Feargus O'Connor

Feargus O'Connor was the founder of a Chartist Settlement at Heronsgate, between The Swillett at Chorleywood and Maple Cross. He was one of the leaders of the Chartist Movement which was prominent from 1832 as a radical-democratic body. Its aims included voting rights for working people which had not been granted under the Reform Act of 1832. It also said that everyone was entitled to a house, enough to eat and sufficient clothing.

The name of the movement arose from the presentation to Parliament in 1839 of a Charter of Rights which sought, among other things, for universal suffrage without property qualification. Government indifference led to protest marches, as a result of which O'Connor was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in York Castle.

While he was serving his sentence, he worked out a scheme for a Chartist Co-operative Land Company, the purpose of which would be to settle workers on small-holdings where they could be self sufficient and independent. The company would acquire land to be divided into small plots with houses.

The Co-operative was duly formed, and soon it had 70,000 shareholders and capital of œ4,000. It bought the 103 acre farm of 'Herringsgate', as it was then named, for a total of œ2,344. The land was divided into 36 small-holdings, divided by lanes which still carry their original names - Halifax, Bradford, Nottingham and Stockport. As those names suggest, the settlers were drawn from mill, mine and factory workers of the northern counties.

The settlement, then known as 'O'Connorville', was ready by the spring of 1847 and the occupants were chosen by lot. The rent for each plot was 5 per cent of the total cost of the completed estate, and each settler received œ87 an acre for tools, seeds and so on. But the settlers, townsmen all, had no knowledge of farming and they found it impossible to adjust to a rural economy. They were unused to the toil of working the land by hand, and their wives had none of the skills of dairying that countrywomen were then brought with.

As a result many sold up and returned to their native towns and trades; others sought Parish relief. After only a year, there were just four cows on the estate, against a planned number of 80. Eventually, after several attempts to save the scheme, the Co-operative was wound up in 1851.

In 1852, O'Connor was admitted to an asylum at Chiswick. He was released in 1854 and died on 30 August 1855.

On 27 May 1857 the O'Connorville estate was sold by auction at the Swan Inn, High Street, Rickmansworth. Only three of the original settlers remained.

Now known simply as Heronsgate, the area retains much of the original layout with its narrow lanes. It is about a third of a mile wide. It contains five listed Chartist buildings, plus another 12 that although not listed, are clearly of Chartist origin. The village now has Conservation Area status due to its great historic and architectural interest.