Leicester born Thomas Cooper was left fatherless when his father died when he was four. This ensured he had very little formal education. Yet by the time he was 28 he had educated himself so well that he was able to open his own school in Gainsborough with over a hundred pupils. He later became a full-time journalist and after attending a Chartist meeting in Leicester in November 1840 he came away shocked by the accounts people in the audience gave about their working and living conditions. He decided to become a Chartist.
Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform that existed between 1838 and 1848 and which took its name from the People’s Charter of 1838. This had six basic reforms in order to make the political system more democratic:
1) A vote for every man over the age of 21
2) A secret ballot for elections
3) No property qualification for members of Parliament
4) Payment for MPs (so poor men could become one)
5) Constituencies of equal size
6) Annual elections for Parliament
In 1841 Thomas Cooper successfully stood for Parliament as the Chartist candidate for the Nottingham constituency by-election. However he failed to retain the seat in the general election three months later. Cooper then supported those like Feargus O’Connor and George Julian Harney who were advocating the use of physical force to achieve their objectives. When some of the followers began organising strikes and riots the authorities arrested Cooper and other supporters of militant methods were arrested and charged with sedition. He was found guilty of organising the Plug Riots – named because of the fact that striking workers removed the boiler plugs form the steam engines in their factories – and imprisoned in Stafford Gaol for the next two years.
During his incarceration he changed his mind about the morality of using physical force and he was later expelled from the Chartist movement after he alleged that O’Connor was personally profiting from money that was being raised for its activities. Returning to journalism, Cooper later spent much of his time as a travelling preacher but also wrote his autobiography, The Life of Thomas Cooper in 1872. He died in 1892. The plaque which honours him is at 11 Church Gate, Leicester LE1 4AJ.
Many thanks to Ross Galbraith for taking the photograph. In 1989, Ross and Gary Sherriff, both TGWU members, refused to work on a contract that their employer, Granby Plastics Limited, had accepted from South Africa. They were sacked for standing up to apartheid and for the next three years toured the UK and Ireland speaking about the need for workers to take direct action to disrupt British trade with South Africa.