Shall we join the Chartists?

One of our most common objectives in history teaching is to move students beyond broad generalizations. In the case of a topic such as Chartism we want students to appreciate that within that large movement were lots of individuals with varied backgrounds and a range of motives for becoming Chartists. This activity is designed to tease out some of that variety and more students on from generalizations. It is also designed to help A level students start reading about Chartism with purpose and enthusiasm. While everyone teaching Chartism at A level finds it a fascinating topic, surprisingly, that doesn’t apply to all students! For them it may be yet another topic, featuring yet more new names and events and they may not be as highly motivated as we’d like. This activity will help, especially as you have to do all the acting!


A WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.


This activity is therefore designed to structure initial reading around a problem – shall we join the Chartists? – and to get students working together effectively. Overall, therefore, the objectives are to:

1. motivate students to read effectively

2. start them thinking about the variety of responses to a movement such as Chartism

3. develop students’ ability to work together constructively

Setting Up

This is very brief.

Break your class into groups of three, each trio being a different family. Explain to them that it is 1838 and that you, the teacher, are the eldest son or daughter of the family (yes, every family!) who has been out at a meeting at a tavern and you are about to return home. You may find it handy to wear a cap or other hat to show you’re in role – taking it off later allows you to return to being Sir or Miss again.

The Activity

1. Go out of the room, take a deep breath and then go back in your role, full of news about the new Chartist movement you have just heard about. Bubble with enthusiasm, say you have become a Chartist and ask them, nay, beseech them to become Chartists too. Give them generalizations - it will improve their lives, make them more prosperous, give them new opportunities – but don’t go into any details. Then pause!

2. This will only have taken a few minutes. Now step out of role (taking your cap off?) but ask the students to stay in the roles of their families. Ask them how they would react to your request that they join the Chartists - what you are after here is the first comment that says “we need to know more”.

That is the signal to start building up on your board a series of questions suggested by your students that they need answered before they can decide whether to become Chartists.

By the time they have finished, perhaps 10-15 minutes, the board could look like this:

Questions about Chartism

Questions about the family

Who do Chartists want to achieve?

Who are the leaders?

What methods do they use?

Is it legal?

Who else has joined?

How many have joined?

What’s in it for me/us?

What will it cost us?

What is the government’s reaction to Chartism?

Can women join?

Are we rich or poor?

What religion are we?

What work do we do?

Where do we live?

How well educated are we?

How old are we?

Can we vote?

Did we get the vote in 1832?

Is our work secure/is trade good at the moment?


When I have done this I have not started with the column headings. Instead I have drawn two columns and jotted down the questions in their appropriate columns and then asked, after a few questions, what is different about the columns. This then helps to trigger more questions. If students start to run short of ideas a few hints or prompts will trigger more ideas.

3. So now you have created a decision for students to take - will they become Chartists? - and they have conjured a list of questions they need to answer before they can take that decision. This will have taken less than 30 minutes. The next stage is, therefore, reading, but hopefully reading that is more effectively directed and better motivated than it might be without the role-play element. For the beginning of the next class they need to find the answers to the questions about Chartism - because at the beginning of the lesson, in their families, they will be given ten minutes to make their decisions.

4. So far the task has been fairly straight-forward. The main issue to consider is how you build in the variables. You could, for example, use role-cards for each family which specify answers to the questions listed above and any others you think are important. These role cards can be introduced either as soon as the list of questions has been finalised on the board so that students can do their research reading in role or at the beginning of the follow-up lesson so that students need to stop and think about their circumstances before taking their decision.


Examples of working backgrounds

Examples of the kinds of working backgrounds you could create for your potential Chartists can be found in C. Evers and D. Welbourne, Britain 1783-1851: From Disaster to Triumph?, page 190. These include:

An unemployed handloom weaver in Bradford

A weaver from Stroud in Gloucestershire

A coal-miner in the north-east

An unemployed farmworker in Suffolk


A possible sequence of debriefing questions could be:

a) What decision has each family made and what are the reasons for your choice?

b) Why have different families reached different decisions?

c) Would you have made a different decision if aspects of your life had been different? (This is most relevant to unemployed people as this may help explain why support for Chartism waxed and waned between the 1830s and 1848)

d) How enthusiastic is your support for Chartism?

e) Taking the families as a whole, what are the main motives behind support for Chartism – is it unemployment and hunger or a desire for political rights?

f) What have you learned from this activity so far about explaining why people joined a movement such as Chartism?

g) Did this approach alter your approach to reading?

Notes & Variations

How much time does it take?

That depends on how much you wish to develop the role-play element. It can be simply a half-hour stimulus in one lesson and the decision-making report back at the beginning of the next lesson before you use the ideas as the way into a more formal converge of the story of Chartism and the reasons for its successes and failures. Alternatively you could develop the exercise to take your families through similar decision points in 1842 and 1848 (and one year when Chartism was in eclipse?) to compare reactions.

What other topics could this approach be applied to?

At ‘A’ level it is a good way into topics that do not immediately set students’ pulses racing with excitement! Would you follow Luther (or Calvin etc.)? A variant is to present the families with contradictory summons. They could, for example, receive a summons to fight for Charles I in 1642, rapidly followed by a request to join the side of Parliament. Which would they choose? Would all members of a family make the same choice? Exactly the same activity could be used as a stimulus to study the Civil War at KS3. The differences would be the quality and nature of the reading and the sophistication of the answers.

User Feedback

From Lesley Ann Buxton:

Year 8 thoroughly enjoyed this activity. I set the lesson as families and tried to recruit them to the Chartist Movement. The students came up with lots of questions to ask about the Chartists....who they were etc.......We wrote over 30 questions on the board...I then asked the students to choose 10 questions, narrowing it down to their top 3 questions they needed answered.

I then told them about the Chartist Movement. I also managed a local history link with a catchment area village that had a Chartist Riot in C19th. We then made banners....and marched out of the classroom, into the yard shouting our demands carrying petitions and banners.

I then gathered the students on the outside benches and told them they had failed...they were upset....but continued to chant they wanted the vote all the way back to the classroom...........we got some strange looks from staff and students. The students are now all fired up to find out more about the Chartist Movement. Thank you for making a normally dull topic exciting


1. Did students enjoy the nature of the activity and what impact did this have on their learning (e.g. at A level) about the problems of making generalizations?

2. What are the advantages and problems of using this style of activity with A level students?

3. Where else might you use this technique within your teaching?

4. Did you enjoy the activity yourself? If so, why?

This Page




Setting Up

The Activity


Notes & Variations

User Feedback