The People's Charter

The 1832 Reform Act helped widen the vote a little beyond the wealthy few, but more action was needed. With bold declarations of fairer elections such as this, published in 1838, the Chartists campaigned vigorously for votes for all... men

What was the People's Charter?

The London Working Men's Association, formed in 1836, wanted “to seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal, political, and social rights." They composed a six-point Charter, all of which had been advocated before. 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.

Eventually, 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.

What happened to the Chartists?

The National Charter Association was wound up in 1860, but the cause was taken up by the Reform League in February 1865. Its aims were universal male suffrage, voting by ballot, triennial parliaments and a fair distribution of electoral districts.

In 1866, the new pro-reform Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, pushed a new reform bill, hoping to enfranchise skilled labourers. However, a group within the Liberal Party (which had emerged from the old Whig Party) sided with the Conservatives and the bill failed. Russell resigned. But there were promising signs for reformers. The new Liberal leader William Gladstone, and the Conservative Chancellor Benjamin Disraeli, were both pro-reform.

The government and the Reform League had several altercations. In July 1866 the League planned a meeting in Hyde Park but it was banned and the gates locked. It led to disturbances at Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square. In May 1867 another meeting was planned; the Home Secretary banned it at first, then allowed it. the move cost him his job, even though it was peaceful.

How did the vote get extended?

The new Reform Bill was passed in August 1867 and enfranchised a total of two million men. Now all male heads of household over 21 in boroughs could vote, as well as lodgers paying £10 rent a year.

But it still represented only 13% of the total adult population. However, the Act seemed to unlock doors and gradually other barriers fell. In 1872, Gladstone pushed through the Ballot Act, at last ensuring voting was in secret. This had been a major demand of the Chartists. In 1884 the Third Reform Act extended the qualification of the 1867 Act to the countryside so that almost two-thirds of men had the vote.

In order to gain the Conservative support for that Bill, Gladstone also passed the Redistribution of Seats Act. This simplified the electoral map by creating a predominance of single-member constituencies.

Women, of course, were still excluded; but that battle was about to start.