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UK Disability History Month

William Cuffay

William Cuffay photoThe Chartist movement for universal male votes was the first mass political movement of the British working class. One of its leaders, 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’ at birth, became a traveling tailor in his late teens and remained in that trade. Cuffay became a journeyman tailor but lost his job when the new tailors' union went on strike in 1834. 

Furious at the way he had been treated and convinced that workers needed to be represented in parliament, he became involved in the struggle for universal suffrage. In 1839, he helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association and soon became an important figure in the Chartist movement in London. He was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association in 1842 and later that year voted president of the London Chartists. 3 million signatures were gathered to the Charter. 

In 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 not a supporter of it. His bearing in court was very dignified - he objected to being tried by a middle-class jury, and to the evidence against him, which was gathered by police spies known to be dishonest. He was sentenced to life transportation to Tasmania.