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Chartism’s Black Activist

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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.

Yet the Soho tailor was no bellicose hothead. In the words of fellow Chartist, Thomas Martin Wheeler, who knew Cuffay well, he was 'of mild demeanour and quiet manners' (1850) - the epitome of the backroom political activist: conscientious, industrious and seldom given to grand rhetoric. A member of countless working groups and committees, it was Cuffay's strong belief that the six key points for parliamentary reform enshrined in the People's Charter - universal male suffrage, a secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment of MPs, equal-sized constituencies and annually elected parliaments - could be peaceably obtained. Once law, the Charter would retrieve Britain from the precipice of the economic and social crisis so many commentators believed the country faced.

As a trades unionist Cuffay 'had exerted himself to the utmost,' he told a crowded meeting of his fellow tailors at the John Street Social Institution off Tottenham Court Road in a speech reported in the Northern Star of March 5th, urging them to support the 1842 Chartist petition:

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