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Commemorating Chartism

The 6 PointsThis week, Parliament is celebrating Chartism. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on and commemorate the Chartist’s movement and celebrate the efforts of particular Chartists from the North East.

The People’s Charter of 1838 was the foundation text for a remarkable mass movement. Drafted to complete the work which the Magna Carta had begun in 1215, the People’s Charter was the call of a working class movement to make parliament more democratic. In 1837, six Members of Parliament and six working men, including William Lovett, a member of the London’s Working Men’s Association and future Chartist leader, formed a committee stipulating the aims of the movement.

The Charter called for all men to be able to vote in secret polls, constituencies of equal sizes, salaries for MPs, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs and for annual parliaments. What the Chartists demanded was universal male suffrage and the conditions without which practical universal male suffrage would have remained unobtainable. The Chartist movement had supported in principle universal female suffrage but had feared a demand for equal voting rights for women would lessen the chances of any of their demands being met.

When these demands were first published in May, 1838 they struck a chord with the general public. The drafting of the People’s Charter provided working class movements with clearly defined objectives allowing what had previously been dispersed and separate groups to be unified in a single movement.

Not all Chartists, however, were workers without property and business. George Binns of Sunderland who was a prominent local Chartist leader sacrificed his involvement in a family business in order to become involved with the movement.

The aims of the Chartists were further reaching than just their demanded concessions from parliament. Binns along with his friend and fellow Chartist leader James Williams had run booksellers and news agency in Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland that was effectively the headquarters of the movement in County Durham. Their business provided a wide range of publications that were overtly educational and political which aimed to inform and motivate local working people towards further involvement in mass working class movements. Binns and Williams paid a price for their struggle to achieve universal suffrage and social justice with six month prison sentences secured at the Durham Assize in July 1840.

Following his release and his further involvement in the Chartist movement Williams was an energetic campaigner of sanitary reform in Sunderland as well as working towards the establishment of municipal gas and water companies and the Sunderland Free Library.

The Chartist’s struggle was emblematic of a wider and further reaching movement for worker’s rights, equality and social justice. One of the great figures of the struggle for worker’s rights was Durham’s Thomas Hepburn who was born in Pelton in 1796. His father was killed in a colliery accident, leaving a widow and three children, of which Thomas was the eldest. After a brief education he began work in the Urpeth Pit at the age of eight in order to support his family.

Despite receiving a limited education Hepburn was renowned as being an intelligent and articulate man, a fine public speaker and a natural leader. He became the undisputed leader of The Colliers’ United Association of Durham and Northumberland in 1830 and led the union to a successful strike in 1831 which reduced the working shift of boys from 18 hours a day to 12 and ensured that the payment for labour was always in money. In 1832, the coal-owners conspired to smash the union and Hepburn and other leaders were victimised. After an unsuccessful attempt to re-establish the union in 1835 Hepburn, now reduced to selling tea round the villages, was given a job at Felling Colliery on the condition that he took no part in union activity. However, he remained an active Chartist and a champion of working class education.

In June, 1839 a National Petition was presented by the Chartists to the House of Commons comprising of 1,280,959 signatures. The Birmingham MP Thomas Attwood motioned that a Committee of the House consider the petition. It was unanimously defeated by 235 votes to 46 and nationwide demonstrations followed that included peaceful occupations of churches on Sunday mornings, but also the escalating unrest that culminated in the South Wales Rising and the consequent persecution of Chartist leaders such as John Frost and Henry Vincent. Yet more impressive than such moments of great drama, was the quiet determination of hundreds of thousands of working men and women, to secure the charter.

1842 saw a second wave of Chartism that saw more force thrown against the authorities than any other year in the 19th century. In early May, 1842, a further petition comprising of 3,317,752 was taken in procession through the streets of London and presented to the House of Commons. Yet again, the petition was rejected by Parliament leading to widespread civil unrest and a General Strike. The authorities reacted with brutality. Some Chartist demonstrations turned violent and the authorities retaliated harshly.  Soldiers were deployed to break the strikes and in Preston, in the face of Chartist crowds, soldiers opened fire. A heavy handed retaliation by the government coupled with practical problems in sustaining indefinite industrial closures led to an end to the strike and a gradual return to work from 19 August.

After a failed third Chartist wave in 1848 the Chartist movement began to peter out. The People’s Charter was not enacted in the 1840s and it wouldn’t be until 1918 that five of the Charter’s six points became law. Annual parliaments were never seriously considered. In the short term Chartism had failed, but the movement had founded an optimism that was eventually justified. The powerful assertion of the rights of working people and the attempts to create a self-confidence and self-reliance created a legacy that remains highly relevant today and we owe much to those who struggled and sacrificed in their fight for a fairer and more equal society. In the words of John Wilson, MP for Durham, writing in 1910, Chartism is ‘ever present to the progressive mind’.

One Comment

  1. swatantra says:

    There seems to be a bit of a reassessment of King John these days. Was he the subject of gross dominance from his Trade Union Barons? And was the Robin Hood Tax instrumental in his downfall?
    Magna Carta lasted for about 9 months before it was ditched. Then it was picked up by the Enlightenment and the Encyclopedists and written into the Marseillaise. Later it was picked up by the Chartists in their Peoples Charter. What is its effect? Well its too early to tell.

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