Kennington Chartist Project: 10 April 1848-2018

by Marietta Crichton Stuart

On 10 April 1848 thousands of Chartists gathered on what was then Kennington Common. They planned to march on Parliament to present their massive petition with its demands for democratic reform including the vote for all men over 21.  Fearing revolution similar to what had happened in France where the monarchy had been toppled, the government had gone into panic mode. It had called up the army and had thousands of police and special constables on the streets, the Royal Family had been packed off to the Isle of Wight and cannons guarded Buckingham Palace.  As a result of the heavy police presence on the bridges with military back up, the Chartist leadership reluctantly had to accept that they could not process to Parliament for fear of violence and the four bales of signatures were sent from Kennington Common in several hansom cabs. The previous Chartist petitions of 1839 and 1842 had previously been rejected by Parliament and, sadly, when the 1848 charter was found to have 2 million signatures rather than the much vaunted 6 million with many forgeries, it was not even presented.

Exactly 170 years later, there was a rather smaller gathering on what is now Kennington Park to remember the Chartists. From each of the four Chartist London meeting points in 1848 came walkers carrying flags with the original slogans “The Charter and no surrender”, “Liberty is near”, “We are millions and demand our rights” and “The Voice of the People”.  In the words of Richard Galpin, Project Manager for the Kennington Chartist Project: We are celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Chartist rally in solidarity with all under represented people in 2018”

Tom Collins, whose family hail from Ireland, spoke the words of the Irish born Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor which concluded “Go on, conquering and to conquer, until the People’s Charter has gloriously become the law of the land!”

By 1928 five out of the six Chartist demands had been achieved – the vote for all men and, from 1918, all women; voting in secret; no property qualifications for MPs: payment of MPs and equal electoral districts. The only demand still outstanding is annual parliamentary elections.

On Tuesday local historian, Steve Martin, told the story of William Cuffay, the son of an emancipated slave who was later transported to Tasmania for his role in a planned Chartist uprising in 1848.

People were able to join two walks round the park – one, led by Marietta Crichton Stuart, chair of the Friends of Kennington Park, about what happened on the day, the difficulties of speech making to large crowds when there was no amplification, the fear of violence and the resigned agreement not to march on Parliament, followed by rain.  In 2018 although the ground was boggy the rain held off.

The second walk by Jon Newman of Lambeth Archives was about Kennington Common as a place of protest.  He pointed out that the legacy of the Chartist Rally is Kennington Park, opened in 1854, with railings and gates enclosing the Common.  Prince Consort Lodge, formerly exhibited at the Great Exhibition under the auspices of Prince Albert as President of the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes, was rebuilt in the park, evidence of action to improve the lot of the masses. What had been a muddy open space was transformed into a place of horticulture and recreation.

The Kennington Chartist Project is an initiative of local residents to raise awareness of the Chartist Rally and its relevance in the twenty first century amidst fear of a breakdown in democratic values.  It is supported by the Friends of Kennington Park and the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The programme, which will run through to October, includes walks and talks; a project with local schools; an Open Call for people to contribute ideas for a permanent memorial to the Chartists and a project for people between the ages of 16 and 24 entitled “Text, Image – Action!” looking at the slogans, signs and sounds that have changed history and creating a new approach with the support of people already working in literature, radical history, design and print.

On Saturday 7 July there will be a Chartist Celebration in Kennington Park including a schools parade, exhibitions and Chartist songs performed by a local choir. Other possible ideas are political debates and a vocal relay sending a message from Kennington to Westminster.

Have a look at the new website www.kenningtonchartistproject.org  which details of the plans and programme.  Check out the project on Twitter #kennington1848.

The Kennington Chartists Project welcomes local people getting involved. Come to the events or join the team helping with everything from archival research to hands on work at events.  Contact the project by email on: mail@kenningtonchartistproject.org


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