Revisiting Chartism: The importance of teaching about the ‘Black Man and his Party’

The Secondary Committee at the HA is keen to challenge and support all history teachers to teach about the rich and multi-faceted past. Gemma Hargraves (@History__Girls) has written this blogpost to help colleagues teaching Chartism. In it she provides some interpretations and ideas for resources. As she says: “this isn’t just about pupils seeing themselves in the narratives of the past; be they working class, black or female, but about teaching better, richer history.”

If you only teach Fergus O’ Connor and William Lovett when you teach the Chartists, I’m going to suggest you’re doing it wrong. This is not about tokenism or ‘diversity’ but rather teaching accurate and representative history – inspired by Claire Hollis (@CitoyenneClaire on Twitter) and her fantastic recent blogs. Much has been written recently about the necessity to teach Peterloo and how it shaped modern Britain, but perhaps less consideration has been given to deepening pupils’ knowledge of the Chartist movement.

And yet, there are some fantastic resources available from the British Library and the National Archives can be used not only to expand pupils’ knowledge base, but also to practise source analysis skills. See:

When, in 1842 William Cuffay was chosen to become president of the London Chartists, he was portrayed by newspapers as one of the leaders of the militants; thus offering an opportunity to now consider interpretations and the role of the press over time. Famously The Times described the militants in London as “the black man and his party”. This painting depicting Cuffay’s leadership makes a fantastic lesson starter (image available here: ).

As history teachers well know, when the People’s Charter was first drafted there was a clause that advocated the extension of the franchise to women. However, this was eventually removed as some members saw this as too radical a proposal that “might retard the suffrage of men”.

Despite this, many women did support the Chartist cause – providing excellent context for teaching Women’s Suffrage campaigns (the Birmingham Charter Association for example, had over 3,000 female members). However, Feargus O’Connor was not in favour of women having equal political rights with men. He claimed, as many did at the time, that the role of women was to be a “housewife to prepare meals, to wash, to brew, and look after my comforts, and the education of my children.”  Historian Anna Clark noted that O’Connor demanded “entry into the public sphere for working men” and “the privileges of domesticity for their wives”, despite the majority of factory workers in Britain being women women as late as 1840.

Teaching Chartism is a great time to discuss key women such as Susanna Inge, and Anne Knight, so pupils do not think women’s political consciousness began with Millicent Fawcett and the Pankhursts. A note on class; the average age of death for men in Manchester was 17, it was 16 in Bethnal Green, east London, and just 15 in Liverpool according to an 1842 report. Middle class men lived to 52 years on average – powerful statistics to add an understanding of class to the study of this period.

Susanna Inge was another important figure in the Chartist movement, famously writing letters to O’Connor’s newspaper to challenge his aforementioned views. She also features in a British Library source – newspaper report of a ‘Meeting of Female Chartists’ – a rich primary source around which a whole lesson could be based. Anne Knight was the most outspoken of the women in the movement. She was concerned about the way women campaigners were treated by some of the male leaders in the organisation – perhaps a pertinent issue given political and Hollywood revelations in recent years. Knight criticised male chartist leaders for claiming “that the class struggle took precedence over that for women’s rights”, asking “can a man be free, if a woman be a slave?” – offering another useful interpretation, and links to slavery topics that may have been previously studied.

Returning to Cuffay, it seems that his wife was actively involved in the work of the movement. The arresting police officer in the case of the Orange Tree Plot of August 1848, said “I did not take Mrs. Cuffay into custody – she was rather active, as most wives are…” This could mean that she was either an active Chartist, or she was making a fuss. Thackeray’s poem ‘Three Christmas Waits’, written after the trial, suggests that Mrs Cuffay 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.’

Thus this offers an opportunity to consider multiple sources of evidence to support or challenge propositions – a valuable skill at KS3 and beyond. And if you’re looking for interesting interpretations of sources, check out the Chartist hymn book recently recorded and released on CD and available here

Hopefully this blog has provided some interpretations and ideas of resources that could be utilised in lessons. This isn’t just about pupils seeing themselves in the narratives of the past; be they working class, black or female, but about teaching better, richer history.

@histassoc has developed these questions to help departments to reflect on their curriculum and how far it enables students to understand that the past was a place with many different people and perspectives. 

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