Chartist Biographies

William Lovett (1800–1877)

William Lovett was Secretary of the London Working Men’s Association and drafted the People’s Charter in 1838. Despite his passionate belief in the ideals of the Charter, he became disillusioned with the Chartist movement itself and left it just a few years after it had been established.

Born near Penzance on 8th May 1800, Lovett held jobs as a rope maker and carpenter before moving to London to become a cabinet maker. Once there, he also worked for various radical organisations that promoted the interests of the working class. The most famous of these was the London Working Men’s Association, which Lovett formed in June 1836 with publisher Henry Hetherington and printers John Cleave and James Watson. This organisation studied and debated the ideas that would form The People’s Charter, the document that detailed the core doctrine of the Chartist movement.

Often seen as the voice of moderate Chartism, Lovett favoured 'moral force' to achieve the movement's aims and opposed those who wished to use 'physical force'. Despite this, he was held responsible for a Chartist riot in the Bull Ring in Birmingham in response to the House of Commons’ rejection of the Chartist petition, and in August 1939, he was sentenced to 12 months in jail for seditious libel. Thoroughly disillusioned with the leadership of the Chartist movement, within a few years of his release in 1840, he ceased campaigning for the Charter and devoted the rest of his life to education. He taught and wrote a number of text books for the working classes, dying in poverty on 8th August 1877.

Feargus O’Connor (1794–1855)

Feargus O’Connor began his political career in Ireland, becoming MP for Cork in 1833, but left to become one of the most famous leaders of the Chartist movement. Loved by the working classes but hated by almost everyone who knew him personally, his impact on Chartism was monumental.

O’Connor joined the London Working Men’s Association in November 1836, but soon decided that the real focus for popular agitation was the industrialised areas of the north of England. In 1837, he moved to Leeds and established The Northern Star newspaper, with William Hill appointed as editor. The paper began as a means to express working-class protests against the Poor Law, but soon became an organ of the Chartist cause, and went on to be extremely successful.

O’Connor is generally considered a demagogue. He was an excellent leader, travelling the country and speaking to crowds in terms that they could understand and relate to. He was a passionate and angry man and had the ability to stir the emotions of his readers and audiences, and for these reasons he provided a quality of leadership to the Chartist movement that no other man could. He was not, however, an intellectual and advocated the use of 'physical force' where necessary to achieve access to democracy for the working classes. This caused a rift between those, such as William Lovett, who advocated using 'moral force', only and it also lost the Chartists support from the middle classes. As a result of the Newport Rising in November 1939, the Government was determined to weaken the Chartists as much as possible. Consequently, O’Connor was convicted of seditious libel in March 1840 and was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment in York Castle.

In April 1943, O’Connor proposed plans for a Land Scheme in The Northern Star and launched the scheme publicly in April 1845 under the name of the Chartist Cooperative Land Society. The project aimed to make working-class people self-sufficient and improve their quality of life by setting up peasant holdings across England and converting workers into farmers. This scheme was, however, a disaster and ceased functioning in 1848, resulting in significant losses to its investors.

O’Connor presented a third and final Chartist petition to Parliament on 10th April 1848 after a mass meeting at Kennington Common. Despite claiming that the petition had 5,700,000 signatures (it actually had under two million), it was rejected by the House of Commons. In 1852, O’Connor was pronounced insane and moved to an asylum in Chiswick. He was released in 1854, but died shortly afterwards on 30th August 1855.

James 'Bronterre' O’Brien (1805–1864)

James 'Bronterre' O’Brien wrote and edited many radical newspapers that supported the Chartists’ cause. A well-educated man who was fluent in Latin, Greek, French and Italian, and an expert in early socialist theory, O’Brien is often regarded as the intellectual leader of Chartism.

O’Brien was born in County Longford in Ireland in 1805 and studied law before moving to England in 1829. He first established himself as a political journalist in 1830, when he wrote three articles supporting William Carpenter’s Political Letters. When Carpenter was imprisoned for publishing his letters without paying the stamp duty, O’Brien continued to write for Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian. O’Brien also worked for other radical newspapers such as The True Sun, The Destructive, Poor Man’s Conservative, The Twopenny Dispatch and The London Mercury, and later published his own newspaper, entitled Bronterre’s National Reformer.

O’Brien became one of the most influential Chartist journalists, writing for The Northern Star from 1838 to 1840. Being a ‘physical force’ Chartist, his articles often attacked advocates of ‘moral force’ Chartism. In 1839, he was elected as a delegate of the People’s Convention and then went on a tour of the country trying to stir up popular support for the Chartist movement. In 1840, as part of a wave of Chartist arrests following the failed Newport Uprising, O’Brien was sentenced to 18 months in gaol for sedition in a series of speeches he had made in Lancashire.

O'Brien later fell out with O’Connor over the use of ‘physical force’ and his Land Plan, and lost a lot of support. He set up his own newspaper, The National Reformer, but ultimately it was to prove a failure. O'Brien was popular enough to be elected to represent London at the 1848 Chartist convention, but disillusioned in O’Connor and ‘physical force’ Chartism, he resigned before the meeting at Kennington Common. He remained involved in politics for some years to come, forming the National Reform League in 1850 and establishing the Eclectic Club, an education and cultural centre in 1851. He died on 23rd December 1864.

Henry Hetherington (1792–1849)

A radical working-class journalist and founding member of the London Working Men’s Association, Hetherington played an important role in the earlier stages of the Chartist movement.

Hetherington was born in 1792 and trained as a printer before becoming a radical publisher. He established the radical newspaper, The Poor Man’s Guardian, which was first published 9th July 1831 and sold for a penny. This price ignored the fact there was a stamp duty of four pence payable per copy, but in doing so allowed the poor to be able to afford to read the news and politics of the day. The paper ran until 1835 and was edited for the majority of this period by the intellectual Chartist Bronterre O’Brien. Publishing without paying the stamp duty was a serious offence and Hetherington was imprisoned from September 1831 to March 1832, again for six months in 1833, and then for another two months in 1836.

In 1836, Hetherington became one of the founding members of the London Working Men’s Association, the organisation which later drafted The People’s Charter. He actively campaigned for the Chartists’ cause in Wales and the north of England in 1839, but was not renowned for his oratory skills. Although he was not completely opposed to the use of force, Hetherington was opposed to the leadership of Feargus O’Connor and sided with William Lovett in the split between ‘physical force’ and ‘moral force’ Chartism. After 1840, he played less of a role in the Chartist movement and died of cholera on 23rd August 1849.

William Cuffay (1788–1870)

William Cuffay was a prominent London Chartist who advocated a left-wing, militant approach to gaining political representation.

The son of a freed slave, Cuffay was born in Chatham in Kent in 1788 and later became a tailor. He first became involved in politics when he took part in the Tailor’s Strike of 1834 and was subsequently fired from his long-held job. Convinced that workers needed representation in Parliament, he became sympathetic to Chartism. In 1839, Cuffay helped form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and was later voted president of the London Chartists in 1842. An associate and supporter of Feargus O’Connor, Cuffay was very much a 'physical force' Chartist and an extreme one at that. He was auditor of O’Connor’s doomed National Land Company from 1846 until 1848 and later took part in planning for an uprising in London after the third petition to Parliament was rejected. Although Cuffay probably only played a small part in the plans, he was arrested and sentenced to deportation to Tasmania for 21 years.

Despite a pardon three years later, Cuffay stayed in Tasmania and played an active role in politics there until he died in poverty in 1870.

Anne Knight (1786–1862)

Although there were many female Chartists, Anne Knight is one of the few that we have information about. An advocate of many of the reform movements of her day, including the campaign for the abolition of slavery, she challenged the Chartists to include voting rights for women into the People’s Charter.

Born on 2nd November 1786 to a family of liberal Quakers in Chelmsford, Knight spent a quiet childhood at home then later toured Europe with fellow Quakers. By 1830, she was deeply involved in the campaign for the abolition of slavery and later became interested in the Chartist movement.

Knight was an avid letter writer and had many of her letters published in the press. In 1850, she wrote a letter attacking a columnist in The Brighton Herald who claimed that the class struggle was more important than the struggle for women’s rights. She supported many of the regional Female Chartist Associations and maintained a criticism of The People’s Charter for using the term ‘universal suffrage’ when it meant the vote for men only.

Although she ultimately had no success with the Chartists, Knight is thought to have helped inspire the first association for women’s suffrage, which held its inaugural meeting in Sheffield in February 1851. She died in a village near Strasbourg in 1862.

Thomas Attwood (1783–1856)

Thomas Attwood was MP for Birmingham, and presented the first Chartist petition to Parliament in 1839. However, he did not believe in all aspects of Chartism and left the movement soon after.

As a key player on the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill, Thomas Attwood was well respected amongst the members of the early Chartist movement. He was a reluctant convert to the idea of universal suffrage, but supported the six points of the People’s Charter nonetheless. He presented the first Chartist petition to the House of Commons on 14th June 1839 but it was rejected. He was not in favour of the 'physical force' tactics that were advocated by many Chartists and took no further part in Chartism after the failure of the first petition. He died on 9th March 1859.