Chartist Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although it was short-lived, Chartism was the first large-scale workers’ political movement in Great Britain. It used mass petitions to seek parliamentary reform through the adoption of six key political reforms aimed primarily at empowering the British working class.

Summary of Event

The Chartist movement may be said to have begun on May 8, 1838, the date on which the People’s Charter People’s Charter (1838)[Peoples Charter] was published, thus formalizing Chartism. Written by William Lovett and Francis Place, the charter demanded six political reforms: manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, pay for members of Parliament, abolition of property qualifications for members of Parliament, equal electoral districts, and annual elections. These elements would enfranchise Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] working men and attempt to make Parliament more equitable in its composition and more accountable to the people’s interests. Mass meetings were held to spread the idea of the People’s Charter and to obtain signatures on a huge petition to present to Parliament. Chartist movement Labor;Chartist movement Chartist movement Great Britain;Chartist movement Labor;Great Britain Great Britain;political reforms [kw]Chartist Movement (May 8, 1838-Apr. 10, 1848) [kw]Movement, Chartist (May 8, 1838-Apr. 10, 1848) Chartist movement Labor;Chartist movement Chartist movement Great Britain;Chartist movement Labor;Great Britain Great Britain;political reforms [g]Great Britain;May 8, 1838-Apr. 10, 1848: Chartist Movement[2050] [c]Business and labor;May 8, 1838-Apr. 10, 1848: Chartist Movement[2050] [c]Social issues and reform;May 8, 1838-Apr. 10, 1848: Chartist Movement[2050] Lovett, William Place, Francis Attwood, Thomas Harney, George Julian Hetherington, Henry Oastler, Richard O’Connor, Feargus Edward

Chartism emerged from many probable causes of social, political, and economic origins. Much of what has been written on its history has focused on the political demands for working-class male suffrage and on political divisions within the movement. A variety of other interpretations have revealed the complexity of issues and emotions associated with rapid industrialization and modernization in Britain during the 1830’s and 1840’s.

Understanding these social dynamics is essential in appreciating the significance and legacy of Chartism. Its supporters included those frustrated with the lack of political support, factory and work reformers, trade unionists, socialists, the disaffected, and many others whose reasons for active or tacit support were varied. The controversies surrounding the movement at times heightened social class divisions associated with competing political and economic issues. Analysis of local Chartist associations demonstrates the range of occupations and backgrounds involved. Women were active at the local level especially between 1838 and 1843. The inclusion of female suffrage was considered initially; however, the Chartist leadership dropped the issue owing to fears of further fragmenting the debate within and outside the movement.

Political analysis of Chartism centers on a variety of causes such as the disillusionment of the workers and other radical groups with the Reform Act of 1832, Reform Act of 1832 which had enfranchised Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] many in the middle class. Another cause was the harsh new Poor Law of 1834, with its infamous workhouses Great Britain;workhouses , which began to be applied in industrial districts in 1837. There was unrest, and anti-Poor Law agitation occurred among the workers led by the reformer and Tory Richard Oastler, Oastler, Richard who was popular among workers for his ten-hour initiative to limit the workday. The failure of many strikes and the collapse in 1835 of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, led by the utopian socialist Robert Owen, had dampened worker confidence in indirect reforms. Fluctuations in the British economy and a mix of rising and falling prices of commodities coupled with major shifts in the nature of and pay for industrial work such as the shift from hand to power loom weaving of textiles Textile industry;mechanization of created anxiety among workers about their conditions. Workers became desperate in 1837 when a serious depression caused widespread unemployment and distress in industrial areas.

No one source for Chartism exists. Nevertheless, the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) founded by William Lovett Lovett, William and Henry Hetherington Hetherington, Henry in June, 1836, was at the center of much of its formal especially political activities. The association represented the skilled and better-paid crafts workers rather than the poorer industrial and home laborers. Lovett sought cooperation with middle-class radicals with whom he had worked in other causes. In February, 1837, Lovett, Francis Place Place, Francis , and others proposed democratic reforms such as suffrage extension, the secret ballot, and shorter Parliaments. These proposals caused widespread interest, and many groups endorsed them, particularly the Birmingham Birmingham, England Political Union, led by Thomas Attwood, Attwood, Thomas a prominent banker and radical. The movement spread rapidly, and some 150 other Working Men’s Associations were founded by the end of 1838.

Ideological and social class divisions pulled the movement in many directions. Conflicting aims and disagreements about strategies resulted in a disastrous split between Lovett’s Lovett, William “moral force” moderates and George Julian Harney Harney, George Julian and Feargus O’Connor’s O’Connor, Feargus Edward “physical force” radicals. O’Connor, the publisher of the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star, emerged as a national spokesperson. While the national movement focused on the charter petition, local groups participated in a wide range of activities from educational meetings to paramilitary training with pikes and other crude weapons.

When the People’s Charter with 1.2 million signatures was introduced into the House of Commons by Thomas Attwood Attwood, Thomas on July 12, 1839, it was refused consideration by a 236-46 vote. This rejection and the failure of a general strike plan widened the split and disorganized the movement considerably. Generally speaking, the radicals led by O’Connor O’Connor, Feargus Edward became dominant. Some riots and minor uprisings that followed led to government suppression and jailing of most of the leaders for short periods. The split between “moral force” moderates and “physical force” radicals widened, reflecting, in part, a growing social class division.

In 1842, hard economic conditions caused a resurgence of the movement, with a variety of activities including strikes and factory closings. Noteworthy among these were the “Plugs Plots” agitation, in which strikers released pressure from factory steam engines Steam engines;and Chartist movement[Chartist movement] to force work stoppages. Chartism reemerged under O’Connor O’Connor, Feargus Edward and a renewed campaign to support the charter. The petition was delivered to Parliament on May, 1842, with more than 3.3 million signatures on paper that would have stretched for six miles. Although many signatures were forgeries, support was widespread among working-class men and women of a wide range of occupations. However, middle-class participants allied with the Anti-Corn Law League Anti-Corn Law League[AntiCorn Law League] were withdrawing their support. The league sought to bolster the economic interest of the industrialists by calling for a repeal of protective tariffs on grains. Lower food costs would enable lower wages and thus lower prices for manufactured goods.

The continuing economic hardships and revolutionary activity in France, Austria, Prussia, and the Italian states at the beginning of 1848 were the setting for the last effort of the British Chartists, which culminated with the presentation of a huge petition with approximately five million names (again including many forgeries) to Parliament on April 10, 1848. The government reacted to the tense atmosphere with considerable nervousness by deputizing members of the middle and upper classes to guard public buildings on the occasion of the procession for the petition through the streets of London to Parliament. The day was peaceful, however, and the petition itself had become more a symbol than an actual instrument of hoped-for change. Once again, the charter was rejected.


Despite failing to achieve working-class male suffrage and parliamentary reform, the Chartist movement was important in a number of ways. Chartism was significant as the first large-scale workers’ political movement. The People’s Charter represented one of the most completely democratic programs of its time. The tensions within and without the struggle clarified the social class nature of political power.

As each effort of the movement failed, its followers returned to trade union solutions or self-help initiatives, such as the cooperative movement, which had been effectively started by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. Some disaffected supporters emigrated from Great Britain and spread their activist interest elsewhere. The lingering commitment of Chartists to change after the collapse of the national petition drive in 1848 demonstrated the diversity of interest that the People’s Charter had symbolized during a vibrant transitional period of the 1830’s and 1840’s.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashton, Owen, Robert Fyson, and Stephen Roberts, eds. The Chartist Movement: A New Annotated Bibliography. New York: Mansell, 1995. Comprehensive bibliography of all aspects of the Chartist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boston, Ray. British Chartists in America, 1839-1900. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1971. This study of Chartists who emigrated to the United States offers insights into the widespread and diverse influence of the movement’s followers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, Asa, ed. Chartist Studies. London: Macmillan, 1959. This collection emphasizes Chartist activities on a local level in key cities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charlton, John. The Chartists: The First National Workers’ Movement. London: Pluto Press, 1997. A socialist perspective on the Chartist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Gareth Stedman. “Rethinking Chartism.” In Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. The author reviews a variety of historical interpretations and argues for an analysis centered on the Chartists’ own language used in their own writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pickering, Paul A. Chartism and the Chartists in Manchester and Salford. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Owing to the high representation of textile workers in Chartist activities, the Manchester area merits specialized attention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Stephen, ed. The People’s Charter: Democratic Agitation in Early Victorian Britain. London: Merlin Press, 2004. Collection of essays on different aspects of the Chartist movement that are especially appropriate for students. Includes a useful glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwarkopf, Jutta. Women in the Chartist Movement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. The examination of the role of Chartist women and the significance of their involvement in family life expands the scope of Chartist studies through a more inclusive social history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Dorothy. The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. The author argues for a national rather than local perspective. A chapter on Chartist women demonstrates the diverse interests involved.

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