The Framework of Events
In 1836 the London working men's association (L.W.M.A.) was set up. This was the cradle of Chartism and aimed to unite respectable skilled craftsmen to seek political and social equality by legal means. Its secretary was William Lovett, a Cornish cabinet-maker who was a great believer in self-help and education. He was an Owenite who believed that social happiness came from something more than self-interest. He was a mild, reasonable, 'moral force' man who soon lost control to violent demagogues. Other leading members were Francis Place, a master tailor who had fought for repeal of the Combination Acts and for the abolition of stamp duties, to create a cheap and honest press and Henry Hetherington, a printer and Owenite. He set up the Poor Man's Guardian in July 1831. This was an unstamped paper, in contravention of the law, but it had a weekly circulation of about 16,000 copies. All these men were philosophical radicals and idealists who represented the old radical traditions of the 18th century. They assumed that economic and social reform would automatically follow political reform.
The People's Charter was drawn up for the L.W.M.A. by Lovett with the advice of Place. Place's political experience and knowledge of tactics was invaluable. In 1837 and with the start of the bad times (the Hungry 40s) the Birmingham Political Union had revived and helped to launch the Charter nationally in 1839. Initially, educated and politically experienced men from the working classes dominated Chartism but the Charter reflected the Utopian idealism of the English radicals.
The Six Points of the Charter
- annual general elections
- universal manhood suffrage
- secret ballot
- abolition of property qualifications of MPs
- payment of MPs
- equal electoral districts and redistribution of seats
The Charter became the rallying cry for all with a sense of grievance. The working classes embarked on a crusade to seek a socio-economic Utopia by political means. The Chartists asked for too much all at once. If they had concentrated on universal manhood suffrage, the rest would have followed. Compare the demands of the Chartists to that of the A.C.L.L., which had a single objective.
In 1839 the first Chartist Convention was held. This comprised delegates sent from various parts of the country and followed a series of speech-making tours by the L.W.M.A. and leaders of the revived Political Unions. Meetings were held at (for example) Kersal Moor, Manchester on 24 September 1838 and Hartshead Moor, Leeds on 18 October 1838. The aim of the Convention was to organise the national Petition and see it through parliament. Evidence suggests that some men were prepared to use force to get reform if necessary:
- in Newcastle-on-Tyne ironworkers were making weapons
- in Leeds there was talk of arming at the meeting there
- O'Connor came close to advocating the murder of the 'tyrants'
On 4 February 1839, 53 delegates met in London, although their number present never exceeded 50 so that they did not break the law. Londoners made up half of the total, and most were members of the L.W.M.A. The industrial north sent 20, Birmingham 8. Only half of the delegates were working men; one was a clergyman who opened the meeting with prayers. Lovett was elected as secretary. It was a sober, dignified assembly.
'A visit to the National Convention'
We left the National Assembly Hall impressed with a very high admiration of the business-like, quiet, and respectable manner in which all their proceedings were carried on, and the spirit which pervaded the assembly. It was evident that a class of elderly, bald-headed men, of whom one of the delegates from Lancashire may be mentioned as a good specimen, are the brains of the Convention, and direct everything except its tongue. The tongue, however, was always an unruly member, and they have provided against this as well as they can by resolving that they will not collectively by held answerable for what any member may say. ['A visit to the National Convention', The Chartist, 12 March 1839]
Disagreements over the Nature of the Convention
- Was it merely to concern itself with the petition or was it to act as a people's parliament running parallel to Westminster?
- Should the Chartists oppose or support — or ignore — the A.C.L.L.?
- Was physical force to be contemplated? A slogan of 'peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must' was adopted.
- What should they do next? — sit tight in London, or rouse the country? They had no plans.
- What should they do if parliament rejected the petition? George Julian Harney urged militant action through 'ulterior methods' such as a general strike.
- [For more, see contemporary opinions of the movement.]
London was not so militant as the industrial north, and even Birmingham became extreme. The violent element became more pronounced during the spring of 1839. Sir Charles Napier was put in charge of 6,000 troops in the northern district and, although he sympathised with the Chartists, he used the troops to maintain law and order.
Sir Charles James Napier. Bronze statue. Trafalgar Square, London.
By 7 May 1839 the petition was ready to be presented. It was 3 miles long with 11 million signatures, some fraudulent. On the same day, Melbourne resigned and the Bedchamber Crisis began. There was little hope of progress in London, so O'Connor proposed that the Convention should move to Birmingham. On 13 May 1839 the Convention — with only 35 delegates now — reconvened in Birmingham and drew up a list of Ulterior Measures to be put to the people if the Petition was rejected. Mass meetings began again.
On 25 May 1839 a meeting was held on Kersal Moor. Napier was worried that his 6,000 men would be insufficient to keep the peace. O'Connor claimed an attendance of 1/2 million. However, Napier's official report told a different story:
I have been on Kersall [sic] Moor in the meeting and around the meeting, and will take my life on it that there are not thirty thousand people, of which at least one fourth are bonnets and quantities of children. When I left the ground the chief speakers appeared to have left the meetings. What the great Orator Beer may do towards Evening I cannot say but I have not the slightest apprehension that any great thing will take place that the Constables cannot quash straight without our assistance... 5 o Clock — all perfectly quiet. [Sir Charles James Napier to the Home Office, 1/2 past two p.m.'. 25th May, 1839. PRO, HO 40/53]
On 14 June 1839 Attwood, an MP for Birmingham, introduced the Charter to parliament. On 1 July 1839 the Convention reconvened in Birmingham and on 4 July 1839 the Bull Ring riots took place. On 12 July 1839 Attwood and Fielden proposed that the Commons should consider the Petition. Disraeli supported them. The Motion was defeated 235 to 46 votes. So far as the Chartists were concerned, the worst had happened. Their vote for a 'Sacred Month' (a general strike) was also defeated 13:6. The Convention collapsed in leadership and importance and was prorogued on 6 August. In September the Convention was dissolved by the remaining 23 delegates.
After the Rejection of the Charter
After the rejection of the petition and collapse of the Convention, Chartism was in danger of disintegration. The leaders had been able to exert some control over the movement while political strategy offered some hope, but by the winter of 1839 local initiatives for direct action came to the fore. The most important of these was the Newport Rising, which took place on 4 November 1839. Other risings were planned but between June 1839 and June 1840 at least 543 Chartists were either imprisoned or merely detained by the authorities. During this period Lovett, Collins, Stephens, O'Connor and O'Brien were each sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. The government's ploy of arresting the leaders proved to be very sensible because it deprived the working men of their leaders, without whom the masses were almost helpless. In March 1840 the Sheffield rising took place but proved to be a fiasco. Following the failure of the risings, the first phase of Chartism ended and rebuilding had to begin again. Greater emphasis was now placed on local organisations, aims and men, while still aiming at a national ambition to secure the Charter.
In 1842 the second Chartist Convention was organised but it coincided with Peel's second ministry and the peak of the Hungry 40s. O'Connor helped to reorganise the Chartist movement from gaol via the Northern Star. On 20 July 1840, a conference of 23 delegates met in Manchester to form a new Chartist organisation for England: the National Charter Association. The N.C.A. was the backbone of Chartism until about 1852. During 1841 local Chartist and Working Men's Associations were drawn into the N.C.A. By December 1841, 282 localities and 13,000 members had joined and by April 1842 the NCA had 401 locality members and 50,000 individual members.
In July 1840 Lovett was released from gaol and began to organise his National Association as a rival to the N.C.A. but in August 1841 O'Connor was released from York gaol and toured England. In Birmingham, plans were made for another national Petition and Convention.
In April 1842 the Convention met. It was better organised with regard to the Petition and elections than in 1839. Three and a half million signatures were claimed for the Petition, which was presented to the Commons on 2 May 1842. The Petition was rejected 287:49. The preparations had led nowhere, and the economic and social crisis deepened. In the summer of 1842 a wave of strikes, known as the Plug Plots, occurred in industrial areas. The connection between the Chartists and the strikes was then, and is now, the subject of much controversy.
The unrest began in July among Staffordshire coal miners. By September, 14 English counties, eight Scottish and one Welsh county had been affected. Most of the unrest was in the textile areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire, where evidence of Chartist involvement is also strongest. However, the industrial unrest seems to have caught the Chartist leaders unawares.
Early in August 1842 the cotton masters of Lancashire decided to reduce wages. By 11 August over 100 cotton factories besides dyeworks and machine shops, and 50,000 workers were idle. The strikes spread across to Yorkshire. The strikes are known as the 'plug plots' because strikers pulled out the boiler plugs to put out the fires and halt the works.
Why the Strikes Soon Ended
- misery forced men back to work
- O'Connor attacked the strikes in the Northern Star
- trades delegates recommended a return to work (20th August)
- the harvest of 1842 was good
- trade improved
- pay reductions were withdrawn
By 1842 the Chartist leadership was divided and different leaders went in different directions:
- Lovett emphasised education
- Vincent and Lowery emphasised teetotal Chartism
- Scottish Chartists emphasised Christian Chartism
- O'Connor spent more time on his Land Plan
- Others went into Owenite Socialism, the A.C.L.L., trade union activity and local government activity.
- Sturge advocated co-operation with middle-class radicals and dissenters in the Complete Suffrage Union. This collapsed.
The major division in Chartism in 1842 was between the force of argument (Lovett and Place) and the argument of force (O'Connor). Moderate leaders — the initiators of Chartism — became disillusioned and abandoned the movement. Unity disappeared because of the conflict between leaders, and Chartism lost credibility. The more violent perpetuated the movement, but were disorganised and made a mockery of Chartism. The "Physical Force" element of Chartism attacked the splinter groups advocated by the more moderate men.
The Decline of Chartism after 1842
- Conditions improved during Peel's ministry. Economic reform and improved social conditions took the teeth out of Chartism. Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and the introduction of free trade undercut the economic foundations of Chartism.
- The 1847 Factory Act introduced shorter working hours for all workers
- The 1848 Public Health Act made some improvements in town conditions
- various financial reforms helped to reduce the price of food and improved the economy of the country
- O'Connor assumed leadership of the Chartist movement but was discredited after the failure of his bizarre Chartist Land Company — yet another side-track to Chartism. He never had 'respectable' support anyway.
In 1848 the last Chartist rally, instigated by O'Connor, took place on Kennington Common. O'Connor had been elected MP for Nottingham in 1847. The meeting took place against a background of economic hardship:
- 1846: bad wheat harvest
- 1846/7: a bad potato harvest in England, but positively disastrous in Ireland
- 1847: commercial crisis
- 1848: European revolutions
On 4 April 1848 the Chartist Convention decided for another Charter and peaceful rally at Kennington Common on 10 April, to be followed by the presentation of a Petition to the Commons. However, on 7 April, Russell's government began measures to prevent the meeting, which went ahead on 10 April. There are various estimates of the numbers present: O'Connor said ½ million attended; Gammage said 150,000 to 170,000; Russell (the P.M.) said 12,000 to 15,000. O'Connor also said that 6 million people had signed the Petition, but it was more like 2 million. The Petition was taken to the Commons in three cabs, after rain had washed out the meeting. The government set up a Select Committee to investigate the Petition, and Chartism was made to look fraudulent. However, in spite of its apparent failure, Chartism is significant in the development of working class movements although it failed in the short term.
Last modified 26 March 2002 [MB]