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John Westmoreland recalls the first great working class movement - the campaign for political and social change in the 1830s and 1840s known as Chartism. He explains the vital political lessons it provides.

Chartist meeting on Kennington Common

The origins of Chartism lie in the brutality of early British capitalism. Life for the working classes was short and miserable. The average life expectancy for a Manchester labourer in the third decade of the nineteenth century was just 18 years, and for a tradesman two years more.

Labourers worked for sixteen hours a day, in a cruel and onerous regime. A Manchester spinner could be fined sixpence for handling cotton while dirty - and could be fined the same amount for washing himself in working hours. Child labour was used in the mills and pits without a shred of compassion. Children were beaten for minor infractions of the rules. Their bodies were soon mutilated by contact with the machines or by dragging heavy loads in the mines.

Working class people lived in a polluted, dirty and hostile environment that was frequently purged by cholera. Early British capitalism was completely unmoved by the plight of the workers. In Sheffield the workers choked and starved in Attercliffe among the smoke and stench on the banks of the Don, while their masters lived on the western heights in mansions with gardens and servants.

The rich comforted themselves that the sufferings of the poor were self-induced. They substituted an iron law of the free market for the morals of their Anglican Christianity. Thomas Malthus, a vicar, went so far as to say that offering relief to the poor was counter-productive, because poor people who live will simply breed more poor people.

With poverty came anger, and from anger came their politics. The workers’ outlook had numerous components. Many who now laboured had once been in charge of their own looms and workshops, and knew their plight was caused by the capitalists. The French Revolution had offered the most radical political constitution based on enlightened principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, so it was not unreasonable to argue that reform was possible in Britain.

Some factory owners were horrified at the conditions in the towns that bred crime and degeneracy. Richard Oastler from Huddersfield was one who campaigned against the use of child labour. Although the moral argument against the factory system was powerful, the capitalist class, fearful of the French experiment, were against reform. In 1819 the Yeoman Guard was sent in to stop a meeting of Manchester workers at Petersfield. They hacked down innocent workers with their cutlasses in what became known as the massacre of Peterloo.

Yet workers’ anger could not easily be held in check, and when the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government was ousted by the Whigs (liberals) in 1830 many radicals thought that there might be some hope for change from parliament. The Reform Bill of 1832 was far from great, extending the vote merely to more of the propertied classes. On top of that the Whigs started a brutal campaign against reform in Ireland that would result in the Irish potato famine.

The Poor Law act of 1834 probably did more to convince the workers of the need for radical change than anything else. The workhouses became the hated ‘bastilles’ that those in poverty were sent to. The idea was to terrify workers from ever entering them. Families were split up and all the poor could expect in return was back-breaking labour and gruel. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, published in 1838, provided an accurate and damning indictment of a law that was passed simply to reduce the cost of poor relief to wealthy tax payers.

1837: a new political mass movement

When the Charter was launched in London, at the Crown and Anchor Inn in May 1837, it had politics and political representation at its centre. The Charter contained demands, rather than aspirations, that had the backing of middle class intellectuals and working class militants. The Charter contained six points: manhood suffrage; the ballot; the abolition of property qualifications for MPs; payment of MPs; equal electoral districts; and annual elections.

This may seem small beer today but for the ruling class it represented a major assault on their life of unaccountable and predatory privilege. As Frederick Engels pointed out, the political demands served the purpose of social transformation. Parliament would serve the people because its representatives would be from the people and it would pass laws that would apply to everyone and not be used to oppress the poor and downtrodden.

The launching of the Charter threw up the question of how the demands should be obtained. This was a divisive issue right from the start. Historians of Chartism divide the movement into two parts: moral force Chartists such as William Lovett, and physical force Chartists such as Feargus O’Connor. It is a mistake to make the division too sharply because any mass movement is made up of different elements who see the struggle and the possibilities of resolving it in different ways. People who combine together and fight for their rights change themselves in the process, and that was what happened with Chartism.

In London, Lovett sought to persuade middle class sympathisers of the Charter’s merit, but in the industrial towns the working classes proved to be ready to fight a more revolutionary battle. Between 1838 and the main uprising of the Chartists in 1842 a huge wave of revolutionary energy swept across the land. The Charter was endorsed at mass meetings called conventions at the great industrial centres. The word convention had a distinct meaning at the time - it was associated with the French revolution - and it really referred to a peoples’ parliament. In other words, if the talking shop in Westminster was useless, then the people themselves could pass their own legislation.

The petitions they organised represented their political will. In Glasgow (May 1838) the Charter was endorsed on Glasgow Green after a procession of 200,000, with a sea of banners, 73 trade unions, and 43 bands. There were similar rallies on Town Moor in Newcastle, Kersal Moor Manchester and Peep Green in West Yorkshire.

The ruling class, who had treated the workers as no more than animals, were alarmed. The savage contempt that had led to the Poor Law and Peterloo was being returned with interest. The mass gatherings revealed that workers could organise, debate and read. Revolutionary literature was produced on a mass scale. O’Connor’s Northern Star was read in every industrial centre.

At first the authorities resorted to arrest and violence. There was a riot in Birmingham at the Bull Ring. In the Welsh valleys workers began making pikes and drilling. New forms of protest sprang up in these years such as the ‘Rebecca Riots’ against toll roads in Wales.

General Napier, the Commander of the Northern regiments, noted: “There is among the manufacturing poor a look of stern discontent, of hatred to all who are rich, a total absence of merry faces: a sallow tinge and dirty skins tell of suffering and brooding over change”.

1839-42: resistance reaches new levels

The Newport rising in 1839 marked the high point of the insurrectionary mood of the working classes. As many as 20,000 set off to march on Newport in Monmouthshire to take the town in the name of the Charter. A rainy night time march in November meant that only 5,000 made it to the town. Having sheltered in pubs en route had not helped. The subsequent shoot-out at the Westgate Hotel, where the government troops were billeted, left about thirty Chartists dead.

The rising was defeated and other planned risings across the industrial North were abandoned. The leader of the Newport rising, John Frost, and about 500 other Chartist leaders across the country were arrested. Frost was sentenced to death, but after further protest this was commuted to transportation for life.

The Chartists learnt that military insurrection is not all there is to securing revolutionary change. For military tactics to work they have to have a guarantee of divisions in the government troops on the one hand, and the active support of millions of workers through industrial action on the other. These conditions were not met in 1839.

The defeat of the Newport rising marked the end of one stage of the fight for the Charter. The recession that hit British manufacturing at the turn of the decade saw the employers turn the screw on wages. William Benbow, a self-educated shoe maker, had for some time been advocating the tactic of the general strike. His pamphlet Grand National Holiday was about working class people regaining control over their labour as much as an aggressive tactic to hit the capitalists where it hurt them most.

The general strike of 1842 marks the high point of working class organisation and action in the Chartist period. A cut in wages of 12 percent was enough to start the ball rolling in Manchester. On the weekend of 5-7th May 14,000 workers met on Mottram Moor to proclaim the Charter. But when the meeting was over instead of going home they began a procession, the aim of which was to ‘turn out’ their fellow workers. And so what we might describe as a mass flying picket made its appearance in the industrial north. Overseers looked on helplessly as the workers left their machines. By 2pm on the Monday afternoon the ‘city of tall chimneys’ was smokeless.

By the following week the strike had spread across the industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, with some 500,000 workers on strike. The general strike showed both workers and bosses how much power workers have. All contemporary accounts describe the joy of workers meeting, talking and reinforcing their commitment to political change. This culminated in a ‘Great Delegate Conference’ held in Manchester on 15th August.

The conference had revolutionary potential. As one delegate said, ‘Political rights are imperatively necessary for the preservation of our wages’. Others spoke of the need for a ‘final reckoning’. Thousands surrounded the conference hall and cheered the delegates on.

The conference produced a national leadership of workers by linking together the political Charter movement with the trade union committees. This meant that the power of labour could now be directed at the heart of the capitalist system. It raised the questions of who should rule the country, and how should industry be run?

The government understood the threat very clearly. They understood that the emerging national leadership should be targeted to diffuse the energy back to the localities where it could be dealt with. Soldiers were despatched from London to the north. Some refused to go and thirty were taken in chains from Chalk Farm to the Tower of London. This shows that there was a real potential to appeal to the troops and win some over to the side of the workers.

However, the government were able to arrest most of the Chartist leaders in the north, even though the turn-outs continued into the winter months. Solidarity was at a revolutionary level but the tactics required to take it forward and win were to be forged largely in Russia at a later date.

Over 1,500 Chartists were brought to trial. 200 were transported to Australia. But the government trod very carefully. They realised they were facing a class enemy on a largely national basis. They delayed the trial into the spring of the following year, and were reasonably lenient on the less well known leaders. Nevertheless the general strike had been defeated. The last fling of Chartism was to be held in 1848.

Towards 1848

Throughout its existence Chartism had been about winning people over to the need for constitutional change. The Chartists had presented a number of petitions to parliament over the years. In 1839 a petition of 1,280,000 signatures was presented by the MPs Attwood and Fielden but was rejected out of hand.

The defeat of the 1842 general strike had the effect of further dividing the Chartist leadership. For example, Feargus O’Connor began the Chartist land Programme, whereby Chartists would donate money to buy estates which would then be settled and farmed their members. O’Connor thought the idea would be so popular and profitable that they would eventually buy all the land in the country. Success was, as might be expected, limited.

Cuffay and the London Chartists 1848 | image by Red Saunders

The biggest stimulus to reviving Chartism came from France and Ireland. William Cuffay, the London Chartist leader, was black and a former slave. Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien were Irish; many Irish labourers had joined the Chartists in the north. From 1845 Ireland had been plunged into famine by the failure of the potato crop and, more importantly, because of the devastating effect of growing cash crops for export. Ireland was exporting food as poor farmers were starving in their cottages.

Millions died or were forced to emigrate. In France the monarchy of Louis Philippe fell and revolution moved across Europe from Paris to Berlin and Vienna.

The Chartist leader George Julian Harney wrote in the Northern Star: ‘Men of great Britain and Ireland, how long will you carry the damning stigma of being the only people in Europe who dare not will their freedom? ...Englishmen and Irishmen have sworn to have THE CHARTER AND REPEAL, OR VIVE LA REPUBLIQUE.’

After a hard winter, demonstrations flared up for the Charter amid local grievances in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Sheffield and Oldham. A massive demonstration was called on Kennington Common on 15th April 1848. A petition, which O’Connor claimed had six million signatures, would be handed in.

The government identified a fusion of republicanism and class hatred. It treated the proposed demonstration as insurrectionary. The royal family were packed off to the Isle of Wight. Railway stations were closed. Banks and government buildings were fortified. 150,000 special constables were mobilised along with infantry, field guns on the Mall and steam boats with troops and large guns on the Thames.

Nevertheless the mood among demonstrators was high as they assembled at points across the capital. It seems that the Chartist leaders had talked up revolution to mobilise the masses and it had worked, although the main proposal was simply to hand in a petition. Between 150,000 and 200,000 demonstrators massed at Kennington Common.

However, the revolutionary zeal of O’Connor and the others waned when they realised the forces pitched against them. Revolution takes careful preparatory work, and the demonstrations had only started in January. The government had speedily prepared counter-revolutionary methods, and this brought out starkly the ill-defined notions of the Chartist leaders.

In the end a delegation under O’Connor presented the petition. Government clerks speedily went through the papers and claimed there were only 1,900,000 signatures, not the six million O’Connor claimed. Of course many signatories had used aliases to prevent their employers finding out about them. Sadly this was Chartism’s last fling and thereafter it ceased to be a force in politics.

The legacy of Chartism

This short article is just an outline. The history of Chartism is one of heroism. George Shell, just 19 years old, was killed in the battle at the Westgate Hotel in Newport. He wrote to his parents beforehand: “I shall this night be engaged in a struggle for freedom, and should it please God to spare my life I will see you soon; but if not, grieve not for me, I shall fall in a noble cause”.

There were the women workers who faced down the soldiers, seizing their bayonets with the cry, ‘“We want not bayonets, but bread”. The Chartists marched, wrote, read, fought and organised with a purpose that it is difficult to do justice to.

They left their mark. One of the Chartists’ constant demands was for education, that children might improve their lot and be able to take part in the affairs of the world. They demanded the extension of the suffrage and the right to organise in trade unions. They demanded a safer working environment and a healthier one.

All these things were improved in the course of the nineteenth century. The ruling class knew that the workers had discovered huge power and talents from within their ranks, and that if their demands were ignored with the contempt that provoked Chartism then their system could not hold. The threat of revolution produced some of the reforms they wanted.

On the part of the ruling class they learnt to rule more by fraud and less by force; conceding reforms that they were convinced would help maintain rather than threaten capitalism. Thus the suffrage was extended bit by bit. But alongside this the powers of the state were centralised and increased.

On our side too there were huge lessons learnt. Not least among these were the theoretical insights that Marx and Engels made in their understanding of capitalism and the role of the working class in over throwing it. When Marx ended the Communist Manifesto with the words “Workers of the world unite” he was not being rhetorical. He had seen the power of organised labour and the idealism that drove it into battle.

Tagged under: Class
John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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