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Chartism, the Workers’ Fight for Rights – Part 1

The Chartist Movement, which occurred across the country between the late 1830s and late 1850s, was Britain’s first mass working class movement for voting and parliamentary rights. This series of blogs will tell the history of how the movement took place in our area, specifically Darlington, Stockton, and Middlesbrough.

This first part in a series of three blogs will investigate what the Chartist Movement was, how it came about, and how the early years of the movement in Stockton and Darlington occurred.

'Chartist Demonstration!! Peace and Order is our Motto!'. Heading for posters advertising Chartist meetings. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

The Reform Bill 1832

Before 1832 the right to vote in Britain, and to be a Member of Parliament (MP), was held only by men who owned property, were nobility, and were wealthy. This was exclusively the upper classes. This meant that middle class business owners and the working class were excluded from voting and representing themselves.

There were also many areas of the country where the vote and representation were not allowed, including large industrial cities, while smaller districts were sometimes allowed to have two MPs with a small voter base. This uneven representation was a product of a government that wanted to keep power among prominent families, and their failure to modernise society at the same pace as the industrial revolution. In addition to this there was no secret ballot.

Following years of criticism and protests, a change in the law was finally introduced. The Representation of the People Act, or the Reform Bill of 1832, extended the vote to middle-class property and business owners, but it did not stretch to the working classes of Britain.

This had come during a time of industrial expansion, when most booming cities like Manchester and Birmingham were overcrowded with workers who had to endure the worst living conditions and devote 12 to 16 hours on the factory floors, all while their higher-class managers grew richer for little effort.

Two years later the Poor Law Amendment was passed, meaning that unemployed workers and paupers could only receive poor relief by committing themselves to the workhouses and being made to work for several hours a day. Following this deterioration of workers’ rights came a sense that change was needed, and if parliament would not grant it democratically, then it would be demanded by organised force.

The Election at Eatanswill, from Charles Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’ (1836-37). This is a satirical image of how corrupt and chaotic the electoral system was, especially in the 1830s when a secret ballot was not in place and crowds could bully people into voting for who they wanted. Image courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

The People’s Charter

The London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) was founded in 1836 by a group of radical artisans including William Lovett, a self-taught cabinet maker who had a history of supporting trade unions and promoting education for the working class. Between them and a small group of MPs who wanted to extend the vote they drew up The People’s Charter, a list of demands and aims for electoral reform. The six points of the Charter are as follows –

  1. A vote for all men over 21 years old
  2. A secret ballot
  3. No property qualification to become an MP
  4. Payment for MPs
  5. Electoral districts of equal size
  6. Annual elections for parliament

The LWMA aimed to deliver the Charter to parliament in 1839 as a petition, and their representatives travelled the country to spread the word of the Charter and gather signatures for the petition. Among the more outspoken members was Feargus O’Connor, a former Irish MP, advocate for political reform and owner of the Northern Star, a chartist newspaper which in the following years would be the primary source of national information to chartists across the country.

Throughout the 1830s other working associations based mainly in Wales, the Midlands and the North of England sprang up, delivering the promise of the Charter to the workers of Britain. They eventually became known as Charter Associations.

Teesside and County Durham in the 1830s

Before looking into the Charter Associations that existed in Stockton and Darlington, it is important to examine the area’s economic situation.

Stockton had been a hub of pottery manufacture, shipbuilding and importing coal, but because of a general trade depression in 1837-38 and the emergence of the new port of Middlesbrough in 1829, unemployment had risen. As the depression began to bite, it became commonplace for companies to pay their workers low wages or hire apprentices as ways of keeping costs down, as was the case with the William Smith and Co. Pottery.

Most employees in Darlington in the 1830s were linen-weavers and carpet makers and the same trade depression resulted in low wages for them too. By 1837 around 400 weavers living in the town were unemployed.

There were areas of employment which were not as affected, these being railway construction and agriculture, so most Charter Associations in the area were slow to appear. There was however the Durham Charter Association which had been founded in Sunderland in 1838, and it was them who spread the news of the Charter to their neighbours.

Engraving from ‘Brewster’s History of Stockton’, Stockton Riverside 1829. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum.

Stockton and Darlington’s Charter Associations

1839 saw an excited run-up to the delivery of the People’s Charter to parliament, due to take place in June, and to be delivered by a new Chartist authority, the General Convention.

The Durham Charter Association made efforts to visit Stockton and Darlington and hold public meetings. As a result of one of these meetings in March 1839 the Stockton Charter Association was founded. And in April two leading Durham chartists, Miles Brown and Robert Knox held a meeting in Darlington marketplace which immediately led to the creation of Darlington Charter Association.

Both Associations felt a need to bring about change no matter what was necessary and did choose to use radical and even violent language during meetings held in marketplaces, pubs, and school rooms. One meeting in Stockton on 15th April featured a speaker who urged workers to revolt against any authorities who opposed them. Another speaker then went further, calling the Queen and various politicians tyrants, and then said –

Stockton Corporation and the Mayor, Thomas Jennett, were unnerved by this meeting. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Lancashire had been the last time a violent crowd had stirred up demanding parliamentary reform, and it had ended in the deaths of 17 people, and hundreds more injured. Jennett ordered the town’s police to gather information on these meetings and then submit their evidence to the Home Office, after which he would appeal for military aid in the event of a riot. They also threatened any publican or member of the public who hosted chartist meetings with the loss of their licences or imprisonment.

Darlington Charter Association on the other hand were, at least in their early days, less forceful and were able to base themselves at the Three Bluebells Hotel at Blackwellgate. They were also one of the few to establish their own Women’s Charter Associations. One of their members was Elizabeth Pease of the Darlington Abolition of Slavery Society.

Drawing of Elizabeth Pease Nichol aged 44 years old. Elizabeth Pease was a cousin of Joseph Pease, the manager of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and the founder of Middlesbrough. The Pease Family were prominent Quakers who founded successful businesses, became involved in local politics and, in the case of Elizabeth and her father, supported the abolition of slavery. Public Domain.

Women Chartists

It should be mentioned that many chartists wanted to extend the vote to women, however in the end they chose to focus on male suffrage believing that doing so would make the Charter more likely to be granted.

While some women were involved in the chartist movement it is a sad fact that they were not allowed to take leading roles, due to the expectations of women at the time to be homemakers and subservient to their husbands. They faced discrimination from both the opposition and leaders within the movement.

However, what little help they were allowed to give should not be discounted, as some women collected donations, attended meetings, and made gifts for chartist speakers, and in some cases the wives of prominent chartists were allowed to hold meetings in place of their husbands.

Elizabeth Pease did not want to support a movement that condoned violence, and she chose not to engage in chartist activity until 1842. She often spoke to leading chartists, distributed chartist literature and pamphlets, and in later years she donated money to the building of premises for Darlington’s Mechanics Institute.

The first petition of the People’s Charter

In June 1839 the first national petition for the People’s Charter had been completed and delivered to parliament. It had 1.25 million signatures gathered from 214 towns and villages and over 500 meetings.

It was rejected by parliament by 235 votes to 46.

This rejection sparked anger in the chartists and resulted in riots across the country. The largest and most violent took place in Birmingham in July. Mass property damage and fighting between chartist supporters and police resulted in the military being sent in to quash the riots, arrest chartist leaders, and to keep the peace through whatever means.

Notices such as these were issued throughout Stockton to discourage chartist supporters from attending meetings. Image courtesy of Teesside Archives.

1839 – A summer of protest

Chartist groups across the country were seen by the government as a threat to peace and banned any public meetings that could dissolve into riot.

The Darlington Charter Association wanted to hold public meetings in July in response to the Birmingham riots and at first appealed to the town’s authorities for them to be allowed. When the authorities refused their request, the Darlington chartists chose to go ahead with their meetings illegally. Having originally taken more peaceful measures, they were now incensed by parliament’s decision and the restriction of their rights to meeting. This time they were using more violent language and urging the people to take up arms against this new military force and fight back.

Riots occurred in Stockton in mid-July, and it was suspected that some chartists had acquired firearms. Magistrates for the town wrote to the Home Secretary –

Jennett nevertheless enrolled 235 special constables, and he eventually received two British Army Units from the 77th Foot from London. This was also in response to a greater threat brewing – the General Convention had planned a Grand National Holiday, effectively a General Strike, to last a month. It was known as the Sacred Month, and most Charter Associations agreed that it would begin on 12th August.

A week into the Sacred Month most collieries and mills in Stockton and Durham had ceased work, and some sailors working at Stockton’s port were laid off due to idleness. Chartist meetings were also heavily attended.

A great chartist meeting at Darlington marketplace was announced for 15th August. About 50 soldiers from the 77th Foot were sent from Stockton and more special constables were recruited. A large crowd had gathered by 8pm, but the meeting had barely started when John Allan, Justice of the Peace for Darlington, rode into the crowd on his horse, followed by the special constables, and the meeting was dispersed.

At the same time in Stockton the crack-down on chartist activity reached a climax. A leading chartist, William ‘Breeches’ Brown, was arrested and imprisoned for 6 months for the possession of illegal firearms following a search of his home.

Two other leading Stockton chartists, James Bald Owen and James Winspur appealed to the mayor for a meeting in the marketplace, which was rejected. Nevertheless, the meeting was advertised for 19th August at 7pm. The detachment of the 77th Foot was sent back to Stockton, and they and the special constables attended the marketplace as the crowd gathered. The meeting began at the allotted time, and when the speaker, a Newcastle chartist William Byrne, began to speak he was promptly arrested. Chartist sympathisers threw stones at the soldiers and police, but no rioting occurred.

Many leading chartists were arrested for using seditious and violent language, among them were Miles Brown and James Bald Owen, and most were committed to Durham Jail.

At this point many local leading chartists had been imprisoned and bans on meetings had been made and organised local Chartism was no longer as strong as it had been. But the movement was far from over in Teesside and County Durham. In the case of Middlesbrough, it had only just begun.

Next week the second part of this blog series will investigate how the Chartist Movement in Middlesbrough occurred in a different way to Stockton and Darlington, and how Chartism began to turn more towards working class support.