On February 4, 1839, fifty-three delegates to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes met at the British Coffee House (also known as the Brittannia Coffee House), Cockspur Street, Charing Cross.
After two days at Cockspur Street, the Conventions move to Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, where it continued to sit until mid-May.
The main function of the Convention was to prepare and deliver the National Petition for the People’s Charter to Parliament.
Sometimes called “the first great British working class political movement”, the Chartist movement, which spanned the mid 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; a 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, dedicated to spreading knowledge, encouraging discussion of ideas and challenging age-old hierarchies and restrictions…
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’ pressure (peaceful campaigning) 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 split Chartism, paralysing it at crucial moments, producing periods of insurgency but also leading to waves of disillusion and collapse.
The ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832 had, after a ferment of campaigning, given the shopkeepers and business men the vote, but given the mass of working people nothing. The Poor Law Reform of 1834, introducing imprisonment in brutal workhouses for any poor folk unable to support themselves had added insult to injury, and sparked outrage across the country. On top of this, an economic crisis hit Britain in the late 1830s, causing further poverty among already precarious industrial working lives. The anger this engendered increased the demand for political reform – the feeling that if the working class were represented in Parliament, some more attention to the misery of their lives would be forthcoming…
The Chartist movement coalesced from myriad diverse groups around the country, building from around 1836, but finding a coherent existence in 1838, when the National Petition to Parliament for the adoption of the Charter was drawn up – the first of three great Chartist petitions. Through the winter of 1838-9, huge torchlight rallies were held, outside, often by night, to demand political reform, attracting tens of thousands, especially across the north of England. The upsurge of support for the Chartist agitation panicked the government – it banned these ‘monster meetings’, arresting and jailing many of the leading agitators in various cities and towns. But this didn’t prevent the movement from growing in strength and confidence, and in early 1839, the first Chartist Convention was called, a national delegate meeting, bringing together men from all over the country.
Just naming the national meeting the ‘Convention’ was a statement in itself, as this had been the name of the French Revolutionary parliament of the 1790s in its most radical phase. Forming a ‘British Convention’ in 1793 had got a number of radicals transported to the Penal Colonies…
However, despite the revolutionary-sounding moniker, the Convention was far from being an insurgent central committee.
In fact, from its beginnings, far from being a clearly defined radical body, the Chartist Convention teemed with all the divisions that plagued the Chartist movement throughout its life, and this was to hamper its impact.
For a start, for all the support the movement was winning among the working class, of the nearly 70 delegates present at the Convention, thirteen were markedly from the middle class (magistrates, editors, clergymen, doctors), and most of the remainder were described as “shop-keepers, tradesmen and journeymen.”
Although the Convention had delegates elected at mass meetings of 300,000 in Manchester, 150,000 in Glasgow and 70,000 in Newcastle, (representing handloom weavers, miners and factory workers) the meeting was dominated by delegates from London and Birmingham, still mainly centres of small artisan workshops, not factory production. The Convention reflected the early domination of Chartism by artisans, skilled workers in trades with more traditional structures, rather than the newer industrial capitalist enterprises. To some extent the artisan strength of London and Birmingham reflected the struggle of skilled workers against the capitalists’ drive to cut down wages and conditions through mechanisation and division of labour.
The influence of the London Working-Men’s Association, founded in June, 1836, reflected the artisan dominance in the early Chartist scene. The LWMA, credited with founding Chartism, having drawn up the founding principles, was hugely influential in the early Chartist period. The LWMA was very much dedicated to working among the “intelligent and influential portion of the working classes”, to further social and political progress through education, discussion and “moral force.” Its founder, William Lovett, a joiner, came from the London co-operative movement inspired by Robert Owen and was influenced by London trade unionists like Francis Place (Place, a longtime union activist, also cheerfully informed on ultra-radicals to the Home Office). On the first day of the Convention, Lovett was elected Secretary.
Another leading force in the Convention was the Birmingham Political Union, led by a banker, Thomas Attwood, who thought a fairer society would be created by currency reform and the enfranchisement of an enlightened working class.
Also prominent was Irish demagogue Fergus O’Connor, (nephew to Arthur O’Connor who had taken part in planning the 1798 uprising against British rule) O’Connor was to become the dominant personality in Chartism for nearly a decade – a fiery orator, MP, violent in his rhetoric (but as it would turn out, in practice wobbly in the face of state repression at crucial moments). A critic of the evils of industrial capitalism and the factory system, O’Connor saw the remedy in land reform, aiming to re-establish working people on the land in prosperous smallholdings.
Another faction present at the Convention were the ‘Chartist schoolteacher’, James Bronterre O’Brien, and a small group of socialists, who identified private property, particularly in, land, banks and utilities, as the root of poverty and exploitation. What they felt was needed was a revolution to replace the rule of the bourgeoisie with the power of the workers. which would put an end to oppression and inequality. George Julian Harney, who had cut his teeth in the struggle against the newspaper Stamp Tax, was influenced by O’Brien’s ideas, and had helped found the London Democratic Association, a more radical body than the LWMA, with a base among poorer workers in London’s East End, and espousing a fiery rhetoric.
From its opening, the Convention was prone to division: over its own purpose and reason to exist; over attitudes to other political movements (such as the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws, and over the methods and aims of Chartism. The first dispute arose over whether the Convention was to sit only for the purpose of presenting the National Petition to Parliament, or was to continue in existence, as a sort of proto-parliament of the people. The latter opinion prevailed, initially…
The first day of the Chartist Convention coincided with the opening of the Anti Corn Law League’s first national conference. Both Chartists and Corn Law Repealers felt the other’s cause was a distraction from the real issue – their own… On February 12 the Convention unanimously [adopted] a resolution, moved by Bronterre O’Brien, declaring that the Corn Law league’s agitation was deliberately intended to distract he working class from the struggle in its own interests, and that the campaign for the People’s Charter must have “the people’s undivided attention”. It was widely felt that repealing the Corn Laws would weaken the power of the landed aristocracy, yes, but to the benefit of the pro-free trade middle class and especially the factory owners above all. Bronterre voiced the general view, that while political power remained the hands of their class enemies, neither free trade nor protection would bring any lasting benefit to the workers. However, various local groups of Chartists were drawn into supporting Corn Law Repeal around the country, though the movement as a whole retained its independence of and hostility to the radical, Benthamite, free trading middle class.
The more serious split between the advocates of ‘moral force’ and ‘physical force’ soon came to the fore, and was to dominate the proceedings. Most of the London, Birmingham and Scots delegates held to the peaceful methods.
George Julian Harney called for the Convention to make a decision as to what action would be taken if Parliament rejected the Petition, but the majority of delegates refused to allow the question to be considered. Harney asserted that that the people were ready to seize their rights, and accused the majority of the Convention of being scared to proceed with revolution.
As the Convention was sitting, in London and further afield, a plethora of Chartist meetings were taking place, some dominated by the rhetoric of the physical force wing, others resolving on slower tactics. Sometimes one meeting in a locality would take place one week and vote for physical measures, but the same branch would hold a meeting soon after and a contradictory resolution would hold sway. Chartists were widely divided as to how to win their goals. Some argued for a run on the banks, but working people did not have any money to speak of. Others held that a general strike would bring the government to its knees. Yet others advocated armed uprisings, in the old jacobin tradition that dated from the French Revolution.
The confusion and argument spread right into the Convention. Many moderates became alarmed by the radical sounding voices, and in March, several delegates resigned, with more following in May. For instance, three Birmingham delegates Douglas, Salt and Hadley, all middle class men of status and means, departed, protesting the violent rhetoric. In their place, three working class delegates (Donaldson, Brown and Powell) were elected by popular Chartist assembly, and they in contrast supported militant action. John Donaldson told the Convention the men of Birmingham were armed to the teeth. Edward Brown, boasted retribution from the people of Birmingham should any delegate become victimised by the government. He would later be imprisoned for his speeches. The new delegates were not strictly representing the Birmingham Political Union, which objected to their presence, But Feargus O’Connor and other Convention notables denounced the desertion of the men they were replacing.
The Convention was weakened and paralysed in the face of such fractionalism. But this reflected the wider state of the movement across the nation. For its part, the government prepared to crack down on Chartism, caring little whether the Chartists it targeted were moderates or radicals. The Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, issued a form letter to authorities in various towns offering aid, including arms, to put down Chartist associations and gatherings, and ordered reports of the proceedings of the Convention.
The Convention sent out delegates around the country to spread the word and raise funds to pay for the petition, and collect sheets of signatures.
By the time the Petition was ready to be presented to Parliament, it contained one and a quarter million signatures from over two hundred towns and villages, weighed a quarter of a ton, and stretched 3 miles long when stitched together. On 7th May the Convention delegates escorted the massive rolled-up Petition on a horse-drawn vehicle draped in the Union, flag to the house of Thomas Attwood, Member of Parliament for Birmingham – once a hero of the movement for political reform. (Attwood, however, although he promised to present the petition, was less than enthusiastic).
On 13 May, the Petition delivered, the Convention abruptly moved to Birmingham. The resignation of Prime Minster Lord Melbourne and his government on May 7 put an end to the prospect of the National Petition being presented to and voted on in Parliament. Scared by the preparations the government had been making in the face of a possible insurrection, many delegates realised support in London for fighting the state forces was not there – much less than in other parts of the country.
Whether pro or anti-physical force, members of the Convention feared they would be arrested. Some wanted to keep their forces together if there was going to be an uprising; others to prevent a rising.
The decision was made to withdraw from London to Birmingham, itself a stronghold of Chartism, and closer to other areas of mass support like South Wales and the North. The possibility of launching a People’s Parliament there seemed safer.
When the Petition was eventually introduced to Parliament on 14th June it was not well received. They refused to consider its content, and on 12th July the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly against it.
Faced with increasing government provocation the Convention issued a manifesto stressing the constitutional and legal aims of the movement.
“Aware of our position… your oppressors are moving heaven and earth to bring us into collision with the enemy. They are pouring spies and traitors into your ranks, in order to seduce the unwary into illegal practices … Our advice is that YOU RIGIDLY OBEY THE LAW; but at the same time be prepared to make your oppressors likeways obey it. Be upon your guard against spies or madmen, who would urge you to illegal practices, but at the same time bear in mind that you have the same right to arm that your enemies have … Parade not your arms at public meetings but keep them bright and ready at home.”
The country was awash with Chartist branches meeting in a feverish state, some arming and parading, while police and army were readied to arrest leaders and activists. The Convention continued to act contrarily, both issuing defiant proclamations but ordering Chartist locals to dissolve meetings at the first sign of trouble. Divisions and uncertainty increased, and several of the blustering ‘physical force’ leaders were irresolute. Arrests of Chartist leaders and some armed groups began. Meetings were prohibited. A police raid on a Chartist meeting in the Birmingham Bull Ring led to a pitched battle; the police were driven out, forcing the authorities to send in troops to restore the government’s authority. On July 5 William Lovett, for all his moderation and “moral force” was arrested.
A week later the Petition, with over one and a quarter million signatures, was rejected by 235 votes to 46. Now the Convention had to act or dissolve. There was no hope of concessions from the existing House of Commons.
The Convention decided on a country-wide General Strike, in the form of a Sacred Month, based on William Benbow’s idea of a working class taking a Grand National Holiday to win power. The Convention proclaimed “that the people should work no longer after the 12th of August next, unless the power of voting for Members of Parliament to enable them to protect their labour and their rights is previously given and guaranteed to them.”
Very quickly, though, the dithering Convention reversed this call, On August 5 the Convention, abandoned the “Sacred Month “ and called, instead, for a token strike of “one, two or three days.” Thus leaving much of the movement confused and angry.
It soon became obvious that there was not enough support for the Sacred Month, and despite an initial turnout in some parts, it fizzled out. Support from the trade unions was patchy. With sustaining even a token strike beyond their powers, on September 6 the Convention decided to dissolve.
The abandonment of the abortive General Strike left the moderates on the back foot and the physical force advocates both enable and strengthened. Plans for uprisings in Wales, Yorkshire and even London began, though there was just not enough will for a general insurrection… At Newport in South Wales, an insurrection was quickly defeated in November 1839, and scattered armed groups in other areas were arrested pre-emptively.
The rejection of the first Petition, and the failure of the Sacred Month and abortive uprisings ended the first phase of Chartism.
Yet again, the failure of the mass agitation of 1848 ended in insurgent plots and plans.
Accounts of some later Chartist Conventions and conferences:
The 1851 Convention