material culture

The People’s Charter: a radical pamphlet

The People’s Charter exists as a text on three levels. First the six points – a succinct spelling-out of Chartism’s objectives, and easy to remember. Then the petition – a reasoned argument for the reforms that explains why they are needed. And finally, the Charter itself – published in the same format as so many radical pamphlets now long-forgotten, but including the outline of an Act of Parliament that might turn all of this into law.

Title page of the People’s Charter. Click for larger image.

The document shown here is the Charter in this its most developed form. Published by the London Working Men’s Association in September 1838, it is, as the title page says: ‘The People’s Charter | Being the Outline of an Act | to provide for the | Just Representation of the People of Great Britain and Ireland | in the | Commons House of Parliament’.

The size of a small paperback book, it runs to just 36 pages in total and was intended to be widely read.

Click here to download the document in PDF format.

First impressions: the title page

It is worth noting that the title page includes a significant volume of text, all of which serves a purpose. First, the title: this is the People’s Charter, but in this format (more substantial than the six points, with a different purpose to the petition), it also provides the outline of a possible Act of Parliament – not a detailed piece of legislation, as the LWMA’s address in the body of the document notes, but enough to show that the six points can be translated into practice. This is a document aimed not at MPs, but at a wider constituency – ‘the people of the United Kingdom’.

Furthermore, though the title page succinctly sets out the six points, it makes clear that these are not abstract demands sought for their own sake. Rather, they are the ‘principles’ that the Chartists believe will deliver their end: ‘the just representation of the people of Great Britain and Ireland in the Commons House of Parliament’.

The title page goes on to explain the origins of the Charter: ‘Prepared by a committee of twelve persons, six Members of Parliament, and six Members of the London Working Men’s Association.’ The text both asserts the Charter’s respectable credentials and places MPs representing those who already have the franchise on the same level as the working men of the LWMA who on the whole do not. It aims at credibility both inside and outside Parliament.

But importantly, the Charter is not offered to the people as fixed and immutable. This is the third edition, ‘revised and corrected, from communications made by many associations in various parts of the kingdom’. This is no longer the London Working Men’s Association’s Charter, it is the People’s Charter. Despite which, of course, the LWMA remained central. Three names appear here: Henry Hetherington as publisher; and John Cleave and James Watson as sellers of this significant document. Along with William Lovett, the principal author of the Charter, these three had been the leading figures in the earlier campaign against stamp duty on newspapers (the ‘taxes on knowledge’) and had worked closely together in the National Union of the Working Classes and other London radical organisations, of which the LWMA was just the latest in a long line.

Finally, the title page concludes with the price: 4d. This would have placed it roughly on a par with the price of a weekly newspaper – the LWMA’s own paper, The Charter, cost 6d, the Northern Star 41/2d, but this was not insignificant at a time when a skilled carpenter might aspire to 5s a day and many people earned far less. It was common to read newspapers shared with friends and family or at coffee houses and in beer houses.

Mechanism for a secret ballot

Illustration B: two views of a ballot box. Click for larger image.

Look inside the Charter and you will see that page two consists entirely of illustrations and text demonstrating how a secret ballot might work in practice. Today the use of ballot papers seems obvious, but without a great deal of precedent to draw on, the authors of the Charter suggested a mechanical solution which would involve the voter placing a brass ball in one of a number of holes, each of which represented a candidate.

Illustration B shows two views of the ballot box. In this example, there are five candidates, and five holes on top, each marked with a candidate’s name. The brass ball would have been dropped into the correct hole, engaged a clockwork spring and pinion attached to the clock shown at the front and moved the count on by one each time. During voting, the front of the box would have been closed, as shown on the right hand side of the illustration, to maintain secrecy. The ball itself would have emerged from single hole at the bottom of the mechanism and rolled down a sloping table (marked as 4) to be retrieved for the next voter.

Illustration A: the voting room. Click for larger image.

As illustration A shows, this whole mechanism, slightly reminiscent of a pinball-machine, was to be embedded in a wall (number 4), the voter passing along a short corridor between doors marked at 2 and 3, seeing only the holes in which to vote. The ball would emerge into the main room in which sat the deputy returning officer, candidates’ agents, clerks and others.

This does have some advantages over paper ballots of the type we use today. The results would have been available instantly voting finished, shown on the clockfaces of the ballot machine; and there would have been no room for human error in counting votes towards the wrong candidate.

However, it is not clear how the mechanism would have worked. The Charter itself says: ‘We understand that a Ballot Box of this description has been invented by Mr Benjamin Jolly, 19 York Street, Bath, and it is so constructed that not more than one ball can be put in at a time by any voter.’

There must, however, be some concerns that the mechanism might be forced into counting two votes at a time if the voter dropped the brass ball with sufficient enthusiasm. Or perhaps that the mechanism could seize up, with officials having to open the machine to free a trapped ballot ball. Would the clocks then potentially zero themselves? Finally, of course, there would be no possibility of a recount without rerunning the entire vote.

LWMA address: a work in progress

Facing all this is the opening page of an address from ‘The Working Men’s Association | To The | Radical Reformers | of | Great Britain and Ireland’. This makes clear that the objective in this publication is not to rehearse the arguments for and against the Charter. Rather, it is to advance ‘some practicable step in favour of Reform’. Nor is it merely about trusting politicians who have seemed to side with the cause of the people. ‘We have seen one zealous Reformer after another desert us as his party was triumphant, or his interests served.’

The address goes on to explain that the Charter document includes the ‘outline’ of an Act of Parliament. ‘As a Bill in detail embracing all the legal technicalities required, would be very expensive in the printing, and but ill-adapted for the general reader.’ It then rehearses the history of the Six Points over the previous fifty years, including a 1792 proposal by the Whig Society of Friends of the People, among them Charles Grey (later prime minister as Lord Grey), for the right to vote to be extended to all.

The address records that, ‘Copies of this outline were forwarded to most of the Working Men’s Associations and Radical Associations in the Kingdom, and it has been met with general approbation.’ It had been adopted by great public meetings, including at Birmingham on 6 August 1838 where there were 200,000 people present. ‘We also received very valuable suggestions for its improvement from a great number of societies, and this revision is made (as far as our judgment deems it reasonable) to accord with the wishes of the majority.

The address notes that it has been difficult to fix some of the voting qualifications ‘because of many of the barbarous and unjust laws, which corrupt and selfish legislators have enacted’. While the authors agree with most Reformers that anyone convicted of a felony should lose the right to vote, ‘we think the law which makes it a felony for a boy to steal an apple, or to kill a wild animal which crosses his path, is as cruel as it is unjust. The address also calls for the right of citizenship – including political rights – to be extended to those ‘who for some definite period. Have taken up their abode among us, and are willing to declare their allegiance as citizens’.

Finally, it addresses the question of voting rights for women. The passage is worth quoting in full:

‘Among the suggestions we have received for improving this Charter, is one for embracing women among the possessors of the franchise. Against this reasonable proposition we have no just argument to adduce, but only to express our fears of entertaining it, lest the false estimate man entertains for this half of the human family may cause his ignorance and prejudice to be enlisted to retard the progress of his own freedom.

‘And, therefore, we deem it far better to lay down just principles, and look forward to the rational improvement of society, than to entertain propositions which may retard the measure.’

The address is signed by the fifteen members of the LWMA’s committee, all of them working men: warehousemen, printers, a tailor and a shoemaker, a labourer, painter and bracemaker. The date remains as it was in the first edition of the address: 8 May, 1838.

Outline of an Act of Parliament

The remaining pages of the Charter are taken up by the outline Act, defining voting rights; the division of the country into 300 electoral districts of around 20,000 voters each; plans for the appointment of returning officers and setting out their duties; the role of parish clerk in compiling registers of voters; explaining how nominations should be handled and elections organised. It sets out a one year duration for each parliament, from the third Monday in June to the first Monday in June of the following year, and the payment of MPs at a rate of £500 each year; and it concludes with regulations for governing the resignation or death of an MP and the penalties for those breaking electoral laws, with those convicted of bribery facing up to two years in prison and the loss of their voting rights for ever more.

And finally… the material document

The document shown and discussed on this page was once part of a bound collection of publications. Such practices were common, enabling their owners to conserve them between stronger and more protective covers – which would also have looked better on a Victorian bookcase. The collection, which probably had no coherence in terms of the subject matter of the documents included, appears to have been broken up long ago, though some vestiges of the binding can still be seen. Though scruffy around the edges, and browning with age, this is still a very legible copy. It can be found in the collection of Chartist material put together by Mark Crail, who runs the Chartist Ancestors website.

Two copies held by the British Library can be seen here. They include a first edition – that is, the first version to be circulated for comments in May 1838.