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The Newgate Calendar - FEARGUS O'CONNOR, ESQ.

Convicted of the Publication of a Seditious Libel.

            The trial of Mr. Feargus O'Connor came on at York, before Mr. Justice Coleridge, on the 17th of March 1840, when the Attorney -general appeared to conduct the prosecution on the part of the crown. The information charged the publication of two seditious libels in a newspaper called the "Northern Star," of which the defendant was proprietor and editor, upon the 13th and 20th of July in the preceding year.

            The Attorney-general, in opening the case to the jury, read the libels which were complained of. The first consisted of a report of a speech made by the defendant himself, at a meeting which, in the "Northern Star," was designated "The Rochdale Defence Fund Meeting." This speech was highly inflammatory in its terms, and was directed against the government. Mr. O'Connor congratulated the people upon the successes which they had already achieved, but recommended them to maintain the ground on which they stood, and not to listen to the propositions of the government. He recommended the employment of physical force in opposition to any attempt to put down their cause by force; and having entered into a long tirade against the expenses of the government, and the vast sums of money which were paid to the bishops and lawyers, and the disparity between this expenditure and that which was incurred for the paupers of the country, he said, that all he contended for was, that these immense disparities should no longer exist -- that the poor man should have his store-house, and his cottage should be his sentry-box -- that he should have, as his friend Bussey recommended, a flitch of bacon on one side of the chimney, and a musket on the other, so that the musket might defend the bacon. He would never descend to catch a fleeting popularity by going too far; but the moment they were provided with arms, they would be in a condition to defend those rights which were still left to them, while government would be induced to give up those of which they had been deprived. In their progress towards political emancipation, they had three stages to go through -- to create, to unite, and to direct. They had created opinion, and they were united in it, and, when it was properly directed, their victory would be complete. The learned Attorney-general having urged that these passages contained strong incitements to insubordination and violence, proceeded to refer to a notice of another meeting at Newcastle in the same paper, where similar doctrines were promulgated, which were approved of and supported by the editor. He then proceeded to the paper of the 20th of July, which contained the report of a speech made by Mr. William Taylor at Manchester, who strove, from various expressions in the Bible, to show the justice of the cause which they supported. In the course of his address he said:-- What it is for a people to be in captivity, I need not tell you; that you are captives I need not tell you. Though they (Parliament) have given twenty millions the emancipation of black slaves, they would not give twenty shillings for the emancipation of the white slaves. I need not tell you that you are slaves, slaves bearing a great burden, slaves bearing a great load, slaves enduring great toil, slaves under the most oppressive system of government, and slaves that alone must work out their own freedom. Now if you ask, 'What shall we do?' I will tell you what God says you should do, and you will find that in the second verse of the fifteenth chapter of the book of Jeremiah. The prophet says, 'And if the people inquire What shall we do? whither shall we go? thou shalt say to them. Thus saith the Lord: Those that are for death, to death; such as are for the sword, to the sword; such as are for the famine, to the famine; and such as for the captivity, to the captivity.' What are we to do, then? (Loud cries of 'Fight! fight! fight!') I'll tell you what we are to do. The people must become united together in one mind. Let not religious sentiments divide your interests. Whatsoever your religious sentiments are, look for peace here and not so much up yonder; look for happiness here as well as in the future. Look for comfort here as well as in days to come. Look for happiness in your cottage, by your fire-sides, and happiness with your families; look to the lessening of the hours of labour; look for the overthrow of the present wretched system. Your will will be God's will, and God's will is, that his people should be free. What are we to do? We are to be free, and no mistake; we are to be free, whatever the cost; we are to be free, however great the difficulty to accomplish it; we are to be free, though we wade through streams of blood. Though we pass through streams of trouble, we are to be free by the best means we can; we are to be free, by the only means we have left. Now, the people may ask. What are the means left? I am not going to blink the question; I'm not going to teach you a doctrine I don't believe myself. We will go back again to the old book, and I will ask you, or any minister, whether we read, in either ancient or modern history, of any nation in bondage becoming free without the use of physical force?" In the same report was a speech of Mr. Bronterre O'Brien, which was spoken of as a long and eloquent address, and in which doctrines of a similar kind were broached. The latter part contained an incitement indirectly to interfere with the administration of justice, and to put an end by force to judicial proceedings. "He had some news to tell them, not that he told them to do the same; only having heard it, there was surely no more harm in telling news than selling it. Now the people of Newcastle had decided upon adopting a certain plan during the assizes, not that he advised the meeting to follow it -- no, not by any means. When their representatives were brought up for trial, unless contrary instructions came down from the Convention, the brave men in the north were determined on that day to have a universal strike; and, assembling round the trial-house in their mighty strength, would send word to the judge that they were standing outside waiting for an acquittal. The effect would be wondrous. He did not advise them to do so, because it would be against the law, and they knew how illegal it was. He had now an important question to ask them; were they up to the mark? (We are!) By that he meant, were they provided with all legal and constitutional appliances, wherewith to bring these cursed profit-mongers to their senses? (Yes!) He could tell them no plainer, but if they did not by this understand what he meant, why they would soon. He bid them cast aside their braggadocios, and by fierce looks and something shining over their chimney-pieces, to be determined; for until something in earnest like this were done, the government, who knew all about them through their spies, would take advantage of their want of preparedness, they having already cannons of enormous calibre, fire-arms, &c., manufacturing in large quantities. He was determined to stand by his constituents to the death, reduced though he was by exertion in the public cause, and, if needs be, die in the last ditch in their defence."

            The necessary evidence as to the publication of the libels, and the proprietorship of the newspaper having then been given, Mr. O'Connor was called upon for his defence. He addressed the court at great length, and some demonstrations of applause from the auditors were heard at the commencement of his speech, but immediately silenced. "He said he thanked the Attorney-general for this prosecution. His character had been aspersed for seven long years, and the Attorney-general had given him an opportunity of defending it. He came under great disadvantages before a Yorkshire jury. He had been represented as a spoliator of property, as an advocate of physical force, as inciting the poor against the rich. He would be able to disprove all these charges, and would show from sources they could not dispute, what his real sentiments were. There was nothing in his own speech, garbled as it was, that could be a basis for these accusations. His true sentiments were to be found in the leading articles of the paper, and to them and to his conduct throughout life he would appeal, to show that he entertained no such doctrines. It was not he, or those who acted with him, who had given rise to physical force Chartism, It was the act of the Attorney-general (with whom he had once sat in the House of Commons), and of his party, who had turned the moral force Chartist into the Chartist advocating the use of physical force, and drove them to armed meetings by putting down the meetings where they 'morally' discussed their grievances. In the present case the intent was everything; without the intent alleged there was no libel; and it was to be remarked, that if the advice said to be given was so pernicious, it had not been acted on at Newcastle. The course of justice was unimpeded, and the persons who had used these speeches were acquitted. It was absurd to say he adopted and approved of the doctrines in these speeches, because in the report they were interspersed with cheers. He never said that arms give rights, but he was of opinion that rights gave arms, and arms protected them. He complained that great offenders had been passed by, while he was prosecuted. He complained of the hardships imposed upon him by the mode of proceeding ex officio the abuse of which had been one of the causes of the revolution of 1688. It was going to the jury with the opinion of the Attorney-general against him, that he had been guilty of an offence, and it gave the Attorney-general the benefit of the last word. Mr. O'Connor quoted a number of authorities as to the law of ex officio informations, and proceeded to read at length a great number of passages from the leading articles of the "Northern Star," and from his speeches reported there, to show that he had always opposed the doctrine of physical force, making comments as he proceeded on the conduct of Mr. O'Connell, on the Whigs, the Attorney-general, the language of the London morning papers, Mr. Muntz of Birmingham, physical force, moral force, his own character, and a great variety of other topics. His speech lasted nearly five hours, and he concluded by declaring that he was, and always had been, a Chartist, and determined to have all the five points, but peaceably. He asked from the jury but justice; he asked not for mercy; and if their verdict should consign him to a dungeon, he would at least go there with his principles unsullied.

            The Attorney-General having addressed the jury in reply, a verdict of "Guilty" was returned, but judgment was respited until the following term, in consequence of an application by the defendant on the ground that he should be able to produce affidavits in mitigation.

            The illness of Mr. O'Connor prevented his appearing in the Court of Queen's Bench, to receive judgment until the 11th of May. Affidavits were then put in disclosing grounds for the mitigation of the sentence of the defendant, and tending to absolve him from the imputation of having excited the people to acts of violence. Mr. O'Connor subsequently also addressed the court, and was followed by the Attorney-General in reply.

            The judges having then consulted together for a short time, Mr. Justice Littledale, as senior puisne judge, pronounced sentence. After stating the nature of the prosecution and the evidence in favour of it, he said that though the defendant might argue that his speeches and writings had never excited people to physical force, still no one could doubt that these speeches and writings had that tendency. The law could not suffer publications of this sort, so dangerous to the peace of society, to be made with impunity. The sentence of the court on the defendant was, that he should be imprisoned in the Castle of York for eighteen calendar months, and that he should then find security for his good behaviour for the space of two years, himself in 300l. and two sureties in 150l. each.

            Mr. O'Connor was in consequence removed to York Castle, and upon his arrival there was placed upon the felons' side of the prison. Strong arguments were employed by his friends against this course being adopted; and it was urged, that having been convicted of a misdemeanour only, he should be removed to the debtors' side, where he would not be subjected to such hardships as those which he would experience in the place in which he was confined. Petitions to parliament were drawn up and presented, that Mr. O'Connor's quarters should be changed; but the members of the government declined in any way to interfere with what was in reality a mere internal arrangement of the jail, for which the visiting justices alone were answerable.

            In quitting the subject of Chartism, we may present our readers with what we believe to be a correct statement of the number of persons, who, since the month of January 1839, have been imprisoned by reason of their connexion with the illegal proceedings taken with a view to the adoption of their principles. Of the persons thus convicted there were about half-a-dozen licensed victuallers, one barrister (Mr. Feargus O'Connor), one magistrate (Mr. Frost), and one surgeon (Mr. Peter Murray M'Douall). The remainder were, with a few exceptions, all poor and uneducated men.



No. confined.

Chester, County Jail


Durham, County Jail


Kent, House of Correction




Lancaster Castle


County Jail and House of Correction, Kirkdale


House of Correction, Preston


Lincoln, Lincoln Castle




House of Correction, Giltspurstreet


Ditto, Coldbath-fields


Jail of Newgate


Westminster Bridewell




County Jail


House of Correction, Usk


Northumberland, House of Correction, Newcastle




County Jail


House of Correction, Southwell


Somerset, County Jail, Ilchester


Surrey, Queen's Bench Prison


Warwick, County Jail




County Jail


House of Correction, Devizes


Worcester, Jail and House of Correction




York Castle


E. Riding, House of Correction, Beverley


N. Riding, House of Correction, Northallerton


W. Riding, House of Correction, Wakefield


Brecon, County Jail and House of Correction


Glamorgan, House of Correction, Swansea


Montgomery, Jail and House of Correction





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