O'Connor was an Irish-born Chartist leader. The Chartists represented the first attempt to build a party representing the interests of the English working classes.
Feargus O'Connor was born in around 1796 and spent his early life on his family's estates in Ireland. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, became a lawyer and in around 1820 inherited an estate in Cork from an uncle. During agitation for reform in the early 1830s, he emerged as an advocate of Irish rights and democratic political reform. In 1832, he was elected member of parliament for Cork with the help of Daniel O'Connell, leader of the Irish radicals. They later quarrelled and became enemies. O'Connor was an outspoken critic of the Whig government's policies in England and Ireland. In London, he allied himself with popular radicals and after losing his seat in 1835, embarked on a career as a leader of English popular radicalism.
O'Connor toured the country campaigning for political reform, universal male suffrage and better working conditions, particularly in the industrial districts of England and Scotland. He was well-known for his charismatic and incendiary speeches and his efforts laid the groundwork for Chartism. This was essentially an umbrella movement (named after a six-point charter of demands) of the 1830s and 1840s which drew together many strands of radical grievance. O'Connor's newspaper 'The Northern Star', which he established in 1837, provided the most effective link between these different strands. O'Connor was identified with the more radical side of the movement and was imprisoned for libel in 1840. The same year, he attempted with little success to unify the Chartist movement and give it direction with the National Charter Association (1840).
From the early 1840s, O'Connor's attention began to shift to what he believed was working people's alienation from the land. He developed an idea to buy up agricultural estates, divide them into smallholdings and let these to individuals. This developed into the 'National Land Company' (1845 - 1851). The scheme was a disaster and soon went bankrupt.
In 1847, O'Connor was elected MP for Nottingham, becoming the first and only Chartist MP. In April 1848, he presided over the last great Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in south London. After 1848, Chartism went into sharp decline. From 1851, O'Connor's behaviour became increasingly irrational, possibly as a result of syphilis. In 1852, he was declared insane and sent to an asylum in Chiswick. He died on 30 August 1855.