What was Chartism? The history behind Victoria

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

Victoria - the people's charter

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

Advertisement

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? 

Victoria series 3 - chartism

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.

Victoria screenwriter Daisy Goodwin explains: “They were a democratic movement who wanted franchise for all, MPs to be paid, all things that we have now. The ruling class were terrified.”

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?

116823

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-formed 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 Rising of 1839
The Newport Rising of 1839 (Getty)

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.


How did Chartism make a comeback by 1848?

CJ Beckford plays Cuffay in Victoria

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

116825

As Europe was swept by revolution and political unrest, Chartism re-emerged as a powerful force with increasing support among the working class. Throughout March 1848, the numbers of people attending meetings and proclaiming themselves as Chartists swelled.

But while the Chartists gathered signatures for a third great petition, the government and the royals were jumpy. Louise Philippe had been removed from the French throne in February 1848, and further revolutions were soon to follow. The movement’s leaders emphasised their commitment to peaceful protest, but the authorities and the propertied classes became convinced they intended nothing short of revolution.


Were soldiers sent on to the streets of London to defend Westminster?

Peter Bowles plays the Duke of Wellington in Victoria

On Monday 10th April 1848, the Chartists organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common in South London. They planned to form a procession to present a third petition to Parliament, which they hoped would be heard.

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. The government deployed 8,000 soldiers under the command of the Duke of Wellington, played in Victoria by the actor Peter Bowles.

Cavalry and infantry were stationed near the bridges, and troops waited near the river. Canons were also readied near Buckingham Palace.

The Queen wrote in her diary on the Thursday: “Albert saw [Prime Minister] Lord John Russell a moment before dinner, who told him that the alarm was so great that it had been thought more prudent to forbid the Procession, the preparations for which were to have been very extensive. An immense number of constables, high & low, had been brought. The troops were not to fire, though there were to be a sufficient number ready at hand to act, if the Police did not suffice. Artillery was to be in readiness, stationed in the stables.”


Did soldiers allow the Chartists to cross Westminster Bridge?

The Chartist Demonstration On Kennington Common 1848 (1900)

Between 15,000 and 300,000 people (estimates vary wildly) turned up at Kennington Common, but they were not allowed to approach Westminster Bridge or any of the bridges that led to the north bank of the Thames.

Instead, by agreement between police commissioner Richard Mayne and Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor MP, the petition was delivered straight from Kennington Common to Parliament in three hired cabs by a small group of representatives. Chartist leaders including O’Connor walked alongside.

“Anxious for news from London, which we at length heard by telegraph after luncheon,” Victoria wrote in her diary on 10th April. “The meeting dispersed quite quietly, without any disturbances. How wonderful! What a blessing! — Late in the evening I heard from Lord John Russell, who was evidently much relieved. [Chartist leader] F. O’Connor was dreadfully frightened & thanked [police commissioner] Mr Mayne for telling him, the Procession would be stopped, & shook him by the hand! Then he addressed the crowd & dispersed them.

“He drove off to the Home Office in a cab, again thanking Sir G. Greig, for what had been done. The loyalty of all classes the excellent arrangement of the Troops & Police, the efficiency of Special Constables, high & low, Lords, & Shopkeepers. — & the determination to put a stop to the proceedings, — by force if necessary, — have no doubt been the cause of the failure of the Meeting. It is a proud thing for this country, & trust fervently, will have a beneficial effect in other countries.”


Was the Chartists’ petition successful?

The Chartists declared they had almost six million signatures. Unfortunately, two days later the House of Commons responded that only 1.9 million signatures were genuine and many names were pseudonyms; 13 parliamentary clerks had apparently counted them all in record time, finding names such as “Victoria Rex” and “No Cheese.” (Sadly, no part of the final 1848 Chartist petition still survives for us to read.)

O’Connor was skeptical that the clerks truly had managed to discount more than 4 million signatures at such speed – had the government simply made up a number to undermine the cause? But whether the figures were true or not, the government’s line was reported by the newspapers and the petition was discredited.

Still, the peaceful meeting and procession showed that the authorities’ fears of violence had been unfounded.


Were Queen Victoria and her family evacuated to the Isle of Wight?

Victoria goes to the Isle of Wight

Yes – Queen Victoria, her six children, Albert and attendants including Lord Alfred Paget moved to the royal residence on the Isle of Wight on Saturday 8th April, two days before the Chartists had scheduled their procession.

Unlike the scene we see in Victoria, the Queen did not stop her carriage and personally approach the Duke of Wellington – and she did not order him to allow the Chartists to cross Westminster Bridge.

On arriving at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, she wrote in her diary: “I felt bewildered at the sudden change, & great quiet after the constant & hourly excitement of this eventful & ever memorable but most sad time which has made an impression on me, I cannot describe & the contrast seems rather trying. Our coming here has made a break which is, at first almost painful to me.”

However, she was in no hurry to return, only arriving back at Buckingham Palace on 2nd May. The day beforehand, she wrote: “Much regretting, that this is our last day here, where in the peace & quiet, we can sometimes for a moment forget all that has passed & is passing.”


What did Queen Victoria think about the Chartists?

VICTORIA_SERIES2_EP1_ 121

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 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 end – and what did it achieve?

Chartism continued as a political movement after the defeat of April 1848, although it never again achieved such a high-profile position.

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 (CJ Beckford in Victoria).

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

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.

Advertisement

By 1918, five of the Chartists’ six demands had been achieved. The only demand never to become law was that parliamentary elections be held every single year.


Sign up for the free RadioTimes.com newsletter