life stories

William Lovett, 1800-1877

Author of the People’s Charter and secretary to the Convention of 1839

William lovett portrait from The Charter newspaper

William Lovett was secretary to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention), and one of 12 delegates whose portrait (left) was drawn for The Charter, newspaper of the London Working Men’s Association.

Born in Newlyn, Cornwall, William Lovett moved to London as a young man and became involved in the anti-militia movement, trade unionism and the campaign to repeal taxes on newspapers.

In 1836, he helped found the LWMA. This organisation would originate the People’s Charter (with Lovett writing the main draft), based on a well-established series of radical demands.

Coupled with the petition originated by the Birmingham Political Union, and the mass support provided by opponents of the New Poor Law and industrial workers in the North of England, this proved to be the basis of the mass Chartist movement.

Lovett became secretary to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes when it met in London in February 1839 and continued in that role when it relocated to Birmingham following Parliament’s rejection of the petition. He was arrested and found guilty of seditious libel for publishing the Convention’s declarations and imprisoned at Warwick for a year.

While in prison, he co-authored Chartism: A New Organisation of the People, which became the basis of “knowledge Chartism” or the “New Move”. After falling out with Feargus O’Connor and the National Charter Association, he largely ceased to play an active role in Chartism, devoting himself to working class education.

This is one of a number of articles about William Lovett. See also:
Knowledge Chartism: William Lovett, the New Move and the National Association
Funeral notice for William Lovett
The simple and secular funeral of William Lovett

The profile of William Lovett below appeared in the 17 March 1839 issue of The Charter; the portrait above appeared in the 24 March issue.

The Charter newspaper masthead

Portraits of Delegates No. 3: William Lovett

The subject of our present sketch furnishes, in his own person, a striking and encouraging example of the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, and of the moral eminence which may be attained in society, by decision and honesty of purpose. William Lovett was born in the little fishing village of Newlyn, near Penzance, in the county of Cornwall; and he owed but little to the world or the world’s friendship, in early life. The instruction which he received fell far short of introducing him to an acquaintance with the rudest elements of knowledge. At an early age he was apprenticed to a ropemaker; and when he had completed the term of his servitude, he found himself thrown upon his own resources, without the means of obtaining a command over even a scanty supply of the necessaries of life. The chances of obtaining employment in his native village being few and precarious, he resolved to set out in pursuit of Fortune elsewhere; but the want of funds and the absence of friends rendered it extremely difficult to carry his resolution into effect. The difficulties with which he felt himself pressed, instead of subduing his energy, however, incited him to exertion, and his ingenuity speedily put him upon a tact, which not only served his immediate purpose, but determined, in all probability, his future character. During the term of his apprenticeship, he had acquired some little skill in putting together petty articles of cabinet work; this skill he now turned to account, and at length found himself the absolute master of the sum of two pounds. With this fortune in hand, and an unbroken spirit, he started for London –

“The world before him–where to find a home.”

We need not say, that upon arriving in the metropolis, he found himself in a state of utter destitution – he was without friends and without money – he strove in vain to obtain employment in his trade, and for many months he wandered the streets in a condition bordering upon starvation – his daily sustenance being never more than a penny roll, with a drink of water from some way-side pump. In the midst of all his difficulties, however, his good spirit appears never to have forsaken him. He had submitted to the unrequited toil of one term of apprenticeship, to obtain the knowledge of a trade that was to him of no avail; and he was now determined to try his hand at another. He at length found a cabinet-maker and upholsterer, who consented to receive him as an apprentice, and upon the promise of a bare subsistence and instruction in the craft, he entered a second time upon an indenture of apprenticeship. This was to him the opening of a new and better career. As he attained skill in his new trade, his thirst for other acquirements became more ardent, and every favourable opportunity for adding to his knowledge was seized upon with avidity. It has justly been said, that the love of knowledge will of itself do a great deal towards its acquisition. It was so, in an eminent degree, with the subject of our sketch. He procured books as he had the opportunity of doing so; and these awakened in him that spirit of observation and inquiry by which he is so eminently characterized. He became one of a mutual instruction society; and in this his mind appears to have been first directed towards political topics. The disadvantages under which he had himself for many years laboured, excited his sympathy of others; and he lost no opportunity of advocating those principles which he believed to be identified with the social and political improvement of the less-favoured classes of society. In 1826, if we recollect rightly, the Metropolitan Political Association was formed, and in the council of that association the writer of this sketch first met William Lovett, both being members of the body. Shortly afterwards, the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge was founded, and Mr Lovett’s superior acquirements and peculiar aptitude for business, pointed him out as the fittest person to discharge the office of Secretary. Those who remember the operations of that society, will not have forgotten the zeal and judgment with which he discharged the duties of his arduous and laborious office, nor the vigorous and well-directed efforts to be made to place it upon an enduring basis. The society ultimately fell to pieces, however, and a number of its most useful and active members formed themselves into another association, which they called the “National Union of the Working Classes” – a society that soon enrolled many thousands of members in its books and contributed largely towards the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832. One of its most active and influential members was William Lovett. Although prudent and discreet in his conduct, Mr Lovett was ever a practical reformer, and he lost no fair opportunity of personally grappling with the evils of which he and his associates complained. Very soon after the National Union of the Working Classes was organised, the schedules for filling up the militia were issued by the government; and he at once made up his mind to resist what he deemed to be an act of flagrant injustice. The members of the union were, for the most part, deprived of the power of voting for members of parliament, and he called upon them to deny the authority of the legislature to compel them to bear arms in defence of a country in which they had no recognised political rights. His own militia paper he filled up in accordance with this principle; but he was drawn in the ballot, and called upon to serve. This he resolutely refused to do, and the consequence was, “the loss of all things” he possessed. His house was stripped of his furniture – to the last chair that could be found; and he was thus compelled, for the third time, to begin the world anew. Nothing daunted, however, he again braved persecution, and in 1831, he was indicted with James Watson and William Benbow, for having formed part of a procession of about 40,000 persons, who paraded London, in a quiet and orderly manner, on the day set apart in virtue of a motion carried by Mr Percival in the House of Commons, for celebrating a public fast. Upon the trial, the defendants pleaded their own cause, and such was the effect of their appeals to the jury, that they were all acquitted, and thus consummated a great moral victory over hypocrisy and cant. During the war waged by the government against the unstamped press, Mr Lovett and others organized what was denominated “The Victim fund,” for assisting the numerous persons who were imprisoned for vending the cheap papers; and many an aching heart was comforted by their benevolent contributions. The necessity for this fund having ceased, with the extinction of the unstamped press, its managers formed themselves into a new society, under the name of “The Working Man’s Association,” to which Mr Lovett was appointed Secretary, and in which office he has laboured “in season and out of season,” greatly to his own credit, and the benefit of his fellow men. When the attack made by Mr O’Connell on the Trade’s Unions, suggested to the trades of London the necessity of forming a combination committee, to watch over their interests in the committee of enquiry formed by the House of Commons Mr Lovett was appointed Secretary to that body; and the judicious management of their business and the utter discomfiture of the project entertained by the promoter of the enquiry, are in no small degree attributable to his sound judgment and unwearied exertions. Upon the assembling of the General Convention, in the month of February last, Mr Lovett was unanimously elected Secretary; and the whole body has more than once borne honourable and unequivocal testimony to the zeal and fidelity with which he has discharged his important and onerous duties.

Of Mr Lovett’s personal character, we have left ourselves but little room to speak. But this is not matter for regret. The sketch we have given of his career, will have already indicated “what manner of man he is” in spirit; and not less, what is the stature of his mind. We know of few mem who unite in themselves so much of the stern resolve of the Radical with the unobtrusiveness and courtesy of the gentleman. He is pre-eminently a man of “a meek and quiet spirit,” and his earnestness and inflexibility of purpose are never evinced in an offensive or overbearing manner. He is essentially an honest man. He will never pander to the prejudices of any, for the sake of temporary popularity. He has thought long and deeply upon political subjects; and he has determined upon his course. From that he is not to be turned aside, by either the love of gain or the menacing of loss. He will not consent to compromise his principles or his opinions, whenever he thinks it is his duty to express them; and although he may sometimes encounter hostility, the obvious honesty of his purpose, and the sterling integrity of his character, extort from those who differ the most widely from him, testimonies of esteem and respect. We have already incidentally spoken of Mr Lovett’s acquirements. He is a man of much and varied information; and some of the tracts published by the Working Men’s Association, give favourable evidence of his capabilities. The People’s Charter, which originated in that Association, was in a considerable degree, the offspring of his mind. He is diffident and distrustful of his own powers, however, and evidently takes up his pen with much reluctance. As a speaker, Mr Lovett is only great upon great occasions. He is by no means fond of public speaking. He never opens his lips, unless he has something to say; and he gives evidence that he would sooner hear others supply what he deems to be lacking in a discussion, than supply it himself. In the Convention, he speaks but seldom, and then briefly and to the point, and without any display. His voice is full and flexible, and we have sometimes heard him rise to the full height of impassioned oratory and eloquent declamation.

Mr Lovett is nearly forty years of age. His features are angular, and the expression of his countenance intelligent; albeit there is little indication of that restless activity which is the great characteristic of his mind. His frame is slightly built, and his height about six feet; but he as a somewhat stooping gait, which renders his stature apparently less than it really is. In closing this our imperfect sketch of the Secretary of the Convention, we take leave to say, that he is one of whom the working classes have reason to be proud; and we know of no man who enjoys a larger measure of their respect and confidence.

* We regret to say, that, in consequence of an accident which has occurred to our engraving, we are unable to give the portrait of Mr Lovett, as an accompaniment to the above sketch. We must, therefore, crave our readers’ indulgence until next week, when we shall present them with two portraits.

[Source: The Charter, Sunday 17 March 1839]