The O'Brienites sound like a sect - and in some ways perhaps they were. A political movement, not a religious one. They were the followers of the Chartist, James 'Bronterre' O'Brien - one of the most persuasive and radical figures in Chartism. All four portraits and likenesses on this page are of O'Brien. He was born in Ireland in 1805 and moved to London in about 1830. The entry in the Dictionary of National Biography - written by the Fabian Graham Wallas - indicates both his massive contribution to the Chartist movement and some of the weaknesses in his character and political propaganda.
Two points stand out from Graham Wallas's account - that O'Brien was 'the only prominent chartist who showed himself in any way an original thinker' and that he had 'a great power of attracting and preserving the affection of his personal followers'. The most loyal of his followers were in the artisan districts of inner London - and in and around Soho in particular - where they assembled in the organisation O'Brien founded, the National Reform League, in other largely O'Brienite associations such as the Land and Labour League and the Manhood Suffrage League and a range of more broadly-based movements including the Reform League, the International Working Men's Association and the Democratic Federation. The O'Brienites are a remarkable skein of political continuity through from Chartism to the socialist revival of the 1880s.
O'Brien himself died in December 1864 - having lived out his closing years in poor health and oppressive poverty. He is buried at Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington in north London (the photos below were taken in August 2016) where the inscription on his grave reflects the difficulties of his declining years: 'His life was grand, his death was sad and drear' . His emphasis on land and currency reform, and reverence of Robespierre, came to be the distinguishing political characteristics of his followers - who continued as an identifiable political strand for twenty or more years after their hero's death. O'Brien's political life and legacy is discussed in Alfred Plummer's Bronterre: a political biography of Bronterre O'Brien while the Soho O'Brienites are the focus of Stan Shipley's excellent Club Life and Socialism in mid-Victorian London. But there is much more to be said.
Five O'Brienites - George Milner, Martin Boon, George Harris, William Townshend and Charles Murray - mustered on the General Council of the First International. Marx complained about their obsessions and crotchets, but in a letter of November 1871 he also found much to commend in their political attitudes: 'These O'Brienites, in spite of their follies, constitute an often necessary counterweight to trade unionists in the Council. They are more revolutionary, firmer on the land question, less nationalistic, and not susceptible to bourgeois bribery in one form or another.'
On this site, you will find more about four particularly interesting O'Brienites:
Martin James Boon was among the most energetic of O'Brienite propagandists, an advocate of land and currency reform who eventually settled in South Africa
Dan Chatterton, whose association with the O'Brienites was fairly brief, was one of the most remarkable and outlandish of political preachers and propagandists
George E. Harriswas a thoughtful and influential figure, an internationalist with wide contacts and libertarian instincts, all reflected in his personal papers (which I have and am still sorting)
John Radfordwas the most senior O'Brienite to settle in the United States as part of the O'Brienites' plan to establish a cooperative colony in Kansas
Edward Truelove, a radical and freethought bookseller and publisher, was not an O'Brienite but moved in similar circles - this page includes a manuscript tribute to Truelove delivered by George Jacob Holyoake