Dr. Detlev Mares
Institut für Geschichte, Technische Universität Darmstadt
Residenzschloß, 64283 Darmstadt


This is a slightly altered version of the entry on A. A. Walton in:

Joyce M. Bellamy / John Saville (eds.), Dictionary of Labour Biography, vol. 10 (London, 2000), pp. 213-218:

WALTON, Alfred Armstrong (1816-1883)

Working-Class Reformer and Parliamentary Candidate

Alfred A. Walton was one of the ubiquitous mid-Victorian working-class activists who tried to unite the different sections of British Radicalism and to secure the representation of labour in parliament.

He was born near Hexham (Northumberland) as the youngest of ten children in 1816. In his early years he acquired some skills in building and farming, before he was employed by a builder in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There he stayed until 1837, joined the stonemasons' union and became acquainted with local radicals, such as Thomas Doubleday.

After leaving Newcastle and a brief stay in Leeds he went to London, where he worked with several leading building firms and became involved in the erection of important public buildings, such as the British Museum and the Houses of Parliament.

In 1844 he became articled to an architect's office for twelve months, using his savings to pay for this opportunity of self-improvement. Afterwards he worked in the firm of the famous architect Sir G. G. Scott, moving into various parts of the country to take part in the erection of both private and public buildings. In 1861, these occupations made him arrive in Brecon, where he acted as clerk to the works in the partial restoration of the Priory Church. He decided to stay in the Welsh town, married, and set up his own business as an architect. He lived in Brecon until the middle of the 1870s, when he moved to 14 Oberstein Road, Wandsworth. There he died on 7th March 1883 at the age of 66.

Walton's life shows the characteristics of so many working-class activists in mid-Victorian times: Starting as a manual worker, he made his way from becoming a member of a skilled trade to running his own independent business. However, evidence of his work as an architect is very scarce. Only his numerous travels all over Britain in the interest of social reform and the provisions of his will, which was made on 15th October 1880, indicate that by his 'rise from the ranks' he could afford to pursue his political aims without the notorious lack of funds which forced so many other contemporary working-class activists to desperately look for work as clerks or as secretaries to any reforming bodies.

The first time that Walton rose to some prominence in the labour movement was during the late stages of Chartism. In March 1848 he was deeply involved in the formation of the National Association of Organised Trades for the Industrial, Social and Political Emancipation of Labour (NAOT). In a pamphlet, which solicited the workers' support for this attempt in combined social and industrial agitation, he understood the vote, the most prominent point of the Charter, merely as 'the necessary machinery of legislation - as the means to an end'. He explained that 'until our present system of landed tenures be totally abolished - our laws on currency, credit, and exchange entirely altered - no matter under what form of government you may live, you who live by labour will continue to be the victims of a legally organised system of gigantic confiscation. Yes, our present land-laws and money-laws are the two malefactors between whom the fruits of the industry of the nation are devoured piecemeal!' (Walton, An Appeal, 2 and 3).

The significance Walton attributed to the alteration of the foundations of the social system made him urge the NAOT to single out home colonisation - only one of several demands in its programme - as the central point of agitation. In March 1849 he organised meetings of London trades' representatives in favour of home colonies, which were to absorb surplus labour by the cultivation of waste lands. This measure was meant to be a step on the way to a gradual change of the entire system of land tenure in Britain (Northern Star 10.3.1849, 5). Seemingly successful at the outset, Walton's move soon failed as most trades were not willing to support his limited programme as the basis of their activities.

Despite this setback Walton intensified his calls for the nationalisation of the land as the remedy against unemployment and poverty. Devising a scheme of compensation to the present landholders and maintaining that 'there can be no just settlement of this question of the land other than a total abolition of private property therein' (The Friend of the People 31.5.1851, 214/215), Walton still was prepared to co-operate with middle-class radicals to improve the lot of the people. He doubted that the repeal of the corn laws and the alteration of tariffs would result in the promised increase in employment and cheap food, but in his opinion Cobden's or Bright's schemes of curtailing expenditure and reducing armaments were at least heading in the right direction (Northern Star 10.3.1849, 5). Thus Walton hoped to achieve a broad unity of reformers, which would gain a considerable impact in the political arena.

Considering the importance Walton attributed to a reform of the land and currency systems, it seems most likely that by this time he had already come under the influence of Bronterre O'Brien and his teachings. When O'Brien set up the National Reform League (NRL) in 1849, Walton seems to have become a member. Although he was never to play a prominent part in the regular affairs of the NRL, he still kept a high standing with the organisation and was elected its president for the ensuing year in 1867, the vice-president becoming R. G. Gammage, the first historian of the Chartist movement.

Due to his continuing change of places and to the temporary decline of the political labour movement, Walton's activities are difficult to trace for the 1850s. With his arrival in Brecon, however, the politically most active period in his life began. He popularised his views on a wide range of political and social issues by becoming a prolific author, writing books and contributing articles to a vast number of radical journals and newspapers. The main channel to voice his views was the Bee-Hive, which during the early 1870s carried statements from his pen almost every week. Besides, Walton became a member of numerous institutions and political associations on the local, the national and the international level.

Walton's respected position in Brecon became obvious when he was elected a town councillor in November 1866. By this time he had already founded the Brecon Branch of the Reform League, which managed to thrive mainly due to his personal commitment. As chairman of the branch he did not only come into contact with Welsh radicals (such as T. D. Matthias), but also with leading London working-class activists (such as George Howell or George Odger). With their help Walton intended to organise a district branch of the Reform League for South Wales, but this idea does not seem to have produced any results (Brecon Journal and County Advertiser 12.1.1867, 1).

A further link to London activists was provided by Walton's membership of the International Working Men's Association (IWMA, founded in 1864). He had become an individual member by 1865, and as the president of the NRL he was invited to represent his organisation at the Lausanne Congress of 1867. Walton accepted and made the NRL to become the first political organisation to affiliate to the IWMA.

During the Lausanne Congress (September 1867) Walton took part in the discussions on orthographic reform and on primary education, and he was prominent in drawing up the report of the commission on co-operation and mutual credit, to which he had been appointed a member. After the Congress he was proud to inform a meeting of the NRL 'that the committee on which he acted reported entirely in favour of many of our prominent principles, that the Congress entirely endorsed the doctrine of a safe and secure system of State credit, and also the gradual redemption of the national domains on behalf of the people, on the principle of full equitable compensation to existing holders' (Bee-Hive 21.9.1867, 1). At the same meeting Walton also commented on the Congress of the International League of Peace and Liberty, which had taken place in Geneva at the same time as the IWMA Congress of Lausanne and which he had attended together with George Odger and W. R. Cremer.

Walton's active involvement in the IWMA dwindled rapidly. Although he was elected a member of its General Council in 1867 and 1868, he hardly ever took part in the Council meetings and satisfied himself with writing occasional articles on its programme for the working-class press. In general he supported the IWMA where its programme agreed with his own principles, but the association could not exert any formative influence on him at all.

During the years in Brecon the land question continued to be one of Walton's predominant concerns. In 1865 he published his major work, the History of the Landed Tenures of Great Britain & Ireland from the Norman Conquest to the Present Time. In this book, which was quoted by Karl Marx in volume III of Capital, he set out to show 'the process by which the original tenure of life leases to the great barons, established after the Norman conquest as tenants of the crown, was altered by numerous and successive innovations, for a period of nearly five hundred years - and was then changed into an absolute proprietary by the Statute 32nd Henry VIII - and its final usurpation by the great territorial proprietors ...' (Landed Tenures, iii). Walton's proposed solution to the land question emerges from this historical account: As the act of Henry VIII sanctioning private property in land was passed by parliament, 'all that remains to be done is to alter the law, and undo, by Acts of Parliament what Acts of Parliament have already done, and then purchase the land on behalf of the state' (ibid., 116). Without the landlords to exempt the land from taxation and to reap the benefits, the rent would be low, improvements would be encouraged, and 'the taxes would ultimately be paid entirely from the land revenues, as they were in ancient times, when custom and excise duties were all but unknown' (ibid., 104).

This scheme provided the platform for Walton from which to embark on active politics on the land issue; like in the late 1840s he was calling for a unified line of land reformers, who were advocating schemes ranging from a mere free trade in land to the nationalisation of the soil. Walton heartily supported the Land Tenure Reform Association, which was formed by John Stuart Mill in 1869 to unite middle-class and working-class radicals for a moderate measure of land reform. Walton made clear in a public statement, however, that he had consented to have his name 'placed upon the committee, not because I believe the objects sought to be accomplished by the association a final settlement of the land question, but because I am convinced it is a step in the right direction' (Bee-Hive 30.10.1869, 7).

Apart from his land reform scheme Walton looked to co-operative production as a means to achieve the emancipation of labour. Being trained in the building sector, he was particularly interested in the establishment of co-operative building companies. At the beginning of 1868 he spent a fortnight in London to initiate the formation of the United London and Provincial Co-operative Building Company. He organised meetings with the painters', carpenters', bricklayers', masons' and plasterers' unions and in May delivered five lectures in support of the new company. It was to carry out all kinds of works relating to the building trades, and Walton took great care to ensure that its Board of Directors would consist of 'none but practical working building operatives', whereas 'capitalists or employers of labour' ought on no account to be admitted to the board (Carpenters and Joiners Monthly Report for January 1868, 58).

Despite a promising start, the company had to be wound up after only four years in existence, as the amount of share capital turned out to be insufficient to enable it to carry out profitable building operations on a large scale.

By this time Walton had already become involved in a much more successful attempt in co-operative building. In 1870 he had become a member of the Board of Directors of the Artizans', Labourers' and General Dwellings' Company (ALGDC), which had been set up in 1867 under the presidency of the Dean of Westminster to meet the demand for working-class housing in London. Walton was vice-chairman of the board at a time when it undertook to erect a 'Workman's City' of 1,200 buildings between Battersea Park and Clapham Common (to become known as Shaftesbury Park Estate). Walton also paid frequent visits to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool to arrange the purchase of land and building operations for the company.

Walton's tenure as vice-chairman ended abruptly in 1877 when the whole Board of Directors had to resign under the allegation of having embezzled funds of the company. Charges personally affecting Walton were dropped, however, as the company's solicitor thought it doubtful whether Walton could be held legally responsible for money he had received for special services.

In order to secure the support of legislation for the particular interests of the working men and to effect the changes in the social fabric he advocated, Walton also urged the direct representation of labour in parliament. From 1867 onwards he called for 'one grand national union of the working classes and others favourable to a fair share of the representation of the country being participated in by the working men' (Bee-Hive 12.6.1869, 7), and during the Birmingham Trades Union Congress in 1869 he moved a resolution 'that this Congress recommends a National Organisation of the working classes, to be called the Labour Representation League' (Walton, Necessity, 16). When this organisation (LRL) was inaugurated in November of the same year, Walton became a member of its General Council, which he served with little interruptions during the 1870s. It also supported him in his own attempts to stand for parliament.

The need for a united action on the part of the working men to secure the representation of labour in parliament became the more pressing for Walton, the more it became obvious that the Liberal party would hardly ever give its support to working-class candidates.

Walton made his first experiences with the Liberals during the General Election of 1868. When it seemed that the Conservative MP for Brecon, Howel Gwyn, would be returned unopposed, Walton offered himself as Liberal candidate and started canvassing the borough. He had to find, however, that the majority of the Liberals suddenly produced Hugh Powel Price as their candidate and prevailed upon Walton to withdraw from the contest. Concerned that a split in the Liberal vote might only favour the Conservatives, Walton complied with their request, 'to reconcile and to endeavour to get every man to unite in order to return to Parliament the best man they could in the absence of himself' (Brecon County Times 12.9.1868, 5).

Despite Walton's withdrawal Gwyn was returned, but unseated again in April 1869, as a petition of the Liberals charged him with corrupting practices during the election contest. The Liberals swiftly presented Lord Edward Hyde Villiers as their candidate, although Walton had started to take steps to invite well-known reformers such as Milner Gibson, Passmore Edwards or Frederic Harrison to stand for the constituency. Again Walton felt obliged to support the official Liberal candidate. After he had had 'some conversation with his lordship', he publicly approved of Hyde's candidature, pointing out that he was 'desirous of saying nothing whatever which would in any way tend to sow division among the Liberal party, which he was happy to say was now entirely united' (ibid., 24.4.1869, 4).

This was to be the last time, however, that Walton would give in to the requirements of the Liberal party. Although Lord Hyde was returned on 24.4.1869, Walton declared that the 'old hacknied phrase of not "dividing the liberal party"' should not prevail much longer (Bee-Hive 22.5.1869, 7). Five years later, after growing disappointment with the legislative action of the Liberal government under Gladstone, Walton finally got a chance to stand for parliament himself during the General Election of 1874.

Invited by William Owen, the editor of the Potteries Examiner, Walton had started in 1870 to prepare the ground for himself as a working men's candidate for Stoke-on-Trent, and with the support of the local branch of the LRL he was officially nominated for the next election in March 1873 (Potteries Examiner 29.3.1873, 4). During the election campaign of 1874 Walton sternly refused to withdraw from the contest, as did the two sitting Liberal MPs for Stoke, G. Melly and W. S. Roden. In consequence both Walton and Roden failed to be elected, and one Liberal seat was lost to the Conservative R. Heath. This calamitous result caused a process of strategical rethinking within the Stoke Liberal leadership, and when a by-election became necessary in 1875, Walton was adopted as official Liberal candidate. With this arrangement and the support of the LRL he seemed to have excellent chances of being elected. Nevertheless, he lost once more, this time to the independent candidate Dr. E. V. Kenealy, who had become a sort of popular hero as the solicitor of the Tichborne claimant. The Stoke constituency only was to be won by a working man in 1880, when Henry Broadhurst, who had already assisted Walton in his campaigns, was successful. Walton himself would not stand for Parliament again.

At his death, Walton bequeathed £19 19s. to each of the children of his sister and his brothers, whereas own children are not mentioned in his will. Walton's ten shares in the ALGDC were presented to the magistrates of his native town Hexham, the interest derivable therefrom to be used to provide food and medical aid to the poor of the district.

Walton is a representative example for a working-class radical in the mid-Victorian era. Although he managed to secure a more comfortable position in life than most of his class, he always advocated the interests of the lower orders of society and spent a considerable portion of his time in the cause of their improvement. To achieve this aim, he would always try to reconcile distinct working-class interests with the support of middle-class reformers. Moreover, the story of his life shows that the gap, which is often assumed to have existed between 'respectable' working-class politicians of the LRL and the seemingly more radical elements in the NRL or IWMA, could be bridged in the activities of a single activist.

Writings by A. A. Walton: An Appeal to All Trade Societies on the Necessity for a National Organisation of Trades for the Industrial, Social, and Political Emancipation of Labour (1848); History of the Landed Tenures of Great Britain & Ireland from the Norman Conquest to the Present Time, dedicated to the People of the United Kingdom (1865); Co-operative Self-Employment Safely and Systematically Arranged [c. 1865]; Our Future Progress: Being a Brief Digest of the Necessary Measures to be adopted to secure the Political, Social, Industrial, Educational, Individual, and Domestic Improvement of all Classes of the Community (Brecon, 1867); Co-operative Production and Industrial Partnerships; also The Necessity for, and the Best Means of Obtaining, a Direct Representation of Labour in Parliament (Birmingham, [1869]); Agricultural Depression and Distress: the Causes and the Remedy (1880); numerous contributions to journals and newspapers, esp. The Bee-Hive, Carpenters' and Joiners' Monthly Reports, The Democratic Review, The Friend of the People, The Labour League, The Operative Bricklayers' Society's Trade Circular, Reynolds's Newspaper.

Further writings by Walton which I could not locate in any library but which he himself mentions in his pamphlets: [Pseudonym Architect], A Plea for the Nine Hours [c. 1860], mentioned in Walton's Co-operative Self-Employment...; Pamphlet on reduction of taxation, European armament and expenditure, mentioned as published "almost ten years ago" in Bee-Hive 2.3.1872.

Manuscript Sources: Bishopsgate Institute, London (Howell Collection): Howell Correspondence, Howell Diaries, Reform League Minute Books, Reform League Report on Brecon Campaign (1868); British Library of Political and Economic Science, London (Broadhurst Collection): Labour Representation League Minute Book (1873-1878); Lambeth Archives, Minet Library, London: Artizans', Labourers' and General Dwellings' Company Board Minutes (1867-1879); Principal Registry of the Family Division, Somerset House, London: Will of A. A. Walton; British Library, London (Gladstone Papers, Add MS 44434, 255-259): Memorial to the Prime Minister to protest against the grant to ex-Governor Eyre (July 1872), signed by Walton; International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam (Marx-Engels-Collection, L 5088): Testimonial to Mr. John Radford on the Eve of his Departure for America (February 1874), signed by Walton.

Sources: Bee-Hive 30.1.1875, 1/2 (biography and portrait); newspapers and journals as above, also: The Brecon County Times, The Brecon Journal and County Advertiser, The National Reformer, The Northern Star, The Potteries Examiner; Letter by John Bright to Joseph Hulme of Burslem (13.2.1875), in H. Leech (ed.), The Public Letters of the Right Hon. John Bright M.P. (1885), 180-181; M. J. Boon, How to Nationalize the Commons & Waste Lands, Railroads, Tramways, Water Works, Gas Works, Public Buildings & Other Works ... by Means of National Money [1873]; H. Broadhurst, Henry Broadhurst, M.P., The Story of his Life from a Stonemason's Bench to the Treasury Bench told by Himself (1901); J. Freymond (ed.), La Première Internationale. Recueil de documents, vols. 1-2 (Geneva, 1962); The General Council of the First International - Minutes (1864-1872), ed. by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the C.C., C.P.S.U., 5 vols. (Moscow / London s. d. [1963-1968]); J. M. Ludlow (ed.), Proceedings of the Co-operative Congress held in London, at the Theatre of the Society of Arts, May 31st, and June 1st, 2nd, & 3rd, 1869 [1869]; K. Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3; P. Anderton, 'The Liberal Party of Stoke-on-Trent and Parliamentary Elections 1862-1880. A Case Study in Liberal-Labour Relations' (MA Keele, 1974); J. Belchem, 'Chartism and the Trades, 1848-1850', English Historical Review 98 (1983) 558-587; E. Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform. Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880 (Cambridge, 1992); J. Breuilly, G. Niedhart, A. Taylor (eds.), The Era of the Reform League: English Labour and Radical Politics 1857-1872. Documents Selected by Gustav Mayer (1995); G. D. H. Cole, British Working Class Politics 1832-1914 (1941); H. Collins / C. Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement. Years of the First International (1965); D. Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848 (Cambridge, 1982); R. Harrison, Before the Socialists. Studies in Labour and Politics 1861-1881 (1965); A. Jones, 'Local Labour Journalism in England and Wales 1843 to 1891, with particular reference to the newspapers of W. Owen and J. T. Morgan' (PhD Warwick, 1981); D. Mares, 'Alfred A. Walton and Mid-Victorian Working-Class Radicalism' (MA Warwick, 1993); D. Mares, 'A Radical in Wales. Alfred A. Walton and Mid-Victorian Welsh Popular Radicalism', Welsh History Review 2002; D. Mares, Auf der Suche nach dem "wahren" Liberalismus. Demokratische Bewegung und liberale Politik im viktorianischen England (Berlin, 2002); R. McWilliam, 'The Tichborne Claimant and the People: Investigations into Popular Culture, 1867-1886' (DPhil Sussex, 1990); R. McWilliam, 'Radicalism and Popular Culture: The Tichborne Case and the Politics of "Fair Play", 1867-1886' in E. Biagini, A. Reid (eds.), Currents of Radicalism. Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain, 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 1991) 44-64; A. Plummer, Bronterre. A Political Biography of Bronterre O'Brien (1971); E. Sager, 'The Working-Class Peace Movement in Victorian England', Histoire Sociale - Social History 12 (1979) 122-144; A. D. Taylor, 'Modes of Political Expression and Working-Class Radicalism 1848-1874: The London and Manchester Examples' (PhD Manchester, 1992); R. Wallace, Organise! Organise! Organise! A Study of Reform Agitations in Wales, 1840-1886 (Cardiff, 1991); L. L. Witherell, 'Direct Parliamentary Representation of Labour and the Controversy of 1872', Parliamentary History 12 (1993) 143-163.

Author: Detlev Mares, Technical University of Darmstadt, Institute of History, 64283 Darmstadt, Germany


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