Monday, 6 August 2007

Chartist Lives: William Cuffay

A Chartist, Cuffay[1] was born in Chatham and baptised there on 6th July 1788, one of at least three children of Chatham Cuffay and his wife, Juliana. His grandfather was an African sold into slavery; Cuffay (sometimes spelt Cuffey, Cuffy, or Coffey) is the Twi day-name (Kofi) for a male child born on a Friday. Cuffay’s father, born on the island of St Kitts, became a cook on a British warship. Brought up by his mother, Cuffay had a younger brother, James, and a younger sister, Juliana. As a boy, though his spine and shin bones were deformed, he ‘took a great delight in all manly exercises’. After becoming a journeyman tailor in his late teens, he stayed in that trade for the rest of his life and was respected for his hard work, quiet ways, honesty, reliability, and humour. Mild and unassertive, he was in demand at social gatherings as an accomplished singer and musician. One workmate described him as ‘a good spirit in a little deformed case’.

Cuffay was a late convert to trade unionism but took part in the disastrous 1834 strike of London tailors for shorter hours. He stayed out until the bitter end and thereby lost his regular job. It was probably this experience which radicalised him. In 1839, he joined the Chartist movement and helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association. Two years later, the Westminster Chartists elected him to the metropolitan delegate council and in 1842 he chaired a ‘Great Public Meeting of the Tailors’, at which the national petition was adopted. In the same year, after the arrest of the movement’s national leaders, he was appointed president of a five-man interim executive. In 1844 he was on a committee opposing a bill which would have given magistrates power to imprison a worker for two months merely on his employer’s oath. A strong supporter of the Chartist land plan, he was one of three London delegates to the 1846 Birmingham land conference and was repeatedly elected joint auditor to the National Land Company. In 1846, he was one of the ten directors of the National Anti-Militia Association and was a member of the Democratic Committee for Poland’s Regeneration. In 1847, he was on the central registration and election committee, and in the following year was on the management committee for a metropolitan democratic hall.

Cuffay was frequently attacked in The Times, which referred to London’s Chartists as ‘the Black man and his party’ and was lampooned in Punch and in the Illustrated London News, which wrote of ‘the comic Cuffey’ and his ‘nigger humour’. The savage press campaign cost his wife, Mary Ann, her job as a charwoman, whereupon Richard Cobden gave her employment in his household.

In 1848, Cuffay was noted for his militancy. At a meeting in March he pointed to a placard reading ‘The Republic for France—The Charter for England’ and declared: ‘Aye; and if they refused us the Charter, we should then begin to think about a republic’. In the following month he was one of three London delegates to the Chartists’ national convention, where he was criticised for his ‘extravagant expressions’. However, he was appointed to chair the committee for managing the procession that, on 10th April, was to accompany the Chartist petition to the House of Commons from a mass meeting on Kennington Common. When this procession was banned, and then called off by Feargus O’Connor, who asked the crowd to disperse, Cuffay protested strongly: the national leadership were ‘a set of cowardly humbugs’[2].

Elected one of the commissioners to promote the campaign for the Charter after parliament had rejected it, Cuffay was a late, and almost certainly a reluctant member of the ‘Ulterior Committee’ that was planning an uprising in London. On 15th August, eleven ‘luminaries’, plotting to fire certain buildings as a signal for the rising, were arrested at the Orange Tree tavern, Bloomsbury, and Cuffay was arrested at his lodgings the next day. He had refused to run away, ‘lest it should be said that he abandoned his associates in the hour of peril’. His conviction at the central criminal court, on 30th September, for levying war on the queen, was obtained through the evidence of two police spies. After a defiant final speech, Cuffay and two fellow Chartists were sentenced to transportation for life.

After a voyage of 103 days on the prison ship Adelaide, Cuffay arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, on 29th November 1849. He was allowed to work at his trade for wages, which he did until the last year of his life. His wife joined him in April 1853. After his free pardon on 19th May 1856, he continued his radical activities in Tasmania, where he was described as ‘a fluent and effective speaker…always popular with the working classes’.

In 1869, Cuffay entered Tasmania’s workhouse, Brickfields Asylum, where he died in July 1870. The superintendent described him as ‘a quiet man, and an inveterate reader’. He was buried on 2nd August 1870 at Trinity burial-ground, Tasmania, and his grave was marked ‘in case friendly sympathisers should hereafter desire to place a memorial stone on the spot’.


[1] Sources: [T. M. Wheeler] ‘Mr William Cuffay’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor, 1/23, 13th April 1850, page 177, G. J. Holyoake Sixty years of an agitator’s life, two volumes, 1892, H. Weisser April 10: challenge and response in England in 1848, Lanham, Maryland, 1983, Morning Chronicle (11th April 1848), page 6, T. Frost Forty years’ recollections: literary and political, 1880, F. D. Barrows and D. B. Mock A dictionary of obituaries of modern British radicals, 1989, reprinted obituary from The Mercury, Hobart, Australia, 11th August 1870, J. Saville ‘Cuffay, William’, Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume 6, N. J. Gossman ‘William Cuffay: London’s black Chartist’, Phylon, 44/1 (1983), pages 56–65, A. Briggs ‘Chartists in Tasmania: a note’, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, volume 3 (1961), pages 6–7, I. J. Prothero ‘Cuffay’, Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals, volume 2, J. E. P. Wallis (ed.), Reports of state trials: new series, 1820 (to 1858), volume 7 (1896), pages 467–82 and G. Rudé Protest and punishment: the story of the social and political protesters transported to Australia, 1788–1868, 1978, page 217.

[2] Morning Chronicle, 11th April 1848

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