Research Moments

Alex Jordan on Thomas Carlyle and Isaac Ironside

I recently discovered a hitherto unknown letter by the great Victorian man of letters Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) to a certain Isaac Ironside (1808–70), dated 10 July 1855. Ironside was a leading radical, Chartist, and Owenite, and during the period in question, served as local councillor for the Ecclesall Ward of Sheffield. This was pleasing to me, since this is where I was born and grew up, and where my parents still live (although nowadays, the ward no longer votes Chartist).

Ten years previously, in 1846, Carlyle had referred to his correspondence with “Ironside”, but the editors of the Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle were unable to establish who this was. Now, thanks to the discovery of the letter dated 10 July 1855, we can safely assume that Carlyle was referring to Isaac Ironside, and that Carlyle was thus in intermittent contact with one of Britain’s leading Chartists and Owenites for at least a decade.

Having begun work at a young age in a steel foundry, Ironside became involved in political agitation during the 1830s, participating in the establishment of the Sheffield Working Men’s Association (a Chartist body) in 1837. He condemned middle-class reformers for having abandoned the working classes following the 1832 Reform Act, and by way of redress demanded the institution of universal suffrage. He also campaigned for the abolition of the Corn Laws, which he considered to be an expression of oppressive aristocratic monopoly. In both these regards, Ironside’s thought paralleled the position of Carlyle in his famous essay Chartism (1839), in which he called attention to the sufferings of the working classes, condemned the reluctance of middle-class reformers to intervene on their behalf, and urged the immediate repeal of the Corn Laws.

Alongside Chartism, Ironside also played a leading role in the Owenite movement in Sheffield, especially during the 1840s. In line with the teachings of the early British socialist Robert Owen, he identified private property, competition, and mechanisation as the prime causes of working-class poverty, calling for the unemployed to be settled in model agricultural communities. In this regard, Ironside’s position resembled Carlyle’s denunciation of the injustices of “laissez-faire” in his most influential work, Past and Present (1843).

In 1843, Ironside moved to the most important of the experimental Owenite communities, namely Harmony Hall in Hampshire, also investing most of his savings in the project. However, as his friend and fellow Chartist Thomas Cooper recalled, he soon became disillusioned by the dishonesty, thievery, “quarrels, and fighting with chairs” that ultimately led to the downfall of Harmony Hall in 1845. As a result, he was casting about for alternative proposals for social reform, and it was around this time that his aforementioned correspondence with Carlyle occurred.

Whereas the Owenites believed in the establishment of voluntary model communities, Carlyle’s Past and Present had called upon central government to carry out a top-down “Organisation of Labour” on quasi-military lines. Such views became increasingly common among both Chartists and Owenites during the late 1840s, particularly due to the failure of voluntary communities such as Harmony Hall, and, above all, due to the attempt of the French socialist Louis Blanc to implement an “Organisation of Labour” in France following the 1848 revolution. For his part, Ironside strongly embraced this centralising, socialist programme, personally delivering an address of congratulation from the people of Sheffield to the French provisional government. In his speeches of these years, he repeatedly cited from both Carlyle and Louis Blanc regarding the need for a state-led “Organisation of Labour”, also boasting of his personal acquaintance with Carlyle.

Over subsequent years, Ironside drew away from these socialist schemes, reverting to traditional radical concerns such as protest against oppressive government. He also became increasingly interested in foreign affairs and foreign policy. In 1851, he welcomed the exiled Hungarian liberal Lajos Kossuth to Britain, and in 1853, like most radicals, he welcomed the outbreak of the Crimean War, believing that Britain was about to join a crusade for liberty and national emancipation against Russian despotism. However, due to military and administrative incompetence, Britain’s war campaign suffered several major setbacks, and by 1855, Ironside had fallen under the influence of the eccentric Russophobe David Urquhart, who claimed that Lord Palmerston and his cabinet were in the pay of Russia, and were deliberately sabotaging the war effort. Ironside then wrote to Carlyle, attempting to convince him of this conspiracy theory. In his reply to Ironside (10 July 1855), Carlyle was friendly and familiar, but refused to countenance Urquhart’s fantasies. Furthermore, Carlyle privately opposed the Crimean War, believing that Britain’s energies would have been better spent on organising labour at home. In short, whereas Ironside had reverted to radicalism and become invested in a crusade for liberty abroad, Carlyle continued to stress the need for a socialistic “Organisation of Labour” in Britain.

My presentation of the newly discovered letter will be published in the forthcoming number of the Carlyle Studies Annual (Saint Joseph’s University Press), and the letter will also be included in a future volume of the Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (Duke University Press).

Alex Jordan

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