BRIT POLITICS, Study, Learn,  Create, Inspire

What was Chartism?

We’ve set out for you what Chartism was and an overview of the Chartist movement from beginning to end. 

‘We demand Universal Suffrage, because we believe the universal suffrage will bring universal happiness’.

George Julian Harney, at a Chartist meeting in Derby, 28 January 1839

Chartism was a national working-class movement for Parliamentary reform that lasted from 1838 until 1858.

It took its name from The People’s Charter which outlined the main aims of the movement, the Six Points.

In 1839, 1842 and 1848 the Chartist’s demands were presented to Parliament in the form of a National Petition.

All three petitions were rejected by the House of Commons and, at the time, none of the Six Points were achieved.

To the historian Mark Hovell the Chartist movement officially began on the 6 August 1838 at a mass meeting in Birmingham. Here, witnessed by a crowd of some 200,000 people, The People’s Charter and the National Petition were formally adopted.

Many had been left disillusioned by the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to bring real change to the House of Commons. The extent of this failure became more obvious in the face of the seemingly anti-working class policies of the Whig Government.

It was out of the campaigns of the 1830’s, such as for factory reform or against the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, that Chartism developed. These smaller movements were brought together into one national campaign for parliamentary reform.

Principally written by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association, The People’s Charter contained Six Points for political reform: universal male suffrage, no property qualifications for MPs, the payment of MPs, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts and a secret ballot.

The working classes wanted equal political rights and a reformed Parliament that represented and legislated for the interests of the majority and not just the propertied few.

The Chartist movement grew in popularity over the winter of 1838 to 1839.

Lecture tours were organised to promote the Charter, gain signatures for the National Petition and elect delegates for the National Convention.

It was in the industrial North, where the anti-Poor Law campaign had been strongest, that Chartism really took off. It was here, at a series of mass meetings that Feargus O’Connor established himself as the leader of the Chartist movement.

It was O’Connor’s newspaper the Northern Star which would play an important role in unifying Chartism and help to create a truly national movement.

On 4 February 1839 the first Chartist Convention convened in London in preparation for the National Petition to be presented to Parliament.

The discussion of ‘ulterior measures’, such as a general strike, to try and force the Government into accepting the Charter saw many of the middle class delegates withdraw their support.

In May the Convention moved to Birmingham. On the 14 June the first Petition, which carried over 1.2 million signatures, was presented to the House of Commons.

In Birmingham, several Chartists were arrested after riots broke out in the Bull Ring on the 4 July when the Metropolitan police were brought in to break up a peaceful meeting.

On the 12 July the Commons rejected the Petition by 235 votes to 46.

The Convention had voted in favour of a Sacred Month (general strike) should the Petition fail, but O’Connor persuaded them to call it off. The Convention was dissolved in September 1839.

On the night of the 3-4 November a march on Newport, Wales by 10,000 armed miners and iron-workers ended in failure and the death of over 20 Chartists when they were fired on by troops stationed inside the Westgate Hotel.

The leaders of the Newport Rising were convicted of high treason, although their death sentences were later commuted to transportation for life.

The Government tried to supress the Chartist movement and imprisoned many of its leaders. However Chartism continued and in July 1840 the movement re-organised itself with the founding of the National Charter Association.

The NCA had an elected, full-time Executive Council and would be the main Chartist organisation for the next twelve years.

1841 saw a resurgence in Chartist activity. By the end of the year the NCA was coordinating the second National Petition.

At this time divisions appeared within the Chartist leadership as different leaders favoured different approaches to achieving the Charter.

Some, like William Lovett (Knowledge Chartism) and Henry Vincent (Teetotal Chartism) promoted the use of moral force strategies to achieve the vote. These ‘New Moves’ were denounced by O’Connor and the NCA.

The second National Petition was six miles long and carried over 3.3 million signatures. It was rejected by the Commons 287 votes to 49 on the 2 May 1842.

In the summer there was a wave of strikes and industrial unrest known as the Plug Plot or Plug Riots.

In December 1842 a potential alliance between the Chartists and Joseph Sturge’s middle class Complete Suffrage Union failed. Sturge refused to adopt the name of the Charter in place of his ‘New Bill of Rights’.

After the failure of the second Petition, divisions within the movement left the Chartists with no clear strategy. O’Connor increasingly focused on his Land Plan to establish rural communities for industrial workers.

1847 saw another economic downturn. There was an upsurge in Chartist activity and O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham at the General Election. Signatures were soon being collected for a new National Petition.

On the 10 April 1848 the third Petition was delivered to Parliament after a peaceful rally at Kennington Common. The Government had taken extensive precautions to ensure security and had banned the planned procession to the House of Commons.

The Petition was found to contain many made up names and had far fewer signatures than the 5.7million claimed by O’Connor. The Petition was derided by the House.

Chartism went into decline. Ernest Jones emerged as the new leader and the movement developed a more socialist approach.

Chartism would never regain the mass working class support of previous years and in 1858 the movement came to an end.