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Last updated:17 February 2017

Chartist movement

Education resources availableThe Chartist Movement to reform Parliament grew out of the demands of the working class in industrial towns for better living and working conditions, and was at its height between 1838 and 1848.

Cartoon of an 1832 reform meeting

1832 reform meeting

The 1832 Reform Act had removed rotten (very small) boroughs and increased the number of seats in industrial towns and large counties, but only extended the vote to property owners and lease holders - the middle class.

In 1836 the London Working Men's Association was founded and in 1837 drew up a Charter of Political Demands.


There were six points:

  1. The vote for every man over twenty one 
  2. Secret ballots
  3. No property qualification for Members of Parliament
  4. Payment of Members of Parliament
  5. Parliamentary constituencies of equal size
  6. Annual Parliaments

The first draft of the People's Charter included the phrase 'adult suffrage', but it was changed to 'adult male suffrage' on the grounds that if women were included, men might have to wait much longer for the vote. However as Chartism was a community campaign in which whole families took part, women were deeply involved.

Signatures of Chartists at the 1839 London Convention

Signatures of Chartists at the 1839 London Convention

The Charter was formally launched in May 1838 and work began gathering signatures for a national mass petition to parliament. The Northern Star newspaper played a key role and in the autumn there were huge rallies in Manchester and elsewhere. The first Chartist convention met in February 1839 and the petition was presented in May, but rejected. Mass meetings were dispersed by police and troops, and many leading chartists arrested.

In July 1840 the National Charter Association was founded in Manchester. The aim was to create a national movement uniting disparate local groups.

A second petition, demanding higher wages and shorter hours, as well as the six points, gathered over 3 million signatures. Presented to Parliament in May 1842, it was rejected. In late summer a general strike in support of the Charter swept across Lancashire, and spread to other parts of the country. The government poured in troops and strikers were eventually forced back to work. In the aftermath the government arrested hundreds and 80 were sentenced to transportation. The following year Feargus O'Connor and 58 other leading figures were tried and convicted but never sentenced.

Chartism declined with the period of economic expansion between 1842 to1846, but the slump in 1847 saw its revival. With unemployment increasing, the NCA started to plan a new third Petition and Convention.

Cover of Manchester and Salford Chartists by Edmund and Ruth FrowIn the wake of the French revolution in February 1848, the petition was presented to Parliament on 10 April after a large meeting on Kennington Common. The government flooded London with soldiers and volunteer constables and there were scores of arrests, with the best leaders imprisoned. Chartism continued for another decade, but was a spent force.

In their book Manchester and Salford Chartists the Library's founders the Frows described Chartism as 'the adolescence of the labour movement'. Its legacy was the growth of trade unions, co-operatives and socialist working class politics.

Related Objects of the Month

December 2016: A special constable is sworn in to help thwart a revolution...

Swearing in certificate for special constableThis recent purchase, part of our Voting for Change project, is a piece of paper showing the swearing in of a special constable as the authorities implemented an extraordinary security operation in the run-up to the big Chartist meeting on Kennington Common in London in April 1848.

December 2009: History of the Chartist Movement by RG Gammage (1894) - Shelfmark: D19

Maxine Peake, actress and friend of the Library, read a passage from Born with a book in his hand about Ruth and Eddie's search for Gammage, at an event for volunteers.

Resources about Chartism in our collection

The Library has an extensive collection on Chartism, including contemporary publications, historical studies, the Northern Star newspaper on microfilm, poetry, novels and prints.

Here's a flavour of what we hold:

Willaim Benbow, Grand National Holiday, and Congress of the Productive Classes (1997 reprint of an 1832 original) - Shelfmark: D19

David Goodway, The real history of Chartism: or eight fallacies about the Chartist movement (2013) - Shelfmark: AG Chartism Box 2

William Lovett and John Collins, Chartism: a new organization of the people (1969) - Shelfmark: D21

Paul A Pickering, Chartism and the chartists in Manchester and Salford (1995) - Shelfmark: Q18

Rules of the Hawick Chartist Provision Store Society (1851) - Shelfmark: D18

To search our catalogue for more, click here

Click here for learning resources about the Chartist movement