Poldark and Abolitionism – Poldark (series 5), BBC 1


There seems to be an increasing trend for period dramas to address the social and political issues of the time in which they’re set. OK, Victoria didn’t do it very accurately; but it’s still extremely welcome.  Ballrooms and bedrooms are great to an extent, but getting some big historical talking points in there’s even better. And, in the first episode of the new – and, very sadly, last – series of Poldark, we saw several major characters attending an Abolitionist meeting.

Abolitionism was probably the first great popular movement. “Am I not a man and a brother?” – the famous Wedgwood image might not work today, but the sentiment does: certain people might do well to remind themselves of it. As the 19th century went on, there were so many more reform movements, and most of them did succeed. Some of them centred around just one brave person – think Elizabeth Fry and prison reform, or Josephine Butler and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Some were mass movements, notably the campaigns for universal suffrage. Some were organised by groups of leading figures with particular interests. Workers’ rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, health, education, housing, sanitation, the removal of religion bars …

A lot of the language and images may seem patronising now – the Wedgwood image is very much of its time, don’t get me started on the Earl of Shaftesbury’s attitude towards the industrial north, and I don’t think the temperance advocates understood the real reasons why so many people drank too much – but people tried. To paraphrase Dirty Dancing (rather incongruously, I know), they thought they could make the world better.

Yet the century kicked off with a virtual reign of terror, amid Establishment paranoia about revolution. Trying both to fight this, on behalf of his pal Ned Despard – who did really exist, and was very well-known at the time although he’s largely been forgotten now – and to help to promote the campaign for Abolition, we have, of course, got Ross Poldark. Debbie Horsfield from Eccles has come up with all this, because the books don’t cover this period, and I’m rather enjoying it! Come on, what a hero! Mr Darcy may have been a good landlord, but he never made impassioned speeches in Parliament or saved the king from assassination attempts, did he? Mr Rochester locked up his wife and tried to commit bigamy! Now, Ross – what a hero. Tricorne hat and all!  And, hopefully, he’s making us think.

It looks as if a fair bit of this series is going to revolve around Ross’s friendship with Ned Despard, who, as I’ve said above, was a real life figure. Ned, like Ross, fought in the British army during the American War of Independence. He was then appointed superintendent of the Bay of Honduras (Belize), which was technically under Spanish sovereignty but had come under the control of British settlers – who were cutting and exporting mahogany, using slave labour. Poldark’s nemesis, George Warleggan the baddie, is getting involved in the mahogany trade. Ned clashed with the wealthy landowners, partly because, when new settlers arrived, some of them white and some of them (former slaves) black, he gave equal rights to them all. He also married a black or mixed race woman, possibly a former slave, Catherine (Kitty).

Despard was recalled to London, spent some time in a debtors’ prison, and then got involved in radical politics. Exactly what went on isn’t entirely clear, but he was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of involvement in the 1798 Irish Rebellion, before eventually being freed without charge, and then, in 1802, accused of leading the “Despard Plot”, an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the king and launch an uprising. Lord Nelson spoke on his behalf. But he was sentenced to death, and hanged and beheaded alongside six others – in front of a huge crowd.

Both he and Kitty, who’d mounted a very determined campaign for his release during his first period in jail and again in 1802, had become very well-known. Kitty had, additionally, spoken out about the appalling conditions in which prisoners were being kept – a cause taken up by the MP Francis Burdett. And this programme also showed her speaking at an Abolitionist meeting.

Was Despard guilty? If so, what exactly was he guilty of? Was he, after being a thorn in the Establishment’s side for years, framed? If he was guilty – and he almost certainly was guilty, of some sort of plotting – then did the way he’d been treated excuse him in any way? We kept getting that trailer with the voiceover about “when your own country betrays you”. What does the fact that he enjoyed a lot of popularity amongst the working-classes say about popular feeling?

Something to remember. Ned’s actions in the Bay of Honduras were correct in law. There was no discrimination on grounds of race in British law in the 1790s, any more than there is now. And there has never been any legal barrier in British(/English/Scottish) law against interracial marriage. That’s just worth remembering.

And something to think about. Reform not revolution, yes … but these were very, very difficult times. I think it’s meant to be 1800, so we’re 19 years before the Peterloo Massacre, which I know I tend to harp on about but which is getting a huge amount of local attention at the moment because we’re so close to the 200th anniversary. If you’ve got a state which will do that, where peaceful protesters will be mown down and stabbed by the cavalry … as the voiceover for the trailer kept saying, “to whom do you then owe loyalty”?

This is great stuff. Period dramas don’t always make you think. They should do! As I’ve said, ballrooms and bedrooms are fine, but let’s get everyone talking about big historical issues – and they don’t come much bigger than Abolitionism. Let’s not make it all about politics, obviously. We want the soapy stuff too. Oh, and if Ross could do the bare-chested scything thing again, it would be much appreciated. But let’s think, as well.

Maybe it was easier in the late 18th and the19th centuries. People, or at least middle-class people, involved in the reform movements had so much more time. However strongly you might feel about something, it’s difficult to do much when you’re stuck in work all day and then you’ve got housework and family responsibilities as well. I wonder about this sometimes. People who go around setting up camp outside fracking sites, or whatever – have they not got jobs? I’m not knocking anyone: I just genuinely don’t get it.

But, that aside, the point is that people like Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler and the others saw injustices and they tried to do something about them. At the moment, there just seems to be so much anger and hatred. Some of it’s utter rubbish about the most bizarre things, like claiming that the Wimbledon draw was fixed as part of a conspiracy by the British Establishment to give an advantage to a particular player (I am not making this up!!). Some of it is extremely serious – people yelling and screaming outside primary schools and threatening teachers, because schools have introduced “No Outsiders” programmes which explain to children that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally.  Then there are all the people who hurl abuse at you and accuse you of every manner of prejudices just because you happen to disagree with them about something.  And politicians hurl insults at each other instead of trying to get anything sorted.

Less yelling, more contemplating, more “am I not a man and a brother”, more thinking you can make the world better? It’s a nice thought …

Poldark … and Reform – BBC 1


The slave trade, rotten boroughs, pocket boroughs, bans on trade unions, the birth of health and safety legislation – in Radcliffe – , the “Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice” (seriously!), religious discrimination … it was all going on in the 1780s and 1790s.  And that’s before you start with the French Revolution.  Or, indeed, Ross Poldark wandering along the beach with no shirt on.  Did you see how the BBC teased us last night?  He started unbuttoning his shirt, but then got interrupted and kept it on!  Huh!!

Well, we’re now in the late 1790s, and Ross (with his shirt on) has been elected as an MP for a rotten borough – i.e. one with very few voters, in this case fewer than twenty.  Of the 57 rotten boroughs eventually abolished by the Great Reform Act of 1832, which also extended the franchise (to some middle class males), and ended the so-called Long Eighteenth Century (1688-1832), almost a quarter were in Cornwall, and most of the others were also in the south west.   Nice to see Debbie Horsfield from Eccles, who’s adapting the books for the TV series, getting Demelza Poldark to make the point that Manchester didn’t have any MPs at all at this point.  Nor did many other population centres, mainly in the north of England.   And, whilst it was also nice to see a female character expressing an opinion on politics, the idea of women actually being able to vote, let alone become MPs, wasn’t really on anyone’s agenda at this point 😦 … although Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had played quite a prominent part in Whig party campaigning in the late 1770s and early 1780s.

At least there was some genuine competition in Ross’s election: there were also plenty of “pocket boroughs” where some aristocrat could effectively choose the MP by bullying a majority of voters into doing what he wanted.  George Warleggan, having been defeated by Ross, was determined to get back into Parliament.  It was pointed out that this shouldn’t be a problem as there were plenty of seats for sale, but George decided that he’d do better actually buying his own borough – and preferably one with two MPs rather than one.  He was soon negotiating to this end with the dastardly Monk Adderley, who told Ross that he rarely bothered turning up to the House of Commons and told George that he’d never even been to the constituency he represented and never intended to.  OK, hopefully most MPs of the time weren’t quite as bad as Adderley and Warleggan, but there’s no denying the fact that some were.


No secret ballot until 1872, which was why the “owners” of pocket boroughs were able to control the voting there.  In Ross’s constituency, we saw the (fewer than twenty) voters each declaring whether they were voting for nice Ross or nasty George.  George claimed that he’d lost out because, although he had money, he wasn’t from an old gentry family as Ross was.  Obviously, we all know that that was just sour grapes, and that he’d lost out because he was a baddie (boo, hiss) and Ross was a goodie; but neither of them would have been able to stand had they not met the property qualification for doing so – not abolished until 1858.  And, much as we may moan about MPs’ salaries and expenses these days, until 1911 they weren’t paid at all, so anyone who couldn’t afford to pack in any other job they had and pay for accommodation in London was out of the reckoning.

Just thinking about it all makes me want to march to Kersal Moor (well, it’s only about a mile away), scene of a huge Chartist meeting in 1838, and read out the six points of the People’s Charter!

Ross had insisted, when agreeing to stand as a candidate, that it was on the understanding that he would support measures to “help the poor”, and also that he would support the abolition of the slave trade.  Abolitionism had really got going in the 1780s: the slave trade would be abolished in the British Empire in 1807 (but the practice of slavery not until 1833 in the British Empire, and later than that in many other places).   Wilberforce wasn’t quite the hero he’s always made out to be.  Obviously his contribution to the Abolitionist movement was huge, and he is rightfully lauded for that, and also for his contributions to setting up (what became) the RSPCA and the RNLI, but he supported the Combination Acts (more of which later) and opposed the holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  Keep the working classes in their place 😦 .

Interestingly, Ross’s first speech in connection with Abolitionism was to the effect that that, abhorrent as the slave trade was, the debate about it was drawing attention away from the issue of conditions in “the mills of the North”.   He was obviously very sincere, but something always puts my back up about members of the Southern upper classes, who’d never been near a textile mill in their lives, talking about the subject.

I know that that’s really stupid, because I’m always getting worked up about things in places I’ve never been to, but … I think it’s because of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury – who hadn’t actually even been born at this point, but was very involved in campaigns to improve conditions for child labourers in mills and mines, and conditions in asylums, and the banning of the practice of using children as chimney sweeps, in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’m sure he meant very well, and the legislation was much needed and very important, but the way he put things was just so patronising.  All that “When I die, you will find “Lancashire” engraved on my heart” stuff.  I know that times were different then, but that patronising, paternalistic attitude just annoys me!   And do not get me started on the subject of Charles Dickes and Hard Times.

To get back to the 1790s, which is what I’m actually supposed to be writing about, the calls for legislation about health and safety in factories, especially for children, were being led by Robert Peel – father of the future Prime Minister of the same name.  Born in Blackburn and later based in Bury.  Robert Owen, owner of the mills at New Lanark, also later got involved.  Robert Peel owned a cotton mill in Radcliffe – now three Metrolink stops up the Manchester to Bury line from chez yours truly.  After an outbreak of putrid fever there in 1784, he became concerned about the treatment of the apprentices there by his managers, and it was he who introduced what became the Factory Act of 1802, and the later and more effective Cottons Mills and Factories Act of 1819.  So, British health and safety legislation originated in Radcliffe!  And Ross did have a point about the need to tackle problems at home as well as those, however important, abroad.

However … the 1802 Factory Act was officially called the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, and, whilst it did address the working and living conditions of apprentices in the mills, it also included a load of brainwashing provisions involving making apprentices attend Church of England services and preparing them for Church of England communion.  I know.  Different times and all that.  But it says a lot that the parliamentary powers that were, and the Church of the Establishment, had to get that in there.  See what I mean about patronising, paternalistic, attitudes?!

Ross owns a mine in Cornwall.  He didn’t mention working conditions in mines – although conditions in mines, especially coal mines, were also horrendous.  The issue of conditions of mines wasn’t addressed until long after conditions in mills first became an issue.  It was 1842 before the Mines and Collieries Act was passed.  A commission investigating conditions in mines was set up in 1838, after 26 children, some of them as young as 8, were killed in an accident at a mine near Barnsley.  Our pal Shaftesbury, Lord Ashley as he was then, got it through Parliament by going on about how women were working topless (because of the extreme heat in the mines) and were wearing trousers (to protect their legs as they crawled along, dragging cartloads of coal behind them).  26 kids from the Northern labouring classes being killed –whatever.  Women working topless and wearing trousers, disgusting!  Get that legislation passed!  OOH 😦 .  It’s the attitude …

But at least the legislation got through.  And I was glad to see that Ross wasn’t mithering about forcing kids to attend church, or worrying about what female workers were or weren’t wearing.

Going back to the Combination Acts, they, passed in 1799 and 1800, largely a response to the events of the French Revolution, and also due to fear of a strike being called in wartime, banned the formation of trade unions and bargaining by British workers.  They were repealed in 1824, but the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported in 1833 on the excuse of the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 – which aimed to stop mutinies in the Navy.  Again … keep the working classes in their place 😦 .

And stop them from enjoying themselves!  In 1787, the “Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice” was issued.  Great name, that, isn’t it?  Even Oliver Cromwell never came up with that one.   This was another of Wilberforce’s great ideas, incidentally.  The man should really have stuck to Abolitionism!  The “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality”, to give it its full name.  No enjoying yourself on a Sunday, even though it’s the only time you’ve got off work.  No swearing.  No excessive boozing.  No dirty books – and that might sound amusing, but the Powers That Were’s ideas on suppressing dirty books included wanting to prevent the lower classes from reading anything about contraception, which wasn’t very funny at all.  Nobody took much notice.  So the Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded (in London) in 1802.  Nobody took much notice of that either.

We’re actually getting the other, better, side of the piety/Sabbatarian thing in Poldark, and that’s the growth of Methodism.  Obviously Cornwall is somewhere particularly associated with that, and it’s even been suggested that Sam and Drake Carne, Demelza’s brothers, were partly based on John and Charles Wesley.  They do come across really well, never too preachy, never patronising, never trying to force anyone into anything.  There was still significant discrimination against Nonconformists at this time, and even more so against Catholics, and, because the oaths required to be taken on assuming public office were specifically Christian, against Jews; and it would be well into the 19th century before there was religious equality in the UK.  It could be argued that there still isn’t, given that some forms of religious marriage are not legally binding and couples being married under those rites have to have a civil ceremony as well.  The big Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was still thirty years away at this point – and under twenty years had passed since the Gordon Riots of 1780, when there were major protests in London against plans for Catholic emancipation.  George Warleggan had it in for the Carnes mainly because they were Ross’s brothers-in-law, but I don’t think the fact that they were Methodists helped either.

Compared to most Continental countries, Britain in the 1790s was a model of liberty, equality and fraternity.  And even newly independent America only really offered life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to well-to-do white men.  But there was a hell (just had to put that in to cock a snook at the Discouragement of Vice brigade) of a long way to go in terms of social and political change.

Ross Poldark (yes, I do know that he wasn’t actually real) was one of the good guys.  And/but he could only work within the system he was in.  The storyline about his election to Parliament, and his work there, is fascinating.  Yes, we all enjoy the shirtless stuff, and the romantic stuff, but there’s a lot of very important history in there as well.  Please, please don’t let this be the last series!   Let it run and run!