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The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848.

Chartism was a movement for political and social reform in the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century, between 1838 and 1850. It takes its name from the People's Charter of 1838, which stipulated the six main aims of the movement as:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The secret ballot. - To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament - thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  6. Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

Chartism was possibly the first mass working class labour movement in the world. Its leaders have often been described as either "physical force" or "moral force" leaders, depending upon their attitudes to violent protest. Chartists were largely unsuccessful at convincing Parliament to reform the voting system of the mid-19th century; however, this movement caught the interest of the working class. The working class's interest in politics from that point on aided later suffrage movements.


Chartism followed earlier Radical movements, such as the Friends of the People Society and the Birmingham Political Union which demanded a widening of the franchise, and came after the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which gave the vote to a section of the male middle classes, but not to the working class which was then, because of social and industrial conditions, emerging from artisan and labouring classes. Many Radicals made speeches asserting the betrayal of the working class and the sacrificing of their interests by the misconduct of the government, in conjunction with this model.

Chartism included a wide range of organisations. Hence it can be seen as not so much a movement as an era in popular politics in Britain. Dorothy Thompson described the theme of her book The Chartists as the time when "thousands of working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organisation of the country."

In 1837, six Members of Parliament and six working men, including William Lovett, (from the London Working Men's Association, set up in 1836) formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter, containing the six objectives listed above.

The first wave

Chartist Riot

When these demands were first published in May, 1838, they received a lukewarm response from Northern Star's Feargus O'Connor and other Radicals, being seen as too moderate (Thompson, 1984, p. 58). But it soon became clear that the charter had struck a chord among common people. A large meeting was held on Kersal Moor, Kersal near Salford, Lancashire on 24 September 1838 which attracted a large crowd to listen to speakers from all over the country. Speaking in favour of universal suffrage Joseph Rayner Stephens was quoted as saying that Chartism was a "knife and fork, a bread and cheese question"

Dorothy Thompson quotes John Bates as saying:

There were [radical] associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on... The radicals were without unity of aim and method, and there was but little hope of accomplishing anything. When, however, the People's Charter was drawn up... clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, we felt we had a real bond of union; and so transformed our Radical Association into local Chartist centres....

The movement organised a convention of 50 to facilitate the presentation of the petition. This met in London from February, 1839 until May, when it moved to Birmingham. Though they took pains to keep within the law, the more radical activists were able to see it as the embryo of an alternative parliament (John Charlton, The Chartists p. 19). The convention called for a number of "ulterior measures" which ranged from calling on their supporters to withdraw their money from saving banks to a call for a "Sacred Month" (in effect, a general strike). Meetings were held around the country and in June, 1839 a large petition was presented to the House of Commons. Parliament, by a large majority, voted not even to hear the petitioners. When the petition was refused, many advocated the widespread use of force as the only means of attaining their aims.

Several outbreaks of violence ensued, leading to several arrests and trials. One of the leaders of the movement, John Frost, on trial for treason, claimed in his defence that he had toured his territory of industrial Wales urging people not to break the law, although he was himself guilty of using language that some might interpret as being a call to arms. Frost's attitudes and stance, often seen as ambivalent, after setbacks and violence including loss of life, led another Chartist to describe Frost as putting 'a sword in my hand and a rope around my neck'. Nevertheless, Frost had placed himself in the vanguard of the Chartist movement by 1839. When another prominent member, Henry Vincent, was arrested in the summer of 1839 for making inflammatory speeches, the die was cast.

Instead of the carefully plotted military rising that some had suspected, Frost led a column of marchers through South Wales to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, Monmouthshire where he initiated a confrontation. Some have suggested that the roots of this confrontation lay in Frost's frequent personal conflicts with various influential members of the local establishment; others, that Chartist leaders were expecting the Chartists to seize the town, preventing the mail reaching London and triggering a national uprising: it is generally acknowledged that Frost and other Chartist leaders did not agree on the course of action adopted.

The result of the Newport Rising was a disaster in political and military terms. The hotel was occupied not only by the representatives of the town's merchant classes and the local squirearchy, but by sixty or more armed soldiers. A brief, violent, and bloody battle ensued. Shots were fired by both sides, although most contemporaries agree that the soldiers holding the building had vastly superior firepower. The Chartists did manage to enter the building temporarily, but were forced to retreat in disarray: twenty were killed, another fifty wounded.

Testimonies exist from contemporaries, such as the Yorkshire Chartist Ben Wilson, that Newport was to have been the signal for a national uprising if successful. Older histories suggested that Chartism slipped into a period of internal division after Newport. In fact the movement was remarkably buoyant (and remained so until late 1842). Initially, while the majority of Chartists, under the leadership of Feargus O'Connor, concentrated on petitioning for Frost, Williams and Jones to be pardoned, significant minorities in Sheffield, East London and Bradford planned their own risings in response. Samuel Holberry led an aborted rising in Sheffield on 12 January; police action thwarted a major disturbance in the East End of London on the 14th, and on 26 January a few hundred Bradford Chartists staged a rising in the hope of precipitating a domino effect across the country.

1842: Chartism's biggest petition and 'the General Strike'

'1842 was the year in which more energy was hurled against the authorities than in any other of the 19th century'. In early May, 1842, a further petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, which was yet again rejected by Parliament. The Northern Star commented on the rejection:

Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the 'House' has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.

The depression of 1841–1842 led to a wave of strikes in which Chartist activists were in the forefront, and demands for the charter were included alongside economic demands. Workers went on strike in 14 English and 8 Scottish counties, principally in the Midlands, Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, and the Strathclyde region of Scotland. Typically strikers resolved to cease work until wages were increased 'until the People's charter becomes the Law of the Land'. How far these strikes were directly Chartist in inspiration 'was then, as now, a subject of much controversy'. The Leeds Mercury headlined them 'The Chartist Insurrection', but suspicion also hung over the Anti-Corn Law League that manufacturers among its members deliberately closed mills to stir-up unrest. At the time these disputes were collectively known as the Plug Plot as in many cases, protesters removed the plugs from steam boilers powering industry to prevent their use. In the 20th century the term General Strike was increasingly used. Some modern historians prefer the description 'strike wave'. Unrest began in the Potteries of Staffordshire in early August, spreading north to Cheshire and Lancashire (where at Manchester a meeting of the Chartist national executive belatedly endorsed the strikes on the 16th). The strikes had begun spreading in Scotland and West Yorkshire from the 13th. Though the government deployed soldiers to swiftly suppress violence, it was the practical problems in sustaining an indefinite stoppage that ultimately defeated the strikers. The drift back to work began on 19 August. Only Lancashire and Cheshire were still strike-bound by September, the Manchester powerloom weavers being the last to return to work on 26 September.

Several Chartist leaders, including Feargus O'Connor, George Julian Harney, and Thomas Cooper were arrested, along with nearly 1,500 others. Around 250 were sentenced to prison for major offences, ranging from 16 months 2 to 21 years; fifty more were sentenced to transportation to Australia. However, the government's most ambitious prosecution, personally led by the Attorney General, of O'Connor and 57 others (including almost all Chartism's national executive) failed: none were convicted of the serious charges, and those found guilty of minor offences were never actually sentenced. Cooper alone of the national Chartist leadership was convicted (at a different trial), having been involved in events leading up to the strikes in north Staffordshire, where violence was especially serious.

The mid-Forties

Despite this second set of arrests, Chartist activity continued. Beginning in 1843, O'Connor suggested that the land contained the solution to workers' problems. This idea evolved into the Chartist Co-Operative Land Company, later called the National Land Company. Workers would buy shares in the company, and the company would use those funds to purchase estates that would be subdivided into 2, 3, and 4 acre (8,000, 12,400 and 16,000 m²) lots. Between 1844 and 1848, five estates were purchased, subdivided, and built on, and then settled by lucky shareholders, who were chosen by lot. Unfortunately for O'Connor, in 1848 a Select Committee was appointed to investigate the financial viability of the scheme, and it was ordered that it be shut down. Cottages built by the Chartist Land Company are still standing and inhabited today in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and on the outskirts of London. Rosedene, a Chartist cottage in Dodford, Worcestershire, is owned and maintained by the National Trust, and is open to visitors by appointment.

The Chartists also stood on forty occasions in general elections, starting with a by-election in Ayrshire in 1838. There were concerted campaigns in the election of 1841 and election of 1847, when O'Connor was elected for Nottingham. More commonly, Chartist candidates participated in the open meetings, called hustings, that were the first stage of an election. They frequently won the show of hands at the hustings, but then withdrew from the poll to expose the deeply undemocratic nature of the electoral system. This is what Harney did in a widely reported challenge against Lord Palmerston in Tiverton, Devon in 1847. The last Chartist challenge at a parliamentary poll took place at Ripon in 1859.

Chartism and Christianity

During this period the Christian churches in Britain held "that it was 'wrong for a Christian to meddle in political matters.'...All of the denominations were particularly careful to disavow any political affiliation and he who was the least concerned with the 'affairs of this world' was considered the most saintly and worthy of emulation." This was at odds with many Christian Chartists "Christianity was to them above all practical, something that must be carried into every walk of life. Furthermore there was no possibility of divorcing it from political science." Rev. William Hill wrote in the Northern Star "We are commanded…to love our neighbors as ourselves…this command is universal in its application, whether as friend, Christian or citizen. A man may be devout as a Christian…but if as a citizen he claims rights for himself he refuses to confer upon others, he fails to fulfill the precept of Christ". The conflicts between these two views led many like Rev. Joseph Barker to see Britain’s churches as pointless "I have no faith in church organizations. I believe it my duty to be a man; to live and move in the world at large; to battle with evil wherever I see it, and to aim at the annihilation of all corrupt institutions and at the establishment of all good, and generous, and useful institutions in their places." To further this idea some Christian Chartist Churches were formed "where Christianity and radical politics were brought together and believed to be inseparable." Pamphlets expressing this combination of politics and Christianity were also created and vast audiences came to hear lectures upon the same themes by the likes of Rev. J.R. Stephens who was highly influential in the movement. Historian H.U. Faulkner states "The 'political preacher,' in the modern sense of the term, first came into prominence in the agitations incidental to the Anti-Corn Law and Chartist movements."

The Chartists were especially harsh on the Church of England for unequal distribution of the state funds it received resulting in some bishops and higher dignitaries having grossly larger incomes than other clergy. This state of affairs led some Chartists to question the very idea of a state sponsored church, leading them to call for an absolute separation of church and state.

Facing severe prosecution in 1839 Chartists took to attending services at churches they held in contempt "for the double purpose of displaying their numbers [sometimes in the thousands] and of registering their dissatisfaction at the position assumed by the church." Often they would forewarn the preacher and demand that he preach from texts they believed supported their cause, such as 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and 2 Timothy 2:6. In response the set upon ministers would often preach the need to focus on things spiritual and not material, and of meekness and obedience to authority citing such works as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.

The 1848 petition

Poster advertising the Great Chartist Meeting.

On 10 April 1848, a new Chartist Convention organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The estimate of the number of attendees varies depending on the source (O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Observer newspaper suggested 50,000). The most likely figure is 150,000. The government was well aware that the Chartists had no intention of staging an uprising. However, they were fears that a revolution would start spontaneously and the authorities were intent upon a large-scale display of force both to counter this threat and if possible stamp out Chartism in a year of revolutions across continental Europe. 100,000 special constables were recruited to bolster the police force. In any case, the meeting was peaceful. However the military had threatened to intervene if the Chartists made any attempt to cross the Thames.

In a separate incident, rioters in Manchester attempted to storm the hated workhouse. A pitched battle resulted with Chartists fighting the police, eventually the mob was broken up, but rioters roamed the streets of Manchester for three days.

In Bingley, Yorkshire, a group of ‘physical force’ Chartists led by Isaac Ickeringill were involved in a huge fracas at the local magistrates court and later prosecuted for rescuing two of their compatriots from the police.

The original plan of the Chartists, if the petition was ignored, was to create a separate national assembly and press the Queen to dissolve parliament until the charter was introduced into law. However the Chartists were plagued with indecision, and the national assembly eventually dissolved itself, claiming lack of support.

The petition O'Connor presented to Parliament was claimed to have only 1,957,496 signatures – far short of the 5,706,000 he had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries (some of the false signatories included Queen Victoria, Mr Punch and 'Pugnose'). But many people were illiterate, and did not know how to write their own signatures. Though O'Connor mishandled the defence of the petition in the House of Commons, Chartism survived the episode. The high-point of its threat to the establishment in 1848 came not in on April 10 but in June. The banning of public meetings, and new legislation on sedition and treason (rushed through Parliament immediately after April 10) drove a significant number of Chartists (including the black Londoner, William Cuffay) to prepare an uprising in August.

O'Connor has been accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism. This was a common theme in histories of the movement until the 1970s. Since the 1980s, however, historians (notably Dorothy Thompson) have emphasised both the indispensable contribution O'Connor made to Chartism and that the causes of the movement's decline are too complex to be blamed on one man. There has also been increasing interest in Chartism after 1848: the final National Convention, for example was held in 1858.


Plaque commemorating Samuel Holberry in Sheffield's Peace Gardens

The apparent failure of Chartism as a political movement in the mid-19th century proved to be temporary. Five of the six points in the Charter were adopted by 1918.

Middle class parliamentary Radicals continued to press for universal franchise, and were joined by some supporters of the Anti-Corn Law League, with John Bright and the Reform League agitating in the country. The parliamentary Radicals joined with a section of the Whig Party and the anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859. The Liberal William Ewart Gladstone, a former Tory, introduced the Reform Bill 1866, which did not pass the Commons and forced the resignation of the government.

However, Benjamin Disraeli's ensuing (minority) Conservative government carried through the Reform Act 1867, doubling the electorate in the process. Furthermore, the Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the secret ballot. Only the last of the Chartist aims – annual Parliaments – never came to pass.

Chartism was also an important influence in the British colonies. In 1854 Chartist demands were put forward by the miners at the Eureka Stockade on the gold fields at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Within one year of the military suppression of the Eureka revolt, all the demands, except annual parliaments, had been met.

In these ways, Chartism left deep and permanent mark on the course of social history in Britain and beyond. It was the first widespread and sustained effort of working class self-help directed at reforming parliamentary democracy and the constitution. It gave impetus to eventual political reform and to trade union organisation and is therefore of lasting importance to social historians.

The English Radical Alliance, a minor party formed in 2009, draws much of its inspiration from the Chartists and other English Radicals.

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