Chartism was a national movement which fought for the rights of the British working class and which took place between 1838 and 1848.
Throughout that decade, British working people plied parliament with the People’s Charter, which was first published in 1838 as a draft parliamentary bill and sought equal rights for working people.
The bill, drawn up mainly by metropolitan radical William Lovett, wanted six key social changes – allowing all men over 21 the right to vote, regardless of income or property attributes, to establish a secret ballot and to pay MPs, so working people could also take on the role. It also asked for equal sizing of electoral districts and sought to abolish the need for property qualifications to become an MP. The final point challenged the need for annual elections, so MPs could be held to account by voters for their performance during the year.
In 1834, a new ‘Poor Law’ was introduced, which meant all poor people would be guaranteed a place in workhouses and receive food and clothing. In exchange for this, they would have to work for several hours each day.
Some welcomed the law, but amongst the poor population, workhouses were feared and despised. Indeed, such was the hatred for them, that riots broke out in towns and cities and thus fuelled the fire of the Chartism Movement, the sparks of which had seemingly been created by the controversial Reform Bill of 1831-32.
Said Reform Bill insulted the working class by excluding them from the parliamentary system but admitting the middle class.
Lovett was one who believed peaceful protest was the best way to lead the Chartist Movement, whilst others, such as John Frost and the popular political leader Feargus O’Connor – who used the peoples’ desires for equality to his advantage and rallied support through mass meetings – preferred force.
Chartism saw strikes and petitions and in 1845 O’Connor launched the Chartist Land Plan, through which he sought to secure land in the countryside for working people to live off independently rather than toil in city factories. Five estates were purchased, although only a few hundred people ever got settled in them and the Plan ultimately failed in 1851 after running into legal problems.
The Chartism Movement culminated in 1848 when a petition, allegedly containing around six million signatures, was handed into Parliament. It was the third such petition which had been produced by the Chartist Movement over the years, but it did not succeed and was rubbished for containing false signatures.
Chartism collapsed in 1848 and although none of the peoples’ requests were passed by Parliament at the time, five of the six demands did eventually become a reality, with the exception of an annual Parliament.