Freethinkers, Chartists and Radicals; political continuity over three generations of nineteenth-century Norvicians

By Dominic Barron-Carter, PhD Student and Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University


My research examines how space and place affected political and protest groups throughout Great Britain between 1815 and 1867. In doing so, it demonstrates how these sites and those who lived or frequented them, came to be associated with the matter and memory of political radicalism. Such an explanation allows my research to show why, despite successive failures and dissolutions, reform groups continued to coalesce and emanate outwards from these neighborhoods throughout the period. In the following blogpost, I offer a short intergenerational case study to demonstrate how participation in spaces and places of radical social and political reform can produce continuities in thought and activity across multiple generations and individual movements. 

Richard Hornigold

Richard Hornigold was a weaver and later rope maker by trade and a native of Norwich. Hewas born in either 1794 or 1795 and baptised in the parish of St Augustine, which lies to the north of Norwich’s city centre in an area known as “over the water”. According to C. B. Jewson (1975), the area was a hotbed of Dissenter and Jacobin activity throughout the duration of the French Wars (1792-1815). As a result, it seems likely that from an early age, if indirectly, Hornigold was aware of issues like national spending, franchise reform and others that dominated the politics of early nineteenth-century Britain.

Growing up surrounded by the focal point of local reformatory politics clearly made a strong impression upon young Richard as in 1818, aged 23/24, he participated in his first General Election and helped return William Smith, the radical unitarian and his Whig ally as Norwich’s MP. His early entry into Norwich’s political milieu was probably helped by the local franchise arrangements, which allowed tradesman to be enfranchised after a period of apprenticeship rather than based on the property they owned. Richard never seems to have wasted the right his labour had earned him, indeed further inspection of the electoral records indicate that voting Whig/liberal/radical became a tradition of his and one that he kept up at every local parliamentary election until his death in 1866.

Having survived the post-war slump and started a family, the intensification of political unrest both nationally and locally seems to have pushed Richard toward the wider campaign for reform that characterised post-Napoleonic Britain. In 1823, he subscribed a shilling and appended his name to a list destined for Richard Carlile, the radical London printer then imprisoned for seditious libel. Not only did Richard append his name but also described himself as a “materialist”, which at the time was tantamount to an affirmation of atheism. Such an open declaration, in a widely circulated journal, of a belief that could have serious legal repercussion goes quite some way to demonstrating Richard’s conviction toward political and religious principles. This conviction and the strength to declare it openly is something which the open support for the similarly radical, anti-Christian French Revolution that emanated from the streets of “over the water” had probably prepared him for.

Hornigolds’ name as it appeared in Carlile’s Republican, Image courtesy of Proquest.

Robert Hornigold

Of Richard’s eight children his eldest son, Robert (b.1817) forms the second link in the reforming daisy chain. Robert was also born and spent his youth in St Augustine. When compared to the prior two decades, 1820-1838, excepting the 1830-32 reform agitation, constituted a considerable fall in the area’s level of radical activity. With the publishing of the People’s Charter in 1838 the area’s political radicalism seems to have been revived and by 1841 the area hosted the local Chartist chapel as well as a local socialist AACAN chapter. The combination of his father’s own experience and promotion of radical politics, an increasingly overt level of radical political protest and the erection of specifically Chartist sites like the Chartist chapel probably ensured that he participated in the Charter agitation of the 1840s.

Across the United Kingdom, 1847 was something of a calm before the storm that 1848 was to be. For the Norvician Chartists, however, it also demonstrated the possibilities that Norwich’s less restricted franchised could allow for. John Humffreys Parry, a Barrister and friend of many middle class allies of the Chartist contested Norwich’s two seats against the Whig Peto and a sitting MP, the Marquis of Douro, son of the Duke of Wellington. What should have been a formality quickly turned into a struggle as working men like Robert voted for Parry in droves. The difference between Douro, who was elected, and Parry who was not, was around 160 votes. Parry’s success was helped by many of his closest supporters “plumping” for him which refers to, when voting in a multi-member constituency, only using one of the two votes each elector was allotted. Robert was one such plumper. Perhaps even more so than Richard’s declaration of atheism, Robert’s “plumping” was a public act as before the secret ballot voting required one run a gauntlet of allied and hostile supporters to reach the hustings whereupon Robert would have had to verbalise his vote in front of the recording officers. This would have left him open to retaliatory attacks by Douro or Peto’s supporters, especially given that the polling station, and Robert’s home, were no longer in the safe haven of “over the water”.

Robert did not leave the political legacy of his father and childhood surroundings at the parish boundaries however. Having married in 1843 parenthood loomed over the young couple, allowing Robert (with his wife’s approval) to demonstrate his commitment to the cause of radical social political reform. Their second and third sons, Richard and Robert, were both given distinctive, telling, middle names. Richard’s full name was Richard Cobden Hornigold, probably in honour of Richard Cobden whose campaign to repeal the tariffs placed on foreign wheat (corn laws) succeeded in Richard’s birth year. Robert Jr. meanwhile carried the name Owen, no doubt in honour of Robert Owen, an education reformer and socialist whose “Association of All Classes of All Nations” first arrived in Norwich via “over the water” ten years earlier. Like Richard before him, Robert wholeheartedly committed to the political principles that his parental and environmental upbringing had given him, even after he had himself moved beyond these surroundings. This again demonstrates that areas like Norwich’s “over the water” produced continuities in political thought and protest activity across multiple generations of individuals and organisations.

Robert’s vote as recorded in the 1847 poll, he is listed at the very bottom of the third column. Image courtesy of Ancestry.

Richard Cobden Hornigold

Of Robert’s two sons, Richard Cobden followed his ancestors’ footsteps and played an active role in Norwich’s radical politics. Influenced as he was by his elders’ politics, men like Richard Cobden came to embody the link between older forms of radical politics and the Gladstonian Liberalism that grew from the 1867 Reform Act.

In 1867, aged 21 he, along with many of Norwich’s veteran radicals, most of whom would have known his forefathers, campaigned against the ratepayer clauses of the 1867 Act, which disenfranchised individuals who did not pay their rates (taxes) directly. He played an active part in the meeting alongside being on the committee, which suggests that the issue was dear to him, possibly because he was one such disenfranchised elector. This interpretation is supported by Norwich’s electoral records, which show he failed to vote in 1868 election despite his name appearing on the 1867 electoral register.

A further two years past before Richard Cobden was able to exercise the franchise, which he and his forefathers had campaigned for over the last half century. In true family tradition, he voted for the Liberal Jacob Henry Tillet and did so again in 1871 when Tillet’s election was voided on corruption allegations and a by-election ensued.

“Meeting of the Norwich Compounders” as reported in the Lynn Advertiser of 21/09/1867. Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.


In summary, the political activity of the Hornigold family from the late 1810s to the 1870s demonstrates, quite succinctly, how important sites of radical political activity had long-lasting effects on those who participated in them and their decedents. Such continuities can be shown to have existed, as in the case of the Hornigolds, in areas that have historically received little attention by studies of protest and labour history. Richard’s radical political principles, influenced by the radical heart of Norwich, were transmitted to his son Robert. Thirty years later, Robert growing up in a similar milieu displayed the same kinds of convictions as his father did even when no longer physically in Norwich’s radical heart. Even then, separated temporally and geographically from Norwich’s premiere radical spaces and places, the influence of them can be detected in the political activity of Robert’s son Richard.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s