Chartist things

Thomas Slingsby Duncombe MP

Chartists created, used and interacted with, then left behind, a rich material culture. This page offers an opportunity to find out more about them and see some surviving artefacts from the Chartist era.

Printed texts and documents | Manufactured objects | Portraits and prints | Handwritten papers | Everyday Chartist life | Chartism’s opponents and rivals

Very few will have been involved in making silk scarves and rosettes for the platform speakers at Chartist monster meetings – but many will have experienced the ceremonies in which these precious and meaningful gifts were presented. More democratically, thousands of working class radicals displayed the portraits of popular heroes given away by the Northern Star. Others carried membership cards in their pockets or wore Chartist medallions around their necks. Millions read the broadsheets, petitions, pamphlets and newspapers produced by a thriving Chartist publishing industry, and some will have bought the Chartist breakfast powders and Chartist blacking advertised in their pages.

All of these things helped to build and create a rich Chartist culture in which everyone could participate. Medallions and membership cards reinforced a sense of belonging to the cause. Chartist newspapers were often read collectively, providing a shared understanding of ideas and events. Portraits of radicals past and present were not just something with which to decorate the walls of Chartist homes – they forged a radical pantheon of heroes whose words and deeds might provide ammunition in the fight. And by buying everyday products such as blacking and breakfast powders, the whole of the Chartist family could join in expressing support for the cause – often with the promise that the seller would donate a small sum for every item sold, and in the knowledge that they were denying the government taxes on tea, coffee and alcohol.

But of course Chartists would also have been well aware of the repressive anti-Chartist material culture around them: the largely hostile newspapers with their slanderous attacks and vicious cartoons; the placards posted by the authorities banning meetings and seeking to recruit ‘respectable’ men to serve as special constables; the all-too-material wooden truncheons handed out in their thousands to anyone willing to help police their meetings, and the imposing courtrooms and prisons waiting for those who stepped too far out of line.

Chartist material culture also existed on a larger physical scale: for some at least, the cottages still standing at the Chartist land settlements, though now fitted out with modern luxuries such as electricity and indoor toilets, shaped ever-day life – as did the layout of these Chartist communities, with their schoolrooms as a focal point and absence of beerhouses. There were Chartist meeting rooms. And the grave markers and memorial stones erected in cemeteries across the country have much to say about the Chartist culture of death and commemoration.

A significant legacy of Chartist material culture survives – sometimes well cared-for in archives and in museums (including the Chartist collection at Newport), but often, too, forgotten in boxes of old family papers or the records of now-defunct law firms whose clients may once have included Chartists and their opponents. But, of course, much has been lost to the passage of time. We know that Chartists carried banners at marches and meetings throughout the period, but not a single one survives; the Northern Star, once the biggest-selling paper of its day, was printed and sold in its tens of thousands, and though fortunately a run survives in the British Library, they are virtually never seen otherwise; and at the very heart of Chartist material culture is a huge gaping hole: not a single sheet of the great National Petitions for the Charter still exist. And what became of the O’Connor tartan plaids created by radical Scottish weavers in the 1840s?

The title of this page, Chartist Things, is a nod towards the historian Asa Briggs, who researched and wrote about Chartism among many other aspects of 19th century Britain, and who rounded off his three-part history of the Victorian era with the volume Victorian Things (1988). Here you can find links to some of the Chartist Things that appear on the Chartist Ancestors website.

Printed texts and documents

The People’s Charter: a radical pamphlet
See the foundation document of Chartism published by the London Working Men’s Association in 1838.

The Petition for the People’s Charter
Carrying the full text of the first Chartist petition, this placard from August 1838 invites London’s radicals to a meeting at Palace Yard where they would endorse the petition and elect representatives to the first Chartist convention.

The People’s Charter in red, blue and gold
A large wall poster published in the 1840s by William Lovett’s National Association of the United Kingdom for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.

National Charter Association membership cards
Three surviving examples from among the tens of thousands of membership cards issued by the principal Chartist organisation in the 1840s.

A Chartist broadside ballad
Cheap and easy to produce, broadsides such as this provided a commentary on Chartism and its leaders.

Funeral notice for William Lovett
A small black-rimmed invitation to the funeral and a keepsake of the man who wrote the People’s Charter.

Manufactured objects

Three pewter tankards: the Charter and no surrender
Engraved ‘The Charter, No Surrender’, there is some evidence that these tankards were once owned by the Chartist leader Ernest Jones.

Great Northern Union members’ medal
’Larger than a crown’, this medal was a badge of membership for radicals in the North of England in 1838.

Feargus O’Connor liberation medal
Commemorative token issued to subscribers to the Northern Star in 1841, and worn by some for decades to come.

The O’Connor tartan and Scotland’s radical weavers
Where did it originate, and what did it look like? Unpicking a mystery of Chartist material culture.

Portraits and prints

Portrait of Peter Murray McDouall
One of thirty-four prints given away by the Northern Star to its subscribers.

Engraving to commemorate the 1842 petition
With images of the Chartist convention, the procession to Parliament and of the scene in the House of Commons when the petition was introduced.

CDV photograph of Matthew Fletcher
A small collectible image of Bury’s delegate to the First Chartist Convention, dating to the 1860s or 1870s.

Handwritten papers

To come

Everyday Chartist life

Chartist beverages and breakfast powders
A radical alternative to tea and coffee that could raise money for the Chartist cause and undermine the government.

Chartist blacking: exclusive dealing in the cause of waterproof boots
Every household bought blacking – if only they would buy it from a Chartist dealer the cause would be better funded.

Chartism’s opponents and rivals

Royal proclamation against Chartist strikes – to come

Cartoons depicting magistrates and cavalrymen on 10 April 1848
Sketches of the civil powers by a hostile eyewitness to the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common.

Police truncheon ‘to crack the skull of a Chartist
A rare artefact from 1848.

Membership certificate for the Anti-Corn Law League – to come

Further reading about Chartist material culture

Chartism, Commemoration and the Cult of the Radical Hero, by Matthew Roberts (Routledge, 2019)

Images of Chartism, by Stephen Roberts and Dorothy Thompson (Merlin Press, 1998).

Why are there no Welsh Chartist banners? by Matthew Roberts for The Chartists emagazine

Material Cultures of Class in Scottish Radical Processions, 1832-1884, by Sonny Angus (Labour History Review 88:2, 2023)