Billed as a ‘splendid and costly present to the readers of the Northern Star’, to commemorate the presentation of the ‘great national petition’ of 1842, the engraving shown here was promised even before the collection of signatures had come to an end and the Chartist Convention begun. Attributing the idea to Feargus O’Connor himself, the Northern Star had told its readers that, ‘This Plate will be as much superior to the Engravings already given with the Star, as they were to any ever given with other newspapers’ (26 March 1842). And the Star lived up to its promise.
This is one of a number of articles dealing with the leviathan petition. See also:
Organising the 1842 petition
The 1842 Chartist Convention
Presenting the 1842 petition
MPs vote to ignore the petition
The 1842 petition in numbers
At 24¼ inches (61.5cm) by 13½ inches (34.5cm), and in a landscape format, the engraving is a little larger than any of the portraits produced by the Northern Star, and far more complex – as the engraver would later complain when excusing himself for the late delivery of the prints to the Star’s readers.
Three central panels tell the story of the ‘leviathan petition’, as it came to be called. The main image shows the petition being carried in procession from the meeting place of the Chartist Convention in Bolt Court just off Fleet Street to the Houses of Parliament. Carried in a large wooden frame by thirty men, the petition filled six miles of paper. Ahead of them are Chartist flags and banners, with slogans that range from the predictable calls for ‘Reform’ and ‘Universal suffrage’ to the more inventive ‘More pigs and less parsons’.
The engraver has depicted an orderly march by well-dressed men, mostly in top hats, with a gathering of similarly respectable men, women and children looking on. Many of those on the far side of the picture are chearing and waving their hats in the air. Following the petition, meanwhile, are marshals on horseback (or ‘marshalmen’ as the Northern Star termed them).
The left-hand panel shows the radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe introducing the petition in the House of Commons. The huge petition had become wedged on its way in, forcing the Commons authorities to remove the door so that it could be brought to the clerks’ table in front of the Speaker. It can be seen tumbling from the table and across the floor.
The right-hand panel shows the National Convention in session at Dr Johnson’s Hotel in Bolt Court. As final preparations for the procession were being made, the Northern Star had reported: ‘During this and the preceding day, an artist of first-rate ability has been actively engaged in making preparations for the splendid engraving of the Convention &c., which in due time will be presented to the readers of the Northern Star, the likenesses of those members who have sat to the artist are pronounced by judges to be excellent.’
There were twenty-five members of the Convention, and there are twenty-four men pictured at the two tables. Among those at the top table would have been Abram Duncan, who presided over the debates, and John Campbell, its secretary. Feargus O’Connor can be clearly made out at the far end of the larger table, on the left hand side. The twenty-fifth delegate may be the man standing with his arms crossed on the left – or perhaps the man with his back to the artist. The impression given is of a serious and sober gathering.
Intriguingly, there are two unidentified women in the picture, sitting behind the top table. They may have been among the visitors wanting to watch the Convention in action, who are mostly shown on the left. The table to the right most likely includes the Northern Star’s reporter, and whoever was deputed to take the minutes. John Cleave, though not a member of the Convention, had been appointed its treasurer, so he too may appear somewhere in the picture, though no other image of him survives.
Above and below the main images are sixteen of the great public buildings passed on the way from Bolt Court to Parliament. They include the now demolished Temple Bar at the boundary of the City of London and Westminster, St Clement Dane’s and Somerset House on the Strand, Horse Guards and the Treasury Building on Whitehall, and Westminster Abbey.
Though commissioned before the events it depicts, the central panels at least were could not have been drawn in advance. The artist, who is not named, needed to be there to see the vast pile of paper in the Commons, and capture the portraits of the delegates.
The procession itself had taken place on 2 May. The Star had promised that everyone who subscribed to the paper from 9 April for four months would receive a copy of the engraving – though it added that it could not be held to a date when it would be ready. And in the week that the engraving finally appeared, the price of the paper would rise from 41/2d to a shilling to help defray the costs involved.
Inevitably, there were delays. In the issue of 16 July 1842, John Ardill, the Northern Star’s business manager, wrote that the ‘Procession Plate’ would be no more than a fortnight later than hoped, ‘and to make up for even that disappointment, we have to announced that the Portrait of Duncombe will be delivered to subscribers of three months from the date of the Procession, and as the Proprietor of the Star is anxious that every Chartist should possess as many of the Portraits commemorating Chartist events, or keeping alive the member of their political supporters as possible, he has authorised us to state that all subscribers from Saturday week will receive the above Plates at the appointed time’.
His announcement was accompanied by a letter from the engraver, William Read of 37 King Street, Covent Garden, pleading: ‘It was really not my fault that the specimens of the Procession and the Portrait of Mr Duncan M.P. were not ready at the time they were promised to your agents. The fact is, we were unable to complete the Engraving in time. The Procession Plate alone contains more than four hundred figures, and is of a great size. It has not been one day neglected for now nearly four months.’ He added that he would send specimens of the Duncombe portrait that week, and of the Convention, Procession and House of Commons the following week.’
Eventually then, the Northern Star’s subscribers received their promised present from O’Connor.