On 28th February 1846, a Chartist mass meeting, attended by around 700 people, was chaired by Mr Ellis, “an opulent tradesman of Deptford”, in the open air on Blackheath, then on the edge of southeast London.
A Chartist organisation was first formed in Greenwich in the 1830s. In the 1840s mass rallies on Blackheath were addressed by Fergus O’Connor and in the 1850s Chartist activities in the area were regularly reported in Deptford man George Harney’s Red Republican. In July 1842, Chartists held mass rallies on the heath, which 1000s attended.
Deptford was a very active centre of Chartism, and had been a radical centre for many years in fact. Partly this was fuelled by the large numbers of poor folk who lived here, and the high number of workers on the docks and in the shipyards, often venues of unionization and class struggles. There was a Chartist Hall in Union Street, now probably part of Creek Road… Chartists in Greenwich formed the Greenwich Workingmen’s Association in 1836. When Bronterre O’Brien came to open a Chartist Hall in Church Fields, Greenwich, the event suffered police interference but at last come to rest in the Globe Tavern.
Deptford Chartists started meeting in May 1841 and in the summer of that year they met together with the Greenwich group.
In 1847 Samuel Kydd, a shoemaker and speaker for O’Connor’s Chartist Land Company, appeared on the hustings at Greenwich as a Chartist candidate.
After some activity, in 1848, the Wat Tyler Brigade of the Chartist Movement again became active in Greenwich. Their ranks included a police informer called George Davis (he wasn’t innocent, ok?), whose evidence helped to convict black activist William Cuffay, who with others was nicked in August 1848, accused of plotting a Chartist uprising. Cuffay was transported to Tasmania.
Leading Chartist George Harney was born in Deptford in 181, the son of a sailor. Harney edited many Chartist Publications including The Red Republican in which the first English translation of The Communist Manifesto was published.
On 15th March 1848, Greenwich & Deptford Chartists held another mass rally on Blackheath: “No sooner did the placards announcing the meeting make their appearance, than the minions in power set to work to destroy the meeting if possible. Hundreds of special constables were sworn in, and the whole of the police from the neighbouring stations were ordered to attend on the day of the meeting likewise the mounted police from London.” Although the magistrates tried every means of intimidation, and the rain poured in torrents during the time of meeting, the people stood firm, and pledged themselves to stand by the Charter.
By 1850 the Chartists were meeting in the Earl Grey pub in Straitsmouth, Greenwich, on Wednesdays. This pub is now gone. Their secretary was A Cooper, a bookseller of Trafalgar Road, Greenwich and their treasurer A Floyd, a baker of Church Street, Deptford. The Greenwich delegate to the Chartist convention of 1851 was GWM Reynolds.
The Greenwich Chartists formed a joint organisation with the Irish Confederated Democrats.
Blackheath of course had many radical associations, especially to those aspiring for a greater say for working people in the affairs of the nation (or aspiring to even more… working class political power…) It was the host to the mass camp of the revolting peasants in 1381, where on June 13th that year, radical preacher John Ball preached to the assembled 1000s; “When Adam delved & Eve span, Where was then the gentleman?” Probably the earliest recorded egalitarian speech in English history.
In 1450: Jack Cade camps here with 1000s of Kentish rebel followers. From here they marched to attack the City of London.
In 1497, 1000s of Cornish rebels, incensed about a new tax brought in to pay for king Henry VII’s war on Scotland, marched on London, arriving at Blackheath on June 16th. They were defeated by the King’s army in a bloody battle (between Deptford Bridge & the heath). 200 are killed, the leaders including An Gof & Flamank, were executed. Many of the dead were buried on or around the heath.
In later centuries, Blackheath was defended from development by radical campaigners; and became a popular place for Suffragette open-air rallies. And as recently as August 2009, Climate Camp took over the heath for a week…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online