2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1750-1900

Chartism is also an alternative term for technical analysis
For the British socialist journal, see Chartist (magazine)

Chartism was a movement for political and social reform in the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century. It takes its name from the People's Charter of 1838, which stipulated the six main aims of the movement. It was possibly the first mass working class movement in the world.


Chartism followed earlier Radical movements, such as the Birmingham Political Union which demanded a widening of the franchise, and came after the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which gave the vote to a section of the male middle classes, but not to the " working class" which was then emerging from artisan and labouring classes. Many Radicals made speeches on the "betrayal" of the working class and the "sacrificing" of their "interests" by the "misconduct" of the government, in conjunction with this model. D.C. Moore, however, cites that the enfranchisement is better understood with a five tier model consisting of Upper, Upper and Lower Middle and Upper and Lower Working classes. Using this model, The Upper and Upper Middle classes had gained the vote after the Reform Act 1832, and it was the lower middle and upper working classes that joined the Chartist movement. The Lower working class, Moore states, were not educated sufficiently to see any interest in, and thus involve themselves with, the movement.

Chartism included a wide range of organizations. Hence it can be seen as not so much a movement as an era in popular politics in Britain. Dorothy Thompson described the theme of her book The Chartists as the time when "thousands of working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organization of the country."

In 1838, six Members of Parliament and six working men, including William Lovett, (from the London Working Men's Association, set up in 1836) formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter, containing the following objectives:

  • Universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21; it did not mention women
  • Equal-sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament (so that constituencies could return the man of their choice, rich or poor)
  • Pay for members of Parliament
  • Annual election of Parliament

The first wave

When these demands were first published in May 1838, they received a lukewarm response from Northern Star's Feargus O'Connor and other Radicals, being seen as too moderate (Thompson, 1984, p.58). But it soon became clear that the charter had struck a chord among common people. Dorothy Thompson quotes John Bates as saying:

There were [radical] associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on... The radicals were without unity of aim and method, and there was but little hope of accomplishing anything. When, however, the Peoples Charter was drawn up... clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, we felt we had a real bond of union; and so transformed our Radical Association into local Chartist centres....

The movement organized a convention of 50 to facilitate the presentation of the petition. This met in London from February 1839 until May, when it moved to Birmingham. Though they took pains to keep within the law, the more radical activists were able to see it as the embryo of an alternative parliament (John Charlton, The Chartists p. 19). The convention called for a number of "ulterior measures" which ranged from calling on their supporters to withdraw their money from saving banks to a call for a sacred month, in effect a general strike. Meetings were held around the country and in June 1839 a large petition was presented to the House of Commons. Parliament, by a large majority, voted not to even hear the petitioners.

When the petition was refused, many advocated force as the only means of attaining their aims.

Chartist Riot
Chartist Riot

Several outbreaks of violence ensued, leading to several arrests and trials. One of the leaders of the movement, John Frost, on trial for treason, claimed in his defense that he had toured Wales urging people not to break the law, although he was himself guilty of using language that some might interpret as being a call to arms. Frost's attitudes and stance, often seen as ambivalent, led another Chartist to describe Frost as putting 'a sword in my hand and a rope around my neck'. Nevertheless, Frost had placed himself in the vanguard of the Chartist movement by 1839. When another prominent member, Henry Vincent, was arrested in the summer of 1839 for making inflammatory speeches, the die was cast.

Instead of the carefully plotted military rising that some had suspected, Frost led a column of marchers to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, where he initiated a confrontation. Some have suggested that the roots of this confrontation lay in Frost's frequent personal conflicts with various members of the local establishment; others, that Chartist leaders were expecting the Chartists to seize the town, preventing the mail reaching London and triggering a national uprising: it is generally acknowledged that Frost and other Chartist leaders did not agree on the course of action adopted.

The result was a disaster in political and military terms. The hotel was occupied not only by the representatives of the town's merchant classes and the local squirearchy, but by soldiers. A brief, violent, and bloody battle ensued. Shots were fired by both sides, although most contemporaries agree that the soldiers holding the building had vastly superior firepower. The Chartists did manage to enter the building temporarily, but were forced to retreat in disarray: twenty were killed, another fifty wounded.

Testimonies exist from contemporaries, such as the Yorkshire Chartist Ben Wilson, that Newport was to have been the signal for a national uprising. Instead Chartism slipped into a period of internal division and acrimonious debate as to the way forward.

In early May 1842, a further petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, which was again rejected by parliament. The Northern Star commented on the rejection:

Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the 'House' has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.

The depression of 1841– 1842 led to a wave of strikes in which Chartist activists were in the forefront, and demands for the charter were included alongside economic demands. In 1842, workers went on strike in the Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and parts of Scotland in favour of Chartist principles. These industrial disputes were collectively known as the Plug Plot; as in many cases, protesters removed the plugs from steam boilers to prevent their use. Although the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, advocated a non- interventionalist policy, the Duke of Wellington insisted on the deployment of troops to deal with the strikers. Several Chartist leaders, including Feargus O'Connor, George Julian Harney, and Thomas Cooper were arrested, along with nearly 1,500 others. 79 people were sentenced, with sentences ranging from 7 to 21 years.

Despite this second set of arrests, Chartist activity continued. Beginning in 1843, O'Connor suggested that the land contained the solution to workers' problems. This idea evolved into the Chartist Co-Operative Land Company, later called the National Land Company. Workers would buy shares in the company, and the company would use those funds to purchase estates that would be subdivided into 2, 3, and 4 acre (8,000, 12,400 and 16,000 m²) lots. Between 1844 and 1848, five estates were purchased, subdivided, and built on, and then settled by lucky shareholders, who were chosen by lot. Unfortunately for O'Connor, in 1848 a Select Committee was appointed to investigate the financial viability of the scheme, and it was ordered to shut down. Cottages built by the Chartist Land Company are still standing and inhabited today in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and on the outskirts of London. Rosedene, a Chartist cottage in Dodford, Worcestershire, is owned and maintained by the National Trust, and is open to visitors by appointment.

The Chartists also stood in general elections, from the election of 1841 to the election of 1859, and O'Connor was elected in the general election of 1847. Harney stood for Election against Lord Palmerston in Tiverton, Devon in 1847.

The 1848 petition

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common
The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common

On 10 April 1848, Feargus O'Connor organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The number of attendees varies depending on the source (O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Sunday Observer suggested 50,000 was more accurate). According to John Charlton the government was well aware that the Chartists had no intention of staging an uprising as they had established an extensive network of spies. The government did however organize a very large show of force, as 8,000 soldiers were in London that day, along with 150,000 special constables. In any case, the meeting was peaceful. However the military had threatened to intervene if the Chartists made any attempt to cross the Thames.

In a separate incident, rioters in Manchester attempted to storm the hated workhouse. A pitched battle resulted with Chartists fighting the police, eventually the mob was broken up, but rioters roamed the streets of Manchester for three days. strokos

The original plan of the Chartists, if the petition was ignored, was to create a separate national assembly and press the Queen to dissolve parliament until the charter was introduced into law. However the Chartists were plagued with indecision, and the national assembly eventually dissolved itself claiming lack of support.

The petition O'Connor presented to Parliament was claimed to have only 1,957,496 signatures – far short of the 5,706,000 O'Connor had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries (some of the false signatories included Queen Victoria). However, O'Connor argued that many people were illiterate, and did not know how to write their own signatures, and so had to copy someone elses. Despite this, O'Connor has been accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism, but the movement continued strongly for some months afterwards before it petered out.


Although the Chartist movement itself petered out, its aims were taken on by others. Middle class parliamentary Radicals continued to press for universal franchise, and were joined by some supporters of the Anti-Corn Law League, with John Bright and the Reform League agitating in the country for change. The parliamentary Radicals joined with the Whigs and anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859. Eventually the Liberal William Ewart Gladstone introduced a modest bill for parliamentary reform which was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. The new Tory government decided to take the credit for the reform. As a minority government they had to accept radical amendments, and Benjamin Disraeli's Reform Act of 1867 almost doubled the electorate, giving the vote even to working men. In addition, the secret ballot was introduced, through the Ballot Act of 1872. Only the last of the Chartist aims – annual Parliaments – now remains unfulfilled, although the difficulty and feasibility in implementing such a measure means that it is very unlikely to be fulfilled.

Chartism was also an important influence in the British colonies. In 1854 Chartist demands were put forward by the miners at the Eureka Stockade on the gold fields at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Within one year of the military crushing of the Eureka revolt, all the demands, except annual parliaments, had been met.

By early 2006 most of the enclosure of Kennington Common, then being used as housing, had been demolished. See St Agnes Place

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