Sunday 16 May 2021

Nerd Church - 'I Shall, This Night, Be Engaged In A Struggle For Freedom': The Fight For The Vote in the UK

(Warning: this post discusses political struggle, including murder by the military. It also refers to historical capital punishment and torture.)

On the night of 4th of November, 1839, somewhere between 1000 and 5000 men from the South Wales valleys marched to the Westgate Hotel in Newport.

By morning, at least 22 of them would be dead.

They were killed by the British army on British soil.

This was the Newport Rising.

''I Shall, This Night, Be Engaged In A Struggle For Freedom': The Fight For The Vote in the UK'

This is the story of the right to vote in the UK - not just for women, but for the majority of the men in this country, too.

And it's long, and it's bloody, and it's rarely taught in schools. 

But it's our history - not the history of the rich, who had long had the right to vote and the ability to stand for parliament - but the history of the working people of this country.

The right to elect Members of Parliament (MPs) for the UK was restricted, for a very, very, long time, to those who met whatever property requirement was in place at the time.

Property requirements meant that only people who owned or rented property that was worth over X amount could vote. (The amount changed from time to time, usually with inflation.)

It was literally the law that poor men (and we are talking about men here, though women, like poor men, could vote in small local elections at various times,) could not vote.

It's thought that, before The Reform Act 1867 (aka the Representation of the People Act 1867,) only one million of a possible seven million men over 21 were eligible to vote.

One seventh of the male population was making the decisions for the entire country.

The Chartists saw the problem with this system: a system which does not allow the poor to have a political voice will never be truly representative of the people.

Chartism was born from the publication of The People's Charter of 1838, written by a committee of six MPs and six ordinary working people.

Those who supported The People's Charter were, oddly enough, known as Chartists.

The People's Charter of 1838 asked for 6 entirely reasonable (yes, I'm biased, I don't care,) points:

  1. All men over 21 (the voting age at the time,) be given the vote, regardless of property, unless they were in prison or deemed to be of 'unsound mind.' (Some Chartists wanted the vote for women, too, but realised they'd never get that.)
  2. A secret ballot (at the time we were literally writing down who you voted for in a document that politicians could look at)
  3. No property qualification to become an MP
  4. MPs to be paid a wage - thus enabling working people to become MPs
  5. Equivalent number of electors per constituency (because some constituencies were representing way less people than others, making some seats super-easy to get and leading to widespread corruption)
  6. Annual parliamentary elections

After parliament had point-blank refused all that, they were probably hoping the Chartists would go away.

But they did not.

And here in Wales, the movement took off.

But the elites? They had the habit of arresting protestors for non-violent assemblies. Which in turn tended to lead to violent assemblies.

With tensions rising, the arrest of leading Chartist Henry Vincent proved the spark.

And, despite the torrential rain of a typical November in South Wales, thousands gathered to march to The Westgate Hotel in Newport, where many Chartist prisoners were thought to be being detained while they awaited trial.

The army were waiting.

I'm not going to argue that The Chartists were 100% completely non-violent.

They weren't non-violent.

They were armed. Their intentions at the Westgate are even now unknown. 

It's also thought that the Chartists probably fired the first shot (though, given the potential for spontaneous misfires in 19th Century weaponry - especially the type a working person could afford - it doesn't mean the Chartists intended to fire the first shot.)

What followed, though? What followed was a bloodbath.

The actual number of casualties is unknown - they did not care to count poor dead men in 1839 - but it's thought to be at least 22 people, with at least 50 injured on the Chartist's side, and about 4 wounded on the side of the authorities.

The leaders were rounded up, arrested, convicted of Treason, and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. 

If you don't know what that entails - I will simply say that it is a medieval form of torture and execution that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. The Chartists of the Newport Rising were the last people to be sentenced with this punishment in England and Wales.

Thankfully, and possibly in an act of PR (the public were not happy,) the sentence was commuted to Transportation - being sent to the penal colonies in Australia. 

As a Welsh person, I can tell you that being exiled from Wales is practically an act of violence in itself, but it beats being brutally tortured and executed.

Over the decades, slowly but surely, more and more men were granted the right to vote.

It was only with the Representation of the People Act 1918 that all property requirements were entirely abolished, and the vote was given to ALL men over 21, as well as to some women over 30 (those pesky property requirements again.)

Ten years later, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 removed property requirements for women, and gave parity to the voting age.

This is so rarely taught in schools - and yes, it's confusing and frustratingly bureaucratic.

But it's a battle that only ended in its entirety less than 100 years ago - the right for all citizens and long-term residents to have a voice, regardless of how much money they earn.

Surely we should know this stuff, right? 

We should know that the right for all men to vote only came in 1918, that the right for all women only in 1928.

It shouldn't be so completely out of the public consciousness as it is.

And the UK government wants to bring in a wealth requirement for parliamentary elections once more.

You may or may not have heard that the Queen's Speech (which is like a Government's to-do list, the Queen reads it out but she don't write it, k?) included bringing into law that we would require photo ID to vote in parliamentary elections.

On the surface, that's a reasonable way to prevent electoral fraud.

Until you realise that, aside from the fact that electoral fraud is an almost non-existent problem in the UK, the only legal forms of photo ID we have in this country require paying fees.

And while that won't affect a lot of people, (it's just about affordable for many,) for the poorest?

The poorest aren't going to get a driving licence or passport when they can't afford to eat or to heat their homes.

The poorest will not be able to elect MPs, because they won't have enough money to.

It's estimated that 11 million people could be unable to vote, with a higher percentage of people losing out amongst People of Colour, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalised groups.

It feels like the Conservative party in the Westminster parliament are making a statement on the type of people they would like to be able to vote.

Perhaps that's unfair, perhaps they're simply so far removed from reality that they don't realise the harm they are causing, and the inequalities they are widening.

Either way: it feels like a wealth requirement.

The youngest victim of the brutal put-down of The Newport Rising in 1839 was 18-year-old George Shell.

George wrote a letter to his parents as he prepared to march. It said:

'I shall, this night, be engaged in a struggle for freedom and, should it please God to spare my life, I will see you soon. But if not, grieve not for me, I shall fall in a noble cause.'

'I shall, this night, be engaged in a struggle for freedom...' it's our duty to ensure that his young death, nearly 200 years ago, was not in vain.

Sources and Resources:

The Newport Rising and Chartism in Wales

What was the Newport Rising? | A brief history of the Newport Rising 1839 (YouTube video)

Mandatory voter ID would dangerously undermine UK democracy

Voter ID is a ‘real threat’ to marginalised groups

Were you aware of the history of voting in the UK?
Talk to me! 😊💬

You can follow me on Twitter @CeeDoraReads, on Pinterest, and on Dora Reads @ BlogLovin. For more ways to support me, check out the Support Me page

Related Reading:

Please share on socials & leave a comment! 💖


  1. Thank you very much for sharing, Cee! Obviously I'm not really aware of voting history in the UK, but you always deliver in educating me :) This post reminds me of some Canadian voting history. In the early 1900's (white) women were fighting for the right to vote. We were taught in history classes to uplift these women. However, many people fail to mention that these women were only fighting for the right of white women to vote, and that voting for Indigenous women didn't come until much, much later. We have to know the truth behind our history!

    1. Oddly, considering the history of British colonialism, we never had a racial barrier to voting in the UK ( far as I'm aware, I don't know everything, after all.) The property barrier would have served to prevent most People of Colour from voting, though.

      One of our leading suffragettes (though, she tends to get forgotten, wonder why *eye rolls*) was actually a Princess from India named Sophia Duleep Singh. Lately people have been trying to put her back in her rightful place in history :)

      Indigenous people got (and often continue to get,) a raw deal in Canada - both under British rule and after. And you're right - we have to know our history. *All* of our history.


Comments? I love comments! Talk to me nerdlets!