What if…the Chartists had been successful?

On Thursday 15 May, the PHM will explore alternative histories for Museums at Night. Join our hypothetical tour guides as they weave tall tales and ask you to imagine infinite possibilities of what might have been.  In a series of blog posts before the event we’ll be featuring questions so you can swot up on your hypothetical history and add your own alternatives.  On the night we’ll subvert our timeline with your suggestions. In this blog, our Curatorial Assistant (Collections), Harriet Richardson asks What if… the Chartists had been successful?

The Chartists grew up after the 1832 Reform Act only extended the franchise to men with property over £10, thereby effectively creating a wedge between working and middle class people. The working class, still omitted from the parliamentary system, felt betrayed, and this created a level of unrest within a large section of society. This unrest was heightened with the introduction of the draconian New Poor Law in 1834 which was seen as an attack on the working classes.

The Chartists came together when this resentment led to protest from people who demanded political reform throughout the 1830s-1850. The Chartist movement had at its core the six point charter which listed political demands for reform. These were:

  • Universal suffrage for all men 21 and over
  • Equal sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need for property qualification for parliament
  • Pay for MPs
  • Annual elections of parliament

Today, all of these demands have been met- apart from annual elections. However, at the time, the Chartists were wholly unsuccessful in their aims for democracy. But what would have happened if Britain in the 1840s had accepted these radical demands?

Could women have had the vote a lot sooner than they did? Granting all men the vote in the 1840s may have made the system more tolerant a lot sooner. A number of women were very active within the Chartist movement, some founding female Chartist associations as well as attending rallies, demonstrations and raising funds.

Would the reforms have meant the birth of a political party representing the working classes a lot sooner? Due to the fact that there were a lot more people voting, more MPs would have been needed. The stipulation of payment for MPs would have meant that working class men, and women, could afford to forge a political career, meaning it was no longer reserved for the landed classes. Therefore, could the birth of a labour party have come around a lot sooner?

These questions would all have meant dramatic implications to the political, social and economic landscape in Britain and in turn would have changed our history as we know it today. The class system may have been very different. Issues of equality could easily have been reversed- would the suffragettes have ever existed? Would Emily Wilding Davison have thrown herself under the King’s horse at Epsom? The implications of accepting the Chartist reforms in the 1840s would have been far-reaching. There are many more possible scenarios, and these questions will be asked during our Museums at Night event at PHM on Thursday 15 May, hope to see you there!

Add your answers below or come and discuss at our Museums at Night: What if…? event on Thursday 15 May, 5.00pm – 8.00pm


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