Medway Towns, Kent, England
Cuffay was mixed race; the son of a Gillingham, Kent woman and a black man who was previously enslaved and originally from Saint Kitts (then a British colony). He was born in 1788 in Old Brompton, an area of the Medway Towns that is now in Gillingham. He was apprenticed to a tailor, and later worked for Matthews and Acworth, on Chatham High Street. Cuffay was short, being 4 ft 11 in (1.50 m) in height. He moved to London in about 1819 and was married three times. His one daughter Ann Juliana Cuffay was baptised at St Mary Magdalenes Church, Gillingham.
Cuffay rejected the Owenite trade unions of the London tailors. He went on strike with his fellow tailors in 1834, demanding a ten-hour day between April to July and an eight-hour day during the rest of the year with pay of 6 shillings and 5 pence a day. The strike collapsed, Cuffay was sacked and subsequently blacklisted from working. In 1839 Cuffay helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association. He was elected first to the Chartist Metropolitan Delegate Council in 1841 and onto the National Executive in 1842.
Cuffay was one of the organisers of the large Chartist rally on Kennington Common on 10 April 1848, but was dismayed by the timidity of other leaders, who had rejected the idea that the rally should be a show of force. Cuffay's radical faction soon became involved in plans for a display of "physical force".
Cuffay's reply to the verdict and sentence of the court was reported in detail in The Times and remains as evidence of his extraordinary ability as an orator and public speaker.
Arrest and transportation
Betrayed by a government spy, Cuffay was arrested and accused of "conspiring to levy war" against Queen Victoria. Despite being defended by eminent barrister John Walter Huddleston, he was convicted of preparing acts of arson, intended as a signal for the planned armed uprising. Sentenced to 21 years penal transportation, Cuffay spent the rest of his life in Tasmania.
Though he was pardoned three years after his conviction, Cuffay elected to stay in Tasmania, working as a tailor and involving himself in local politics. He died in poverty in the Hobart Invalid Depot in July 1870.
Cuffay was also the subject of a 2011 ABC Hindsight radio documentary, entitled Isle of Denial: William Cuffay in Van Diemen's Land which was shortlisted in the NSW Premiers Award in 2012.
Cuffay's transportation to Australia did not end his political activity. He continued to organise and agitate for democratic rights in Tasmania for another 20 years until his death in 1870, at the age of 82. Cuffay's Chartist legacy is today enshrined in parliaments in Britain and Australia. His lifelong political activism remains an inspiration to those who believe in workers rights, human rights and democracy. Although Cuffay died a pauper, seven Australian newspapers in three states – Tasmania, NSW and Victoria – published obituaries. One observed that his grave had been "marked", should a memorial to him be built at some future time. The memorial never transpired, and Cuffay was forgotten in Australia and Britain. Interest has since been rekindled, with plans in motion to construct the abandoned memorial or a statue on the site.
During the summer of 2013, a small exhibition was mounted in the UK Houses of Parliament, marking the 175th anniversary of the publication of the People's Charter. It included, poignantly, the copy of Byron’s collected poetry that London Chartists had given to Cuffay when he was transported, ‘as a token of their sincere regard and affection for his genuine patriotism and moral worth’.
- Aubry, Bruce (2005). Red flows the Medway: A Labour History of the Medway Towns. Rochester, ME1 1FA: Pocock Press. ISBN 0-9545785-1-1.
- Malcolm Chase,Chartism: A New History (Manchester University Press, 2007)
- Hoyles, Martin (2013). William Cuffay: The Life & Times of a Chartist Leader. Hereford, Hertfordshire, SG14 3WY: Hansib Publications Ltd. ISBN 9781906190620.
- Aubry 2005, p. 27
- Aubry 2005, p. 28
- "William Cuffay courtroom speech.
- Keith A. P. Sandiford, A Black Studies Primer: Heroes and Heroines of the African Diaspora, Hansib Publications, 2008, p. 137.
- Aubry 2005, p. 29
- "Work in Progress: In Search of William Cuffay", London Socialist Historians Group, 22 January 2011.
- "Britain's Black Revolutionary", BBC Radio 4.
- "Isle of Denial: William Cuffay in Van Diemen's Land", ABC Radio National Hindsight.
- "The Isle of Denial: William Cuffay in Van Diemens Land".
- Morning Star, 15 July 2013.
- BBC website
- William Cuffay portrait: National Portrait Gallery
- THE IRISH CONFEDERACY To the Editor of the Daily Courier, LAUNCESTON, 18 July 1854
- The Isle of Denial: William Cuffay in Van Diemens Land, ABC Radio, 19 July 2011
- Cuffay and other Chartists in Australian Newspapers
- William Cuffay Obituaries
- WILLIAM CUFFAY : The Life & Times of a Chartist Leader: Martin Hoyles