British Chartism, 19th century and now

This video says about itself:

Jan 26, 2013

In the year 1839, in South Wales, United Kingdom, 5000 coal miners, in the Chartist movement, marched on Newport Gwent; demanding democratic rights for the working class. 22 miners were shot dead in cold blood and many were injured.

By Malcolm Chase in England:

In tribute to the Chartists

Sunday 14 July 2013

A modest yet significant moment will unfold inside Westminster at lunchtime tomorrow. The Speaker will open a small exhibition commemorating Chartism.

The great mass movement for political reform dominated much of early Victorian domestic politics.

A movement of the excluded, Chartism was repeatedly ignored, ridiculed or persecuted.

No more than 50 MPs ever supported its arguments even being debated in the House of Commons.

Earlier this year 77 MPs from across all parties signed a Commons early day motion celebrating the 175th anniversary of the publication of the original People’s Charter.

Proposed by Aberavon MP Hywel Francis, the motion notes that this remarkable document “was the blueprint for our parliamentary democracy.”

Though it focussed its demands around universal male suffrage, the Charter attracted the support of men and women in the hundreds of thousands.

The Chartists believed a radical reform of the political system was the only peaceable way forward for dealing effectively with the problems of economic and social injustice strewn in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

A staggering 3.3 million people signed a petition for the Charter in 1842.

Fittingly, it is depicted in a contemporary print at the centre of the display.

This was the single largest petition ever laid before Parliament. It occupied an estimated six miles of paper and weighed over 300kg.

On May 2 1842, relays of burly London tradesmen carried it through the streets of London in a huge decorated box constructed for the purpose.

The accompanying procession included seven bands – one formed by off-duty Grenadier Guards – hundreds of banners and countless flags.

Even The Times, no friend of Chartism, estimated the watching crowd at 50,000.

On entering Parliament, the petition jammed tight in the doorway.

After attempts to dismantle the door frame failed, the petition had to be disassembled and taken in pieces into the House of Commons by members of the Chartists’ National Convention.

The print depicts a mountain of paper heaped on the floor of the chamber, dwarfing the clerks’ table upon which, technically, it was supposed to be placed.

Chartism’s most stalwart parliamentary supporter, Finsbury MP Tom Duncombe, presented it with a short, forceful speech.

Procedure then required the Clerk to the Commons to read out all 3,000 words of a plea not only for parliamentary reform but also for other key Chartist demands.

These included a clean-up of government corruption, disestablishment of the Church of England and home rule for Ireland. It was a deeply satisfying piece of political theatre.

Predictably less satisfying was the Commons debate next day.

Duncombe proposed that six members of the Chartist Convention should be allowed to speak to the petition at the bar of the house.

The Tory prime minister Robert Peel and his home secretary both spoke opposing the motion, but their rhetoric failed to match that of the former Cabinet member Thomas Macaulay.

If Parliament was elected on the principles of the People’s Charter, “government would rest upon spoliation,” Macaulay claimed, adding: “How is it possible to doubt that famine and pestilence would come before long to wind up the effects of such a state of things?” Duncombe’s motion was defeated by 287 to 49.

But the 1842 petition was at least received with courtesy.

In June 1839 the 1.3 million signatures accompanying the first mass petition had been greeted by laughter in the Commons.

In April 1848 the inclusion of multiple names written by the same hands, along with pseudonyms, was used to discredit a two-million-strong third petition.

In a society where literacy was low and many lived in fear of losing their jobs if their political views became known, neither feature was exactly surprising.

But the background to the 1848 petition was revolution across Europe. London was garrisoned by troops brought in from all over the southern counties and the royal family evacuated to the Isle of Wight.

Exploiting MPs’ fears, the government seized the opportunity to push through Parliament an Act redefining the law of treason.

The Bill received its first reading the very night that the petition was presented.

The new legislation abandoned the draconian punishments that had hitherto applied to convicted traitors.

However, it also lowered the standard of proof needed to secure conviction and created a new crime of treason felony “by open or advised speaking.”

The rejection of the 1839 and 1842 petitions had been met by a significant shift to direct action, conspiracy and even rebellion.

In 1839 thousands rose across south Wales.

In 1842 a wave of strikes briefly brought northern industry to a standstill.

Now, with stringent new laws in place, reactions were more muted but no less principled.

One of the leaders of Chartism‘s conspiratorial turn in 1848 was the black London trade unionist William Cuffay.

The most poignant item in Parliament’s exhibition is a copy of Byron‘s collected poetry, presented by London Chartists to Cuffay, “as a token of their sincere regard and affection for his genuine patriotism and moral worth.”

Cuffay was transported to Australia before there was a chance to present this book to him.

Mary Cuffay presumably took it when she was allowed to join her husband in 1853, Chartists’ penny donations paying for her fare.

The Poetical Works of Lord Byron was with William Cuffay at his death, aged 82, in a Tasmanian workhouse hospital in 1870.

Inspiration for future generations, rather than material remnants, is the legacy that really matters from any political movement.

Yet it is impossible not to be moved by this most intimate – and at the same time profoundly political – relic of one of the most outstanding members of one of history’s most remarkable political movement.

The exhibition the Speaker opens tomorrow is located in the No Lobby to the House of Commons, an irony that would not have been lost on the Chartists.

However it constitutes a welcome, affirming Yes by Parliament, recognising the heroism of the Chartists and the importance of their contribution to British history.

Malcolm Chase is professor of social history at the University of Leeds.

The exhibition is freely accessible, at all times when the Commons is not sitting, to everyone joining a tour of Parliament until the end of October. For tour details see A more permanent display commemorating the movement is also being planned.

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