The Chartists

The Great Reform Act 1832, did  very little to extend the vote to the working class,  as a result the Chartists emerged as an early example of a pressure group for major political reform. They demanded the adoption by parliament of the Six Points of the People’s Charter. This would, for men at least, have transformed Britain into a full democracy in one go. 

Six Points comprised:

1 All men to have the vote irrespective of wealth or property ownership.

2 Voting should take place by secret ballot.

3 Parliamentary elections every year, not once every 7 years (note: the law was changed in 1911 to reduce the maximum length of a parliament to 5 years).

4 Equally sized constituencies.

5 Members of parliament should be paid.

6 The property qualification for becoming a member of parliament should be abolished.

The wealthy elite were alarmed at the prospect of giving the vote to the working class for several reasons. First, they believed working-class men were too poorly educated to use their vote wisely and understand political issues. Second, they feared some might use their power and seize the wealth of the rich and privileged, inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the French Revolution in the previous century. They also feared that radical change might threaten Britain’s global wealth and expanding trading empire. 

In June 1839, the Chartists' petition was presented to the House of Commons with over 1.25 million signatures. It was rejected by Parliament. This provoked unrest which was swiftly crushed by the authorities.

A second petition was presented in May 1842, signed by over three million people but again it was rejected and further unrest and arrests followed.

In April 1848 a third and final petition was presented. A mass meeting on Kennington Common in South London was organised by the Chartist movement leaders, the most influential being Feargus O'Connor, editor of 'The Northern Star', a weekly newspaper that promoted the Chartist cause.

Feargus O'Connor was known to have connections with radical groups which advocated reform by any means, including violence. The authorities feared disruption and military forces were on standby to deal with any unrest. The third petition was also rejected but the anticipated unrest did not happen.

Despite the Chartist leaders' attempts to keep the movement alive, within a few years it was no longer a driving force for reform.

Chartists' legacy

However, the Chartists' legacy was strong. By the 1850s Members of Parliament accepted that further reform was inevitable. Further Reform Acts were passed in 1867 and 1884.

By 1918, five of the Chartists' six demands had been achieved - only the stipulation that parliamentary elections be held every year was unfulfilled.