Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894) became an international icon following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848–49. Having initially served as finance minister, Kossuth pushed for full independence from Habsburg rule and became Regent-President of the Hungarian Republic in April 1849. The republic was short-lived and, following Hungary's defeat by Habsburg troops, Kossuth fled to the Ottoman Empire. There, he was placed under house arrest but ultimately released in 1851. His arrival in Britain in October that year coincided with an outbreak of 'Kossuth fever' (Claeys 1989, p. 244). Working-class activists and middle-class radicals were united in their adoration for a figure that they regarded as a hero in the struggle against despotism.
A meeting at Newcastle's Lecture Room on Nelson Street (later known as the 'Music Hall') exemplifies the passions generated by Kossuth's visit to Britain. As the local press noted, the event was a 'crowded and enthusiastic meeting' in which speakers celebrated Kossuth's liberation. One speaker went so far as to praise the Ottoman Sultan as 'one of the noblest monarchs that ever sat on a European throne' because he had released the Hungarian politician rather than bowing to Austrian pressure. The meeting concluded with everyone voting for an address in which they praised Kossuth as 'the noble leader of a noble nation'.
The event was but one example of the connection between Tyneside and Kossuth. Leading Newcastle radical Joseph Cowen – who spoke at the 1851 meeting – maintained a long-lasting connection with him. One result was the Hungarian leader's visit to Newcastle in 1856, which is commemorated via a plaque on Grainger Market. It is evident that many Newcastle radicals were deeply impressed by Kossuth. For example, Robert Spence Watson described him as 'the finest speaker that I think I ever heard' (Corder 1914, p. 189). In recounting an earlier meeting with Kossuth, he stated that the later 'made us all wild…wearing a fez cap, or what we might call a smoking cap, and he gave us a wonderful speech. He used little action, he spoke in English, and looked every inch the noble hero and warrior.' According to Spence Watson, not even William Gladstone was a match to Kossuth 'in absolute pure eloquence'.
Support for Kossuth needs to be seen in the context of a particular vision of British politics. The 1851 meeting's opening speech by John Fife – co-founder of the Newcastle School of Medicine and a prominent liberal – provides us with a clear illustration of this. Fife suggested that Kossuth 'knew value of those small circles of self-government – our municipal institutions, which contain in themselves the very essence of civil and religious liberty' and noted that state centralisation was 'incompatible with freedom'.
'The Liberation of Kossuth: Public Meeting in Newcastle', Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, 1 November 1851; Gregory Claeys, 'Mazzini, Kossuth, and British Radicalism, 1848–1854', Journal of British Studies, vol. 28, no. 3 (1989), pp. 225–261. Nigel Todd, 'The Militant Democracy': Joseph Cowen and Victorian Radicalism (Whitley Bay: Bewick Press, 1991); Joan Allen, Joseph Cowen and Popular Radicalism on Tyneside, 1829–1900 (London: Merlin Press, 2007); Percy Corder, The Life of Robert Spence Watson (London: Headley, 1914).