Revolutionary insurrections blazed through the great European cities of Paris, Berlin and Vienna in the fateful year of 1848. In London there was no violent uprising but instead the presentation of a gigantic petition to parliament, claimed to contain six million signatures, demanding a raft of democratic rights.
It was the third occasion on which the working classes had requested the government take heed of the People’s Charter. Each time the powers that be had dismissed the appeal and with the rejection of 1848, the Chartist movement began to recede.
The People’s Charter had been born a decade earlier, rising from a maelstrom of economic and political grievances. In the late 1830s Britain entered a period of depression and the working classes were the hardest hit. Already suffering from often-deplorable factory conditions, they were confronted with the possibility of unemployment and the meagre poor relief then available.
This was fertile territory for growing working class radicalism, which had already been inflamed by the failure of the 1832 Great Reform Act to extend the vote to workers. Without political representation, how could poorer members of society seek redress?
In May 1838 William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Club drafted the People’s Charter. Its six points demanded universal manhood suffrage, a secret ballot, payment for MPs, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, equal electoral districts and annual parliaments.
“There was nothing in the document that was original,” says Professor Malcolm Chase, author of Chartism: A New History (MUP, 2007). “All the ideas had been kicking around since the 1770s. However the charter was such a neat idea. Calling it the People’s Charter, which was nice and snappy, suggested it was going to finish off the work that the other great charter – Magna Carta – had begun. The notion captured everybody’s imagination.”
First announced to a public audience in Glasgow, the Chartist message rapidly spread across the country. It was helped on its way by travelling orators and the radical press, notably The Northern Star, founded by future Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor in 1837. At its peak this newspaper outsold The Times and was frequently read out in pubs to illiterate members of the working class.
The first mass petition in support of the charter was presented to the government in July 1839 but was unable to gain parliamentary approval. Although Chartism was largely a peaceful movement, there were riots in Birmingham in February of that year and an armed rising was put down in Newport in November.
Undeterred, the Chartists organised a second petition of 3.3 million names, which was presented to the House of Commons in 1842. Once again the government refused to budge and in response a wave of strikes broke out across the north of England.
The authorities held firm however. When the final petition was turned down six years later Chartism started to run out of steam. The three setbacks, coupled with a significant economic recovery, meant that much of the impetus of the movement was lost, although it did continue to operate until 1858.
In stark terms Chartism was a total failure as none of the six objectives were secured. However in many ways the movement can be viewed as a success. “It was truly the first nationwide political movement and even those who were unsympathetic to it were made to review and reflect on their attitudes to working people,” explains Chase. “Chartism also educated, radicalised and mobilised a whole generation of people across the whole of the British Isles. It had a profound influence.”
Parliament may not have accepted the People’s Charter but working class concerns were taken much more seriously as the 19th century progressed. A series of legislative acts sought to ameliorate the working conditions of labourers and improve their health and education.
And in the long run the Chartists did get their way. Five of the six points of the charter were eventually taken up and today annual parliaments is the only one of their demands not to be on the statute books.
Below, we take a look at nine places connected to this ground-breaking movement…
Glasgow Green, Glasgow
A crowd of perhaps 150,000 people gathered at Glasgow Green on 21 May 1838 for a mass rally organised by the city’s trade unions. Among the invited speakers were two members of the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA): coal merchant Thomas Murphy and Anglican clergyman Dr Arthur Wade.
The LWMA was not the star attraction at the event and by the time the duo came to speak, at the close of proceedings, some of the crowd had already dispersed.
Addressing the throng, Wade held up a set of proofs for a forthcoming LWMA publication. “I hold in my hand a charter – the People’s Charter,” he declared. The initial reaction was somewhat muted but this was the first time that the charter had been aired in public and is a good candidate for the launch of the movement.
The charter itself had been a work in progress for several years before the LWMA came to publish it in 1838. Composed chiefly by cabinetmaker William Lovett, it drew together a number of existing political demands in a simple, appealing fashion.
The birth of Chartism is only one part of Glasgow Green’s rich heritage. It is the city’s oldest park, dating back to the 15th century, and over the years it has witnessed Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army, Suffragette meetings and the creation of Glasgow Rangers FC. Nowadays visitors can enjoy historical walking tours of the green. It is also the location of the People’s Palace, a lively museum that chronicles the city’s past.
Tel: 0141 287 5064
The Chartist message spread quickly as other radical and working class organisations came on board. In the spring of 1839 the first petition in support of the charter was collated. By the time it was finished in early May, it contained over 1.3 million signatures. It was then the largest petition ever presented to parliament.
Although most Chartists were peaceful, a few incidents of violence associated with the movement began to occur. The first took place in the sleepy Welsh town of Llanidloes on 30 April. Concerned about a Chartist rising, the local authorities had brought in a small police force to arrest local leaders of the movement.
In response rioters attacked the Trewythen Hotel where the police were staying and committed other acts of vandalism. Troops were brought in a few days later to restore order.
What happened in Llanidloes was a relatively small-scale disturbance chiefly directed against the police rather than in support of Chartism. Nonetheless the press highlighted its associations with the movement. The Times, for example, reported on “ferocious proceedings and robbery by the Montgomeryshire Chartists”.
A visitor to Llanidloes nowadays will find it little changed since the riots that took place there 170 years ago. The hotel now contains a plaque about the incident and the town’s museum features a special display.
Tel: 01686 413777
Blackstone Edge, East Lancashire
Blackstone Edge is a dramatic rocky outcrop on the Pennine Way long distance footpath. From 1838 until 1850 it staged several huge Chartist rallies that were attended by up to 100,000 people.
It was chosen for this purpose because of its location midway between East Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Being up in the hills also made it less likely that the police would interfere.
Mass gatherings took place in many different places in the Chartist heyday. From 1840 onwards they were organised by the co-ordinating body, the National Charter Association. As there was no electronic amplification, much of the crowd would not have been able to hear the speakers but for many of them it was still important to be part of the event and get to see their radical heroes.
The rallies had something of a carnival atmosphere, with music, sideshows and games as well as the speaker podiums. They were memorable episodes for those who took part and Blackstone Edge was later eulogised in songs and poems.
Gwennap Pit, Near Redruth, Cornwall
The Chartists recognised relatively early on that their message had not made a huge impression on Cornwall. At the 1839 National Chartist Convention it was decided that a conscious effort should be made to promote the movement in the county. So later that year Chartist missionaries arrived in Cornwall and organised mass meetings.
They chose to situate these rallies at Gwennap Pit, a large amphitheatre that was the inadvertent result of 18th-century mining subsidence. The pit is best known for its Methodist connections, John Wesley having preached there several times.
For the Chartists it served its purpose well as the movement did grow in Cornwall, although it never became a hotbed of support in the way that South Wales or Yorkshire did.
Today the pit is looked after by local Methodists and can be accessed by the public. There is a visitor centre that is open during the summer months.
Tel: 01209 219048
When Parliament came to debate the first Chartist petition on 12 July 1839 it was soundly defeated by 235 votes to 46. Having been rejected by the House of Commons, the Chartist National Convention in Birmingham discussed alternative means of persuading the government to agree to their demands. An attempted general strike failed so some Chartists opted to take more drastic action.
Plans were made for a widespread insurrection but in the end it was only in the economically depressed region of South Wales that an uprising took place. On 3 November several thousand armed Chartists from the surrounding regions headed for the industrial town of Newport.
The following day they marched on the town’s Westgate Hotel where the police and mayor had already taken several prominent Chartists prisoner.
Unknown to many of the Chartists, the hotel was defended by a small detachment of infantry. As the demonstrators massed outside, seeking to free the prisoners, a gun went off, possibly by accident. In any case it prompted the soldiers to fire into the multitude, causing injury and confusion. Some Chartists managed to break into the hotel where they were met with further shots.
In chaos and disarray the crowd eventually dispersed, leaving dozens wounded and at least 22 dead. The leaders stood trial a few months later and were sentenced to death, although this was commuted to transportation to Australia.
Today the Westgate Hotel still stands and there are a number of memorials to the incident around the city, including at St Woolos Cathedral. The Newport City Museum covers the battle in depth as well.
Tel: 01633 656656
Lancaster Castle, Lancaster
The second Chartist petition was presented to the House of Commons in 1842. It bore 3.3 million signatures and weighed nearly a third of a tonne. A large procession carried it to the House of Commons, where because of its size the doors had to be removed from the MPs’ entrance to get it inside. Once again parliament dismissed the petition, voting it down 287 to 49.
The disappointment fed into a series of mass strikes, as workers attempted to force the government’s hand over the charter, while also pushing for wage increases. In the end poverty compelled the strikers to return to work but it remained the greatest period of British industrial unrest until 1926.
Troubled by what had happened, the government sought to clamp down on the Chartists who they blamed for the strikes. Fifty-nine, including the movement’s leader, Feargus O’Connor, were put on trial the following year at Lancaster Castle’s Assize Court.
Unusually the defendants were tried en bloc and in a sensational development they were all acquitted of the most serious charges. The jury was sympathetic to those on trial, believing that the strikes originated from poverty and unemployment and were not premeditated by the Chartists.
An emotional address from defendant Richard Pilling, recounting his impoverished state, was said to have brought the courtroom to tears. “The masters conspired to kill me and I combined to keep myself alive,” he said.
The Assize Courts at Lancaster were built in the 1790s and have hardly been altered since then. They can be visited today as part of a tour of the medieval castle.
Tel: 01524 64998
Rosedene, Dodford, Worcestershire
Chartism was about more than just political demands. Prompted in part by the failure of the second petition, Feargus O’Connor established a land plan that was adopted by the Chartists in 1845.
The scheme aimed to buy country estates and turn them into colonies for industrial workers. It was an ambitious idea, maybe too ambitious because in 1849 the plan collapsed under the pressure of trying to buy plots for the 70,000 people who had applied to participate.
In the end only five Chartist colonies, containing 234 smallholdings, were created. One of these was at Dodford where the National Trust has restored the Rosedene cottage to its 1840s appearance. The property can be visited today through guided tours that must be booked in advance.
Tel: 01527 821214
Kennington Park, London
For the third time a petition for the People’s Charter was presented to the House of Commons in 1848. This was claimed to be the largest yet, with almost six million signatures. However the authorities argued that a number of the names were duplicated or faked.
Preceding the delivery of the petition, a giant meeting was held at Kennington Common in South London on 10 April. Some 115,000 people turned up to listen to addresses by Chartist leaders. On the front of the stage a banner read “Labour is the source of all wealth”.
Fearful of what such a large crowd might do, the government took precautionary measures. The queen and Prince Albert were evacuated to the Isle of Wight and troops were stationed on London’s bridges to prevent Chartists arriving at Westminster en masse.
This meant that the petition had to be sent to parliament in a fleet of Hansom Cabs. There it occasioned even less support than its predecessors, receiving only 15 votes when MPs came to discuss its demands.
After the rally of 1848 the establishment opted to put its footprint firmly on Kennington Common. It was enclosed in 1854, converted into a park and public meetings were banned. In an unusual addition, houses designed by Prince Albert for the 1851 Great Exhibition were reassembled here as cottages for the keepers.
Nottingham Arboretum, Nottingham
Feargus O’Connor (c1796–1855) was the most prominent of the Chartist leaders. An Irishman by birth, he embarked on a legal career before moving into radical politics in the 1830s.
O’Connor founded the Northern Star newspaper in 1837 and not long afterwards he joined the Chartist movement, becoming a popular orator. By 1841 he was in clear command of Chartism.
In 1847 O’Connor, as the representative of Nottingham, was the only avowed Chartist to be elected to the House of Commons and take his seat. This was a triumph but his influence in the movement was starting to wane. The unsuccessful third petition hastened his downfall and he slipped into madness. He was declared insane in 1852.
Four years after his death, a monument to O’Connor was erected in the city’s Victorian park. It was paid for by his admirers among the Nottingham Chartists. At the time many of the more genteel townspeople disapproved of having a Chartist statue in their midst but their protests were to no avail and the monument still stands today.
Words by Rob Attar. Historical advisor: Professor Malcolm Chase, University of Leeds
This article was first published in the September 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine