The National Charter Association must have issued membership cards in their tens, if not hundreds of thousands. At its peak it could claim 400 branches and 50,000 members, and there are reports in the Chartist press of meetings at which enthusiastic supporters took cards from visiting speakers as fast as they could hand them out.
Founded at a conference in Manchester in February 1840 after the failure of the second petition and the suppression of the Newport Rising, the National Charter Association helped put Chartism on a sound organisational footing in anticipation of the revival of its fortunes which would follow two years later. The NCA became not just the first mass working class political party (as the historian Dorothy Thompson observed), but the first national political party in history (in the words of Professor Malcolm Chase).
And though the movement was prone to endless realignments as its leaders clashed over policies and the means through which the Charter might be achieved, the NCA remained the largest and most significant of the many organisations which sprang up in the hopeful years up to 1848 and during the disappointment of the long decline until the NCA was finally wound up in 1858.
During that time, the NCA issued membership cards in a number of different designs. Three are shown here, and there may have been many more; but so few have survived that we simply do not know.
The first card pictured right dates to 1843, and the blank subscriptions record on the reverse shows that it would have been valid between October and December of that year. Just under 5 inches high and printed on now yellowing card, t is part of a collection of Chartist material owned by Mark Crail, who runs the Chartist Ancestors website, and is in a very fragile condition.
The front of the card includes a rich mix of messages, both textual and symbolic. Below the name of the organisation, which signals its aspiration to nationwide status in its full name of the National Charter Association of Great Britain, are the six points of the Charter, and the motto “Truth is our guide”. There then follows a reminder of the stark fact that just 800,000 men out of an adult male population of seven million were entitled to vote.
Beneath entries for the holder’s name, membership number and joining date are the names of the NCA’s national officials: Philip McGrath, president; Feargus O’Connor, treasurer; and Thomas M(artin) Wheeler, secretary.
It is worth noting the images that appear on the card: a cap of liberty; a beehive and a bushel of corn representing industrial and agricultural workers; decoration surrounding the motto denoting the different parts of the country, including an Irish shamrock and Scottish thistle; and finally what appears to be a fasces (although it lacks the usual axe head), symbolising collective power and governance.
The oldest surviving NCA membership card is that held by Greater Manchester County Record Office (catalogue entry). Issued to James Cheetham, a joiner who lived at Side o’ th’ Moor, Lees Road. Although undated, it carries the authorisation of James Leach as president – an office he held from the launch of the NCA through to 1842. This same card, was reproduced in a 1913 book titled Landmarks of Local Liberalism, from which the image, right, is taken.
Much of the text and imagery found in the 1843 card can already be seen in this earlier version. The main differences are the inclusion of the masonic all-seeing eye; the male and female figures with spade and rake respectively; and the lion, which appears to be trampling a cannon and pistol. The text “God is our guide” also appears prominently.
Finally there is a later NCA membership card, issued to James Cuttriss in January 1848, which consists entirely of text setting out the objectives of the organisation. Shown below, it is still owned by Cuttriss’s descendants.
Like so much of the ephemera of Chartism, documents that once existed in huge numbers are now almost entirely lost to history.