The Chartist movement

The Chartist movement was the first mass movement driven by the working classes. It grew following the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to extend the vote beyond those owning property.

Chartists' petition

In 1838 a People's Charter was drawn up for the London Working Men's Association (LWMA) by William Lovett and Francis Place, two self-educated radicals, in consultation with other members of LWMA. The Charter had six demands:

  • All men to have the vote (universal manhood suffrage)
  • Voting should take place by secret ballot
  • Parliamentary elections every year, not once every five years
  • Constituencies should be of equal size
  • Members of Parliament should be paid
  • The property qualification for becoming a Member of Parliament should be abolished

Unrest

In June 1839, the Chartists' petition was presented to the House of Commons with over 1.25 million signatures. It was rejected by Parliament. This provoked unrest which was swiftly crushed by the authorities.

A second petition was presented in May 1842, signed by over three million people but again it was rejected and further unrest and arrests followed.

Feargus O'Connor

In April 1848 a third and final petition was presented. A mass meeting on Kennington Common in South London was organised by the Chartist movement leaders, the most influential being Feargus O'Connor, editor of 'The Northern Star', a weekly newspaper that promoted the Chartist cause.

O'Connor was known to have connections with radical groups which advocated reform by any means, including violence. The authorities feared disruption and military forces were on standby to deal with any unrest. The third petition was also rejected but the anticipated unrest did not happen.

Despite the Chartist leaders' attempts to keep the movement alive, within a few years it was no longer a driving force for reform.

Chartists' legacy

However, the Chartists' legacy was strong. By the 1850s Members of Parliament accepted that further reform was inevitable. Further Reform Acts were passed in 1867 and 1884.

By 1918, five of the Chartists' six demands had been achieved - only the stipulation that parliamentary elections be held every year was unfulfilled.

Biographies

You can access a biography of

William Lovett
Francis Place
Feargus O'Connor

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Related information