Peter McDouall: Scottish Chartist
The third and final part of our series of prominent individuals in the Chartist movement.
We are indebted to the late Raymond Challinor for his biography of Peter McDouall but which endeavours to make McDouall out to be yet another in the long run of ‘Scottish Lenins’. (https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/challinor/1981/xx/mcdouall.html).
George Julian Harney was to recall, No man in the Chartist movement was better known than Dr McDouall’. Peter McDouall (M’Douall) was a significant figure in Chartism. Imprisoned twice, dying at a relatively young age, it is not an exaggeration to say that McDouall gave his life for Chartism.
Peter McDouall was born in Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire, and served as an apprentice to a surgeon in his home town, then studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh. He subsequently moved to Lancashire, first to a Burnley practice and then to the small cotton town of Ramsbottom. He came to Chartism radicalised by his exposure to the bleak factory conditions in industrial Lancashire and was a campaigner for factory reforms, becoming involved in the ten-hour day agitation. Following the arrest of Joseph Rayner Stephens, McDouall took his place in the forthcoming Chartist convention as a delegate for Ashton under Lyne, a militant Chartist centre with which McDouall was to be closely associated for the rest of his life. In the first convention in 1839, McDouall was a foremost advocate of physical force and, later, of the ‘sacred month’, the Grand National Holiday (or General Strike). He was ‘an advocate for the arming of the people, in defence of their constitutional rights, and although he deprecates the idea of turning any deadly weapon against the lives and property of any portion of the community, he boldly avows that he would take his place with the people to resist any unconstitutional aggression that might be attempted upon their few existing rights and liberties’, according to The Charter portraits of delegates, in 1839.
He also became a staunch advocate of the power of the ordinary worker. He explained:
‘The Trades are equal to the middle class in talent, far more powerful in means and much more united in action’ and again ‘The agitation for the Charter has afforded one of the greatest examples in modern history of the real might of the labourers. In the conflict millions have appeared on the stage and the mind of the masses has burst from its shell and begun to flourish and expand.’
In August, he was sentenced at Chester to twelve months’ imprisonment for sedition. On his release in August 1840, McDouall toured the north of England and Scotland and while in Glasgow, he married the daughter of a warder at Chester Castle, where he had served his sentence.
In Scotland, an estimated 200,000 people assembled to hear speeches from White, Collins and McDouall. The huge procession marched on to Glasgow Green and The Scots Times reported ‘the old radical spirit’ had been revived and that ‘Chartism is supreme in Glasgow’.
McDouall spoke at many other meetings around Scotland. The massive demonstrations and expressions of democratic sentiment revealed the existence among working people of a common aim and purpose. The question of what was to be the next step forward was posed with great urgency and on this issue, the Chartists were deeply divided. Supporters of moral force refused to sponsor McDouall’s meetings where he combined an exposition of Chartist principles with a denunciation of the moderates who clamoured for an alliance with the middle class. McDouall, however, no longer believed in making impassioned speeches urging the use of force. Wild revolutionary rhetoric had led to rash actions in England and Wales, with disastrous consequences, which had been largely avoided in Scotland. As he told Edinburgh Chartists:
‘We gave our passions the rein; but you have been more cautious, you have suffered less – you gave the reins to reason.’
This did not mean that he had renounced the use of force. What he now appeared to advocate was the possession of weapons for defensive purposes. If the authorities resorted to violence in an attempt to crush Chartism, he thought the moral force men would be the first to desert. McDouall understood the need to avoid riots and premature uprisings which culminated in defeat and demoralisation. For this reason, he was highly critical of the Newport uprising that occurred in November 1839. In a letter from prison, he argues it had been an ‘ill-managed, foolish and quixotic adventure’. Such setbacks interfered with the Chartist Movement which would grow due to ‘The financial disarrangement, the foreign difficulties, the domestic insurrection, will all merge in the end into a grand revolutionary outbreak. No power on earth can prevent it.’
In 1841 and 1842 McDouall played a prominent role in the recently formed National Charter Association and headed the poll for the executive in both years. He also published his own Chartist and Republican Journal in 1841. Past defeats, he judged, could all be attributed to this cause:
‘Our associations were hastily got up, composed of prodigious numbers, a false idea of strength was wrought up to the highest pitch, thence originated a sense of security which subsequent events proved to be false, and why? Because no real union existed at the bottom.’
McDouall’s answer to the problem was to turn to the newly-forming working class; only it had the necessary potential strength. He believed Chartists should be active in the trade unions, win them over for the cause and use them as a basis for Chartist agitation.
However, some Chartists saw the trade unions not as possible allies but as rivals. A number of Yorkshire Chartist branches had a rule that members should take part ‘in no agitation but for The Charter.’ They regarded union activity as a diversion, side-tracking people from the real struggle. Sometimes this suspicion was reciprocated. In North East England for example, some trade unionists had actually struck at the beginning of the ‘sacred month’ but since it had turned out to be such a fiasco, some of them severed their Chartist connections.
On another issue, McDouall was opposed to the growing British Empire.
‘Let all who have possessions in India, or all who profit by what you call ‘our Indian possessions’ be off to India, and fight a thousand battles for them as they like… but let them not mock our degradation by asking us, working people to fight alongside them, either for our ‘possessions’ in India, or anywhere else, seeing that we do not possess a single acre of ground, or any other description of property in our own country, much less colonies, or ‘possessions’ in any other, having been robbed of everything we ever earned by the middle and upper classes… On the contrary, we have an interest in prospective loss or ruin of all such ‘possessions’, seeing they are but instruments of power in the hands of our domestic oppressors.’
He stood for parliament at Northampton in June 1841 but came bottom of the poll. After representing Ashton in the convention of April 1842, he was the principal supporter of the general strike movement in August and it was he who drafted the executive’s very forceful address to the people. The government offered a £100 reward for his apprehension, but he escaped to France, where he lived for the next two years. He was able to return to Britain without prosecution during 1844 and resumed his life as a Chartist agitator, publishing The Charter: What It Means! The Chartists: What They Want! in 1845.
1848 was Europe’s Year of Revolutions. He spoke at numerous rallies spurring masses of people into self-activity. After he spoke at Glasgow in March a riot occurred, followed by another in Edinburgh, where there were shouts of ‘Vive la Republique’ and ‘Bread and Revolution’. Although McDouall’s presence led the authorities to link him with the disturbances, it seems that those responsible were destitute Irish and unemployed Scots.
He then again unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary seat of Carlisle. He was a member of the Chartists national assembly and, once more elected to the executive, was at the heart of another insurrectionary conspiracy where he ended up doing two years’ hard-labour gaol for his part in the abortive Ashton-under-Lyne rising. His family suffered badly during this time, and a daughter, aged 10, died. After his release and after a failed attempt to re-start his medical career, McDouall took his family and emigrated to Australia in 1854, but died soon after arriving. His family returned to England to an impoverished future. The Northern Star wrote in 1848:
‘When he came among you, he had good property in Scotland, a profession and a practice, which realised him several hundred pounds annually, besides a large sum of accumulated money in the bank. All of which has been spent long ago in the advocacy of the rights of the people.’