Islington, London: James Watson (1799-1874)

James Watson Credit: World History Archive/Alamy


1830s and 1840s


Islington, London

A radical publisher with a bookshop near Bunhill Fields in Islington, James Watson was imprisoned three times for selling periodicals such as The Poor Man’s Guardian with radical views.

He was a founder in 1836 of the National Union of the Working Classes who held their meetings in the building which became the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell. Watson was a Chartist. Committed to establishing civil and political rights and gaining the vote for working class men, Chartism got its name from The People’s Charter, which demanded: 

  • All men should have the vote
  • Voting should be by secret ballot
  • Parliament should be elected every year
  • Constituencies should all be the same size
  • It should be possible to become an MP without owning property
  • MPs should be paid

To seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal, political, and social rights.

The People’s Charter, 1838
An engraving of crowds gathering on Clerkenwell Green watching men marching carrying banners and flags.
Crowds demonstrating on Clerkenwell Green. Source: Unknown

A huge demonstration took place in Copenhagen Fields, (now Caledonian Park in Islington), in April 1834, to protest about six farm labourers transported to Australia for forming a trade union. Two years later the men, known as the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’, were pardoned and returned to England. They were welcomed at Clerkenwell Green by the London Dorchester Committee, which included James Watson.

Radical Dorset

Black and white photograph of three women protesters and a baby outside the Hotel Alexandra

Clerkenwell Green in Islington was a rallying point for radical protests from the 18th century. In 1848 it was the meeting point for the largest ever Chartist march. Chartist ideas were included in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, increasing the number of men who could vote from 15% to 60%.

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