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Chartism

A movement for social and political reform in the UK during the mid-19th century, Chartism gains its name from the People's Charter of 1838, which set out the main aims of the movement.

Chartism is thought to originate from the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill[?], which gave the vote to the majority of the (male) middle classes, but not to the 'working class'. Many people made speeches on the 'betrayal' of the working class and the 'sacrificing' of their 'interests' by the 'misconduct' of the government.

In 1838, six members of Parliament and six working-men formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter, containing the following objectives:

  • Universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21
  • Equal-sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need of MP's to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election
  • Pay for MP's
  • Annual Parliaments

Several meetings were held around the country on the issue, which culminated in a large petition being presented to the House of Commons. When the petition was refused, many advocated 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 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, led another Chartist to describe Frost as putting 'a sword in my hand and a rope around my neck'. Neverthless, 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 to the Westgate Hotel, Newport where he initiated a confrontation. Some have suggested that the roots of this confrontation lay in Frost's frequent personal conflicts with various 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 soldiers. A brief, violent and bloody battle ensued. Shots were fired by both sides, although most contempories agree that the soldeirs holding the building has vastly superior firepower. The Chartists did manage to enter the building momentarily , but were forced to retreat in disarray: twenty were killed, another fifty wounded.

Testimony exists from contemporaries, such as the Yorkshire Chartist Ben Wilson, that Newport was to have been the signal for a national rising. Instead Chartism slipped into a period of internal division and acrimonious debate as to the way forward.

Despite this, 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 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 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 to between 7 and 21 years' transportation.

In 1848, Feargus O'Connor organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The number of attendees varies depending on the source (O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Sunday Observer suggested 50,000 was more accurate), but it was clear that the government feared an uprising, as 8,000 soldiers were in London that day, along with 150,000 special constables. In any case, the meeting was peaceful.

The petition O'Connor presented to Parliament contained 1,957,496 signatures - far short of the 5,706,000 O'Connor had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries. O'Connor was accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism, and the movement soon petered out.

However, the aims of Chartism were taken on as policies by political parties, most notably the Liberal Party. Only the last of their aims - annual Parliaments - remains unfulfilled.



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