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London Chartism

London was not a centre of new industry but a centre of traditional domestic and craft industries: glass, pottery, furniture, silk handloom weaving and so on. Chartism in London reflected traditional English radicalism dating back to Cartwright in the 1770s. Apart from the building trades and the brewing industry, much of London's employment was in small units, geographically dispersed in small workshops. There were over four hundred different trades requiring different skills and offering different rates of pay. London was the world of declining craft industries. Artisans were the backbone of London Chartism. Silk handloom weavers were the largest single group but other artisans were also involved. There were no factory hands in London. The plight of the silk weavers in Spitalfields played a part in London Chartism. O'Connor called them, 'the originators, the prop and support of the Chartist movement', although they were latent Luddites.

A radical tradition existed in London:

Distress certainly existed in London in the 1830s :

Politicians saw Chartism as nothing new but merely a continuation of the radical tradition in a time of distress. On 20 January 1840 the Morning Chronicle said, 'The Chartists are composed principally of shoe-makers, a few tailors, and carpenters'.

The London Working Men's Association (LWMA)

The LWMA was formed by William Lovett, Francis Place and Henry Hetherington: men after the stamp of Cobbett, Hunt, Cartwright and Hardy. It continued the Eighteenth Century tradition of philosophical radicalism and they believed in constitutional reform as the panacea for all social and economic ills. Reason was to rule all arguments and actions. They were moral force men.

They were concerned about the skilled artisan, not the factory masses. They appealed to the 'intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country'. Many members of the LWMA wanted reform before the Charter was drafted and so they were not influenced by movements in the trade cycle. The London Chartists were dismissed by factory workers as 'middle-class agitators'. Certainly the respectability of artisans - who often were associated with Non-conformity - helped them in their dealings with the middle classes but hindered their dealings with the factory workers. They did not understand factories or factory hands and so had nothing in common with the north of England. The artisans objected to machines per se which made it difficult to create a sense of unity between artisans, domestic outworkers and factory hands.

London was not so active

  1. because levels of employment in London were not subject to violent fluctuations as they were in the north. Not all trades prospered or were depressed at the same time, hence there never was one great mass of people suffering hardship at the same time
  2. because of its size. In 1841 the population of London was about two million. London's working population was too big to act as a unity. Also, it was divided into different areas by local government and geography. In reality, London was a number of towns, not one. Delegates from the provinces who attended the 1839 Convention were disappointed at the lukewarm atmosphere in London.

The LWMA supported optimistic Owenite Socialism. They had a strong belief in education and self-help and believed that the talents of the working man would surface, given the chance. Perhaps they were too optimistic and over-estimated the abilities of the working classes but their approach indicates the literacy of the membership of the LWMA

Henry Hetherington was a London printer who believed in cheap literature, especially newspapers. In 1821 he became involved with the first Owenites and in 1824 was associated with the founding of the London Mechanics' Institute. He was also a leading member, with William Lovett, of the British Association for the Promotion of Co-operative Knowledge and the Metropolitan Trades Union. During the Reform Act Crisis in 1831 he formed the National Union of the Working Classes with Francis Place to spearhead the working-class campaign for a real Reform Bill.

In 1819 the government strengthened the newspaper stamp law to suppress publications such as Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, Wooler's Black Dwarf and Richard Carlile's Republican. The result was to force up prices and restrict legal circulation but actually encouraged an 'underground' press. In 1830 several publishers led by John Doherty in Manchester and William Carpenter in London openly challenged the law by publishing cheap unstamped papers. On 31 July 1831 Hetherington followed suit by printing the 1d. Poor Man's Guardian. At its peak, the Poor Man's Guardian sold 16,000 copies a week and had a wider readership. It has been estimated that for every paper published, at least twenty-five people either read it, or had it read to them. The unstamped press flourished in London and the provinces. It gave working-class radicalism a sense of purpose and fostered organisations, besides establishing a common sense of purpose by

In 1834 a London jury declared the Poor Man's Guardian to be legal but a slightly improved economic position undercut the impact of the paper in any case. In 1835 the Stamp Duty was cut from the 4d (set in 1815) to 1d. This allowed the 'respectable' press to compete with the working-class press. Royle comments that 'The extraordinary thing about the Chartists is that they did manage to support one such paper, the Northern Star, against all the odds'.

Hetherington was soon joined by James Bronterre O'Brien who became the editor of the Poor Man's Guardian. O'Brien established himself as the foremost theorist of working-class radicalism; he preached class-consciousness and political and economic rights for the working man. He also tried to put the class struggle into its European context.

The LWMA developed from the earlier activities of its leaders. Lovett was its secretary, Hetherington was the treasurer. The LWMA was intended to be exclusively for London working men. The 1799 Corresponding Societies Act prevented the LWMA from setting up branch associations, so the newly-formed (and nation-wide) local associations were independent of the LWMA, although they were often founded as a result of the LWMA's missionaries and propaganda.

The history of London's working-class movements is to be sought in its trade societies and in the world of taverns, clubs and friendly societies. Chartism in London grew out of the richness of artisan club life, not out of a ready-made mass movement for factory reform or the abolition of the Poor Law Amendment Act. London's organisation peaked in 1842: by 1848 with the accession of Irish support, London produced more energy and conveyed more of a threat to government than it had in 1839.

London was essential to the success of Chartism because it was there that the government was centred. The disappointing level of the Chartist response in London was widely discussed during the 1839 Convention.

... unless the metropolis be set working, all agitation elsewhere is useless. ...A demonstration in the streets of London comes before the very eyes of those who make the laws. An atmosphere of agitation here does not dissipate without first involving the two houses of legislation in its influence. A hundred demonstrations in the country are only heard of through the newspapers.

Lovett tried to liase with radical MPs like Hume and Burdett, to gain parliamentary support: a rare example of Chartists trying to link with middle- and upper-class men. However, radical MPs opposed Trade Unions although they supported parliamentary reform. This created a split between London and northern Chartists because it seemed that the LWMA opposed TUs also. Lovett was open to severe criticism for this from, for example, Feargus O'Connor. Lovett was not unduly concerned because he was more interested in individual self-help - which was unpopular in the north. His attitude did lose northern support for the LWMA because the north was keen on TUs. O'Connor exploited northern fears that TU activity could become secondary to political activity.

The LWMA's philosophy was limited because it was the end of the Eighteenth Century radical tradition and had little in common with the north or northern Chartists. The LWMA leaned consistently to a policy of working with men of any class who were prepared to help them to achieve the People's Charter.

The LWMA was established in 1836 as a result of two disillusionments:

  1. the 1832 Reform Act, which taught the artisans to be independent of middle-class leaders
  2. the collapse of the GNCTU in 1834, which left an opening for a political movement, if it emphasised the necessity of making basic political reforms (with which the working classes agreed) rather than social reforms/theories (upon which they differed).

The LWMA intended to concentrate its energies on securing political reform and appealed to public opinion. The LWMA was extremely small in size: the total number of members admitted between June 1836 and 1838 was only 279. Its object was to agitate for:

SEE this page for the Address of the London Working Men's Association to the People of Canada (1837) and this page for the Reply of the Central and Permanent Committee of the County of Montreal to the Address of the London Working Men's Association.

Dates for the Foundation of Chartism


26 June

LWMA founded

  October LWMA had already adopted resolutions containing five of the six points of the Charter
1837 24 January

all six points were embodied in a Charter prepared for submission to the Commons

  January East London Democratic Association was founded by Harney
. 28 February first LWMA meeting

LWMA missionary activity began. By the end of the year, they had founded over 100 Associations. Worsening of the economic situation

  31 May/ 7 June Statement of the six points was issued by a meeting of 6 LWMA members and 6 radical MPs


The LDA was reconstituted in opposition to the LWMA

. May The People's Charter was published
1839 27 January

Charter newspaper was published in London

. 4 February General Convention met in London
. 13 April Democrat newspaper was published by Harney in London

10 July

the Convention returned to London from Birmingham


12 April

National Convention met in London


30 November

Northern Star newspaper was published in London (moved from Leeds to London in 1845)

Francis Place, the Charing Cross tailor, was also heavily involved in the LWMA. He kept a radical bookshop in the back room of his workshop. He had successfully worked for the repeal of the Combination Acts (1824). He set up the National Association for the Protection of Labour - an attempt at a TU to help the working man to help himself. He campaigned for the 1832 Reform Act - he hoped that the working man would get something from it.

The East London Democratic Association

This was started in January 1837 by George Julian Harney in opposition tot he LWMA. Harney and James Bronterre O'Brien were alienated from the LWMA by its middle-class links, especially with Daniel O'Connell. The ELDA formed around Harney, O'Brien and O'Connor. In January 1837, with help from the veteran Spencean, Allen Davenport and the radical tailor Charles Neesom, Harney began the ELDA to appeal to more depressed London trades. Its strength came from Spitalfields silk-weavers and East End dockers - the poor. The ELDA began to promote its moral and political position by disseminating the principles advocated by Thomas Paine. Like the LWMA, the ELDA developed out of the National Union of the Working Class

For a time, relations with the LWMA were amicable, although their social compositions and areas of support were different. The LDA claimed a membership of over 3,000 at the end of 1838. It had branches in the City, Tower Hamlets and Southwark. They met in public houses. The turning point seems to have been the Glasgow spinners' strike, over which the Northern Star sided with the LDA against O'Connell and the LWMA. O'Brien and Harney were physical force men who distrusted Place and the classical economists who appeared hostile to trades associations.

George Julian Harney was born in 1817, a cabin-boy turned pot-boy. He was brought up in poverty. He was a bitter man with a desire for knowledge as a means of progress, thus he was involved with Hetherington and the unstamped press. He dressed like Marat; his views were extreme republican; he was a militant 'socialist'; almost a Jacobin. He said of the L.D.A., 'The Jacobin Club again lives and flourishes'.

Harney advocated a revolution:

'Your whole system requires revolution ... your commercial system requires revolution and nothing short of actual convulsion will effect a cure. Establish the Peoples' Charter tomorrow, and the working man will not have one difficulty the less to contend with'.

At this site, the above quotation is attributed to James Cane Coombe. My thanks to Anne Walker for bringing this to my notice.

He was certainly a pre-Marxist, internationally minded - he wanted to create an international workers' union. He was a friend of Engels. He organised Chartism in Sheffield, undertook lecture tours, and effectively was editor of the Northern Star between 1843 and 1850. He saw radicalism as a class struggle. In 1845 he founded the Fraternal Democrats, a European organisation. He also developed close ties between the LDA and Polish refugees.

James Bronterre O'Brien read for the Bar at Trinity College, Dublin. He was much influenced by Rousseau, Babeuf and Robespierre. He reported for the Northern Star from London. With Harney and Ernest Jones, O'Brien sought an intellectual foundation for Chartism as a class struggle. He greatly influenced Harmey, who was not born at the time of the French Wars and who was only fifteen in 1832 when the Reform Act Crisis was taking place.

In April 1838 the ELDA was reconstituted as the London Democratic Association (LDA) with an eight point resolution covering the Charter and more.  The LDA demanded the six points of the Charter as a right and the association attracted all kinds of people. It allied with the northern Chartists because the members of the LDA had little in common with - and was set up in direct opposition to - the LWMA. There was thus a division in London Chartism because the aims, tactics and memberships of the LWMA and LDA. were totally different. Consequently Lovett tried to ally with the Birmingham Chartists in 1838 to counter Harney.

At this site, Anne Walker is working on information related to the London Democrat newspaper which was published between 13 April - 8 June 1839.

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Last modified 23 April, 2017

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