William Lovett was born in Newlyn on 8th May 1800, son of Kezia and William Lovett. By the time William was born his father, a master mariner from Hull, was already dead, drowned at sea. William was brought up by his mother supported by his grandmother and his uncle Benedict. He received a rudimentary education in Newlyn before going to work as an apprentice in a local ropeworks but the failure of this business and the difficulty of finding other work eventually led him to leave Cornwall for London in 1821.
Realising the limits of his education he set about remedying the situation. Membership of a discussion club in the Soho Mechanics' Institute brought him into contact with The First London Cooperative Association and a position as store keeper. Those around him evidently recognised his talents and he became secretary of the British Association for Promoting Cooperative Knowledge. Although the BAPCK failed, working men's organisations were booming. Lovett joined the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and in 1831 he joined the National Union of the Working Classes. Always among the organisers of any group that he joined Lovett was rapidly becoming 'known' and in 1836 he was involved in drafting the Benefit Societies Act. Lovett's strategy was becoming clear: the lot of the working man would be improved by education, cooperation and organisation.
In 1836 Lovett became a founding member and secretary of the London Working Men's Association (LWMA). On 18 October 1836 Lovett entered the following minute:
“And without seeking any particular form or theory of government we nevertheless desire to have and we call upon our bretheren to demand as a first essential measure an equal voice in determining what laws shall be enacted or plans adopted for justly governing the country.
To this end are wanted Universal Suffrage, the protection of the ballot, Annual Parliaments, Equal representation, and no property qualification for members.”
This LWMA minute was to become the centrepiece of the Peoples' Charter, drafted by Lovett in 1838 and including a sixth demand, the payment of M.P.s.
The six points of the Charter were in fact contained within a much longer text which addressed a number of topics still current today. Universal manhood suffrage was indeed the main demand but the document also dealt in some detail with the mechanics of the electoral system.
Voters would need to prove three months residency
Voters would be prosecuted if they registered in more than one constituency
The country was to be divided into 300 equal electoral districts, each with one M.P.
M.P.s were to be paid £500 per annum
At the end of each annual parliament M.P.'s attendance would be published
Returning officers were to be elected by manhood suffrage and their duties were spelled out in great detail
Votes were to be cast by secret ballot, the procedures for which were again laid out in detail
A candidate required the signatures of 100 electors in order to stand for election
Candidates would be unable to address the electorate until the returning officer actually called an election
Canvassing was to be banned and made a criminal offence
The charter is a detailed critique of the electoral system which had been in place since 1832. It proposes not only measures intended to bring about democracy but also lays out the measures necessary to protect that democracy. Although put together by a committee of six M.P.s and six working men, the finished document was largely the work of William Lovett.
By the time Lovett died in 1877 these 'radical' demands were already being described as “a wise, moderate and statesmanlike measure” and the man himself as “a prominent member of the brave band to whose service and sacrifice we owe the freedom of the press, the extension of the franchise and the beginnings of popular education.” However statesmanlike his words had been and no matter the sacrifice he had made William Lovett died in poverty dogged by ill-health which arose, at least in part, from his time in prison following the Bull Ring riot in Birmingham.
Change came slowly however and it is also true that when Lovett died only one of the six points of the charter had been achieved – secret ballots were introduced in 1872. Not until 1918 had all the points of the charter, with the exception of annual parliaments, been addressed, admittedly some more successfully than others.
In the last years of his life William Lovett wrote an autobiography, the title of which gives a good idea of how he saw his life. “The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in his Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom, with Some Short Account of the Different Associations he Belonged to and of the Opinions he Entertained” sounds like pretty heavy going and Lovett does seem keen to demonstrate that “the boy is father to the man” and that his radical politics grew from his experience of life and work during his early years in Newlyn just as much as from his political involvement in London.
William Lovett, The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in his Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom, with Some Short Account of the Different Associations he Belonged to and of the Opinions he Entertained, 1876. available online https://archive.org/stream/lifestrugglesofw00love/lifestrugglesofw00love_djvu.txt
Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts, The Chartist Legacy, Merlin Press 1999
R.C. Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, Merlin Press, 1976 (originally published 1894)
A Newlyn Chartist, Cornish Telegraph 20/11/1877 p4
Image of the Minute Book of the LWMA for 18 October 1836 at the British Library http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/Campaign_MAI/chartism/large92850.html