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Focus question 2: How did democracy develop in Britain?

Teaching and learning activities

  ESL Introduction
Activity 1: Industrial Revolution ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: The Chartists' six points ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Chartist speeches ESL Activity 3
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Activity 4: The Chartists' methods ESL Activity 4
Activity 5: How the Chartists set about achieving change ESL Activity 5
Activity 6: What did the Chartists achieve? ESL Activity 6


The struggles for democracy in Britain and Australia are linked. Most of the new settlers in Australia in the nineteenth century came from Britain and brought with them their ideas about democracy. The struggles of working people in Britain will help to explain what people in Australia later fought for.

Britain changing: the Industrial Revolution

The population of Britain in the 1800s was approximately 21 million. Most people belonged to the working classes and were not allowed to vote or to be a Member of Parliament. To earn their living they worked as labourers for the upper- and middle-class people who paid their wages.

The working class was usually divided into three groups:

  • the highly skilled, such as watchmakers, tailors, stonemasons and cabinet makers
  • the semi-skilled, such as cooks or shop assistants who had undergone some training but not as much as a skilled craftsperson
  • those who had no training or skills, such as servants and labourers.

The late 1700s and early 1800s were times of enormous change and upheaval in Britain. The society was transformed from one in which people lived in the country and earned their living through farming and small cottage-based industries to one in which people earned their livelihood from producing manufactured goods in large factories or providing services such as shopkeeping. There were no laws about hours of work or working conditions, which were often appalling. Instead of living in small villages, people moved to large cities with populations of over 100,000. Many people began to work in factories or in the coal mines that produced the large quantities of coal to power the steam engines that ran the factories.

Activity 1: Industrial Revolution

1a Look at Sources A to F.

Source A

A factory worker, quoted in the report of a Royal Commission to Parliament in 1833, said:

My hours of work at Mr Connell's mill [factory] were from a few minutes before half past five in the morning till seven at night. Half an hour for breakfast. An hour for dinner. No baggin [tea].

Cited in Shuter, Child and Taylor 1989, Skills in History, Book 2: Revolutions, Heinemann Educational, Heinemann Educational Books, Oxford, p 106.
Reproduced with permission of Reed Education Professional Publishing (Heinemann Education), Melbourne.

Source B

Charles Davies was gaoled for 'conspiracy' - that is, plotting for unlawful purposes - because he wrote about the need for changes to wages and conditions. He said the following to a prison inspector in 1840:

The great distress is the cause of our discontent - if the wages were what they ought to be, we should not hear a word about the suffrage [vote]. If the masters [employers] will only do something for the Workmen to get them the common comforts of life, we should be the most contented creatures upon earth.

Government Report on Prisons, 1840. Cited in Royle, Edward 1980, Chartism, 2nd edn, Longman UK Ltd, p 106.
Reprinted by permission of Addison Wesley, Pearson Education.

Source C

In 1843 John Lahye wrote a report in which he referred to the soup kitchens that were set up as charities to give some basic nourishment to the poor and unemployed:

The demand for soup kitchens continues ... I was lately conversing with a man, who has a wife, three sons and a daughter, all of whom except the woman were then out of work, and he informed me that being unable to sleep or rest, he went for soup one morning so early as half past one o'clock, and even then found 50 or 60 persons before him ...

I was ... acquainted with many individuals ... who had been almost without any work for periods varying from a few weeks to twelve months.

Annual Report of the Ministry of the Poor, 1843. Cited in Royle, Edward, Chartism, 2nd edn, Longman UK Ltd, pp 110-11.
Reprinted by permission of Addison Wesley, Pearson Education.

Source D

Benjamin Love of Manchester, an industrial city, describes the housing conditions of the poor:

Let the reader imagine himself introduced in to a damp cellar or dark and dirty garret [tiny upper room], where he sees as many beds as it will hold ... ranged side by side, and closely adjoining one another ... in each of these beds [are] from two to four persons, of either sex, and of all ages and characters ... the temperature of this room is at a fever heat owing to the total absence of all means of ventilation ... the bed linen is rarely changed ... These beds [are] visibly infested with all manner of vermin.

Love, Benjamin 1842, Handbook of Manchester. Cited in Pickering, Paul & Tyrell, Alex 1991, Work and Society: The Impact of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions on Britain, Department of History, La Trobe University, Melbourne, p 30.

Source E

John Roebuck, a Member of Parliament, describes a journey through the industrial cities in 1841:

Suddenly we came to an immense cutting in the hill ... I beheld a sight I shall not quickly forget. Ashton, Stockport and half a dozen manufacturing towns were in sight ... chimneys were thrusting themselves into the sky, puffing out huge volumes of black smoke, and for miles the same horrible view met you - smoke, smoke, smoke; trees, roads, the very ground, horses, beasts, and men were black and miserable.

Life and Letters of John Arthur Roebuck, 1897. Cited in Pickering & Tyrell 1991, p 31.

Source F

'Hurrying' coal in the Halifax District.

'Hurrying' coal in the Halifax District. The girl in the picture is pulling a weight of between 2 and 5 cwt (between 102 and 254 kg).

Women at work in a textile factory

Women at work in a textile factory

The impact of industrialisation

The impact of industrialisation

1b Write a sentence describing each of the following features of life in the time of the Industrial Revolution, drawing on Sources A to F. You will need to read the evidence carefully!

1c With your partner write down four words that describe the conditions the people worked and lived in.

1d As a class develop a list of things that the working-class people might have wanted to do to improve their conditions if they had had a say in government.

The Chartists and their struggle for democracy

The Chartists were a group of people who wanted to change the arrangements of their society. They were working-class people who had been influenced by ideas coming from countries such as France and the United States of America, which had experienced revolutions. A political revolution is when the people force a ruler or government to be changed. Ordinary working people began to believe they should be included in the law-making process. Much importance was attached to people's democratic rights.

The Chartists were so named because they wrote a charter. In their charter they listed a set of changes that, if instituted, would have made Britain a democracy. They wanted to change the way Britain was governed, so that, rather than being ruled by a king and a parliament of wealthy property owners, all men could participate and have a say in the government.

The Chartists had six points in their charter:

  • votes for all men
  • voting by secret ballot
  • any voter can stand for parliament, not just those who own property
  • payment of all members of parliament
  • the same number of electors in each electorate
  • a general election every year.

Activity 2: The Chartists' six points

2a Write the six points into your workbooks.

2b Look at Figure 3. It shows a poster of the charter. The words used sound strange to us today. Select one of the six points and rewrite it in words that make sense to you.

Activity 3: Chartist speeches

3a Following are some speeches made at an imaginary Chartist meeting held in the north of England in 1842. The speakers are not actual people although they are representative of people living at the time. Your teacher will organise your class into groups of five students. Each group is to be allocated one Chartist speech. Read the speech allocated to your group and answer the questions that follow it.

3b The group should practise reading the speech aloud. Make sure you are familiar with the speech and that you help each other to understand the ideas.

3c Select a member of the group to read the speech to the rest of the class. Read with feeling and passion. The speakers are talking about things that really mattered in their lives. List the key ideas of each of the speeches as they are delivered.

Figure 3         
The Six Points of the People's Charter

Arthur Taylor, journalist for the newspaper the Northern Star, the most important Chartist newspaper

Fellow countrymen,

Let us no longer tolerate a situation where we are denied the right to have a say in our own lives. We, the working class, slave all day long, working 14 to 16 hours a day in factories and coal mines and the like, and we receive a miserable pittance in return for our labours. This wage is barely sufficient to house, clothe and feed our families. Frequently must we watch our flesh and blood, our beloved, weak and hungry from lack of nourishment. Many of you no doubt have no choice but to submit your own children to work in these conditions six days a week so that the family may eke out a living from the few shillings it can earn.

There is something very wrong with a society when the law makers in parliament spend hours discussing and debating the horror of slavery in the Americas whilst at home in their own country the working class are 'free' only to toil each and every day in foul conditions with no say, no vote, no option but to endure and to go to an early grave, white slaves in their own land.

I say our problems can only be dealt with if we are given the right to vote.

a What did Arthur say about the conditions of working people?

b What did he say was wrong with the government?

c What did he want?

Archibald Adams, button maker

I agree wholeheartedly with the views of my esteemed friend of the Northern Star. However, merely giving men the vote is not enough. The vote is an important step in the right direction but it will not guarantee democracy. There are still ways we can be excluded from having our concerns heard.

It is a well-known fact that much manipulation occurs with the size of electorates. We all know or have heard of examples where there is one member of parliament representing the interests of 21,000 voters. Meanwhile in another part of the country a mere 700 elect another member to look after them in the parliament. Where is the justice in that? The voters in the larger electorate are not getting a fair deal. Each of their votes is worth next to nothing beside those of the privileged people who live in the 700 electorate. We must insist there are the same number of people in each electorate. The future of democracy depends upon it.

a Archibald says that having electorates with uneven numbers of voters is not democratic. Explain why. Look back at Figure 2, Focus question 1, Activity 1 to help with this answer.

Percy Proudfoot, butcher

My fellow citizens, ask yourself this question. Who amongst us is rich enough to stand for parliament? Not many I would guess. And why? Because we are not rich enough to be property owners. It is a sad and sorry fact that in order to be allowed to stand for election to parliament we must be the holders of property. Ordinary men like ourselves are excluded because we are mere workers and labourers.

How can the rich landowner understand our problems and concerns? How can he know what it is like to work a 15-hour day in an unhealthy and dangerous environment for a pathetic wage that ceases the moment a man is ill or unfit to keep up the daily toil. I say that those of the higher classes have no understanding, so are therefore unfit to represent us.

We need our own people in parliament to fight for the rights that are important to us. What's more, these men need to be paid a salary for their efforts so that their families do not starve whilst they look to the interests of their fellow workers. Yes, we want the vote and we want the right to stand for parliament. We won't accept anything less.

a According to Percy, why don't working-class people get elected to parliament?

b According to Percy, why can't rich people represent working people?

c Percy believes that allowing working-class people into parliament will be helpful to the workers. Why?

Dougal McDonald, miner

I am a simple man of humble origins. I was born in Scotland in 1801. I remember that my parents could grow a few vegetables and do a little weaving and spinning to make money to live on. As a young lad I went south to work in the mines, where I have watched my health and that of my friends and family be destroyed by the slavery and drudgery of that workplace. I have come here tonight to add my voice to the voices of millions of working men and women across the land. We have had enough of being ruled by the rich.

My friends, colleagues, countrymen and women, to ensure we are not walked over completely we must be certain to elect our parliament each and every year. Anything less is folly. It is too easy for those who join the ranks of the parliament to be seduced by the life led there. To be in touch with people's feelings and needs the parliamentarian must face his electors every year. There will be no loafing or forgetting one's origins if annual parliaments are the rule.

a What does Dougal mean when he says 'those who join the ranks of the parliament' are seduced 'by the life led there'?

b What does he believe will stop this happening?

Jasper Jones, harness maker

It has been my privilege to listen to a range of eloquent speakers here tonight. Unfortunately one aspect of the case has been overlooked. That is the right to record our vote in privacy. What would be the point of voting for our working-class candidate if we had to do so in public, in full view of our employers and landlords. If we did not support their candidate they would dismiss us from our employment, evict us from home and discredit our name and reputation so that we never find work or a living again. Nay, it is not enough to simply vote. The vote must be recorded in private so that we cannot be intimidated, bullied and threatened.

a Name two things that can happen when voting takes place in public.

b Think of some examples. Do not copy the words straight from Jasper's speech.

Assessment task


Rereading the speeches made by the Chartists will give you ideas for this task. The Stories of Democracy CD ROM also contains information to assist with the tasks. Select one of the following four options:

1 Read the following letter, which was written by an 18-year-old Chartist before he took part in a protest. George was one of 24 people killed at the Newport prison shootings in 1839. When you have read the letter, add to it, explaining what the 'glorious struggle' is. This will mean explaining the goals of the charter. Say something about each of the six points.

Dear Parents

I hope this letter will find you well, as I am myself at this present. I shall this night be engaged in a glorious struggle for freedom, and should ... God spare my life I shall see you soon; but if not, grieve not for me, I shall have fallen in a noble cause. Farewell

Yours truly
George Shell

Cited in Gregg, Pauline 1962, A Social and Economic History of Britain 1760-1960, 3rd edn, Harrop & Co, p 216.

2 Draw up the preamble (introduction) to a petition to be presented to parliament. It should state why the changes are necessary. Present your work in the form of a petition. It might begin: 'We the undersigned believe that it is time for ...' The petition could be made to look 'old' by yellowing the paper and using old-style writing or calligraphy.

3 Write a short speech putting the views of the Chartists. Give yourself a name, age and working-class occupation. Express with feeling your belief in the charter and urge your listeners to become involved.

4 Design a poster explaining the Chartists' aims.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

  • demonstrating a general understanding of the ideas of the Chartists
  • putting forward arguments for each aim of the charter
  • explaining how the charter will improve society and in particular the lives of working men and women.
  • expressing the ideas in your own words.

Activity 4: The Chartists' methods

The Chartists' goal was to get the parliament to accept their charter and make laws that put the ideas into practice.

4a List the methods used by the Chartists in the following sources. Set out your work like this:

Source G: They used ...
Source H: This involved ...

4b In a paragraph of eight to ten sentences, discuss how effective you think each of these methods might have been. Decide which method would have met with the most success and which would have been the least likely to succeed. Give reasons for your answer.

Source G

Pursue the course of peaceful agitation - press forward your great cause under the watchwords of Peace, Law, Order ...

From an essay in The Chartist newspaper, 1839. Cited in Royle, Edward 1980, Chartism, 2nd edn, Longman UK Ltd, p 98.
Reprinted by permission of Addison Wesley, Pearson Education.

Source H

The events of 1842 illustrate the point: 'Better to die by the sword than die of hunger, shouted Marsden in the hot, starving summer of that year, 'and if we are to be butchered, why not commence the bloody work at once?'

The weavers of Yorkshire and Lancashire and the miners of the Midlands took him at his word. They stormed food shops and workhouses, set fire to police stations ...

Jones, David 1975, Chartism and the Chartists, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London, 1975, p 154.

Source I

Sir Charles Napier was a military commander responsible for keeping order in a part of Britain where the government feared an outbreak of violence by Chartists.

After receiving an anonymous letter with a chartist plan he reported in a journal that the Chartists were 'Poor creatures, their threats of attack are miserable' and that they had no weapons and 'no money, no discipline, no skilful leaders'.

Royle, Edward 1980, Chartism, 2nd edn, Longman UK Ltd, p 104.
Reprinted by permission of Addison Wesley, Pearson Education.

Source J

Dr Peter McDouall, a Chartist leader, gave the following description of his lecture tour in 1842:

I lectured in a barn ... I lectured in the Town Hall ... I delivered two lectures, in a coach maker's shop ... At Kettering I lectured twice, and attended a very large tea party, given by the ladies ...

Jones, David 1975, Chartism and the Chartists, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London 1975, p 107.

Source K

This slogan was displayed on banners carried in Chartist marches and demonstrations:

'Cease work until the charter becomes the law of the land.'

Source L

Contemporary picture of the petition being taken to parliament

Contemporary picture of the petition being taken to parliament

Stories of Democracy

Activity 5: How the Chartists set about achieving change

5a Read 'How the Chartists set about achieving change'. The Stories of Democracy CD ROM gives further information for this task.

How the Chartists set about achieving change

Three times the Chartists presented petitions to parliament asking that their democratic program should become the law of the land: in 1839, 1842 and again in 1848. Each time they were rejected. The last petition had 5.5 million signatures. The population of Britain at this time was 21 million.

Each time the petitions were presented a large procession of people marched to Parliament House to accompany the petition, which had to be carried in horse-drawn wagons because it was so long.

The refusal of the parliament to consider the petitions was very frustrating and disappointing for the Chartists. Imagine the Australian parliament ignoring a petition with 5.5 million signatures that has been conveyed to parliament in a mass demonstration!

After the rejection of the 1839 petition the leaders of the movement had planned a general strike if the next petition was rejected by the parliament. Before the Chartist leaders could get properly organised for the strike the government decided to gaol the leaders. This led to more drastic action on the part of some Chartists. They marched to Newport prison, where the leaders were being held, to demand their release. Upon arrival they were shot at, and 24 demonstrators were killed and 40 wounded. The leaders of this action were also arrested and eventually transported to Australia for their part in the protest.

There were strikes after the rejection of the 1842 petition. While strikes seemed like a good idea, the difficulty the strikers always faced was that they did not receive any wages while on strike. To be effective the strikers had to stay out long enough to get their demands met.

It was also obvious that they could achieve little when the government was willing to use the army and police to enforce its views.

5b Compile a list of the problems faced by the Chartists in getting their ideas heard and accepted.

5c Rank the problems they faced from 'the most difficult' to 'the least difficult'. It will help if you remember that at this time people could communicate by post, and move about by foot, horseback, coach and railway. They could also read national newspapers. Large factories and the growth of cities meant many people were congregated in one place or area.

5d Discuss in class whether violence would have helped the Chartists. Is it ever justifiable to use violent means to bring about good reforms?

5e Investigate a current struggle for reform.

  • What do the reformers want?
  • What does the other side want?
  • What methods are being used?
  • What problems are being encountered?
  • What successes have been achieved?
  • Select two news cuttings that deal with the struggle. Stick the cuttings into your workbook. Underneath write the name of the newspaper you took the cuttings from and the date it was published.

Activity 6: What did the Chartists achieve?

The Chartists did not succeed in having their charter accepted. After 1848 the movement died out as many workers turned to other organisations like trade unions to get changes. However, the trade unions concentrated more on improving working conditions and less on struggles for democracy.

Most of the Chartist goals were eventually granted to working people later in the century. The table below shows when each of these democratic features was achieved.

Democratic features
Date achieved in Britain
No property qualifications for parliamentarians 1858
Secret ballot 1872
Equal electorates 1885
Payment of parliamentarians 1911
Annual parliaments Not granted but parliamentary terms reduced from 7 years to 5 years in 1911
Votes for all men 1918
Votes for all women 1928

6a Which feature in this table did the Chartists not argue for? What might have been the views of the time about this point?

6b You will have noticed that annual parliaments were not granted but the length that any one parliament could sit was reduced from seven to five years.

List the arguments to support electing a new parliament annually. Look back at Dougal's speech in Activity 3 for some ideas. Imagine you have to reply to Dougal's speech. What would be some arguments against the idea of annual parliaments?

6c Which of the Chartist points do you consider most important today?

ESL activities

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