Just outside Witney in West Oxfordshire, if you look hard, you can find traces of one of the most remarkable episodes in British radicalism.
The Chartist movement is regarded as pioneering demands for a fair electoral system with manhood suffrage. It was a mass campaigning force which embraced both revolutionaries (physical force Chartists) and reformers (moral force Chartists). And while its immediate successes were limited, five of the six points of the People's Charter are now an intrinsic part of our democracy: the exception being the demand for annual Parliaments.
But in the mid 1840s, when it seemed that Chartism was in retreat, Feargus O'Connor - the most renowned of Chartist leaders - embraced a land plan, by which urban workers would have a prospect of being self-supporting rural smallholders. This reflected an arcadian desire for a return to a simpler, purer life, as well as an ambition to qualify more radicals through land tenancies for the vote in Parliamentary elections. It was also an attempt to boost urban wages by reducing the oversupply of labour.
Money was raised with which more than a thousand acres of land were bought at five different locations. These included Charterville, adjoining Minster Lovell, where some of the original (often much adapted and extended) allotment cottages, all of the same initial design, can still be seen.
The tell tale sign of the Land Plan cottages at Charterville is a clover emblem above the main door.
The scheme was ill thought through and the land bought was at best marginal in terms of productivity. The individual plots were much too small to sustain a household. Within a few years, the Chartist Land Plan had collapsed. But quite a few of its buildings survive, including at Charterville the community's school and meeting place.
British History Online has both a brief account of Charterville and some great plans and drawings of the cottages and allotments:
Charterville originated soon after 1842, when Feargus O'Connor's National Land Company bought 244 acres adjoining the Brize Norton road from the executors of John Walker, a wealthy Minster Lovell farmer. O'Connor, prominent in the Chartist movement from which the colony was named, hoped to take families away from factory-living or unemployment in towns and to set them up to be self-supporting on land in the country, thereby also giving them sufficient property to enable them to vote. The Minster Lovell estate was built by national subscription, land on both sides of the road and elsewhere, including Walker's homestead, being divided before 1847 into around 80 regular plots each comprising between 2 acres and 4 acres of arable and a small cottage. By 1848 some 73 of the plots had been filled, settlers coming from as far afield as Canterbury, London, and the northern manufacturing towns, though the experiment was at first unsuccessful because the allotments were too small to support a family, and the new tenants were not used to working on the land. By 1851–2 many of the original tenants had left, and the National Land Company itself was bankrupt and was later dissolved. Local farmers bought or rented the plots, often cultivating them in addition to other land, and Charterville became more prosperous towards the end of the 19th century. A visitor in 1861 described it as 'a large collection of cottages ... all inhabited by labourers and little farmers ... mostly exhibiting comfort, cleanliness and good order', and noted with evident approval both the presence of Nonconformist meetings and the absence of an alehouse. Other social facilities included a school, built by O'Connor at the settlement's inception.
Although it's easy to dismiss the Chartist Land Plan as utopian and an expensive failure, it was one of the more ambitious attempts at creating largely self-sustaining radical communities. It attracted 70,000 shareholders and raised a total of £100,000 (that's the equivalent of about £12 million today - a tidy sum).
There's more about the plan, and those who took part in it, here.
And if you are ever in this part of the country, do take a look. Charterville is not well signposted, but these maps may help.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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