This article was originally published in Cheltenham Local History Society Journal 28 (2012).

Let the people think they govern and they will be governed.”
William Penn (1644-1718) Some Fruits of Solitude 1682

William Penn Gaskell was born on 20 February 1808 at Burnham, Buckinghamshire. He was the son of William Penn Gaskell senior and his wife Elizabeth; they had a small family estate at Great Marlow. The Gaskells were descended from William Penn, the Quaker leader and founder of Pennsylvania. This lineage was through William Penn’s great-granddaughter Christiana Gulielma Penn, the mother of William Penn Gaskell senior.[1]

William Penn Gaskell studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and received his BA degree in 1831. From Owen Ashton’s writings on radical politics in Cheltenham,[2] we know that after graduating Gaskell lived in London. There he moved in radical political circles and was particularly influenced by Rowland Detrosier.[3] Although a campaigner for workers’ rights, Detrosier believed that democracy posed real dangers unless individual moral development preceded political freedom. Ashton also informs us that by 1832 Gaskell was living in Cheltenham at 4 Bedford Buildings, Clarence Street (the area where the Library now stands). His father, mother and sister were also living in or around Cheltenham. His twenty-eight-yearold sister Elizabeth died in 1835 and was buried at St. Mary’s, Cheltenham on 23 June 1835.[4]

Gaskell stood as the Radical candidate in the General Election of 1835. His opponent was the sitting Whig MP, Craven Berkeley,[5] who had been returned unopposed in 1832 when Cheltenham first became a constituency in its own right. Sir James Tynte Agg-Gardner[6] described election proceedings of the time.

On the appointed day the rival candidates with their respective proposers, seconders and hosts of supporters, accompanied by bands and banners, marched in procession to the hustings. On arrival there the Returning Officers, who presided, invited the proposers and seconders to describe the claims and merits of their respective nominees. After these duties had been discharged, the candidates themselves were called upon to speak, which they did as well as they could, to the accompaniment of rival bands, cheers, jeers, hisses, and volleys of eggs, dead cats and other missiles. At the conclusion of the entertainment, the Returning Officer called for a show of hands, and gave his decision on the result.[7]

On Tuesday 6 January 1835 the ‘hustings’ had been erected in Barnett’s Riding School (on the site of the present Regent Arcade). The area was capable of holding several thousand people – and was crowded. Formal nomination of the candidates took place, Gaskell by Messers Hollis[8]and Vaughan, and Berkeley by Captain Gray and William Seale Evans. Speeches were made by the candidates, although both were interrupted by great uproar. In his address, Gaskell called for the repeal of the Corn Laws[9] and the Poor Law[10] and for extending the right to vote to all classes. The Cheltenham Chronicle reporter thought that “the Riding School rather presented the appearance of a bear garden … the cries, cheers, groans, and confusion, to say nothing of a dog-fight that interrupted the delivery of the speeches”. Elections could be decided by a show of hands at the hustings regardless of whether the hands belonged to the enfranchised or not. Only when a candidate defeated in this way demanded it would a formal poll be held, the poll itself could extend over several days. Gaskell easily won on the show of hands and of course Berkeley demanded a poll. The population of Cheltenham at this time was around 33,000 but those entitled to vote (property owners or tenants of substantial property) only amounted to some 1156; of these, 436 exercised their franchise on the first day of the poll. Gaskell resigned from the contest before the second day of polling as he was trailing 411 votes to 25.[11]

A month later, on 14 February 1835, a letter addressed “to the Mechanics of Cheltenham” signed by “W.P. Gaskell”, appeared in the Cheltenham Free Press. It reminded readers that the “Let the people think they govern and they will be governed.” William Penn (1644-1718) Some Fruits of Solitude 1682 first anniversary of the Mechanics Institution would be on 1st March. (Gaskell was a member of the management committee of this new society that replaced a former Mechanics Institute that had run from 1825-1833.) Gaskell appealed to all ‘Mechanics’, men and women to join the society in order to gain knowledge to assist them in bettering their condition. He defined ‘Mechanics’ as “every hand-worker, everyone in the manual-labour class, everyone who is employed by another to work for wages”. The cost of belonging to the institute was 3/- a quarter [15p]. As skilled artisans at the time earned perhaps £1 a week, this charge was probably within their means, but not so for unskilled workmen. Key, was the motivation of workers to give up time and money for self-improvement. Even if they actually read the letter, one wonders how effective was Gaskell’s exhortation that “it is therefore your duty, because it is your interest, to enrol yourselves as members”.

The Mechanics Institute was housed in the former Unitarian, later Wesleyan Methodist, chapel in Albion Street that was demolished when Pittville Street was formed.[12] In June of 1837, William Penn Gaskell spoke at the institute on the subject of Tee-Totalism. Apparently a meeting was to have been held to debate “whether Mechanics’ Institutions or Tee-Totalism will best serve the liberty and happiness of the working classes”. However, the Tee-Total Society declined to attend and Gaskell proceeded to gently mock the abstemious and championed Mechanics Institutes as the best means of workers obtaining political knowledge.[13]

A further development in the radical politics of Cheltenham was in November 1837. Gaskell wrote a lengthy appeal to the “working classes of Cheltenham” calling on them to form a Working Men’s Association with the objective of obtaining universal suffrage.[14] However, he clearly targeted the more politically aware of the working classes, stating that what was wanted was “not a hodge-podge of hundreds … but an union of none but uncompromising democrats of moral character … Let a few intelligent working men and democrats unite and be pioneers of the people”. In conclusion, he styled himself, “The zealous friend of Radical Reform, W.P. Gaskell”.

A month later, The Cheltenham Working Men’s Association was formed with the objective to improve the condition of the working classes. The founders clearly laid down their non-violent stance: “to create a moral, reflecting, yet energetic public opinion, so as eventually to lead to a gradual improvement in the condition of the working classes, without violence or commotion”. William Penn Gaskell was not among the nine committee members that signed a letter to the press[15] announcing the event, but he no doubt was a key participant behind the scenes. At this time he was also a member of The Radical Club formed by Francis Place[16] in London in 1833. Gaskell appears on a membership list of 75 as at 29 January 1838, but he could of course have been a member from an earlier date.[17]

The movement to obtain electoral reform soon became known as ‘Chartism’, after the charter drawn up by the London Working Men’s Association in 1836 which called for universal manhood suffrage, vote by secret ballot, no property qualification for MPs, payment of members, equal sized voting districts and annual parliaments.

On Christmas Eve of 1838, the Chartist leader John Collins[18] of Birmingham discoursed on the Charter at the York Hotel, Cheltenham with Gaskell chairing the meeting. Resolutions were carried in support of the aims of the Charter but only around a hundred people attended. However, subsequent meetings in January, also chaired by Gaskell, attracted far larger audiences of 1,400 plus.[19]

Also in January 1839, Gaskell wrote to “the working classes of Stroud”.[20] He urged them to support the national petition for universal suffrage and to organise themselves. He told them, “you are as much the slaves of the law-makers as the black man is the slave of his single master”. He also counselled non-violence: “Be temperate, but firm and decided, and all will soon be convinced that only an insignificant minority advocate force.”

On 25 August 1839 female Chartists attended St. Mary’s Church, Cheltenham in numbers; this followed a similar ‘sit-in’ carried out by male Chartists the week before. The Rev. Close, in his sermon, told the women to stay at home, compared them to the women of the French Revolution and generally quoted biblical passages that suggest that women should be subjugated by their husbands.[21] On 4 September, William Penn Gaskell gave a lecture to a meeting of the Female Chartists Association, chaired by Miss King. He thought if Rev. Close wanted women to ‘keep at home’, he should support them in agitating for the overthrow of a system that drove them into factories and the workhouse. He also pointed out various inconsistencies and contradictions in the biblical directives concerning women. However, he did concur with Close in condemning any resort to physical violence.

Five days after this lecture a major Chartist meeting was held in a field where St. Paul’s Medical Centre now stands. National Chartist leaders were to have spoken at the meeting but in the event were unable to attend. Nevertheless, local magistrates had troops stationed in Cheltenham in anticipation of trouble.[22] Gaskell chaired the meeting and ridiculed the magistrates’ actions: “The childish conduct of these old ladies in pantaloons, who sit in the Town Hall, is a ludicrous proceeding.” In addition he once more attacked various utterances of the Rev. Close, described the Whigs as “nothing but the tools of the Tories”, attacked the Corn Laws, advised against drunkenness and (as usual) disavowed any use of violence in attaining their aims.[23]

In October 1839, Gaskell lectured against the Corn Laws to the Anti-Corn Law Association. He thought that the artificially inflated corn prices caused great harm economically and the high price of bread contributed to sickness among the working classes due to insufficient diet. He also challenged the notion that the repeal of the Corn Laws would lead to lower wages for the rural working class (a view held by many Chartists, who also considered the Anti-Corn Law Association to be middle-class and not to be trusted).[24]

This lecture was the last report of William Penn Gaskell speaking in Cheltenham. Around this time he moved to London and became the proprietor and editor of the radical newspaper the Statesman (formerly the Weekly True Sun where Charles Dickens was once a parliamentary reporter). It was a London evening paper which attempted to mediate between working-class and middle-class radicalism, and was in the forefront of the campaign to repeal newspaper stamp duty. At a Chartist National Delegate Meeting in Manchester in July 1840, the Statesman was one of eleven newspapers recommended as advancing their cause. However, some delegates demanded that it should be removed from the list as it supported the Anti-Corn Law movement. The chairman, Mr. Smart, went as far as saying that he considered the Statesman to be “an enemy of the working classes”. The Statesman was accordingly expunged from the approved reading list.[25] This attack on Gaskell prompted a response from William Spackman of the Cheltenham Working Man’s Association in a letter to the Northern Star published 15 August 1840. After praising the efforts of the Manchester meeting in setting up a National Charter Association, the issue of Gaskell and the Statesman was addressed.

But we are constrained to acknowledge it our duty to express our sincere regret at the manner in which the delegates threw a stigma upon, and held up to the world as an enemy to the people, our best friend, Mr. Gaskell, by their remarks upon the Statesman newspaper, because Mr.G. therein differs with us upon one minor point. We should feel it a shameless dereliction of our duty did we not thus publicly justify our warmhearted and noble-minded friend from attack which has been (we hope) in ignorance cast upon him, by declaring to our brother Chartists of Great Britain that Mr. Gaskell, the proprietor and editor of the Statesman, is the man who established our Association, and is still a worthy member of the same. Neither can we forget that his talents and his purse have ever been at our service when required. We can point at the most splendid set of banners which ever graced a Chartist procession, as the gift of that gentleman. Nor can we forget how he drew forth the crocodile tears from the craven Berkeley upon the hustings, before assembled thousands; and shall we be unmindful of his unwearied exertions to save the blood of Messers. Frost, Williams, and Jones? Nor will we be ungrateful to him for the use of his columns to advocate our cause, when we request it; nor will we at any time remain criminally silent in his defence, by whomsoever he may be accused as the “enemy of the people”.

W. Speakman, [sic] Chairman August 5th, 1840

William Penn Gaskell married on 27 June 1842 in London, at St. John’s, Paddington.[26]His bride was Mary Hobbs by whom he appears to have already had two sons. Mary came from the working class that Gaskell championed – she was the daughter of a blacksmith, John Hobbs, of Sandhurst, Gloucestershire.

The parents of William Penn Gaskell were still living in the Cheltenham area and are recorded on the 1841 census as living at Alba Cottage, Charlton Kings. However, William Penn Gaskell senior lived only another seventeen months, he died 17 November 1842 at Exmouth Place, Cheltenham and was buried at St. Mary’s seven days later – the service was conducted by his son’s old adversary, Rev. Close. In his last will and testament, William Penn Gaskell senior left his only son at least £13,000 (perhaps £994,000 in modern values).[27]

Gaskell continued his political activities in London, supporting the Complete Suffrage Movement, an organisation that was set up by the more moderate Chartist leaders. Among its objectives was “to effect a cordial union of the middle and working classes” and to disavow violence;[28] two aims very much in accord with Gaskell’s thinking. He also kept up his Anti- Corn Laws activities whilst in the capital, and in 1843 joined the General Committee of “Members of Parliament and Gentlemen residing in London” who pledged themselves “to promote free trade by the abolition of the corn and provision laws, and all other monopolies”.[29] He did not abandon his mainstream Chartist involvement either, as in 1858 he attended the last major Chartist Conference held in London.[30]

By 1851 Gaskell and his wife Mary were living in Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire; the census describes him as a farmer of 56 acres. The couple had seven children by now (one of the daughters given the family name of Gulielma – all of the children were also given Penn as an additional name). From their given places of birth on the census it would seem that the family moved to Great Marlow in around 1846. On the 1861 census they are still there, Gaskell now described as “landed proprietor”, and there are three more sons. In 1871 the household is in Ealing, Middlesex, Gaskell a “landowner” with no further additions to his ten children. In 1881 they are living in Craven Terrace, Ealing and on the night of the census two grandchildren were staying, including the two-year-old Gulielma Bowen.

William Penn Gaskell died 22 December 1881 and was buried at Ealing 31 December. He left a personal estate (not including property) of just under £23,000 (perhaps £1,720,000 in current values). He left “a freehold house at Sandhurst” (Glos.) and household effects to his wife with an annuity of £400. He left the rest of his estate to his ten children.[31] His widow continued to live in Ealing and died there in 1885.

Gaskell’s son, George Edward Penn Gaskell (1857-1946) a barrister, was a leading charity worker involved with the Charity Organisation Society and for many years was secretary of the National Society for Epileptics. He married Eleanor Charlotte Lindsay (1861-1937) who became a leading figure in the Suffragette Movement. The other Gaskell sons were all successful professional men, barristers, civil engineers and accountants. Only one of the daughters married, the other three lived comfortably on their independent means. The majority of William Penn Gaskell’s offspring lived well into their 80s and the last to pass away was Elizabeth Penn Gaskell who died aged 98 in 1947.

William Penn Gaskell lived to see some of the aims of the Charter realised: the property qualification for MPs was abolished in 1858, the franchise widened in 1867 and the secret ballot introduced in 1872. However, universal suffrage for all men was not achieved until 1918, and then for all women in 1928. Nevertheless, as his illustrious ancestor William Penn once said, “To have striven, to have made the effort, to have been true to certain ideals – this alone is worth the struggle.”[32]


  1. [1]Howard M. Jenkins, The Family of William Penn, 1899. [Back...]
  2. [2]Owen Ashton ‘The Mechanics Institute and Radical Politics in Cheltenham Spa 1834-40’,
    Cheltenham Local History Society (CLHS) Journal 2, 1984. [Back...]
  3. [3]Rowland Detrosier (c1800-1834) radical politician, preacher and lecturer. [Back...]
  4. [4]Bristol Mercury 4 Jul 1835: Glos. Archives, Cheltenham parish register P78/1. [Back...]
  5. [5]The Hon. Craven FitzHardinge Berkeley (1805-1855) Cheltenham MP 1832-1847 and 1852-1855. [Back...]
  6. [6]Sir James Tynte Agg-Gardner JP (1846-1928) Conservative MP for Cheltenham for a total of 39 years. [Back...]
  7. [7]Gwen Hart, A History of Cheltenham, 1965. [Back...]
  8. [8]William Sydney Hollis (1798-1867) Gun-maker, Unitarian, Radical, Chartist, Temperance-supporter. [Back...]
  9. [9]Import tariffs on foreign corn, keeping the price of domestic corn artificially high. [Back...]
  10. [10]Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, replacing the old, mostly 17th century, parish based ‘Poor Law’. [Back...]
  11. [11]Cheltenham Chronicle 8 & 15 Jan 1835: Times 9 Jan 1835. [Back...]
  12. [12]George Row, Illustrated Cheltenham Guide, 1845. [Back...]
  13. [13]Cheltenham Free Press 24 Jun 1837. [Back...]
  14. [14]Cheltenham Free Press 18 Nov 1837. [Back...]
  15. [15]Cheltenham Free Press 16 Dec 1837: The nine were, J. Walter, D.W. Smith, A. Bannister, J. Davis, T. Riordan, D. Bryan, J. Taylor, W. Spackman, T. Down. [Back...]
  16. [16]Francis Place (1771-1854) Social reformer involved in many Radical movements of his time. [Back...]
  17. [17]British History Online, [Back...]
  18. [18]John Collins (1802-1852) imprisoned 1839-40 for his Chartist activities. [Back...]
  19. [19]CLHS A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work, 2010. [Back...]
  20. [20]London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer 13 Jan 1839. [Back...]
  21. [21]Benson D., ‘Chartism in Tewkesbury and District’, Tewkesbury Historical Society (THS) Bulletin 19, 2010: Rev. Francis Close (1797-1882) later Dean of Carlisle. [Back...]
  22. [22]For an extended account of this see, Derek Benson, ‘William Morris Moore’ THS Bulletin 20, 2011. [Back...]
  23. [23]Northern Star 21 Sep 1839; The Charter 22 Sep 1839. [Back...]
  24. [24]Cheltenham Examiner 16 Oct 1839. [Back...]
  25. [25]Northern Star 25 Jul 1840. [Back...]
  26. [26]London Metropolitan Archives, P87/JNE1 (via [Back...]
  27. [27]Glos. Archives, Cheltenham parish register P78/1: National Archives PROB 11/1972: as endnote 19. [Back...]
  28. [28]William Lovett, Life and Struggles of William Lovett, Vol II, 1877. [Back...]
  29. [29]Morning Chronicle 24 Jan 1843 [Back...]
  30. [30]As endnote 2 [Back...]
  31. [31]Belfast News-Letter 20 Mar 1882. [Back...]
  32. [32]William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 1682. [Back...]

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