William Cuffey

Black Chartist from 1838 to 1848

William Cuffey (or Cuffay) was a prominent Chartist leader (the first mass political movement of the British working class). Cuffey’s father was a freed slave from St Kitts; his grandfather had been taken there from Africa and put to work as a slave on a plantation. As a cook on a British warship, Cuffey’s father travelled with the Royal Navy and eventually settled with his English wife and family in Chatham Kent. 

Born in 1788, Cuffey became a tailor. Angered by declining pay and working conditions, he joined the London Chartists; a movement for social and political reforms, such as votes for all men. The intention was to present their demands to parliament in a charter, hence the name The Chartist movement can be seen as a forerunner of the Labour movement.

In 1840 Coffey was elected as the Westminster delegate to the Chartists’ Metropolitan Delegate Council and became a member of the executive of the National Charter Association. By 1848, he had emerged as the acknowledged leader of the London Chartists, respected for his integrity and scrupulous attention to detail.

In the politics of workers’ rights, Cuffey and his fellow activists struggled to redress the imbalance in the distribution of wealth. Benjamin Disraeli argued that England was sharply divided into the haves and the have-nots. In 1844 Friedrich Engel’s, gathering evidence for his treatise in Manchester, wrote about the dire conditions of the English working classes. Charles Dickens exposed harsh conditions in his widely read novels, including Oliver Twist (1837) and Hard Times (1854).The struggle for workers’ rights and parliamentary reform was long and hard.

In 1848 Cuffey and others were involved in the Orange Tree Plot, named after the public house in Red Lion Square where the leaders met. The indictment stated that the plotters

‘feloniously did compass, imagine…to levy war against the Queen to compel her to change her councils…and 2nd, to depose the Queen from the style, honour and dignity of the Imperial Crown, etc…’

Such crimes of treason against the state would usually warrant execution. But from 1830 onwards, about three-quarters of all prisoners were sentenced to be incarcerated in Chalks moored on the Thames or to be transported overseas. Cuffey now aged 60, along with two other Chartists, Lacey and Fay, were ‘transported for life’. Having endured the long journey on the prison ship Adelaide, Cuffey landed in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in November 1849.

The newspaper article displayed here, published in The Northern Star on 4 August 1849, gives details of donations that people made so that William Cuffay had some money when he arrived in Port Phillip, Australia.

Cuffey received a free pardon in 1856, and went on working as a respected ‘sober and industrious man’. He also continued campaigning for working-class political rights, as well as being in demand at social functions as a musician and singer. Cuffey’s wife had joined him in 1853, and he lived and worked in Tasmania until his death, in 1870.

Read more about William Cuffey and see also Women Chartists