George Shell was a Chartist activist. He was caught up in the wave of Chartist arrests and prosecutions in the summer of 1848, and was convicted of seditious words and unlawful assembly.
Very little is known of George’s early life, except that he was born in 1815 or 1816 and came from Bristol. A shoemaker by trade, we know that by 1844 he was living in London, probably south of the river (his address in 1848 was off the London Road). George was a member of the Borough Ladies' Shoemakers by the mid-decade, and had become an active trade unionist seeking to better the working conditions of shoemakers nationally (Goodway, p.165).
George’s name presents something of a puzzle. Although it isn’t common, he shared it with another Chartist: a 19-year-old George Shell who was shot dead in the Newport Rising of 1839. The George who died in Newport would have been about four years younger than our George, so it is plausible that he was a relation of some kind – perhaps a cousin. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that our George Shell hailed from Bristol, which is close to Newport. The family of the younger George Shell is recorded as having also lived in Bristol at one stage (Chase, p.21). However, in the absence of documentary evidence it’s impossible to make the connection for sure.
On 21 August 1848, when George was 32, he stood trial at the Old Bailey charged with making a seditious speech and attending an unlawful assembly. The Attorney General prosecuted, assisted by a team of three lawyers: this was clearly considered an important prosecution. George conducted his own defence, without counsel.
The evidence focused on a Chartist meeting of 28 July, at the Chartist Hall at Webber Street and Blackfriars Road (close to present-day Waterloo Station). The main evidence was given by a short-hand writer named William Counsell, who had taken a note of George’s speech. George claimed in his defence that Counsell was a government reporter.
According to Counsell, George had proposed a resolution protesting against the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland and pledging “our full aid and co-operation to our Irish brethren”. He condemned England’s “system of coercion” against Ireland and argued that the peoples of both countries shared the same goals. George praised the Irish nationalist John Mitchel, recently sentenced to transportation, and urged the English people to support the Irish in the event of a rebellion, which George considered imminent. He closed with a spirited call to the people to “rally round the standard of liberty” when the time came, and not to allow their leaders “to be transported, … to be placed in a dungeon, there to suffer all the indignities which it is possible for a base, bloody, and brutal Government to inflict”. The speech was met with applause.
Various evidence was brought to argue that Mitchel, whom George had praised, had worked to whip up mob violence in Ireland, resulting the Irish uprising of late July, 1848. Papers were produced from George’s home which could suggest that the Chartists, too, were mobilising for an insurrection.
George’s defence statement was eloquent – and lengthy, as is typical of many political defences. He insisted that he was in court not for “any crime, or any act of dishonesty”, but “merely for differing from the Government in opinion”. He argued that his remarks on 28 July were supported by the historical facts of England’s relationship with Ireland. George then moved on to a broader defence of Chartism, denying that it sought class warfare, and claiming instead that it aimed for “a just political equality”. George closed his speech with an appeal to the jury, characteristic of political defence speeches. He urged the jurymen not to be the government's “tool” and promised that, in the event of an acquittal, they would be remembered by posterity for having protected the “ancient rights” of the English people. He was found guilty.
George was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10l. He was also required to enter into his own recognizances in 100l., and to find two sureties, each worth 50l., that he would keep the peace for five years. These were large sums of money, reflecting the government’s crackdown on Chartist activity in the summer of 1848.
The Newgate Prison Calendar records that George was held in Newgate immediately after his trial, together with three other Chartists tried on the same date at the Old Bailey: John James Bezer, Robert Crowe, and James Maxwell Bryson (Bryson's charges related to the same meeting on 28 July for which George had been tried).
By late 1849, George was imprisoned in Horsemonger Lane Gaol, from where he was petitioning for better conditions on behalf of a group of what he calls “Political Prisoners” – quite possibly the same group of Chartists. The Registers of Criminal Petitions tell us that George had already submitted at least one unsuccessful petition, in July 1849.
George’s petition of 20 December 1849 was addressed to the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey. It is evidently the latest in a series of letters, and George admits to being convinced that the Home Secretary is “in compact with the Authorities of this Prison, and all contriving to effect our utter annihilation”. His requests are for better food, and for warmer, dryer cells. The document paints a vivid picture of poor prison conditions in the mid-century: meals of bread and water, and rotten potatoes; unglazed cells “immersed in Water”; doctors dismissive of the risk to health; prisoners forced to sleep in wet beds and bedclothes.
George stated his case strongly, but clearly considered himself unlikely to succeed, for he closed the letter with a threat to go to the press: “Should you refuse to comply with my request I will embrace the earliest opportunity of making the Public acquainted with the unjustifiable tyranny & caprice to which I am subjected”. This petition was, like the earlier one, unsuccessful.
George was a women's shoemaker, and an active trade unionist. His degree of instruction was described in the Criminal Registers as “well”, which is in keeping with his articulate management of his own defence at trial. The Newgate Register of Prisoners records that he was 5’ 7”, with a fresh complexion, black hair, hazel eyes and slender build.
George disappears from the records after 1849, so it seems likely that he served his two-year sentence and was then released. The Chartist prosecutions of 1848-9 contributed to the decline of the movement, so it is not surprising that we don’t see George back at the Old Bailey for further political offences.
George’s conviction should be seen in the context of a turbulent summer in Britain, with demonstrations, mass meetings, and the arrests and prosecutions of many Chartists, including some successful prosecutions for treason. These trials were held in the wake of the so-called Treason-Felony Act of April 1848, which made “open and advised speaking” against the monarch or constitution into a felony. This made it easier to prosecute seditious offences and to secure harsher penalties. (The Act also reduced the scope of treason to include only direct offences against the monarch.)
George was tried for both seditious words and unlawful assembly, and this reflects the government’s changing approach to controlling political dissent during the nineteenth century. Seditious words was the more traditional charge used against radical activists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, the charge of unlawful assembly reflected the fact that the mass platform was the primary tool of the Chartists by the mid-century.
Seditious Words, Unlawful Assembly, Imprisonment, Fine, Petitioning
This page was written by Fiona Milne with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.