A brief history of Chartism

Chartism was the first truly national mass workers’ movement in history. The three Chartist petitions that advocated suffrage reform attracted millions of signatures and, set against the backdrop of a revolutionary Europe in 1848, the movement became a staple of working-class life in the mid-19th century. Writing for History Extra, Professor Malcolm Chase considers the rise and fall of the mass movement that features prominently in TV drama Victoria

An illustration depicting the procession to the House of Commons to deliver People's Charter to government in 1842. (Photo by Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In the drama Victoria, currently airing in the UK on Sunday nights, the year is 1848 and Chartism, the working-class movement for political reform, is on the rise. Here, Professor Malcolm Chase explores the movement…

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A landmark text in British political history, the People’s Charter (hence, Chartism) was launched in 1838. Nothing in it was novel except, crucially, the punchy title. Magna Carta (1215) had long been seen as the foundation stone of English liberties, and the People’s Charter was intended to complete its work by establishing universal male suffrage and the secret ballot; paying MPs and abolishing the property qualification to become an MP; creating equal sized constituencies and instituting annual parliaments.

Mass meeting of Chartists on Kennington Common, London, 10 April 1848

These were the famous six points of the Charter and they inspired the first truly national mass workers’ movement in history, a movement sustained by a national newspaper, a series of annual delegate conferences elected from Britain’s regions, and from 1840, by the centrally-organised National Charter Association. Chartism’s focal points were huge petitioning campaigns in 1839, 1842 and 1848.

The greatest Chartist petition, in 1842, marshalled 3.3 million signatures (around a third of Britain’s adult population and four times larger than the combined British and Irish electorate). This was the single largest petition ever presented to parliament in the pre-digital era. On arrival it jammed tight in the doors to the House of Commons, and had to be dismantled and taken into the Commons in pieces. A mountain of paper, heaped on the floor of the chamber, dwarfed the clerks’ table upon which, technically, the petition was supposed to be placed. Parliamentary procedure then required the Clerk to the House to read out all 3,000 words of the petitioners’ demands. These included not only ‘The People’s Charter’ but a clean-up of government corruption, disestablishment of the Church of England and home rule for Ireland. It was a deeply satisfying piece of political theatre.

A cartoon showing a huge scroll carried by signatories of the Chartist movement's petition, who are attempting to get it through the door of British parliament. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A cartoon showing a huge scroll carried by signatories of the Chartist movement’s petition, who are attempting to get it through the door of British parliament. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

But theatre is all it was. Parliament did not yield to the Chartists’ demands in 1842, anymore than it had done in 1839 or would do in 1848. By the early 1850s Chartism had morphed into an earnest but minority pressure group, agitating for “the Charter and something more”. This ‘more’ included free education for all, universal old-age pensions and state support for those unable to work or to find work. None of those demands were implemented before the 20th century and it took until 1918 for the Charter’s central demand for universal male suffrage to become law.

Chartism therefore failed in its lifetime. Why then should we care about it?

Why does Chartism matter?

We can begin by honouring the dedication of those who called themselves ‘Chartists’.May Pares and her husband (a blacksmith) moved to south London from Scotland in the mid-1830s. They had six children; the youngest, little Christine, was barely five when her mother died of cholera in 1849 – a, sadly, typical tale of Victorian working-class life. But when May died, the Northern Star, the national paper of the Chartist movement, published a glowing tribute to May, describing her as “a fond and affectionate mother”, a “noble woman” and one of the leading chartist organisers in Greenwich.

Although the People’s Charter called for votes for men alone, support from women for Chartism was remarkable. May was praised for collecting hundreds of signatures for the 1842 petition. She was also among 50,000 demonstrators who escorted this remarkable petition to present it at Westminster.

Jenna Coleman becomes a mother in series two of 'Victoria', written by Daisy Goodwin. (© Mammoth Screen for ITV)

The day after its presentation, the Commons voted on a motion that six representatives of the Chartist movement should be allowed to speak to this petition at the bar of the House. The Conservative prime minister Robert Peel and his home secretary both spoke to oppose this. However their rhetoric failed to match that of one opposition MP (and former cabinet member) Thomas Macaulay: “Universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists,” he declared. “It is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation.” If parliament was elected on the principles of the People’s Charter, “how is it possible to doubt that famine and pestilence would come before long to wind up the effects of such a state of things?” The motion was defeated by 287 to 49.

At least the 1842 petition was received with courtesy. In 1839, the 1.3 million signatures of Chartism’s first national petition had been greeted by laughter in the Commons. And in 1848 the inclusion of multiple names in the same writing, along with pseudonyms, was used to discredit the third petition (signed by almost two million). Neither feature was exactly surprising in a society where literacy was low and many lived in fear of losing their jobs if their political views became known. However, the background to the 1848 petition was one of revolution across Europe; troops were moved closer to London from all over southern England, and the royal family was evacuated to the Isle of Wight. The political establishment was in no mood to receive Chartism with anything approaching courtesy in the spring of 1848. Draconian changes in the law of freedom of political assembly and speech (pushed through parliament with a first reading on the day the 1848 petition was presented) were one of the factors that led to the subsequent decline of Chartism.

Three suffragettes prepare to chain themselves to the railings, 1909

Why did Chartism decline, and did it fail?

It must be stressed, however, that the decline of Chartism was not solely the consequence of official repression. Also it should be stressed that failed movements may have significant consequences: we should not overlook the impact that Chartism had at a grassroots level, on people like May Pares and her family. Support for the Charter was close to the norm among working men and women in the industrial regions of the English midlands and north, south Wales and central Scotland. And there were many other centres of intense Chartist activity outside those regions: for example Aberdeen, Dundee, Ipswich, Colchester, Brighton, Plymouth, Bristol, Cheltenham, Oxford and, of course, London.

The decline of Chartism and its complex causation too-easily obscure the movement’s true significance. In my book Chartism: A New History (2007) I characterised Chartism as a movement that had a multitude of small endings and a multiplicity of small victories. Long after the 1848 petition, long even after the very last Chartist national convention in 1858, the People’s Charter remained ‘a tool to think with’ for those who sought to promote democracy in Britain. Its emotional charge was considerable: social reformers as sharply contrasting as the militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh and General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, cited it among their inspirations. As late as 1935, Sylvia Pankhurst criticised the Labour Party for lacking “the sturdy democratic fibre of the Chartists”.

Millicent Fawcett addressing crowds in Hyde Park

The legacy of Chartism in Britain

Effectively, Chartism was Britain’s civil rights movement. What was its legacy? Five things stand out.

First, it increased ordinary people’s ‘social capital’. It was an important provider of educational opportunities and also created space to develop organisational and public speaking skills.

Second, it increased awareness among working people of what they had in common – despite the widely contrasting experiences of gender, geographical regions and different occupational groups. The message and the medium were alike central to this process. It was here that the tradition of a national press supportive of working-class issues was established. Chartist newspapers were lively: they offered not just news and commentary but fiction, poetry, extensive space for local reports and readers’ letters, features for women and, even, children. Northern Star was the foremost Chartist paper (outselling The Times in 1839 and therefore the bestselling newspaper in history at that point); but there were some 120 other Chartist and near-Chartist periodicals.

Street urchins in Lambeth, London, 19th century

Third, Chartism was one of the key forces in persuading Westminster to legislate against the prevailing interests of those who made up parliament, and to bring forward instead social and economic measures to improve life for the people as a whole. Robert Peel’s 1841–46 reforming ministry would not have achieved all that it did without the hot breath of Chartism at its shoulder. Parliament was at worst disinclined to grant trade union rights, and from 1859 it was increasingly well-disposed towards them. The landmark legislation here was the Molestation of Workmen Act, which reformed the law of strikes and explicitly established a right to picket peacefully. It was passed by parliament as a result of lobbying by the National Association of United Trades, founded in 1845 by trade unions affiliated to Chartism and supported by Northern Star.

Fourth, Chartism began the process by which local government was opened up to working men, both as voters and as elected representatives. Chartist local councillors were elected in Leeds as early as 1841, a success widely imitated elsewhere: Chartism was a crucible for active citizenship. The involvement of ex-Chartists in municipal and liberal politics was commonplace even into the 1880s. It was a natural consequence of Chartists continuing to be politically active in their local communities after Chartism as a national movement had dwindled. For example Robert Meek Carter, a Liberal MP for Leeds (1868–76), had first entered politics as a Chartist local councillor in 1852. Carter started work at the age of six on a Yorkshire farm: he owed his education to Chartism following his family moving to Leeds in the 1830s.

British politician and Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788 - 1850), the founder of the modern police force and the Conservative Party.   (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Clearly there was much more to Chartism than the People’s Charter. It became the structure within which for a time the majority of industrial families pursued their political and even cultural lives. A newborn child might be received into the movement at a special ceremony presided over by one of its leaders, and possibly given their name. Subsequently they might attend a Chartist Sunday School. Meanwhile the parents would be immersed in the political and social life of the local branch of the National Charter Association, the mother in a Chartist women’s group and the father perhaps in a trade union affiliated to Chartism. They might shop at a Chartist Co-op store. If a ratepayer, the father might support Chartist candidates in local elections. Prints of Chartist leaders would adorn their home and spare pennies donated to support Chartist prisoners and their dependants. Their main source of national news would be a Chartist weekly paper, typically Northern Star.

Mass meeting of Chartists on Kennington Common, London, 10 April 1848. In centre is the wagon carrying Feargus O'Connor and the other delegates. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Mass meeting of Chartists on Kennington Common, London, 10 April 1848. In centre is the wagon carrying Feargus O’Connor and the other delegates. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Few Britons at this time were not touched by this remarkable movement and it is almost inconceivable that there were any who had never heard of it, for Chartist localities could be found from the far west Cornwall to Kirkwall in the Orkney islands. The Chartists constituted a massive cross-section of society: 80 distinct occupational groups can be identified in 1841, ranging from bakers and basket-makers to veterinary surgeons, as well as the textile workers and mechanics working at the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution. Almost every ethnic community in Britain was represented. William Cuffay, a London tailor, was of Caribbean slave heritage; two other Londoners, David Duffy and Ben Prophett, arrested after a Chartist disturbance in south London in 1848, were described as “men of colour”. Arrested with them was Charles Lee, a Romani who had been born in a tent in the New Forest. One of Scotland’s leading Chartists, John Taylor, was born into an Anglo-Indian family (his mesmerising good looks were attributed to his Indian grandmother, Shanie Chanim from Sandila in Uttar Pradesh).

In certain parliamentary boroughs Chartists could also support their own candidates for Westminster. There were around 50 occasions on which Chartist candidates stood for parliament. Two were successful: Feargus O’Connor at Nottingham in 1847; and Samuel Carter at Tavistock in 1852. Furthermore, independent or progressive Liberal candidates often received official Chartist endorsement – most of them were elected. And there were countless occasions when Chartist candidates worked for one or the other of the two main political parties – Whig or Tory – typically with the objective of achieving a hung parliament, wherein those MPs who were favourably disposed to extending the suffrage might exercise particular influence.

British monarch Queen Victoria seated at her writing desk, c1897. In January 1901, as illness left the queen was no longer able to carry out her constitutional duties, the government ground to a halt. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Chartist participation in the parliamentary election process underlines that this was a serious, constitutional movement. It was as much about contesting the parliamentary system on its own terms, as it was about demonstrating (sometimes riotously so) against that system. Chartists revered the institution of parliament: that indeed is why they agitated so strenuously to reform it.

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Professor Malcolm Chase is a professor of social history at the University of Leeds and the author of Chartism: A New History (2007).