Before the Chartists, and before Peterloo, the 1817 petitioning campaign for parliamentary reform was a landmark in popular politics.
William Cobbett’s mass-circulation, 'Address to Journeymen and Labourers', of November 1816 is famous as the launch pad for the post-war radical movement that led to Peterloo. What is less well-known is that Cobbett’s strategy was not rebellion, as often assumed, but petitioning. "Petition is the channel for your sentiments, and there is no village so small that its petition would not have some weight", he told his readers, advising them to "attend every public meeting within reach". At the same time, the exclusive London Hampden Club, of which Cobbett was a member, announced that it would promote a Bill for a reformed electoral system based on a ratepayer or householder franchise, and launched a national petitioning campaign to gather support.
The plan was devised by Major John Cartwright, a veteran advocate of universal (manhood) suffrage, who proposed an innovative form of petitioning. Instead of a single roll lying open for signature in some public building, he had hundreds of petition sheets printed to allow people to sign en masse at public meetings or through door-to-door canvassing. The columns below the text were blank, with no headings for title, rank, or occupation - people were to sign equally, as citizens. A copy survives in the National Archives. The text begins with the provocative claim:
That your Honourable House doth not, in any constitutional or rational sense, represent the Nation:
That when the People have ceased to be represented, the Constitution is subverted:
That Taxation without Representation is a state of Slavery.
Cartwright had tried out this method of petitioning on a speaking tour of the provinces in 1813, and claimed to have collected 199,000 signatures. In the Manchester region petitions were seized and destroyed, and their organisers arrested. But this at least showed that the authorities and the radicals were agreed on one thing: petitioning of this kind was democracy on the move.
Throughout the eighteenth century, non-electors had joined petitions on single issues of all sorts, as Philip Loft’s 'Petition of the Month' contribution for June 2019 demonstrates. Now, however, petitioners were demanding constitutional change and presenting themselves as an electorate in waiting - and not a very patient one at that.
In the terrible winter of 1816-17, when a severe post-war slump was compounded by harvest failure and the hated Corn Laws, meetings were called all over the country to discuss parliamentary reform. The most famous of these was held at Spa Fields, London, on 2 December 1816, chaired by the orator Henry Hunt (later of Peterloo fame). The meeting is best known for the attempt by some ultra-radicals to lead a section of the gathering crowd to storm the Tower of London. Hunt however held things together and steered through a resolution to petition Parliament en masse. "The whole people of England were petitioning for their rights", he proclaimed, and proposed that "the whole of us shall sign it". Many thousands did so. The wave of meetings that followed in the provinces led hundreds of thousands more to do the same, assisted by door-to-door canvassing on an unprecedented scale.
In late January, fifty delegates representing 150 towns attended a national convention in London to decide how to proceed. Against the recommendation of the Hampden Club, they voted for universal suffrage. A week later the first batch of petitions was presented to the House of Commons by the radical Whig MP Thomas Cochrane, chaired to the House by an exuberant crowd of radicals led by Hunt. The largest batch, of over 500 local petitions, was presented by his colleague Sir Francis Burdett a fortnight later. There was laughter in the chamber as clerks helped him pile them onto the table while the Speaker remarked that the practice of petitioning had indeed been carried on "to an unprecedented degree". All but a few, however, were refused outright, either because they were printed or for "insulting language" to the House. A handful got through, to be left "to lie on the table".
This rejection of what was felt to be a last-ditch constitutional right caused widespread despair and anger. In Manchester, which had submitted the biggest petition of 30,000 signatures, a large crowd gathered at St Peter’s Field on 10 March 1817 to send hundreds of petitioners off to London to confront the Prince Regent in person. Some of the petitions they carried, both printed and handwritten, survive in the National Archives. Habeas corpus had been suspended and the march was broken up by troops, with many arrests. One man, however, did carry his petition all the way to London: step forward, Abraham Couldwell of Stalybridge. The Huddersfield and Pentrich risings of early June were fuelled by the same outrage.
We will never know how many signatures there were altogether, but there were over 700 reform petitions in all. A million signatures were claimed, and 750,000 seems a realistic estimate. This amounted to double the entire electorate, and a quarter of the adult male population. It compares well with the first Chartist petition of 1839, which gained 1.2 million signatures in a much larger population. In the short term, reformers gave up on petitioning in favour of the mass platform campaign of 1819, which aimed to bring about reform through irresistible force of numbers. Even this, though, was based on a constitutionalist principle: that the refusal of Parliament to receive petitions activated a constitutional right to resist. In response, Ministers insisted that only tumultuous petitioning was being blocked, and in doing so conceded the previously disputed right to use petitions to challenge Parliament on constitutional matters. The right to petition without restriction (save for tumult) was recognised, even for non-electors, clearing the way for the successful reform campaigns of 1830-32 and after.
Dr Robert Poole is Professor of History, University of Central Lancashire, and author of Peterloo: the English Uprising.
Image: Henry Hunt and petition, detail from the 1817 print 'Spa Fields Orator Hunt' © The Trustees of the British Museum