Book of Byron's poems offers link to deported Chartist at People's History Museum

By Richard Moss | 13 June 2014

With its thumb-marks and poignant dedication, a book of Byron's poems at the People's History Museum is offering a tangible link to a legendary Chartist

a photo of an old book
The copy of Lord Byron's poetry that once belonged to Chartist William Cuffay © People's History Museum
It’s seen better days and the spine is broken, but a well-thumbed book of Lord Byron’s poetry is offering visitors and curators a rare and tangible link to radical member of the Chartist movement.

The book belonged to Chartist leader and orator William Cuffay and was donated to the Museum's Labour History Archive and Study Centre in May.

It has been described by Professor Malcolm Chase, the author of Chartism: A New History, as “a wonderful find”, having originally been 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 1849. 

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 but one of these demands are now part of British parliamentary democracy - and Cuffay was for a time an eloquent and forceful 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 until he died a pauper in 1870.

The book, which was found with a thumb print marked on one of the pages and leaves pressed in the cover, is the only object anywhere in the world that, in the words of Professor Chase, "we definitely know belonged to Cuffay”.

“His homes in London and Tasmania, and the workhouse where he died, have all been demolished," he added. "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.”

The book is on display in the Archive of the People’s History Museum throughout June. It will then be available to see upon appointment.

  • Archive open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm. Please contact the Museum before you make a visit.

a photo of a front page of a book with writing in it
The dedication inside the book of Byron's poetry© Courtesy People's History Museum
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