material culture

The People’s Charter in red, blue and gold

The People’s Charter in colour. The original is 20 by 27 inches. Click for larger image.

The magnificent gold of the border and manuscript lettering has faded to a dull brown, but it is still easy to see how impressive this large, brightly coloured text of the People’s Charter must once have been. Printed on far heavier and clearly more expensive paper stock than the numerous cheap prints distributed in their thousands for Chartists to hang in their homes, this was a document made to last, and most likely to hang in a public space.

When the Chartist leaders William Lovett and John Collins emerged from prison in 1840, they had ambitions to establish, as the manifesto they published that September was titled, A New Organization of the People. In counterpoint to the National Charter Association, which had thrown its support behind Feargus O’Connor, they proposed the setting up of a body to be called the National Association of the United Kingdom for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, which would aim to bring education and both social and political improvements to the ‘working classes’.

Lovett had been responsible on behalf of the London Working Men’s Association for drafting the People’s Charter in 1838 and had been secretary to the First Chartist Convention before his arrest in 1839. So he had no intention of abandoning the Six Points for which it had become famous, nor the draft Bill which made up the text of the Charter, and which is reproduced here. But where Lovett and his supporters differed with O’Connor and his was over the means by which it might be achieved. And O’Connor did not hesitate to turn his ire on what he called Lovett’s brand of ‘Knowledge Chartism’, arguing that it was a distraction from the Charter.

The poster shown here was published by Lovett’s National Association – its name appears at the bottom of the page – and it was probably intended to be hung in one of the many ‘public halls or schools for the people’ that Lovett wanted to see established all across the country. The New Plan went into some detail on how these schools should be set up.

‘Such halls to be used during the day as INFANT, PREPARATORY, and HIGH SCHOOLS, in which the children shall be educated on the most approved plans the association can devise; embracing physical, mental, moral, and political instruction; – and used of an evening for PUBLIC LECTURES, on physical, moral, and political science; for READINGS, DISCUSSIONS, MUSICAL ENTERTAINMENTS, DANCING, and such other healthful and rational recreations as may serve to instruct and cheer the industrious classes after their hours of toil, and prevent the formation of vicious and intoxicating habits. Such halls to have two commodious playgrounds, and where practicable, a pleasure garden, attached to each; apartments for the teachers, rooms for hot and cold baths, for a small museum, a laboratory and general workshop, where the children may be taught experiments in science, as well as the first principles of the most useful trades.’

Unfortunately, membership of the National Association never surpassed 500. It was wound up May 1848, when it became part of a new People’s League intended by Lovett to create a more widely based organisation. But it, too, came to nothing, and the National Association Hall opened at 242a High Holborn in London was the sole building which even approximated to Lovett and Collins’ plan. There were, however, Sunday schools, and it is possible that the poster shown here was hung at one of these to help educate pupils in the cause of Chartism. At 20 inches (51cm) across by 27 inches (68.5cm) deep, it is certainly large enough and was sufficiently eye-catching to have been a suitably large and important-looking feature of such an institution.

As is obvious from the photograph, the poster is in a distressed state. In addition to the loss of the gold decoration, it has split along the crease lines where it has been folded for many decades, and is held together in places by stamp paper. There are also holes at the corner where it appears to have been pinned to a wall. But both the blue lettering and the red used for the headings has survived reasonably well.

The document was printed by W. Ostell of Hart Street, Bloomsbury Square. William Ostell had been in business as a printer and stationer at that address since at least 1839, and numerous examples of his work have survived, including a bedding catalogue for the upmarket Tottenham Court Road furniture store Heal’s. Ostell was, it seems, a jobbing local printer – which seems an unusual choice given the number of radical printers in Lovett’s immediate political circle. Possibly they were unable to turn out colour work of this size and quality.

The copy of the Charter reproduced on this page is in the collection of Mark Crail, who runs the Chartist Ancestors website.