William Cuffay

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William Cuffay (1788 – July 1870) was a Chartist leader in early Victorian London.

William Cuffay
William Cuffay.jpg
Medway Towns, Kent, England
NationalityUnited Kingdom

Early life[edit]

Cuffay was mixed-race; the son of a Gillingham, Kent woman of Anglo-Saxon heritage, Juliana Fox, and a man of African heritage, Chatham Cuffey, 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. Cuffay was apprenticed to a tailor, and later worked for Matthews and Acworth, on Chatham High Street. He was of short stature, being 4 ft 11 in (1.50 m) tall. Cuffay moved to London around 1819 and was married three times. His only daughter Ann Juliana Cuffay, was baptised at St Mary Magdalenes Church, Gillingham.[1]

Chartist organiser[edit]

Cuffay rejected the Owenite trade unions of the London tailors. He went on strike with his fellow tailors in 1834, demanding a ten-hour workday from 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 employment.[2] 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.[2]

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".

Arrest and transportation[edit]

Betrayed by a government spy, Cuffay was arrested and accused of "conspiring to levy war" against Queen Victoria.[3] 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 at the Hobart Invalid Depot in July 1870.[3][4]

Cuffay's transportation to Australia did not end his political activity. He continued to organise and agitate for democratic rights in Tasmania until he died in 1870, at the age of 82. Although Cuffay died a pauper, seven Australian newspapers in three states – Tasmania, New South Wales 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.[5]

Media and events[edit]

Cuffay was the subject of a 2010 BBC Radio 4 programme entitled Britain's Black Revolutionary written and presented by the former trades union leader Bill Morris.[6]

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.[7]

He also appeared in the third series of the UK television show Victoria.

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".[8]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. Hertford, Hertfordshire, SG14 3WY: Hansib Publications Ltd. ISBN 9781906190620.


  1. ^ Aubry 2005, p. 27
  2. ^ a b Aubry 2005, p. 28
  3. ^ a b Keith A. P. Sandiford, A Black Studies Primer: Heroes and Heroines of the African Diaspora, Hansib Publications, 2008, p. 137.
  4. ^ Aubry 2005, p. 29
  5. ^ "The Isle of Denial: William Cuffay in Van Diemens Land".
  6. ^ "Britain's Black Revolutionary", BBC Radio 4.
  7. ^ "Isle of Denial: William Cuffay in Van Diemen's Land", ABC Radio National Hindsight.
  8. ^ Morning Star, 15 July 2013.

External links[edit]