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Chartism was a British political movement that flourished between 1837 and 1848, the period of the ‘Hungry Forties’. It took its name from the ‘People’s Charter’, which called for universal suffrage, secret ballots, and other related reforms to make Parliament more democratic and responsive to the electorate. It was called a ‘knife-and-fork question, a bread-and-cheese question', seeking to use the vote for major social and economic reforms. Its supporters were working-class, reacting to the tumultuous problems brought about by the industrial revolution and to the Reform Act of 1832, which had extended the vote to the middle class but excluded the working class. The Chartists held huge mass meetings to express their grievances; presented petitions – each bearing millions of signatures – to Parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848; and threatened the government with riots, strikes and even possible revolution. They did not succeed at the time, and saw their protests and the resulting disturbances repressed by the authorities. Leaders and members of the movement were imprisoned or transported to Australia; but they left an important legacy of democratic demands, later taken up in Britain, and brought by Chartist emigrants to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s.

David Philips