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Chartism, the Workers’ Fight for Rights – Part 3

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 third and final part investigates the last years of the chartist movement, how it did not lead to parliamentary reform, but how it did play its part in the evolution of the working class which would eventually lead to the vote being extended.

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

The Aftermath of the second petition

The years 1843 to 1846 were relatively quiet for the national chartist movement, but there were changes happening. There was an increased focus on the trade unions with Feargus O’Connor trying to ally the chartists with them, and with the Northern Star newspaper also devoting more of its coverage to union affairs.

These years began to see a marked move away of workers from chartism to education. This seemed to be the case in Middlesbrough when their branch of the Mechanic’s Institute was founded in 1844 by the town’s ironmasters and businessmen, including Henry Bolckow, John Vaughan and Isaac Wilson. The Institute’s objective was to educate local people in scientific knowledge that would be useful in work. Membership was open to anyone over 12 years old, included women, and subjects covered reading, writing, arithmetic, drawing and grammar.

Poster advertising recreational events at Middlesbrough Mechanics Institute. Image courtesy of Dorman Museum.

The Land Plan

O’Connor founded the National Land Plan in 1846. Since it was necessary to own property to vote, this was a cunning plan to enable the working class to qualify for the vote through landholding. His plan was to sell 100,000 shares in the company to industrial workers and use the money to buy estates, and then divide them into smallholdings 2 – 4 acres in size, in which shareholders would be housed.

Since it was promising affordable housing the Land Plan was very popular, and 70,000 shareholders signed up within the next four years.

A prominent chartist, Peter McDouall, lectured in Darlington, Stockton and Middlesbrough and gave a positive report of his work in the Northern Star

Records suggest that around 700 shareholders signed up from Stockton, Thornaby, Middlesbrough and Darlington, although only 230 were officially registered. Two sail-cloth weavers from Stockton who had signed up were awarded smallholdings in Oxford in 1847.

But there were problems with the Land Plan – the Company was not fully registered by law and was in fact illegal, and O’Connor kept very poor financial records and the Company essentially lost money. The awarding of a smallholding to a shareholder was also on a lottery basis, so there was no guarantee that buying into the Company resulted in being housed. All of this had been uncovered by a House of Commons Select Committee, and the Company was wound up by an Act of Parliament in 1851.

The early years of the Land Plan did however help to revive the local chartist movements in time for the run-up to the third petition for the People’s Charter.

The Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, an early daguerreotype photograph taken by William Edward Kilburn, later purchased by Prince Albert, 1848. Image courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust - © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

The third petition and the decline of Chartism

In 1847 the chartist spirit began to stir back up again as the General Convention prepared for the third time to take the petition to parliament. The Charter Associations of Stockton, Darlington and Middlesbrough all sprang back up with renewed energy and began collecting signatures for the petition. This time a total of 2,000 were collected for Teesside and County Durham, making up almost 10% of the population. This had been a large increase on the 1,200 collected in 1842.

The first months of 1848 saw renewed excitement for the petition’s delivery, spurred on by news overseas of a series of revolutions in many European countries. The General Convention began to hope that this time the People’s Charter would be made law and became more united than ever. They planned a mass meeting at Kennington Common in London on 10th April, the day of the petition.

The Government was fearful of revolution and had the capital put under the armed guard of thousands of soldiers, 70,000 special constables, mounted police, and marines. They also deemed the Kennington Common meeting illegal, but it went ahead anyway. Over 20,000 people attended the meeting, and it was a peaceful one. While it went ahead Feargus O’Connor and other delegates of the General Convention presented the petition to parliament, claiming that it held over 5 million names.

However, a few days later the House of Commons announced that the petition had in fact less than 2 million signatures, and that most of them were fictitious or false. On the 17th of April O’Connor and the Convention conceded that the petition had not lived up to the standards they had claimed. For the third time the petition was rejected by parliament, and this proved to be the final, most damaging blow for the movement.

Chartism as a national movement would continue after 1848, but it would never again reach the same level of activity, and it would eventually end in 1858.

Chartism in Teesside and County Durham after 1848

Middlesbrough, Stockton, and Darlington’s Charter Associations continued to meet, but there was no impetus to work together, and there was no central leadership in the area. There was also internal quarrelling between leading chartists, and this further undermined any influence the charter associations may have had. Nicholas Bragg, a Darlington chartist, penned an open letter begging for his leaders to put aside their differences, stating –

Support for the People’s Charter from workers also declined, especially among the miners. There was a sense that chartism was not living up to their immediate needs, and in the case of the Miner’s Association turned towards trade unionism which was more effective.

Chartism demanded overnight change with little negotiation, and as a result Parliament was unwilling to grant the Charter. After almost 10 years of push-back, with little progress made, and little effort from local charter associations to work together, it is perhaps no surprise that the movement began to decline.

By the mid-1850s both Middlesbrough and Stockton’s Charter Associations were defunct, with Darlington being the only local Association wanting to continue, but it too came to an end by 1858 along with the National Movement.

But chartism hadn’t necessarily failed, rather it was evolving. In 1852 an anonymous ‘Old Chartist’ wrote into the Northern Star (renamed at this time as the Star of Freedom) about the decline of the northern Charter Associations, but with an unexpectedly positive outlook –

Working Class Evolution

The 1850s and 1860s saw increased action in co-operation and trade unionism in the area, and some of these had been influenced by the chartist movement, in many ways.

Darlington, like Middlesbrough, had their own branch of the Mechanics Institute and it existed with the same aim of educating the town’s workers through classes, reading rooms and talks. The 1850s saw plans made to build an official building for the Institute and Elizabeth Pease, who was herself a member of the local Women’s Charter Association, donated £400 (£32,000 in today’s money) towards it. She also laid the foundation stone and officially opened the Institute on 1st September 1854.

While 1856 saw the end of Stockton’s Charter Association it also saw its members regroup into a combined effort to form their own branch of the Co-operative Society, which they managed to do in 1866 alongside the opening of a union mill in response to rising bread prices.

Meanwhile in Middlesbrough local trade unions had discovered in 1860 that three large firms, including Bolckow and Vaughan, had been paying some workers in tokens that could be redeemed in stores for goods. This was a violation of the 1831 Truck Act which demanded that these trades pay their workers in coin. Some former Middlesbrough chartists, including James Maw, successfully petitioned the firms to bring an end to what they called the ‘Tommy Ticket System’, and ensured wages for workers.

The 1870s would see more working-class action in the area, with the formation of the Middlesbrough Trades Council, the National Union of Blast-furnacemen, and the Cleveland Miner’s Association among others. But by that time a change in the law had been announced, which would set in motion the realisation of much of what the chartists had started fighting for.

Cartoon from Punch magazine portraying Benjamin Disraeli as a horse taking Britannia on ‘a leap in the dark’ into modern democracy. Image courtesy of Dorman Museum.

The Reform Bill 1867 and beyond

By the 1860s the government had realised that a new working class had emerged out of the industrial revolution, a working class which had become responsible for arranging their own education, taking part in local politics and trade unionism, and in some cases founding their own building societies in the interests of saving their own money. They deserved the consideration of the vote, and some politicians began debating extending it.

In 1866 William Gladstone of the Liberal Party made proposals that the vote should be extended to all men who earned £5 a year (around £300 in today’s money). This was initially defeated by the Conservatives and Gladstone resigned.

A year later the Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli reintroduced Gladstone’s proposal as his own, this time making no mention of men’s incomes as qualification for the vote, and it was successful. The 1867 Reform Act gave the vote to every male householder living in a constituency, every adult male lodger on the proviso that he paid at least £10 (£600) in rent, extended parliamentary representation to larger cities including Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, and Birmingham, and in some cases ended representation for boroughs with a population under 10,000.

Darlington, Middlesbrough, and Stockton became single-member constituencies, meaning that for the first time they were allowed to elect their own members of parliament. Joseph Pease of Darlington, Henry Bolckow of Middlesbrough and Joseph Dodds of Stockton were their towns’ first MPs.

A satirical illustration of Joseph Dodds, solicitor and Liberal MP for Stockton. While Dodds was popular with his constituents and helped pass acts that were beneficial for his town, his political career ended in shame when he was caught embezzling money from a client of his solicitor’s firm. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

Further reforms were granted between 1872 and 1911 which introduced the secret ballot, and payment for MPs, and limited MPs expenses during elections. The 1885 Redistribution Act went further than the 1867 Reform Act, making it so that towns with populations between 15,000 and 165,000 were granted between one or two MPs, while those with populations under 15,000 lost their right to elect an MP. These, combined with an earlier change in the law in 1857 which abolished the property qualification for MPs, had extended the vote and parliamentary representation to the working class.

1906 also saw the birth of the Labour Party, which had originally been the trade unions’ attempts to establish a Labour Representation Committee in parliament, and then deciding to become a full political party.

The Representation of the People Act came in 1918, granting the vote to all men aged over 21 regardless of whether they owned property or not and, after years of protest, land-owning women over the age of 30.

Five out of the six demands in the People’s Charter had been granted at this point, and this is still true today. While the chartists themselves had not achieved this, it should be recognised that they may not have come about without their actions. The chartists, and a working class who had tirelessly educated themselves and built societies and unions to support each other, helped to define democracy as we know it now in the United Kingdom.

The writing of this blog series would not have been possible without research and collections provided by Preston Park Museum and Grounds, Dorman Museum, Teesside Archives, Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds, and the Royal Collections Trust, and with reference to academic publications by Professor Malcolm Chase, R. P. Hastings, William Henry Maehl, and publications of the Northern Star and Northern Liberator.