Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain which existed from 1838 to 1857. It took its name from the People's Charter of 1838 and was a national protest movement, with particular strongholds of support in Northern England, the East Midlands, the Staffordshire Potteries, the Black Country, and the South Wales Valleys. Support for the movement was at its highest in 1839, 1842, and 1848, when petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons. The strategy employed was to use the scale of support which these petitions and the accompanying mass meetings demonstrated to put pressure on politicians to concede manhood suffrage. Chartism thus relied on constitutional methods to secure its aims, though there were some who became involved in insurrectionary activities, notably in south Wales and in Yorkshire.
- Peoples Charter of 1838
- Newport Rising
- Mid 1840s
- 1848 Petition
- Eventual reforms
The People's Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:
- A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
- The secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
- No property qualification for Members of Parliament in order to allow the constituencies to return the man of their choice.
- Payment of Members, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation.
- Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones.
- Annual Parliamentary elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal manhood suffrage in each twelve-month period.
Chartists saw themselves fighting against political corruption and for democracy in an industrial society, but attracted support beyond the radical political groups for economic reasons, such as opposing wage cuts and unemployment.
After the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property, the political leaders of the working class made speeches claiming that there had been a great act of betrayal. This sense that the working class had been betrayed by the middle class was strengthened by the actions of the Whig governments of the 1830s. Notably, the hated new Poor Law Amendment was passed in 1834, depriving working people of outdoor relief and driving the poor into workhouses, where families were separated. It was the massive wave of opposition to this measure in the north of England in the late 1830s that gave Chartism the numbers that made it a mass movement. It seemed that only securing the vote for working men would change things, and indeed Dorothy Thompson, the pre-eminent historian of Chartism, defined the movement as the time when "thousands of working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organization of the country." In 1836 the London Working Men's Association was founded by William Lovett and Henry Hetherington, providing a platform for Chartists in the south east. The origins of Chartism in Wales can be traced to the foundation in the autumn of 1836 of Carmarthen Working Men's Association.
Both nationally and locally a Chartist press thrived in the form of periodicals, which were important to the movement for their news, editorials, poetry and (especially in 1848) reports on international developments. They reached a huge audience. The Poor Man's Guardian in the 1830s, edited by Henry Hetherington, dealt with questions of class solidarity, manhood suffrage, property, and temperance; and condemned the Reform Act of 1832. The paper explored the rhetoric of violence versus non-violence, or what its writers referred to as moral versus physical force. It was succeeded as the voice of radicalism by an even more famous paper: the Northern Star. The Star was published between 1837 and 1852, and in 1839 was the best-selling provincial newspaper in Britain, with a circulation of 50,000 copies. Like other Chartist papers it was often read aloud in coffee houses, workplaces and the open air. Other Chartist periodicals included the Northern Liberator (1837–40), English Chartist Circular (1841–3), and the Midland Counties' Illuminator (1841). The papers gave justifications for the demands of the People's Charter, accounts of local meetings, commentaries on education and temperance and a great deal of poetry. Readers also found denunciations of imperialism—the First Opium War (1839–42) was condemned—and of the arguments of free traders about the civilizing and pacifying influences of free trade.
People's Charter of 1838
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 in 1838 published the People's Charter. This set out the six main aims of the movement. The achievement of these aims would give working men a say in law-making: they would be able to vote, and their vote would be protected by a secret ballot; and they would be able to stand for election to the House of Commons as a result of the removal of property qualifications and the introduction of payment for MPs. None of these demands were new, but the People's Charter was to become one of the most famous political manifestos of 19th century Britain.
Chartism was launched in 1838 by a series of enormous meetings in Birmingham, Glasgow and the north of England. A huge meeting was held on Kersal Moor, Kersal near Salford, Lancashire on 24 September 1838 with speakers from all over the country. Speaking in favour of manhood suffrage, Joseph Rayner Stephens declared that Chartism was a "knife and fork, a bread and cheese question". These words indicate the importance of economic factors in the launch of Chartism. If, as the movement came together, there were different priorities amongst local leaders, the Charter and the Star soon created a national, and largely united, campaign of national protest. John Bates, an activist, recalled:
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 National Convention in London in early 1839 to facilitate the presentation of the first petition. Delegates used the term MC, Member of Convention, to identify themselves; the convention undoubtedly saw itself as an alternative parliament. In June 1839, the petition, signed by 1.3 million working people, was presented to the House of Commons, but MPs voted, by a large majority, not to hear the petitioners. At the Convention, there was talk of a general strike or "sacred month". In the West Riding of Yorkshire and in south Wales, anger went even deeper, and underground preparations for a rising were undoubtedly made.
Several outbreaks of violence ensued, leading to 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 a call to arms. Dr William Price of Llantrisant—more of a maverick than a mainstream Chartist—described Frost as putting "a sword in my hand and a rope around my neck". Hardly surprisingly, there are no surviving letters outlining plans for insurrection, but physical force Chartists had undoubtedly started organising. By early autumn men were being drilled and armed in south Wales, and also in the West Riding. Secret cells were set up, covert meetings were held in the Chartist Caves at Llangynidr and weapons were manufactured as the Chartists armed themselves. Behind closed doors and in pub back rooms, plans were drawn up for a mass protest.
On the night of 3–4 November 1839 Frost led several thousand marchers through South Wales to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, Monmouthshire, where there was a confrontation. It seems that Frost and other local leaders were expecting to seize the town and trigger a national uprising. The result of the Newport Rising was a disaster for Chartism. The hotel was occupied by 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 were forced to retreat in disarray: more than twenty were killed, at least 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. Despite this significant setback the movement remained remarkably buoyant, and remained so until late 1842. Whilst the majority of Chartists, under the leadership of Feargus O'Connor, concentrated on petitioning for Frost, Williams and William Jones to be pardoned, significant minorities in Sheffield and Bradford planned their own risings in response. Samuel Holberry led an abortive rising in Sheffield on 12 January; and on 26 January Robert Peddie attempted similar action in Bradford. In both Sheffield and Bradford spies had kept magistrates aware of the conspirators' plans, and these attempted risings were easily quashed. Frost and two other Newport leaders, Jones and Williams, were transported. Holberry and Peddie received long prison sentences with hard labour; Holberry died in prison and became a Chartist martyr.
"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 second petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, and 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 1842 led to a wave of strikes, as workers responded to the wage cuts imposed by employers. Calls for the implementation of the Charter were soon included alongside demands for the restoration of wages to previous levels. Working people 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. Amongst historians writing in the 20th century, the term General Strike was increasingly used. Some modern historians prefer the description "strike wave". In contrast, Mick Jenkins in his The General Strike of 1842 offers a Marxist interpretation, showing the strikes as highly organized with sophisticated political intentions. 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 endorsed the strikes on the 16th). The strikes had begun spreading in Scotland and West Yorkshire from the 13th. There were outbreaks of serious violence, including property destruction and the ambushing of police convoys, in the Potteries and the West Riding. Though the government deployed soldiers to 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.
The state hit back. Several Chartist leaders, including O'Connor, George Julian Harney, and Thomas Cooper were arrested. During the late summer of 1842 hundreds were incarcerated – in the Potteries alone 116 men and women went to prison. A smaller number, but still amounting to many dozens – such as William Ellis, who was convicted on perjured evidence – were transported. 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 spoken at strike meetings in the Potteries. He was to write a long, and now unreadable, poem in prison called the Purgatory of Suicides.
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 by Parliament 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.
Candidates embracing Chartism also stood on numerous occasions in general elections. There were concerted campaigns in the election of 1841 and election of 1847, when O'Connor was elected for Nottingham. Feargus became the only Chartist to be elected an MP; it was a remarkable victory for the movement. 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.
With O'Connor elected an MP and Europe swept by revolution, it was hardly surprising that Chartism re-emerged as a powerful force in 1848. On 10 April 1848, a new Chartist Convention organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present a third petition to Parliament. The estimate of the number of attendees varies depending on the sources (O'Connor said 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Observer newspaper suggested 50,000). Historians say 150,000. The authorities were well aware that the Chartists had no intention of staging an uprising, but were still intent on a large-scale display of force to counter the challenge. 100,000 special constables were recruited to bolster the police force. In any case, the meeting was peaceful. The military had threatened to intervene if working people made any attempt to cross the Thames, and the petition was delivered to Parliament by a small group of Chartist leaders. The Chartists declared that their petition was signed by 6 million people, but House of Commons clerks announced that it was a lesser figure of 1.9 million. In truth, the clerks could not have done their work in the time allocated to them; but their figure was widely reported, along with some of the pseudonyms appended to the petition such as "Punch" and "Sibthorp" (an ultra-Tory MP), and the credibility of Chartism was undermined.
After the defeat of April 1848, there was an increase rather than a decline in Chartist activity. 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 were prosecuted for rescuing two of their compatriots from the police. The high-point of the Chartist threat to the establishment in 1848 came not in on 10 April but in June, when there was widespread drilling and arming in the West Riding the devising of plots in London. The banning of public meetings, and new legislation on sedition and treason (rushed through Parliament immediately after 10 April), drove a significant number of Chartists (including the black Londoner William Cuffay) into the planning of insurrection. Cuffay was to be transported, dying in Australia.
O'Connor's egotism and vanity have been identified as causes in the failure of Chartism. This was a common theme in histories of the movement until the 1970s. However, since the 1980s, historians (notably Dorothy Thompson) have emphasised the indispensable contribution O'Connor made to Chartism. Further, she argues that the causes of the movement's decline are too complex to be blamed on one man. Historians have recently shown interest in Chartism after 1848. The final National Convention—attended by only a handful—was held in 1858. Throughout the 1850s, there remained pockets of strong support for the Chartist cause in places such as the Black Country.
Ernest Charles Jones became a leading figure in the National Charter Association during its years of decline, together with George Julian Harney, and helped to give the Chartist movement a clearer socialist direction. Jones and Harney knew Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels personally. Marx and Engels at the same time commented on the Chartist movement and Jones' work in their letters and articles.
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 for whom Christianity was "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, a Swedenborgian minister, 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," he explained. "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 combined and considered inseparable. Pamphlets made the point 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. Political preachers thus came into prominence.
Between late 1844 and November 1845, subscriptions were raised for the publication of a hymn book which was apparently printed as a 64-page pamphlet and distributed for a nominal fee, although no known copy is thought to remain. In 2011, a previously unknown and uncatalogued smaller pamphlet of 16 hymns was discovered in Todmorden Library in the North of England. This is believed to be the only Chartist Hymnal in existence. Heavily influenced by dissenting Christians, the hymns are about social justice, "striking down evil doers", and blessing Chartist enterprises, rather than the conventional themes of crucifixion, heaven, and family. Rather than the crucifixion or Christ's glory, the focus of the hymns is a cry for liberty. Some of the hymns protested against the exploitation of child labour and slavery. Another of the hymns proclaimed: "Men of wealth and men of power/ Like locusts all thy gifts devour". Two of the hymns celebrate the martyrs of the movement. "Great God! Is this the Patriot's Doom?" was composed for the funeral of Samuel Holberry, the Sheffield Chartist leader, who died in prison in 1843, while another honours John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, the Chartist leaders transported to Tasmania in the aftermath of the Newport rising of 1839.
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 persecution in 1839, Chartists took to attending services at churches they held in contempt to display their numerical strength and express their dissatisfaction. Often, they would forewarn the preacher and demand that he preach from texts they believed supported their cause, such as 2 Thessalonians 3:10, 2 Timothy 2:6, Matthew 19:23 and James 5:1-6. 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.
Chartism did not directly generate any reforms. It was not until 1867 that urban working men were admitted to the franchise under the Reform Act 1867, and not until 1918 that full manhood suffrage was achieved. Slowly the other points of the People's Charter were granted: secret voting was introduced in 1872 and the payment of MPs under the Parliament Act of 1911. Annual elections remain the only Chartist demand not to be implemented. Participation in the Chartist Movement filled some working men with self-confidence: they learned to speak publicly, to send their poems and other writings off for publication, to be able, in short, to confidently articulate the feelings of working people. Many former Chartists went on to become journalists, poets, ministers, and councillors.
Political elites feared the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s as a dangerous threat to national stability. In the Chartist stronghold of Manchester, the reform movement undermined the political power of the old Tory-Anglican elite that had controlled civic affairs. However, the reformers of Manchester were themselves factionalized.
After 1848, as the movement faded, its demands appeared less threatening and were gradually enacted by other reformers. After 1848, middle class parliamentary Radicals continued to press for an extension of the franchise in such organisations as the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association and the Reform Union. By the late 1850s, the celebrated John Bright was agitating in the country for franchise reform. However, working class radicals had not gone away. The Reform League campaigned for manhood suffrage in the 1860s, and included former Chartists amongst its ranks.
Chartism was also an important influence in some British colonies. Some leaders had been transported to Australia, where they spread their beliefs. In 1854, Chartist demands were put forward by the miners at the Eureka Stockade on the gold fields at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Within two years of the military suppression of the Eureka revolt, the first elections of the Victorian parliament were held, with near-universal male suffrage and by secret ballot. In the African colonies after 1920, there were occasional appearances of a "colonial chartism" which called for improved welfare, upgraded education, freedom of speech, and greater political representation for natives.
The Chartist movement was criticised by Thomas Carlyle in his 1840 book Chartism.