John De Morgan (1877-1880)
Calverley Street and Great George Street
The Leeds School Board building was designed by George Corson and opened in 1881 (Corson was also responsible for the neighbouring Municipal Building). As well as a significant site of local power in its own right, the School Board was also briefly home to a notorious 19th- century radical: John De Morgan. De Morgan, whose biography is shrouded in mystery, was elected to the School Board in 1879, just two years after leading a mass demonstration on Hunslet Moor, in protest at the encroachment of private railway lines onto ‘common land’. De Morgan later unsuccessfully campaigned in 1880 to be elected MP for Leeds.
John De Morgan was an individual that possibly only the Victorian era could have produced: a peripatetic, “Zelig of modern politics, popping up and blending in at momentous events” – including interventions in the Tichborne Case and protests across London and the Midlands. By the late 1870s, however, De Morgan had brought his unique brand of radicalism to Leeds, particularly during 1877 protests against encroachment by the Middleton railway company onto the common land of Hunslet Moor; involvement which later landed him in significant legal trouble (and which, oddly, seemed to have been the cause of a benefit football match being played in his honour):
De Morgan led several demonstrations in the Winter months of that year, peaking in December when a crowd of 40,000 gathered (interestingly, one account has Alf Mattison, the local historian and Socialist, present at that demonstration, aged just nine):
It is not clear – yet, anyway – whether it was these protests that brought De Morgan to Leeds more permanently, but we do know that he translated the reputation he gained for himself during those demonstrations into a successful campaign for election to the Leeds School Board in 1879. The offices of the School Board were relocated to Cookridge Street in 1881, with the opening of a George Corson-designed building, situated to the immediate north of the Municipal Building (1884), which today houses the Central Library.
There isn’t much evidence – in the Central Library collections, at any rate – for De Morgan’s time as a School Board Officer, but we do know that he launched a ‘Social and Political Review and Family Journal,’ rather egotistically entitled De Morgan’s Weekly during his time in Leeds. A copy of the edition for February 7, 1880 can be found in the Local and Family History department:
Alongside the usual local newspaper content of theatrical reviews, personal ads, and national news, the reader finds a plethora of pieces both by and about Mr. De Morgan, including his leader column, in which he says he will
…[e]ndeavour to make the paper a true and honest representative of the people…[I] shall state boldly what I believe to be true, and will never apologise until I am proved to be wrong…[P]ost it to your friends in any part of the world, in your letters mention it, in the train or tram talk about it, quote it in your workshops, and let “DE MORGAN’s WEEKLY” be a household phrase until it equals the largest circulation of any paper in the world.
Interestingly, De Morgan explicitly placed himself in a lineage of Leeds radicalism, stretching back to the Chartist movement of the 1840s:
Fergus O’Connor started the famous old Northern Star in the row of buildings, if not the very office, where I am now writing. The Chartists of forty years ago used to flock to Market Street [off Briggate] for the Star, and I hope the Radicals of to-day will give me the same encouragement.
The one available copy of the Weekly does not tell us whether De Morgan was successful in his lofty aims, but we do know that he felt sufficiently emboldened to seek the Liberal candidacy at the 1880 General Election, a campaign captured in a series of political cartoons held at the Central Library. Those cartoons briefly (and elliptically) tell the story of that election: how the Leeds Liberal Party could not agree on a second candidate to stand alongside John Barran; how they unilaterally chose Gladstone himself to contest the seat; and how De Morgan felt this opened a gap for him to stand and, effectively, challenge that ‘false’ candidate for one of three available seats in the Leeds constituency (which was then one Ward).
While much research remains to be undertaken on the detailed narrative of the election campaign, the available cartoon images imply a level of derision and, indeed, fear directed against De Morgan by the Liberal establishment, culminating in an accusation that De Morgan accepted a bribe to stand with the explicit aim of splitting the party vote and granting a seat to one or more of his ostensible Tory opponents:
The truth of that claim is, outside of that further research, lost to history – but the record certainly states that De Morgan dropped out of the race and left for the United States of America, where his career took another surprising turn. He left little direct trace in Leeds, and possibly made even less real impact – but he remains a tantalisingly intriguing figure in the town and the nation’s 19th-century political history.
Please contact the Local and Family History department to access any of the resources listed in this article.