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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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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