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Peter Murray McDouall (1814-54)


Jenny Wormald in her biography “Mary Queen of Scots. A Study in Failure” describes a Scottish monarch who lacked an interest in Scotland and who posessed an obsession in aquiring the English throne. In 1548, at the age of just five, Mary left Scotland for France. She returned to Scotland in 1561 following the death of her husband and continued to still own and manage considerable French estates, the legacy of the dowry settled upon her as a consequence of her brief marriage to the the French king. In Scotland, and even during her long imprisonment in England, Mary maintained a predominantly French household and a pronounced interest in French affairs. French was to remain her first language.

The Marie Stuart Society have now begun a campaign to raise about £100,000 for a full-size bronze statue of Mary.

However, Socialist Courier is always surprised, although we shouldn’t be, by our own forgotten Scottish working class history. The Chartist activist and friend of Marx and Engels, George Julian Harney was to recall, “no man in the Chartist movement was better known than Dr McDouall”.

We are indebted to the late Left historian Raymond Challinor for his biography of Peter McDouall which can be accessed here which typically endeavours to make McDouall out to be a Scottish Lenin. Peter McDouall was one of the most significant figures in Chartism. Imprisoned twice, dying at a relatively young age, it is not too much to say that McDouall gave his life for Chartism. He was one of the half-dozen outstanding leaders of Chartism which can be regarded as its first organised expression of workers and from its outset was riven by a division between supporters of physical force and those who believed in moral force; in fact, the two camps – revolutionaries and reformists – continue in working-class politics right down to the present-day.

Peter McDouall was born in Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire, the son of Andrew McDouall. He served an apprenticeship with a surgeon in his home town, studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh, and in summer 1835 was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. He was involved in several debating societies, especially in that of Castle Douglas. He subsequently moved to Lancashire, first to Burnley practice and then the small cotton town of Ramsbottom. He came to Chartism radicalised by his exposure to the bleak factory conditions in industrial Lancashire and was a campaigner for factory reforms, becoming involved in the ten-hour day agitation. Following the arrest of Joseph Rayner Stephens McDouall took his place in the forthcoming Chartist convention as delegate for Ashton under Lyne, the militant Chartist centre with which McDouall was to be closely associated for the rest of his life. In the first convention in 1839, McDouall was a foremost advocate of physical force and, later, of the ‘sacred month’, the Grand National Holiday (or General Strike). He was “an advocate for the arming of the people, in defence of their constitutional rights, and although he deprecates the idea of turning any deadly weapon against the lives and property of any portion of the community, he boldly avows that he would take his place with the people to resist any unconstitutional aggression that might be attempted upon their few existing rights and liberties.” according to The Charter portraits of delegates, in 1839.

He also became a staunch advocate of the power of the ordinary worker. He explained:
 “The Trades are equal to the middle class in talent, far more powerful in means and much more united in action.” and again “The agitation for the Charter has afforded one of the greatest examples in modern history of the real might of the labourers. In the conflict millions have appeared on the stage and the mind of the masses has burst from its shell and begun to flourish and expand.”
In August he was sentenced at Chester to twelve months’ imprisonment for sedition. On his release in August 1840, McDouall toured the north of England and Scotland and while in Glasgow, he married Mary Ann, the daughter of a warder at Chester Castle, where he had served his sentence.

In Scotland, McDouall held some extremely well-attended meetings. An estimated 200,000 people assembled to hear speeches from White, Collins and McDouall. A huge procession marched on to Glasgow Green, with 30 bands and 100 banners. Workers walked in their trade groups – masons, smiths, shoemakers, cabinetmakers, dyers, dressers, boilermakers and so on. Female chartists had their own contingent on the march. When they all arrived on the Green, a representative of the women read out addresses to the three leaders, presenting each of them with a commemorative medal. But for Glaswegians themselves the demonstration also had a commemorative significance. The Scots Times claimed “the old radical spirit” had been revived. “The demonstration on Monday exceeded that held when the Earl of Durham visited Glasgow, and was scarcely equalled by that of O’Connell. Chartism is supreme in Glasgow”.

McDouall spoke at other meetings in Airdrie, Aloa, Coatbridge, Dalkeith, Dumfries, Dumbarton, Dumferline, Edinburgh, Forfar, Kilmarnock, Linlithgow, Markinch, Montrose, Stirling, St. Ninians, the Vale of Leven and several other places. The massive demonstrations, often resulting in expressions of democratic sentiment on an unparalleled scale, revealed the existence among working people of a common aim and purpose. Precisely for this reason the question of what was the next step forward, was posed with greater urgency; and it was on this issue that Chartists were so deeply divided. In places like Dunfermline, supporters of moral force refused to sponsor McDouall’s meeting and organised a rival attraction. This did not deter the Doctor’s supporters, most of whom were miners, from going ahead with their demonstration, where McDouall combined an exposition of Chartist principles with a denunciation of the moderates who clamoured for an alliance with the middle class.

He no longer believed in making impassioned speeches urging the use of force. Wild revolutionaryrhetoric had led to rash acts of impetuosity in England and Wales, with disastrous consequences, which had been largely avoided in Scotland. As he told Edinburgh Chartists:
“We gave our passions the rein; but you have been more cautious, you have suffered less – you gave the reins to reason.”

This did not mean that he had renounced the use of force. What he now appeared to advocate was the possession of weapons for defensive purposes. Peacefully if possible, forcefully if necessary. If the authorities resorted to violence in an attempt to crush Chartism, he thought the moral force men would be the first to run away.

McDouall understood the need to avoid riots and premature uprisings, fights with the authorities culminating in demoralisation and defeat. For this reason he was highly critical of the Newport uprising that occurred in November 1839. In a letter from prison, he argues it had been an “ill-managed, foolish and quixotic adventure”. Such setbacks interfered with the Chartist Movement which would grow due to “The financial disarrangement, the foreign difficulties, the domestic insurrection, will all merge in the end into a grand revolutionary out break. No power on earth can prevent it.”

In 1841 and 1842 McDouall played a prominent role in the recently formed National Charter Association, and headed the poll for the executive in both years. He also published his own Chartist and Republican Journal in 1841. Past defeats he judged, could all be attributed to this cause:
“Our associations were hastily got up, composed of prodigious numbers, a false idea of strength was wrought up to the highest pitch, thence originated a sense of security which subsequent events proved to be false, and why? because no real union existed at the bottom.”

McDouall’s answer to the problem was to turn to the newly-forming working class; only it had the necessary potential strength. He believed Chartists should be active in the trade unions, win them over for the cause and use them as a basis for Chartist agitation.

One difficulty was that some Chartists saw the trade unions not as possible allies but as rivals. Strange to say, as the Leeds Times reported, many Yorkshire Chartist branches had a rule that members should take part “in no agitation but for The Charter.” They regarded union activity as a diversion, side-tracking people from the real struggle. Sometimes this suspicion was reciprocated. In North East England for example, some trade unionists had actually struck at the beginning of “the sacred month”. Since it had turned out to be such a fiasco, some of them had severed their Chartist connections.

McDouall strongly opposed the expanding British Empire.
“Let all who have possessions in India, or all who profit by what you call ‘our Indian possessions’ be off to India, and fight a thousand battles for them is they like...but let them not mock our degradation by asking us, working people to fight alongside them, either for our ‘possessions’ in India, or anywhere else, seeing that we do not possess a single acre of ground, or any other description of property in our own country, much less colonies, or ‘possessions’ in any other, having been robbed of everything we ever earned by the middle and upper classes...On the contrary, we have an interest in prospective loss or ruin of all such ‘possessions’, seeing they are but instruments of power in the hands of our domestic oppressors. ”

He stood for parliament at Northampton in June 1841 but came bottom of the poll. After representing Ashton in the convention of April 1842, he was the principal supporter of the general strike movement in August and it was he who drafted the executive’s very forceful address to the people. The government offered a £100 reward for his apprehension, but he escaped to France, where he lived for the next two years. He was able to return to Britain without prosecution during 1844 and resumed his life of a Chartist agitator, publishing The Charter: What It Means! The Chartists: What They Want! in 1845.

1848 was Europe’s Year of Revolutions. He spoke at rally after rally spurring masses of people into self-activity. After he spoke at Glasgow in March a riot occurred, followed by another in Edinburgh, where there were shouts of “Vive la Republique” and “Bread and Revolution”. Although McDouall’s presence led the authorities to link him with the disturbances, it seems that those responsible were destitute Irish and unemployed Scots.

He unsuccessfully contesting the parliamentary seat of Carlisle in June. He he was a member of the Chartists national assembly and, once more elected to the executive, and was at the heart of another insurrectionary conspiracy where he ended up doing two years’ hard labour at Kirkdale gaol for his part in a meeting at Ashton. Great hardship was suffered by his wife and children, the eldest of whom, a ten-year-old girl, actually died. After release in 1850 his efforts to publish McDouall’s Manchester Journal and to establish a medical practice in Ashton both failed. In the summer of 1853, McDouall emigrated to Australia but he died shortly after arrival about May, 1854.

The Northern Star wrote in 1848:
 “When he came among you he had good property in Scotland, a profession and a practice, which realized him several hundred pounds annually, besides a large sum of accumulated money in the bank. All of which has been spent long ago in the advocacy of the rights of the people.”

It would be far more fitting for the Scottish people to commemorate a red-blooded rebel than a blue-blooded royal.

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