Chartism and agriculture in English history

This music video from England says about itself:

Moving into Heronsgate

16 March 2012

Sung by Linda Birmingham. Inspired by the Chartist Movement of 1838 and the Land of Liberty community play performed st the Rickmansworth Canal Festival 2011.

By Pauline Fraser in Britain:

Dwellings ‘too good for the workers’

Saturday 10th October 2015

Five little villages in the Chilterns and Cotswolds built in the 1840s to rehouse workers from the mills and mines of industrial Britain caused quite a furore among the well-to-do of the time. PAULINE FRASER tells the inspiring story behind the undertaking.

DOTTED around the Chilterns and Cotswolds are five little villages that were built in the 1840s with the aim of rehousing workers from the mills and mines of industrial Britain. They speak to the history of our class in a way that the stately homes and castles of the land cannot.

They were the brainchild of Feargus O’Connor, the charismatic Chartist leader and editor of the Northern Star, the most popular and longest-lasting newspaper of the first worker-led movement in history.

If workers owned property, then they could qualify for the vote and so gain the power they needed to change society, O’Connor argued.

O’Connor alienated many other Chartist leaders, but such was his popularity among the rank-and-file, and so persuasive the power of his oratory, that he was able to push the Land Plan scheme through in April 1845 at the Chartist national delegates’ meeting.

He posted advertisements in the Northern Star inviting his supporters to look for suitable sites on the market where he could establish the settlements.

The first of these, appropriately called O’Connorville, was a couple of miles west of Rickmansworth, on the Buckinghamshire-Hertfordshire border.

Now renamed Heronsgate after its pre-O’Connorville days, it lies in prime commuter land just off the M40. Four-by-fours brush the hedges on either side as they squeeze through its original nine-foot wide lanes.

Some of the original cottages were modified and enlarged beyond all recognition before a preservation order was placed on them in the 1980s. Enough still exists, however, to make a fascinating day out for anyone living in the London area.

To qualify for inclusion in a ballot for plots, working families bought one or more shares in the National Co-operative Land Company. These were then entered into a ballot. Excitement grew as the day approached for the ballots to be drawn. The shares were put into a huge rotating drum, which was then turned to a great flourish and the lucky winners announced.

They were welcomed to their new homes at O’Connorville on May Day 1847 and moved into their cottages, complete with outbuildings for livestock. There was even a steaming tower of manure waiting at the gate to greet them and a cow for communal use named Rebecca, after the Rebecca Riots.

These procedures were replicated at the four settlements that followed: Charterville at Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, Snig’s End and Lowbands in Gloucestershire and Dodford, Worcestershire.

All the villages survive in one way or another and you can easily spot the simple and durable design of the mostly single-storey cottages. Each settlement was distinguished by its own emblem above the doorways.

The cottages were erected very rapidly to O’Connor’s specifications using local labour and some parts, such as doors, were pre-fabricated off-site and slotted into place. They included built-in furniture and all cottages had a bookshelf.

The “Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells” of their day wrote letters to The Times complaining that such comfortable accommodation was too good for the workers.

Snig’s End, now re-named Staunton and Corse, had a preservation order put on it in 1963 by a far-sighted council, so many cottages remain unaltered in design.

Lowbands is three miles further on the A417. Turn right on to the appropriately named Chartist Lane, where you can see a few well-preserved cottages.

Minster Lovell, the Charterville of the Land Plan, is close to Burford where three leaders of the Levellers were shot by order of Cromwell on May 17 1649.

At Dodford, near Bromsgrove, you can visit Rosedene — the only Chartist cottage owned by the National Trust. It is open on the first Sunday of the month.

O’Connor saw education as key to unlocking the potential of the re-housed workers and his builder designed the same imposing schoolhouse at four of the settlements. No longer used as schools, the schoolhouse at Staunton and Corse is now the Prince of Wales pub, while at Heronsgate it is a private house.

There were no churches, as O’Connor, though not irreligious, regarded the “fat parson” as one of the scourges of the poor. If the wealth of the Anglican Church was one of his targets, the demon drink was another and no public houses were allowed on the settlements.

However, a beer shop pre-dating the settlement, now a pub called The Land of Liberty, stood just outside O’Connorville, perhaps undermining his teetotal principles.

O’Connor had a disingenuous faith that the powers that be would warm to his scheme, but the idea of re-settling the much-needed workforce of industrial Britain was clearly anathema to them. They were out to get him and he proved an easy target.

Carried away by enthusiasm when selecting sites, O’Connor put misplaced reliance on his farming background in Ireland to choose suitable land for mixed farming that would make a marketable surplus.

O’Connorville, for example, was built on stony ground and too far from the nearest market, while the plots were too small to support a family. Many of the industrial workers who relocated there, as at other settlements, lacked agricultural skills.

Perhaps the most successful was Dodford, where allottees continued to grow garlic and sold it to the local Worcester sauce firm even after the Land Company was wound up.

The settlements fell victim to the ambivalent way the Land Company was set up. It couldn’t be registered as a friendly society, nor as a company limited by liability. After fierce battles through the courts and in Parliament, the scheme was wound up in August 1851 and plots sold off.

Few of the original allottees managed to stay the course. At O’Connorville only three — all from rural backgrounds — were left in 1858, out of an original 36 families.

O’Connor’s behaviour became increasingly erratic following the demise of the scheme and he died, aged 57, on August 30 1855. Huge crowds followed his coffin to its final resting place in Kensal Green Cemetery, where you can still visit his fine memorial today.

British Chartism in the nineteenth century

This video from England says about itself:

3 December 2014

The Chartists are commonly regarded as the first mass working class movement of the 19th century. Their demands for the vote, secret ballots and the end of property qualifications are now standard fare in most democracies but at the time rocked the British establishment to the core, leading many to think that revolution was imminent. We bring together a panel of renowned historians to discuss the origins, achievements and the local significance of the Chartist Movement in the South West.

Dorothy Thompson has devoted much of her academic life to the study of the Chartists and is a world-wide authority on the movement. Owen Ashton is Emeritus Professor of Modern British Social History at Staffordshire University and an expert on Chartism in the West Country. Les James is a community history activist who has written and publicised events commemorating the Newport Chartist Rising.

More info: here.

By Tomasz Pierscionek in Britain:

Working-class movement bringing dignity to the disenfranchised

Monday 28th September 2015

The Dignity of Chartism by Dorothy Thompson (Verso Books, £10.49)

THE 19th-century Chartist movement, which predated the development of trade unions and the establishment of the Labour Party, stands out as an example of organised resistance from below against the capitalist mode of production and its social consequences.

This broad movement, most active in the 1830s and 1840s, is associated with putting forward the 1838 People’s Charter, a series of six demands calling for political reforms considered radical at the time.

The late social historian Dorothy Thompson devoted her life to researching Chartism. Through her years of meticulous research, she was able to provide new insights into and a deeper analysis of a movement, comprising millions of men and women, which created consternation for factory owners and the parliamentary representatives of the upper class.

The Dignity of Chartism is a collection of Thompson’s published essays and book reviews on the subject and also includes her musings on the strengths and flaws of some of Chartism’s key players. A lengthy chapter, co-authored with her historian and peace campaigner husband, EP Thompson, illustrates the rise and fall of Chartism in Halifax, one of the movement’s strongholds.

Thompson’s writings explain the factors leading to the rise of Chartism, its achievements, setbacks, the differences in opinions between its radical and more moderate leaders and, ultimately, its legacy.

Her examination of Chartism’s aims and its leaders illuminates a working-class movement which brought dignity to the disenfranchised. Thompson explains how Chartism provided the inspiration for later activists to develop trade unions and found the Labour Party. Her writings assume a degree of knowledge of the subject and thus a reader without some background knowledge of Chartism may find certain chapters taxing.

But persistence is rewarded. It permits a greater understanding of an extraordinary historical period which followed the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the change from an individual to a socialised mode of production, where the working class cut its teeth in the first of many struggles.

Welsh actor Michael Sheen and Chartism history

This video from Wales says about itself:

From coal to gold, the Chartists

26 January 2013

In the year 1839, South Wales, United Kingdom, 5000 coal miners, under 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. Today same thing is happening across the world, as the working class African gold miners are expected to support the capitalist infrastructure, working in atrocious conditions, yet they are shot dead with no respect for human life. Did the Chartists achieve anything?

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Sheen calls for radical revival as he retells Chartists‘ story

Tuesday 24th February 2015

WELSH film star Michael Sheen’s homage to the Chartists who staged an armed uprising in 1839 will hit the small screen tonight.

In his Valleys Rebellion documentary he follows the footsteps of the workers who marched on Newport in 1839 to demand the right to vote.

Mr Sheen cleared his Hollywood schedule to make the documentary after being infuriated by the destruction of the Newport mural celebrating their sacrifice.

He finds though, through conversations with the likes of Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, that the Chartists’ spirit of radicalism lives on in politics and culture.

And he issues an impassioned plea for working people to find their voice again ahead of the general election.

“The best testament would be a living testament,” he says.

“That people look around at the issues facing Wales and think about what the Chartists did when they had no voice.

“They came together, acted together to force change if they weren’t going to be given change.”

Dorothy Thompson (1923-2011) was the foremost historian of Chartism. Over more than half a century of research, reflection and writing, she entirely transformed the way in which the movement was seen. Exploring for the first time the front-line participation of women and emphasising the importance of class consciousness in uniting working people, her book The Chartists was published in 1984. Yet Dorothy also wrote many essays and reviews about Chartism which are now difficult to find, or in the case of one major piece, never published. These writings have now been gathered together in a single volume The Dignity of Chartism, to be published by Verso Books: here.

African-British-Australian Chartist William Cuffay

This video from England is called Testimonials from ‘Black Londoners: History of Black People in London before 1948′ Course.

By Keith Flett in Britain:

Son of Medway’s lessons for Ukip

Wednesday 19th November 2014

Black Chartist born in the by-election town was the leader in a genuine democracy fight, writes Keith Flett

In October 2011 I spoke to an audience of around 100 people in Medway on a labour-history-related topic.

Considering that getting into double rather than treble figures for any meeting that touches on working-class history can be an achievement, the turnout was excellent.

I doubt it was my oratorical skills, such as they are, that packed them in. Rather it was my subject, the black Chartist William Cuffay, a local Medway radical in whom there is a lot of interest.

The biography of Cuffay makes interesting reading given that tomorrow in the Rochester and Strood by-election, the Ukip candidate Mark Reckless is predicted to do well and perhaps even take the seat – which until his defection in September he held as a Tory.

The life of Cuffay is now quite well known. Indeed his Wikipedia entry is tolerably accurate. Born in Chatham, his father was from St Kitts and a cook on a British navy ship. He was apprenticed as a tailor, moved to London around 1819 and by the 1830s he was an active trade unionist and Chartist.

Cuffay became a leading figure in London Chartism in the 1840s. He was tried and convicted for his part in a revolutionary conspiracy in August 1848. Transported to Australia, Cuffay remained politically active until his death in 1870, aged 82.

Cuffay left no papers and wrote no autobiography so what we can recover of his life comes from newspaper reports and a few official records.

Mark Gregory has done excellent work, reported in a Morning Star article, about Cuffay’s activities in Tasmania and there is a new biography by Martin Hoyles that provides some interesting new perspectives, for example Cuffay’s theatrical talents.

How can we make sense of Cuffay’s life?

There are two key issues.

First, to see Cuffay in the context of the Black Atlantic, a concept developed by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their book the Many Headed Hydra. The point is that there is an imperial link between the Americas, the Caribbean and Britain in the 19th century.

That link is slavery, slave ships and the British navy. In the 1790s around a quarter of the British navy was black.

Cuffay, the son of a black sailor on a British ship, was born in one of the central hubs of the British naval empire – Chatham.

He found his way to the very centre of that empire in London, where he organised as a Chartist to try to bring it down.

Frustrated by the repressive forces of the state in that endeavour, he found himself shipped to another part of the empire – Tasmania, where he continued to be active.

These are uncomfortable points indeed for a party like Ukip, with its highly distorted view of British democratic traditions, and not something Tories are likely to be much keener on.

The second point, something pointed out to me by Lord Bill Morris, is that Cuffay was the organiser of London Chartism, the man behind the great demonstration of April 10 1848.

Perhaps Cuffay’s imperial background uniquely fitted him for that role. It may explain why he continued to be active into old age when others did not.

With a Medway by-election set to focus on immigration it is worth remembering Cuffay, a notable figure in British history, the son of a slave, born in Chatham because of the importance of British imperial power but someone who fought all his life for the rights of ordinary working people.

Empire and imperialism provide some of the framework for Medway today but not in the way Ukip would have it.

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.

Remember British Chartism

This video from Britain says about itself:

A short animation telling the story of Chartism and the struggle for working men to receive the vote. The story is set to the Kaiser Chiefs – I predict a riot.

By Hywel Francis in Britain:

Our democratic debt to the Chartists

Tuesday 07 May 2013

We take for granted now that any democracy would embrace such basics as secret ballots and universal suffrage. But these had been denied in the 1832 Electoral Reform Act and so the Chartist movement emerged.

Seventy-seven MPs from a wide range of political parties recently signed the Parliamentary early day motion saluting the men and women of the Chartist movement who sacrificed so much to create what Karl Marx called the first political organisation of the working class in the world and what Eric Hobsbawm called “the greatest of all mass movements of British labour.”

Many Chartists died for this noble cause as in the Newport Rising of November 1839. Others risked victimisation as in the great 1842 Chartist General Strike.

Others, many of the leaders, were arrested, imprisoned and transported to Australia.

Two of these outstanding men, leading Welsh Chartist John Frost and the black Chartist William Cuffay, along with many others, would undoubtedly have been elected MPs had there been a democratic Parliament in their day.

Instead, for their role in campaigning for democratic change, they were transported to Australia. Frost eventually returned to Britain, but Cuffay died in poverty in an Australian workhouse.

The all-party group on archives and history will commemorate the Chartists this year.

First, Chartist historian Professor Malcolm Chase of Leeds University will give a lecture on the People’s Charter in the Speaker’s House in October.

And second, we will arrange for a digitised photograph of Frost to be lodged in the parliamentary archives.

The original photograph was donated to the South Wales Miners’ Library 40 years ago by Edgar Evans of Bedlinog who had himself been imprisoned for his role in the struggle against the scab union in south Wales in 1935.

We will also add to the parliamentary archives a digitised version of Lord Byron‘s collected works, which had been given to Cuffay by the Westminster branch of the National Charter Association prior to his transportation.

One hundred and seventy-five years after they and so many others launched the Chartist movement we will at last welcome Cuffay and Frost to the Palace of Westminster as fellow democrats and fellow citizens.

Hywel Francis is Labour MP for Aberavon.

EDM 1088, tabled by Hywel Francis, signed by 77 MPs

This house celebrates the 175th anniversary of the launch of the People’s Charter on May 8 1838 which was a blueprint for our parliamentary democracy
Salutes the men and women of the Chartist movement across the UK who sacrificed so much to achieve universal adult suffrage; acknowledges the black Chartist leader William Cuffay and others who were transported to Australia for striving for political justice
Recognises that it was left to the Suffragist and Suffragette movements to win universal female suffrage
Notes the subsequent roles of political parties in legislating for many of the Chartist demands including the secret ballot
And welcomes the work of the all-party parliamentary group on archives and history to commemorate in appropriate ways the debt that all parliaments owe to the selfless campaigning of the Chartists in achieving democracies in many countries.

African-English-Australian labour activist William Cuffay

William Cuffay, by William Paul Dowling

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Tale of a Chartist legend

Tuesday 31 May 2011

by Mark Gregory

In the spring of 1870 the Hobart Mercury reported that a marked pauper’s grave in the Trinity burial ground in Hobart held the remains of a convict who had just died in poverty, aged 82.

That convict was William Cuffay, the black tailor and Chartist leader, born in Chatham in 1788 – the year that the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay bearing the first consignment of prisoners to that distant shore.

That Cuffay‘s grave was marked was unusual for a pauper, but then he was a most unusual person – a man who, from the time of his arrival in the colony in 1849, played a role in Tasmania‘s political life. By the time he died a number of basic democratic reforms that he had been promoting for half a century had been achieved in much of Australia.

Over 50 newspaper articles are available online that mention him by name. Sixteen of them are reprints from the British press covering events such as the Kennington Common meeting of Chartists in 1848 and the trial and sentencing of Chartists for treason later that year.

Cuffay’s activities and his name had been well publicised to readers of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Argus, the Maitland Mercury, the Morton Bay Courier, the Hobart Town Courier and the Perth Gazette even before he was transported.

When Cuffay landed in Van Diemen’s Land on November 29 1849, his arrival was reported in five newspapers. Of all the convicts on the transport ship Adelaide, only Cuffay was mentioned by name in all five newspapers. The official convict report book includes the information that Cuffay had been transported for “sedition, convening a public meeting and speaking at the time.”

Cuffay quickly managed to continue his political activity and begin exercising leadership in Van Diemen’s Land. On February 28 1851, after only a year in the colony, the Colonial Times reported his involvement in a “public meeting of the free trades union,” called to end transportation and the use of convict labour for public works.

After some preliminary arrangements had been made, Mr Cuffay was unanimously called to the chair, and opened the meeting with a brief address, developing the principal objects of the meeting.

Here it was revealed that ticket-of-leave man Cuffay, a convict and political prisoner transported for life and only 15 months into his sentence, was already a respected and trusted member of the Hobart labour movement.

The report also showed that organised workers in Tasmania, a large proportion of whom were ex-convicts or were related to convicts, played an important role in the anti-transportation movement.

One of the Chartists who was sentenced and transported with Cuffay was William Paul Dowling. He was to become a successful Tasmanian portrait painter and photographer.

He and Cuffay were imprisoned together in Newgate Jail while waiting to be transported. In Newgate, Dowling drew a portrait of Cuffay that the Chartists later published as a lithograph and a copy of which is today in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In 1854 political debate in the Tasmanian Legislative Council focused on the Master and Servant Act.

Workers’ organisations were particularly wary of the proposed version of this legislation and its onerous punishments that included imprisonment.

Most Tasmanian workers were ex-convicts and they understood that this law, coming at the end of transportation, was an attempt to give employers the same powers that they had previously wielded over convicts.

Tasmanian workers lobbied hard for it to be abolished or at least amended so it was less biased in the employers’ favour, referring to it ironically as “the masters’ act” seeing nothing in it for the servant.

A well-organised campaign of public meetings and petitions resulted in a much-amended Master and Servant Act, watering down the powers of employers over workers.

At the end of December in 1857, an anonymous Tasmanian employer expressed his concerns about this less draconian legislation in a letter published in the Hobart Mercury.

“The Act abandons imprisonment and supplies no check in its place; but it is said, that imprisonment is of no use to those to whom it is no degradation; but it involves loss of time, and therefore loss of money, and the shearer or reaper will not like to make himself liable to a month’s loss of either shearing or harvest … That I am not a bad master may be inferred from the facts that I have only twice (during 14 years that I have been an employer of labour in this country) brought my servants to the police office. But why! Because they knew there was a law in force which would punish them if I saw occasion to avail myself of it … will the house pass a measure that will make the masters still greater slaves?”

Cuffay received a conditional pardon in 1854 and a free pardon, restoring full civil rights, in 1857. He continued to work as a tailor in Hobart where he and his wife, who had joined him in 1853, had decided to stay. Cuffay remained politically active and involved in the working-class campaigns.

Some newspapers in Tasmania began to attack Cuffay and his political activities. The Courier of March 21 1857 carried an article titled “The reopening of the Albert Theatre.”

“After a long recess this popular place of amusement is to be reopened on Monday next, under the management of Mr William Cuffay, the recent Chartist agitator of Kennington Common notoriety … The opening piece, which from a casual glance at the bill seems to be an adaptation from [a] play of the third year of the French revolution, viz, The Press Chained and Muzzled by the People.”

There was a battle going on between various political factions in the Tasmanian Parliament and newspaper proprietors were ensuring that their preferences were known.

It was not a time for polite exchange. The Courier campaign continued with a report on the behaviour of onlookers in the Parliament.

“The miscellaneous assemblage in the gallery, comprehending principally such descriptions of persons as meet under the chairmanship of Mr Cuffy – forgetting where they were during some excited but excusable remarks of the Premier’s son – are guilty (to quote the Cabinet organ) of “loud clapping of hands, kicking of feet, and thumping of sticks.” A proceeding so derogatory to the character of the assembly, so fatal if permitted to all independence in its proceedings, evokes the interference of the speaker, and under his orders the sergeant-at-arms proceeds to clear the gallery.”

At least two of Cuffay’s speeches at Tasmanian meetings were recorded at some length and published in Tasmanian newspapers. One is of Cuffay speaking at a meeting called to discuss a petition for submission to Parliament regarding “exorbitant expenditure entailed upon the colony.”

The meeting of “between 1,000 and 1,500 persons” was reported in the Courier in September 1858.

“Mr Cuffay: Fellow citizens and brother working slaves (laughter). I’m determined that shall not be forgotten.”

Cuffay’s opening address was as well known to his Tasmanian audience as it had been to his Chartist audiences in England, hence the amused reception.

Undoubtedly for Cuffay, the son of a slave, the phrase was invested with personal meaning. Rhetorical use of “brother working slaves” at such a meeting was deliberately inclusive.

Newspaper reports reveal his vernacular style, the in-jokes, the liveliness and the asides showing an accomplished storyteller in action among his equals.

Here he is, a speaker at a public meeting, being cheered and jeered, dealing with hecklers and instructions from the chair. The local newspapers are drawn to Cuffay, recording his arguments and placing them before their readers.

Cuffay remained politically active at 81 years of age, as this extract from a Hobart election meeting held in June 1869 in the hall of the Mechanics Institute shows.

“Mr Cuffay in some brief remarks, and amid occasional interruptions, moved that Mr Cook was a fit and proper person to represent Hobart town in the House of Assembly. He maintained that that gentleman ever since he (the speaker) had known him, had been a true friend to the working classes.”

William Cuffay died in Hobart on July 29 1870. Three obituaries were published, one in Tasmania, one in New South Wales and one in Victoria. They show there was still interest in him a quarter of a century after his name had first been reported in the Australian press. In Tasmania the Hobart Mercury published a lengthy obituary under the heading “Death of a celebrity.”

“At a meeting of the board of management of the Brickfields Invalid Depot yesterday, four deaths were reported as having taken place since the previous meeting.

One was the death of William Cuffay, aged 82, who had been an inmate since last October … He particularly distinguished himself in the agitation for the amendment of the Masters’ and Servants’ law of the colony, and being a fluent and an effective speaker, he was always popular with the working classes … Deceased took a prominent part in election matters, and always went in strongly for the individual rights of working men. One of his last appearances on the platform was on the occasion of the meeting at the Theatre Royal … when he urged his right to complain by such characteristic expressions as “fellow-slaves” and “I’m old, I’m poor, I’m out of work, and I’m in debt, and therefore I have cause to complain.” His remains were interred in the Trinity burying-ground and by special desire his grave has been marked, in case friendly sympathisers should hereafter desire to place a memorial stone on the spot.”

In the New South Wales regional newspaper the Maitland Mercury his obituary, “Death of a Chartist celebrity,” ended with the statement: “During his better days his company was much sought by his fellow labourers, as he was witty and full of anecdote.”

In Australia now a number of historians and union activists are starting to push for a suitable memorial to properly commemorate this remarkable working-class leader who campaigned so strongly for civil and workers’ rights in Britain and Tasmania.

This is an edited version of an article published by the Tasmanian Historical Research Association. The full article can be downloaded from

Australia: A 500-year-old Portuguese gun has been found on an NT beach, and may suggest Europeans arrived earlier than thought: here.

Luddism: here.

England: Chartist Ernest Jones’ poem A Hymn for Lammas Day

Ernest JonesFrom London daily The Morning Star:

Sharpen the sickle

(Tuesday 29 August 2006)

POETRY: Ernest Jones

AUBREY BOWMAN studies Chartist Ernest Jones’s best poem.

The sickle, like its less agile big brother the scythe, is often associated with the figure of “time” and, naturally, with work on the land.

In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare referred to “Time’s bending sickle” and, much later, William Blake gave us this telling quatrain:

“The sword sang on the barren heath, The sickle in the fruitful field: “The sword/He sang a song of death/But could not make the sickle yield.”

In Chartist Ernest Jones’s poem A Hymn for Lammas Day, the sickle is the image used in an exhortation at the beginning of each verse, addressed to the reapers in the field.

The poem goes on to describe a characteristic country scene at harvest time, with the whitened sheen from the hot summer sun on the cornfields.

In the second verse, we find a change of mood.

No longer the simple pastoral scene of the first verse. “Proud, pomp,” even “golden” are words which, it is true, can describe the fully erect stems of ripened corn, but they are words which can also conjure up a picture of serried ranks’ demonstrators.

The poignant question, “How many will lie on the plain?” posed by Shelley in his poem The Mask of Anarchy about the massacre of Peterloo in Manchester, will still have been within living memory.

In the next lines, we meet the age-old concept of starvation in the midst of plenty, of people dying “in the sight of so rich a store.”

Chartism: here.

1842 British general strike: here.

Early 20th century English socialist MP Victor Grayson: here.