In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.
C is for Chartism, Cuffay and Clerkenwell Green
A luxury block, where a two-bedroom flat sells for £2.3m, stands today on the corner of
the Strand and Arundel Street, which once housed the Crown and Anchor Tavern. Some 4,000 people were standing in and around the grounds of that tavern on 28th February 1837 when the six demands of the People’s Charter were set out by the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), formed a year earlier: They were
• A vote for every man 21 years of age and older
• Voting by secret ballot;
• No property qualification for MPs – opening it up to the poor as well as rich;
• Payment of MPs, so working class MPs who gave up their livelihood to serve in parliament could feed their families;
• Equal constituencies – of voting population; and the only one not realised since:
• Annual parliaments.
There are good reasons why the last one has not been implemented. It is a recipe for chaos which would prevent forward planning by any visionary government. But the impetus was accountability. That demand and the first one were formulated initially by the London Corresponding Society (LCS) who usually met in Exeter Street, not far from the Crown Tavern. MPs, then, served a seven-year term. If you could vote, but didn’t rate your MP, you had to wait seven years to try to unseat them.
A body naming itself the National Union of the Working Classes, formed in 1829, pushed the LCS’s two demands and added what became the second and third of the demands in the People’s Charter. The LWMA added the final two.
The advocates of the People’s Charter – Chartists – campaigned through propaganda leaflets and their own newspapers, through marches, indoor and outdoor rallies, mega-petitions and demonstrations. Their political demands were increasingly married with economic demands to defend and strengthen the working class. The Charter won support around the country with large Chartist groups active in the Midlands, the North, and parts of Wales. in Newport, Chartists attempted an armed uprising in 1839.
Its key London bases were in Bermondsey, Camberwell and Walworth, south of the River, and east London, St Pancras and the City, north of the river, and especially the area around Clerkenwell Green, which by the late 1830s had already established itself as a free speech venue and subsequently an assembly point for Chartist and many other demonstrations. For leftists the Green became “the home of community, commonality and solidarity”. The political right reviled it as “the HQ of republicanism, revolution and ultra non-conformity.”
In London the Chartists mainly recruited skilled workers – tailors, shoemakers, weavers, stonemasons, carpenters. Its membership was largely male, but female chartists asserted themselves too (derided by right wing newspapers as “she-chartists”)
London’s Chartists had a revolving leadership. Key figures were frequently arrested and given enforced breaks in jail. In 1842, a tailor, small in physical stature but big in devotion and spirit, was appointed the Chartists’ London president. That year, the Chartists in London recruited more members than in any other during that decade.
His name was William Cuffay, and in stark contrast to others Chartist leaders, his father had been born into slavery on St Kitts. When Cuffay’s father was freed from slavery he worked as a naval cook, came to Britain and stayed. Her married a Kent woman. William Cuffay was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1788. After being apprenticed as a tailor locally, he moved to London to seek work.
His political awakening took place in 1834 when he reluctantly joined other tailors on
strike. His experience of collective struggle for better conditions and the manner in which he and other workers were treated (he lost his job) challenged his existing conservative views and convinced him that workers urgently needed parliamentary representation.
He started to mix in more radical circles. In 1839 he joined a pro-Chartist group of “Metropolitan Tailors”. In 1842 he was appointed to the Executive of the National Charter Association and then, the London Chartists’ president.
The right wing press referred to him and the Chartists disdainfully as “the black man and his party”, and characterised him as one of the “militants”. This was true. The Chartists comprised two factions united around a common charter: the moral force wing and the physical force wing. Cuffay was one of the latter.
Moral force Chartists believed social change would come through education and enlightenment. When people understood why the Chartists demanded change, lawmakers would be pressured to make far-reaching reforms. The physical force wing argued that people with power and privilege will hold on to it unless compelled to relinquish it. Cuffay’s wing promoted mass grassroots pressure.
In April 1848, the Chartists prepared to deliver their largest ever petition to Parliament in a mass protest. Four simultaneous marches would converge in a park for a mass rally then move as one towards Parliament. The state took extraordinary measures, mobilising soldiers and police, and recruiting thousands of auxiliary volunteer-police (“specials”), to defend against likely disorder.
The Chartist’s mistake was to converge south of the river. Three of the four contingents marched from north of the river. As they rallied in Kennington the bridges were secured by soldiers threatening to use live bullets. Cuffay was among those who wanted to call their bluff. He thought they wouldn’t dare. But other leaders prevailed. They agreed that a symbolic delegation could cross one bridge in a Hackney cab to deliver the petition. As the weather worsened throughout day, the potential revolt was literally reduced to a damp squib.
Serious street clashes with Chartist protesters followed in May and June, including a rooftop confrontation between Chartists and police in Clerkenwell Green.
In summer 1848, secret Chartists meetings were raided, activists arrested, and weaponry recovered. Hundreds of ball cartridges were dug up in a churchyard in Clerkenwell Close, near the Green. Chartists were accused of secreting them there for later use.
Leading Chartists were convicted and imprisoned mainly on the evidence of two police spies, Powell and Davies, who infiltrated the movement, procured weaponry, passed it on to Chartists and put forward some of the more dangerous proposals for possible actions. Many activists were transported to penal colonies in Australia. Cuffay, 60 years old at the time of his trial, was sent to Van Diemen’s Land (renamed Tasmania) for 21 years.
Cuffay told the court: “The present Government is now supported by a regular organized system of espionage which is a disgrace to this great and boasted free country… my request …to be tried by my equals – has not been complied with. Everything has been done to raise a prejudice against me, and the press of this country … has done all in its power to smother me with ridicule… I pity the Attorney General for convicting me by means of such base characters. The Attorney General ought to be called the Spy General. I am not anxious for martyrdom, but after what I have endured this week, I feel that I could bear any punishment proudly, even to the scaffold.”
Cuffay’s third wife, Mary, joined him in Tasmania in 1853. In 1856 he and several other Chartists were officially pardoned. He and Mary chose to stay in Tasmania. He resumed his tailoring work, and promoted working class interests in the workplace and political sphere. He died in Brickfields Workhouse Infirmary in Hobart, Tasmania in 1870. Newspapers in Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria all wrote obituaries for him. One noted that his grave had been marked, should a memorial be built in the future, but along with thousands of other nameless convicts’ graves, it disappeared under a basketball court.