Britain’s Chartist movement was one of those inspirational failures that people who try, against all the odds, to change the world love to talk about. They remind us not to count the game as lost until several generations after our deaths. At which point we can pretty well count on not knowing or caring who won.
Okay, that was more downbeat than I meant it to be. The Chartists lost but in some very real ways they also won.
The Chartist movement began in 1838 with a People’s Charter, drafted by the London Working Men’s Association. It demanded six things:
- Universal manhood suffrage. At a time when women had only recently been invented, that could almost pass for everybody having the right to vote.
- Electoral districts of equal size, meaning all voters would have equal influence. Or that was the theory anyway, and it was quite radical at the time.
- Voting by secret ballot. That’s right–it hadn’t been instituted yet.
- Yearly elections for Parliament.
- Abolition of property qualification for Members of Parliament.
- Payment for MPs, which would open up the position to people who worked for a living.
The goal was to give working people political power. In other words, the charter gathered an impressive list of enemies.
The ideas weren’t entirely new–you can find a lot of them threaded through English history–but it was new that in spite of some middle-class and gentlemanly leaders, the movement’s base was in the working class.
The movement began at a time when political reform was in the air, aggravating many an allergy among the aristocrats’ delicate breathing systems, since the aristocracy still held political power, although economically they were being eclipsed by industrialists.
In response to much popular campaigning, the 1832 Reform Act had made a few gestures in the direction of cleaning up the electoral system. It gave the vote to small landowners, (some) tenant farmers, (some) shopkeepers, and (some of the more solvent) householders even if they didn’t actually own the property they lived in. It also got rid of a fair number of rotten boroughs–constituencies where almost no one lived but that sent representatives (controlled by the local landowner) to Parliament.
The Reform Act meant some 200,000 more men could vote, but that was out of a population of maybe 10 million. Admittedly, that included children and women, who so clearly wouldn’t know what to do with a vote if they fell over one, but it still left a lot of men voteless.
This was also a time of economic woe: 1837 and 1838 were depression years. Think low pay, hungry people, and unemployment, all aggravated by an 1834 law that replaced the earlier system of relief for the poor with workhouses. They’d be cheaper. They’d be more efficient. They’d get beggars off the street, attack the moral failings that led people to be paupers, and encourage them to work.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
So, no more handouts just because you were out of work and starving during a depression. The poor would go into workhouses, families would be separated, their lives would be controlled, and they would be set to work under deliberately harsh conditions.
Semi-relevantly, the government that introduced this was led by Earl Grey, who gave his name to that elegantly flavored tea.
It was also a time of rebellion. The Swing Rebellion and movement to defend the Tolpuddle Martyrs were in the recent past.
So working people weren’t in a good mood and it wasn’t irrational for them to think that if they could vote they’d be represented in Parliament in proportion to their numbers, and that would bring about a more just organization of society.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, but it made sense at the time.
The Chartist movement centered on a petition that gathered more than 1.2 million signatures at a time when petitions were pieces of paper (you remember paper?) and had to be passed from hand to hand and delivered as actual physical objects.
You remember physical objects?
To gather those signatures, speakers fanned out across the country, addressing actual groups of people (you remember people?), and all of this running around and meeting and speaking built an organizational framework that brought together English, Scottish, and Welsh radicals, as well as Irish supporters of Home Rule, making it not just a movement of working people but a fully national one.
Inevitably, different parts of a coalition will pull in different directions, and the most important one was what to do if (or as many expected, when) Parliament rejected the petition. Call a national strike? Rely on moral force? Rely on physical force?
The question hadn’t been settled by the time Parliament rejected the petition, and it probably couldn’t have been. Some coalitions are hard to hold together and talking doesn’t resolve all disagreements. Riots broke out, some of which were intended to turn into full-scale uprisings and at least one of which was set off by Birmingham’s authorities banning gatherings and then breaking up the one that happened–not to mention arresting two of the more moderate leaders.
But let’s not slog through this battle by battle, attack by retreat, riot by gathering. Soldiers were called out. People were arrested–550 of them in 1839 and 1840. People were killed. Leaders were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered–a sentence so out of keeping with the times that in the face of protests it was commuted to the harsh mercy of transportation to Australia.
Parts 2, 2 ½, and 3
The second petition was delivered in 1842. It had twice the number of signatures and Parliament was impressed enough to say, “Why should we care about you? You can’t even vote.”
Okay, that’s not an exact quote but it does catch the spirit of their response.
Violence broke out here and there, and respectable opinion held the Chartists responsible for it, but around the country wages were being cut and in response workers were going out on strike. This was the beginning of what was known as the Hungry Forties. Some Chartists inevitably would’ve been involved, but the strikes were more spontaneous than organized.
No union movement existed to support them, and none lasted long.
Having said that, though, at least one source talks not about strikes but about a general strike–one that had not just economic but also political demands: the adoption of the Charter.
After that we get six years of Chartist energy pouring into model communities of various sorts, generally involving equal ownership of land or assets. Some were trying to make their participants eligible to vote so they could elect MPs to represent them.
A third petition made the rounds and was presented in 1848–a year of revolution in continental Europe. Presenters claimed it had 5.75 million signatures. Three days later, the Commons Committee for Public Petitions said it had counted all the signatures and found fewer than 2 million, some of which–including Queen Victoria’s–were obvious forgeries.
Feargus O’Connor–an MP, a Chartist elected to Parliament to represent Nottingham, and the person who’d presented the petition–said three days wasn’t enough time to count all the signatures.
Was so too, the committee said.
Was not never, O’Connor said.
And those aren’t exact quotes either.
O’Connor challenged another MP to a duel, then withdrew the challenge.
It was not the finest moment of the Chartist movement.
The petition–to no one’s surprise–was rejected. A few riots followed and a planned rebellion failed. Almost 300 Chartist leaders were arrested and sentenced to transportation or long imprisonment, although death sentences were again commuted.
Chartism didn’t die on the spot, but between internal divisions, questions about the petition’s validity, repression, and a better economic situation (which at least one source says didn’t trickle down to rank and file Chartists and therefore was unlikely to have had an effect) it was never again the force that it had once been.
Women in the Chartist movement
The Chartist leadership was male, and to the limited extent that women’s right to vote was discussed, the movement backed away from it–on some people’s part because of the assumptions of the day (women belonged at home; women needed the vote almost as much as soldiers needed water wings) and on others’ because it would make the movement too controversial and open it to ridicule, since the idea of women voting was inherently absurd.
Even so, women got involved. They came from families; they had families of their own. The vote was a weapon that might improve their families situation, even if they didn’t get their own hands on the weapon. So they attended meetings. They raised money. They organized tea parties and boycotted anti-Chartist shopkeepers.
A few women leaders did emerge, although they never became as well known as the men.
I know. You’re shocked.
Mostly, though, the women worked within their socially acceptable role, pushing its edges outward, and none of what they learned at those edges was likely to have been lost.
Sometimes it’s the right time for that and sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes it depends on what each individual can do. But never underestimate the women who don’t break out. They start out by making tea and worshiping heroes and the next thing you know they want to vote and be heroes themselves.
Chartism continued in one form or another for some ten years after the third petition, but its high point had passed. Some of its leaders–and probably if less verifiably, some of its followers–took their skills to other campaigns.
The right to vote did expand, but the government wasn’t in any kind of a rush about it. Before 1918, only 58% of adult men could vote. That year, property restrictions were abolished for men and women over 30 were given the vote–but they still had to own property. It was 1928 before women could vote on equal terms with men.
As for the other demands:
- The secret ballot was introduced in 1872.
- These days, constituency borders are regularly redrawn to keep them of roughly equal size–sometimes controversially, but the principle is there. I’d love to tell you when that started, but I got bored witless before I found an answer.
- The property qualification for MPs was abolished in 1857, but it didn’t become a paid job until 1911.
That only leaves one of the Chartists’ demands unmet: yearly elections for MPs.
In addition to the links, I’ve also relied on David Horspool’s book The English Rebel.