See A. Briggs, ed., Chartist Studies (1959); M. Hovell, The Chartist Movement (3d ed. 1967); J. T. Ward, Chartism (1973); D. Goodway, London Chartism, 1838-1848 (1982); C. Godfrey, Chartist Lives (1987).
Chartism was possibly the first mass working class labour movement in the world. Its leaders have often been described as either "physical-" or "moral-force" leaders, depending upon their attitudes to violent protest.
Chartism included a wide range of organisations. 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 organisation of the country."
In 1837, 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 six objectives listed above.
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. A large meeting was held on Kersal Moor, Salford, Lancashire on 1838-09-28 which attracted a large crowd to listen to speakers from all over the country. Speaking in favour of universal suffrage Joseph Rayner Stephens was quoted as saying that Chartism was a "knife and fork, a bread and cheese question"
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 People's 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 organised 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 the widespread use of force as the only means of attaining their aims.
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 defence that he had toured his territory of industrial 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, after setbacks and violence including loss of life, 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 through South Wales to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, Monmouthshire where he initiated a confrontation. Some have suggested that the roots of this confrontation lay in Frost's frequent personal conflicts with various influential 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 sixty or more armed 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 if successful. Instead Chartism slipped into a period of internal division and acrimonious debate as to the way forward with many of its leaders arrested, imprisoned and facing serious charges.
In early-May, 1842, a further petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, which was yet 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 powering industry 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 mounted cavalry and armed 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, transportation to Australia and even death.
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, Gloucestershire 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.
At the start of 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto in London, advocating a European revolution. It was to be led by the workers of the countries most advanced towards capitalism. In the following months Paris, Berlin, Vienna and finally Italy erupted into revolution although it is debated how much effect the Communist Manifesto had on these events.
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 estimate of the number of attendees varies depending on the source (O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Sunday Observer suggested 50,000, which 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. However, they were very afraid that they could have been mis-informed or that a revolution would start spontaneously. To counter this threat they organised a very large show of force. 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.
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 he had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries (some of the false signatories included Queen Victoria, Mr Punch and 'Pugnose'). 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 else's. O'Connor has been accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism, but the movement continued for some years, with the final National Convention being held in 1858
The apparent failure of Chartism as a political movement in the mid-nineteenth Century proved not to be the case. Five of the six points in the Charter were adopted by 1918.
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. The parliamentary Radicals joined with the a section of the Whig Party and the anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859. The Liberal William Ewart Gladstone, a former Tory, introduced the Reform Bill of 1866, which did not pass the Commons and forced the resignation of the government.
However, Benjamin Disraeli's ensuing (minority) Conservative government carried through the Reform Act of 1867, doubling the electorate in the process. Furthermore, the Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the secret ballot. Only the last of the Chartist aims – annual Parliaments – never came to pass.
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 suppression of the Eureka revolt, all the demands, except annual parliaments, had been met.
In these ways, Chartism left deep and permanent mark on the course of social history in Britain and beyond. It was the first widespread and sustained effort of working class self-help directed at reforming parliamentary democracy and the constitution. It gave impetus to eventual political reform and to trade union organisation and is therefore of lasting importance to social historians.