Chartists and Chartism
Chartism was the name of a variety of protest movements in England during the 1830s and 40s, which aimed to bring about change in social and economic conditions through political reform. Its name comes from the People’s Charter, a six-point petition presented to the House of Commons with the hope of having it made law. The six point included annual parliaments, universal manhood suffrage, abolition of the property qualification for members of the House of Commons, the secret ballot, equal electoral districts, and salaries for members of Parliament.
This was the first independent working-class movement in the world, that is, not simply sporadic uprisings or agitation, and arose after the Reform Bill of 1832 had failed. Working men had agitated for this bill and its failure left them still without the sought-for right to manhood suffrage. The Factory Act of 1832 had reduced working hours for children, but not for adults. The New Poor Law of 1834 caused resentment among workers by building workers’ housing in factory districts, where living conditions were bad.
By 1837 50,000 were out of work in Manchester alone, owing to overproduction, loss of trade, and the shutting-down of many mills. Throughout the country, from 1839-1851 widespread depression was due to a combination of jobs lost, bad harvests, and high food prices. There were organized groups in London and Birmingham, but a national organization was inspired by Feargus O’Connor, who edited a Chartist paper, The Northern Star, and was a rabble-rousing speaker.
The Chartists’ method was to circulate their petition throughout the country and gather signatures which were to be presented to the House of Commons at a giant convention in London. The first petition was presented in 1839 with 1, 280,000 signatures and was overwhelmingly rejected. The Convention then proclaimed a general strike, but many had no employer to strike against, and the Convention broke up after riots in various parts of England and Wales, with many leaders arrested and troops sent in by the government. A similar petition was presented in 1842, another bad time, with even more signatures, and was again firmly rejected. Again there were strikes; again leaders were jailed.
1848, the year Mary Barton was published, saw a final demonstration by the Chartists. This time they had collected over 5,000,000 signatures and the presentation to the Parliament was attended with great ceremony; an impressive parade carried the wagon-loads of signatures to the House of Commons. This was the year of revolution in Europe--there had been revolts in Paris, Vienna (3), Venice, Berlin, Milan, Rome, and Czechoslovakia--and the British government was desperately afraid of large-scale demonstrations. Many troops were deployed in London and the petition failed again, which brought about the virtual end of Chartism.
` The supporters of Chartism were from different working-class groups, but all...