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Chartist Flags (United Kingdom)

Last modified: 2007-12-29 by rob raeside
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The Skelmanthorpe Flag

"The Huddersfield Daily Examiner", 10 April 2006, reports the history of the flag known as the Skelmanthorpe Flag.

"The first half of the 19th century was a period of political agitation. Events ranged from the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 to the last Chartist Petition of 1848, which took place at a time when revolutions were occurring all over Europe. From 1819 the villagers of Skelmanthorpe were at the forefront of political struggles and a special flag, known as the Skelmanthorpe Flag, was woven in this year at a house on Radcliffe Street. The flag, which was later taken to many rallies and demonstrations all over Huddersfield, proclaimed: "Skelmanthorp will not rest Satisfied with the Suffrage being anything but Universal."

This was later taken up by the Chartist movement. Chartism was an umbrella movement which drew together many different groups with various aims and grievances. Chartists were called that because they devised a six-point charter which detailed their demands. These were: universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment for MPs and equal electoral districts. None of these were realised in the lifetime of the movement, but all except annual parliaments are now law. The Chartists disbanded after the failure of their third petition in 1848, just two years after the hated Corn Laws had been repealed. Some believe that after the repeal of the Corn Laws Chartism's popularity declined. Thus, many historians argue that for many followers Chartism was purely a knife and fork question."

Source: http://ichuddersfield.icnetwork.co.uk
Ivan Sache, 19 April 2006

In my opinion, the Skelmanthorpe Flag is more properly described as a banner, rather than a flag. This banner, which is privately owned, commemorates the Peterloo Massacre, which was a massacre of a number of people at a gathering held in Peterloo, Manchester, to protest the lack of representation of the populous industrial areas in the north of England in Parliament. An image of it may be found in the National Banner Survey, a collection of the People's History Museum in Manchester.

It is divided into four quadrants and contains the words: "SKELMANTHORP Will not rest Satisfied with the Suffrage being anything but Universal" in the top left quadrant. In the bottom left, "May never a cock in England Crow, Nor never a Pipe in Scotland blow, Nor never a Harp in Ireland Play, Till Liberty regains her Sway. In the top right quadrant is the slogan "Truth and Justice Pouring Balm into the Wounds of the Manchester Sufferers." In the bottom right quadrant, is a drawing of a man looking up at an eye in the sky and a further slogan on a scroll, which is too indistinct to read on the above referenced web site.

The term flag seems to have originated from an article "Skelmanthorpe's Flag of Freedom" in Hirst Buckley's Annual 1926 and also in Politics and the People - A Study in English Political Culture c.1815-1867 by Vernon, but is more correctly described as a Chartist banner in the research paper cited as my source number (1) below, by probably the most authoritative current source in the United Kingdom in this area.

Sources:
(1) University of Manchester, Arts Faculty, History Research Working Paper Number 45, Note, this document was located on the University of Manchester's web site at http://www.arts.manchester.ac.uk/subjectareas/history/ on 19 April 2006, but does not have any title pages, as it is a "working paper" and it is thus not possible to cite it correctly.
(2) Collections of the People's History Museum, Manchester, no catalogue number, title "banner, Peterloo. Skelmanthorpe Flag." as consulted on the People's History Museum web site, 19 April 2006.
Colin Dobson, 19 May 2006

Here are full details of this and also other things I've done on this subject. 'Why are there no Chartist banners' is probably the best for this subject. The People's History Museum ran the National Banner Survey in 1998-9 (pre-web), which was an inventory of 2,500 banners in UK museums and you can access some of the information on our web site www.phm.org.uk (follow links to Collections).

  • 'The Norwich Plumbers Emblem', Social History Curators Group Journal, No.14,1987
  • 'The Banner Collection of the National Museum of Labour History' in Robina McNeil and John S. F. Walker (eds.) The Heritage Atlas 2: Textile Legacy (1995)
  • 'Radical Rhymes and union jacks: a search for evidence of ideologies in the symbolism of 19th.c.banners', University of Manchester, Working Paper in Economic and Social History, No.45, 2000
  • 'Why Are there No Chartist Banners? The 'Missing Link' in 19th Century Banners', Social History in Museums, Volume 25 (2000)
  • (With Karsten Uhl) 'Banners -An Annotated Bibliography', Social History in Museums, Volume 27 (2003)
  • 'Radical Banners as Sites of Memory : the National Banner Survey', in Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrell (ed.) Contested Sites Commemoration, Memorial and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, (Ashgate Press, 2004)

Dr Nick Mansfield
Director, People's History Museum Head Office
103 Princess Street
Manchester M1 6DD
Registered as National Museum of Labour History in England no. 2041438. Registered charity no. 295260


Chartist flag in Wales

There exists a different flag for Wales which was used by the chartists in their uprising (and subsequently by Welsh republicans). It consists of a tricolor arranged vertically of blue white and green. Blue represents the sky (and heaven) white peace and green the earth (or the common people). It was supposed to represent a new order when the common people of Wales would be united under the sky.
Muiris Mag Ualghairg, 19 June 2000

I think you will find that the Chartist flag was a light purple, white and green horizontal tricolour, with the words "Universal Liberty" in English on the white strip. This flag was used by Chartists in England and Wales, but in Wales there was a armed rising by Chartists, I suppose carrying this flag. Here is a photo of such a flag (but without words).
David Cox, 4 May 2002

I have found a reference to just such a flag, in a popular history book about The Newport Rising of 1839 called " The Man From The Alamo " by John Humphries pub Wales Books, Glyndwr Publishing ISBN 1-903529-14-X . The sources he refers to in his notes are " The Merthyr Rising " by Gwyn A Williams pub Croom Helm, London ISBN 0-85664-493-5 (but I have searched those pages quoted without success) and an article about Morgan Williams in the " Merthyr Express " 5th May 1956 (which I don't have access to).

On Page 50 of " The Man From The Alamo " John Humphries, in describing the political turmoil of the 1830's, mentions..." One of these was Morgan Williams, eventual leader of the Merthyr Chartists, and another John Thomas, his co-editor of the bi-lingual newspaper 'The Workman - Y Gweithiwr', launched the same year as the Tolpuddle Martyrs and considered Wales' first working class newspaper....Morgan Williams was born at Penrheolgerrig in 1808,...A weaver by trade, he was credited with designing the Chartists' green, white and blue banner and was secretary of the Merthyr Workingmen's Association, formed in October 1838 to fight for the Charter. But after the disastrous Merthyr Riots of 1831, it was not surprising that he remained firmly planted on the 'moral force' wing of the Chartist movement. " [i.e. he objected to the use of violence for political ends - as did most Chartists, hence the later split into two groups after the Newport Rising: the National Charter Association being abandoned by many who went on to form the Complete Suffrage Union].

"Only one issue of 'The Workman - Y Gweithiwr', for May 1st 1834, has survived, and only four pages of that [it is in the National Library of Wales]. The curious ambiguity contained in its pages, if characteristic of other issues, reveals its co-editors Morgan Williams and John Thomas as campaigners in the Owenite socialist tradition sending out confused messages about trade unionism, self-reliance, co-operation, education and the environment."
David B. Lawrence
, 17 April 2007

Regards a Welsh Chartist Tri-Colour:
    Green to represent EARTH.
    Blue to represent Heaven
    and White to represent Justice.
The Colours of the Gorsedd Ynys Prydain?
The slogan 'CYFIAWNDR' was printed across it.

Designed by Hugh Williams, the Old Rebeccite, who I believe is buried in Llangenech.
Information from Silurian Republic Gweriniaeth y Siluriad 2 Aug 1988.
Gethin Gruffyd, 20 July 2007

I've just read Gethin's comment about the Gorsedd colours added to the discussion of the blue, white, green triband that featured in the 1839 Newport Rising, so it is quite timely that I have just come across a reference implying just such an idea. The book is " A Welsh Heretic - Dr William Price, Llantrisant " by Islwyn ap Nicholas. Price was a renowned free-thinker who appointed himself Arch-Druid and outraged his neighbours by publicly worshipping nature, practising nudism and also the wearing of strange costumes for the purpose. He typically wore green trousers, a scarlet waistcoat and a white tunic all of a strange design which he insisted was men's Welsh national costume - except for the fox fur that he wore on his head as a symbol of him being a healer. Famous for introducing cremation and defending the practice in court, it is rather less well known that he fled to Paris in 1839 after a warrant was issued for his arrest as the leader of the Chartists in eastern Glamorganshire who on the eve of the insurrection decided not to march to Newport.

Since a fair number of free-thinkers embraced neo-druidic activities and declared themselves to be resurrecting the ancient religion and bardic culture of Wales, it is a fair bet that the blue, white, green triband is derived from the colours ascribed to the orders of the Gorsedd of Bards as Wales' sole national institution at that time. Dr Price described them as blue for the order of Bards, derived from the summer sky ; white for the order of Druids, [derived perhaps from winter] ; green for the order of Ovates, derived from spring growth. [In the modern Gorsedd the Arch-Druid wears a purple robe as well - maybe even a source for the violet, white, green flag?]

There is another possibility that is kind of linked to Druidic lore: druids are associated with trees, usually oak trees, and some Welsh currency in circulation early in the 19th century symbolises the nation with a druid's head on it encircled by oak leaves (instead of the monarch?). But also in many European countries the oak tree was the chosen "Liberty Tree" , a symbol of the radical meetings that might be held beneath its boughs, and certainly in Wales the link between neo-druidry and republican sentiment was well known. But the oak was not the only choice for liberty tree, and in Wales there seems to have been a Christian alternative for those who found neo-Druidism objectionable - the "Draenen" - a thorn tree. Thorn trees yield a wealth of political symbolism quite besides the idea of the idea of the thorns that crowned Jesus on the cross, e.g., bare branches bursting unexpectedly into blossoms after the desolation of winter suggest hope for political aspirations. But there are two "Draenen" in the Welsh dictionary - " Y Ddraenen Wen " is the hawthorn, which yields a symbolic colour scheme of red, white and green - " Y Ddraenen Ddu " - is blackthorn whose berries can be various shades of blue through to purple, or even interpreted as black. So maybe these Welsh blue / violet / red triband flags are actually referring to these ?
David B. Lawrence, 31 October 2007