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Involvement with the Northern Reform Union

Petition in favour of the ministerial plan of reform Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/133

Involvement in the Northern Reform Union

In 1858 the Northern Reform Union was launched. The Union demanded universal male suffrage, abolition of the property qualification and the secret ballot. Joseph Cowen was heavily involved with the NRU from the outset, and travelled around the North East of England, addressing public meetings every night and using his class and influence to gain the support of the middle classes for their campaign. The Union lobbied MPs, published articles in radical publications, and sent speakers across the country to speak in favour of reform. Most notably, the Union also created a petition calling for reform which garnered over 34,000 signatures, which was estimated to be over half the adult male population of the North East at the time.  

Besides their regular campaigning for electoral reform, the Northern Reform Union was also known for campaigning against corrupt practices in elections. The Union was responsible for bringing a number of successful cases to Parliament, however even when acknowledged, the consequences were small, which furthered Cowen's enthusiasm and passion to secure the secret ballot and reform election practices.

During these campaigning years, Cowen himself was encouraged to stand for election at the 1859 Berwick election. At the time, Cowen declined, stating that he felt more comfortable working at a community level. However, his continued influence and presence as a public speaker built demand for a new radical Parliamentary candidate to better represent the growing movement within Tyneside.

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