The Chartist movement was a radical movement for political and social reform that emerged throughout Britain in the mid-19th century. It was arguably the first mass working class movement for reform. The demands of the Chartists included annual Parliaments, votes for all men over 21 regardless of class, vote by ballot and the payment of MPs. Yorkshire was home to some of the most significant Chartist leaders and incidents of social unrest.
The 1832 Reform Bill did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Many working-class radicals felt they had been betrayed by politicians and began to draw up reform programmes of their own. In 1836 the London Working Men’s Association produced 'The People’s Charter', which called for major changes in the Parliamentary system. Mass rallies of workers assembled in Lancashire and Yorkshire to support the Charter. The crowds that flocked to these events carried banners displaying angry slogans such as “More pigs less parsons” and “For children and wife, we war to the knife”. A photograph of a Skelmanthorpe banner is held by Kirklees archives (ref: KC1060/6)as well as posters and handbills (ref: KC609).
The Chartists were split between those who advocated violence to achieve their aims, and those who preferred more peaceful methods. The disagreement between the ‘Physical Force’ and the ‘Moral Force camps’ hampered the Chartist movement from the beginning. Physical Force appealed to workers in the North, where anger at poor working conditions and general social oppression was very high. The situation was enflamed by an Irish radical named Feargus O’Connor, who toured Lancashire and Yorkshire making fiery speeches and encouraging the people to take direct action against their oppressors.
Following a failed uprising in South Wales, during which soldiers fired into a crowd and Chartist leaders were sentenced to transportation, the focus of Chartist activity switched to Yorkshire. Feargus O’ Connor was the dominant Chartist leader in the North and the popular newspaper 'The Northern Star' became his mouthpiece. Chartism in Leeds was mobilized by his aggressive rhetoric. Chartists like Feargus O’Connor, Peter Bussey (‘Fat Peter’) and George White were also influential. Bradford archives hold a biography of Peter Bussey written in 1896 (ref: DB6/C36/10)
A huge meeting was held on 15 October 1838 on Hartshead Moor. Thousands attended from every Chartist town in the West Riding and after listening to the pro-violence speeches became determined to act. Further vast meetings were held in the following months, and for a brief moment it seemed that the entire West Riding might rise up in revolution against the government.Records at Calderdale archives show that military measures were planned for any insurrection between 1838 and 1840 (ref: HAS:1388/612)
In the event, there was no mass uprising in Yorkshire. The government kept a close watch on Chartist meetings, deploying spies among them and mustering yeoman cavalry to deal with any potential violence. Gradually the moderate voices of Chartism prevailed in Leeds, preventing any violence there, while firebrands such as George White, Feargus O’Connor and Peter Bussey were either arrested or fled abroad. However there were uncoordinated risings in Sheffield and Barnsley. The more moderate form of Chartism remained, for example the Chartist ideals can be found in the papers of the Fielden family of Todmorden (ref: WYC:1228) held at Calderdale archives.
Violence did break out in Sheffield in 1839, when the arrest of seventy Chartists led to the town hall being attacked and running battles with troops and police. Similar trouble was only averted in Barnsley by the arrival of more troops and the Riot Act being read. These disturbances were followed by the failed ‘Sheffield Plot’, in which a group of Sheffield Chartists planned to seize local magistrates and town hall, while at the same time riots were to take place in Dewsbury and Nottingham. The conspirators were betrayed and most were arrested, and peace was restored in Sheffield by the swearing in of over five hundred special constables.
The Chartist movement continued between 1840 and 1860. The Little Horton Account Books 1840 -1866 held at Bradford Archives(ref: DB4/C1/1) contains lists of members of the movement and their contributions. Appeals for reform were made to Parliament. A print of the presentation of the Great National Petition to Parliament, 1842 (ref: WDP 9/422)is held in the Dewsbury parish collection.
Chartism re-emerged in 1847, when a slump in trade led to a sudden resurgence in mass working-class protest. For a while England seethed with unrest and in Yorkshire there were clashes with police in Bradford as thousands of workers drilled on the Yorkshire Moors. There were also riots in Bingley. On Good Friday 1848, Joseph Barker, Ben Rushton and others spoke to a crowd of around 20,000 Chartists who met on The Moor at Skircoat with 500 special constables on duty at the meeting.
The movement was undermined by its leaders who were indecisive. The in-fighting of these leaders led to the collapse of the Chartist movement. By the mid-1850s the movement was dying out in the North. However, though the Chartists failed to overturn the established order, most of their desired reforms eventually became part of the British system of government.