What was Chartism? The history behind Victoria

The story of the political movement witnessed by Jenna Coleman’s monarch

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Victoria pulls more real-life history into the story of Jenna Coleman’s young queen, with the political movement of Chartism driving the story throughout the ITV drama’s third episode.

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But what exactly was Chartism, who were the people behind it, and how did Queen Victoria really react to it? Read on to find out…


The aims of Chartism

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A contemporary cartoon from Punch magazine

In 1837, six MPs and six working men formed a committee that in the next year published a document called The People’s Charter, laying out six main aims for electoral reform:

  1. A vote for all men (over 21)
  2. The secret ballot
  3. No property qualification to become an MP
  4. Payment for MPs
  5. Electoral districts of equal size
  6. Annual elections for Parliament

As you can see, their aims mainly revolved around the fact that at the time working men were not allowed the vote (land-owning middle-class men had been given the vote in 1832, while votes for women still far in the future) and were barred from positions of government due to the fact that MPs weren’t paid, making it a calling to the already-wealthy aristocracy.

In 1839, the newly-minted Chartists presented a petition including their desired changes to the House of Commons that was signed by 1.3 million people, but MPs overwhelmingly voted not to hear them. This caused a lot of anger in areas including South Wales, as seen in this week’s Victoria.


The Newport Rising

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A Chartist meeting in the year of the rising

The Newport revolt often referred to in tonight’s episode really did happen, and was both the last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in Great Britain and one of the largest civil massacres the government ever committed. On 4th November 1839, two years into Victoria’s reign, 10,000 Chartist sympathisers marched on Newport, Monmouthshire in a bid to free some fellow Chartists supposedly imprisoned in the Westgate Hotel.

However, despite massively outnumbering the soldiers that were sent to meet them the Chartists were easily routed, with around 22 of the marchers killed and 50 injured when the troops opened fire (though accounts are divided on which side shot first).

In the aftermath 200 or more of the protestors were arrested, with 21 charged with high treason.


Victoria and the Chartists

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In this week’s episode, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria intercedes on behalf of the Chartists sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered after discovering one of them is related to her dresser Mrs Jenkins (Eve Myles), instead asking Rufus Sewell’s Lord Melbourne to commute their sentences to transportation.

However, in real life this simply didn’t happen – leaders of the march John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were sentenced to the grisly death (the last to be so sentenced in the UK) before being sent to Australia instead, yes, but in reality this more lenient sentence came after a nationwide petitioning campaign and extremely unusual personal lobbying from Lord Melbourne.

Victoria made no personal intervention, and in fact was generally not known to have much sympathy for her poorer subjects, in contrast to how she’s more sympathetically portrayed in the ITV series.


The end and legacy of Chartism

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Another Chartist petition with over three million signatures was rejected in 1842, leading to a wave of strikes in 14 English and 8 Scottish counties which in turn led to hundreds of arrests by the government.

Later, Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor (pictured) was elected to Parliament in 1847 in a significant boost to the movement, resulting in another petition in 1848 which also failed and was discredited after some names on the several million-strong document were pseudonyms.

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Eventually the movement died down, and did not directly effect any legislative changes. However, over the next few decades many Chartist ideas did become law, including working men being allowed to vote in the Reform Act of 1867, all men getting the right in 1918, secret ballots being introduced in 1872 and MPs receiving a wage from 1911.