A long time ago, like almost fifty years ago, I read Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium, which introduced me to the ranters and other European millenarian cults, which I found so weird it was fascinating.
Around the same time, I was in Oxford for the weekend and I saw a poster for a SWP organised commemoration of the Banbury Mutineers (this was the seventies after all when such things were more common) which introduced me to the primitive anarcho-communism of the Levellers, which of course appealed to my young and idealistic self.
Well, as one grows older, one leaves such things behind, but as part of my lockdown reading I’ve just finished Christopher Hill’s The world turned upside down, which I should probably have read forty years ago.
In this book, Christopher Hill discusses the growth of radical religious groups under the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth, and their influence on the more radical elements in the New Model Army, and the clawing back of power by the parliamentarian establishment.
A good read if you are interested in that sort of thing, and probably as boring as batshit if you aren’t.
One thing though that interested me was a comment in Hill’s concluding remarks that even as late as the early nineteenth century, the period of religious dissent under Cromwell, was celebrated as Oliver’s days in the area around Haworth, and that this may have influenced Charlotte Bronte.
The source for this was given as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte.
Now Elizabeth Gaskell’s father was a Unitarian minister, and in England at least, Unitarianism, like the Quakers, was a set of beliefs and practices that can trace their beginnings back to the period of religious dissent under Cromwell.
In other words, Elizabeth Gaskell was well placed to assess if there was a legacy of religious radicalism in the area.
The other thing which is interesting (to me ast least) was that this area was also known for several significant Chartist demonstrations in the 1840’s, and of course the British government shipped a good many of the Chartists off to Australia for riot, insurrection, machine breaking and other such crimes, some of whom ended up working in the goldfields and were involved in the fight for miners rights including not only the Eureka Stockade but also the Ovens Petitions, as well as the monster meeting at Madman’s Gully in August 1853.
It may seem a stretch to link seventeenth century religious dissenters to gold miners in 1850’s Beechworth, but it’s possily less of a stretch than it first seems …