Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association
- Theme: Right to vote
Who were the Chartists?
In 1836, four years after the Reform Act, Cornish cabinet-maker William Lovett formed the London Working Men's Association, along with publisher Henry Hetherington and printers John Cleave and James Watson. Besides disseminating information for the good of the working classes, the association wanted “to seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal, political, and social rights”. With the help of Francis Place, Lovett composed a six-point Charter, all of which had been advocated by John Cartwright in 1776.
These were: (1) a vote for all men (over 21); (2) a secret ballot; (3) electoral districts of equal size; (4) no property qualification to become an MP; (5) payment for MPs; and (6) annual elections for Parliament.
It became known as the People's Charter, and its promoters the Chartists. Presented as a popular style Magna Carta, it rapidly gained support across the country. It was launched in Glasgow in May 1838, at a meeting attended by an estimated 150,000. A petition, assembled at Chartist meetings across Britain, was brought to London in May 1839, for Thomas Attwood to present to Parliament. It boasted 1,280,958 signatures, yet Parliament voted not to consider it.
What was the Chartists' response?
This annoyed the more extreme Chartists led by former Irish MP Feargus O'Connor. He caused a division between those who favoured “physical force” and those, like Lovett, who preferred “moral 'suasion”, at least at first.
Militants called for rebellion, and there were riots in Newcastle, Birmingham and elsewhere, where leading Chartists were arrested. The only armed uprising was in Newport, Wales, in November 1839. It all went badly wrong. When they stormed a hotel to free their recently arrested colleagues, 20 Chartists were killed by waiting troops. The leaders of the rebellion were transported, though they were later pardoned. For a while the energy went out of the movement, though the National Charter Association was established in 1840 to co-ordinate work across the country.
The Chartist movement was strong in Scotland where it developed an evangelical dimension with the growth of Chartist churches, seeking greater fellowship amongst the poor. These prospered because the established church, which was generally hostile to Chartism, was not seen as helping the poor.
How did Ireland relate to the movement?
Another petition was compiled by May 1842, bearing over three million signatures (many suspect) and weighing over 300kg. It included many Irish names because the Irish were a major part of the Chartist movement, believing it would help in their hopes for Home Rule. The petition included a demand about the “many grievances borne by the people of Ireland, and contend that they are fully entitled to a repeal of the legislative union." This would not have endeared the petition to the English Parliament, which voted not to hear the petitioners. This was one of the factors that triggered Britain's first general strike.
The Chartists split into several factions and their influence declined. The last big protest was at Kennington Common in April 1848, to be followed by a procession to Westminster to present another petition (two million signatures, not all genuine). There was a massive police and military presence, but, the meeting was peaceful, with a crowd estimated by some at 150,000. Once again it was defeated heavily.
How did the vote get extended?
The National Charter Association was wound up in 1860, but the cause was taken up by the Reform League in 1865. After more struggles and intrigue, the new Reform Bill was passed in 1867, giving the vote to two million men - more then ever before but still only an eighth of the population. But barriers were gradually coming down. In 1872 Gladstone pushed through the Ballot Act, ensuring voting was done in secret, a major demand of that first group of radicals meeting in Tavistock St 36 years before. In 1884 the vote was extended to almost two-thirds of men, and the electoral map was simplified.
Women, of course, were still excluded; but that battle was about to start.