Wednesday, 2 January 2013

'What An Amazing Man'. William Cuffay. Review of Martin Hoyles' Book

Over the years the story of the life of the London Chartist leader William Cuffay, a Black Briton, has been slowly circulating around the Black History and Chartist networks as a leading organiser of the 1848 Kennington Common Demonstration and the presentation of the 3rd national Charter petition, who was then convicted and transported for conspiracy to foment an armed uprising.

He receives almost no mention in the standard works on Chartism through to the early 1980s. John Saville provided a sketch of him in the Dictionary of Labour Biography (Vol VI. Macmillan) in 1982, which allowed Peter Fryer to include more information in Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press 1984). Bruce Aubry dug into Cuffay’s early years born and raised in Chatham in William Cuffay: Medway’s Black Chartist. (Rochester. The Pocock Press. 2008). In Australia Mark Gregory has been researching his life following transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), and runs a website about him: My own dabblings into Cuffay led to my talk at the Feargus O’Connor memorial event – see my blog of 30 July 2010:     

Now we have the exceptional book by Martin Hoyles William Cuffay. The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader (Hansib 2012). Why exceptional? Because Martin had done much more than present what is known so far about Cuffay’s life. Hopefully there is a lot more be found in archives and newspapers, especially as the more of the latter become available in digital format. Martin  sets Cuffay within the wider British and international context of slavery, the growth of the working class, radicalism and Chartism. His style is a joy to read for its down to earthiness, not stuffed with impenetrable language or the distraction of footnotes. This is a book for the general reader and a first class introduction to broader aspects of British working class history and the struggles for democracy and citizenship participation.

The story is set on three islands: St Kitts, where Cuffay’s grandfather had been taken against his will from Africa to feed the slavery economy; Britain, the heart of a growing Empire, where Cuffay’s grandmother and father were living as free blacks in 1772 and where William was born, grew up and became politically active; and then Tasmania where Cuffay lived the rest of his life after transportation.

Cuffay Family History

The Cuffay family stories are linked by a summary of how the slavery system operated, the experiences of black people in Britain, the efforts by Granville Sharp and others to challenge slave owners through the courts, the Mansfield judgement which was thought to have meant that no one could be a slave on British soil, the activities of Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Bill Waters, Charles McGee, and Jack Black (the gardener). Chatham’s importance was its Naval Dockyard, the working conditions and strikes, and a base for the prison hulks made famous by Charles Dickens in Great Expectations which had held republican prisoners from France and then Americans captured in the War of 1812, and later for a short while the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

This was the Chatham where William Cuffay was born, one of five children to Chatham Cuffay and a local white girl Juliana Fox following their marriage in 1786. William was the eldest baptised on 6 July 1788. Chatham died in April  1815 and Juliana in 1837. William was apprenticed to a tailor but by May 1819 he was living in London where he married Ann Marshall in St Martins-in-the Field Church at Trafalgar Square. Ann died in 1824 and William remarried the following year, his second wife, also Ann, dying in childbirth in 1826. These tragic deaths allows Hoyles to talk about the fragility of life in the early 19thC, and especially about rickets as the main disease of infancy.


In May 1827 William married again to Mary Ann Manvell, a straw hat maker. They lived in Lambeth. Hoyles explains the importance of straw plaiting work especially for women and girls.   Tailors had a radical history. In 1721 and 1744 the London tailors were on strike. Because it was a seasonal trade there were periods of unemployment so the tailors had their own benefit clubs and trade (union) societies. One of the radical tailors rose from journeyman to small scale employer: Francis Place. Cuffay had a reputation as a good tailor and one who liked to teacher others.

In 1833 the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors of London was founded, and several London tailors were involved in setting up the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. Although he did not approve of the tactic at the time he came out on strike in 1834 in solidarity with his fellow tailors.  A week before the strike began of the 40/50,000 strong London demonstration supporting the Tolpuddle Martyrs over a fifth was tailors. The strike collapsed due to lack of funds. Many including Cuffay  remained unemployed for refusing to sign an agreement that they would not join a trade union.

Hoyle broadens the story out again to talk about the working conditions in various branches of tailoring especially sweated labour in millinery and dress-making. He discusses the importance of Thomas Hood’s Song of the Shirt (December 1843) based on a Lambeth widow, which was set to music and song on the streets.

The 1834 strike led Cuffay into political activity. Hoyle reminds of us previous black activists: the four black demonstrators in the Gordon Riots, Oladuah Equiano’s anti-slave trade campaigning, William Davidson who was hung and decapitated for his role in the Cato St Conspiracy of 1820,  and Robert Wedderburn, and through his acting Ira Aldridge.

Cuffay and Chartism

He explains the rise of Chartism following the limited extension of the vote in the Reform Act of 1832, the crowds cheering the burning of the Houses of Parliament in October 1834, and the formation of the London Working Men’s Association which developed the 6 points of the People’s Charter in 1838. He reminds us that the Chartists looked back to the radicals of the English Revolution, the Monmouth Rebellion, the role of Major John Cartwright, the London Corresponding Society, the role of petitions and mentions the welcome African  Americans would receive campaigning in Britain against slavery in the United States.

The chapters ‘1839’, 1842’ and ‘1848’ tell the story of Chartism in each of the years of the three national petitions for the vote and other reforms. Martin pays particular attention to the Newport Uprising and female Chartists, especially their campaign to boycott shopkeepers that did not support the Charter.

By November 1839 Cuffay is a leading member of the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and moves the resolution condemning the Government’s rejection of the Charter demands. 1842 sees Cuffay chairing the tailors’ public meeting to adopt the 2nd National Petition. He also argued against emigration appealing to people to stay in Britain and fought for improvements.   The year saw a large scale strike in the Potteries. By the time it ended 1,500 Chartists had been arrested and 600 put on trial. In the Potteries out of 276 people tried 54 men were sentenced to transportation and 166 men and women imprisoned for up to two years. Cuffay was one of signatories to a letter in the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star about the Chartists Metropolitan Delegate meeting’s decision to raise funds for the prisoners. Mary Cuffay played an active role in fundraising. By now a leader of the London Chartists and member of the National Executive, ‘Cuffay’s oratory is often commented on – he was clearly a very powerful speaker.’ Press reports refer to his skill in chairing meetings.

The Importance of Social Activities

Entertainment was an important ingredient in Cuffay’s politics. He sang at social events and meetings. At one event he and five others sang a glee ‘I am a bold Democrat’.  Hoyle discusses the importance of theatre at the time, which allows him to provide more information about Ira Aldridge. In 1846 Cuffay is himself living at 12 Maiden Lane in Covent Gdn at the back of the Adelphi Theatre. He performed in an Amateur Dramatic Society production for the National Victims Fund, in which he sang The Laughing Song. Martin discusses its origins of the song, possibly in Handel or Blake, which leads him to review the importance of poetry to Chartists.                                                                

Hoyle then turns to the Chartist Land Plan of Feargus O’Connor which Cuffay was an active supporter of and an auditor for.   Writing in The Reasoner in 1849 Christopher Doyle, one of the Directors, praised Cuffay for his honesty. The initiative links back to the land nationalisation ideas of Thomas Spence and the development of the co-operative movement with the founding of the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844.

The Chartist Fiasco of 1848

By the beginning of 1848 the horror of the Irish Famine had politicised many Irish on the mainland. A Grand Metropolitan Demonstration was held in March to celebrate the French Revolution of February and universal suffrage. Cuffay addressed 10,000 people in Westminster Rd, Lambeth, and seconded a resolution by Ernest Jones against British interference. At another demonstration on Kennington Common the black seamen David Anthony Duffey and Benjamin Prophet were arrested and sentenced to transportation for 14 years.

Plans were underway for the presentation of the 3rd National Petition and a demonstration in support. Although it was banned the demonstration went ahead  on Kennington Common. Feargus O’Connor advised against processing with the petition to the Houses of Parliament against the ban. Cuffay was outraged and spoke against. He remained militant at the National Convention in the face of Government rejection of the Petition. A new Treason-Felony Act was used during the summer to arrest large numbers of Chartist leaders. From July a joint group of Chartists and Irish Confederates started to meet to plan an uprising. Cuffay became involved. He was arrested. Evidence against him and others was given by two police informers.

Hoyles looks at how political prisoners in the past and those who were Chartists used their time in prison to write. O’Connor paid for Cuffay’s barrister. He was sketched by fellow prisoner William Dowling. The sale of the print became one way in which money was raised for Mary Cuffay and others through the Victims and Defence Fund. His trial opened in September 1848. He was  found guilty. He made a powerful speech from the dock. While waiting to be transported he and others were imprisoned in Millbank, and then Wakefield.

Life in Tasmania

They were shipped from London in late July to Van Diemens Land (later renamed Tasmania). The system under which those transported lived, and the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines is examined. There is then a chapter about Cuffay’s life in Tasmania, and the success of the campaign against the transportation system in May 1853. Mary was able to join him a month earlier, her passage being paid for by the Government and the Medway Union Poor Law Guardians. William became politically involved in support of the anti-transportation campaign, for trade unions and then against the Master and Servant Act. He and others were given a Royal pardon in 1857. He took on the management of the renovated Albert Theatre. He remained politically active into his 80s. Mary died in 1869 and after admission to the workhouse in October he died on 29 July 1870.

Cuffay’s Reputation

The book ends with a chapter reviewing Cuffay’s ‘Reputation’. ‘What An amazing man! And how scandalous that he has been so neglected… his was one the most widely known names amongst the Chartists.’ He was ‘feared and reviled by the Establishment’; The Times and the Illustrated London News  referring to him as ‘nigger’. William Thackeray wrote  a poem in 1848 ridiculing him and Charles Kingsley mentions him in Alton Locke (1850). Even George Holyoake ‘could mix abuse with his praise’ in his Sixty Year’s of an Agitator’s Life (1892). ‘We owe  a lot to William Cuffay. This was a man who survived disability, poverty, bereavement, unemployment, ridicule, racism, imprisonment and transportation.’ The William Dowling portrait shows him smiling just as he is about to be transported for life. If there is one thing to remember about his remarkable man, it is his perseverance. He had the ability to laugh and make others laugh in the grimmest of times and surely he deserves to be commemorated for the inspiration which that provides.’


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  2. Thank you so much for this blog about William Cuffay. I have been trying to find out as much as I can about him as I recently found out that I am a direct descendant of his sister Juliana Cuffay, she Married into the Cheney family in Chatham Kent. It's been a fantastic journey learning about my Cuffay family and with thanks to this blog I ran off to buy the book about William written by Martin Hoyles