Saturday, 6 June 2015

William Cuffay's poetic gift from the Chartists

By October 1849, the London Chartist William Cuffay was already on board the convict ship the Adelaide, heading for Australia, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Cuffay had been arrested in the wake of the Orange Tree conspiracy of August 1848, found guilty at the Central Criminal Court of “treason felony” and sentenced to 14 years in exile. In fact, he would never return to England. But his comrades in the Chartist movement did not forget him.
While Cuffay was awaiting trial, an appeal was launched in the Northern Star to offer financial support to his wife, Mary. And in July 1849, while on remand in Wakefield Gaol, Cuffay appealed to his friends to “raise a few shillings” so that he would not be entirely penniless in his new life.
On both occasions, the Chartists rose to the challenge. It must surely have been at this time that the Westminster branch of the National Charter Association decided to support Cuffay not just financially but with the morale-boosting gift of a book of poetry by Byron.
Cuffay and other exiled Chartists were among the 303 convicts on board the Adelaide when it left London on 19 August 1849. It did not arrive in Hobart until 29 November. So quite how and when the book reached Cuffay is not known.
But we know that the book did get to Cuffay as it was with him when he died in Brookfields Invalid Depot (Hobart’s workhouse) in July 1870, and later that same year it was in the workhouse reading room. What happened to it next is also unknown.
But astonishingly, the book has now come to light once more and is back in the UK, 150 years after the Westminster Chartists inscribed its title page with their “sincere regard and affection” for their erstwhile comrade and branch member.
Perhaps more astonishing for me personally, the inscription was written and signed by my own great-great-great grandfather, James Grasby, at this time secretary of the Westminster NCA, a long-time Chartist activist and subsequently the NCA’s last ever national secretary.
As to volume of poetry, after much careful work on the part of the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, it went on display for a short time last year at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. It can now be viewed by appointment.
The inscription reads in full
Presented to Mr William Cuffay by the members of the Westminster branch of the National Charter Association of Great Britain as a token of their sincere regard and affection for his genuine patriotism and moral worth.
James Grasby Secretary
London October 16th 1849
 I am grateful to the People’s History Museum for allowing me to reproduce the photograph here, and in particular to curatorial assistant Harriet Beeforth for her help.
The inscription at the front of Cuffay's book. Photograph copyright People's History Museum. Reproduced here with their kind permission.

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