The Chartists’ ‘Dangerous Experiment’: The National Petition of 2 May 1842 through a Chartist Engraving

Procession Attending the Great National Petition of 3,317,702, to the House of Commons, 1842. © The Trustees of the British Museum

I have spent the past month writing an essay about the 1842 National Petition, specifically looking at the engraving above to see what that can tell us about it. I’ve handed in the essay, but thought I’d share a few ideas from it.

On Monday 2 May 1842 London was host to one of the greatest events of popular political theatre in its history. A procession of approximately 100,000 people,[1] littered with banners and flags with a soundtrack provided by bands from across the country, escorted a National Petition from Lincoln’s-inn-Fields to the Houses of Parliament. The petition was the Chartists’ second National Petition calling for political reform and its largest to date, claiming a staggering 3,317,702 signatures and weighing over 2 cwt. (or 305kg).[2] The Chartists produced three National Petitions in total, all of which were unsuccessful, but compared to the previous petition of 1839 and the subsequent petition of 1848, the 1842 petition was a unique moment in the Chartist movement. Arguably more political; it had more demands than the other petitions, calling not only for the infamous six points of universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, secret balloting, removal of the property qualification for MPs and a salary for MPs; but also for the repeal of the Poor Law Act and the repeal of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland.[3] It was also unique in its delivery and reception; the Chartists called it their ‘dangerous experiment’ and Parliament acknowledged it was ‘not an ordinary’ petition.[4]

So what does this engraving tell us?

The ‘1842 Petition’ engraving was given away as a free gift to subscribers of the Chartist newspaper, The Northern Star, [5] and was clearly a celebration of the petition. The central three images are  indicators of this celebration, showing the size of the procession that accompanied the petition through London to Parliament; the size of the petition, that had to be carried by several people in the procession and dwarfed the Table before the Speaker, and also the National Convention, the Chartist organisation put together to administer the National Petition.

Northern Star front page. Chartist Ancestors website.

These images have clear links to the petition and can tell us something about how Fergus O’Connor, a Chartist leader and owner of the Northern Star, wanted the petition to be represented and remembered. The National Convention is respectable and orderly, sitting around a table, in many ways mirroring the layout of the Parliament. This isn’t surprising when we look at the National Convention as a sort-of ‘alternative parliament’,[6] whose policies and procedures followed those the Chartists wanted Parliament to adopt. [7] One contrasting feature of the National Convention and the House of Commons is the body language of the men. Some in the National Convention are looking out at you, others look hard at work, however most in the House of Commons sit with their arms folded, perhaps showing their ambivalence to the National Petition that sits in front of them. The National Convention seems to be more inclusive and hardworking; this image suggests that perhaps the House of Commons could learn a few things from the National Convention. This is further underlined by the fact that the central image of the procession (as well as the two children at the forefront of the image) are walking away from Parliament and towards the National Convention.

The image of the procession presents another side of the respectable Chartists. This massive procession was orderly and peaceful; in fact it was a family friendly event, that encouraged as many spectators as there were marchers. This seems to be one of the key messages with the two children playing are at the heart of the engraving, just under the box containing the petition, and was supported by the news reports of the time. [8] Though what this image doesn’t include is equally as interesting as what is included. As mentioned one of the notable differences of this petition was that it was more political than the other National Petitions, however the additional claims, the repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland and the repeal of the Poor Law Act don’t feature. The traditional Chartist demands feature on the Petition box or on flags, but none of the more controversial images or slogans that were seen at demonstrations or even the Petition procession including tricolours, or caps of liberty. [9] This is very a conventional almost acceptable image of Chartism.

There are also very few women featured in the engraving, none seem to be in the procession itself, they are just spectators. The National Convention does have the image of two women at the back of the room, but their role is unclear. However we do know that women had an active role in Chartism and especially in the coordination of petitions, [10] in this way this engraving supports the Gentleman image of Chartism as described by Malcolm Chase in his analysis of the portraits issued by The Northern Star. [11]

Image of Mary Ann Walker, female Chartist, from Punch. Chartist Ancestors

One aspect that has really intrigued me is the inclusion of the London landmarks at the top and bottom of the engraving. The top row shows images of Temple Bar, Somerset House, Northumberland House, Whitehall, Richmond Terrace, Westminster Bridge, Westminster Hall, and the Houses of Parliament. The bottom row displays St Clements Danes, St Mary Le-Strand, Adelphi Theatre, Nelson’s Monument, the Admiralty, Horse Guards, the Treasury and finally Westminster Abbey.

These landmarks trace a route from Temple Bar, down the Strand to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall to Parliament Square. At first I thought they must trace the route of the procession; however the actual route followed Lincoln-inn-Fields, Holborn, Museum Street, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Pall Mall, Charing Cross, Whitehall on to Parliament Square.[12] It could be that this route was a last-minute change, but I would need to do more research to conclude this.

In any case there is still the question of why include these buildings. Most of the buildings can be seen as symbols of the ‘Old’ and ‘New Corruption’, symbols of aristocratic power, religious establishment and government. The juxtaposition of these grand and powerful buildings against the centrepiece of the petition procession presents a bit of a puzzle. It could simply be to give a sense of place; this momentous occasion occurred amongst some of the historic, political and religious landmarks of the capital, not any other city. Alternatively they could present the 1842 Petition with a sense of significance and grandeur, just as important as the landmarks, making the procession and presentation of the petition another London landmark. However the political significance of most of the landmarks suggests that it is more likely that by including these symbols of power, the Northern Star is saying the demands of the people, through the petition, is just as powerful. By aligning the procession and presentation with places like Horse Guards and Westminster Bridge, they are underlining the Chartist’s respect for the establishment and placing the Chartist procedures as part of the establishment. Through the constitutional rights of petitioning, they had a legitimate claim and deserved to be listened to and taken seriously.

I feel the significance and meaning of this engraving deserves more research, especially why the Adelphi Theatre is one of the landmarks included, it feels a bit like the odd one out in terms of theme. I feel like I’ve just started to uncover the deeper meaning, but hope to explore it more in the future. Feel free to get in touch if you have any further information or ideas!

[1] The Times, 3 May 1842, claim 50,000 attended, the Northern Star, 7 May 1842, claim there were ten times that number. D. Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848 (Cambridge, 1982), p.50, estimates between 100,000 and 150,000.

[2] Times, 3 May 1842, conversion from M. Chase, Chartism: A New History, (Wiltshire, 2007), p.205

[3] M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in O. Aston, R. Fyson & S. Roberts, eds., The Chartist Legacy(Finland, 1999), p. 1

[4] Northern Star, 7 May 1842, & Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3 May 1842

[5] M. Chase, ‘Building identity, building circulation: engraved portraiture and the Northern Star’, in  J. Allen & O. R. Aston, eds., Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press (Cornwall, 2005), p.47

[6] D. Thompson, The Chartists (London, 1984), p.63

[7] Taylor, ‘The Six Points’,p.16

[8] Times, 3 May 1842

[9] Northern Star 11 May 1842, & Times 3 May 1842

[10] P. Pickering, ‘And Your Petitioner &c’: Chartist Petitioning in Popular Politics 1838 – 48’, The English Historical Review, 116 (2001), pp.381-3

[11] Chase, ‘Building identity’ p.32

[12] Northern Star 11 May 1842, & Times 3 May 1842

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