What the Chartists petitioned for
Chartism took its name from The People’s Charter (1838), a manifesto for reform to complete the work of widening political participation that (it was thought) the 1215 Magna Carta had begun. The 1842 petition asked for the People’s Charter to become law. But it also petitioned for a range of other reforms, including complete religious and political freedom, a reduction in the hours of factory labour, home rule for Ireland, and an end to ‘a host of other evils too numerous to mention, all arising from class legislation’. The Petition was received with considerable courtesy but, predictably, the Commons voted against inviting a deputation of Chartists to make their case in person to MPs.
The leviathan petition
Despite social media and new technology, the twenty-first century has yet to surpass Chartism in the organisation, passion and sheer numbers brought to petitioning. Effectively Chartism was Britain’s civil rights movement. Its history turned on three nationwide petitioning campaigns, the results of which were presented to Parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848. 1842 was the biggest. Its staggering 3.3 million signatures (around a third of the adult population) means that it remains the largest single petition ever laid before Parliament.
However laid rather understates things. Sheets of signatures from all over Britain were stitched into a single roll of paper weighing six hundredweight (over 300kg). It was carried by relays of building workers through London’s streets, accompanied by an elaborate procession including seven bands (one of them of off-duty Grenadier Guards), countless flags and banners and a crowd that The Times estimated was 50,000 strong. Arriving outside the House of Commons the huge decorated box containing the petition jammed tight in the doorway into the chamber. After attempts to dismantle the doorframe failed, the petition was disassembled and the sheets heaped onto the floor of the House. Here they towered above the clerks’ table on which, in theory, the petition was supposed to be laid.
Why the petition matters
As other contributions to Petitions of the Month show, the Chartists were far from the first to petition Parliament. But they were the first to collect together local contributions to create a single monster petition, whose presentation to parliament would become a headline-grabbing event and, as importantly, capture parliamentary attention. Petitions like this also made a passionate claim to represent the voice of ‘the people’, a term that included not only men but also women and even children. This was a profound departure. In 1812, for example when Midlands hosiery workers petitioned Parliament for better working conditions, their leaders instructed them: ‘All the Males in the Trade may sign but no Women’.
The People’s Charter only demanded the vote for men (the authors decided against including women because they felt no-one would take them seriously). Yet where separately recorded, the proportion of women signing Chartist petitions was never less than 1 in 12, and was often as high as one-fifth. Many working-class women were active Chartists. For example one of the marchers escorting the 1842 petition to Westminster was May Pares, originally from Scotland. When she died of cholera in 1849, Chartism’s national newspaper paid tribute to her, ‘a fond and affectionate mother and a ‘noble woman’ who was one of the leading Chartist organisers in south-east London: ‘whenever a petition was to be presented she was one of the foremost in obtaining signatures’.
The Chartists failed to achieve their objectives. However this was the first truly national mass movement and it changed the way people thought about how ordinary working men and women, like May Pares, could become involved in politics.
Malcolm Chase is Professor of Social History at the University of Leeds.
Image: T. Duncombe Esq: Presenting the Petition (detail), monochrome line engraving by an Unknown artist.
© Parliamentary Art Collection.