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Causes of Chartism


  1. Industrial and agricultural workers disliked the new conditions of 19th-century factory discipline, low wages, periodic unemployment and high prices. There was much resentment at the widening gulf between rich and poor. There was discontent because of exploitation in factories. Traditional hand-workers, such as the London silk-weavers and workers in the Yorkshire woollen industry and the lace-making industries of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, were facing extreme distress in the face of competition from machines. There were few alternatives: they could join the factory workers or ask for relief from the parish. After 1837 they could go in the workhouse. Grievances existed in mutually hostile groups from declining and rising industries. Some craftsmen tended towards Luddism as a solution to their problems.
  2. The 1815 Corn Laws and a protectionist economy still prevailed despite Huskisson's reforms of the 1820s. The Corn Laws kept food prices artificially high and therefore depressed domestic markets for manufactures - thus depressing employment. Foreign markets were also undercut, further reducing factory output and exports. Reforms were also needed in banking, customs and taxation. The 1830s also saw a series of bad harvests.
  3. Taxation fell mainly on the working classes in indirect taxation. At least 16% of real wages were consumed by taxes. The abolition of income tax in 1816 worsened the situation. The real value of wages was diminished and bad harvests made things worse.
  4. There were a series of fiscal crises in the 1830s. The Whigs were in power from 1830 to 1841: they were weak in economic strategy and left a £7 million deficit on leaving office. They made no attempt to reform banking or the currency.

Between 1836-38 about 63 banks crashed in England. Little money was available for investment, which led to unemployment at a time of high food prices. Much bullion had been invested in America where good returns could be made. Federal governments borrowed and Britain invested, then in 1837 President Jackson refused to re-charter the Bank of the United States, and caused a financial panic in America. Also the 1838 harvest was poor so bullion was exported to buy food. Industry suffered; there was massive unemployment and higher food prices. By the later 1830s, the home demand for the products of industry, together 'with the available export market, was insufficient to consume the whole of the potential... The contrast between the economic potential and the condition of the people was at its sharpest'. (Checkland)

Contemporary writers pointed out the disparity in the distribution of wealth in this period. Disraeli, later leader of the Tories, drew in his novel Sybil or The Two Nations a picture of England sharply divided into the haves and the have-nots (1845); Dickens exposed conditions in his books, such as Hard Times (1854) and Oliver Twist (1837); Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School echoed these sentiments and saw the grave possibility of class revolution; Friedrich Engels wrote Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844, acquiring his raw material from evidence in Manchester. Karl Marx used Engels' work as a basis for his own Das Kapital.

The Anti-Corn-Law League was affected by the same economic conditions but sought to solve the problem with economic ideas: i.e. repeal of the Corn Laws and the introduction of free trade. The Chartists sought to solve their economic problems with political reform.


  1. The working classes had given massive support to the middle-class campaign for the 1832 Reform Act because they had been drawn by the possibility of the franchise, or legislation to help them. The working class was dissatisfied because the 1832 Act did not enfranchise them, and also they were unhappy with the 'finality' attitude of the Whigs and Tory hostility to reform, all of which offered no prospect of the future achievement of the vote for the working classes.
  2. Subsequent Whig reforms came as a bitter disappointment and actually hurt the working man. Middle-class representation led to middle-class legislation, so Chartists sought a political solution to their economic and social problems. Whig reforms were institutional rather than social or economic:

1830-1832 Reform campaign

10-Hour movement

10-Hour movement

New Model T.U.s


Trade Unionism

Anti-Poor-Law campaign

Anti-Poor-Law campaign

self-help movements

Although Chartism failed in the short term, it was a significant movement in the development of working class organisation.

Chartism tore itself apart:

London - philosophical radicals; craftsmen; skilled artisans

Leaders: constitutional reformers, moderates, like Lovett and Place

Yorkshire - domestic woollen workers

Leaders: physical force men, especially Feargus O'Connor

Manchester - cotton workers

Leaders: violent neo-Marxist revolutionaries. Some were embryonic socialists

Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire - Luddite types.

The led wanted social and economic reform. There was little political motivation

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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