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Chartist - William Lovett (1800-1877)

“Lovett was…a man of melancholy temperament, soured with the perplexities of the world. He was however, an honest-hearted man, possessed of great courage and persevering in his conduct.”

Francis Place, The Place Papers (quoted in The Chartist Movement, Mark Hovell, 1918)

William Lovett was born in Newlyn, Cornwall on the 8 May 1800. He was brought up by his mother, a strict Methodist, his father having drowned at sea before he was born. Lovett received a basic education before being apprenticed to a rope maker.

In June 1821 Lovett moved to London where he earned a meagre living working as a carpenter. He subsequently found work as a cabinet maker but experienced resistance from the local journeymen as he had not served an apprenticeship in the trade.

After working as a cabinet maker for several years Lovett qualified for membership of the Cabinet Makers’ Society, and was later elected its President.

Lovett developed a passion for education. He regularly attended lectures at the recently established London Mechanics Institute (later Birkbeck College) and debates at local coffee houses where he heard men such as George Thompson, the anti-slavery advocate, speak.

It was through this that Lovett came into contact with a number of leading radicals.

Lovett believed in the principles of co-operation espoused by the socialist Robert Owen, although he came to disagree with his methods.

He was a store-keeper at the first London Co-operative Trading Association and was made Secretary of the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge.

In 1829 Lovett drew up a petition to Parliament advocating the opening of museums and public libraries on Sundays. A supporter of temperance, Lovett believed that drunkenness amongst the working men could be reduced by providing

Today William Lovett is mostly remembered for being a Chartist but he had already become involved with the radical reform movement by the beginning of the 1830’s.

Lovett knew many of the leading reformers of the day including Henry Hunt and William Cobbett, whom he regarded as ‘two noble champions of the rights of the millions’.

In 1830 Lovett and his close acquaintances Henry Hetherington, James Watson and John Cleave, joined the war of the unstamped press. Lovett helped to administer a Victim Fund set up to support those imprisoned for selling Hetherington’s unstamped newspaper the Poor Man’s Guardian.

In 1831 Lovett had his property seized by the authorities after he refused to serve or pay for a substitute in the Militia.

Objecting to the Militia ballot on the grounds of not being represented in Parliament, Lovett started ‘the no-vote no-musket plan’ and drew up a petition on the subject which was presented to the House of Commons by Henry Hunt. Fearing that many more people would copy Lovett’s protest, the government abandoned the balloting system.

That same year Lovett joined the newly formed National Union of the Working Classes, agitating for working class interests and universal male suffrage during the campaign for the Whig Reform Bill.

In 1834 Lovett joined the short lived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and took part in the march organised by the Union in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

After the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to enfranchise the working classes, Lovett and other like-minded radicals continued to campaign for their political and social rights.

In June 1836 Lovett helped found the London Working Men’s Association, becoming its Secretary. The first Chartist historian R. G. Gammage said of Lovett ‘without exaggeration…he was the life and soul of that body’.

The LWMA campaigned for parliamentary reform, the freedom of the press and the establishment of a national education system.

Lovett believed that the education of the working classes was essential if they were to gain their political rights and to use them responsibly for the benefit of society.

He believed they ‘were taught to look up to great men (or to men professing greatness) rather than to great principles’. Without political and social instruction ‘no sound public opinion, and consequently no just government, could be formed in this country’.

In 1838 the Government considered reinstating the Combination Acts in the wake of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners case. Lovett was appointed Secretary of the Trade Combination Committee.

By cooperating with the parliamentary inquiry into union activities Lovett hoped to ensure there would be a fair investigation.

Feargus O’Connor publically accused Lovett and the LWMA of instigating the inquiry. Lovett responded with an angry letter refuting the claims and attacking O’Connor, calling him ‘the great I AM of politics’.

William Lovett, with the help of Francis Place, drew up the draft Parliamentary Bill containing the six points of reform adopted by the LWMA. This was published in May 1838 as The People’s Charter.

In February 1839 Lovett attended the first Chartist National Convention in London where he was elected Secretary. The Convention subsequently moved to Birmingham.

In July 1839 a riot broke out at the Bull Ring after the London police were brought in to break up the public meeting being held there. Resolutions criticising the actions of the authorities and the police were unanimously passed and published, at Lovett’s insistence, under his name alone as ‘one sacrifice was sufficient’.

On the 6 July William Lovett was arrested and charged with seditious libel. John Collins, who had taken the document to the printers, was also arrested. In August 1839 both men were sentenced to twelve months in Warwick gaol.

Having refused an offer of early release as it would imply they were guilty of the crimes they had been charged with, Lovett and Collins left prison on the 25 July 1840.

Lovett was treated as a hero on his release and attended a dinner organised in his honour. However the harsh conditions and poor treatment he had received during his imprisonment had damaged his health and he spent several months recuperating in Cornwall.

Lovett’s health would never fully recover. Not fit enough to work as a cabinet maker Lovett opened a book shop on his return to London, which like his previous ventures in business proved to be unsuccessful.

While in prison Lovett and Collins wrote Chartism: a New Organisation of the People. Published after their release it set out plans for halls, libraries and an education system for children and adults. From this came The National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.

Often labelled a ‘moral force’ Chartist, Lovett advocated gradual reform ‘without violence or commotion’ writing in his autobiography that ‘whatever is gained in England by force, by force must be sustained; but whatever springs from knowledge and justice will sustain itself’.

Lovett believed the Chartist cause to have been undermined by the actions of ‘physical force’ men like Feargus O’Connor.

O’Connor denounced Lovett’s ‘new move’ in the Northern Star. It attracted criticism from other Chartists who viewed Lovett’s National Association as a rival to the National Charter Association, an organisation Lovett refused to join.

Lovett’s National Association did not attract as much support as he had hoped. The National Association Hall opened in Holborn in 1842 and eventually managed to open a day school. It was forced to close in 1857.

Although staunchly working class, Lovett had always tried to work with middle-class reformers. He became a council member of Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union, which attempted to unite middle and working class reformers. However Lovett could not agree to the name of Sturge’s ‘New Bill of Rights’ in place of The People’s Charter.

At the CSU conference in December 1842 Lovett’s motion in favour of accepting the Charter in name was seconded by Feargus O’Connor. Successfully carried, it effectively ended the CSU when the middle class delegates withdrew from the conference.

Lovett continued to involve himself in politics until 1850 when he increasingly focused on education. He taught lessons on anatomy and physiology, having first educated himself in the subjects, and wrote textbooks on zoology and geology.

William Lovett’s later years were plagued by ill health. He died in poverty on the 8 August 1877 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Mary and daughter, also called Mary. Their daughter Kezia, named after William’s mother, died in infancy.