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November 2008
THE LONDON CORRESPONDING SOCIETY

Kevin Murphy
It rains like a final sadness, a bereavement. That is apt.




corsoc-murphy-

It is late. All is quiet. The rain slaps and cracks in the yard below. I sit by the window with the candle, the room discovered and lost as the flame struggles. I watch the rain fill the darkness outside, and in the glass my reflection is a grey shadow where it rains hardest and clearest. Next to my shape, the candle glows in the glass and dissolves the night.

She shifts in her sleep. I look around at the room.

Tonight is Thursday night. That is the night is when the General Committee meets, and when Ivan, the delegate from our division, goes up to Charing Cross to the house where they rent a room for the purpose. Those meetings last well into the night, as they have so much to discuss. At our divisional meeting last night, we asked him to take a motion from our division to the General Committee to alter the Constitution of the Society. That is how we are organised. To remain within the law, we are gathered in divisions, supposedly of no more than thirty men (though ours has nearly forty) and each division sends a delegate to the Committee. Ivan attends to his Committee duties assiduously.

These are difficult times for us. We have survived these five years, but now, I fear, our Society is waning. The government moves against us with great determination, and since they broke up our public meeting at St. Pancras, we have seen many leave us in fear. That, and the debts… we are at a low ebb. Worse is to come.

Somewhere a clock chimes the quarter. I can scarcely remember how it felt at first, so much has happened. When we were new, the London Corresponding Society was like a pod bursting, scattering new ideas and thoughts in our minds. We are ordinary men, mostly, and what Mr Hardy started may be but the latest of these societies for freedom and liberty, but it was the first where we, those common men to be granted the basic liberty we seek, have had the means to learn about our rights and express our desire for them. It was the revolution in France, I suppose, that helped bring it about, and the centenary of 1688, and the American war a few years before. All these things have put new thoughts in the heads of men, who have wondered at the evil and infamy that rots this country. We demanded a simple thing: the right of every man of twenty one years or more to elect representatives to an annual parliament.

I sit here in the lemon light of the candle and try to see my former self. I am a clock maker, though these days my work is infrequent because of my involvement with the Society, and I live off my wits. My father was also a clock maker, and I was apprenticed to him at thirteen, before which I had received a small education. I learned to read, and write, and had memorised passages from the Bible. My parents died one after the other when I was about sixteen, and I had to find myself a place with another clock maker with a shop in the Borough. I lodged in the house of Mr Challis, a cabinet maker and a friend of my father, a successful man with a library of books that he encouraged me to read. Later, he was an early member of the Society, and it was by his nomination that I also became a member. The hours I spent in his library! It was there that I read Mr Paine's 'Right of Man', slowly and painfully, and where Mr Challis talked to me of things that were like hidden stars to me: ideas and principles glowing in their beauty, but of which I had been entirely ignorant. Together, we read pamphlets and books, he explaining things to me as we went along. I read of ancient Greece and Rome, the essays of Hume, Adam Smith and Locke, of algebra and geometry. He had been acquainted with a gentleman who was a member of the Society for Constitutional Information, an ally and model for the Corresponding Society, but made up of those already enfranchised.

We are called a Corresponding Society after the American Committees of Correspondence, established in rejection of British government in the colonies, but we do indeed correspond with other societies throughout this country who are joined with us in our quest for justice and liberty. We must style ourselves as ‘corresponders’, for to form ourselves in one body with our brothers would be treason in the eyes of the government. The Society was formed when Thomas Hardy, a successful shoemaker and our founder, met with eight other men in January of 1792. By the middle of the year, they were so many that they had to organise in divisions. When I joined, in September, there were hundreds of us. I had never guessed that so many might be taken by such passion for an idea. I attended the meetings, and the Sunday readings and debates, and week by week my mind seemed to snap yet another chain holding it to the things I had known and believed to be the only truths. I breathed the London air as if for the first time. I saw the city as a new place, and mine to fathom. I wandered that winter, in the brilliant icy days of December and January, deep in thought, with an almost unbearable feeling of excitement at our potential — my potential! — in a world where all might have a say in how we are governed and by whom. When at my work, I could barely still my fingers as they held the tiny mechanisms that made the clocks work, my mind racing with ideas. I was transformed.

The government, always trying to squash opposition to its tyranny, attempted to punish us. At a public meeting in October of 1793, Mr Maurice Margarot and Mr Joseph Gerrald had been appointed as our representatives to a convention of those seeking reform in Edinburgh. When they arrived, they were arrested, and subsequently transported to New South Wales. We were not daunted, but worse was to come. We met outside again, at Chalk Farm, in April of 1794, to propose another convention of representatives from all of the reform societies in Great Britain. But the government were poised to strike. After the meeting, Hardy and twelve other men were arrested and accused of high treason. It was a terrible blow, but we were victorious: all were acquitted later that year.

By now, I had become engrossed in the life and work of the society. As our membership began to grow again after the setbacks of 1794, I became a tithing man, responsible for keeping my ten men in attendance at meetings, and informing them of things they needed to know and do. I then became the secretary for our division here in Southwark, responsible for collecting dues, paying the rent for the meeting room in the Hogshead, writing out the motions and so on. I thrived. I was a new man, and to be honest, I almost felt that the journey to emancipation was too good to end in arrival. I was elected sub-delegate, to stand in for the delegate when he could not attend the general committee. I had wanted to be the delegate, but Ivan had beaten me in the election.

We are all together in this, our struggle for our natural rights. But some struggle more or less, and some more for the cause and less for themselves, and vice versa. I was good at persuading people, I found. I have always been good at talking to my fellow man, and making them see my point of view. Others say little to us all together, but much in private, leaning to their brother's ear, or across the table as others speak. Ivan is also a persuasive man. But there are some things that he doesn't know. Or perhaps just one thing.

Did I mention that I was married? No. Well, I was married not long after my parents died, and what with my father's debts and a child already on its way (yes, I have children, too — five, now, but there will be no more) — well, it's no wonder that Mr Challis took pity on us and gave us lodgings. My poor, dumb wife. She doesn't see me, the changed, liberated man that I am now. She sees nothing but the walls that surround her, and her children, and gossip with the other women. She is best where she is. Its little wonder, then, that I strayed.

The other woman was — and is, of course — married, and I would not have thought of doing such a thing before then. I am, after all, from simple, God-fearing stock; I am a respecter of rules. But now I would think of such a thing, because I have learned the habit of thought, and of weighing my wellbeing against that of the world and the way things are. More than that — I can see myself in the world. I can see myself as an individual, a single human creature amongst millions, but within this single human being is a world of emotion, appetite, desire and a yearning for a story of my own, not that of every other artisan clockmaker in London, in England, in the world. I want to be of my fellows and utterly different from every last one of them. I yearn for what I cannot have and hope that I might have some of it. I yearn for wonder and difference, and astonishment at what I can do, and never knowing what might happen.

She said it to me, I think, breathed in my ear in a moment of passion, perhaps — what is all this liberty for, if not to do as one wished, to be happy? Yes, I thought at that moment, that has been the thing hovering at the edge of my consciousness on those long solitary walks in my newly acquired city, shadowing my solitary, self-observing joy. What was it for? Oh, the very understanding of what was my natural right was in itself a kind of liberty. But how are we all to be happy? And how are we to be happy, all at the same time?

I have found a way to be happy. It was a lush, delicious awakening, a flood of sensations and feelings I never knew existed. I looked out for her, followed her, gazed upon her in the gardens, bribed servants to tell me where she might be going. Slowly, in stages, with looks and smiles, accidental meetings, polite conversations taut with mutual longing, distracted dreamy days at the work bench, rapt waiting near her house, missing Society meetings… We made our acquaintance into a friendship, though secret. Then… well, a way was found, and things took their course.

At the same time, I was busy with the Society, plagued as we were with spies and saboteurs by then. These individuals found their way into our midst, and sent back their reports to their masters in the government. They knew all about us and our leaders. They continued their efforts to disrupt and destroy us. During 1795, we held large public meetings in St. George's Fields and in St Pancras. On both occasions, the police and the military were present in force. Then, a few days after the St Pancras meeting, the window of the King's carriage was broken on the way to Parliament, and they blamed us. Immediately, two acts of Parliament were passed despite our protests. The Treason and the Sedition acts constrained our ability to hold meetings and to organise ourselves. Our brothers in the other societies were suffering as well. In February of 1796, we sent John Binns and John Gale Jones to other cities in England to try and keep alive the spirit of reform, but they were arrested in Birmingham.

My private world grew richer and more exciting every day. She is amazing, my secret woman. Outwardly modest and mild, she is deeply passionate, possessed of a towering spirit, beneath which I am like a child. I cannot but obey her. She holds me, a willing prisoner of her charm. When she bids me come to her, I do so, desperately, willingly. I can only think about how we might live, were she free of her husband. I would serve her for eternity. She knows this. But that is an idle, flimsy dream. That I might be able to give her what she deserves… With my pitiful income, it is as unlikely as the notion that I could ever purchase enough houses and tenements to win me the franchise that my brothers and I yearn for.

The past year has been the start of the end, I fear. Our 'Moral and Political Magazine' has simply lost us more money. Moreover, many members, myself included, felt that the Society's zeal had diminished. We argued with our brothers about becoming more forthright and active in pursuit of the reform we sought. We eventually persuaded the cautious ones to hold a meeting in the summer of 1797, but the magistrates read the Riot Act, and all left in fear of their lives — the punishment for failing to disperse.

I and others were tired of improvement. We reasoned that we could improve for ever, but it would not be worth it were we forever to be without the power to determine our future. It was time to take what we demanded, rather than wait for it to be given. In Ireland, in 1797, the United Irishmen bravely fought for their rights. The United Englishmen were to do the same, and many of us secretly joined them while remaining in the London Corresponding Society, for better or worse.

These past weeks… arrests and more arrests. We can do nothing. I am weary of all of this. I have talked and debated and argued. Endless talk, endless meetings, endless compromise, because there is always another opinion, another point of view and another way of looking at things. As many as there are brothers. Messy debate, botched consensus. But we are still without what we set out to get. We — the great body of the people — cannot vote, and it seems as though we never shall. I am free in my head, only. And if we did achieve what we want? How should we know that it was worth it? What time would this great mechanism tell, that which we wish to create? And would it always tell the same time, truly?

The candle is nearly spent. The room is full of shadows and phantoms. The storm continues. Ivan will be leaving the meeting, trudging through the wet, windy streets, crossing over the river as the rain speckles the frothing current below, and along through the alleys and passages to his house. He will come wearily into his hall, where the one candle left for him is guttering. He will extinguish it, and he will slowly, blindly climb the stairs and enter the darkened room where his wife sleeps. As he stands there, exhausted, he will see, by the grey lightness from the window, the bottle that rests where I've left it, nearly empty.




© Kevin Murphy 2003


Comment

Ruth Mallors: Great story, short, "sweet", articulated, gentle.
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