Page 1: Biography
Chartist leader, poet
This biography, written by Herbert Roth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
George Binns was born in Sunderland, Durham, England, on 6 December 1815, one of 16 children of George Binns and his wife, Margaret Watson. George Binns senior, a member of the Society of Friends, was a well-to-do draper and George Binns junior worked in the family business until about 1837, when he opened a bookshop and newsagency in partnership with James Williams. Binns and Williams participated in the growing movement for political reform and in November 1838 they founded the Sunderland Chartist Association. Their bookshop became the town's centre for radical agitation and for the publication and distribution of tracts, handbills and poems, many of them written by Binns. The two young radicals also toured the countryside, holding meetings in support of the Chartist cause, and Binns made a great impression as a forceful orator. 'Williams and Binns', wrote the Chartist historian R. G. Gammage, who knew them personally, 'kept the County of Durham in a perpetual state of agitation.'
In July 1839 Binns and Williams were arrested for sedition, but were freed on bail. Their trial at the Durham assizes did not take place until August 1840, when both were found guilty and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. They had earlier refused an offer of freedom if they pleaded guilty and promised to keep the peace.
When Binns was released from Durham gaol in January 1841, thousands of Sunderland citizens turned out to welcome him home. In June he was elected to the executive of the National Chartist Association. He re-entered the drapery business in Sunderland with a new partner, but this venture ended in bankruptcy. He then decided to emigrate to New Zealand to recoup his fortunes, in the hope that he would soon be able to return to England. He left Gravesend on the barque Bombay in August 1842. During the voyage he wrote a 96-line poem on the subject of reform, using the metaphor of emigration to a new land:
Bear, bear me to a land,
Where hirelings cannot land
The law-protected band
Of rude marauding fraud;
Where Heaven's blessings sweep
The universal main,
And millions do not weep
To feed a robber's gain;
Where Famine's iron maw
Ne'er hurries to the grave,
Ne'er crushes 'neath its law,
Ne'er buries 'neath its wave.
Binns arrived in Nelson on 14 December 1842. He obtained employment supervising a whaling establishment for a merchant who, by coincidence, was named James Williams. Soon after his arrival Binns entered into a controversy over the sale of shortweight bread, and Alfred Saunders attacked him as 'a chartist ringleader' in a letter to the Nelson Examiner. Binns replied indignantly: 'When I came to New Zealand, it was after I had suffered imprisonment, sacrificed my business, and lost the good-will of relations, in an endeavour to free my country; and I was and now am desirous of atoning, in some measure, for my past hostilities, by a life of "peace and good-will" here. I did not expect the word Chartist would be employed against me as a term of reproach in a distant land like this. We are all united here by a community of interests, and though I am not ashamed of my principles, yet I should never render myself obnoxious by their intrusion upon others. I have nothing to do with Chartism in New Zealand, and my past enthusiasm might have been forgotten where there is no grievance to redress and no enemy to our weal.'
There were of course grievances to redress in Nelson. During 1843 the New Zealand Company's labourers were agitating for higher wages. However, there is no evidence that Binns was involved. His name, on the other hand, appeared on a joint letter in July of the same year concerning the Wairau incident which denounced the 'ferocious character of the savages, who, in cold blood, massacred our friends and their own previous benefactors'. A year later, in June 1844, Binns signed a petition to the House of Commons complaining about the governor's refusal to conduct a legal investigation into the events at Wairau.
The whaling business failed in 1844, Williams returned to Britain, and Binns was again left with a serious financial loss. This reverse, which destroyed his hopes of an early return home, depressed him profoundly. He found new employment in Nelson as a baker, but on 5 April 1847 died of consumption after three years of illness. He was only 31 years old.
He will be remembered, said his obituary in the Northern Star, as 'a handsome high-spirited, talented, true-hearted man – every inch a Democrat.' According to the same obituary, 'He inspired all who knew him with sentiments of warm attachment, and his death has led to expressions of regret and sympathy from men of all ranks and of all opinions.'