The M’Pherson brothers comb makers and Chartists

Tombstone of James and John M'Pherson, comb makers and Chartists. St Peter's graveyard, King Street, Aberdeen

Tombstone of John M’Pherson, comb maker and Chartist.
St Peter’s graveyard, King Street, Aberdeen

Guest post by Textor

Hidden away on the west side of St Peter’s cemetery is a memorial to comb manufacturer John M’Pherson It sounds unlikely to us in the 21st century but at one time this Aberdeen industry was pre-eminent in Britain if not the world. John, with his brother James, was one of a number of local manufacturers producing combs by the thousand; the largest employer in this trade was Stewart of Aberdeen Comb Works, a firm which imported vast quantities of horn from across the world as well as tortoiseshell for the luxury end of the comb market.

James and John M’Pherson, however, should be best remembered for their radical politics in the 1840s, when both men stood for the Charter and against political corruption and privilege. Aberdeen was then no sleepy political backwater but part of a large national movement which saw thousands of disenfranchised tradesmen and others demanding the right to a voice in Parliament. Chartists wished to see all males over twenty-one given the vote, regardless of wealth, and as part and parcel of this struggle take political power out of the hands of the aristocracy and large property-owners. They argued for a secret ballot to remove intimidation by landlords and employers that occurred with open voting, payment of Members of Parliament so working men could attend parliament, equal so fairer constituencies and annual Westminster elections to counter corrupt practices.

Needless to say Aberdeen Journal, forerunner of The Aberdeen Press & Journal, showed its class bias when it mocked the notion that working men might be given a say in the running of the country. As in more recent examples of class prejudice the then editor believed that those with property and wealth had a God-given right to rule.

But Aberdeen’s Chartists were not to be ridiculed and as early as May 1832 thousands of Aberdeen working men took to the streets to demand a greater say in how the country should be run. In alliance with middle class reformers they believed their time had come.

The Great Reform Act that promised so much had proved a damp squib, enfranchising middle class men but denying the same rights to the working class. They had been sold down the river by the middle class happy to turn their backs on their fellow campaigners in the reform movement. And so Chartism was born.

In 1838 Aberdeen Workingmen’s Association (AWMA) was formed, an organisation in favour of the Charter and against middle class reformism. Despite the very male-centred politics of the era the following year, 1839, saw the creation of The Aberdeen Female Radical Association which believed that all capital springs from labour, and therefore the working classes having no capital, are robbed of their hard-won earnings. Thousands of Aberdonians signed the Chartist Petition demanding political rights. Many hundreds attended open air and indoor meetings, including James and John M’Pherson.

James and John stood against the lies and deceits of the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories; both men became active in Town Council affairs and were not afraid to contradict and clash with prominent political leaders such as Provosts Blaikie and Thomson as well as Member of Parliament Alex. Bannerman. The comb makers steadfastly argued for the right to vote, education for all working classes, improved housing and shorter working hours for factory operatives.   During a debate over “City Improvements” when Whig Councillors wanted to imprison ratepayers who fell into arrears, James M’Pherson’s anger and sense of injustice is obvious in his statement: You have all heard of the great Autocrat of Russia. The improvement Bill is equal to any one of his acts.

An indication of the corrupt nature of British politics was made abundantly clear in 1847 when James M’Pherson won the popular vote of thousands gathered at a meeting outside the Town House to become the candidate in the forthcoming General Election. However the majority participating and voting for the Chartist had no legal right to vote which meant the Tory and Whig apparatchiks demanded a count of registered voters be taken. Not surprisingly James M’Pherson no longer headed the pole although a small number did back him. He was entitled to speak and made short-work of his opponents: he highlighted the opposing candidates’ military and naval backgrounds, (they) had made a profession of the destruction of men – that they made it their business to destroy their fellow creatures, and devoted their lives to carrying suffering to mankind, saying Great Heaven! Had it come to this, that in this peace-loving country, they had no choice left but to send warriors to Parliament? He called on electors to rally round him and do away with class legislation and he continued, agitation might teach the people what they could accomplish.

chartist

It was radicalism such as this that the Whig Provost Thomson described as dangerous and likely to give working men notions above their station in life; in other words the people were liable to be deluded by dangerous demagogues. He was correct, at least as far as dangerous went.   The exclusive right of the propertied and wealthy to control political power was indeed threatened by Chartists, particularly those who supported using physical force to achieve Universal Suffrage – in 1839 the AWMA passed a resolution stating Parade not your arms at public meetings, but keep them bright and ready to defend your Queen, your country, and your liberty. In April 1847 there were rumours that Aberdeen’s Chartists were arming themselves.

The truth to tell, stories of armed insurrection were exaggerated and might even have been encouraged by agent provocateurs – certainly shoemaker David Wright was known to have been a spy for the British state. It is certainly true that men such as James and John M’Pherson and Mrs Ogilvie of the Female Radical Association were courageous political souls willing to make a stand in dangerous times, against a seemingly all-powerful and at times vengeful state.

When you pass their headstones give a nod of acknowledgment and even thanks to the brave comb makers James and John M’Pherson, and recognise their contribution to an ongoing struggle for freedom from the shackles which continue to bind.   The enemy might be strong but it is not omnipotent.

3 Comments to “The M’Pherson brothers comb makers and Chartists”

  1. Great to see your comments about my great grandfather John McPherson and his brother.It must run in our genes as my father was a trade unionist and communist and most of the family socialist.Pity none of us were as wealthy as John! One day I hope to repair his monument.

    • Very good to hear from you and glad you like Textor’s piece. I’ve passed on your comments to him. Sounds like you have an interesting family. Do you have any family photos or documents that could be interesting for a write-up? If you want you can email me at thehyena.lena@gmail.com

      Best wishes
      L

  2. Nothing changed this election year in 2015 then

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