Garibaldi and the Tyneside Radicals

Updated: Jun 2

Anthony Wright, Archaeology and Ancient History graduate of Newcastle University and freelance writer, explores the life of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the background behind his famous venture to Tyneside.

The most famous Italian ever to visit Tyneside—and one of its most famous visitors full stop—was the radical revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, who stayed in the North East for three weeks in the summer of 1854 on his return to Europe from the United States. But this wasn’t simply a spot of tourism while his ship took on supplies at South Shields. Nor was Tyneside’s interest in the radical general merely fleeting, forgotten as soon as his ship, the Commonwealth, had disappeared over the southern horizon. The ties between Garibaldi and Tyneside were much stronger than that.

Garibaldi was an Italian soldier who played a major role in the “Risorgimento”, literally “Resurgence”, the movement that aimed for the unification and independence of Italy in the 19th century. While in his 20s, Garibaldi—a merchant captain from a family of fishermen and coastal traders—served in the navy of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, and in 1834 he took part in a mutiny designed to provoke a republican revolution in Piedmont. The mutiny failed and Garibaldi fled to South America, where he remained until 1848. This period, during which Garibaldi devoted himself to the liberation of the Riograndense Republic (southern Brazil) and Uruguay, greatly influenced his later life, as did the guidance of the Genoese revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini and the philosophy of Saint-Simon, an early socialist thinker.

In May 1860, just six years after his visit to Tyneside, following uprisings in Messina and Palermo, Garibaldi launched what became known as the Expedition of the Thousand, setting sail from Genoa with around a thousand volunteer soldiers (the Redshirts), landing in Marsala on the west coast of Sicily around a week later. After his success at the Battle of Calatafimi, he and his Redshirts—together with local Sicilians who came to his support—swept across the island, taking Palermo and Messina by the end of July. With Sicily conquered, he marched towards Naples to complete the rapid overthrow of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. On October 26, Garibaldi met Victor Emmanuel II in Teano and greeted him as “King of Italy”—this event, known as the ‘handshake of Teano’, was a key moment in the Risorgimento and has been frequently depicted in Italian art ever since. Together, the pair rode into Naples on November 7. Garibaldi then retired to the island of Caprera, off the north coast of Sardinia, leaving Victor Emmanuel to complete the task of unification. The following February, the first Italian Parliament met in Turin, and a month later proclaimed Victor Emmanuel II King of Italy.

Garibaldi in Palermo

A lot more could be (and has been) written on Garibaldi and the process of Italian unification, but let’s focus on his connection with Tyneside. To understand the depth of this connection, though, we first need to go back a little further.

In the second half of the 18th century, the market economy rapidly took hold in Britain, but in working-class areas of the country there were various degrees of resistance to this new form of unfettered capitalism. The Food Riots of 1795 saw organised actions against high food prices all over the country, including in Newcastle, and a large number of people attended a meeting on the Town Moor on October 11, 1819 to protest against the Peterloo Massacre, though the figures vary wildly from over 12,000 to 100,000.

Great support for the Chartist working-class movement was found in Newcastle in the 1830s and 1840s, and an estimated 70,000 people attended a gathering on the Town Moor in June 1838 to listen to speeches on the aims of parliamentary representation and of the Chartist movement. Such was the political engagement in the region that even the word “to strike” is noted by the Oxford English Dictionary to have etymological roots in the occasion when, in 1768, several hundred sailors assembled at North Shields and “proceeded from thence to Sunderland, with colours flying before them, and at the cross there read a paper, setting forth their grievances and a demand of immediate redress. After this they went on board several ships in that harbour, and struck (lowered down) their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea.”

The arrival of the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi to this hotbed of local radicalism and political engagement was just the beginning of a long relationship between the Italian general and the Tyneside radicals. Years later, Tyneside soldiers would even join his struggle for Italian unification. Central to the relationship was the young Joseph Cowen, Jr., the journalist and later MP for Newcastle from 1874 to 1886.

A son of Blaydon, Cowen was born to Joseph Cowen, Sr., a member of ‘Crowley’s Clan’ (a group of employees protecting factory workers’ rights), and educated at Edinburgh University. There, under the influence of the Scottish radical Dr. John Richie, he became interested in European revolutionary movements, and after returning to Tyneside he soon became a frequent speaker at workers’ trade clubs and mechanics’ institutes.

While taking an active part in the family business of brick manufacturing, Cowen continued to support revolutionaries, radicals and refugees by smuggling propaganda and materials into consignments of bricks for delivery to Europe and advocating for various movements through his activity in the local press. Cowen was later the owner and editor of the Daily Chronicle, but it was The Northern Tribune where he cut his teeth. This radical paper was launched in 1854, and its first issue contains an extensive biography of Garibaldi as well as a record of his visit. He also spoke fluent Italian, and his combined interests led the local press to describe him as someone “whose ardour in the cause of Italy has always burnt bright and clear in the days of her deepest darkness and despondency.”

Cowen was not the only one on Tyneside with Italian sympathies. In 1851, three years before Garibaldi’s arrival, the Italian liberal Alessandro Gavazzi had come to Tyneside on a lecture tour. Gavazzi was a former priest who had renounced Catholicism and had turned to giving talks on anti-Catholicism (and anti-popery) and Italian unification. The Newcastle Journal reported that demand for tickets to his lecture was “so great that it was found impossible to accommodate all who applied for them,” and Gavazzi was welcomed to the lecture hall by applause from 2,000 working men. Lecture halls in Newcastle, South Shields, Sunderland and Durham were packed well before the start, even though Gavazzi only spoke in Italian. Nonetheless, according to the Newcastle Courant, “Few will forget the enthusiasm which the Father’s oration … produced among the audience and perhaps such an overpowering specimen of eloquence they will never hear again.”

Gavazzi returned on many occasions throughout the 1850s and 1860s, and while feelings of anti-Catholicism may have waned, there remained an interest in the Risorgimento. Moreover, nor was Gavazzi the only orator in town. As Bush says, “Cowen’s support for political exiles ensured that the region was well stocked with Italian émigrés wishing to draw attention to the despotic system of government in Italy,” and in addition to Gavezzi, Felice Orsini, Jessie White and Seignior Saffi all gave talks in the area.

Garibaldi welcomed on Tyneside

In the midst of all this, on March 21, 1854, Garibaldi arrived at South Shields to restock the coal supplies of his clipper, the Commonwealth, which was flying the American flag after its voyage from Baltimore. Garibaldi “kindly but firmly declined any public demonstration” on his arrival on Tyneside; the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury reports that “It was intended by the Liberals of the district to give him a banquet, but this was declined by General Garibaldi, who begged that there might be no public demonstration of any nature whatever on his account.”

However, he didn’t simply sit on his ship while waiting for the required coal to be delivered. Garibaldi met privately with local industrialists and politicians, and gave a talk at the Blaydon Mechanics Institute. Part of his purpose in visiting the area was to advocate for Italian unification, and it was surely in these meetings that he intended to further this cause. The locals were certainly receptive to Garibaldi and his cause, and as Marcella Pellegrino Sutcliffe notes of the general’s visit, it was “the seedbed for a special relationship that Tyneside radicals established with the Italian patriot.” Garibaldi would also have had a sympathetic ear in Cowen, who not only supported Italian unification but also the liberation of Poland and Hungary, Irish Home Rule and numerous other trade union and social welfare reforms.

It wasn’t just Cowen’s ear that Garibaldi had but his hospitality as well. He stayed with Cowen for three full weeks, both at Tynemouth House and at Stella House in Blaydon (demolished in 1953 to make way for a housing estate). A statue created by George Burn was later erected in the grounds, but unfortunately it disappeared shortly after Cowen’s death in 1900 (though the head reappeared in the 1940s and is now on display in Blaydon Library).

While Garibaldi enjoyed Cowen’s hospitality and visited local dignitaries, Cowen was busying himself with activity too. Not wanting to let the general depart without some indication of the degree of local warmth felt towards him and his cause, it was decided at a meeting of the friends of European Freedom, mobilised by Cowen and held on Nelson Street, to present him with a ceremonial sword and a telescope.

The gifts were purchased through a penny subscription. Both the sword, made in Birmingham, and the telescope, made on Grey Street in Newcastle, carried the following inscription: “Presented to General Garibaldi by the People of Tyneside, friends of European Freedom. Newcastle-on-Tyne, April, 1854.”

Garibaldi was to set sail for Genoa on April 12, and a private farewell ceremony was arranged for the day before his departure. Along with Cowen, the deputation that attended this ceremony included such local notables as Martin Jude, the former leader of the Northumberland and Durham miners’ union, the trade unionist and radical John Kane, the bookseller and radical James Watson, and the medical botanist Josiah Thomas (forbidden meetings of radicals were often held under the guise of botanic meetings), who was tried but cleared of the manslaughter of an Ann Walker many years later.

Interestingly, among the deputation was also one Konstanty Lekawski, a “Polish exile”. In March 1851, some 260 refugees from Poland, Hungary, Germany and Italy had landed in Liverpool, the remnants of the Polish Legion that had fought in defence of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Cowen and a group of “zealous friends of liberty and humanity” were responsible for bringing 12 Polish and Hungarian refugees to Newcastle (around another 80 arrived in the city before being sent to nearby towns), who were enthusiastically welcomed by the people on their arrival. Lekawski, a lieutenant in his mid-30s known as the “Black Uhlan”, developed a close connection with Cowen, becoming his advisor on East European affairs and also becoming involved with the Tyne Ferry Company before returning to Poland in 1870.

At the ceremony, on board the Commonwealth at the Pontop and Shields drops at South Shields, Cowen made a short address to Garibaldi before making a separate address on behalf of the friends of European Freedom. Once Cowen was finished, Garibaldi gave a short address of his own to those present:

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 favour you have shown me. You more than reward me for any sacrifices I may 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 for my poor, oppressed, and down-trodden country. […] 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.

The Northern Tribune records that the address was recorded on parchment by Messrs. Carter and Co. of the Arcade, Newcastle, and one suspects that Carter might have done a little polishing of Garibaldi’s self-professed “bad English”. The sentiment, however, must have been crystal clear, and it was repeated in a letter that was pressed into Cowen’s hands just before the Commonwealth set sail:

My dear Cowen,—The generous manifestation of sympathy with which I have been honoured by you and your fellow-citizens is of itself more than sufficient to recompense a life of the greatest merit. Born and educated as I have been in the cause of humanity, my heart is entirely devoted to liberty—universal liberty—national and world wide—‘ora e sempre’ [now and forever]. […] Should England at any time in a just cause need my arm, I am ready to unsheathe in her defence the noble and splendid sword received at your hands. Be the interpreter of my gratitude to your good and worthy countrymen. I regret, deeply regret, to leave without again grasping hands with you. Farewell, my dear friend, but not adieu!

Had more of Cowen’s correspondence with Garibaldi survived, we might know more of the details of their friendship and perhaps gained further insight into Cowen’s support for the Risorgimento. Unfortunately, however, after the attempt by the aforementioned Orsini and Giuseppe Mazzini—another of Cowen’s acquaintances—to assassinate Napoleon III, Cowen destroyed much of his correspondence with European radicals. More was destroyed by his daughter after his death in 1900.

What we do know is that Garibaldi departed for Genoa on April 12, his clipper “laden” with Tyneside coal. However, this was far from the end of the story.

On August 30, 1859, Garibaldi wrote to the local newsagent and radical Isaac Crowther from Modena, assuring him that his visit to the North East five years earlier and its people’s gifts to him were still very much close to his heart:

Dear Friend, The reception you gave me in your town in 1854 entitled me to name my friend each of the gallant children of Newcastle. Let your noble countrymen know that in my last fights against the soldiers of the Austrian despot my telescope and my sword were the generous gift with which your beloved population honoured me.

Nor had the North East forgotten its Italian visitor. Two years earlier, in October 1856, Cowen had organised a meeting on the emancipation of Italy attended by 6,000 people despite the driving rain that was “positively coming down in torrents.” The meeting was inspired by a letter from a group of eighty-two Genoese (including coalmen, builders, joiners, porters and cleaners), and these workers—who were linked with the local Consociazione Operaia Genovese—found the sympathy of the meeting’s attendees. Cowen communicated the meeting’s success to the Secretary of the Genoese association, Felice Casaccia, who would later become a key figure in Mazzini’s revolutionary movement in Genoa. The money raised from the meeting Cowen organised went, in fact, towards the funding of Mazzini’s 1857 insurrection.

By 1860, the Risorgimento was well underway and, on May 14, Garibaldi declared himself dictator of Sicily. On June 23, the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury reported:

It would be strange indeed if the revolt in Sicily did not excite interest and awaken enthusiasm in the metropolis of the North. With us the name of Garibaldi is a household word. His face is familiar to some—his famous exploits to all. […] His friends and sympathizers here … presented the gallant soldier, and sailor too, with a sword of rare temper and finish, and they of course have watched every step in his progress—carefully scanned every movement and action of his life—with the view of seeing that he used his trusty weapon wisely and well.

The locals were certainly interested. Many meetings and gatherings on the subject of the general’s activities took place in the coffee rooms of Newcastle, including the discussion organised by H. Haslam on September 2 on the subject of “Garibaldi and the Sicilian Revolution”. Nor was the interest merely idle, nor the enthusiasm restricted to coffee rooms. In fact, local soldiers joined Garibaldi’s cause in Italy. The Daily Chronicle, “in reply to numerous enquiries”, ran details of how men wishing to join Garibaldi’s cause could do so on August 17, 1860:

Volunteers wishing to join Garibaldi can learn of the means of doing so by personal application to Captain Styles, Anderson’s Hotel, Fleet Street, London; but none but men of character need apply. Means will be found of conveying free to Palermo all who choose to join Garibaldi. The Volunteers may return whenever they please, but at their own cost; if, however, they serve out the campaign, a free passage back will be provided. Arms, accoutrements, rations, and pay will be provided by the Sicilian Government.

This was not quite as straightforward a process as it might seem. In 1859, the Foreign Enlistment Act had come into force which intended “to prevent the enlisting or engagement of His Majesty’s subjects to serve in foreign services, and the fitting out or equipping, in His Majesty’s dominions, vessels for warlike purposes without His Majesty’s license.” The Mayor of Gateshead, George Crawshay, contested the recruitment of volunteers and attempted to prosecute Cowen, the publisher of the Chronicle, for breaching the Act, but by the time Newcastle Police Court referred the case to the Court of Queen’s Bench, the volunteers had already left for Italy. Other sections of the local press were equally negative in their outlook, particularly the Newcastle Courant and the Newcastle Journal, which focused on fights and outbreaks of violence between Italians and English volunteers, of whom they were equally disparaging.

Not that this seems to have dampened ‘Garibaldimania’ on Tyneside. The Newcastle Guardian and Mercury reported on September 15, 1860 that a concert had been held in the New Town Hall to raise funds for the injured in Garibaldi’s army. The performers gave their services gratuitously and raised £50 for the fund, while “cheers for Garibaldi were enthusiastically given at the close of the concert.” Interestingly, on the same day, the paper reported some “gossip” about a steamer currently on the Tees, which had reportedly been purchased for Garibaldi and was “about to set sail for the Mediterranean with ‘tourists’ for Sicily.” The quote marks around “tourists” are surely no accident.

The ‘handshake of Teano’ between Garibaldi and Vittorio Emanuele II

Undeterred by the local opposition, the Daily Chronicle published letters sent from soldiers at the front. One letter, published on November 26, 1860, a month after the ‘handshake of Teano’, from Alfred Gorringe (perhaps a ‘tourist’ from the steamer on the Tees), read, “we arrived in the Bay of Naples on the 14th of October, and made our entry into the city the following day, and met with such a reception from the inhabitants that caused the Garibaldian troops to be quite jealous of the Inglesi.” It wasn’t all quite such heartening news for Gorringe, though. “I have just seen the Daily News,” he added, “which contains an extract from the Chronicle, which states that there was a rumour current that I was killed on the 19th. You would greatly oblige me if you will contradict it, as I am happy to say I have not even been wounded.”

Support for Garibaldi’s cause continued—meetings were held in Newcastle, South Shields and Sunderland to discuss the latest twists and turns in the Risorgimento through the early 1860s, and Garibaldian Volunteer organisations were formed in many towns. Despite the clear affection for him in the region though, when Garibaldi returned to England in 1864, his itinerary did not take him as far north as Tyneside.

If nothing else, for those in the UK, Garibaldi’s name has at least survived in biscuit form. There are various stories as to how this biscuit got its name, including an incident in which Garibaldi accidentally sat on two biscuits while enjoying Cowen’s hospitality. The most common seems to be that it was down to John Carr, who actually created it in 1861 while working for Peek Frean in Bermondsey, London. Though Garibaldi may not have invented the eponymous biscuit during his stay at Tynemouth House (now King’s Priory School) in Huntingdon Place, a blue plaque proudly commemorates his visit to the area.

Blue plaque at Tynemouth

Anthony Wright is an Archaeology and Ancient History graduate of Newcastle University, now working freelance as a copy-editor and proofreader in Newcastle. His first novel, Caesar's Shadow, was published by Portal Books in October 2020.


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