On 8 May 1838 the People’s Charter was first published. To celebrate its 175th anniversary, we consider the initial response of Victorian MPs to the Charter and the ways in which the History of Parliament’s House of Commons 1832-68 project sheds further light on the role that Chartists played in Victorian parliamentary elections.
On 8 May 1838 the ‘petition for universal suffrage’, which had been drawn up following a series of consultations between the London Working Men’s Association and six MPs, was published as the ‘People’s Charter’. The famous Six Points – manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, payment of MPs and abolition of the property qualification – were actually submerged within an extensive manifesto, totalling twenty-two pages, which called for a complete reform of the machinery of elections established by the 1832 Reform Act. In fact, so submerged were the Six Points that when the Charter was republished in 1842 and 1845, they had to be printed in bold type.
The People’s Charter was supported by a small but vocal group of Victorian MPs led by Thomas Duncombe, Radical Member for Finsbury, whose failure in June 1836 to persuade the Commons to enfranchise compound householders (£10 householders whose rates were paid by their landlords) had influenced the formation of the London Working Men’s Association, and the publication of their 1836 pamphlet The Rotten House of Commons. The first national petition for the Charter, which contained 1,280,958 signatures, was presented to the Commons by Thomas Attwood, Radical MP for Birmingham, on 14 June 1839, and the following month, Attwood, after a generally restrained and sober speech, moved for a committee on it. The motion was seconded by John Fielden, MP for Oldham, and backed by other Radicals including Joseph Hume and Robert Wallace, but it was vociferously opposed by Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whigs in the Commons, who argued that the Charter did not represent ‘the sentiments and opinions of the people at large’. Attwood’s motion was defeated by a crushing margin of 235 votes to 46.
Although viewed largely as an extra-parliamentary protest movement, Chartism played an important role in many parliamentary elections in the mid-Victorian era. Chartists were particularly active at the hustings, when the nomination of parliamentary candidates was followed by a show of hands to show support for those standing, an important election ritual that allowed for the participation of non-electors. Our research for the 1832-1868 constituency articles has underlined the effectiveness of Chartist interventions at the hustings, particularly in areas of England that have been neglected by traditional studies of the movement. For example, Carlisle Chartists were a vociferous force at the 1841 general election when their leader, the handloom weaver Joseph Broom Hanson, was proposed and seconded at the nomination, and overwhelmingly won the show of hands before withdrawing due to ‘want of money’, as he could not afford to pay the returning officer’s fees. Despite Hanson’s withdrawal, the Chartist intervention had been effective as the Liberal candidates had repeatedly been put on the defensive over their support for the new Poor Law, an issue which the Chartists zealously opposed.
Thereafter Hanson and his supporters continued to swamp public meetings of parliamentary candidates across Cumberland with Chartist resolutions. Similar incidents were witnessed in the north-east of England, where Chartist candidates for Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland made significant interventions. Although they also subsequently retired to avoid the expense of going to the poll, their presence resulted in a far greater scrutiny of other candidates’ positions on critical issues such as the Poor Law and the suppression of Chartist disturbances.
The borough of Nottingham, which was home to a strong tradition of radical protest, witnessed significant Chartist activity at the polls. Most famously, Feargus O’Connor, the national Chartist leader, was returned for the constituency at the 1847 general election, a result which The Times claimed was ‘as surprising an occurrence as could possibly arise from the mere movements of human opinion and feeling’. Yet, as our study of Nottingham makes clear, The Times should not have been so shocked. At the 1841 Nottingham by-election, the return of John Walter, the owner of The Times, had been largely secured thanks to a local Tory-Chartist alliance based on a shared opposition to the Poor Law. Even after the decline of the national movement, Nottingham Chartists remained active, and at the 1857 and 1859 general elections they brought forward the barrister, poet and novelist Ernest Jones, though on both occasions he received only a paltry share of the vote.
The publication of the People’s Charter ushered in an era of significant Chartist activity at parliamentary elections, a phenomenon that we are continuing to address in our constituency studies and our biographies of MPs who were sympathetic to the Chartist cause. Our draft articles on Thomas Attwood, and the Carlisle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sunderland and Nottingham constituencies are available on our preview site. For details of how to access this, see here.
M. Chase, Chartism: a New History (2007)
M. Chase, ‘“Labour’s candidates”: Chartist Challenges at the Parliamentary Polls, 1839-1860’, Labour History Review, 74:1 (2009), 64-89.
M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in O. Ashton, R. Fyson and S. Roberts, The Chartist Legacy (1999), 1-23.