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DID BRITAIN really come close to a full-scale revolution in 1839? It's an intriguing question, and historians still argue the point. But the truth is, Chartists talked a good fight - and it was perhaps as well for them that that was as far as it got.

For all their bravado and bluster, their talk of death or glory, there seems little doubt that a national uprising by the Chartists would have been stamped out rapidly and ruthlessly by a Government alive to what had happened in France 50 years before, and determined there would be no repeat.

Anyone who doubts that need look only at Newport, Monmouthshire, where the first spark of what might have become a national conflagration was snuffed out as rifle fire routed a poorly-armed and ill-organised mob.

Chartism's roots go back as far as the second half of the 18th century, when radicals first began calling for root-and-branch parliamentary changes.

But it was not until after the first, grudging, Reform Bill of 1832, a betrayal which emancipated their middle-class bosses but left the working class with nothing, that the concept of Chartism began to emerge.

It was in June, 1836, that a couple of radicals, William Lovett and Francis Place, founded the London Working Men's Association. The pair drew up a reform programme and, two years later at a meeting in Birmingham, they launched what they called The People's Charter. This called for six changes in the Parliamentary system:

THE CHARTER'S SIX POINTS

  • Universal Male Suffrage.
  • Annual Parliaments.
  • Vote by ballot.
  • Abolition of the property qualification for MPs.
  • Payment of MPs.
  • Equal electoral constituencies.
  • The year 1838 was spent carrying the message of Chartism out from London and Birmingham to all parts of the country. On Monday, September 25th, the Manchester Political Union sponsored a massive rally at Kersal Moor, Salford.

    As manufacturers closed their factories for the day, a crowd estimated at 300,000 flocked to the moor accompanied by 20 bands and carrying banners, some of which had been rescued from the field at Peterloo. The banners carried easily understood slogans, such as: "More pigs less parsons," and ""For children and wife, we war to the knife."

    RIOTERS attack Newport's Westgate Hotel. When troops responded, 20 people died.
    Sir Charles Napier, commander of the armed forces in the North, rode to the moor to see for himself what was going on, and remarked: "The Government should be prepared to consider the Charter in Parliament. There is no wisdom in letting complaints be rejected and pikes made."

    At a torchlight rally in Rochdale on November 7th, firebrand Ashton cleric Joseph Raynor Stephens urged listeners to arm themselves for the coming struggle. This was readily done - firearms were, apparently, on open sale in Rochdale market.

    Chartism was growing rapidly, due largely to the influence of Irish radical politician Feargus O'Connor. O'Connor, one-time MP for County Cork, had been active on the London radical scene before moving North and founding the radical newspaper Northern Star in Leeds in 1837. During 1838 he toured the country raising the movement's profile with his brilliant oratory.