At the foot of Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, stands a bronze statue of Joseph Cowen (1829-1900), strategically placed to remind contemporary Geordies of his extraordinary influence as they travel up towards the Tyne Theatre and Opera House which was designed and operated under his guidance. Cowen dominated Tyneside politics between the years 1850-1900, as editor of the Newcastle Chronicle from 1859 until his death, as MP for Newcastle upon Tyne between 1874 and 1886, as the coordinator of numerous political organisations dotted around the city throughout the 19th century, and as an influential friend to European revolutionaries as diverse as Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, Ludwik Adam Mierosławski, Stanisław Gabriel Worcell and Alexander Herzen. Cowen sought to exploit his wealth and influence (his father Joseph Cowen Sr. was MP for Newcastle 1865-1873) to fight for prosperity for the working class, miners and immigrant communities of Newcastle and the North East and used the Newcastle Chronicle and Northern Tribune to educate his readers in the radical tradition.
While Cowen often denounced publicly the ‘selfishness’ of the middle classes, like many Tyneside industrialists-turned-philanthropists, he was much wealthier than most. At his death his fortune stood at £501,927 19s which adjusted for inflation would amount to over £55 million in 2016. Yet, despite his standing within the Tyneside bourgeoisie and residence at the imposing Stella Hall, Blaydon, Cowen frequently attended the House of Commons in the costume of the Northumbrian miner and spoke with a deep Northumbrian inflection, much to the amusement of those elected alongside him; acts which placed himself at the forefront of the nonconformist tradition embraced by Keir Hardie and continued by Jeremy Corbyn today.
This man of unshakeable self-confidence, charisma and conviction was however ruined by his intransigence, his frosty relationship with William Gladstone and promotion of progressive causes which proved too subversive for many members of the Liberal Party (Cowen fought for the unification of Italy, Polish and Hungarian liberation, Irish Home Rule and electoral, trade union and social welfare reform before many were involved with such campaigns). Denied ministerial office and out-manoeuvred by those in power, Cowen resigned his seat in 1886, dedicating the rest of his life to his newspapers and political projects in Newcastle upon Tyne.
When I was first looking into the life of Joseph Cowen, I immediately saw a few parallels with the disgraced Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. These two figures share similarities not through political allegiance (or the latter’s scandalous sex offences, poor judgement and extensive corruption) but through their use of the media. Cowen revamped the once-insignificant Newcastle Chronicle into a great northern newspaper with offices in New York and Paris and a network of agents stationed in every pocket of the British Isles. With the motive of transforming the Chronicle into the ‘Times of the North’, he secured the talents of the best available journalists of the period, increased the variety of content available in its pages (including sports reports, serialised literature, gossip and humour) and extended circulation past the borders of the North East region.
Most importantly, reports of sporting matches drew non-politicised readers towards a paper which really sought to disseminate Cowen’s radical views of society and democracy (while the Evening Chronicle still relies on its coverage of Newcastle United to sell itself today, there is certainly a distinct lack of the quality content I imagine we would encounter in the days of Cowen). And although Cowen could aid or hinder the career of any Northern politician or particular cause through the Chronicle, his subsequent success as a politician and public figure is not simply explained through the allegiance of the voices present in his newspaper. Cowen was also an orator of some stature (his grandiose speeches are available for perusal in William Duncan’s Life of Joseph Cowen) and was known across the city for his participation in the Cooperative Movement, the Republican Brotherhood, the Liberation Society, the Literary and Scientific Institute, the Northern Reform Union and the Anti-State Church Association (which fought for the disestablishment of the Church of England and was a step too far even for a city as radical as Newcastle in this period). Not only did Cowen have a finger in nearly every political operation in Newcastle during the second half of the 19th century, but he also assisted in the affairs of numerous radical figures beyond the banks of Tyne.
Hugman writes in ‘Print and Preach’ – one of the best available essays on the life of Joseph Cowen and found in Newcastle upon Tyne: A Modern History – that Cowen ‘spent most of the 1850s secretly smuggling weapons and seditious literature on behalf of the Polish Democratic Society’, ‘raised money to supply arms to Garibaldi’s Sicilian campaign’ and was ‘personally implicated in a bomb plot to to assassinate Napoleon III’ in 1858. And to this we may add that he not only assisted Mazzini and Garibaldi financially in their campaigns but brought them alongside many other notable figures to lecture at his Blaydon Institute. Cowen did not just seek to disseminate his political ideas through the Chronicle and Northern Tribune, he also actively worked to instruct the people of Newcastle in revolutionary politics by befriending some of the most important political figures of the 19th century. A champion of the oppressed, of the rights of the weak and downtrodden, Cowen was a fascinating figure and one who should be remembered by all Geordies with pride.
I will now leave you with the words of Cowen. Here he is introducing Giuseppe Garibaldi to Newcastle in March 1854, offering the gift of a sword and telescope financed by the people of the city.
“General! – Your presence in Newcastle affords and occasion for a pleasure and a duty. It is, indeed, a pleasure for us to welcome to our town the glorious defender of the Eternal City, the Italian patriot and hero of the friend and worth helpmate of Mazzini in the holy work of Italian emancipation. We do welcome you right heartily. And in offering you with this welcome the assurance of our most profound respect, we do not pretend to be conferring any honour upon you. The hero always honours the place of his sojourn. Neither do we care, by any enumeration of your gallant deeds, to justify our estimate of your worth. Your life and character are well known to Europe, and the mere name of Garibaldi is sufficient passport to the admiration of his contemporaries and the undying praise of history. Your example may also keep us in mind of our duty – the never-ceasing duty of at least encouraging by sympathetic words, if we cannot help by deeds, all who, like yourself and your compatriots, are ably engaged in the struggle for the Right.
“We pray you to believe that the heart of England is with your Italy. We, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, may take upon us to say so much. Whatever bargains may be made by Cabinets; whatever may be the unhappy complications of diplomacy; whatever may be our popular ignorance of foreign affairs – the people of England can never willingly be a party to any policy which would sacrifice the Italian nation to imperial or kingly interests. We would not so give the He to our own worship of freedom. You, General, have not to be told that even a people which is free from foreign mastery may yet not be so much its own master as to always rules its course in the way its feelings and its conscience point. Yet, be sure of this: England hopes for Italian independence. England may yet help it when our hope rises into earnest will. And when they who drive out the Austrian build up again a Republican Capitol upon the Seven Hills, the heirs of Milton and Cromwell will not be the last to say, even from their deepest heart, ‘God speed your work!’
“General! — Along with this address I have to ask you to receive this sword and this telescope. The intrinsic value of these articles is but small, and to a Republican chieftain who is accustomed to animate his compatriots by deeds of personal prowess such a sword may be more ornamental than useful. But when I tell you that it is purchased by the pennies of some hundreds of working men, contributed not only voluntarily but with enthusiasm, and that each penny represents a heart which beats true to European freedom, it will not, I think, be unworthy of your acceptance and preservation. We are not versed in the polite phraseology of diplomacy; of the refined conventionalisms of Courts we are ignorant; representatives of the people, we have no costly presents to offer for your acceptance but with that simplicity which best befits Republicanism, we ask you to receive as a token of esteem the articles before us.”
“Gentlemen, I am very weak in the English language, and can but imperfectly express my acknowledgments for your over-great kindness. You honour me beyond my deserts. My services are not worthy of all the favours you have shown me. You more than reward me for any sacrifice I have made in the cause of freedom. One of the people — a workman like yourselves — I value very highly these expressions of your esteem, the more so because you testify thereby your sympathy with my poor, oppressed, and down trodden country. Speaking in a strange tongue, I feel most painfully my inability to thank you in terms sufficiently warm. The future will alone show how soon it will be before I am called upon to unsheath the noble gift I have just received, and again battle on behalf of that which lies nearest my heart — the freedom of my native land. But be sure of this — Italy will one day be a nation, and its free citizens will know how to acknowledge all the kindness shown her exiled sons in the days of her darkest troubles. Gentlemen, I would say more, but my bad English prevents me. You can appreciate my feelings, and understand my hesitation. Again I thank you from my heart of hearts, and be confident of this — that whatever vicissitudes of fortune I may hereafter pass through, this handsome sword shall never be drawn by me except in the cause of liberty.”