The Mass Meeting at Kennington Common: 10 April 1848

Poster advertising the Chartists Demonstration, 1848 organised by the National Charter Association at Kennington Common, London on 10 April, 1848. TUC Library Collections

Today, 163 years ago, the Chartists met in a mass demonstration on Kennington Common beginning a procession to present their third National Petition to Parliament.

The Chartist movement was named after the People’s Charter which demanded six points:

People's Charter, 1838. British Library

  1. Suffrage for men over 21 years.
  2. No property qualification for MPs.
  3. Annual Parliaments.
  4. Equal Constituencies, returning the proportional number of MPs to voters.
  5. Payment of MPs, which would allow working class men to take a seat.
  6. Use of the secret ballot.

These demands were not new in working class politics, however in 1838 the London Working Mens Association created the new form for the demands under the name of the ‘People’s Charter’. This, coupled with the proposals of the Birmingham Political Union of developing a National Convention and National Petition, were significant for producing a national movement which became known as Chartism. Over the years between 1838 and 1848 the movement produced three National Petitions and countless mass meetings and demonstrations. These meetings were typically characterised by the showing of banners, (one of my favourite reoccurring banners read : ‘More Pigs and Less Parsons’) and the playing of music. These elements were seen in the meeting in 1848 but this rally met under a very tense atmosphere compared to the previous petition.

The authorities were becoming increasingly cautious of the Chartist movement, many leaders had been imprisoned or deported after the strikes and demonstrations of 1842, and though there was much debate within the Chartists regarding the use of ‘physical’ or ‘moral force’, the use of forceful rhetoric was common.

1848 saw an even more guarded attitude from the authorities. There had been several violent revolutions in Europe, see Dan Snow’s article in BBC History Magazine for more info on them, here. Furthermore preceding the 1848 meeting at Kennington, the Chartists appeared to be arming, drilling and the oratory of leaders was increasingly republican.

 

Daguerreotype of the Chartist meeting at Kennington Common, British Library

The demonstration itself took place on a sunny and warm Monday, much like today, and in contrast to the procession of the second National Petition in 1842 there was a strong military and police presence. It’s thought over 20,000 people met at Kennington Common for the rally, and the authorities were determined to keep control. Fergus O’Connor, one of the most prominent Chartist leaders, was to present the 1848 petition to Parliament and was called into a nearby pub for a meeting with Police Commissioners and Magistrates. It was agreed that following the rally the petition would be carried in cabs to parliament and the demonstration would be asked to disperse.

It is arguable if the crowd, or even the Chartist leaders, believed the petition would have an impact on Parliament. The two previous petitions had failed and Dorothy Thompson notes that in many of the sources there was little mention of the petition at the Chartist meetings called in support of the French. Though it is clear that there was still a large show of support on Kennington Common and it was seen as a possibility that the demonstration could turn violent if and when the petition was rejected by Parliament. This was probably the main reason why the authorities did not want to procession to follow the petition to parliament and also took strong control of the bridges.

There was consequently some small skirmishes with polices, according to the Northern Star, principally at Blackfriars Bridge and due to the crowds’ confusion regarding the strong police presence and controlling of numbers across the bridges into the City. Though the crowds did disperse and according to the Illustrated London News:

‘at two o’clock, not more than 100 persons were to be seen upon the Common. Many of these consisted of its usual occupants – boys playing at trap-ball and other games; and, by a quarter past two, a stranger to the day’s proceedings would never have guessed, from the appearance of the neighbourhood, that anything extraordinary had taken place.’

 

The Great Charter Procession at Blackfriars, 1848. TUC Library Collections

The petition itself, was not only rejected by Parliament, it was discredited. O’Connor claimed the petition held just under six million signatures, but (in a remarkable short time – just under two days) Parliament came back and claimed it was full of mistakes and forgeries so only had a third of what was claimed. This could be seen as a massive blow for the Chartists, but as Thompson notes that petitioning was never a clear index of Chartist enthusiasm or activity and as the rest of the year demonstrated the failure of the third National Petition did not signal the end of Chartism. The rest of 1848 saw continued efforts to support the Charter and is also seen as the height of London Chartism.

At the time of the Chartist rally Kennington Common was seen as the ‘speakers corner’ of south London and in 1854 it became the first public park. In the park is the Prince Consort Lodge, originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and paid for by Prince Albert as President of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes. It was decided to base the Lodge in Kennington due to its association with the Chartists, and as the Friends of Kennington Park put it, in this way the Lodge can be seen as the only standing ‘memorial’ to the Chartists in the park and its connection to working class politics.

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