What was Chartism? The history behind Victoria

The story of the working-class movement that rattled the Victorian political establishment

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After a starring role in season one of Victoria, Chartism is back in a big way in season three as the ITV.

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The year is 1848, the continent is rocked by unrest and revolution, and this working-class movement for political reform is on the rise…

But what exactly was Chartism, who were the people behind it, and was it violent? How did Queen Victoria really react to it? Here’s what you need to know:


What was Chartism? 

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Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform. For two decades, this national protest movement pushed for greater democratic representation for the average man.

The focus was on constitutional methods including petitions and peaceful mass meetings, although there were some who turned to violence and insurrection.


What was the People’s Charter?

In 1837, six MPs and six working men formed a committee. The following year they 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. It 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.


What was the Newport Rising and how did it end?

The Newport revolt often referred to in an early episode of Victoria 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.


What did Queen Victoria think about the Chartists?

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In season one of Victoria, the Queen 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 – 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 empathy for her poorer subjects, in contrast to how she’s more sympathetically portrayed in the ITV series.


How did Chartism make a comeback?

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There were three moments when support for Chartism peaked: 1839, 1842, and finally 1848 – as we see in Victoria season three.

In 1842, a Chartist petition with over three million signatures was rejected by Parliament. The Northern Star summed up many people’s feelings with the words: “Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest.”

With workers fired up about Chartism and wage cuts, England and Scotland were hit by a wave of strikes. The government responded with hundreds of arrests, and poverty forced people back to work.

However, Chartist activity continued. Candidates embracing the political movement stood in general elections or took part in hustings, and in 1847 the Chartist leader  Feargus O’Connor (pictured) was elected to Parliament.


What happened in 1848?

The Chartist Demonstration On Kennington Common 1848 (1900)

As Europe was swept by revolution and political unrest, Chartism re-emerged as a powerful force with increasing support among the working class.

On 10th April 1848, a mass meeting was organised on Kennington Common. Between 15,000 and 300,000 people (estimates vary wildly) formed a procession to present a third petition to Parliament which they hoped would be heard.

The government was rattled. 100,000 special constables were recruited to increase police numbers ahead of the meeting, and military action was threatened if the procession attempted to cross the Thames and approach Westminster.

Instead, the petition was delivered to Parliament by a small group of representatives, who declared they had six million signatures.

Unfortunately, the House of Commons responded that only 1.9 million signatures were genuine and many names were pseudonyms. Whether this was true or not, the petition was discredited and failed.


How did Chartism end and what did it achieve?

Chartism continued as a political movement after the defeat of April 1848. At this time, there was the rise of a frustrated group of “physical force” Chartists led by a man called Isaac Ickeringill, and others were driven to planning insurrection – including Chartist leader William Cuffay.

Eventually the movement died down, and did not directly lead to any legislative changes. It is considered to have ended around 1857.

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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.


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