Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Who were the Chartists?

In late 1851 an article entitled How I Became a Rebel was published in the Christian Socialist[1]. The author of this incomplete autobiography was an anonymous ex-Chartist. It may be unclear whether his narrative is about 1839 or 1848 but he left little doubt about his reasons for becoming a Chartist “And so, Lord John [Russell], I became a Rebel: -- that is to say: -- Hungry in a land of plenty, I began seriously to question for the first time in my life to enquire WHY, WHY – a dangerous question, Lord John, isn’t it, for a poor man to ask? Leading to anarchy and confusion…Politics, my Lord, was with me then, a bread-and-cheese question. Let me not, however, be mistaken; -- I ever loved the idea of freedom -- glorious freedom, and its inevitable consequences – and not only for what it will fetch, but the holy principle…”

The Address of the Female Political Union of Newcastle upon Tyne of early 1839 is also unequivocal[2] “Year after year has 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 – the fear of want hangs over our heads; the scorn of the rich is pointed towards us; the brand of slavery is on our kindred, and we feel the degradation….Fellow-Countrywomen…we entreat you to join us to help the cause of freedom, justice, honesty and truth, to drive poverty and ignorance from our land and establish happy homes, true religion, righteous government and good laws.”

Both sources make explicit that the reasons for becoming a Chartist were a combination of principle and pragmatism. ‘Want’ may have been the spur to action but behind the harsh realities of poverty, unemployment and depression lay an important belief in freedom and justice. The Charter was the means through which a ‘just’ society could be established, a society in which the economic excesses that afflicted working people could be abolished.

Some general observations

The social, economic and political reasons why people became Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s had existed since the beginning of the century. Yet Chartism was different from earlier radical movements. It had objectives that were shared by all its supporters even if they differed on how those objectives were to be achieved. Its support came from across the country. It was principally a working class movement. It lasted longer. This helps to explain why it is difficult to answer the question ‘who were the Chartists?’ The Chartists of 1838-9 did not correspond to those of 1842 and 1848. At different times, for different reasons and in different parts of the country, different working people found in the Charter a means of improving their lives. Chartism could be strong in one county but weak in neighbouring ones. It is important to recognise that while it is necessary to make some general statements about Chartist support it is at local level that historians must search to find convincing explanations[3].

A geographical dimension

Chartism was much stronger in certain areas than others but its real power-base, lay in the three textiles districts of the East Midlands, the West Riding of Yorkshire and in southern Lancashire. In these industrial areas, the cyclical trade depressions of the late 1830s and 1840s, coupled with the dependence of families in declining handicraft trades on outdoor relief made the Poor Law seem threatening, while community ties and mutual assistance societies such as trade unions and friendly societies were particularly strong, enabled Chartism to colonise a popular associational culture. The threat to trade unions that were increasingly beleaguered in the 1830s gave added impetus to Chartist organisations and these tended also to be in the areas where a tradition of attachment to radical reform had roots that went back two generations to the 1790s. John Belchem specified as follows[4]: ‘The real Chartist strongholds…were not the cities but the surrounding towns and out-townships, the typical industrial communities of the manufacturing districts – the textile towns of Lancashire, Cheshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire; the hosiery, lace and glove-making areas of the east Midlands; the depressed linen-weaving centres of Barnsley and Dundee; and the ‘industrial villages’ of the mining and ironworking districts, the north-east coalfield, the South Wales valets and the Black Country. Here occupational ties were reinforced by other loyalties, by networks of mutual knowledge and trust which facilitated powerful and effective political organisation.’  He could also have added some reference to similar places in the Scottish Lowlands and around Carlisle.

The most consistent Chartist bulwarks were in the Pennine industrial areas of south-east Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire that combined factory production with declining textile crafts and strong trade union and radical political traditions. Within these areas Chartism was stronger in industrial villages and medium-sized towns like Stockport, Bolton, Halifax and Bradford than in the major provincial centres of Manchester and Leeds. Within the north-west, the correlation between the ‘cotton towns’ and Chartism was strong and it extended beyond the immediate Manchester area to embrace outposts at Carlisle (where impoverished hand-loom weavers with a long radical tradition gave particular momentum to the movement) and other textile centres at Kendal (where middle-class support gave Chartism an unusually moderate tone) and Wigton (a market town with a linen-weaving tradition). Manchester was far less of a Chartist stronghold on this evidence with signatories of the 1839 Petition accounting for fewer than one in thirty of the population. However, recent research suggests that the town was more of a centre both of Chartism and the factory industry than was supposed in the 1970s and 1980s by historians who tended to emphasise the economic role of commerce rather than manufacture, the fragmentation of community and the difficulty of sustaining working-class organisations in the cotton metropolis. Manchester’s profile was certainly raised by the radicals of its industrial hinterland, for whom it was an obvious centre for mass meetings and demonstrations but Paul Pickering’s work has shown that it was an important and strong Chartist centre in its own right.

The north-west’s other regional centre was Liverpool and it lacked real radical credentials and, with other seaports that featured casual and sweated labour, did not appear to be a major Chartist centre though one in fourteen of the population signed the 1839 Petition. It was not until 1848 that it played a significant role in the movement. The mining and heavy industry district of south-west Lancashire proved inhospitable to Chartism, just as it lacked the developed self-help and mutual aid traditions that were expressed through trade unions and friendly societies in the north-west’s Chartist strongholds. Further north, the coal-mining areas of West Cumberland say virtually no Chartist activities as the great landed estates that dominated these industrial areas and their seaport towns were able to freeze out all kinds of radical politics and trade unionism. Two points can be made about the evidence on which the distribution of Chartist support within the economically diverse north-west of England:

  • Different parts of the region ‘peaked’ at different times. Cotton towns such as Oldham and Preston and their satellite industrial villages were particularly active in the early years of the movement and showed a marked decline after the repression following the strikes of August and September 1842. They failed to revive in the trade depression of 1846-7 or in the last great upsurge during 1848. Reasons for this may be found in the demoralising effects of the repression but also ion the declining importance of the hand-loom weavers who played such a central role in the early development of the movement.
  • There was a receding threat from the new poor law in an area where it seemed especially disturbing on paper but its strictest provisions were not carried into practice, coupled with the emergence of a less aggressive stance towards trade unions and other concessions by local elites on such issues as factory reform in the mid-1840s.

But there were other areas, like South Wales, the Black Country and parts of the south west, where there had been little organised radicalism before. In the first National Petition, 19,000 signatures came from London compared to 100,000 from the West Riding and mass metropolitan support for Chartism came only in the 1840s.

In other areas support was limited. In Ireland, cities like Belfast, Cork and Dublin had Chartist organisations but the general suspicion of the Catholic Church that Chartism would undermine society, and from the Young Ireland Movement because Chartism was English, meant that its impact was limited. Chartism gained little support in areas where Wesleyan Methodism was strong. In Cornwall temperance and Methodist leaders combined to minimise Chartist influence. In other areas, by contrast, local nonconformists played a central role in the movement and some national leaders like Henry Vincent sought to give the movement a Christian rationale. More generally, Chartism was weak in largely rural areas where deference and traditional forms of protest remained strong. In East Anglia agricultural labourers in general were not convinced that the vote would remedy their economic plight. In rural Wales, where the gap between rural and urban workers was to some extent bridged by their joint opposition to English dominance and their shared nonconformity, Chartism was accompanied by more traditional protest in the form of the Rebecca riots of 1839 and 1842[5]. Beneath this regional and local diversity of Chartism there was, however, a very real sense of national unity in the movement, especially in the peak years between 1839 and 1842 and in 1848.

An occupational dimension

Occupational support for Chartism was also extensive. A wide range of urban and industrial workers was involved. Economic conditions were only partially responsible for this, though they were of major importance. Of the twenty-three local associations who responded to a questionnaire distributed by the 1839 Convention, only two stressed lack of the vote as a general grievance. The majority complained of low wages, dear food, and scarcity of work and economic hardship. Considerable support came from domestic outworkers. Textile handloom weavers, linen-spinners and wool-combers in Yorkshire and silk workers in Essex were chronically depressed. It is significant that a characteristic of strong Chartist areas was a rising population. This placed additional pressure on occupations in easily learned and labour intensive industries. In Scotland, handloom weavers were the major force behind Chartism. The move to demands for a political answer to their economic grievances was motivated not by the belief that the vote would benefit their conditions but that without it there could be no solution.

Factory workers played a far more active role in Chartism than in previous radical movements. Here too the initial motivation was economic, springing from the widespread unemployment of the late 1830s. Contemporaries like Joseph Rayner Stephens and Cooke Taylor were not alone in noting that Lancashire Chartism was a ‘knife and fork question’. But it was more than this. The early part of the century had seen long hours offset by relatively high levels of wages. This had been weakened by technological change, especially the introduction of the self-acting mule in the cotton textile industry. The economic slump of the late 1830s added to their sense of frustration and despair.

The close association between trade unionism and Chartism in some areas has been regarded as showing unity of action among the working population[6]. Trade unions provided less support than they had earlier in the 1820s and 1830s and many factory workers turned -- temporarily -- to political agitation. Miners had also been insulated from broad popular movements but during the late thirties and early forties large numbers, especially in Wales and the West Midlands, became enmeshed in Chartism. In Staffordshire links with Chartism seem to have been superficial. Chartists did play a prominent role in the organisation of the strike in August 1842 but more importance was attached to the specific local grievances of the miners than to the Charter. By contrast, Chartists in South Wales were able to achieve a genuinely political agitation during 1838 and 1839 among both ironworkers and miners culminating in the abortive Newport rising.

Factory workers and miners occupied an intermediate position between the rank-and-file outworkers and the artisans and small shopkeepers who formed most of the local leadership. In Suffolk and Essex, for example, tailors, shoemakers and building artisans looked to agricultural labourers for mass support. In Bath, artisans provided the leadership and the declining cloth trade the rank and file. In the Bradford Northern Union, wool-combers and weavers supported artisan leadership. In Aberdeen, there was a similar balance between handloom weavers and a small articulate artisan leadership. Craftsmen were prominent partly because of a long tradition of political radicalism. But economic considerations gave artisan leadership an added edge. In the clothing, furniture and building trades their economic position was deteriorating or at least vulnerable. The growing market for relatively low quality goods and downward trend in prices compelled employers to cut their costs. This was responsible for a continuing expansion of a ‘dishonourable’ or non-unionised sector in traditional trades, the employment of unapprenticed and semi-skilled labour and a downward spiral into ‘sweated’ trades. Only a few skilled trades, like bookbinding and watch making, were able to maintain their status and prosperity and remained aloof from Chartism.

Class consciousness?

How far and under what conditions should Chartism be viewed as a class conscious working-class movement? This Marxist perspective highlights the drawing together of wage-labourers under the Chartist umbrella, conscious of their shared interests and injustices in opposition to employers who took an unfair share of the fruits of their labour and landowners whose revenues came from the unjust possession of land that enabled them to manipulate the machinery of the state to the disadvantage and exclusion of the people at large.

Chartism provided a rhetoric and an understanding that could pull working people together across the boundaries of trade and workplace hierarchies that normally divided them enabling them to rise up in pursuit of their common interests and entitlements as workers against a corrupt system. The strongest statement of this position for a particular locality comes from Foster’s book on Oldham[7]. He argues that

  • A consciousness of class interests and identity passed beyond the preserve of a committed and convinced minority of agitators in the 1830s and 1840s and spread among the wage-earning people at large.
  • This was clearly demonstrated in the great industrial dispute of 1834 that pulled together workers across a number of trades and entailed a local political campaign to rescue the arrested and take control of the town’s police force.
  • This politicisation of workers found its highest expression in the great strike of August and September 1842 when campaigners against wage reductions in a severe trade depression voted not the return to work until the Charter became the law of the land. This, argues Foster, was a revolutionary general strike that brought class consciousness to the boil and should have generated a more serious and sustained threat to the established order than it did.

Some of the most convincing evidence in opposition to Foster involves the rapid decline in active and visible mass support for the Charter after the failure of the strike. Any wider political class consciousness the strike generated must have been at best ephemeral and the tortuous ways in which Foster attempted to explain this dissolution suggests that he was pushing his original argument further than the evidence allows. It is certainly harder to find evidence of conviction and commitment below the level of those relatively skilled trades that could afford to collect subscriptions for trade unions, combine and strike. Though Foster’s work was crudely attacked and his view that it is possible to reduce people’s motives to economic terms severely distorted, it is difficult not to conclude that his view of the 1842 strike is romantically overdrawn.

Evidence of class consciousness may be difficult to find but what Chartism did achieve in its strongholds was to pull together whole industrial communities in support of a common cause[8]. There were largely working class in their social structure though a few employers and members of the ‘shopocracy’ can also be found. In places like Sabden, an industrial village in the Pennines near Pendle Hill or Todmorden, where even the leading manufacturers who dominated the local economy were actively sympathetic to the Charter, Chartism represented the fears and aspirations of whole chapel congregations, friendly society lodges, trade union locals and singing-saloon devotees. It built on a thriving associational culture and pulled together ‘a union of the productive classes’. It united the insecure middling class of small shopkeepers and marginal professions with workers in defence against doctrinaire policies that threatened to destabilise their family economies. Feargus O’Connor was well aware that the key division was between the comfortable middle class who had benefited from 1832 and their social inferiors rather than between the working and middle classes in their broader sense. In this scenario, it was community rather than class consciousness that Chartism was able to draw on in the 1830s and 1840s pulling together a range of hopes and fears that had been crystallised more sharply than ever by the post-Reform parliaments and the sense of betrayal keenly felt after the passage of reform in 1832.

Chartist activists were drawn disproportionately from a generation born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, whose formative adult years had seen the reform and trade union campaigns of the post-Waterloo years and was among these experiences, embittered but still hopeful thirty-somethings that Chartism came closest to predominance[9]. As a result, Chartist speakers and the Chartist press spoke the languages of principles opposition to ‘Old Corruption’ and the aristocratic state. Alongside this inherited rhetoric there was a powerful combination of antagonism to middle class abuse of property and power that led to widespread denunciation of economic exploitation, and the denial of workers’ rights. Chartism could be, and sometimes was, about class conflict.

The word ‘class’ is used widely in Chartist speeches and writings though the fault-line usually ran between the lower middle and comfortable middle classes rather than between employers and workers or rich and poor. Whether the predominant critique of current arrangements was political or economic in inspiration and goals, the movement was capable of organising impressively and on a massive scale and of generating a rhetoric that combined the violent and the apocalyptic with appeals for reason and fairness. Consciousness that there was an excluded class in the 1830s and 1840s did not mean that there was class consciousness in the later Marxist sense.

A gender dimension

Women were involved in Chartism to an unprecedented extent[10]. Yet, as Dorothy Thompson wrote “their presence has been virtually ignored by Chartism’s historians”. She identifies three main reasons for this.

  • First, she argues that the rank and file of the movement has still not been closely studied in most parts of the country. Where women played a significant role in Chartism it was at a local rather than national level. Historians have tended to concentrate on Chartism as a national movement and not surprising the role of women has tended to be overlooked.
  • Secondly, it is difficult to trace individual Chartists and this is a far greater problem for women than men. The majority of the Chartist crowd of both sexes remained anonymous. We simply do not know who most of the Chartists were.
  • Finally, there is the preoccupation of historians. The early historians, from Gammage to the Fabians, portrayed Chartism as a serious political movement. Tea parties, social occasions, Sundays Schools, processions and other rituals which belonged to the older radical tradition and in which women played a central role did not fit into this rational mould and were either ignored or contrasted unfavourably with the modernity of Chartism. Historians of women’s movements have been equally dismissive of the role of Chartist women largely because they were not seen as being specifically feminist.

In the early stages of the movement women played an important role, in part motivated by their opposition to the perceived, if not actual, excesses of the New Poor Law. The ‘Sisters in Bondage’ – the female Chartists of Manchester – described theirs as a struggle for “suitable houses, proper clothing and good food”. This concern with economic issues was also evident in references to “pawn-brokers and furniture brokers” and the spectre of unemployment “our husbands wandering the streets, willing to work but unable to procure it, thrown out in consequence of the improvements which have been made in machinery”. This strong female involvement, where up to a third of those who signed the First Petition in 1839 and the petition on behalf of the transported John Frost in 1841 were women, was not motivated primarily by the question of women’s suffrage. Although many Chartists believed in the vote for women, it was never part of the programme of the movement. There is no suggestion that they considered themselves oppressed within their own families and there is no evidence of ‘anti-men’ agitation among the female Chartists. In the same way, they were not concerned with their right to work. Women acted in support of men and their communities concerned that their husbands should earn enough to support them and their children at home. In the early years of the movement there were almost a hundred female radical associations and a general commitment to the inclusion of women’s suffrage and the improvement of women’s education were accepted by many radicals. By the mid-1840s the radical press mentioned women less and women in the crowd seem to have declined in numbers. The reasons for this withdrawal from politics are unclear. Certainly the decline of traditional forms of protest – the procession and the mass demonstration – and the development of the politics of the committee, Thompson argues, limited the role of women. The routine work of running the localities of the National Charter Association was left to men. This did not mean that women dropped out of the movement, though the photograph of the Kennington Common meeting in April 1848 shows very few women. Attitudes to women tended to harden in the 1840s and there was a growing acceptance of the notion of ‘separate spheres’ among many working men in theory if not always in practice. The marginalising of women from the public domain and from skilled employment was an important element of the growing ‘respectability’ of working class politics and life.

A problem with sources

The main difficulty facing historians lies in identifying who the Chartists actually were. John Belchem pointed out that most of the large samples of Chartists considered by historians have been based on the committee members of political organisations and/or those arrested during major crises. In his review of Dorothy Thompson’s The Chartists, he wrote[11] that “the evidence is restricted to the fully committed and/or unlucky”. This applies to the sample of 1,152 Chartists arrested in 1839-40 David Goodway [12] used as a sample in his analysis of London Chartism and Robert Sykes’ examination of the social composition of Chartism in the Greater Manchester area[13].

One of the most comprehensive and neglected sources for later Chartism is the national list of subscribers from 1847-48 to the National Land Company in the Board of Trade Papers. This lists, alphabetically, names, addresses and occupations and is the largest single source of data on rank and file Chartist supporters. There is considerable duplication. Alan Little[14] found that there were 19 obvious duplications in the one hundred and ninety Liverpool names, addresses and occupations but even so the data contains between twenty-five and thirty thousand Land Company subscribers. There are major methodological problems with the Board of Trade list. Malcolm Chase[15] suggests that it probably included less than a third of Land Company subscribers. It is also questionable how far subscribing to the Land Company can be equated with Chartism. Certainly only one of the fifteen National Charter Association committee members in Liverpool in 1841-2 appears on the Land Company’s list. In the Leicester sample[16] of 1,400 subscribers, only about a quarter of Chartists known in 1842 can be identified. Even so Little argues persuasively that the list may give a better picture of the geographical and occupational basis of Chartism as mass movement than the figures for the minority of committed activists on committee lists.

Even if lengthy comparisons are made with census material from 1841 and 1851, providing information on age, marital status and so on, historians are still left with lists of faceless and anonymous individuals.


[1] Christian Socialist, volume ii, no. 59, 13 (December 1851), extracts printed in Dorothy Thompson The Early Chartists, London, 1971, pages 82-86.

[2] Northern Star, 2nd February 1839.

[3] The most extensive general discussion of the question ‘who were the Chartists?’ is to be found in Dorothy Thompson The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution,  Aldershot , 1984, pages 91-236.

[4] J. Belchem Industrialization and the Working Class, Aldershot, 1990, page 105.

[5] The best examination of the Rebecca riots is David J.V. Jones Rebecca’s Children. A Study of Rural Society, Crime and Protest, Oxford, 1989 though some earlier works, notably Henry Tobit Evans Rebecca and Her Daughters, Cardiff, 1910, should also be consulted.

[6] R. Sykes ‘Early Chartism and Trade Unionism’ in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience. Studies in Working-class Radicalism and Culture 1830-1860, London, 1982, pages 152-170, John Rule The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850, London, 1986, pages 310-342 on craft unionism, miners and Chartism and J. Rule (ed.) British Trade Unionism 1750-1850. The Formative Years, London, 1988, especially the introduction by the editor pages 19-22 and David McNulty on unionism in Bristol pages 220-236 provide a useful starting-point on this contentious issue.

[7] J. Foster Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution, London, 1974. This book provides a controversial Leninist case-study largely of Oldham but it also has some useful things to say about Northampton.

[8] On this issue see, Craig Calhoun The Question of Class Struggle, Oxford, 1982 which includes a case-study of Lancashire.

[9] C. Godfrey ‘The Chartist Prisoners 1839-1841’, International Review of Social History, volume 24, (1978), pages 189-236 is a valuable survey of activists.

[10] D. Thompson The Chartists, 1984, pages 120-151 is invaluable. David Jones ‘Women and Chartism’, History, volume 68, (1983) is less critical. Jutta Schwarzkopf Women in the Chartist Movement, London, 1991 is a more detailed, though not entirely satisfactory, study. The issue is explored in greater detail below in Chapter 3.

[11] English Historical Review, volume 100, (1985), page 137.

[12] David Goodway London Chartism 1838-1848, Cambridge, 1982, pages 16-17.

[13] R.Sykes Popular Politics and Trade Unionism in South-East Lancashire 1829-42, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 1982, chapter 12.

[14] Alan Little ‘Liverpool Chartists: Subscribers to the National Land Company, 1847-8’ in John Belchem (ed.) Popular Politics, Riot and Labour. Essays in Liverpool History 1790-1940, Liverpool, 1992, pages 247-251.

[15] Malcolm Chase ‘Chartism 1838-1868: Responses of Two Teeside Towns’, Northern History, volume 24, (1988).

[16] Alan Little Chartism and Liberalism. Popular Politics in Leicestershire 1842-1874, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 1989, chapter 1.

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