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Saturday, 9 April 2016

Chartism in 19th century Britain



Chartism was a working-class protest movement that was active in Great Britain during the 1830s and 1840s, with varying degrees of intensity. Its focus was on political reform as a way of addressing economic grievances, its premise being that with a fairer political system the victims of rampant capitalism would be able to escape their grinding poverty.

The name given to the movement came from the instrument with which they hoped to make the change, namely the “People’s Charter” to which millions of signatures would be affixed as a petition to Parliament. The petition was presented on three occasions, in 1839, 1842 and 1848, but without success. The House of Commons saw no need to accept it, and did not do so.

The People’s Charter

The Charter contained six demands, which were seen as the necessary elements of a Magna Carta for modern times. These were:


  1. Universal manhood suffrage. The Chartists had originally considered including “votes for women”, but this demand was soon dropped.
  2. No property qualifications for voting. The 1832 Reform Act, which had given the vote to many more people than formerly, still required voters to own property worth at least ten pounds, which was a considerable sum at the time and effectively disenfranchised the urban and rural working class.
  3. Annual Parliaments. The Chartists believed that Parliament would only be representative if it had to be re-elected every year and thus reflect the political mood of the moment.
  4. Members of Parliament to be paid. At the time there was no salary for being an MP, which meant that only men with private wealth could afford to be elected.
  5. Secret ballots. Elections were carried out by voters declaring their choice to a clerk who then wrote it down. Anyone within earshot would thus know how someone had voted and could pass this on, meaning that, for example, an employer could influence how his employees cast their votes.
  6. Equal electoral districts. Even after the 1832 Act had swept away the “rotten boroughs”, where there were hardly any voters, the big cities were still grossly under-represented.


It is notable that, despite the failure of the People’s Charter, all but one of its six clauses were subsequently incorporated into law at later times, the exception being the unworkable demand for annual parliaments.

The causes of Chartism

Chartism grew out of the desperate conditions suffered by the workers in the big industrial cities, many of whom had moved to escape rural poverty only to find things to be far worse when they worked in the vast, dangerous and unhealthy factories created by middle-class industrialists whose only concern was how much money they could make. Wages were therefore as low as they could be pushed, even when food prices rose and workers and their families faced starvation.

One reason why Chartism concentrated on political reform was that it was the actions of Parliament that were blamed for making the condition of the people far worse.

The Poor Law of 1834 had, in effect, blocked a route for destitute people to gain relief from parish funds, by declaring that help would only be available to those who were prepared to enter workhouses which were deliberately made as terrible as possible to dissuade people from taking this course.

Another factor was the price of food, kept high by the Corn Laws that regulated the price of corn (by preventing the import of cheaper grain), so as to benefit wealthy farmers. The campaign to repeal the Corn Laws was generally a middle-class one, and many working-class leaders feared that, were food prices to fall as a result of their repeal, the factory owners would only see this as an excuse to cut wages even further.

The nature of Chartism

The early Chartist movement, despite its focus on the People’s Charter, was not a unified, centrally-organised campaign. People in different regions used the Chartist banner as a cover for their own protests, and they pursued their aims in different ways.

There was therefore an early split between those who sought to win via purely peaceful means and those who were not afraid to use force, and violence if necessary. This split is typified as being between “moral force” and “physical force” Chartists. The moral force Chartists were active in producing huge numbers of tracts and newspaper articles to back their case, as well as gathering signatures on the petition. However, others were prepared to arm themselves and confront the forces of law and order.

The early years of Chartism

In November 1839, following the rejection of the first petition to Parliament, thousands of Chartists marched on Newport and Ebbw Vale in South Wales, ending with a battle in Newport which resulted in at least 15 deaths. The Chartists’ leader, John Frost, was sentenced to be hanged but this was later commuted to transportation to Australia. The government had no wish to create martyrs.

However, the spectre of armed insurrection was a potent one, and the Government was determined not to give way to what it now regarded as a dangerous threat to public order and national security.

A new leader

By 1842 the Chartists had an effective leader in Feargus O’Connor, an Irishman who managed to gain a seat in Parliament (for Oldham) and who also founded a newspaper (the “Northern Star”) with the aim of promoting the Chartist cause. He was able to bring the disparate local groups of Chartists together into something resembling a national campaign, and also to restrain those who sought a more violent solution, with the result that more than three million names were gathered for the 1842 petition, although it fared no better than that of 1839.

Economic conditions improved during the 1840s, helped by a series of good harvests, and the fire went out of Chartist agitation for a time. However, things started to go downhill in 1847 and Chartism revived.

The final fling

1848 was a remarkable year in Europe, with revolutions and insurrections affecting many countries, including France where a new republic was established in February. In Britain, the revolution took the form of another monster Chartist petition, reputed to contain more than five million signatures.

O’Connor was determined to achieve maximum impact for this latest campaign and organised a day of protest to be held on 10th April in London. Chartists from all over the country would gather at four rallying points north of the Thames. They would then cross the river to Kennington Common and from there the petition would be taken to Westminster in a massive cart drawn by four dray horses.

The Government’s response was to prepare for the worst. With governments falling across Europe, they were not going to take any chances, entrusting the defence of London to the elderly Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo. The steps that were taken included the recruitment of 85,000 special constables and the mounting of guns and cannon at strategic locations.

As it turned out, the precautions were not needed. Many of the Chartists regarded the whole demonstration as a fun day out, wearing coloured ribbons and adopting a cheerful, celebratory mood. They had no intention of causing any trouble. At Kennington Common, O’Connor addressed the crowd, some of whom carried banners reading “No Surrender” and other inflammatory slogans, with a message that advised against confronting the authorities. He could see that there was no point in advising differently, because the Chartists, very few of whom were armed, could never win any sort of confrontation. In any case, most of them were not the sort of people who would have wanted to turn violent.

As might have been expected, there were a few in the crowd who did not follow the advice and threw stones at the police, but injuries were few as were the arrests. This was in stark contrast to what would happen a few weeks later in Paris when thousands of working-class protesters would be gunned down by government forces.

As for the People’s Charter, it was laughed out of the House of Commons as its predecessors had been. Stories soon went around that many of the signatures were false, including many in the same handwriting and for “impossible” names including that of Queen Victoria. However, there is no way of knowing if those claims were justified or not. In the event, it did not matter either way.

That was the end of Chartism as a movement, although it had spawned the idea that working-class people from industrial cities could organise themselves in ways that could eventually produce results. Many ex-Chartists went on to become trade unionists or to be active in the co-operative movement, and to sow the seeds for what would eventually become the Labour Party. If Chartism was a revolutionary movement, the revolution was a notably British one, in which change happens slowly and the body count is low.



© John Welford