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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.

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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.
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William Cuffey, Black Chartist

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.

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'The Black man and his party'
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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…'.

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The Chartists' Trial (150KB)
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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 in Glossary - opens new windowhulks 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 82.

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Cuffey Found Guilty
and Sentenced (583KB)
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Women Chartists

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.'

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References and Further Reading

File, N., and Powers, C., Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958, London, 1981

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:

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