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Saturday, 30 August 2014


30 August 1855: The Death of Feargus O’Connor, Chartist Leader on this day. He was the son of Roger O'Connor, a United Irishman.



Feargus O'Connor was born on 18 July 1794 in Connorville house, near Castletown-Kinneigh in west County Cork, into a prominent Irish Protestant family who claimed to be the descendants of the 12th-century king Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair. His father was Irish nationalist politician Roger O'Connor, who like his uncle Arthur O'Connor was active in the United Irishmen. His elder brother Francis became a general in Simón Bolívar's army of liberation in South America.



When Feargus O'Connor was twenty-four he inherited an estate in County Cork. Although a Protestant, O'Connor was a reforming landlord and denounced the religious Tithes & the power of the Established Church. Daniel O’Connell soon spotted his potential and secured a candidacy for him in the General Election of 1832 in which he was returned as an MP for County Cork. But O’Connor rashly decided to try and unseat the Great Dan as Leader if the Irish MPs in the House of Commons and the two fell out.


O’Connor thereafter focused his attentions on Radical English Politics, moving to Manchester where he published the highly successful Northern Star newspaper. He became a leading light in the Chartist Movement, dedicated to Universal Suffrage and Annual parliaments. Here again though his maverick personality and impatience with pacific political activity led him into trouble with him advocating the threat of violence to achieve political Reform. O'Connor responded to criticism by forming a new Chartist organisation, the East London Democratic Association.

He was found guilty of sedition in 1839 and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment. O'Connor continued to edit the Northern Star newspaper from his prison cell and upset the other Chartist leaders when he told his readers that from "September 1835 to February 1839 I led you single-handed and alone."

In 1845 O'Connor launched his Chartist Land Plan. His objective was to raise money to buy a large estate that would be divided into plots of three and four acres. Subscribers would then draw lots and the winners would obtain a cottage and some land. O'Connor promised that his Land Scheme would "change the whole face of society in twelve months" and would "make a paradise of England in less than five years".

But the scheme backfired and the estate went bankrupt before too long. Some of the tenants ended up being evicted and the whole disastrous enterprise badly damaged O’Connor’s credibility with the English Working Class. The stress and effort involved took its toll on O’Connor’s mental health and at a great rally in Kensington London in 1848 he made outlandish claims over the numbers of people who had signed a petition that was exposed as a gross distortion.

In 1847, O'Connor had been returned to Parliament for Nottingham, but after 1848 Chartism went into sharp decline. From 1851, O'Connor's behaviour became increasingly irrational, possibly as a result of syphilis.

It all came to a head in the House of Commons in 1852. O'Connor struck three fellow MPs, including Sir Benjamin Hall, a very vocal critic of the Land Plan. Arrested by the Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, O'Connor was sent by his sister to a private asylum, where he remained until 1854. He was subsequently removed to his sister's house in Notting Hill. He died on 30 August 1855, and, on 10 September, was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. No less than 40,000 people witnessed the funeral procession. Most Chartists preferred to remember O'Connor's strengths rather than his shortcomings. There is no evidence that, at the height of his political popularity in the late 1830s and 1840s, O'Connor was suffering from any form of mental illness.