We have recently got this caricature as part of our Collecting Cultures grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. And so we have been investigating - who was George Odger?
Odger was born in 1813 and, says the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘became a shoemaker at an early age, tramping about the country before settling in London, where he became active in the Ladies' West End Shoemakers' Society. A first-class craftsman, he was the only significant labour leader of his generation to practise his trade throughout his life: his death certificate described him as “Ladies Boot Maker and Public Orator” ‘. Odger, who helped to form the London Trades Council, promoted the cause of parliamentary suffrage through the Manhood Suffrage and Vote by Ballot Association, of which he became chairman in 1862. While editor of the journal The Commonwealth in 1866-67, he voiced support for manhood suffrage as well as other causes such as land redistribution and reduced hours of work. Odger tried to become an MP in five different elections, but was invariably blocked by the Liberals. The Library has a copy of a ballad from the 1870 election in Southwark when as the Working Men’s Candidate he narrowly lost to the Conservative Colonel Beresford (according to the ditty ‘a rum old codger’; somehow that rhyme was inevitable...) after Liberal Sydney Waterlow (who the ballad claims ‘knows as much about the poor man’s rights/As a donkey knows of printing’) failed to withdraw from the contest in Odger’s favour until too late.
The Spectator of 19 February 1870 described it as follows:
Mr Odger has lost his election for Southwark by a majority of 304 against him, the Tory, Colonel Beresford, having been returned. Sir Sydney Waterlow polled more than thirteen hundred votes fewer than Mr. Odger, but then he resigned shortly after two o'clock in favour of Mr. Odger, and it would seem that his supporters were so little willing to accept his resignation in that sense, that some of them at least voted for Colonel Beresford rather than support an artisan. Certainly, as far as we can judge, the retirement of Sir Sydney Waterlow hardly at all improved Mr. Odger's subsequent poll, but rather increased the distance between his poll and the Conservative's. Nevertheless the result is that, for the first time, a member of the artizan class has polled upwards of 4,500 votes, and a considerably greater number of votes than a most wealthy, respectable, and benevolent member of the middle-class, who, in this borough, had every advantage that local connection could give him. That alone should be a pledge to members of the operative class that if they steadily persevere in their attempts to break down the class-feeling which at present excludes them from the House of Commons, they will soon succeed, and have quite sufficient success to secure to the House of Commons a very adequate infusion of the poorest, but by no means the least acute and energetic, class of the English people.
Our new caricature dates from the year after that election and, in the spirit of The Hornet (a satirical magazine which a couple of weeks earlier had, in a cartoon still often reproduced, depicted Charles Darwin as an ape) mocks Odger and his radical campaigning for ‘liberty, equality and absurdity’. The cap of liberty on the flagpole that he is holding has become a fool’s cap, and his shabby footwear does no credit to a proud shoe-maker. The wording accompanying the People’s Dodger cartoon, with phrases such as ‘Unfurl the red cotton pocket-handkerchief of freedom. Sound the half-penny tin whistle of liberty!’, reads a bit like a Private Eye lampoon of today. George Odger died in 1877, and a procession of London workers followed his funeral cortège to Brompton cemetery.