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William Cuffay, Black Chartist leader and a family grave in Ladywell cemetery

William Cuffay drawn in his cell in Newgate [National Portrait Gallery London]

William Cuffay was born in Gillingham in 1788 of an English woman called Juliana Fox and a man of African heritage, Chatham Cuffay who had been previously enslaved on the British Colony of St.Kitts. He was soon apprenticed to a tailor, working in the dockyard town of Chatham. William was a man of short stature 4 ft 11 in, who was described when a boy as of ‘of a very delicate constitution’, with his spine and shins deformed. On joining a trade union and participating in a strike he was sacked from a job he had held for many years. In 1839 he joined the great working class Chartist movement with its national demands for universal male suffrage and democratic change, and before long he had emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of the Chartist movement in London. In the same year he helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association.

1848 was a year in which people took to the streets and revolutions broke out across Europe – it was also a seminal year for the Chartists in Britain. William Cuffay was one of the delegates to the Chartists’ national convention, with their main task to prepare a mass meeting on Kennington Common in Lambeth, London, that would proceed to march and submit a mass petition to parliament.  He made some of the most radical speeches at this convention and openly denounced the leading Chartists who were more cautious. He was appointed chairman of the committee for managing the procession, responsible for making sure that ‘everything…necessary for conduction of an immense procession with order and regularity had been adopted'.  As he passionately argued, things had now come to a crisis point and they must be prepared to act with coolness and responsibility.

The above is an early photograph, of protest crowds meeting on Kennington Common , such gatherings became known as 'Monster Meetings' – this is the oldest surviving image of a protest in British history. [Peoples History Museum]

The British state feared the prospect of revolution, so much so that the royal family were sent to the Isle of Wight for their safety.  The state used all its extant power to intimidate and halt the crowd’s march to parliament, declaring the procession illegal and with all government buildings prepared for attack. Thames bridges were sealed off and guarded by thousands of police and soldiers, while steamboats with troops waited on the River Thames nearby. Under so much pressure, the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor agreed to call off the mass procession. As William Cuffay noted, the Chartist executive had timidly shrunk from their moral and political responsibility describing them as 'a set of cowardly humbugs’!

Angered at this step down, reports from police informers on Cuffay’s involvement with a conspiracy to foment an armed uprising, known as the 'Orange Tree Plot' resulted in his being subsequently tried at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey for ‘sedition'.  He pleaded not guilty and in the court transcripts we can read how he demanded that, rather than a middle class jury, he had a ‘fair trial by my peers’.  Cuffay powerfully stated that the jury ‘were not my equals – I am only a journeyman mechanic’.  Reporting on the trial, The Times sneeringly referred to Cuffay and the Chartists as ‘the black man and his party, going on to describe Cuffay using pernicious racism. William Cuffay and two comrades were sentenced to transportation to Tasmania (previously known as Van Diemen's Land) ‘for the term of your natural lives’.

As William Cuffay set sail on the convict ship, 'Adelaide'* for Tasmania in 1849 he was gifted a beautiful book of Lord Byron’s poetry.  On the inside page of the book you can see the handwritten note: ‘Presented to 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’. The late Chartist historian Professor Malcolm Chase donated the book to the People’s History Museum in 2014.

Though he was pardoned three years after his conviction, William 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 at the age of 82 and was buried in a paupers grave.

A fitting tribute to this once forgotten Black Chartist Leader was written by a fellow chartist, ‘loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues, ridiculed and denounced by a press that knew him not, and had no sympathy with his class, and banished by a government that feared him…Whilst integrity in the midst of poverty, whilst honour in the midst of temptation are admired and venerated, so long will the name of William Cuffay, a scion of Africa’s oppressed race, be preserved from oblivion’.

On 15 July 2021, a blue plaque was unveiled at Chatham Historic Dockyard in memory of both William Cuffay and his father Chatham Cuffay

AnEnglish Revolutionary song by Billy Bragg on the life of William Cuffay can be heard on You Tube -

What of the Ladywell cemetery connection? Quite by chance when researching the live of Robert Wedderburn for the previous Foblc post as part of Black History Month, I came across the name of a Frederick Andrew Chaney d.1973 who is buried here in an area of the cemetery which suggests that it might be an unmarked grave. Members of the Friends group have endeavoured to locate the exact whereabouts of the grave so far without success. For those interested in following this search up the burial number is E/3333 Ladywell cemetery, close to the now seamless boundary with Brockley cemetery. Frederick worked as a carpenter living in Forest Hill and lived to the ripe age of 84. With the invaluable assistance of Ancestry UK online family history I lighted on his father's name, William Cuffay Chaney d.1906, who was described as employed as a shipwright and Admiralty writer that the exciting possibility of a family link began to form. Through him the Frederick's great grandparents were indeed Chatham Cuffay and Juliana Fox - parents of William Cuffay!

* Whilst researching this post on William Cuffay I came upon another remarkable serendipitous find and curious historical irony - As there are a number of well known Convict Ship Surgeon- Superintendents buried in the cemetery . I made a note of the name of the Surgeon -Superintendent of the Adelaide voyage in 1849, namely Dr. Frederick William Le Grand RN and discovered that he is in fact buried in Brockley cemetery! 

So the ship carrying William Cuffay on that fateful 104 day voyage as a political prisoner across the globe in 1849 was accompanied by a surgeon buried not too far from one of William's relatives! He also kept a fascinating medical journey of the voyage which readers can access here -

Frederick William Le Grand formerly of H.M. Dockyard Deptford at Kent, but lately of 22 Manor road, New Cross Deptford, retired Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and Fleets of Her Majesty's Navy who died 4 November 1874 and was buried in Deptford , now Brockley cemetery on the 7 th November.