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date: 01 December 2020

National Charter Association of Great Britainfree

(act. 1840–1858)
  • Malcolm Chase

National Charter Association of Great Britain (act. 1840–1858), was founded by twenty-three delegates, chaired by James Leach, meeting at the Griffin Inn, Great Ancoats Street, Manchester, on 20 July 1840. Until that point Chartism had had no formally constituted co-ordinating body (except haphazardly the general convention of February–September 1839), an issue of increasing concern to the movement after the rejection of its 1839 national petition and the unrest (especially the Newport rising led by John Frost) that followed.

Many organizational proposals circulated early in 1840, and the initial constitution had to be refined (mainly to avoid liability for prosecution as an illegal society) at another Manchester conference held the following February. The essential character of the organization was, however, clear from its inception. Membership was open to all prepared to signify their agreement with its objective: 'to obtain a “Radical Reform” of the House of Commons, in other words, a full and faithful Representation of the entire people of the United Kingdom'. 'None but peaceable and constitutional means shall be employed, such as public meetings to discuss grievances … and to petition Parliament'. A hierarchy of local, district, and regional representative bodies was headed by a national executive (elected by all members and comprising a salaried secretary, treasurer, and five ordinary members). It was 'urgently recommended that strict sobriety be observed by all members and officers' (Aims and rules, Northern Star, 1 Aug 1840).

The formation of the National Charter Association was a bold step, taken without Chartism's leading figure Feargus O'Connor, later an executive member, who was in prison in 1840–41, or any other nationally prominent Chartist. Only three delegates to the 1839 convention participated in its formation. Instead a new cohort of leaders came to the fore, notably Leach, a Manchester mill worker and trade union activist whose presidency of the provisional executive made him Britain's first formally elected national political leader. Leach's later claim to have devised the whole concept of the National Charter Association was overstated (R. K. Philp was certainly also influential) but it undoubtedly bore the imprint of Leach's trade unionist perspective. As a national political organization the association was also innovatory: it had a formal constitution with explicit aims and criteria for membership and it rested on individuals' subscriptions (twopence quarterly) rather than, as was the case with parliamentary parties, expression of 'interest' and the personal largesse of wealthy supporters. It also sought to be inclusive. Its membership card gave symbolic, equal emphasis to images of a female and a male worker and, while the Charter called only for universal male suffrage (and the position of women and men within Chartism was far from equal), the association made no distinction between the membership rights they enjoyed.

Not the least of the achievements of the National Charter Association was that it held Chartism together, and indeed presided over its renewal when the movement might have collapsed under the weight of the events of 1839. It is, however, necessary to be cautious in assessing the association. Few Scottish communities affiliated and the commitment of English localities was uneven. It always appeared more coherent and comprehensive on paper than on the ground. It was none the less an effective medium for organizing a full-time network of lecturers to promote Chartism and for focusing the efforts of Chartist localities. It alone provided central co-ordination for the movement beyond that derived from the press (notably O'Connor's Northern Star) and to some extent it tempered O'Connor's influence. However, it never shook the latter off while he remained an active force in Chartism. By turning Northern Star over to promote the association O'Connor signalled that the association was the movement's citadel, to be respected and defended even by those Chartists who were not subscribing members. Without the Star the association and its executive would have been paralysed. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the failure to establish its Executive Journal in 1841. Only four issues ever appeared because the executive was too busy to get the journal out regularly.

However, from 1840 until 1857 the association stood for Chartism in its most uncompromising and undiluted form. It thus assumed significance out of all proportion to its numerical strength, and control of the association was at times keenly contested. At one time or another during its history the association embraced virtually all the most active Chartists (with the conspicuous exception of William Lovett, even when urged to stand for its secretaryship in 1843). Those particularly active at a national level, aside from Leach, Philp, and O'Connor, included John Cleave, Thomas Cooper, William Cuffay, T. S. Duncombe, Robert Gammage, Julian Harney, G. J. Holyoake, Ernest Jones, Samuel Kydd, Peter M'Douall, and G. W. M. Reynolds. Energetic local activists included W. E. Adams, William Ashton, George Binns (1815–1847), Samuel Cook, Richard Pilling, and Ben Rushton.

The association's membership peaked around 50,000, organized into some 400 branches, in 1842. This was also the year in which it masterminded the second Chartist petition, signed by 3.3 million people. The association and its executive, however, were less well adapted to respond to fast-moving events outside their immediate control. The mass strike wave of August 1842 saw workers at countless mills in northern England include in their strike resolutions a declaration that labour should cease until the Charter became law. But the association's executive was ill informed about developments and struggled to turn them to the wider movement's advantage. Its decision to convene in Manchester (the strike wave's epicentre) on 16 August was, in the first place, coincidental: the intention was to celebrate the unveiling of a monument to Henry Hunt. Members arrived too late to exert any influence on the direction of the strikes. They did little other than 'express their deep sympathy with their constituents, the working men now on strike', and endorse an address written by M'Douall, To the People, optimistically predicting that the strike would become 'universal … in eight days, then of what use will bayonets be against public opinion?' (Northern Star, 20 Aug 1842). At a local level the association's activists did all they could to intensify strike activity, but the overall situation was summed up by its missionary to Wiltshire: they were 'ready to strike, but they are in want of information as to whether those on strike intend to hold … the general complaint is that there is no public body sitting, either in London or Manchester, to direct the Movement' (Northern Star, 27 Aug 1842).

There was much substance to this complaint, for the executive dispersed promptly on the day following its assembly: the publication of To the People 'with the names of the Executive attached to it, caused the police to look after them very sharply' (Cooper, 211). The only sustained force for cohesion or effective communication was the Northern Star, but its editor, William Hill (1806?–1867), was opposed to the strikes and O'Connor (also sceptical) was in London, preoccupied by a new venture, a daily Chartist newspaper. For entirely separate reasons, moreover, the strike wave was already losing momentum (the last strikers resumed work in September). There was little even an engaged executive could have done to affect this outcome, yet the fortunes of the association became bound up in the strike: eventually all members of the executive were arrested and prosecuted as strike leaders or accessories. When in October Leach and the general secretary, the former powerloom weaver John Campbell (1810–1874), were remanded in custody the association's finances were revealed to be in a parlous state, reinforcing claims from some quarters earlier that year that the officers lacked administrative acumen and, even, personal probity. The immediate crisis was resolved only by levying an emergency subscription, and the efforts of a small group of London Chartists who stepped in to retrieve the association's affairs, chief among them Cuffay and Thomas Martin Wheeler (1811–1862), an Owenite and the Star's metropolitan correspondent. Despite this the association remained under siege. Although most executive members (Cooper excepted) were eventually acquitted of crimes connected to the strike wave, the officers were widely accused of peculation by (among others) Hill.

Campbell confounded all attempts to resolve matters by refusing to produce the association's financial records and then hurriedly emigrating to America. Leach was exonerated but the episode was damaging. O'Connor's vocal defence of Leach and the principle of a salaried executive led to him sacking Hill; more generally O'Connor's influence over the executive became more pervasive. This was most apparent in the revised constitution of 1843, from which all mention of the Charter was expunged in favour of transforming the association into a land scheme (the land being O'Connor's abiding preoccupation in the mid-1840s). This was a legal expedient to secure official registration as a friendly society, which would facilitate the purchase and sale of land and also offer legal redress against defaulters like Campbell. A year later, registration having been refused, the land plan was launched separately and the association's constitution was again revised with the Charter restored to its heart. One feature from 1843 was, however, retained: the executive remained a permanent, London-based secretariat, responsible to an annual convention that also acted as its electoral college. Close scrutiny of the executive was thus ensured, but at the cost of members' direct participation in the association's governance.

The National Charter Association never again captured nationwide attention as it had through the 1842 petition: its aspiration to secure the return of thirty MPs strongly supportive of Chartism was dashed at the general election of 1847, and the national central registration and election committee established for this purpose bankrupted itself supporting the (albeit successful) radical liberal William Williams at the Lambeth by-election of 1850. By then, however, the association was a shadow of its former self. In the spring of 1848 the executive misjudged the state of Chartism and brought forward from late May to 10 April the presentation of a third national petition to parliament. This was done to capitalize on popular enthusiasm (especially evident in London) for the French revolution earlier that year, but provincial Chartism was ill-prepared to mount a concerted campaign so quickly. The integrity of the 1848 petition, together with its disappointing size (1.9 million signatures against a predicted 5 to 6 million), dogged Chartism ever after. Some 240,000 signatures, possibly more, never even arrived in time to be presented at Westminster.

A period of fractious self-examination followed, in which the executive admitted that members totalled no more than 5000. The exposure of plans for a concerted uprising in London and northern England in August 1848 (in which Cuffay was prominent) was a further blow to the organization. An emergency conference at Birmingham that November noted ruefully that 'exciting events abroad had brought many democrats to hasty conclusions' (Northern Star, 11 Nov 1848). A further round of petitioning was agreed, each locality submitting its own petition based on the executive's prescribed text. However, the conference concluded that the association had no means with which to pay more than a secretary, so a new body comprising eight London volunteers was set up in its stead. Nominally this was advised by forty-five provincial activists, but the method of their selection and constitutional authority was ill defined. All pretence that the association was a democratic body had evaporated. Samuel Kydd was appointed secretary, a post that embraced being the association's sole paid missionary.

In July 1849 petitions were presented by just nineteen localities, totalling just 53,816 signatures. Kydd resigned in October, having spent six of his eleven months in office on the road, four without a salary. When the next convention met in December, the situation was so dire that replacing the National Charter Association with a less ambitious National Charter Union was seriously debated. Soon after, the association's membership sank to 500. The executive was riven by sectarian disputes. These stemmed partly from O'Connor's diminishing authority over Chartism, and partly from Harney's and Jones's efforts to extend its core programme to embrace wide-ranging social reforms. Disaffected O'Connorites on the executive formed a National Chartist League to oppose them and, with O'Connor, encouraged Leach to organize an alternative convention in February 1851 at Manchester. Attendance was derisory but the accompanying furore drove Leach from Chartism. The association's official convention that year was superficially more successful, adopting an ambitious programme of social reforms ranging from universal education and unemployment relief to land nationalization. This, however, was the last point at which an effective national Chartist movement can be said to have existed, and the 1851 programme caught contemporaries' attention far less than it did that of subsequent historians.

When, in 1852, the tactic of presenting separate Chartist petitions was repeated, aggregate signatures totalled only 11,834. By then Jones and Harney had quarrelled bitterly over ideological differences and control of the Northern Star. (Harney's victory was pyrrhic: the retitled Star of Freedom failed that November.) Thereafter formally organized Chartism was inextricably bound up with the career of its one-man executive, Ernest Jones. While he was reluctant to compromise on the core principles of the Charter, Jones's vocal antipathy to trade unionism alienated potential support. His reversal of this stance, evident in widening the association's 1854 convention at Manchester to form a ‘labour parliament’, came too late to retrieve matters.

Jones's acceptance from 1857 of the principle of class co-operation spelt the end for the already nominal National Charter Association. In February 1858 the last convention gathered at St Martin's Hall, London. Those present included the engineers' leader William Newton, the octogenarian Robert Owen, and Holyoake. The convention effectively abolished the association by launching a new, cross-class initiative, the Political Reform League, the presidency of which Joseph Sturge accepted. 'They were not going to abandon the Charter, but they were going to obtain what they could towards it, at the same time agitating for the whole six points' (People's Paper, 27 Feb 1858). However, the league did not survive the year. A rival National Political Union for the Obtainment of the People's Charter, formed by Wheeler to agitate for undiluted Chartism, died with him in 1862.

The prolonged and fractious demise of the National Charter Association should not deflect attention from its pioneering format, nor its pivotal role in maintaining Chartism when the events of 1839 could well have consigned the movement to historical oblivion.


  • ‘Aims and rules’, Northern Star (1 Aug 1840)
  • T. Cooper, The life of Thomas Cooper, written by himself (1872)
  • M. Chase, Chartism: a new history (2007)
  • E. Yeo, ‘Some practices and problems of Chartist democracy’, The Chartist experience: studies in working-class radicalism and culture, 1830–60, ed. J. Epstein and D. Thompson (1982)
  • D. Thompson, The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution (1984)