Today in radical history, 1848: the last great Chartist rally on Kennington Common.

Sometimes called “the first great British working class political movement”, the Chartist movement, which spanned the late 1830s to the early 1850s, was in many ways the culmination of a diverse collection of radical and reform movements that had been developing in Britain for the past 70 years. Pressure for political reform, a wider franchise, and a greater say in how society was run for the ‘lower orders’ (almost everyone except the aristocracy and the high bourgeoisie) that had been slowly gathering pace since the early 1760s. This movement had been re-galvanised by the ideas of the first French Revolution of 1789, and spiced with the coagulation of resistance to rapid and traumatic economic change and the imposition of capitalism, by the people most impacted, the industrial working classes – still wet behind the ears from recognising its own existence.

The movement combined the traditions of political liberty with the struggle for economic power in a bewilderingly altering society, adding in a powerful influence from the scene of blasphemous writers, seditious preachers and agitational journalists that had articulated rebellion against religious and social restrictions and raged against enclosure, the dispossession of people from the land, and in some cases, slavery… The movement that had built the mass opposition to the stamp tax on newspapers…

Chartism inherited and amplified the demands and the language of these traditions, but was also heir to the deep divisions over tactics, methods and – ultimately – the true goal. Like groups as far-ranging as the London Corresponding Society and the National Union of the Working Classes before them, the movement argued about whether ‘moral’ (campaigning) pressure could win the vote for working men, or whether the aristocracy and the increasingly dominant capitalists would ever allow this. Could middle class and working class reformers really work together, given the obviously divergent interests? Was representation in parliament enough, or was total working class power needed to ensure their aims? And if radical means were required, how was it to be done – underground plots, mass strikes, grasping control of the land en masse?

These questions had been fought over within and around Chartism since its birth, and had already produced one abortive general strike, and a wave of desperate plans for uprisings of which only one had really got going (in Newport in 1839). The defeats of 1839-40 did help send the movement into something of a decline nationally, but it this masks a different reality locally – the ideas of the movement were spreading into the daily life of millions of people, adding to and enriching a working class political and social culture, in self-education, history lessons, songs, alternative ceremonies and the creation of meeting places and social spaces. We don’t have space to go into this here, but in many ways the historical concentration on the big petitions, the monster rallies, the secret plots, highlights the less significant aspects, at the expense of how Chartism helped change a way of thinking in millions of people… (Something this blog with its concentration on ‘events’ and anniversaries also tends to fall into, we admit…) However, the big events served as a focus for the grassroots level, a coming together, building from the bottom up, so the two are not really separate.

“Not a small active party with a large passive membership but a movement which deeply affected every aspect of people’s lives. It was an inclusive organisation with popular leaders who were Catholics, Protestants and Freethinkers. West Indian and Asian people were prominent and in fact the organiser of 10th April was William Cuffay, a black Londoner, who was subsequently deported for his efforts. The Irish, in the midst of the great potato famine at home had good reason to take part and did. There were also women’s groups in spite of the charter only demanding male suffrage. Chartist meetings sometimes had a carnival like atmosphere, and at other times were preceded by hymn singing and processions. There was a Chartist culture which had its own christenings and funerals and its own songs. It was a counter-cultural experience that changed people’s perception of themselves… through this process they became conscious of a profound and unifying new urban class identity.

The main political strategies of Chartism became the petition and the monster rally. The petition also grew to be a monster and assumed the status of an unofficial referendum. The great rallies were a show of strength which also gave the participants a direct sense of community.

… it was such a collective network of groups that it is difficult to reduce to conventional narrative history, partly because the fieldwork is still being done and partly due to the class bias of historians and their publishers who have done their best to undermine its importance.” (Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy, Stefan Szczelkun)

In April 1848 the Chartists’ national profile had been in eclipse for some years, but was visibly reviving. The third great Chartist petition codifying the 6 demands of the People’s Charter was gathering pace. The revived Chartist movement was growing stronger: a many thousand strong Third Petition to Parliament.

The petition for The Charter had grown huge, by then it had between three and six million signatures depending on which side you choose to believe. A carriage, bedecked with garlands, was needed to transport it. Parliament was to be presented with this petition, for the third time, after a monster rally on Kennington Common on the 10th April 1848.

The Chartist Convention, meeting in Fitzrovia, had seen some intense debate between those advocating moral force and those believing armed uprisings might be necessary, especially as an attack by police or the army was anticipated.

This moment in the struggle for democracy was recorded in a historic photograph. William Kilburn, an early portrait photographer, took two daguerrotype plates of the Kennington Common rally from a vantage point in The Horns, (the famous pub on the edge of the Common, long a venue for radical debate itself) – the oldest surviving photo of a crowd.

But mirrored to the enthusiasm from a mass of working people, for the upper and respectable middle classes, the increasing agitation induced probably the greatest fear of the lower classes since the Gordon Riots. Revolutions and uprisings which were breaking out all across Europe gave the usual violent rhetoric from some of the Chartist leaders a slightly more threatening edge, to the ears of the authorities and the middle classes, and the government made elaborate preparations to resist any attempted insurrection. Thousands of troops and police were moved into London, and hundreds of middle class volunteers and special constables were signed up (reminiscent of the Volunteers of the French Revolutionary wars, and foreshadowing the specials of the General Strike eighty years later).

“In the morning (a very fine day) everybody was on the alert; the parks were closed; our office was fortified, a barricade of Council Registers was erected in the accessible room on the ground-floor, and all our guns were taken down to be used in defence of the building.” (Charles Greville, Diary)

Bundles of old copies of the Times were also used to barricade buildings on the river adjacent to the bridges, in case of armed attack by insurgents.

The royal family were even moved out of the capital. The bridges and important and strategic buildings were barricaded:

“The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force..” “About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge…”

“The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o’clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge – the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder.”  (Illustrated London News)

The Chartists’ national leadership was divided as to how to proceed. Some were for all out pressing ahead while the movement was on the up; others were scared by the clear willingness of the government to arm itself. On the one hand this was recognition that where force was concerned the stare had the upper hand; but the more radical elements also accused some of the more vocal mouthpieces of the movement of being happy to shout and bluster but not being really up for real confrontation. The fiery orator Feargus O’Connor, always more mouth than trousers, came in for much criticism. The Chartist Convention, meeting in London, was riven with argument.

William Cuffay, the black tailor delegated from the London Chartists to represent them at the Convention, was notable in calling for radical action and denouncing the vacillators. Cuffay’s actions around this time illuminate some of the division, suspicions and rows the Chartist leadership was falling prone to.

For Cuffay, as for so many other working people in western Europe, 1848 was ‘the year of decision’. He was one of the three London delegates to the Chartists’ national Convention that met in April. From the start of the proceedings he made his left-wing position plain. Derby had sent as delegate a sensational journalist and novelist called George Reynolds (he gave his name to the radical magazine that eventually became Reynolds News) and Cuffay challenged the middle-class newcomer, demanding to know if he really was a Chartist. Cuffay also at first opposed the granting of credentials to Charles MacCarthy of the Irish Democratic Federation, but the dispute was settled, and MacCarthy admitted, by a sub-committee of which Cuffay was a member. The convention’s main task was to prepare a mass meeting on Kennington Common and a procession that was to accompany the Chartist petition, bearing almost two million signatures, to the Commons. When Reynolds, moved an amendment declaring ‘That in the event of the rejection of the Petition, the Convention should declare its sitting permanent, and should declare the Charter the law of the land’, Cuffay said he was opposed to a body declaring itself permanent that represented only a fraction of the people: he was elected by only 2,000 out of the two million inhabitants of London, He moved that the convention should confine itself to presenting the petition, and that a national assembly be called – “then come what might, it should declare its sittings permanent and go on, come weal or come woe.” At length the idea of a national assembly was accepted. In a later debate Cuffay told his fellow delegates that “the men of London were up to the mark, and were eager for the fray”. 

When a moderate speech was made, Cuffay burst out: “This clapping of hands is all very fine, but will you fight for it?” There were cries of ‘Yes, yes’ and cheers. Appointed chairman of the committee for managing the procession, Cuffay was responsible for making sure that “everything… necessary for conducting an immense procession with order and regularity had been adopted”, and suggested that stewards wear tricolour sashes and rosettes. Things had now come to a crisis, he said, and they must he prepared to act with coolness and determination. It was clear that the executive had shrunk from their responsibility. They did not show the spirit they ought. He no longer had any confidence in them, and he hoped the convention would be prepared to take the responsibility out of their hands and lead the people themselves. At the final meeting, on the morning of the demonstration, Cuffay opposed endless debate.

“The time is now come for work,” he insisted. An observer recorded that, as the convention broke up and delegates took their places on the vehicles, carrying the petition, Cuffay ‘appeared perfectly happy and elated’ for the first time since the proceedings opened.

In contrast, Feargus O’Connor, facing the reality of the forces arrayed against the march, was getting cold feet:

“Presently Mr. Mayne [Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) appeared on the ground, and sent one of his inspectors to say he wanted to speak to Feargus O’Connor. Feargus thought he was going to be arrested and was in a terrible fright; but he went to Mayne ‘ who merely said he was desired to inform him that the meeting would not be interfered with, but the procession would not be allowed. Feargus insisted on shaking hands with Mayne, swore he was his best of friends, and instantly harangued his rabble, advising them not to provoke a collision, and to go away quietly-advice they instantly obeyed, and with great alacrity and good-humour. Thus all evaporated in smoke. Feargus himself then repaired to the Home Office, saw Sir George Grey, and told him it was all over, and thanked the Government for their leniency, assuring him the Convention would not have been so lenient if they had got the upper hand. Grey asked him if he was going back to the meeting. He said No; that he had had his toes trodden on till he was lame, and his pocket picked, and he would have no more to do with it.”

O’Connor and other leaders abandoned their attempt to process to Westminster to hand in the petition.

When the crowd at Kennington Common heard this, many of them were very angry. There were shouts that the petition should have been carried forward until actively opposed by the troops then withdrawn altogether on the ground that such opposition was unlawful. One of the protesters was Cuffay, who spoke in strong language against the dispersal of the meeting, and contended that it would be time enough to evince their fear of the military when they met them face to face! He believed the whole Convention were a set of cowardly humbugs, and he would have nothing more to do with them, He then left the van, and got among the crowd, where he said that O’Connor must have known all this before, and that he ought to have informed them of it, so that they might have conveyed the petition at once to the House of Commons, without crossing the bridges. They had been completely caught in a trap.

However thousands of demonstrators did attempt to march across the river, and were blocked off at the bridges, leading to clashes with police. Blackfriars Bridge saw the most vicious fighting –

“After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill’s Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o’clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.” (Illustrated London News)

Preventing the demonstrators from reaching parliament defused some of the ‘pre-revolutionary tension’ the ruling class was suffering from… Although there was localised fighting around different working class areas of London and wider afield all summer, usually after Chartist rallies were attacked by emboldened police, given their head to disperse any challenge.

This forced the still determined radical elements of the movement back into the old pattern of insurrectionary plotting for an armed seizure of power, which while it did have some support, was by necessity more fractured and hard to pull off.

Small numbers of physical force Chartists met throughout the summer of 1848, planning a revolt, but their organisation was heavily penetrated by police spies, one of whom was actually a member of the seven-strong ‘Ulterior Committee’ that was planning an uprising in London. William Cuffay was one of those on the Committee. But the plans were not to bear fruit.

On 16 August 1848, 11 ‘luminaries’, allegedly plotting to fire certain buildings as a signal for the rising, were arrested at a Bloomsbury tavern, the Orange Tree, near Red Lion Square. Cuffay was arrested later at his lodgings. At the Orange Tree, a regular Chartist meeting point, a meeting was raided; cops found “a number of loaded pistols, pikes, daggers, spearheads, and swords, and some of the prisoners wore iron breast plates, while others had gun powder, shot and tow-balls.” Cuffay, Fay, W. Dowling, W. Lacey, William Ritchie were convicted of ‘levying war on the Queen’, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life; 15 others were jailed for 18 months to 2 years.

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1848 represented Chartism’s last big push; although the movement survived several years longer it increasingly split and fell into factions, which withered in a more prosperous economic climate in the 1850s.

But it had sown many seeds in the among working people, which were to continue to influence future movements. Many Chartist activists continued to fight for social change for decades, taking part in the more obviously ‘successful’ reform movements in 1866-7, which did win an extension of the franchise, in the secularist and republican agitations, in trade unions and the co-operative movements, and can be seen in the early british socialist and anarchist groupings. Chartism should certainly by seen as partly a product and itself an influence on a didactic working class culture that evolved, often through local clubs and discussions/debates, and which was to continue changing and producing bursts of political energy into the 20th century.

It’s difficult to analyse the events of 10th April, especially if you view it through the prism of ‘revolutionary moment missed’ as it is tempting to do. Was it really an opportunity for radical upheaval? In many ways the chance to overthrow the state in one great push was an outdated ideal, especially in Britain. Across Europe, where more autocratic regimes had not yet experienced anything like the UK’s experience of industrialisation and the bourgeoisie forcing the aristos to share power with them, the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 etc were always more widely supported by the middle class, eager to get their share of influence. Here, the traditions of the 1689 ‘glorious’ settlement, social change in the 18th century, and the 1832 reform act had already broadened the spread of power to the newer wealthy capitalist classes. Chartism was in reality never going to win cross-class support (leaving aside the many working people who loyally stood by their ‘betters’ or who religion persuaded to abide in their ‘place’). Can insurrections by themselves, without a base in a mass agitation already prepared to take power, succeed? Chartism had a mass base but the preparedness to build any kind of dual power was not there. In many ways the earlier Plug Riots of 1842 had been more threatening, although too localised; and there too the authorities had been able to repress and arrest many activists. Possibly it was not a ‘revolutionary moment missed’ because revolution would have needed to be more organic, growing from below towards the centre, only succeeding because it was already inevitable by the time of a mass confrontation like April l0th. It’s worth reflecting on the Chartist idea of a ‘sacred month’ or general strike, compared to Rosa Luxemburg’s later conception of how such a movement might win working class power.)

But perhaps looking at April 10th this way is to take too narrow a view of events. As Stefan Szczelkun has observed:

“The fact that the events of the 10th April 1848 did not herald a British Revolution or immediate voting reforms has been held up by official historians as the ‘failure’ of Chartism. But the success of Chartism should not be measured in such terms but rather in the effects it had on the consciousness of the millions who took part. This is something historians have found difficult to register. There was a real democratic culture and powerful desire for social justice behind The Charter which remains unrealised to this day.”

Check out a really good site on Chartist history

And a local group working to commemorate April 1848 and the Chartists

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