In the early 19th century working conditions for most ordinary people were poor and individuals had few of the rights that we take for granted today. Workers were without representation in Parliament and faced prosecution if they tried to raise their objections. Attempts to organise and speak together were made by workers groups as the effects of mechanisation led to underemployment or inadequate pay. The Luddites, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the first trades union – the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) were all destined to fail when the law was so biased against them.
It is against this backdrop that William Cuffay became actively involved in protests. In 1834 he took part in the general strike called by the GNCTU. He had joined the protest at the last minute, having previously argued against such action. He was blacklisted for his involvement, which made it hard for him to find work thereafter. He was easily identified at a time when there were so few black tailors.
The Chartist Movement came to the fore in 1838 with its People’s Charter had six aims:
- a vote for every adult man over 21
- secret ballots
- annual parliaments (to assess representation by MPs)
- abolition of property qualifications for becoming MP
- salaries for MPs
- constituencies of equal size
The Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association, of which William Cuffay was a member, voted to support the People’s Charter. In 1839 he was elected as Westminster delegate to the Metropolitan Delegate Council and he chaired a ‘Great Public Meeting of the Tailors’ in February 1842. After the arrest of leading Chartists later that year Cuffay became the interim president of the movement.
He was regarded as a militant and The Times of the day described the London Chartists as ‘the black man and his party’.
He did not back down and his involvement in the Chartist movement increased.
In 1848 there was tremendous anxiety and agitation as waves of unrest swept across Europe and beyond, and the authorities feared that Britain was on the brink of an uprising like that seen across the Channel in France. Against this backdrop the Chartists held a convention to press home the demands of the People’s Charter.
They had intended to march on Parliament, but this was abandoned when faced by an overwhelming force of special constables and soldiers organised by the Duke of Wellington. The events of the day were reported widely.
a. Illustrated London News April 15, 1848 p. 243 MAC Local Studies Collection
b. from the Rochester Gazette, 11 April, 1848, p.2 MAC Local Studies Collection