William Lovett, the son of the captain of a small fishing vessel, was born in Penzance, Cornwall on 8th May, 1800. His father was drowned at sea before William was born. William's mother, who was a strict Methodist, sent him to the local school and at the age of thirteen he became an apprentice rope-maker.
After a couple of years of training William realised that ropes were gradually being replaced by chains and decided to leave the trade. William managed to persuade a local man to train him as carpenter, a trade that he believed would give him a better future.
At the age of 21 William Lovett decided to try and find work in London. Lovett eventually found work as a carpenter in a cabinet making company. He applied to join the Cabinet Makers' Society but he was rejected as the training he received in Penzance was not recognised as being good enough. It was not until 1826 that he was finally accepted as a member of Cabinet Makers Society. Later that year Lovett married a lady's maid working in London.
Lovett began attending evening classes at the London's Mechanics' Institute. It was at the Institute that he met the radical publishers, Henry Hetherington and John Cleave. These two men introduced Lovett to the socialist ideas of Robert Owen. William Lovett now abandoned his Methodist beliefs and became a supporter of the Civil and Religious Library Association.
Lovett also joined Hetherington and Cleave in London Co-operative Trading Association. Lovett worked for a while as the Co-operative Trading Association's storekeeper and in 1828 replaces James Watson as the secretary of the British Association for the Promotion of Co-operative Knowledge.
In 1831 William Lovett's name was drawn for service in the London Militia. As a punishment Lovett's household goods were seized. Lovett responded by establishing the Anti-Militia Association. Lovett's organisation adopted the slogan "No Vote, No Musket". The campaign was a great success and the authorities decided to abandon the idea of militia drawings. Lovett's victory brought him a great deal of attention and he was now a national political figure.
Lovett decided that parliamentary reform was now the most important issue facing working people. He joined the National Union of the Working Classes that was actively involved in the campaign for universal manhood suffrage. He also became a member of Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. In March 1832 Lovett was arrested by the police during a peaceful demonstration. However, he was released without charge.
In June 1836, Lovett, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave and James Watson formed the London Working Men's Association (LMWA). Although it only ever had a few hundred members, the LMWA became a very influential organisation. At one meeting in 1838 the leaders of the LMWA drew up a Charter of political demands. When supporters of parliamentary reform held a convention the following year, Lovett was chosen as the leader of the group that were now known as the Chartists.
R. G. Gammage, the author of History of the Chartist Movement (1855) later recalled: "This gentleman (Lovett) was a native of Cornwall, and sprang from the poorest class. Lovett was secretary to the Association, and, without exaggeration, it may be affirmed that he was the life and soul of that body. Possessed of a clear and masterly intellect and great powers of application, everything that he attempted was certain of accomplishment; and, though not by any means an orator, he was in matters of business more useful to the movement than those who were gifted with finer powers of speech."
In 1839 Lovett was arrested for making a speech in Birmingham. The authorities claimed that his description of the Metropolitan police as a "blood thirsty and unconstitutional force" was seditious libel. Lovett was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment in Warwick Gaol. He described the experience in his autobiography, Life and Struggles (1876): "I was locked up in a dark cell, about nine feet square, the only air admitted into it being through a small grating over the floor, and in one corner of it was a pailful of filth left by the last occupants, the smell of which was almost overpowering. There was a bench fixed against the wall on which to sit down, but the walls were literally covered with water, and the place so damp and cold, even at that season of the year, that I was obliged to keep walking round and round, like a horse in an apple-mill, to keep anything like life within me."
While in Warwick Gaol, Lovett and a fellow prisoner, John Collins, wrote the book Chartism, a New Organisation of the People. After nine months Lovett refused to accept three months remission for good behaviour because, he argued, it implied admission of guilt.
Twelve months in Warwick Gaol severely damaged Lovett's health and he was forced to spend time recuperating in Cornwall. When Lovett returned to London he open a bookseller's shop in Tottenham Court Road. Lovett was still seen as the leader of the Chartist movement but he was under constant attack from people like Fergus O'Connor and James Bronterre O'Brien who raised doubts about his Moral Force campaign.
Upset by these criticisms, Lovett decided in 1842 to retire from politics and devoted the rest of his life to the development of working class education. He formed the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People. Financed by workers' subscriptions, the association provided circulating libraries and employed educational "missionaries".
Lovett continued to run his bookshop, wrote school textbooks and taught evening classes. His bookshop failed to make money and William Lovett died in extreme poverty on 8th August, 1877.