Chartism (Summary)

This page provides a summary of the campaign for electoral reform run by the Chartists by breaking it into seven stages or 'steps to success'. These stages are a useful tool for analysing the tactics and also the success of the campaign. Underneath each 'step to success' is information about the campaign as well as links to historical source material. This summary page can also be downloaded as a grid in PDF format.

What was the campaign about?

When the Chartist movement was established in the late 1830s, only 18 per cent of the adult male population of Britain could vote (before 1832 just 10 per cent could vote).

Much of the working-class population were living in poverty, but without a voice in politics, they did not feel they could change their situation.

Peterloo Massacre 1832 Reform Act
Peterloo Massacre 1832 Reform Act

What was the goal of the campaign?

The ultimate goal of the Chartists, as stated in the first minutes of the London Working Men's Association, was 'to seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal, political, and social rights'. This was to be achieved by campaigning for six key changes to the parliamentary system:

  • Universal suffrage
  • Abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament
  • Annual parliamentary elections
  • Equal representation
  • Payment of members of Parliament
  • Vote by secret ballot
Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association The People's Charter
Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association The People's Charter

How did the campaigners become experts on the issue?

The Chartists were able to spread information relatively quickly using a network of newspapers, as well as mass meetings and speeches. This enabled supporters of Chartism to learn about the issues and keep up to date with news and events. The Chartist leaders also met regularly at conferences and meetings.

Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association Chartist Newspapers
Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association Chartist Newspapers

Was there a resource pool? Who were their allies?

Chartism had a huge amount of support from the working classes, particularly in industrialised areas. The largest Chartist petition claimed to have nearly 6 million signatures.

Many prominent Chartists had skills in writing, printing and oratory, which helped attract the support necessary to make Chartism a mass movement.

Chartist meeting at Kennington Common Meeting of Female Chartists
Chartist meeting at Kennington Common Meeting of Female Chartists

Who were their opponents and what stood in their way?

Chartism was opposed by almost all those who had the vote, together with MPs and the ruling classes – all of whom were among the wealthier members of society. The Chartists were sometimes portrayed as worthy of ridicule in the media, and sometimes as a source of danger.

The Chartists created obstacles for themselves and the success of the movement through lack of unity and disagreements over tactics. There was a split between those who wished to use peaceful 'moral force' and those who wished to use the threat of 'physical force' to achieve the aims of the Charter.

Praise for the Police Cartoon of a Chartist Procession
Praise for the Police Cartoon of a Chartist Procession
Newport Rising  
Newport Rising  

How did they plan for success?

The People’s Charter was written by William Lovett, but Feargus O’Connor became the main leader of the Chartist movement.

The Chartists were extremely clear about their central aims, which were published in The People’s Charter, together with plans for a secret ballot. They planned for success by presenting three enormous petitions to Parliament. However, they were not so organised about what to do when Parliament rejected their demands. Some such as William Lovett and the London Working Men's Association wanted to only use 'moral force' to achieve the aims of the Charter, while others such as Feargus O’Connor were advocates of 'physical force'. The Newport Rising was one of the extreme cases of when 'physical force' was used.

The Chartists had other plans to alleviate the conditions of the working classes, such as building of the rural utopia O’Connorville.

Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association The Secret Ballot
Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association The Secret Ballot
Newport Rising O'Connorville
Newport Rising O'Connorville

What campaign tactics and media did they use to get their message across?

The Chartists made fantastic use of print media to spread their message. Many prominent Chartists owned or wrote for newspapers, many of which sold thousands of copies per week. Other cultural forms of media such as poetry were also used to spread the Chartist’s message.

In addition to this, they held large public meetings where people gathered to hear orators speak about the Chartist cause. Their most important campaign tactic, however, was probably the three enormous petitions, which were collected and presented to Parliament.

Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association The Secret Ballot
Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association The Secret Ballot