In 1780 less than 3% of Britain's 8 million population had
electoral rights. From the late 18th century, pressure for
parliamentary reform grew, culminating in riots in several
British towns in 1831. Even after the 1832 Reform Act was
finally passed, only one in seven adult males were able to
vote. The majority of men (and all women) were still excluded
from voting and this led, by the end of the 1830s, to a sustained
movement calling for the extension of political rights.
|In 1838 the People's Charter (hence the name Chartists) was
drafted, in which six demands were made, aimed at bringing political
rights to working people. Chartists were found among artisans,
shopkeepers and workers of all descriptions. Wages for many
were low, with the burden of tax falling heavily on the working
classes. The movement also had some middle-class support, particularly
at the beginning.
William Cuffey (or Cuffay) was a prominent Chartist leader.
Cuffey's father had been born in St Kitts; his grandfather
had been taken there from Africa and put to work as a slave
on a plantation. As a cook on a British warship, Cuffey's
father, who seems to have been freed, travelled with the Royal
Navy and eventually settled with his English wife and family
in Chatham, Kent.
Born in 1788, Cuffey became a tailor. Angered by declining
pay and working conditions, he joined the London Chartists
from the movement's beginning. In 1840 he was elected as the
Westminster delegate to the Chartists' Metropolitan Delegate
Council and became a member of the executive of the National
Charter Association. By 1848, he had emerged as the acknowledged
leader of the London Chartists, respected for his integrity
and scrupulous attention to detail.
'The Black man and his party'
|In the politics of workers'
rights, Cuffey and his fellow activists struggled to redress
the imbalance in the distribution of wealth. Benjamin Disraeli
argued that England was sharply divided into the haves and the
have-nots. In 1844 Friedrich Engels, gathering evidence for
his treatise in Manchester, wrote about the dire conditions
of the English working classes. Charles Dickens exposed harsh
conditions in his widely read novels, including Oliver Twist
(1837) and Hard Times (1854).
The struggle for workers' rights and parliamentary
reform was long and hard. In 1848 Cuffey and others were involved
in the Orange Tree Plot, named after the public house in Red
Lion Square where the leaders met. The indictment stated that
the plotters 'felonously did compass, imagine…to
levy war against the Queen to compel her to change her councils…and
2nd, to depose the Queen from the style, honour and dignity
of the Imperial Crown, etc…'.
The Chartists' Trial (150KB)
|Such crimes of treason against the
state would usually warrant execution. But from 1830 onwards,
about three-quarters of all prisoners were sentenced to be incarcerated
moored on the Thames or to be transported overseas. Cuffey,
now aged 60, along with two other Chartists, Lacey and Fay,
were 'transported for life'. Having endured the
long journey on the prison ship Adelaide, Cuffey landed
in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in November 1849.
Cuffey received a free pardon in 1856, and went on working
as a respected 'sober and industrious man'. He
also continued campaigning for working-class political rights,
as well as being in demand at social functions as a musician
and singer. Cuffey's wife had joined him in 1853, and
he lived and worked in Tasmania until his death, in1870, aged
Cuffey Found Guilty
and Sentenced (583KB)
Although little is written about women Chartists, it seems
that Cuffey's wife was actively involved in the work
of the movement. In cross-examination, the arresting police
officer in the case of the Orange Tree Plot, Joseph Thompson,
said 'I did not take Mrs. Cuffey into custody -
she was rather active, as most wives are…' This
could mean one of two things: she was either an active Chartist
or she was 'kicking up a fuss'. But Thackeray's
poem 'Three Christmas Waits', written after the
trial, in 1848, may indicate that Mrs Cuffey went out on demonstrations
with her husband:
'…I was a journeyman,
A taylor black and free;
And my wife went out and chaired about,
And my name's the bold Cuffee.'
References and Further Reading
File, N., and Powers, C., Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958,
Thompson, D., The Chartists, Aldershot, 1984
Wallis, J. E. P., State Trials, New Series, vol.
VII, 1848-50, pp. 467-84, HMSO, London, 1896
For more information on the 1832 Reform Act, see:
For more information on the People's Charter, see: