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What was The People's Charter?

“…the details of the Charter brought home to the minds of the many the justice, the practicability, and the efficiency of the measure. They at once saw in it a plan calculated to give all classes their legitimate share in the government of their country, instead of the corrupt and privileged few…”

William Lovett, Life and Struggles 1876

Originally conceived as a petition to Parliament, The People’s Charter outlined six points of parliamentary reform that would bring political rights to the working classes.

Its name deliberately alluded to the Magna Carta, but it was also a reference to the French Constitution of 1814. To the reformers, these embodied the struggle by the people to gain their civil liberties.

The Charter called for a radical change in the existing system of government, which was based on the ownership of property and did not represent the interests of the majority of the population.

Published in May 1838 The People’s Charter soon became the focus of the first truly national reform movement, Chartism.

On the 16 June 1836 the London Working Men’s Association was founded by a number of leading radicals. One of the stated aims of the LWMA was “to seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal political and social rights”.

The LWMA adopted six points for parliamentary reform: universal male suffrage, no property qualifications for MPs, annual parliaments, equal representation, the payment of MPs and a secret ballot.

These demands were not new. The six points were drawn from previous calls for parliamentary reform, begun in the late eighteenth century by radical reformers such as Major John Cartwright.

On the 28 February 1837 at a public meeting at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand, it was agreed to present a petition containing these six points to the House of Commons. The Radical MP for Bath, John Roebuck, would present the petition to the House.

Around three thousand people had already signed the petition when a meeting was held at the British Coffee House in Charing Cross on the 31 May 1837. It was attended by members of the LWMA and a number of Radical MPs who had been invited to try and secure further parliamentary support for the petition.

From this meeting a committee of six LWMA members (William Lovett, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave, Henry Vincent, James Watson and Richard Moore) and six Radical MPs (John Roebuck, Daniel O’Connell, John Leader, Charles Hindley, William Sharman Crawford and Colonel T. Perronet Thompson) was formed to draft a Parliamentary Bill based on the six points of reform.

There were many delays in drafting the Bill. Three of the MPs on the committee lost their seats during the 1837 General Election and Daniel O’Connell was falling out of favour with the working classes over his anti-trade union stance and support for the New Poor Law.

The task was eventually completed by William Lovett, cabinet maker and Secretary of the LWMA, with the assistance of the Radical tailor Francis Place. The Bill was published as The People’s Charter on the 8 May 1838.

The Charter was written as a piece of draft legislation, intended to be the outline of an Act of Parliament.

William Lovett states in his autobiography that the first draft of the Bill included “provision for the suffrage of women” but it was thought it “might retard the suffrage of men” and so it was left out.

On the 21 May 1838, representatives of the LWMA presented The People’s Charter at a mass meeting in Glasgow attended by around 150,000 people.

At the same meeting were delegates from the Birmingham Political Union, promoting their National Petition for further parliamentary reform.

The LWMA accepted the principle of using a mass Petition to bring the Charter before Parliament, while the BPU agreed to all of the Six Points.

The People’s Charter and National Petition were formally adopted at a mass rally in Birmingham on the 6 August 1838, marking the beginning of Chartism.

Taken as a whole, the Six Points embodied the Chartist view that an individual should not be excluded from the political process or from having a say in the government of the country just because they did not own property.

The People’s Charter was not just about extending the franchise to the working classes. By removing the property qualification to sit as an MP and introducing the payment of Members, the working classes would be able to participate in all levels of politics, including in the House of Commons.

It was thought that annual parliaments would make MPs more accountable to their voters. They would be more likely to represent their views in Parliament if they had to seek re-election every year. Under the Septennial Act of 1716, General Elections only had to take place every seven years.

At this time electoral districts were of an uneven size and many constituencies still returned two Members to Parliament. The Charter called for the division of the United Kingdom into 300 electoral districts each containing approximately the same number of inhabitants. Each district would return one MP to Parliament.

It also gave details for a secret ballot, which would help to prevent the intimidation of voters and put a stop to some of the corruption present in the electoral system.

At the time Parliament refused to implement the Six Points of the Charter. All but one of the Chartist’s demands had been achieved by 1918.


  1. Universal Suffrage, for men 21 and over. (1918 Representation of the People Act)
  2. No property qualifications for MPs. (1858 Property Qualification for Members of Parliament Act)
  3. Payment of MPs. (Parliament Act 1911)
  4. Annual Parliaments. (never been introduced)
  5. Secret Ballot. (Ballot Act 1872)
  6. Equal electoral districts. (the 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act introduced the concept of equal constituencies)