In a nutshell: Chartism

In 19th-century Britain, the working classes united under six demands and one rallying cry – power to the people!

In a nutshell: Chartism (public domain)

What was Chartism?

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In the 1830s, Britain entered a period of depression, with the already suffering working classes hit by further unemployment and with only meagre poor relief to sustain them. The atmosphere was ripe for the emergence of a new type of working-class radicalism, one that sought to gain political representation for poorer members of society. Enter the Chartist movement.

What did the Chartists want?

Chartist ideas were by no means anything new – the Great Reform Act of 1832 had already failed to extend the vote to workers – but the movement emerged at a time of general unrest in Britain, as well as across Europe.

By appealing to people’s discontent, the Chartists were able to gain momentum. The People’s Charter, from which the movement got its name, was drafted in 1838 by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association.

It made six demands of Parliament: a vote for all men over 21; a secret ballot; payment for MPs; the abolition of property qualifications for MPs; equal electoral districts; and annual parliamentary elections.

The charter was announced to a public audience on 21 May 1838, to an estimated 150,000 people gathered on Glasgow Green. There were other massive meetings in Birmingham and on Kersal Moor in Lancashire, and Chartism continued to grow rapidly from there.

Police break up a Chartist riot in 1842. From the Illustrated London News © Getty Images
Police break up a Chartist riot in 1842. From the Illustrated London News © Getty Images

How did the Chartists spread their message?

The radical press, particularly The Northern Star newspaper (founded in 1837 by future Chartist leader Fergus O’Connor) did much to spread the word.

At its peak, the paper even outsold The Times. Public meetings and rallies were held all over Britain, which garnered further support thanks to the passionate speakers and widespread distribution of pamphlets and leaflets detailing the Chartist aims.

The most well-remembered Chartist actions, though, are the three petitions presented to Parliament. The first, presented to the Commons on 14 June 1839, was signed by almost 1.3 million people, while a second of 3.3 million names followed in 1842.

By far the most impressive, however, was the movement’s final petition, of 1848, which boasted almost 6 million signatures, although many of these were later found to be fake or duplicated. The presentation of the last petition followed a huge public meeting of perhaps 25,000 people, held at Kennington Common in South London on 10 April.

A fleet of three hansom cabs then conveyed the petition to the House of Commons, with Chartist leaders marching alongside.

An early photograph of the huge numbers in Kennington Common in 1848 © Royal Collection
An early photograph of the huge numbers in Kennington Common in 1848 © Royal Collection
 

How did Parliament react to the petitions?

Despite the claim that only 1.9 million of the Chartists’ third petition were genuine, Parliament was suitably spooked by the thought of what such a large crowd might be driven to do. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were evacuated to the Isle of Wight and the proposed Chartist procession to deliver the petition was forbidden, with troops stationed on London’s bridges to prevent them arriving at Westminster.

Was the movement a solely peaceful one?

The members agreed on the aims of the movement, but there was much debate about how these should be achieved. So-called ‘moral force’ Chartists, like Lovett, believed peaceful means would convince the government of the moral right of electoral reform. More radical ‘physical force’ Chartists such as O’Connor disagreed and advocated violence should peaceful measures fail.

Riots broke out in Newcastle, Birmingham and elsewhere, with the worst episode being the so-called Newport Rising of November 1839. A group of Chartists stormed a hotel in the Welsh town, resulting in 22 deaths by the waiting troops.

Most meetings weres peaceful, but the 1839 Newport Rising turned deadly © Getty Images
Most meetings weres peaceful, but the 1839 Newport Rising turned deadly © Getty Images

Was Chartism successful?

In the face of overwhelming support, the government held firm. Chartist demands were continually rejected until, by 1858, the movement fizzled out.

Yet the movement’s ideas remained, and were taken up by other reformers over time. In August 1867, a reform bill gave the vote to all male heads of households over 21, and to all male lodgers paying £10 a year in rent.

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The act was extended in 1872 and 1884, meaning almost two-thirds of men had the vote, which was cast in secret. Annual elections never took off, though, and it would be another 44 years before the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 gave women over 21 the same voting rights as men.

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of History Revealed.