Friday, 12 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The question of decline 1843-1849

The year of Chartism may have been 1842, but as Dorothy Thompson suggests, it was also the year from which Chartism was not to recover[1]. Popular radicalism was not extinguished but the strikes of 1842 were the last occasions when the working class mounted an effective, potentially revolutionary challenge to the ruling establishment. She argues that the strikes, in many respects, showed the extent to which many working men had come to terms with industrial capitalism. John Fielden, factory owner and reformer, commented to the House of Commons in early 1843 on events in his own Todmorden[2] “[The men] went through the vale and stopped all the mills but not a single offence did they commit against life and not a single injury did they commit against property.”  The strikers did not smash the machines, as the Luddites would have done, but simply removed the plugs from the boilers. Their purpose, he suggested, was not to turn back the tide of capitalism but rather to adapt it to their own lives by limiting the hours of work. Increasingly government came to accommodate the demands of industrial labour. Fielden continued as follows[3] “While Chartism consists of these demands, it will go on in spite of all your severity and I say it ought to go on. The more frequently you reject the just claims of the people, the nearer do you bring the time when they must be conceded.”

Increasingly mainstream politicians began to concede the logic of his argument. They would not agree to the Charter, as the events of 1848 clearly demonstrated, but Peel and then Russell increasingly conceded the social reforms that the movement put forward. A process of ‘liberalisation’ had begun. Its extent is open to doubt. Social reform was fitful, delayed in its impact and lacking coherence but it was enough to lead to a loss of resonance and appeal within Chartism.

With the notable exceptions of the Land Plan and the dramatic events of 1848, until recently Chartism in its third phase has received less attention from historians than the two earlier stages[4]. In part, the reasons for this are straightforward. The years after 1842 saw fewer confrontations with authorities than during the first four years. The tendency, evident in 1841 and 1842, for the movement to fragment became more pronounced and Chartism divided into a number of different movements under the broad umbrella of the Charter. The limits of popular action and the appeal of the mass platform may have been reached in 1842 but the events of 1848 clearly show that Chartism was still capable of considerable national support. Yet, the dearth of historical analysis of this period is nonetheless surprising. The radical publications of the late 1840s produced some of the most innovative political discussion of the period and some of the most interesting features of the movement developed. The years between 1843 and the early 1850s stands uneasily between the vibrant working class confrontationalism of 1839 and 1842 and the growing liberalism and emergent socialism of the 1850s and 1860s. But was Chartism, as J.T. Ward suggests[5], ‘entering a period of decline’? Had it been weakened by ‘O’Connor’s bullying tactics’? Was it ‘further weakened by a slow but general economic improvement’?

A question of decline

Historians are largely in agreement that the decline of Chartism, a decline that lasted until the late 1850s, began in the mid-1840s[6]. They point to the reforms introduced during Peel’s ministry between 1841 and 1846 and improved economic conditions are a possible cause of this. This may reinforce the argument for the economic motivation of many rank-and-file Chartists. However, this coincidence may be a necessary explanation but it is hardly a sufficient one. 

Conditions improved during Peel’s ministry[7]. Peel inherited a budgetary deficit in 1841. The budget in 1842 was Peel’s means of remedying this. Income tax was reintroduced at 7d in the pound on incomes of more than £150. This excluded most of the working classes. It was designed to last three years and raise £3.7 million. Customs duties were reduced on about 750 items and maximum duties on imported raw materials and manufactured items were set at 5 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. Changes were made to the scale of duties on corn reducing the level of tax paid. They were, however, generally well regarded and certainly politically astute. Trade revived from 1843 and the boost of reduced duties to consumption soon outran the lower tariff return on each item. Government finance moved into the red in 1844. Further changes took place in 1845. Income tax was renewed for a further three years and there were more reductions in tariffs. Duties on raw materials, like cotton, were abolished. Duties on colonial sugar from the West Indies and foreign sugar were both reduced. Further reductions followed and when Peel fell in 1846, Britain was almost a free-trading country. Economic reform and improved social conditions took the teeth out of Chartism. Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and the introduction of free trade undercut the economic foundations of Chartism.  Peel’s economic liberalism had its origins in the 1820s. At its heart were the notions of ‘sound money’, low taxes and a freeing of trade. Without monetary control and stability there would be inflation and this, Peel maintained, would limit economy growth. It was necessary to restrict the Bank of England’s power to issue money ‘to inspire just confidence in the medium of exchange’. The Gold Standard became the dominant financial orthodoxy linking sound money to cheap government and low rates of direct and indirect taxation. If businessmen and industrialists were given freedom to exploit the market, Peel suggested this would increase profitability, improve employment and result in economic growth for everyone’s benefit.

For Peel, the issue of social reform was linked to successful economic conditions. These would enable economic growth, create new jobs and so stimulate consumption. Peel was sceptical of the value of direct government intervention in solving social problems. Free market answers were more effective. He recognised that government could not abdicate all responsibility in the ‘social question’ but, like many contemporaries, believed that its role should be severely limited and definitely cost-effective. In 1842, the Whig poor law was extended tightening its operation to remove wasteful spending. Government support for social reform was hardly enthusiastic. Factory reform followed in 1844. There was a well-organised campaign inside and outside Parliament to restrict the maximum working day for all to ten hours. Peel disagreed. He was prepared to pass laws preventing exploitation of children and women but he argued adult males were free agents and the law should not interfere with market forces. The Commons did not agree and Ashley’s Ten Hours’ amendment was carried. It was only Peel’s threat of resignation that persuaded Tories to support the passage of the Factory Act. Graham’s Act effectively established a working day of twelve hours maximum but only in the textile industry.  Lord John Russell succeeded Peel as prime minister in mid-1846 and led a Whig-Liberal government until 1852. Two important pieces of social legislation were passed in 1847 and 1848 though their impact on Chartism is debatable. The 1847 Factory Act introduced shorter working hours for all textile workers. The 1848 Public Health Act made some improvements in town conditions.


[1] Dorothy Thompson The Chartists, Aldershot, 1984, page 295.

[2] Hansard, 3rd Series, volume 68, column 102, 28th March 1843.

[3] Hansard, 3rd Series, volume 68, column 103, 28th March 1843

[4] J.T. Ward Chartism, London, 1973 allocates a mere twenty-five pages to the period 1842-47 while Thompson The Chartists, has less than ten and both include discussion of the Land Plan. The study by Preston Slosson The Decline of the Chartist Movement, New York, 1916, though dated, is still essential.

[5] Ward Chartism, page 169.

[6] P. W. Slossom The Decline of the Chartist Movement, New York, 1916 remains the basic text on the decline of the movement. Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin 1999 is especially good on 1847 and beyond, is an important and revisionist collection of papers.

[7] For Peel’s ministry see T. L. Crosby   Sir Robert Peel’s Administration 1841-1846, David & Charles, 1970 and   Robert Stewart The Politics of Protection: Lord Derby and the Protectionists 1841-52, Cambridge University Press, 1971. Paul Adelman Peel and the Conservative Party 1830-1850, Longman, 1989 contains text and documents.

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