Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

The People's Charter

Not only child labour but all British labour was undergoing change during the early years of the Victorian Age. Manual work had been replaced by machinery, and rural and pastoral England had become a manufacturing nation.

Where once stood happy homesteads, surrounded by fresh fields, now tall chimneys blackened the air with their fumes, and the flames of blast-furnaces lit up the darkness of the night. The hill-sides were disfigured with rubbish-heaps thrown up by human moles at work under ground, while the clear flowing rivers and streams became black and thick with the refuse of factories. Whole new towns had suddenly sprung up, almost like mushrooms in the night. Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham—all these grew and prospered.

[Illustration] from Reign of Queen Victoria by M. B. Synge


By means of labour-saving machines manufacturers grew rich, but thousands of workers who had supported themselves on home industries were thrown out of work. These poured into the towns, where they lived in unhealthy surroundings, often in underground cellars, herded together in unwholesome crowds. Wages were kept low by the great competition, and the working classes were in a deplorable condition. Agitation was in the air, and this soon took the form of a great political movement known as "Chartism".

Just before Queen Victoria's accession the middle classes had been given a vote in the government of the country by the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832. Up to this time the government of the country had been in the hands of the rich landowners. It was but just that the rapidly increasing class of manufacturers should be fairly represented in the House of Commons.

But the Bill, while it gave votes to the middle classes, left the mass of wage-earners and the agricultural population with no voice in the legislation of the land. It was this huge class of toilers that now arose to call attention to an injustice to which it had awakened.

The Chartist movement had its origin in Birmingham, a great centre of industry as well as of discontent. Here, a few weeks after the accession of Queen Victoria, a great meeting was held, and a petition was drawn up and read by one Daniel O'Connell.

"There is your charter," he said, when he had read the demands of the working men; "stick to that."

From this time forward for the following ten years, those who upheld the petition were called Chartists. Thousands of men joined the ranks, and the agitation spread rapidly through the country. Many people joined simply because they were discontented; they wanted more food and higher wages and shorter hours of work. They felt that the middle classes, with their new-born freedom, were oppressing them; they were a wronged people, and must assert themselves boldly. Their charter, after all, was not very alarming, nor were their demands excessive. They demanded universal suffrage—that is, a vote for every full-grown man; but it was another thirty years before they got anything like it. They demanded that their voting should be secret, because at present it was known how a man voted, and if he voted in opposition to the views of his landlord or employer, he was liable to dismissal. This vote by ballot, or secret voting, was made law in 1872. In addition to this, they demanded the payment of members, so that poor men could sit in the House. This was not accomplished at the death of Queen Victoria.

As the years passed on, the ranks of the Chartists swelled. They included men of all sorts and conditions: there were able men throwing in their lot with idlers who never did a day's work in their lives; there were crazy fanatics and wild enthusiasts—all agreed in a supreme distrust of the middle classes, who were growing rich on the work of the underpaid toilers. Meetings were held by torchlight in secret, and plans made for resort to physical force.

In 1839, Birmingham was the scene of open rebellion, windows were smashed, street lamps broken, houses were burnt, warehouses pillaged. But a more serious riot occurred at Newport, where one of the Chartist leaders had been imprisoned. A number of stalwart Welsh miners arranged to march into Newport two hours after midnight, attack the jail, and release their leader. Armed with swords, pickaxes, and bludgeons they marched away, some ten thousand strong, and entered the town five abreast.

But the news of their movements had leaked out, and the mayor stood ready to receive them in the market-place with soldiers and special constables. A riot ensued; the Chartists came off badly, and their leaders were tried for high treason.

Still the discontent grew, and the Chartist agitation continued. At last they carried a monster petition signed by 3,000,000 people to the House of Commons. Too large to pass through the folding doors of the House, it was necessary to unroll it and lay it on the floor. It demanded that the charter should be passed "immediately and without alteration, deduction, or addition ". This was impossible, and for the next few years more important events eclipsed the Chartist movement, till in 1848 it burst forth once more.

The old charter was revived, and with the addition of some 5,000,000 signatures, the petition was presented to the House by an Irishman, Fergus O'Connor, on April 10, 1848. The Chartists, some 200,000 strong, were to meet at Kennington, cross the River Thames by three bridges, and march in great force to the House of Commons.

But their plans became known, and Londoners prepared quietly for their reception. The Duke of Wellington, then Commander-in-Chief, posted troops to command the approaches to the House of Commons. A huge number of special police stood shoulder to shoulder along the streets of London; they were mostly private citizens, united in a common cause. Peers of the realm stood by shopkeepers, the manufacturer beside his workmen, the merchant among his clerks, resolved that the lawful government should not be driven by physical force.

A series of accidents befell the Chartists: their leaders became alarmed, numbers never turned up at all, and the procession, that was to overawe London, never started. Finally, the famous petition was carried to the House in five cabs, and quietly presented. But it turned out to be a fraud. Only 2,000,000 names had been genuine. Many people had merely amused themselves by signing famous names, such as those of the Queen, the Prince Consort, the Duke of Wellington.

Chartism had failed; but the movement drew attention to many undoubted grievances of the working classes, and caused thoughtful people to devote serious study to new problems.