History explorer: The Chartist movement

Dr Joan Allen visits Rosedene cottage in Worcestershire to explore the 19th-century campaign for working-class enfranchisement

Rosedene Cottage

Visitors to London on 10 April 1848 would have been taken aback by the sight of more than 20,000 people gathered on Kennington Common. They would have been even more surprised if they’d known that the three horse-drawn cabs wending their way slowly from the massed crowd, in the direction of Westminster, were transporting thousands of pieces of paper that contained the signatures of millions of people demanding a host of democratic rights.

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This petition, which followed two others – in 1839 and 1842 – was the product of a national reform movement known as Chartism, a political campaign partly borne out of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which had only extended the right to vote to the middle classes.

“The run-up to the 1832 act had seen a raft of protests and demonstrations by the middle and working classes, who had combined forces to gain the right to vote,” says Dr Joan Allen, senior lecturer in modern British history at Newcastle University. “But when only householders who paid £10 or more a year in rent – as well as small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers – were given the right to vote, the working classes were left disenfranchised.

“Add to that the exactions of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which imposed harsh conditions for claiming relief at a time of acute economic depression, and you have the perfect breeding ground for the growth of working-class radicalism.”

In 1836, Cornish-born cabinetmaker William Lovett founded the London Working Men’s Association “to seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of the equal political and social rights”. And in May 1838, the association published a six-point People’s Charter (from which Chartism derived its name), demanding universal manhood suffrage, a secret ballot, payment for MPs, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, equal electoral districts and annual parliaments. The fight for the working-class vote was on once more.

“But Chartism encompassed more than electoral reform. It envisioned a more equal society based on wider access to education and improved working conditions, one which rewarded hard work and self improvement,” says Allen. And nowhere is this more apparent than at Rosedene in Dodford, a small, red-bricked cottage that once formed part of a Chartist ‘colony’ of around 40 smallholdings.

The settlement at Dodford was one of five created by Feargus O’Connor – a Chartist leader, and MP for Nottingham from 1847 – as part of the Chartist Land Co-Operative Society, an organisation that procured smallholdings for working men in order to meet the land-holding criteria for gaining voting rights, and provided people with the means to be self-sufficient.

Plots of two, three and four acres were allocated by means of a ballot, with anyone owning shares in the land company entitled to enter. Each name drawn received a plot of land equivalent to the number of shares held, and a cottage – with a dresser. The holders would still have to pay ground rent, but ownership of the cottage and land entitled them to a vote.

Dodford was the last Chartist settlement to be created by O’Connor, who purchased the 280-acre site in May 1848 for £10,350. Yet, by August 1848 the ballot scheme had ended – declared illegal in breach of the Lotteries Acts by the Select Committee which investigated its shortcomings – and O’Connor was forced to ask for a ‘premium’ or deposit to be paid to obtain possession. In one case, £150 was paid – then a considerable sum of money.

Like other cottages on the estate, Rosedene had its own well and pump – both of which remain – and was built to a simple, three-room design, using locally sourced sandstone. Two bedrooms stand at either end of the building – with their original flooring and fire places – while the central living room still forms the heart of the house. This room contains a large replica dresser, similar to the one that came with the cottage, as well as a sturdy range on which the family would have cooked. At the front of the house, on the gable, a triangular insert with a trefoil opening gives ventilation to the roof void – a feature typical of Chartist houses.

Today’s Rosedene retains its original 1840s structure thanks to extensive restoration work by the National Trust, and visitors get a real sense of how it would have looked when its first owner, William Hodgkiss – an East India Company pensioner from Cork – moved in.

Unfortunately for Hodgkiss and his fellow ‘colonists’, O’Connor’s dream of multiple communities of shared co-operation wasn’t a huge success. “For a start, many of the estates’ inhabitants came from industrial areas and had little or no idea how to sustain themselves on the land,” says Allen. “Sometimes the land itself was the problem as the soil was unsuitable for growing planned crops: Dodford’s clay soil made it almost impossible to farm anything but strawberries.”

And, with each estate remortgaged to finance the next, it wasn’t long before the land scheme ran into considerable financial difficulties. “O’Connor was a gifted radical activist, not a businessman, and failed to register the scheme properly: by 1851 his land company had been wound up following a parliamentary investigation.”

Spreading the word

O’Connor’s settlements were really the grand finale of the Chartist movement and formed part of a wider campaign for political and social equality.

“Print culture was crucial to the Chartist campaign,” says Allen, “and the movement owed much of its support to the Northern Star – a Chartist newspaper that O’Connor launched in Leeds in November 1837. The paper’s popularity was phenomenal – in August 1839 it was even outselling The Times – and it quickly became the co-ordinating vehicle for the movement. It was frequently read aloud in pubs and factories, thus widening the circle of readers beyond skilled and literate artisans.”

The People’s Charter itself was announced to a public meeting of an estimated 150,000 who had gathered on Glasgow Green on 21 May 1838, and tens of thousands of people attended Chartist rallies in Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere throughout that year. On the whole, the gatherings were peaceful, but some Chartist leaders advocated using physical force if protest by peaceful means failed.

“As the Chartist movement had no single leader or figurehead it was perennially bedeviled by internal conflict and tension,” explains Allen. “The leaders constantly argued about the best way to achieve their demands and disagreed strongly on the tactics to be used. Some were prepared to take up arms as a last resort, whereas ‘moral force’ Chartists, led by Lovett, advocated accepted constitutional means of making their case.”

The most famous act of Chartist violence took place in Newport, South Wales in November 1839, a few months after parliament had rejected the movement’s first petition of more than 1.2 million signatures. John Frost, a radical former mayor of Newport, led the rising, which resulted in the deaths of at least 22 men, and left 50 others seriously injured. Frost and other Chartist leaders were captured and later sentenced to death for high treason, although this was commuted to transportation to Australia.

“The Newport rising stood little chance of success, for the government had been monitoring Chartist activity carefully, using surveillance techniques to gather intelligence on Chartist plans,” says Allen. “It’s generally accepted that if the Newport rising had not been put down it would have triggered further rebellions. The government had to quash the uprising to prevent the movement gathering even more strength. The trial of the rebellion’s leaders – and the subsequent death sentence – was intended to deter others in the Chartist heartlands of northern England from adopting riotous tactics.”

Final days

The Chartist petition presented to parliament in 1842 boasted more than 3.3 million names, signed on around six miles of paper. Writing in the Northern Star on 7 May 1842, Feargus O’Connor stated: “Our petition smashed the door frames of the narrow house – it broke them in pieces…”

However, the Chartist movement began to run out of steam soon after its third and final national petition – which gained the support of just 15 MPs and probably contained numerous bogus signatures. It was rejected by parliament in 1848.

“The Chartists had tried just about every avenue open to them to achieve parliamentary reform for the working classes – from rebellion to petitioning,” says Allen. “By 1850, the Northern Star, which had consistently rallied support for the movement, had lost its mass readership and eventually folded in 1852. The Chartist Land Co-Operative Society had also ended by this point, and O’Connor himself died in 1855.

“What’s more, economic conditions for some sections of the working classes were beginning to improve, and this undercut some of the impetus for reform. There just wasn’t the same degree of hardship there had been in the late 1830s when the Chartist movement started to gain real momentum.”

Although Chartist associations survived in small cells across Britain until around the late 1850s, none of the six points from the People’s Charter were adopted during the movement’s lifetime. But successive generations of radicals were inspired by its legacy to press the case for democracy, notably in 1867 when a further extension of the franchise was secured.

In fact, five of the six points were eventually adopted – only annual parliaments, which were considered unworkable, failed to make it into the statute books.


Chartism: five more places to explore

 

1

Newport, South Wales

Where Chartists turned to violence

Newport was the site of a major Chartist uprising in November 1839, which saw at least 22 men die. Visitors can go on a Chartist walk that includes sites such as the Westgate Hotel, outside which the rebellion took place, and Westgate Square, where the rebels gathered. Artist Kenneth Budd’s 1978 mural to the rebellion was destroyed in 2013. Visit bit.ly/VBzAWW to download a pdf of the walk.
newport.gov.uk

 

2

Kensal Green Cemetery, London

Where Feargus O’Connor was buried

Irish-born O’Connor was the Chartist movement’s only MP, and founder of its biggest newspaper, the Northern Star.  Dubbed the ‘lion of freedom’, he died in 1855 after suffering a mental breakdown, probably caused by syphilis, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery – a crowd of 40,000 witnessed his funeral procession. You’ll find his monument at Grave No.12687. Square 27. Row 3.
kensalgreen.co.uk

 

3

Glasgow Green, Glasgow

Where the People’s Charter was read

A crowd of around 150,000 gathered here in the pouring rain on 21 May 1838 to hear the People’s Charter for the first time. The park, which is the city’s oldest, is open at all times and visitors can enjoy historical walking tours of the green.
friendsofglasgowgreen.org.uk

 

4

Lancaster Castle, Lancaster

Where leading Chartists went on trial

The rejection of the second Chartist petition in 1842 triggered various rebellions and in 1843 some 59 Chartists (including O’Connor) were put on trial at Lancaster Castle’s Assize Court, where they were acquitted. You can visit the court as part
of a tour of the medieval castle.
lancastercastle.com

 

5

Gwennap Pit, Cornwall

Where rallies engaged local people

Chartism in Cornwall took a while to catch on, so in 1839 Chartist missionaries organised mass rallies to spread word of the movement. These took place at Gwennap Pit, an open-air amphitheatre near Redruth that is still open to the public.
gwennappit.co.uk

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Words: Charlotte Hodgman.
Historical advisor: Dr Joan Allen, senior lecturer in modern British history at Newcastle University