The Chartist movement was the first mass political movement of the British working class. Its leader, William Cuffay, was born in 1788 in Chatham. His father, a freed slave from St. Kitts, was a cook on a warship. Cuffay, whose spine and shins were deformed when he was born, became a traveling tailor in his late teens and stayed in that trade his whole life.
His political life began when he came out on strike in support of his fellow tailors in 1839. As a result, he lost his job, and joined the movement in support of the People's Charter drawn up by the cabinet maker William Lovett, demanding universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs, and equal electoral districts. Before long, Cuffay, the neat, mild mannered black tailor, 4ft 11 inches tall, emerged as one of the prominent leaders of the Chartist movement. In the autumn of 1839 Cuffay was helping to set up the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association - about 80 joined on the first night - and in 1841 the Westminster Chartists sent him to represent them on the Metropolitan Delegate Council. In February 1842 he chaired a 'Great Public Meeting of the Tailors', at which a national petition to the Commons was adopted. Later that same year, the Metropolitan Delegate Council responded to the arrest of George Julian Harney and other national leaders by appointing Cuffay as president and three others to serve as an interim executive.
Despite his mildness of character, Cuffay was a left-wing, militant Chartist from the beginning. This militancy earned him recognition in the press of ruling class. Punch lampooned him savagely, and the Times referred to the Chartists as 'the Black man and his Party'. As a result of this press campaign his wife Mary Ann was sacked from her job as a charwoman. In 1846, Cuffay was one of three delegates from London to the Birmingham Land Conference, and he and another tailor, James Knight, were appointed auditors to the National Land Company, which soon had 600 branches all over the country. In the same year Cuffay served as one of the National Anti-Militia Associations directors and was a member of the Democratic Committee for Poland's regeneration of which Ernest Jones, friend of Marx and Engels, was president.
For Cuffay, as for so many other working people in Western Europe, 1848 was 'the year of decision'. He was one of the three London delegates to the Chartists' national convention that met in April of that year. In August 1848, Cuffay was arrested, on the information of police spies, for conspiring to levy war against the queen. He was probably aware of the plot, but was not a supporter of it. His bearing in court was very dignified - he objected being tried by a middle class jury, and objected to the evidence against him, which was gathered by police spies known to be dishonest. He was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania for life. The author of 'a word in defence of Cuffay' in the Reasoner had this to say:
"When hundreds of working men elected this man to audit the account of their benefit society, they did so in the full belief of his trustworthiness, and he never gave them reason to repent of their choice. Cuffay's sobriety and ever active spirit marked him for a very useful man; he cheerfully fulfilled the arduous duties which devolved upon him."
Cuffay continued his radical activities; he was successful in the agitation for the amendment of the colony's Master and Servant Act. He was described as a 'fluent and effective speaker' who was always popular with the working classes. He received a pardon in 1856, and continued to campaign for the rights of working men. In October 1869, he was admitted to the Tasmania workhouse, in whose sick ward he died in July 1870.