Chartism in 19th Century Britain

by Isobel Dowling

,  Former lecturer in Sociology and Politics at University of Ballarat

In London, in early 1839, the first Chartist National Convention was called to plan and write the famous Charter. About 10 years later the movement began to disintegrate after the Kennington Common debacle in 1848. Dates tell us what happened, but give little help to understand why, let alone what it has to do with our lives today. For that we need to know more about the climate of opinion in the early 19th century. This paper begins the Chartist story well before the Charter, and argues that the story did not finish when Chartism disappeared.

We will begin the Chartist story in 1832 when the British Parliament passed the first Reform Act. This Act shifted political power from the old aristocracy to the newly emerging middle class of wealthy landlords, merchants and industrialists. Eligible voters increased from about 430,000 to 650,000. Almost at once however the Act produced widespread disappointment and anger, especially among the new "working and industrious classes" (See footnote 1). This deep discontent had causes which were partly political.

The economic unhappiness was triggered by what we now call the Industrial Revolution. As the 19th century began, the new factory system of production was causing acute economic distress, with resulting severe personal and social dislocation among previously respectable self-sufficient artisans and small farmers. Pauperism, hunger and homelessness spread from London to the new cotton and steel towns in the north, to the Yorkshire and Welsh coal mines, to Cornish farms, and over the border to industrial towns like Glasgow. Owen's experiments with "co-operative unionism", between new owners and workers were clearly failing to help. Many working people now had bitter memories of their abortive long struggle for wider parliamentary reform. Fairly quickly many began to feel the new 1832 Bill still represented property, not people. Wider property certainly, but still only property.

The Reformed Parliament produced by the Bill finally triggered political fury. Popular anger against the Act exploded dramatically in 1834 when the new parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. In the name of greater economic efficiency, it transferred responsibility for poverty relief from the local parish to central government commissioners. The new law quickly produced some really gross mismanagement, and the unfortunate workhouse inmates were powerless victims. For instance each single workhouse was now to be an asylum, an orphanage and a poorhouse simultaneously.

In 1838 Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, specifically to expose some of the new law's injustices. In 1865 his heartbreaking Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend chooses to die tramping the roads, rather than be put in the work house. Clearly he had not changed his opinion during the 30 years between half-starved Oliver "asking for more", and Betty, running away with her "funeral money sewn into her dress". In Chapter 2 of Oliver Twist he wrote, (A poor man's choice) "is between being starved by a gradual process (in the workhouse) or by a quick one out of it".

Remember this widely hated legislation was produced by the new Reformed Parliament which thousands of people had welcomed as a hopeful new beginning. This same parliament now also revived the hated stamp duty, the "tax on knowledge". By law, newspapers costing six pence or less now must pay for a government stamp, or their publication was illegal. Penny or tuppenny papers had begun to flourish throughout England during the 1830s - the "Paupers' Press". Many were edited by people who would shortly become leading Chartists, like Fergus O'Connor's The Northern Star and O'Brien's Poor Man's Guardian, which he deliberately published unstamped. He wrote that the unjust tax had "made the rich man's paper cheaper, the poor man's dearer." Like large numbers of working class editors he was arrested and imprisoned. But the bitter struggle for a "tax and honest Press" was one of the many movements which throughout the 1830s paved the way for Chartism, "one of the most remarkable examples of working class politics ever seen in England" (See footnote 2)

Around 1833-34, small groups of various kinds of workers, with various kinds of political beliefs - Friendly Societies, Working Men's Associations, Industrious Females, Owenites and many more - combined to form the Grand National Union, GNU. Lord Melbourne's reformed government quickly met this "threat to property". The Tolpuddle Martyrs, agricultural labourers who had joined the new Union to try to raise their wages back from seven shillings to ten shillings, were arrested and deported.

The clear message to employers was that they could now act with impunity, assured of full government support and there is overwhelming documentary evidence, that virtually all of them understood it. "All in turn" now gave their workers the choice of the sack, or of signing a document renouncing the new Union. Within a few months the Union failed, amidst widespread bitter anger. But this failure was followed almost at once, by the remarkable new Chartist movement.

The Hammonds argue that something more than struggling for just wages and conditions had always inspired some of the older Chartists like Cobbett or O'Connell, and also the younger Oastler and O'Connor, leaders of the new movement about to emerge. They write "Working (people were) stirred by the belief that society might be radically changed; that life need not wear so hard and ungenerous a face; that the poor might have a share in the civilisation of their age. The movement (Chartism) then is significant because of its scale, and its ideas." (My emphasis)

So, in 1836, Place "the radical tailor of Charing Cross" and Lovett, a self-educated cabinet-maker, formed the London Working Men's Association, (L.W.N.A), to promote political reform. This body produced the famous Charter. It was a draft for an Act of Parliament, with 13 sections, to be presented to the House. The 13 sections outlined proposals to reform elections, so that Parliament could be truly representative. The Preamble and the famous six points contain the revolutionary ideas for radical change of the existing power structures. They clearly echo earlier democratic revolutionaries' debate in 17th century Putney, and in 18th century Washington and Paris.


Whereas the Commons House of Parliament now exercises....on the supposed behalf of the people the power of making laws, it ought in order to fulfil with....honesty the great duties imposed on it, to be made the faithful and accurate representative of the peoples' wishes, feelings and interests. This was followed by the six points:

  1. Universal manhood suffrage
  2. Equal electoral districts (1 vote, 1 value)
  3. Vote by secret ballot
  4. Payment of Members of Parliament
  5. No property qualifications for Members of Parliament
  6. Annual Parliaments

(See footnote 3)

The Charter was published in 1838. L.W.M.A "missionaries" took the Charter to the provinces, especially the new industrial towns in the North like Manchester and Birmingham. This was a political and organisational master-stroke. It drew together almost all the varied protest movements of the time, especially the widely different, but passionately angry, opponents of the new Poor Law. All united now in demand for the six points.

During 1838 huge "monster" meetings, torchlight processions, mass demonstrations and protests, were held not only throughout London, but even more so in the new industrial towns. The aims were to explain and familiarise the six points and to organise all the varied discontents into demanding them. In other words, to present the Charter as a goal behind which many different groups could unite. And it worked! To repeat an earlier comment, however Chartism is evaluated in political history, its assessment as "one of the most remarkable examples of working-class politics" can not be challenged.

Backed by this mass support a plan was now worked out. First, working people were to be organised to freely elect delegates to a People's Convention. This Convention would then organise a monster petition containing the six points. Finally, arrangements would be made to present this Petition to Parliament for the members' consideration. In other words, Chartists sought to redress their grievances by radical change through Parliament.

The "missionaries", the working people's newspapers, and ordinary members, worked tirelessly for the cause, and support swelled. By 5th May 1839, all had been arranged. Attwood, a Member of Parliament and a moderate Chartist, was to present the petition to Parliament for consideration. It contained 2,283,000 signatures and was three miles long.

That very day there was a parliamentary crisis. The government resigned! The Petition was finally presented on 14th June, when a new Whig government had formed, but was not debated until 12th July. Lord John Russell made "some very sensible remarks", and Disraeli expressed some sympathy for Chartists in "this very remarkable social movement." But on the whole Parliament was unmoved and uninterested. 46 members voted for the Petition to be considered, while 235 voted against. After so much work and such high hopes, parliamentary action must have seemed to be a hopeless way to win economic or social change, let alone justice.

During the long delay angry frustration had sometimes produced unruly meetings, especially at Birmingham's famous "Bull ring", and anger increased after the Petition's rejection. There were even clashes between moderate and radical Chartists, the latter convinced now that only physical force could succeed. Some began to urge more extreme action such as a general strike. Growing numbers of both leaders and followers were arrested and usually jailed during Parliament's long delay, and many more arrests followed the Petitions rejection. Instead of individual trials prisoners began to be "tried" in large groups. Despite a few unpleasant incidents there was no serious violence, contrary to the authorities' fears and some hot-headed Chartists' hopes.

With many members in prison the movement was fairly quiet briefly, but by 1840 it began to plan a second Convention followed by a Petition in 1842. The 1842 petition was larger than the first in 1839. It contained 3,317,702 signatures and was over six miles long. A huge procession followed 30 bearers who carried it to the House. Its size produced a problem getting it inside. The debate about getting it presented was lively. (The great historian McCauley told the House that universal suffrage was "incompatible with the very existence of civilisation!") The motion was defeated 287 votes to 49.

This massive failure was followed by worsening conditions especially in the North. During the "hungry forties" trade was depressed, wages cut and unemployment soared. A new Poor Law ruled that the unemployed were to be put in the hated workhouses! Large groups of ragged half-starved people roamed the North and the Midlands, and often attacked the closed "dark satanic mills". The government now treated the Charter as treasonable, and hundreds of Chartists were arrested. Special Commissions were appointed to try them. Hundreds were imprisoned, mostly with hard labour. Scores were transported. Almost certainly many more left England of their own accord under the new assisted migration scheme.

By 1848, Europe's "Year of Revolutions", Chartism had revived. There was a growing interaction between some European revolutionaries and some Chartists. Marx and Engels, now living in England in exile, attended many Chartist meetings, and their writings reveal their admiration for Chartist organisational skills. Marx called Chartism "the first (organised) working man's party the world ever produced". Much later in his life (when working men had finally got the vote) he seriously considered whether English Chartist methods might make peaceful revolutionary change possible.

Chartists now organised their third Petition to Parliament, requesting that their Charter be debated and accepted. This collected an even greater number of signatures than the two earlier failures in 1839 and 1842, probably somewhere between four and five million. Historians differ about the precise number, because for the first time many of the signatures were fakes - including Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington whose names appear a number of times.

On 10th April 1848, after assembling at Kennington Common, the people were to march in a procession over the river to Parliament. They marched with O'Connor at their head and the Petition at the front in 15 huge crates, each carried by 24 strong men. At the House it was to be accepted by Roebuck, a Chartist Member of Parliament, for presentation to the House.

However, the Police Commissioner appeared and told the leaders the procession had been declared illegal. Lawyers had found an old 1660s law from Charles II, which forbade more than 10 persons to present petitions. The Commissioner told the organisers that a large force, led by the Duke of Wellington would use force if they continued. There were 8,000 troops, reinforced by 170,000 "special constables" (including Gladstone!). These had been specially recruited (overwhelmingly from the nobility and middle classes) in the last few weeks. (One of them was the Hon. Charles Cavendish Fulke Grenville. He recorded in his memoirs in 1885 that he had enlisted as "a special constable, taking with him all his...employees", that he found it "a most satisfactory demonstration by the Government... the Chartist movement was contemptible" and of the petition that "there were no end of fictitious names...with the insertion....of ribaldry, indecency and impertinence")

The sad anti-climax to the day is well-known. O'Connor had never intended violence and he acquiesced. The petition was transferred to three or four hansom cabs to carry it to Parliament. Only O'Connor was allowed to accompany it to deliver it. It was never heard, but simply laughed out of the House without debate or division three days later.

The Chartist Movement really died that day. Reform through and of Parliament was widely perceived as a lost cause. New Conventions were held over the next six or seven years. Small breakaway groups formed, but popular support dwindled. Many Chartist emigrated, especially to the Victorian gold rushes. The collapse of the movement unhinged O'Connor's mind and he died insane in 1855, six months after the final National Convention.

However, we cannot and should not dismiss Chartism as just a fascinating episode, a brief historical flash in the pan, which soon failed and disappeared - because this 'misreads 19th century English history'.

Most historians see the major characteristic of that time as 'widespread social discontent', though they disagree about its nature and causes. There is also general agreement that the Industrial Revolution was producing terrible suffering and hardship which cannot be separated from this social discontent. However the Hammonds, E.P Thompson and many others, dig more deeply to introduce what Inga Clendinnen calls the "moral dimension" to these over simplified cause and effect explanations.

They argue that the discontent fundamentally arose from what was deeply felt to be a radically changing "philosophy of life"; a feeling that authorities had "set up the Golden Calf; that working people's lives no longer mattered, or were of any value compared with acquiring material wealth; but that life need not be like this. There was a better and fairer way to manage these new productive forces".

John Stuart Mill wrote, "Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish."1

When the Chartist movement died, its vision did not. Its ideas and principles motivated the great struggles throughout the 19th century and into the 20th - the struggles for free universal education, public health, the temperance movement, and the long hard fight for universal franchise, which was not won in England until 1928 - struggles "building up the self-respect of English working people"

John Stuart Mill memorably described Chartism as "the victory of the vanquished".

Footnote 1

The term "working class" and "middle class" have considerably changed meanings since the early 19th century. This can be confusing.

In the 1830s "workers" meant men and women who owned no income generating property. Therefore they could live only by the wages they could get for their labour, their work. So in Chartist writings and speeches, the term "workers" is as likely to refer to teachers, doctors, small tradesman, ministers of religion, as it is to mean factory hands, or cleaners, or navvies. A Chartist ballad in 1840 reflects the strong representation of tradesmen in the movement.

After 'colliers and miners...
There's tailors, shoemakers and masons likewise,
The plasterers and brick layers strongly do rise,
The great nobs of this town are struck with surprise'

The term "middle class" has changed just as much and is just as confusing. During at least the first half of the 19th century, the term referred to owners of the kind of property which produced enough money for them to buy the labour of others to work for them, and on the whole to control what price they paid for that labour. By the 1830s the new middle class consisted mainly of large industrialists, mill owners, mine owners, large merchants and land- owners.

Of course any actual situation was more complex than this simplified description.

Footnote 2

To say the Chartist story begins with the 1832 Reform Act is quite arbitrary. I choose it because in the early 1830s the reformers high hopes changed very quickly to bitter anger over what the Reformed Parliament actually did. Some reforms were achieved, most notably the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. But on the whole Members of Parliament's prejudice and ignorance, combined with self-interest, produced some of the cruellest injustices in English history, the Poor Law perhaps being the most notorious.

Probably Parliament's greatest achievement was to popularise the idea that social change could come through legislative action. This helped lay the foundations not only of Chartism, but of modern political party organisation.

But 1832 is arbitrary, instead we could choose 1800. The first quarter of the 19th century was full of outbreaks, riots, protests and harsh repression. There were the Luddite outbreaks, the 1819 Peterloo massacre, and many, many more. They produced a growing climate of opinion, that something was wrong, the times were out of joint, that somehow ordinary people's lives should and could be changed.

Or (because 'nothing comes from nothing') we could begin the story even earlier, with the great Age of Democratic Revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries. First the English Revolution's Civil War and Putney Debates - "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he". Then came the American Revolution's Declaration "that all men are created equal....with inalienable Rights", and in 1789 France's Rights of Man that "Men are born free and equal in rights." - great democratic documents, each profoundly influenced by subversive early democrats like Rainborough, Paine and Voltaire, all of whom were favourite authors of many Chartists.

Footnote 3

It is worth noting that although at least the first five points constitute what is generally agreed now to be a political democracy, that Chartists themselves rarely, if ever, used the word democracy. Until the very late 19th or early 20th century, democracy was a widely used term of abuse. It was understood to be something dangerous, disreputable and very subversive. (It is easy to think of today's comparable scary labels).

In 1848 for instance when the Australian colonies were submitting proposals for self-government to Earl Grey in London, Tasmania's Governor Dennison stressed the need for an upper chamber, because "Your Lordship can hardly form an idea of the character of the population of these colonies. There is an essentially democratic spirit which actuates....the community and it check the development of this spirit that I Upper Chamber....I also think that in order (for) members to be independent of either the government of the people, they should be appointed....for life".

A few days after the Eureka uprising, Victoria's Governor Hotham warned Grey, "the eyes of the Government must not be shut against what I believe to be the fact (that) the agitators and promoters of sedition have further objects in view than the repeal of the Licence fee; the more moderate...subsist upon money collected from their followers...The rest hold foreign democratic opinions."

Democracy did not become fully respectable and acceptable until the First World War. War-weary people were pressing their governments to tell them why that dreadful war was being fought. What were the "war aims"? About 1916 Lloyd George's government eventually decided it was to save democracy, and this became a popular slogan.

Addendum - The Chartists

During the 1830s and 40s, Chartism grew into a nationwide mass movement in Britain with a membership of millions. They were completely unified in two key areas. First, they agreed about their purpose, their goal - to obtain social reforms by working for political reforms - clearly set out in their Charter. Second, virtually all Chartists thought of themselves as workers, as "bees not drones". Dr. Fletcher, a surgeon who became a Chartist Member of Parliament, wrote that the first 1839 Convention was made up of barristers, clergymen, literary men and a "considerable proportion of honest and intelligent men."

However there were wide differences about what were the best methods to use to achieve their goals. Chartists also had very different social, religious, educational and occupational backgrounds. There was no such thing as a typical Chartist.

The clearest division was over tactics - whether physical or moral force was the most effective method to achieve their aims. Moderate leaders, like Lovett, Place, O'Connell, Oastler and many more, believed that educating working people would "rouse their imagination" and would "ensure the suffrage". They organised Working Men's Groups, Unions and Classes and even produced "lesson cards". Many worked for the "Paupers' Press".

Radical leaders like Attwood "the radical banker!", O'Brien, Jones and others believed (as Kennedy the Scottish Chartist at Bakery Hill a few years later) did, that:

'Moral persuasion is all a humbug,

Nothing persuades like a lick in the lug.'

Though a small minority at first, Parliament's indifference and the savage repression of fellow Chartists, increased radicals' numerical strength throughout the 1840s.

However, like the leader O'Connell, many Chartists fluctuated between moderate and radical positions. Conscientiously opposed to using force, they also embraced the Chartist slogan, "Peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must."

Most Chartists were christians, and most "knew their Bible well." It is easy to see (and hear) links between "Onward Christian Soldiers" and Chartist hymns, for example in "Sons of Poverty Assemble" (from the Chartist Hymn Book):

See the brave ye spirit-broken
Who uphold your righteous cause
Who against them hath not spoken?
They are, just as Jesus was,
By bad men and wicked laws
Rouse them from their silken slumbers,
Trouble them amidst their pride;
Swell you ranks, augment your numbers,
Spread the Charter far and wide;
Truth is with us,
God himself is on our side.

Anglicans were widely represented but catholics and methodists were most prominent. The Irish troubles, especially the 1846 potato famine, help explain catholic sympathies, as Wesley's fiery missionary work in the new industrial and coal mining towns in the late 18th century does the methodists. Hobsbawn stresses "marked parallelism" between religious and political activism at this time. The Chartist methodist Rev. J.R Stephens preached the need to work for universal suffrage. but he also wrote in a Chartist paper - "if the people who produce all wealth (are) not accordance with God's word to have...the fruits of the earth which....they had raised...then War to the knife with their enemies (because they are) the enemies of God". And he told a Wigan meeting "The firelock must come first and the vote afterwards".

"Owenite" Chartists were christian on the whole but very much their own brand. Lovett was a christian but always said this had nothing to do with his Chartism. Society would only become more civilised by putting Chartist egalitarianism into practice, not through religion. When Richardson said he was a Chartist because "The voice of the people is the voice of God", O'Connor scoffed that Chartism "is superior to christianity (because) it takes its name from no man. What greater honour can a man have than to be a Chartist?" A fairly large number of Chartists were atheists, particularly the "Paineites".

There was no notable gender division in the movement, and this reflects general public attitudes at that time. The majority of Chartist were men. However quite significant numbers of women were active participants from the beginning. At the 1839 Convention 24,000 of the Birmingham signatures to the petition were women's. Their number started to decline around the mid 1840's although considerable numbers remained active until the movement ended.

Various reasons have been suggested by different historians. One of the most interesting argues the change reflects the change in the movement itself. In the beginning the movement appealed to and involved families, including children, rather than individuals. Children were often given Chartist's christian names, especially O'Connor's first name, Feargus (like all those British children called Winston during the 1940s).


This bibliography indicates only my most used references.

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Pelican, 1968

J.L & B. Hammond, The Bleak Age, Pelican, 1947

A. Briggs, Chartism, Sutton, 1998

D. Thompson, England in the Nineteenth Century, Pelican, 1950

K. Marx, Surveys From Exile, Penguin, 1973

C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Pelican, 1975

R. Owen, A New View of Society (1813), Pelican, 1970

L. Snyder, Fifty Major Documents of the 19th Century, Anvil, 1955

A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, Dent, 1938

J. Lewis Ed., The New Rights of Man, Constable, 2003

I. Clendinnen, The History Question: Quarterly Essay, Schwartz, 2006

C.M. Clark, Documents in Australian History, Angus & Robinson, 1950


The Ballaarat Reform League and the events of Eureka were central to the development of Australia as an independent democratic country.

There is much to honour