A new play examines the role of black Chartist William Cuffay
It was 1848, revolution was sweeping through Europe like wildfire and the British were on red alert.
As the Chartists prepared to stage a mass political demonstration in London in pursuit of the vote, Queen Victoria was packed off to the Isle of Wight for her own safety and thousands of soldiers stood guard outside government buildings.
Among the Chartists’ most militant leaders was William Cuffay, son of a free black man from St Kitts. After meeting with his fellow radicals at the Orange Tree pub in Holborn’s Red Lion Square to plan an even bigger protest a few months later, he was arrested and charged with ‘levying arms’ against the state.
What happened next is told in Chartists Rising, a new play examining Britain’s first mass political movement and Cuffay’s central role in it.
In a unique twist, it is written by veteran Irish playwright, Sam Dowling, the great- great nephew of William ‘Paul’ Dowling, Cuffay’s lieutenant who shared his cell in Newgate Prison as they awaited their fate.
Paul Dowling, one of the many Irish nationalists allied to the Chartist cause, was an artist who drew the only known image of Cuffay, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.
“I was researching the Irish connection to Chartism and the Cuffay connection jumped out at me, firstly via Paul’s portrait of him. I knew then I had a story,” says Sam Dowling, author of some 30 plays
He adds, “The Chartists gives us a real insight into how black and Irish minorities fit into the historical formation of the modern democratic UK.”
Cuffay had worked as a tailor before being sacked for going on strike. Angered by what he considered an injustice, he became a trade union leader and joined the movement in support of the People’s Charter, which had a raft of demands including one man one vote and secret ballots. In 1842 he was elected president of the London Chartists.
Settled in Soho with his wife and two children, he became a familiar figure in the coffee houses and pubs of Seven Dials and Clerkenwell, where the Chartists would meet to discuss strategy.
As political upheaval gathered pace in the form of rallies and riots, Cuffay became fed up with the timidity of the national leadership and plotted a Chartist rising – “armed and ready for all or anything.”
But the insurrection of August 16 1848 was doomed before it began thanks to gun dealer George Davis, who had infiltrated the movement on behalf of the police.
At his treason trial at the Old Bailey, Cuffay famously declared from the dock, “I am entitled to be tried by a jury of my peers. But I have been tried by a jury of my enemies. And enemies of my class.”
Together with Dowling and nine other Chartists, he was transported to Tasmania, where he continued to involve himself in the struggle for workers’ rights. He died there in 1870 aged 82.
Dowling’s play shows Cuffray to be a thoughtful and principled individual, qualities which won him a wide following despite the constant sniping by the press.
“I see this role as a way of championing an important figure in British history,” says former Grange Hill actor Tony Mcpherson who plays Cuffay in Chartists Rising.
“He really did believe in power to the people and was prepared to fight for it come what may.”
Although the Chartists did not immediately achieve success, only one of their demands, annual parliaments, failed eventually to become part of British law.
“With people demanding more accountability from their elected representatives now that they’ve been caught with their hands in the till, even this is being debated again,” says Mcpherson.
29 October 2009