The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

CHARTISM

Category: 19th century

Hunger and hatred — these were the forces that made Chartism a mass movement of the British working class. The new machines flung men out of work by thousands, and sent them to struggle wildly for jobs, at any wage the employ­er would offer and under any conditions of over-work. Hours of labour in the factories were stretched out to almost unbelievable lengths, throwing more workers out of jobs, and making the scramble worse. Even when trade was good, the weavers were near starvation. Even when trade was good, there was no respite from the battle with the machines, which continually displaced more labour and set a hotter compet­itive pace.

Conditions were precarious for the employer as well as for the worker. Competition was fierce. It was not very dif­ficult for a man who could scrape together even a hundred pounds to start in business for himself with a machine or two.

But of those who started, many failed, and were flung back into the working class. Employer fought with employer, as well as employers together against the overweening claims of Hhe working class.

In this mood, the new employing class fought against Trade Unionism with the fury of wild beasts.

The “document”, presented to each workman to sign, and requiring him, as a condition of employment, to re­nounce all connection with Trade Unionism, became a regular weapon in the employer’s hands. Most of all did they object to combinations extending beyond a single trade — Trade Unions they were commonly called — because such Unions were more powerful.

The main body of employers objected no less strongly to endeavours to get the conditions of work regulated by law. They saw in the contention that the State could legitimately limit the hours of child labour — because children could not be regarded as free agents — an attack on the principle of parental responsibility, t was for the parents to say how long their children should work — not for the State. If hours were shortened, there would not be enough childish labour to go around.

The textile districts, together with the coalfields, were throughout the storm centres both of the Trade Union strug­gles of the early ‘thirties and of Chartism. The rest of the coun­try — outside the main textile and mining areas — had in the eighteen-thirties felt much less the impact of the new industrialism.

Apart from the textile and mining areas, the main cen­tres of Chartist activity were in and aroundLondonandBir­mingham. But the movements in both these places differed considerably from the hunger-Chartism of the textile oper­atives and the miners. InLondonthere were in efect always two Chartist movements rather than one. The first of these, which under the leadership of William Lovett actually ini­tiated Chartism and published “The People’s Charter”, developed among a group of skilled artisans, printers, work­ing craftsmen in various trades, most of whom had been con­nected at an earlier stage both with Owenism and with the National Union of the Working Classes — the principal or­gan in the Reform struggle of 1830—32. This group, which formed the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), consisted of relatively prosperous persons.

But the working class of Londonwas by no means made up exclusively of superior craftsmen. It included also the desper­ately poor weavers of Spitalfields, and a great host of unskil­led, or at any rate underpaid, workers at and about the docks, builders, labourers and casuals who had come to Londonin the hope of finding work. These men felt quite differently about politics from the respectable artisans whom alone Lovett and his friends sought to enrol in the L. W. M. A. And their leaders were not Lovett, but men of the “physi­cal force” school, such as Feargus O’Connor3, before he made his headquarters in the North, and George Julian Harney4, who aspired to be the Marat of the coming English Revolu­tion. It was this group that rallied to the London Democratic Association in opposition to Lovett’s L. W. M. A., and was responsible for the great crowds which poured out of South­wark and East London upon the City and theWest End whenever there was trouble afoot.

Birmingham Chartism, as well as that ofLondon, had two sides.

These groups found their common leader in Thomas Attwood. Attwood and the group around him were determined to appeal only to “moral force” in the struggle for the Char­ter; but the events inBirminghamitself in 1839 showed that not all the local Chartists were of this mind.

In order to understand Chartism it is necessary to go back to the events of the years which immediately preceded the drafting of the People’s Charter. During the four years be­tween the passing of the Reform Act of 1832 and the begin­ning of Chartism in 1836—37 the working classes had fought and lost two great campaigns; and at the moment when the Charter was published they were in the thick of a third. They had fought hard for the Ten Hours Bill which they were not to win until 1847. They had flocked, between 1829 and 1834, into Trade Unions — only to have their Unions crushed by the combined action of the Whig Government, the Law

Courts, and the employers. And they were, in 1836—37, just beginning the great fight against the introduction of the New Poor Law8 into the industrial areas.

When Lovett drafted “the Six Points” into a formal Bill and called it the “People’s Charter”, the enthusiasm was enor­mous. These Six Points were: universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual Parliaments, payment of members, secret ballot, and no property qualification for M. P.’s. So exactly did these correspond to the public wishes that when “missionaries” were sent out to advocate them they were soon able to report the foundation of over a hundred socie­ties.

At first sight it might seem that there was little new in all this, that it was merely another programme of parliamentary reform launched by theLondonartisans in alliance with mid- dle-class radicals. Yet in fact a decisive step had been taken which made the decade of Chartism a new historic epoch for the British working class. Why was this?

In the first place, the Charter was able to grip the imagi­nation of the masses in the industrial areas as nothing had done before: when it passed fromLondonandBirminghamto Lancashire, Yorkshire andGlasgowit was transformed and became the property not of a sect but of a whole class. A new movement with new leadership was created which swept the Charter out of the cautious hands of Lovett and Attwood and made it the rallying point for all the hopes and ambitions of the people. All saw in it the means by which their oppres­sions could be taken away. The Six Points became not so much an end in themselves as the key to a new life. The whole of the working people wanted a new life: about the details of this new life there might be differences of opinion but the Charter was a first step on which all could agree.

Secondly, it drew together the separate threads of agita­tion and discontent which already existed. It satisfied the democratic and educational aspirations of the artisan, the industrial worker fighting for a living wrage, trade union rights and the ten-hour day, the hand-loom weaver fighting for the right to exist, and, most of all perhaps at that moment, it swallowed and raised to a new political level the nation­wide struggle against the hated Poor Law,

There were at this time three main trends in the working- class movement, which united in Chartism. First there was the trade union struggle for protection of the workers on the job “ for a living wage, for shorter hours, against the daily oppression of arbitrary fines and harsh factory discipline, to secure the right to legal existence for the unions and their ac­tivities. Second, there was political radicalism, which origi­nated in the middle class but progressively acquired a new character in the hands of the workers. From 1832 this change took on a new quality with the growing conviction of the work­ers that they, as producers of all wealth, ought to be the do­minant power in society. This conviction links with the third trend, the growing ideas of socialism. The Chartist movement was never socialist in its programme, but the spread of social­ist ideas among the mass of Chartists led them beyond the Six Points as an end in themselves to an understanding that they were the first step to a complete change in the course of which the workers, in control of state power, would trans­form society so as to satisfy all their desires.

The Chartist Movement was formally launched at a vast meeting at Newhall Hill,Birmingham, on August 6, 1838, at which representatives of every school of thought spoke in harmony.

The harmony was on the surface alone. The speakers were agreed upon the necessity for the Charter and no more. They were not agreed on the means of attaining it. The LWMA and the Birmingham men intended to rely upon “moral force” — upon petitions, meetings, resolutions and educa­tion; Harney and unnumbered others chiefly from the North upon “physical force”, including insurrection. The division between the two schools was not one bridgeable by argument; it was a class division.

It was curious that it should be Attwood who produced for the movement a programme whose incendiary character he cannot fully have realised. It was this: a petition for the enactment of the Charter should be as widely signed as pos­sible. A Convention should be elected to present it to the House of Commons and urge it on M. P. ’s by all the methods of moral force. Should these fail, a general strike of a month, called a Sacred Month, should be called to force surrender.

Here was a programme on which all could unite delight­edly. Enormous meetings held by torchlight on moors and waste spaces outside the big cities welcomed the orators. The more violent their sentiments the more the audiences cheered: pikes were brandished and the fiercest resolutions carried. Before long the group round Lovett and Attwood were seriously alarmed at the anger they had unleashed.

A political crisis had enforced a delay in presenting the Charter. It was now clear that the petition would be refused, and the audience were asked if they would carry out a “Sacred Month”, and if they had armed themselves. Both the Convention and the Government were seriously prepar­ing for a conflict.

The Petition, with 1, 280,000 signatures, was debated on July 12 (1839) in Parliament and rejected.

What the “moral force” men had failed to do, the “phys­ical force” men now decided to attempt. The signal for the insurrection was to be given by the capture ofNewportin Monmouth by the Chartists of that district, headed by John Frost, a draper, ex-mayor and Radical politician of long standing.

Frost fixed the night of November 3—4 for the capture ofNewport. Frost’s detachment, like the rest nearly complete­ly made up of miners, assembled at Blackwood. The author­ities were fully warned and, when the disorderly army swept into the square opposite the Westgate Hotel, it ran straight into a trap. The battle was short and sharp. Frost’s force was some four thousand, though it was utterly untrained; the soldiers numbered some thirty. But behind the hotel shutters they were untouchable, while the Chartists in the square were without shelter from their volleys. Every shot told; in quite a short while the army broke and fled, leaving behind it dead or dying estimated variously at between elev­en and fifty-three.

In 1842 the Second Chartist Petition was presented. It was blunter and more effectively phrased than its predeces­sor, it was signed by 3,317,702 persons and was over six miles long. Broken up on the floor of the House (for it was too large to enter whole) it made the room look “as if it had been snowing paper”. It was, of course, rejected by 287 votes to 49. But the number of signatures stimulated Chartists to wild hopes. “We are 4,000,000, ay, and more”, O’Connor wrote in the Chartist paper ‘‘ The Northern Star ”. “… How proud I was to call you 2,000,000 just twelve months ago … and how dou­bly proud must I now be to call you 4,000,000!”.

In the second week in August a casual strike inAshton-under-Lynewas turned by the strikers into a strike for the Charter. Immediately the cry was taken up:Manchestercame out; and from there the strike radiated overLancashire,

Yorkshire,Cheshire, the Potteries, Warwickshire and intoWales; the Scottish miners came out.

While the strikers were marching from town to town, knocking out the boiler-plugs to prevent working, the Char­ter Association debated its action frantically. Suddenly, on August 27, when trades as far north asAberdeenwere consid­ering joining the strike, O’Connor swung round. He denounced the strike in the “Star”, and declared he would stop it. It had failed inManchester; it was bound to be defeated. The effect of this was to shatter a movement that was already weak­ening at the centre. The strike ended as soon as the “Star” was put on sale. Fifteen hundred people were arrested and 79 transported toAustralia.

Some such startling defeat of the Chartists was inevita­ble, even if the leadership had been wiser. The enemy, the cap­italist class, which the Chartists were attacking was enourmously stronger than they believed. The failure of Chartism was partly a result of the weaknesses of its leadership and tactics. But these weaknesses were themselves only a reflec­tion of the newness and immaturity of the working class. In the forties of the last century the bourgeoisie were still a rising class, and the distress of the time was more in the na­ture of growing pains than the sign of irresistible decay.

On the face of it the story of Chartism reads like one of total failure. But this is very far from being the truth. The Six Points were not won, but the agitation played an indis­pensable part in securing valuable concessions such as the Ten Hour Act, the Mines Act of 1842 and the Factory Act of 1844. As Engels wrote later:

“The working class ofGreat Britainfor years fought ar­dently and even violently for the People’s Charter… it was defeated, but the struggle had made such an impression upon the victorious middle class that this class, since then, was only too glad to buy a prolonged armistice at the price of ever-repeated concessions to the working people”.

More important still, Chartism was the first example not only inBritainbut anywhere in the world of a truly national political movement of the working class. In it were developed all the tactics and methods of struggle, a wealth of prac­tical and theoretical understanding which was handed on and became part of the experience of the international work­ing-class movement. Marx and Engels, who were inEng­landduring much of this time, not only helped the Chartists with advice and information but learnt from them: the ex­periences of the struggle for the Charter had a big share in the formation of the doctrines of scientific socialism.

It was not only the lessons of Chartism which survived. The thousands of active chartists did not suddenly cease to be active or abandon their ideas in 1848. Wherever in the next fifteen or twenty years we find any sort of working-class activity, trade union, co-operative, political, we can be pretty certain that former chartists are involved, working in different ways but seldom without the fundamental con­ception of Chartism — the belief that democracy means the rule of the working people. This belief was never entirely lost but has been passed down from Chartism to the Labour movement of today.

Chartism did not at this time win its Six Points. But his­torically, it was of greater importance: it was the expression of the first independent political waged struggle by the working class anywhere in the world, and in the history of the English working class it stands out as a formative as well as an heroic chapter.

From Chartist Portraits by G. D. Cole; The Common People by G. D. Cole and R. Postgate; The British Labour Movement by A. L. Morton and G. Tate

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