The People’s Charter Union and the Cause of the People

During the course of 1848, Chartist organisation began to fracture. Small and often short-lived new bodies were formed, each with its own variation on the Chartist agenda. One such was the People’s Charter Union.

Founded as the London Charter Union on 22 March 1848, the PCU’s leaders included much of what the historian Edward Royle called “the ‘old guard’ of Chartism who had constituted the backbone of London radicalism at the birth of Chartism”.

Among the members of its ruling council were James Watson, Henry Hetherington and Richard Moore – three of the six working men whose names had appeared at the bottom of the Charter when it was first published.

Relatively little is known about the People’s Charter Union (as it became on 5 April). However, it explicitly stood apart from the National Charter Association led by Feargus O’Connor, and singularly failed to co-opt the support of London Chartism’s best known figure, William Lovett.

Setting out its stall in a handbook published on 17 April, the People’s Charter Union committed itself unequivocally to the six points of the Charter. On the means by which this would be achieved, however, it had this to say:

“We disclaim all desire of injuring others, all sympathy with acts of outrage or disorder. We desire by peaceable and legal means, and by them alone, to alter and amend the institutions of the country: by establishing its legislative system upon the only true basis–the ascertained will of the majority, at once the guarantee of present order, and the promise of peaceful growth and happiness for the future.”
(Source: Handbook of the People’s Charter Union, The National Archives, HO 45/2410A, part 4, f. 5)

In writing mostly about the Cause of the People, Royle says the policy of the People’s Charter Union was influenced by the Italian radical Giuseppe Mazzini, summed up in its attitude to the campaign for the vote as “no class-work: but the business and duty of all”.

By the time of the Kennington Common monster meeting on 10 April 1848, the People’s Charter Union could claim 400 members, but still had only one, London, branch.

Opposed to violent means, the members of the People’s Charter Union did not take part in the event, but sent observers to bear witness to any outbreaks of violence on the day.

William J Linton would later recall in his memoirs, Bygones Worth Remembering:

“On the morning of the 10th of April, Mr. C. D. Collet, the well-informed Secretary of the People’s Charter Union, myself, Richard Moore, and others, organised a band of forty persons, who were to distribute themselves over London, note-book and pencil in hand, in the character of reporters. The police took kindly to us, and gave us good positions of advantage, where we could see everything that took place thereabouts, and even protected us from being incommoded. We were there to watch the police, not the people, as the disorder, if there were any, would come from them. My station was in Bridge Street, Blackfriars, where a row of constables was drawn up. I found a coarse, plethoric alderman, going from man to man, saying only three words: ‘Strike hard to-day.’

“The people behaved admirably. Not a blow was struck which gave a colourable ground for outrage on the part of the police. In justice to the police, it ought to be said, neither did they incite disorder.”

In the aftermath of 10 April, Lovett, who the People’s Charter Union might have hoped to draw in, instead set up his own People’s League.

The People’s Charter Union pushed ahead, regardless, and on 20 May succeeded in publishing the first edition of its new paper, the Cause of the People. Lovett’s mentor, the veteran London radical Francis Place would describe it as “one of the most contemptible Newspaper ever published”.

No copies of the paper are to be found in the British Museum, though some editions survive elsewhere. Its editors were George Jacob Holyoake and William J Linton – both reasonably prominent figures in later Chartism, but neither leaders of the first order.

Unfortunately, small radical newspapers were expensive to produce. Royle estimates that the Cause of the People managed a circulation of between 800 and 1,200 – some way short of the numbers needed to break even.

As the summer of 1848 progressed, the National Charter Association did all that it could to disrupt and attack small groups such as the People’s Charter Union, regarding them as a dangerous division in the Chartist ranks.

It need not have worried on that score. The Cause of the People survived only until 15 July 1848, and while the People’s Charter Union itself struggled into the early months of 1849, it effectively died when its leaders returned to the cause of abolishing the tax on newspapers.

The Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee, set up on 7 March 1849, would share 10 of the 13 members of the People’s Charter Union council.

Source: The Cause of the People, the People’s Charter Union and ‘Moral Force’ Chartism in 1848, by Edward Royle, in Papers for the People: a Study of the Chartist Press, edited by Joan Allen and Owen R Ashton (Merlin Press, 2005)

NameMember of the PCU councilMember of the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee
Thomas CooperYes, PresidentNo
William AddiscottYesYes
John BainbridgeYes Yes
William CarlossYesYes
J Dobson CollettYes, SecretaryYes
Henry HetheringtonYesYes
James HoppeyYesYes
Joseph HydeYesYes
Charles McGuinnessYesYes
Richard MooreYesYes
James WatsonYesYes
Thomas DonattyYesNo
George Jacob HolyoakeYesJoined later
Charles F NichollsYesNo
William J LintonNoNo