Chartism’s Black Activist
To celebrate Black History Month, Malcolm Chase recalls the life of the Soho tailor William Cuffay, the son of a freed slave from St Kitts, who overcame poverty and disability to become one of the leaders of the Chartist ‘conspiracy’ of 1848.
Often forgotten today, 160 years ago William Cuffay was a familiar figure in the popular politics of London. He was born in 1788 wim a deformity of the spine and legs that prevented him from following his f amer into the Royal Navy and turned to the tailoring trade at an early age, eventually settling in Soho. Here he made himself the spokesman for his fellow tailors and in 1839, the year that me People's Charter was first presented to Parliament, he organized a tailors' strike and helped to set up the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association. Cuffay was later elected to represent the Westminster Chartists on the movement's Metropolitan District Council, becoming its treasurer. When all me key members of me national executive were arrested in 1842, following the failure of the biggest mass petition in Chartism's history, Cuffay came to their rescue, serving as interim president.