James Finlen: Chartist orator and ultra-radical activist
James Finlen was a marginal figure in mid-Victorian radicalism - but an intriguing character all the same who at one point attracted a huge amount of ignominy as a result of his ultra-radicalism and his supposed neglect of his family.
I came across Finlen while working on my uncompleted doctoral thesis on popular politics in Victorian Clerkenwell, and he makes an appearance in some of the draft chapters, notably on the local branches of the Reform League, and in a talk I gave about the Clerkenwell 'Outrage' of 1867, an Irish Republican bomb attack, and the political response to it. There's more on these below.
But the prompt to post this page, and the main source of information, is the meticulous scholarship of Robert C, Senior, who has privately printed an extensive 380 page account of this artisan radical, entitled James Finlen: Chartist, Reformer, Orator.
It's Senior who came across the two cartoons from Judy, above and below. The cartoon above, from August 1868, shows Gladstone shovelling rubbish onto a municipal refuse cart. On his spade is a dead cat bearing the name 'Finlen'. The man carrying the brush marked 'Radicalism' is, I believe, the Liberal radical John Bright.
The posters partly visible include one which seems to be a notice that Finlen has absconded and another advertising a radical gathering on the most turbulent of London meeting places at the time, Clerkenwell Green.
The cartoon below is from Judy the following month, September 1868. Finlen is the name of the distinctly down-at-heel nag in the Augean stables. The stable-hand remarks to a top-hatted Gladstone that Finlen is 'a perfeck disgrace and dirty, too'. Looking over the divide, is a slightly more distinguished horse - this is the barrister Edmond Beales the president of the Reform League. The saddle which is hung up on the post bears the (very faint) inscription 'Ruffianism'.
Robert Senior's authoritative and tremendously detailed work on Finlen is available in select libraries and archives and is also on line: jamesfinlen.butleigh.org/ This is the place to go for the full account of James Finlen, his family, his political activity and the mystery about his date and place of death.
The drawing on the front cover is from the Tomahawk, December 1867.
Robert Senior has demonstrated that James Finlen was very probably born in London in 1829. His parents were Irish. By the age of fifteen, he was working as a French polisher, a skilled craft within the furniture trade which imbued colour and shine to high quality woodwork. He appears to have been apprenticed to a craftsman who was a Chartist and who may have been the inspiration for Finlen's embrace of radicalism.
By Finlen's own account, he was active in the last great hurrah of the Chartist movement in 1848 (his contemporary Daniel Chatterton made a similar claim). In 1852, Finlen set aside his trade and became a paid itinerant lecturer for the National Charter Association, trying to breath life into a political reform movement which was well past its zenith. Although he was briefly active in Bronterre O'Brien's National Reform League, he was much more influenced by Ernest Jones, a powerful orator and intellect who was the commanding figure in the late Chartist movement.
Finlen developed a reputation as a forceful activist and florid orator. A critic within the Chartist movement described him as an 'unfortunate young man' with 'a genius for rant which would gain him honourable distinction were he to take his fitting sphere - the boards of a penny theatre' [quoted in Senior, p20]. He got caught up in the vicous and highly personalised faction-fighting within what remained of the Chartist movement, while continuing to lecture regularly, and it seems successfully, on radical issues. In an era of exceptional oratory, Finlen was rising star with a style that was perhaps melodramatic but certainly appreciated.
In the autumn of 1857, after a brief spell in Glasgow, James Finlen moved to Manchester, where he worked as an insurance agent. In January the following year, he had a church wedding in Newcastle with Mary Caroline Magee, whose father had been transported to Tasmania for theft. By now, he had broken with Ernest Jones, a barrister, and was arguing that the working classes should seek to achieve their political goals independent of the middle class - very much an O'Brienite notion. In 1860, Finlen and his family moved to London and he appears to have resumed working as a French polisher
Finlen's politial activity once back in Lodnon was low-key until the establishment of the Reform League to campaign for an extension of the Parliamentary franchise (particularly to working men). In the course of 1866, he became a prominent Reform League activist in central London and one of the League's paid lecturers. This involved a great deal of travel, leaving behind his wife and six young children. There was an impulsive, headstrong aspect to Finlen's oratory and personality - he doesn't seem to have factored in the needs of his family. In January 1867, his wife was admitted to Colney Hatch Asylum. She was classified as a lunatic and remained there for almost a decade. Finlen continued to travel and to lecture, indeed his political activity stepped up notably within the ultra-radical Holborn branch of the Reform League. He published a pamphlet on the fate of Emperor Maximilian, an Austian archduke who became the unlikely emperor of Mexico until he was shot dead by Mexican republicans.
James Finlen began to champion Irish republicanism, known more colloquially as the Fenian movement. In November 1867, he led an angry deputation to the Home Office to demand the commutation of the death sentence pronounced a group of Fenians for the murder of a Manchester police sergeant. The radicals didn't get to see the Home Secretary but staged a noisy and impromptu protest meeting in an ante-room. Newspaper reports gave prominence to the insurrectionary tone of some of the remarks. 'I would turn all the Tory governments into the sea', Finlen is said to have declared, 'rather than see these brave and plucky Fenians immolated in the way whic is intended'.A matter of days later three Fenians - the 'Manchester martyrs' - were publicly hanged.
Finlen became a figure of notoriety. He was accused by the press of neglecting his children - two of whom had by now died. His friends organised a testimonial intended to raise funds for his emigration to the US. But that was forestalled by the Clerkenwell 'Outrage' of December 1867, when Fenians blew up a wall of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in central London in an unsuccessful attempt to free one of their imprisoned leaders. In so doing, they killed at least seven local people and passers-by. Finlen himself was abused as a 'Fenian'. The incident was used to damage the reputation of the Reform League and led to the closure of its Holborn branch.
The Fenian bomb attack in Clerkenwell made those in London radicalism who allied with the Irish Republicans liable to the accusation that they were abetting terrorism. Finlen suffered from this insinuation more than any other contemporary figure, as you can see in the cartoons above, and that prmpted him in 1868 to write and publish a pamphlet in an teempt to redeem his reputation.
As you can see from the cartoons, a lot of the fuss about Finlen was intended to damage William Gladstone, the Liberal leader, who was portrayed as having close links with radical reformers among whom were supposedly unsavoury extremists. James Finlen is portrayed in one cartoon as a dead cat and in another as a dirty and disgraced old nag. However hot-headed Finlen may have been at times, he didn't deserve these calumnies.
Wellwishers again attempted to raise fund to allow Finlen to emigrate to the United States and so escape the notoriety into which he had fallen. It seems that he never made the journey - though he appears to have abandoned political activism..
Many years ago at the Bishopsgate Institute, when consulting the manuscript autibiography of George Howell, a prominent figure in the Reform League. I came across Howell's brief account of his onetime colleague:
James Finlen, 1864-73. James Finlen was of a type of a bygone generation when the Reform League was instituted. He also had been a chartist lecturer, but not of the first rank. Theatrical in his manner, and voluble in his language, he was able to impress an audience when at his best. But he, like others, had suffered, and perhaps had become a little reckless. Few men were more abused than Finlen, and few felt the abuse more. ... He seemed not to know the ordinary rules of business, and never knew the value of money until dire distress followed later on. On one matter the newspaper press did him a gross injustice. During his absence [on a Reform League lecturing tour] his wife lost her reason, thought her children were in want, and stole a joint of meat. The poor woman was found to be insane, but Finlen was accused of leaving her without money. That was not true. On the Saturday before the incident I took her some money myself at the husband's request, when she told me that I "needn't have troubled, for Jim had left her enough to go on with." But that incident closed Finlen's political career. He had arranged to migrate to America but failed to go. Subscriptions were got up, but he was ever in distress. The last time I saw him, in 1888, he walked eight miles to hear me speak, and to shake hands. He was hiding as it where [sic] in a strange town in Lancashire, under another name. He never could get over the blow, he said mournfully. A few of us sent him a little help when he was ill in a Hospital at Warrington, in 1889.'
So it seems that in old age, James Finlen was living under an assumed name in or near Warrington - though Robert Senior's assiduous research has failed to track him down there. Where and when Finlen died remains unclear.