The 5 Ws and the H of Chartism

The 5 Ws and the H of Chartism

It was a political movement – for the ‘People’s Charter’ –
(‘Universal Suffrage, No Property Qualification, Annual Parliaments,
Equal Representation, Payment of MPs and Vote by Ballot’),
With three petitions to parliament in 1839, 42 and 48.

It grew out of disappointment with the 1832 Reform Act,
The national suppression of trades unions,
The government’s response to the Captain Swing riots,
The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the workhouses –
The hated New Poor Law ‘Bastilles’
(Which criminalised poverty with the principle of ‘less eligibility’:
Conditions inside the workhouse should be worse
Than from the worst paid job outside);
Then there was the workplace:
The unregulated working hours, the high prices, the low wages,
The unemployment and short time working,
The loathing of the Benthamite ‘felicific calculus’;
It grew also from eighteenth century Tom Paineite democratic ideas,
Previous beliefs and practice of the revolutionary Spenceans,
The memories of Peterloo, the hatred of both Tory and Whig,
But the Chartist preacher, the Reverend Stephens, asserted:
Chartism is ‘a knife and fork question …
A bread and cheese question’,
Whilst Richard Gammage, the contemporary Chartist historian,
Provided the long standing division of the movement into
‘Moral Force’ and ‘Physical Force’ Chartists.
But why, in particular, was there such a Chartist presence in Stroud in 1839,
And why was there such a commotion with the meeting on Selsley Hill?

Well, apart from the generalities of the above,
Lord John Russell was not only Stroud’s MP, but also the Home Secretary
And responsible for law, order and the suppression of Chartism;
He was also partly responsible for the terms of the 1832 Reform Act,
Which carefully extended the vote to the middle class
(From the aristocracy),
And deliberately excluded the working classes –
Even though they had borne the lion’s share of the campaigning
To bring about an extension of the franchise;
In addition, areas of declining cloth trade in the south-west
(Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire),
Were just the type of localities that led women and men to the Charter,
So when the Chartist National Convention was set up in London
(Partly to influence Parliament with the First Petition,
Partly to act as an alternative parliament should the Petition be rejected),
It was no surprise when the JP for Newport, John Frost,
Was chosen to appear on Rodborough Hill in March 1839,
As the prospective Chartist parliamentary candidate
For the next general election,
So as to challenge Russell in a blaze of national publicity
(Frost’s commission of the peace was withdrawn from him in March btw);
Meanwhile, the circulation of the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star
Was reaching 50,000 a week – and its influence far exceeded that:
Read and discussed in home, the workplace, the pub, the chapel, the church,
‘Each copy would go through many hands. Those who could not read would listen as others read to them; and all could discuss’
(Edward Royle: Chartism);
The National Petition was ready for Parliament in early May
(Nearly three miles long with nearly 1.3 million signatures);
Mass meetings were held all over the north in May,
And so Selsey’s mass meeting of 5,000 in May 1839
Slots nicely into view and perspective …

The springtime of 1839 was in some ways the high time for Chartism:
The Petition was rejected in the summer,
Plans for a general strike petered out,
Confused plans for armed insurrection
Such as Newport, November 1839
(Partly to try and free Henry Vincent from prison –
He had been so active in Stroud and the Valleys in the spring),
Only led to Frost’s transportation,
And by 1840, over 500 Chartists were in jail.

1842 saw waves of strikes (the ‘Plug Riots’),
But also widespread use of the telegraph and railways
To speed troop movements;
The Second Petition, with a claimed 3.3 million signatures
Was rejected by parliament,
And the National Charter Association held the movement together,
As it developed so many different local strands:
Teetotal Chartism, Temperance Chartism, Chartist Churches, Chartist Chapels,
The Chartist Land Cooperative Society,
Groupings with middle class organisations such as
The Complete Suffrage Union and the Anti Corn Law League …

The April of 1848 (‘the Year of Revolutions’)
Saw the Third Petition and a state of high alarm in London:
Queen Victoria took refuge in the Isle of Wight,
As parliament sniggered at some of the nearly 2 million signatures –
‘Victoria Rex’, ‘Duke of Wellington’ and ‘Mr Punch’ indeed;
But as Royle points out,
Such names were often used to conceal identity and reprisal;
Or to laugh at, gull and guy authority;
And if some signatures were written in the same hand,
These were not forgeries,
But reflected the opinions of the ’30 per cent of society’ who used an X;
‘Other signatures were dismissed because they were those of women’,
But as Royle points out:
‘Even if the … Commons did underestimate the number of petitioners, a figure of around two million – out of a total population of seventeen million over the age of ten – remains very impressive.’
And even though the events of April are usually portrayed as a damp squib,
Riots continued in the north,
A silent march of 80,000 took place in London,
Street fights with the police broke out in the East End,
Information from police spies and agents provocateurs
Suggested a metropolitan uprising as a national trigger,
But the movement declined and then disappeared into history …
A failure.

Or was it?
It gave the working class confidence and self-belief;
It helped develop a national political culture
Whilst invigorating local diversities;
It politicised factory, mill, workshop, smithy, forge, furnace, loom, lathe, kitchen, bedroom, railway, canal, pub, spinning wheel, club, church, chapel, mechanics’ institute, evening schools, Sunday schools –
In short, it helped develop a working class consciousness,
And it forced the governments of the 1840s to bring in reforms
(Mines Act, Factory Acts, Public Health Act et al)
That otherwise would have been delayed.

Post Script:
Bronterre O’Brien 1837:
‘Knaves will tell you, that it is because you have no property you are unrepresented. I tell you, on the contrary, it is because you are unrepresented that you have no property.’

‘Address of the Female Political Union of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to their Fellow-countrywomen’, Northern Star, 9 February 1839:
‘We have been told that the province of woman is her home, and that the field of politics should be left to men; this we deny … For years we have struggled to maintain our homes … greet our husbands after their fatiguing labours. Year after year have passed away, and even now our wishes have no prospect of being realised, our husbands are over wrought, our houses half furnished, our families ill-fed, and our children uneducated … We are a despised caste, our oppressors are not content with despising our feelings, but demand the control of our thoughts and wants!’

‘The Christian Chartist Church’, Chartist Circular, 29 August 1840;
‘Christian Chartists! … Let us march triumphantly forward on the sacred way that leads to civil and religious liberty, equality and happiness. Let us press towards the glorious goal of Universal Suffrage.’