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 (copied below) - indicates both his massive contribution to the Chartist movement and some of the weaknesses in his character and political propaganda.
O'BRIEN, JAMES [BRONTERRE] (1805–1864), chartist, was born in 1805. His father, who was ‘an extensive wine and spirit merchant, as well as a tobacco manufacturer, in the county of Longford’ (Gammage), failed in business during James's early boyhood, and he was educated at the Edgeworthstown school which had been promoted by Richard Lovell Edgeworth [q. v.] He was, however, able to proceed to Dublin University, where he graduated B.A. in 1829. He then went to London, and entered as a law student at Gray's Inn. Here he almost at once became acquainted with Henry Hunt [q. v.] and William Cobbett [q. v.] In 1831 Henry Hetherington [q. v.] started the unstamped ‘Poor Man's Guardian,’ and O'Brien became practically the real, though Hetherington was the nominal, editor.
He also wrote in Hetherington's ‘Poor Man's Conservative.’ O'Brien used to sign his articles ‘Bronterre,’ and afterwards called himself James Bronterre O'Brien. He seems at first to have adopted many of Cobbett's opinions on the national debt, currency, &c., but afterwards to have steadily developed ideas of his own. He read widely in the literature of the French revolution, publishing in 1836 a translation, with notes, of Buonarotti's ‘History of Babeuf's Conspiracy,’ and in 1837 the first volume of a eulogistic ‘Life of Robespierre.’ By this time his own opinions were strongly revolutionary and socialistic, although he never adopted the name of socialist. He started in 1837 ‘Bronterre's National Reformer,’ which soon died, and in 1838 ‘The Operative,’ which came to an end in July 1839.
From the beginning of the chartist movement O'Brien was one of the most prominent figures in it. He was a delegate to the meeting in Palace Yard (17 Sept. 1838) which opened the campaign in London. He was the best-informed man among the chartists at that time, and was generally known, after a nickname given by Feargus O'Connor [q. v.], as the ‘schoolmaster.’ When the ‘chartist convention’ met in the spring of 1839, he represented the chartists of Manchester and other places. In the earlier months of the convention he constantly advocated ‘physical force.’ On 8 May 1839, for instance, in presenting a draft ‘Address to the People,’ he stated that ‘it was his intention to tell the people to arm without saying so in so many words.’ Throughout 1839 he contributed violent articles which he signed to the ‘Northern Star.’ But as the convention went on, and particularly after a tour as ‘missionary’ in various parts of the country, he gave more moderate advice. On 16 July 1839 he carried in the convention a resolution against the proposed ‘sacred month,’ or general strike, and it was on his motion that the convention dissolved itself (6 Sept. 1839). In consequence of the ‘Newport rising’ (November 1839), a number of trials for sedition took place in the spring of 1840. O'Brien was acquitted (February 1840) at Newcastle on a charge of conspiracy, but found guilty at Liverpool (April 1840) of seditious speaking. He was sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment. Towards the end of his imprisonment both he and Feargus O'Connor found means of communicating with the newspapers, and carried on a controversy as to the chartist policy at the general election, O'Connor advocating and O'Brien condemning an active alliance with the tory party.
Released in September 1841, O'Brien shortly afterwards began a series of bitter personal quarrels with Feargus O'Connor, whom he afterwards called the ‘Dictator,’ and who called him the ‘Starved Viper.’ During the chartist struggle against the anti-corn law league he argued that free-trade would lower prices, and so increase the proportion which the landlords, holders of consols, &c., were able to appropriate from the national product. These views he expounded at enormous length in the ‘British Statesman,’ of which he was editor (June-December 1842). He opposed Feargus O'Connor's land scheme from the beginning. In 1845 he was editor of the ‘National Reformer,’ in which he advocated ‘symbolic money’ and ‘banks of credit accessible to all classes’ (Gammage, p. 280).
When the chartist convention met on 4 April 1848, O'Brien was one of the delegates, and spoke strongly against physical force. He was, however, completely out of touch with the other delegates, and on 9 April withdrew.
After the fiasco of chartism in 1848, O'Brien was for a short time editor of ‘Reynolds's Newspaper,’ but mainly lived by lecturing at the John Street Institute, and at the Eclectic Institute, Denmark Street, Soho, on his ‘scheme of social reform,’ i.e. land nationalisation, the payment of the national debt by the owners of property, state industrial loans, and symbolic currency. Between 1856 and 1859 he published odes to Lord Palmerston and Napoleon Bonaparte, and an elegy on Robespierre. He was for the latter part of his life extremely poor, and his books were on several occasions seized for debt. In February 1862 Charles Bradlaugh lectured for the ‘Bronterre O'Brien Testimonial Fund.’
He died on 23 Dec. 1864. In 1885 a few of his disciples published a series of his newspaper articles in book form, under the title of ‘The Rise, Progress, and Phases of Human Slavery.’ Bronterre O'Brien was the only prominent chartist who showed himself in any way an original thinker. But his literary work, though sometimes eloquent, was always rambling and inaccurate, and he was a rancorous and impracticable politician. He had, however, a great power of attracting and preserving the affection of his personal followers, several of whom, though poor themselves, used to contribute regularly to his support in his later years. He was married, and had four children.
[Gammage's Hist. of Chartism, 1854; Northern Star, 1837–48; Charter, 1839; Place MSS. in Brit. Mus.] G. W.
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
also posted is an article about the New World, the monthly journal of the O'Brienite Mutual Emigration and Colonisation project, and what appears to be the only surviving copy of this title