Following the Chartists around London

Last Monday, I took part in an event organised by Dr. Katrina Navickas of the University of Hertfordshire and British Library Labs called Following the Chartists around London. Dr. Navickas won a competition run by the Labs to develop a project that makes use of the British Library’s digital resources. As a result she is currently working on the Political Meetings Mapper, a project mapping all of the Chartist meetings listed in the Northern Star, one of the most popular Chartist newspapers. The Following the Chartists event was part of this project.

Katrina Navickas, in full Chartist costume, introduces her Political Meetings Mapper project.

Dr. Katrina Navickas, in full Chartist costume, introduces her Political Meetings Mapper project.

The afternoon began with lunch and a series of talks. Mahendra Mahey, manager of the British Library Labs project, introduced the British Library Labs and their work. Dr. Navickas explained the Political Meetings Mapper and gave a brief history of the Chartists. Dr. Matthew Sangster (Birmingham University) talked about his website romanticlondon.org, which uses contemporary maps and representations to explore romantic-era London. Finally, Professor Ian Haywood (Roehampton University) discussed the visual representations of ‘monster’ meetings- large, outdoor political meetings. The Chartists used this tactic frequently. We then embarked on a rather damp walking tour of Bloomsbury and Soho, visiting the sites of Chartist meeting places. In some cases, the pubs are still there, in others they have become stationary shops, or the building sadly no longer exists. The tour ended at the Red Lion in Kingly Street in Soho, which hosted meetings of both the Chartists and the London Corresponding Society.

Following the Chartists around London walking tour route (Source: Katrina Navickas).

Following the Chartists around London walking tour route (Source: Katrina Navickas).

We weren't about to let a little bit of rain stop us!

We weren’t about to let a little bit of rain stop us!

At the Red Lion we re-enacted a Chartist meeting that took place in December 1838. This is where I came in; I played the roles of a female Chartist of St. Pancras/ Mr. Cardo, who proposed the following resolution:

This is the most important crisis that has existed for the working classes. At the present moment we possess a power most mighty in its operation, one that is to be viewed by us with the highest feelings of delight and by our enemies with dread and alarm (Cheers.) … the Radicals are determined to be staunch to a man, and the people united will carry the day.

RESOLUTION: That this meeting considers a perfect union among all the Radicals absolutely necessary for the accomplishment of Universal Suffrage.

A recent Chartist conference in Edinburgh had proved devisive, and there was a sense that all the various groups and factions needed to get back on the same track, quickly. Only with a united front could universal (male) suffrage be won. Mr. Cardo’s motion was passed unanimously by our meeting.

Me, Samantha Walkden and Alexandrina Buchanan, some of the volunteer Chartists.

Me, Samantha Walkden and Alexandrina Buchanan, some of the volunteer Chartists.

The whole afternoon was great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed wearing a bonnet and apron, even if we did get some funny looks as we wandered around London. The talks highlighted the potential of digital research methods in relation to archives. Around 2% of the British Library’s collections have been digitised, which may not sound like a lot, but considering the Library holds well over 150 million items, it is a huge amount. Dr. Navickas has used computer programmes to transcribe newspaper articles, date meetings, and create maps that begin to interpret the data. The transcription software still needs a human to check its results, and all of this could have been done by hand, but it would have taken an awful lot longer. When it is finished, I think the Political Meetings Mapper will be a valuable tool for academics, students, and the simply curious; a resource which others can use to develop our understanding of the Chartist movement.The walking tour and re-enactment demonstrated how the Political Meetings Mapper could be used.

The British Library Labs project is doing valuable work raising awareness and promoting engagement with the Library’s digital collections. I learnt a lot about the possibilities of digital research methods, and would love to try and work it into my own work somehow!

If you want to do the walking tour yourself, see Dr. Navickas’ guide here.

Turbulent Londoners: William Cuffay, 1788-1870

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is William Cuffay, a prominent Chartist leader and activist, despite significant disadvantages.


The prominent London Chartist leader William Cuffay.

The prominent London Chartist leader William Cuffay (Source: Wikipedia).

William Cuffay was the son of an ex-slave from St. Kitts and a woman from Kent. Born in 1788 in Medway Towns (now Gillingham), he trained as a tailor and moved to London in about 1819. He married 3 times, and had 1 daughter. Despite being mixed race, less than 5 feet tall and disabled (he had a deformed spine and shinbones), Cuffay became a well-known, daring, respected and committed activist and Chartist leader, to the extent that The Times described the London Chartists as “the black man and his party.”

Cuffay came to activism relatively late in life. In 1834, when he was 36, he was fired and blacklisted after taking part in a tailors’ strike for shorter hours and better pay. This experience convinced him that workers needed representation in Parliament, so got involved in the Chartist movement.

He rose quickly through the ranks of local and national Chartism. He helped form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association in 1839, was elected to the Chartist Metropolitan Delegate Council in 1841, and the following year he was elected President of the London Chartists, and to the Chartist national executive.

The Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, which is largely credited as being the death knell of the movement.

The Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, which is largely credited as being the death knell of the movement (Source: Wikipedia).

Cuffay was a Physical Force Chartist. They advocated the use of violence for their cause, whilst the Moral Force Chartists believed they could achieve their goals with only the weight of their arguments. Cuffay helped to organise the fateful Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common on the 10th of April 1848, and was dismayed by what he saw as the cowardly behaviour of his fellow Chartist leaders. The Kennington demonstration was supposed to be the crowning glory of the Chartist movement, but instead the leaders decided to back down because of the huge numbers of police.

Now utterly convinced that peaceful protest would not get the People’s Charter into law, Cuffay became involved in plans for a violent uprising. He was betrayed by a government spy and convicted of preparing acts of arson- the fires were to meant to signal the start of the rebellion. The affair became known as The Orange Tree Plot, after the pub in Red Lion Square where the leaders of the uprising would meet to plan.

A copy of 'The Poetical Works of Lord Byron' given to Cuffay by his friends in the Westminster Chartist Association when he was transported to Tasmania. He still had the book when he died, 20 years later (Source: William Cuffay, 1778-1870).

A copy of ‘The Poetical Works of Lord Byron’ given to Cuffay by his friends in the Westminster Chartist Association when he was transported to Tasmania. He still had the book when he died, 20 years later (Source: William Cuffay, 1778-1870).

Cuffay was convicted and sentenced to 21 years penal transportation. He arrived in Tasmania in November 1849, after what must have been a truly awful sea journey for a 61-year-old with Cuffay’s health problems. He was pardoned after 3 years, but chose to stay in Tasmania. His wife saved enough money to join him in 1853, and he carried on pretty much as he left off in London, working as a tailor and playing a prominent role in local radical politics. He sadly died in poverty in July 1870, aged 82.

William Cuffay was a man who would not be defined by his colour or physical attributes. Despite being only 4 ft 11, he was known as a charismatic and engaging public speaker, and he quickly became one of the best-known Chartist leaders. He was admired by his fellow Chartists, and fought with conviction for what he believed was right. As far as I know, there are no memorials for Cuffay, in London or Tasmania, but I think he was a man we could all learn a few lessons from.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Chartism,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 24 April, 2015, accessed 10 May 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartism

Anon. ‘Chartists,’ National Archives. No date, accessed 10 May 2015.http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/chartists.htm 

Anon. ‘William Cuffay,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 1 May 2015, accessed 10 May 2015.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cuffay

Anon. ‘William Cuffay (1788-1870),’ BBC History. No date, accessed 10 May 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/cuffay_william.shtml

Gregory, Mark. ‘ Cuffay’s book circumnavigates the World: 1849-2013,’ William Cuffay, 1788-1870. No date, accessed 10 May 2015. http://cuffay.blogspot.co.uk/

Rosenberg, David. Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History. London: Pluto Press, 2014.

Simkin, John. ‘William Cuffay,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified April 2014, accessed 10 May 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/CHcuffay.htm