In 1792, shoemaker Thomas Hardy founded the London Corresponding Society. Influenced by the French Revolution and the works of Thomas Paine, the LCS held meetings across England to discuss their ideas for parliamentary reform. Their demands were moderate, but the LCS were nonetheless met with brutal repression. Government spies infiltrated the organisation and gathered evidence. Within a few years of its inception, various members of the LCS were arrested. Some members were given indefinite prison sentences and others, such as Hardy, faced execution on charges of Treason. What was their Crime? They sought the right to vote.
Less than twenty years later, Luddism emerged. The Luddites, unlike the LCS, were not actively concerned with parliamentary reform, but rather sought to prevent changes to working conditions. The machinery of the Industrial Revolution - power looms, spinning wheels and so on - threatened to replace skilled workers with low-wage labourers. The Luddites, of course, had no vote and no representation and thus decided to take matters into their own hands by breaking into factories and smashing machinery. In 1812, an attack on the Rawfold Mill led to the capture of two Luddite men. After hours of torture and no confession, one of these men, nineteen-year-old John Booth, signalled for clergyman Hammond Roberson to sit beside his deathbed. Booth asked: 'can you keep a secret?' The soldiers eagerly awaited a confession. 'Yes, yes, I can,' responded Roberson. Bloodied and battered, Booth responded: 'Well, so can I'.
In 1819, seven years after Booth died, more than 60,000 protestors gathered at St. Peters field in Manchester to campaign for parliamentary reform. Confronted by such a mass of protestors, the government had two choices: repression or concession. Concession, according to E.P. Thompson, would have led to a large working-class reform movement. So, inexorably, the government opted for repression. The cavalry charged into the crowds, sabres drawn, and arbitrarily struck the manic protestors, killing eleven and injuring more than six-hundred. All the roads leading out of Manchester that night, Thompson asserts, were adorned with protestors tending to victims. Some of them were merely injured. Others were close to death.
The Peterloo massacre led to a greater class-consciousness and a fervent desire in Britain for manhood suffrage. Thus, from 1838, a new movement gained momentum. Chartism called for the enactment of the People's Charter, which demanded six reforms to increase democratic representation. The most important reform was the first: 'A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.'
The authorities, once again, met Chartism with repression. In 1848, between 1,000 and 5,000 Chartists gathered in Newport to launch a rebellion. The crowd marched to the Westgate Hotel where a small number of Chartists were imprisoned. As they tried to enter the hotel, the Chartists were met with heavy firepower from soldiers. Roughly twenty Chartists lost their lives. In the aftermath, more than two-hundred Chartists were arrested and twenty-one were charged with High Treason.
Influenced by these protests, the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 awarded men the right to vote. Women, however, still had no representation. The Suffragette movement sought to right that wrong. Led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the Suffragettes used militant tactics, including hunger strikes. During earlier hunger strikes, the government would release women due to concerns about their health. In 1909, the government ceased to continue this trend. Fed up with the liability of women dying in prison, they embarked on a campaign of force-feeding. The Suffragettes were tied down and a tube was shoved into their nose or stomach. Constance Lytton remembers the experience:
'He put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet long. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had gone down. Then the food was poured in quickly. It made me sick after a few seconds and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe.'
Plenty of women starved in prison, while others were force-fed and were left with lifelong injuries, both physical and mental. The Suffragettes, like the generations that preceded them, simply aspired for the right to vote. It wasn't until 1928, after decades of struggle, that women finally achieved electoral equality.
These are just a few brief stories about the struggles of British people that aspired for the right to vote. There are far too many more. When you vote, think about what these men and women sacrificed for that right. LCS members were hung, Luddites were tortured, reformers were massacred, Chartists were murdered and Suffragettes were force-fed. We can moan about politics - and we should. Let us recognise how important it is, however, that we have the opportunity to exercise the right to vote. It's a right that our ancestors fought for and millions of people across the world continue to fight for. We shouldn't take that right to vote for granted.Suggest a correction