Benbow punch.png
Benbow punch.png


William Benbow (c. 1784-1864), a sometime shoemaker, non-conformist preacher, and reformer, was involved in political agitation between 1817 and 1820, and again during the Reform Act agitations in 1830-32, and then in the early years of the Chartist movement. His distinctive contribution to that movement was a pamphlet he published entitled 'Grand National Holiday, and Congress of the Productive Classes' (London, 1832). This introduced a new potential tactic into the repertoire of radical strategies . Benbow's idea was that, through unity of thought and action, the working classes could 'move mountains of injustice, oppression, misery and want.' He called for a holiday - or holy day - so that they could 'legislate for all mankind':  'the constitution drawn ip during our holiday, shall place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal liberties, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production: this is the object of our holy day - of our sacred day, - of our festival.'

The holiday was to be a withdrawal of labour for a month long, during which, 'by our consultations, deliberations, discussions, holiday and congress, endeavour to establish the happiness if the immense majority of the human race, of that far largest portion called the working classes.'  It would need preparation -involving the formation of committees of management in local communities to promote the scheme and the necessary arrangements.  Food for the first week would have to be laid in, and subsequent weeks would be procured from funds controlled by local bodies, such as vestries, overseers and justices; it would take place in the summer, when the weather was clement, so there would be no need for people to be producing clothing; and the wealthy would be asked for contributions - and when they refuse the representations of 100 persons, then a 1,000 shall be sent, and more til they contribute.

At the same time, a National Congress would be held, with representatives from all communities, whose object would be to reform society - from the crown of our head to the sole of our foot.'

Benbow's pamphlet was extremely popular in 1832 and it was influential in 1839,when the Chartist General Convention considered calling a 'sacred month.'

The identification of the Grand National Holiday with the General Strike, is misleading, as Prothero has argued: it is not an idea tied to unionism, or to socialism, but it grows out of a tradition of conventionism, reaffirmed in the writings of Thomas Paine and the practices of the corresponding societies in 1793-4, and again in 1817 (in the coordination of returns from the Hampden Clubs).  And while he calls on the working classes, the most prominent part of his rhetoric concerns the broader 'people.'

At the same time, Benbow was a 'physical force' reformer - with an often violent rhetoric to accompany his enthusaism for arming and drilling that accompanied his involvement in the opposition movements of 18176 and 1817, and were evident again in the agitation for electoral reform in 1830-32.

In 1839 his project was discussed and adopted by the Chartist Convention and Benbow invested his energies touring the North and calling for the national holiday. In August he was arrested, and shortly after the Convention lost its nerve and abandoned the scheme.   He was eventually sentenced to 16 months in prison and his moment had effectively passed.  He ceased to be active in the Chartist movement (although he remained a target for cartoonists - as in one from Punch in 1848), and it is believed that he emigrated with his family to Australia in the 1850s.

See Iorwerth Prothero, 'William Benbow and the Concept of the 'General Strike', Past and Present May 1974, 63, pp. 132-71.