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The Origins of The Chartists Movement

Here we take you through the origins of the Chartist movement in Great Britain.

‘It is the feeling of injustice that is insupportable to all men’. Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, 1839

In a speech on Kersal Moor in 1838 the Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens proclaimed that ‘Universal Suffrage was a knife and fork question’.

Although Chartist activity did peak during times of economic distress it was also a political movement which promoted parliamentary reform as a way of solving the social and economic ills which the industrial revolution had brought to Britain.

There had been calls for political change since the eighteenth century and the Six Points of The People’s Charter continued this radical tradition.

The working classes were entitled to their political and social rights as equally as a wealthy landowner was. Only by gaining these ‘natural rights’ would their lives improve.

Chartism emerged from the disappointment of the 1832 Reform Act and the discontent at the perceived anti-working class policies of the Whig Government.

It brought together many of the movements which arose during the 1830’s into one national movement, to campaign for the Charter.

The protests and campaigns of the 1830’s would provide the Chartists with valuable experience and a new radical leadership, which would shape the nature of the Chartist movement.

Continuing the radical tradition

‘The poor man has an equal right, but more need to have a representative in Parliament than a rich one’ John Cartwright, Give Us Our Rights! 1782

As early as March 1776 the MP John Wilkes had addressed Parliament on the need for reform.

In what he referred to as the ‘great and growing evil’, Wilkes spoke of the injustice of an outdated system which saw Cornwall return almost as many MPs as Scotland, and the ‘populous trading towns’ like Manchester have no representation.

He also highlighted the rotten boroughs, those historical constituencies which had seen their populations decline to the point where just a few voters elected two MPs to Parliament.

1776 also saw the publication of Take Your Choice by Major John Cartwright. Cartwright argued for universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, equal electoral districts and a secret ballot.

At this time only 10 percent of adult males were eligible to vote. Under the Septennial Act of 1716 elections took place every seven years and the voting process was prone to bribery and corruption.

Cartwright also proposed the registration of voters, a measure which would not be introduced until the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.

The radicals supported the ideals behind the American and French Revolutions and held them up as examples of a better system of government.

One of the most influential of these radical reformers was Thomas Paine. In his book Rights of Man published in two parts in 1791 and 1792, Paine argued that the vote was a ‘natural right’ of every man.

Parliament was corrupt as it did not directly represent the people and was under the control of a wealthy minority which had inherited their land and titles.

The radicals also established societies to debate and promote their ideas of parliamentary reform.

In 1780 John Cartwright set up the Society for the Promotion of Constitutional Information. In January 1792 the Scottish shoemaker Thomas Hardy founded the London Corresponding Society. It included amongst its members the tailor Francis Place, who went on to help William Lovett draft The People’s Charter.

Further Corresponding Societies were established across the country, and were particularly popular in the industrial North.

However the revolutionary principles which had inspired the radicals caused panic and distrust amongst the conservative establishment.

As the French Revolution grew more violent the reform societies were looked upon with suspicion and their members accused of being English Jacobins or republicans.

The Government, fearful of revolution, launched a crackdown on the reformers. In 1795 the ‘Gagging Acts’ were passed in an effort to supress the activities of the societies. In 1799 legislation was passed banning the reform societies altogether, the London Corresponding Society being mentioned by name.

1815 brought an end to the war with France. Britain entered a period of economic depression. High unemployment, low wages and rising food prices led to widespread discontent.

Demands for reform were renewed. The radicals argued that the lives of the working classes would only improve once they had gained their full political rights.

New radical organisations were established, such as the Hampden Clubs. These were debating societies founded by John Cartwright and named for John Hampden, Parliamentarian and opponent of King Charles I.

The radical press flourished with cheap publications such as William Cobbett’s Political Register, Thomas Wooler’s Black Dwarf and Richard Carlile’s Sherwin’s Political Register aimed specifically at the working classes.

Not only did these popularise the reformist cause, they also helped to further develop the growing political awareness amongst the working classes.

Lord Liverpool’s Tory Government however, viewed the discontent and the growth of political radicalism as a threat. They took repressive measures to try and curtail the reformers.

Lord Castlereagh accused the Hampden Clubs and their like of communicating ‘revolutionary principles’. On the 24 February 1817 he introduced a Bill for ‘more effectually preventing seditious meetings and assemblies’.

On the same day in the Lords during a debate on the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth warned that the radicals had ‘parliamentary reform in their mouths, but rebellion and revolution in their hearts’.

Despite these repressive measures the reform movement continued to grow. Open-air mass meetings became popular.

Upwards of 60,000 people gathered to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field Manchester, on the 16 August 1819.

It became known as the Peterloo Massacre after the local magistrates sent in the Manchester Yeomanry and 15th Hussars to arrest Hunt and break up the meeting, killing at least eleven people and injuring over 600 more in the process.

The attack on the unarmed and peaceful crowd brought widespread condemnation and did much for the radical cause.

The Tory Government responded with strong measures to supress the reformist movement. Key reformers were imprisoned, leaving the movement with no effective leadership. New legislation, the Six Acts, was brought in.

These put restrictions on public meetings and strengthened the seditious libel laws. The Government also tried to silence the radical press by increasing the stamp duty on newspapers and making them too expensive for their working class readership.

This would lead to the War of the Unstamped which had a strong influence on the rise of Chartism.

‘No corrupt system ever yet reformed itself’

Francis Place, in a private letter, November 1830

At the end of the 1820’s there were further calls for parliamentary reform. In 1830 there were 645 petitions to Parliament on the subject.

In November 1830 the Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington addressed Parliament and categorically stated that he was opposed to any measures which would change the present system of representation.

By the end of the month Wellington had resigned and a new Whig Government favourable to reform had come to power under the leadership of Earl Grey.

Despite the Tory backlash it produced in Parliament, the Reform Bill proposed only limited change.

Seats from a number of rotten boroughs were to be redistributed to the new industrial towns and cities, while in the boroughs a uniform £10 householder franchise was to be introduced.

Earl Grey’s intention was to strengthen the existing House of Commons and avoid any radical change by extending the vote to the new middle classes, what he termed the ‘respectable classes’.

There was to be no universal suffrage, no annual parliaments and no secret ballot.

The Whig Reform Bill gathered widespread support across the country. Prominent in this was the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) led by the banker Thomas Attwood.

Primarily a middle class organisation the BPU advocated peaceful protest and encouraged cooperation with the lower classes in pressing for reform. It was used as a model for further political unions, including the National Political Union formed in London by Francis Place.

The BPU also recognised the power of mass demonstrations and Attwood himself spoke at several large public gatherings urging Parliament to pass the Bill.

The BPU attracted significant support from the working classes who mostly viewed the Reform Bill as the first step on the road to further reforms.

The radical reformers however believed the Reform Bill didn’t go far enough, realising the property qualification would exclude most of the working classes from having the vote.

In 1831 the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) was formed, by amongst others William Lovett and Henry Hetherington.

Based on the principles of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man it argued for full political rights for working class men, though it was not as popular or as influential as the BPU.

While public pressure may have influenced the House of Commons into passing the second Reform Bill in September 1831 (the first having failed at the Committee stage), the landed gentry of the House of Lords was a different matter.

After they rejected the Bill in October 1831 serious rioting broke out in Bristol, Nottingham and Derby.

A third Reform Bill was passed by the Commons in March 1832. There was now a fear of revolution if the Lords rejected this Bill.

Thomas Attwood announced to an audience of 200 000 at a rally in Birmingham that he ‘would rather die than see the great Bill of reform rejected’.

After King William IV refused to create new peers to get the Bill through, Earl Grey resigned as Prime Minister. The King asked the Duke of Wellington to form a Tory administration and so began the Days of May crisis of 1832.

There was a huge public outcry with a wave of strikes and mass demonstrations across the country.

In London the radicals led by Francis Place advocated non-payment of taxes and a run on the banks to cause a general panic with posters carrying the slogan ‘To stop the Duke go for gold’.

Wellington was unable to form a Tory Government and the King was forced to recall the Whigs. Rather than see the creation of new peers, many of the Tories in the Lords abstained from voting.

The Bill passed and was given royal assent on the 7 June 1832. Separate Reform Bills were passed for Ireland and Scotland.

The public campaign for the Reform Bill was looked upon as a great success, having seemingly pressurised the Government into passing the Bill. It would later be used as a model for the Chartist movement.

However while the new middle classes may have been enfranchised, the working classes were still excluded by the property qualification.

Three General Elections were held between the passing of the Reform Act and the publication of The People’s Charter in 1838 but with no secret ballot, no salary for MPs, and a £600 property qualification needed to stand as an MP, wealthy landowners still dominated the Commons.

Lord John Russell, who had been instrumental in bringing about the Reform Act, earned the nickname ‘Finality Jack’ after stating to Parliament in November 1837 that he would not support any further reforms.

The working classes would come to view the failure of the Reform Act as part of the great betrayal perpetrated by the Whig Government during the 1830’s.

‘When, in countries that are called civilised, we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government’.

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1792

In 1830 unemployment, low wages, poor harvests and mechanisation had led to widespread unrest amongst the agricultural labourers of southern and eastern England.

Known as the Swing Riots, the Government had dealt harshly with those who had been involved in the disturbances. Of the nearly 2000 people sent to trial, 19 people were hanged, over 500 were transported and more than 600 were imprisoned.

To the working classes, the new Reformed Parliament appeared little different from that which had been elected prior to the 1832 Act.

In 1834 six agricultural labourers from Dorset were arrested after setting up a trade union. The Home Secretary Lord Melbourne and the local magistrate James Frampton conspired together to make an example of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and deter any other would-be trade unionists.

The labourers were sentenced to seven years transportation for administering secret oaths under a law from 1797 which had originally been enacted to prevent further naval mutinies.

Trade unions had existed prior to the 1830’s, but these were mainly combinations of workers from one trade in a local area. Now there was a move towards the establishment of general trades unions, particularly in the wake of the Reform Act.

These sought to organise and unite workers from different trades across a wider geographical area. The development of this new mass labour movement amongst the working classes alarmed the Whig Government.

The short lived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) was established in February 1834 by supporters of the socialist Robert Owen.

They organised a mass demonstration in London in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Home Secretary Lord Melbourne refused to issue them a pardon.

The Government’s treatment of the Tolpuddle labourers and the refusal by many employers to hire unionised workers, coupled with a slump in trade in the late 1830’s all led to the demise of the general unions.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs eventually received a pardon in 1836 but the authorities continued to be hostile towards the trade unions.

From the working class perspective their union rights came under attack again when five members of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners Association were unjustly sentenced to seven years transportation.

It was no coincidence that it was at a mass meeting in Glasgow just a few weeks later on the 21 May 1838, that the BPU and the London Working Men’s Association put forward their proposals for a National Petition and The People’s Charter.

There was also a campaign during the 1830’s to try and improve working conditions in the factories, principally by reducing the number of hours worked.

Support for the factory movement was not exclusively confined to the working classes with many viewing it as a moral or religious obligation to protect the workers, particularly the children.

In 1833 the Factory Act was passed. The Act applied only to children working in textile factories. There were no rules relating to working conditions for adult workers and those relating to the use of child labour did not go far enough and were poorly enforced.

The limited nature of the Act served only to demonstrate to the working classes that without political rights they would have little influence over their working conditions.

The 1832 Reform Act had left the working classes excluded from national government. In 1835 the Whig’s set about reforming local government with the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act.

Town councils were to be elected by male ratepayers, a franchise which encompassed the middle classes but which again excluded most working class men, who were not wealthy enough to pay rates.

The most despised piece of seemingly anti-working class legislation introduced by the Whig’s was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. At the time it was often referred to as the ‘Whig Starvation Act’.

Under the old Act the poor would receive financial assistance from the parish paid for out of the local poor rates. Under the new system this outdoor relief for the able-bodied poor would be abolished.

Instead Poor Law Unions would be established and to obtain relief the poor would now have to enter a workhouse. The conditions in the workhouses were to be made as unpleasant as possible to discourage people from using them and to force them to find employment.

The Act was based on the assumption that poverty was the fault of the poor and that they were unemployed by choice.

The Act failed to account for the real, largely economic causes of poverty and was completely unsuited to the realities of the factory system where short periods of unemployment were the norm.

There was widespread, sometimes violent opposition to the New Poor Law, particularly in the industrial North and Midlands where the implementation of the Act in 1837 coincided with a period of economic depression.

The anti-Poor Law campaign received cross-class support and evolved out of the Short Time Committees of the factory reform movement.

Although the widespread opposition delayed its implementation in parts of the North, a motion put forward by the radical MP John Fielden in February 1838 to repeal the Act was soundly defeated in Parliament.

After the rejection of Fielden’s motion the anti-Poor Law campaign went into decline. However many of its supporters went on to join the Chartist movement, persuaded that only universal suffrage and parliamentary reform would bring the necessary change.


‘Knowledge is power’ motto of the Poor Man’s Guardian

In 1819 Lord Liverpool’s Tory Government had brought in the Six Acts to try and supress the activities of the reform movement.

This included trying to silence the radical press by increasing the stamp duty on newspapers and making them prohibitively expensive for their working class readership.

Newspapers were to carry a stamp and sell at a minimum price of 7d (3p).

These restrictions to press freedom were still in effect in 1830 but several publishers began to publish unstamped cheap papers in open defiance of the law.

One of the most popular radical papers was the Poor Man’s Guardian which was first published in July 1831 by Henry Hetherington.

Carrying the motto ‘Knowledge is power’, it declared itself to be a weekly newspaper for the people established contrary to ‘Law’, to try the power of ‘might’ against ‘right’.

It sold for a penny a copy and had nationwide sales of 15,000 copies a week at its height. It was edited for most of its run by the later Chartist James Bronterre O’Brien.

The Whig Government prosecuted the publishers and sellers of the unstamped press, with Hetherington himself spending time in prison.

However the campaign against the stamp duty was well organised and a network of retailers and publishers was established to distribute these unstamped newspapers. Hundreds of people were arrested for selling the papers and a Victim Fund was set-up to give financial assistance to those who had been imprisoned.

In 1836 Lord Melbourne’s Government reduced the stamp duty on newspapers from 4d to 1d.

The War of the Unstamped paved the way for the Chartist press and many of those who had taken part became involved with the Chartist movement.

In 1836 the working class members of the Society for the Promotion of the Repeal of the Stamp Duties formed the short-lived Association of Working Men to procure a Cheap and Honest Press.

Later the same year it was this organisation which became the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) with Henry Hetherington as its Treasurer and William Lovett as its Secretary.

It was a committee of six LWMA members and six Radical MPs formed on 31 May 1837 that set out the Six Points of The People’s Charter from which the Chartist movement took its name.