The London Working Men’s Association drew up the People’s Charter, but played relatively little role within Chartism. This page looks at the organisation where it all began.
While London radicalism had a long history, the organisational history of Chartism in the capital can be traced back to two organisations: the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge, founded in 1829, and the National Union of the Working Classes, which emerged from it in 1831. Together, the members of the two bodies would form the London Working Men’s Association.
The two organisations had many members in common, including William Lovett, John Cleave, James Watson and Henry Hetherington, and both in the run-up to the 1832 Reform Act and its immediate aftermath advocated universal suffrage, no property qualifications for MPs and annual parliaments.
However, in the wake of the Reform Act and a failed attempt by the NUWC to call a national convention in May 1833, the primary focus of metropolitan radicalism was on the campaign to repeal stamp duty on newspapers.
This “tax on knowledge” was a repressive measure which effectively suppressed dissent by pricing print culture out of reach of working class readers.
The campaign for an unstamped press, however, saw the launch of numerous newspapers, many of whose publishers and distributors were imprisoned before Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian was declared legal in 1834 and stamp duty reduced two years later from 4d to 1d.
From this campaign grew the Working Men’s Association. This was an elite and elitist group for “persons of good moral character among the industrious classes”, and its membership fee of a shilling a month excluded most working men.
Its object, in the words of William Lovett, was “to draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country. To seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of the equal political and social rights”.
According to the minutes of the LWMA, quoted in the papers of the veteran radical Francis Place, the group first met on 6 June 1836:
“At a meeting of a few friends assembled at 14 Tavistock Street Covent Garden, William Lovett brought forward a rough sketch of a prospectus for the Working Men’s Association. It was subsequently ordered to be printed for further discussion.”
At its next meeting on 16 June, with Richard Moore in the chair, the prospectus was adopted and a provisional committee appointed to draw up rules and regulations. The committee consisted of: Moore, Henry Hetherington, Lovett, Richard Hartwell, William Hoare, John Rogers, George Glashan, A.Morton, C.W.Baker and James Sturgess.
A further meeting on July 17 agreed to invite 33 people to form the nucleus of the association. The Chartist historian Mark Hovell, whose book The Chartist Movement was published in 1920, after his death in the first world war, estimated that between June 1836 and 1839 the LWMA admitted no more than 279 members, and that its membership at any one time probably never exceeded 200.
But its influence was out of all proportion to its size. A petition drawn up in February 1837 to demand the extension of the franchise drew the attention of radical MPs, among them Sir William Molesworth, Daniel O’Connell, Hindley, Sharman Crawford, Joseph Hume, and John Arthur Roebuck.
A meeting of the two groups established only that most of the MPs were reluctant to press for universal suffrage, and the association turned increasingly to direct agitation among the workers. In many parts of the country, LWMA “missionaries” helped establish local working men’s associations.
The most successful of these was Henry Vincent, who after accompanying John Cleave on a speaking tour of the North of England in 1838, setting up associations in Hull, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield, was sent West the following year, working his way through Cornwall, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and, most importantly, South Wales.
Meanwhile, plans were put under way for a committee of 12 to draw up a Bill on which both MPs and the association could agree, but with O’Connell now fulminating against the trade unions and many of the MPs more interested in the cause of free trade, it fell to Lovett to draft something.
This he did. Francis Place suggested improvements to the text, and Robuck wrote a preamble. The whole was then read by the group of 12 (separately, since the whole group never actually met) and published as the People’s Charter.
There was nothing new in the six points of the Charter – all of which had been a part of a single package of demands as far back as 1777. But in conjunction with a petition then being drawn up by the Birmingham Political Union, and a rising tide of discontent fuelled by economic hardship and the first attempts to impose the new Poor Law on the North of England, it gave a focus and a rallying point for what would otherwise have been a diverse set of discontent and protest.
Almost from the point of publication, however, the LWMA itself ceased to play an active part in Chartism. While its members – most notably William Lovett (who became secretary to the first Chartist convention) and Vincent – had a significant voice within the movement, the organisation itself appears to have been neglected.
With the arrest and imprisonment in 1839 of Lovett in Birmingham, Vincent in Wales and subsequently of the LWMA’s treasurer Henry Hetherington in 1840 (for an unrelated offence of blasphemous libel), the LWMA itself ceased to exist as an effective body. By the time Lovett emerged from gaol with his New Move in Chartism, the LWMA was no more and Lovett was forced to found a new organisation – the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.