The National Charter Association was the largest, longest lived and most central of the membership bodies to emerge from the Chartist movement. This short history explains the importance of the NCA and its development from its launch in 1840 to its final demise in 1860.
The National Charter Association could easily have become just one of the numerous ineffective and short-lived organisations set up by the various radical factions embracing the People’s Charter in the two decades after 1838.
Launched at a conference in Manchester on 20 July, 1840, the NCA’s beginnings were inauspicious. Just 23 delegates attended the event, only three of whom had been delegates to the first Chartist convention the previous year.
At the time, neither of the great central figures of Chartism could have attended had they been inclined to do so: Feargus O’Connor had been imprisoned in York Castle that May, while William Lovett was released only later the same month after serving a one year sentence in Warwick Gaol.
But the NCA was to grow into one of the central institutions of Chartism, ranking alongside O’Connor’s Northern Star newspaper and the Chartist Land Company in its importance as a means of unifying, organising and giving legitimacy to an otherwise disparate movement.
It organised the two later great petitions of 1842 and 1848, along with later and somewhat smaller petitions, served as the parliament of the Chartist movement, ran and supported Chartist candidates at election time and oversaw efforts to raise funds for Chartist prisoners and their families.
Dorothy Thompson, in her book The Early Chartists (Macmillan 1971), points out that the National Charter Association “appears to have been successful in establishing a legal framework for the first nationally organised party of the working class to exist in the world”.
The Manchester conference, taking place over the course of a week at what was then the Griffin Inn on Great Ancoats Street, was well timed.
Beyond the short-lived Chartist convention of 1839, Chartism had no co-ordinating body. After Parliament rejected the first Chartist petition in 1839, and in the wake of the crackdown that followed that year’s widespread unrest, the whole movement could easily have dissipated.
Instead, the NCA gave it focus and was at the centre of a great revival in the fortunes of Chartism. It would endure despite the mass arrest of its leaders, ideological splits and repeated financial crises for the next 20 years.
At its peak in 1842, the NCA had around 400 branches and 50,000 members. But as the Chartist historian Professor Malcolm Chase pointed out in his article on the National Charter Association of Great Britain for the Dictionary of National Biography, some caution is needed.
The NCA’s reach into Scotland was always limited, and even in England it could be patchy. As Professor Chase put it: “It always appeared more coherent and comprehensive on paper than on the ground.”
Plan of action from the Manchester conference
The Manchester conference spent a considerable amount of time reading out loud various plans of organisation submitted for its consideration. These included a proposal for a secret society sent in by “A Republican” to a detailed plan of action submitted by Feargus O’Connor.
In the end, the NCA adopted a constitution which gave it a Manchester-based executive committee with a Chartist council for every town (in theory) and “classes” consisting of 10 members as the lowest level of organisation.
The whole owed much to the trade union experience of many activists as well as to Methodist organisation and to Owenite bodies.
1840-1842: early years of the National Charter Association
Many existing Chartist groups were at first reluctant to affiliate to the new National Charter Association, either through opposition in principle to central organisation, or fearing that its activities could be illegal under the Corresponding Societies Act 1799.
By the end of 1840, fewer than 70 localities had affiliated, and these were concentrated in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and in London. As the historian Richard Brown remarks, “Birmingham and the West Midlands and Scotland showed little interest”.
Concerns about the illegality of the NCA were addressed as early as February 1841, when a second conference revised the rulebook to make clear that its members had joined a single, national body. By the end of 1841 the NCA had 282 branches with 20,000 members and was still growing.
The NCA proved its worth in its organisation of the second Chartist petition, but then failed once again to rise to the challenge presented by its rejection and was unable to offer clear leadership during the wave of strikes of 1842.
1843-1848: the land plan and the third petition
Following a financial crisis and the adoption of the Chartist land plan, at the instigation of Feargus O’Connor, the executive relocated to London in 1843.
The next few years were spent largely in promoting the land scheme, but with a general election approaching in 1847, the NCA set up a central body to co-ordinate the election of Chartist MPs. The move was not as successful as hoped, but formed the basis for the launch of the next petition.
Both the NCA and the Northern Star put in considerable effort to the collection of signatures for the third Chartist petition of 1848, but over-excitement at the wave of revolutionary activity in France encouraged the NCA to bring forward plans to present the petition, with disastrous consequences.
Nearly quarter of a million signatures failed to reach Westminster in time to be added to the petition, and Feargus O’Connor’s easily disproved claim that it held more than 3.7 million signatures helped to undermine the Chartist case.
After 1848: the long decline of the National Charter Association
The failure of the third Chartist petition had been widely anticipated. But the indecision of Feargus O’Connor and the executive when confronted by the power of the state on 10 April 1848, and the farcical row over how many signatories were on the petition did much to sap the Chartists’ morale.
Even as preparations were being made for an armed rising in London, possibly with the knowledge if not the tacit support of the NCA leadership, an inquest was under way. The suppression of the Orange Tree conspiracy and a wave of arrests put the NCA firmly on the back foot.
After 1848, the history of the NCA was not a happy one. O’Connor, his authority compromised, his land plan in ruins and with signs of the mental health issues that dogged his final years in evidence, played a less central role while Ernest Jones and George Julian Harney moved to the fore.
A fourth Chartist petition in 1849 managed not millions but tens of thousands of signatures.
As membership went into a precipitous decline, perhaps to as few as 500 members, faction fights broke out, with rival conventions taking place early in 1851 as O’Connor and his supporters in Manchester attempted to seize control from Harney and the London-based Left of the movement.
It was at the London convention in March 1851 that the NCA now committed itself to a socialist programme – “the Charter and something more”.
Alas the decline continued. A fifth Chartist petition in 1851/1852 was a still more derisory failure. Jones and Harney fell out for good. The Northern Star, acquired by Harney and relaunched as the Star of Freedom, folded before the end of 1852.
Although the National Charter Association struggled on, it did so largely through the person of Ernest Jones, who now formed a one-man executive committee. A final convention in 1858 effectively spelled the end as Jones transferred his allegiances to the Liberal Party, and two years later the NCA was formally wound up.