Joseph Cowen (1829-1900)

Joseph Cowen was a formidable political force in the North East: using the press to promote radical causes; aligning himself with the mining class; and representing Newcastle upon Tyne as its Liberal M.P. from 1874-1886. In the wider political sphere, he championed European revolutionaries; sympathised with Irish Nationalists; and fought for the abolition of slavery. His independence brought him into conflict with the Liberal Caucus and split the party into radical and moderate factions. He served on the committee of the Arts Association of Newcastle upon Tyne, sat on the Newcastle School Board and took a leading role in the founding of both the Tyne Theatre and Opera House and Newcastle Public Library.


The Chronicle press

In 1858 the Newcastle Chronicle had been re-
launched as the Newcastle Daily Chronicle but, when a commitment to daily publication proved too onerous, it was sold to Joseph Cowen.   Cowen, J.[?] Letter to G.O. Trevelyan[?] [n.d.] Manuscript Album, 189 ii
The newspaper was already well-established as a political vehicle, with a middle-class readership and influence over the Whigs. Cowen invested heavily in the paper and launched the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle - printed on a new rotary press and including sports reports, serialised literature, and features on mining communities and co-operatives. By 1873, daily sales exceeded 40,000 and it claimed to be the largest-selling regional newspaper. The Evening Chronicle launched in 1885.7

The repeal of tax on advertisements, duty on paper, and stamp on news led to the increased production of newspapers and Cowen took full advantage.8 He used the newspaper to garner support for the establishment of a College of Science in Newcastle; for selling the benefits of his Co-Operative Union; publicising the take-up, by prospective employees, of shares in the Ouseburn [engineering] Works; to highlight the plight of female agricultural workers; and, generally, to promote radical causes.9 The Chronicle press allowed him to influence public opinion significantly.


Northern Reform Union

Cowen reinvigorated radicalism in the North East when he established the Northern Reform Union, in 1858. After three months, membership had grown to 481. The Union's aims were disseminated and Cowen travelled around the region delivering addresses, courting the middle classes and informing the working classes about various abuses.10 As the Union gathered impetus, its members lobbied M.P.s, organised petitions, utilised the national radical press, and exposed electoral corruption but it failed to make the desired impact or to effect change.


Manhood Suffrage Committee

The Reform Act of 1867 extended borough boundaries and enfranchised some inhabitants who had previously been disqualified from voting. However, very few miners had suffrage conferred upon them. Whilst some anomalies were resolved in the barrister's courts, there was agitation in support of addressing the discrepancies between borough and county qualifications in order to secure the vote for miners living both within and outside the borough limits. The various trade societies joined forces with the Miners' Union and formed the Manhood Suffrage Committee, which was chaired by Joseph Cowen. It was decided that the most effective means of influencing public opinion was for the miners, trades, and friendly societies to process, with banners, from the Central Station, Newcastle to a rendezvous on the Town Moor. Thus, on Saturday 12th April, 1873, nearly eighty thousand people gathered to argue for an extension of suffrage, re-distribution of Parliamentary seats, and support for Liberal candidates at the forthcoming general election.11

The Committee successfully re-politicised the miners following the conscious political abstinence that had followed the Chartism movement of the 1840s. It also brought together reformers from both the middle and working classes and it was with considerable support from the workers that Cowen was elected to Parliament in 1874. Appeals for continued agitation were well-met through the creation of flyers, regional platforms for speakers (including Cowen), and the holding of miners' galas. In July 1873, George Otto Trevelyan introduced a proposal for a county household suffrage which Prime Minister Gladstone intimated support for. Household suffrage would give the vote to the male heads of every ('respectable') household. Responding to the political climate, Cowen became Chair of a reconstituted Northern Reform League and the objective was changed from achieving manhood suffrage to the achievement of household suffrage, which was seen as a tactical stepping stone. The borough and county franchises were not equalised until 1884.12


Member of Parliament

When Joseph Cowen Snr. died, in December 1873, a vacancy was created in the Parliamentary representation of Newcastle. The Liberal electors requested that Joseph Cowen announce his candidature in the forthcoming election against the Conservative candidate, Charles Frederic Hamond. Cowen won the election on 14th January 1874, with a majority of 1,003.13Unexpectedly, Parliament was dissolved on 23rd January, meaning that another contested election would be held. Again, the Liberals selected Joseph Cowen as their representative but leaders of a more moderate faction of the party supported Thomas Emmerson Headlam. Polling, on 3rd February 1874 saw Cowen win with 8,464 votes to Hamond's 6,479 and Headlam's 5,807.14 Another General Election was held in 1880 and Cowen's supporters thought it integral to the national Liberal Party that he be re-elected. (Ashton W. Dilke was selected as the candidate for the second seat.) There was dissent in the party over Ireland and foreign policy but again, the self-professed “National Radical” retained his seat: the results were 11,766 votes for Cowen; 10,404 votes for Dilke; and 5,271 votes for the Conservative, Hamond.15

For the 1885 General Election, Cowen isolated himself by choosing to campaign without the usual machinery of support and by refusing to canvass for votes - a practice which he believed to be contrary to the principles of representative government. Still popular with the people, he was returned as senior Member for Newcastle: Cowen 10,489 votes; Morley (Liberal) 10,129 votes; and Hamond 9,500 votes.16 However, Cowen's “divergence” from Liberal policies met with the disapproval of members of the local Liberal Association and Cowen was hurt by the vindictiveness he perceived in local politicians during the campaign. He vowed not to contest the next election and retired from politics and all public life the following year.

Cowen clashed with the Liberal Party throughout his political career and even outspokenly opposed key Gladstonian policies.   Master Joseph offends the caucus in his great speech on England's Foreign Policy' in: [North Country Elections from 1826], collected by R.W. Martin, Rhondda House, Benton.
He was an effective orator who encouraged political debate and persuaded the working classes and whole communities to participate in local, national, and even international political struggles, from electoral reform to fighting alongside Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi.17



Key to Cowen's success in the elections was the support he found from the Tyneside Irish community. By the late-1860s/early-1870s, the British Liberal party was evolving and appealed to the Irish constitutionalists. When Cowen was first elected, in 1874, European agricultural prices dropped, leaving many tenant farmers unable to pay their rents. The Irish Land League was founded in 1879 - the same year that famine struck. The Land League, of which Cowen was an executive18, sought to abolish landlordism in Ireland and to help poor tenant farmers become the owners of the land they worked on. Cowen sympathised with Irish nationalism and supported calls for Home Rule. (Gladstone also championed Home Rule but it was a divisive issue within the Liberal party and the proposal to repeal the Act of Union, by which Irish M.P.s sat in London, in favour of the creation of an Irish parliament, failed to win widespread endorsement.) Furthermore, Irish issues were given considerable coverage in Cowen's Newcastle Daily Chronicle. Cowen's radical agenda and those of the Irish nationalists were closely aligned.

George Otto Trevelyan served as Chief Secretary for Ireland from May 1882 until October 1884, following the brutal 'Phoenix park murders' of Lord Frederick Cavendish and T.H. Burke who had been hacked to death by the 'Invincibles'. Trevelyan enforced a new Crimes Act but the maintenance of law and order remained challenging. The Manuscript Album contains a letter which is thought to have been written by Joseph Cowen to George Otto Trevelyan (it is written on House of Commons paper but is unsigned, undated and the recipient is identified only as “Trevelyan”). The letter refers to a “night search for arms and documents” and possibly relates to Ireland:

The L.L. - had come to the conclusion that a ... [?] to search for arms and documents - at night was unnecessary … [?] would, in the … [?] for arms, documents and so forth, and would in the … [?] … [?] to search at night for the purpose of discovering an … [?] where there was … [?] existed.

The Northern Echo carried this tribute upon Cowen's death:

The death of Mr COWEN is an event which deprives this country of a vigorous mind and intellectual influence, always exerted according to conviction, and of a philanthropist many of whose public-spirited sacrifices for the good of his race are more than half-forgotten.
Northern Echo, 20 February 1900.


William Ewart Gladstone

Lord Salisbury described William Ewart Gladstone as “a great Christian Statesman”. Religion underpinned Gladstone's politics, although, at times, not straightforwardly, and many contemporaries failed to see the nuances in this relationship.   Gladstone, W.E. Letter to Cyril Flower, 10th October 1889. Manuscript Album, 58
First a Tory in Robert Peel's cabinet, he later made a name for himself as a Liberal statesman. He held the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer four times and served as Prime Minister on four occasions. Committed to reducing public spending and to electoral reform, he is particularly remembered for his removal of protectionist tariffs and his crusade for Irish Home Rule. He had a strong sense of duty which manifested itself in charitable deeds.



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