From the archive: The book of Byron poems that deported Chartist William Cuffay took to Tasmania
It’s seen better days and the spine is broken, but this well-thumbed book of Lord Byron’s poetry offers a rare and tangible link to radical member of the Chartist movement.
The book belonged to radical Chartist leader and orator William Cuffay and is in the collection of the People’s History Museum being donated to the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in May 2014.
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Described by Professor Malcolm Chase, author of Chartism: A New History as “a wonderful find” the book was given to Cuffay by fellow Chartists “as a token of their sincere regard and affection for his genuine patriotism and moral worth”, prior to his deportation to Tasmania in 1848.
Cuffay is today regarded as an inspirational figure in the history of the Chartists who, in the midst of Victorian industrialisation, campaigned for universal suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, no property qualification for members, and payment of members of Parliament for their services.
All bar one of these demands (annual parliaments) are now part of British parliamentary democracy and Cuffay was for a time a key proponent of them.
Born in Kent in 1788 to a white mother and a former slave from St Kitts, he trained as a tailor and went on strike with his fellow tailors in the London strike of 1834.
The action saw him dismissed and blacklisted. Undeterred he formed a tailor’s Charter and by 1842 his political zeal and talents as an orator saw him elected to the Chartist’s National Executive.
A key organiser of the Chartist rally at Kennington Common in 1848, he was said to be disappointed by the fact that many members were reluctant to use force to advocate their demands.
In the same year the evidence of a government spy saw him convicted of conspiring to start an uprising against the government and he was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania for 21 years. After three years he was pardoned, although he chose to stay in Tasmania where he died a pauper in 1870.
The book was found with a thumb print marked on one of the pages and leaves pressed in the cover.
“This is the only object, anywhere in the world, that we definitely know belonged to Cuffay,” says Professor Chase.
“His homes in London and Tasmania, and the workhouse where he died, have all been demolished. It’s all the more poignant because this book was a gift from his fellow Chartists.
“When you see the thumb print on the page that includes Byron’s ‘Song for the Luddites’ you can almost hear and feel the breath of history.”
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