived in Sydney.

During the crossing the 27 activists resolved to reestablish their union, this time in Australia. A resolution was passed and the Number 1 Australian Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers came into being. This union still exists today in Australia – known previously as the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union and now as the Automotive, Food, Metals & Engineering Union – it is the longest continuous running trade union in Australia.

For the remainder of his life, David Morison lived and worked in the Balmain, Glebe and Pyrmont areas of Sydney. With another engineer that had made the crossing on the Frances Walker, David Morison set up a small engineering factory, Halliday & Morison located at 16 Erskine Street, Pyrmont. He died 11 June 1865 in Sydney and was buried there.

Chartism in Perth

Although Perth was far from being a centre of Chartist activity, a Perth Chartist Association did exist. This association organised several meetings over the period 1839-1842, some of which are summarised below:

18 June 1839 – A meeting with the Birmingham Political Union (Collins, Richardson and Bussey) was arranged at one of the inches. Bands led the procession through the town to the meeting which was chaired by John Cree a local weaver. The theme of the meting was universal male suffrage. Afterwards a soiree was held at the Scone and Perth Mason’s Hall. (Perth Courier, 20 June 1839).

Early February 1840 – At the Perth and Scone Mason’s Lodge two sermons on Chartism were given by Mr. Sidon. (Perth Courier, 6 February 1840).

3 November 1839 – “A meeting was held on the Tuesday afternoon to welcome these friends of Liberty to Perth.” Three to four hundred people came to the meeting to hear Mr Collins and Mr Whyte speak. The meeting had originally been arranged for the North Secession Church but a dispute arose within the congregation over the Chartist issue. A vote was taken and it was decided by 136 votes to 133 not to allow the Perth Chartist Association meeting to be held at the North Church. A soiree was held after the meeting at the Perth and Scone Mason’s Hall. (Perth Courier, 5 November 1840).

6 November 1840 – A meeting took place in Blairgowrie on the Wellmeadow. Mr. Jasper Peebles chaired and the speakers were Mr Collins and Mr Whyte. A post meeting soiree was held in the evening at “Mr Robertson’s new hall.” (Perth Courier, 12 November 1840)

26 December 1840 – A political lecture on the five points of the People’s Charter was arranged at the Mason’s Hall by Dr. M. Douall.. A hundred people are recorded as being in attendance. Two sermons were also delivered by Dr. Douall.. on the Sunday. (Perth Courier, 31 December 1840)

Early January 1842 – At a special meeting of the Perth Chartist Association at the Mason’s Hall, John Cree was elected as the local delegate to the Scottish Chartist Convention in Glasgow. The convention took place later that week. (Perth Courier, 6 January 1842)

Early March 1842 – A political lecture took place at the Tailor’s Hall at which Brontierre O’ Brien spoke in very radical terms about reform and the equal division of land and distribution to the people. (Perth Courier, 3 November 1842)