Presenting the First Chartist petition, 1839

The first Chartist petition had more than 1,280,000 names and was three miles long. This page recounts the story of its presentation to Parliament in 1839 and sets out the full text of the petition.

Thomas Attwood, the Birmingham MP selected to present the first petition, had been a founder of the Birmingham Political Union in 1830 and was an advocate of further political reform. But by the time of the convention he was already having second thoughts about Chartists and their political demands. He personally would have nothing to do with any threat of force, and had told the Convention called to organise and coordinate the petition as much.

This is one of a number of articles dealing with the First Chartist Petition. See also:
Organising the first Chartist petition – 1839
Full text of the petition – 1839
Presenting the First Chartist petition – 1839
Chartist Convention – 1839
Document: Petition for the People’s Charter

Attwood preferred not to believe – at least in public – that even in Birmingham there was a growing clamour of support for the Chartist Convention to take “ulterior measures” to get the Charter if the petition was rejected by Parliament. He had also come to oppose the sixth of the Charter’s demands, for equal electoral districts, fearing that this would introduce a massive bloc of Irish MPs into the House of Commons.

Attwood’s biographer, David Moss writes that on 6 May 1839, the Birmingham MP was “accosted” on the issue of presenting the petition by two delegates from the Convention as he walked to the Commons. He asked for the petition to be taken to the house of John Fielden, the Radical MP for Oldham. In Thomas Attwood: The Biography of a Radical, Moss writes: “The next day he had been surprised to see a procession of fifty-two delegates escorting a wagon draped with a Union Jack, and looking to all intents and purposes like a funeral hearse, draw up before the house at the appointed time.”

In a somewhat lukewarm speech made from an upstairs window of Fielden’s house, Attwood undertook to present the petition. But he made clear that he would not be prepared to introduce a Bill to try to make the Charter law. That same day, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the leading Chartist orator and Convention delegate Henry Vincent in connection with a speech he had made earlier in Newport. Taken before the justices, bail was set at such a high level that it could not be met and he was committed to Monmouth Prison.

The move led to immediate rioting in Newport, and to a hardening of attitudes among delegates to the Convention, and a decision was taken to relocate to Birmingham – a move which reinforced the view that the Convention had a wider role than simply the co-ordination of the petition. Even so, there now followed a delay of an entire month after Lord Melbourne resigned, temporarily, as prime minister, leaving the government in a state of uncertainty.

When the time finally came for Attwood to present the petition, the situation in the country had grown still more tense. Monster meetings from Bath in the south west to Newcastle in the North East had affirmed their support for the Charter, and the Home Office had responded by recruiting and arming special constables in large numbers. Everyone expected confrontation.

When the gallery of the House of Commons was opened to the public on the afternoon of Friday 14 June, “the object which immediate attracted attention was the National Chartist Petition, which had been previously brought into the House, and placed on the floor near to the lower end of the front opposition benches”, as the Northern Star reported (22 June, 1839). “It appeared to have the circumference of a carriage wheel, and was rolled solidly round a straight axle, supported by transverse uprights at each end.”

Thomas Attwood rose to cheers. According to Hansard, he acknowledged that the rules of the House would not allow him to speak to the petition, but asked that he might be permitted “to say a few words – a few words only – in explanation of the circumstances of his own personal position in connection with the petition”.

After briefly outlining the history of the petition and its demands, Attwood said that although he “most cordially supported the petition, was ready to support every word contained in it, and was determined to use every means in his power in order to carry it into a law, he must say, that many reports had gone abroad, in regard to arguments said to have been used in support of the petition on different occasions, which he distinctly disavowed”.

As Hansard reported: “He washed his hands of any idea, of any appeal to physical force. He deprecated all such notions – he repudiated all talk of arms – he wished for no arms but the will of the people, legally, fairly, and constitutionally expressed.”

With that, the excitement for the day was over. The Northern Star concluded: “The petition was then taken from the House, and it required twelve or fourteen men to carry it.”

It has been calculated that the petition contained 1,280,958 names and ran to a length of three miles. In some places, men and women signing were counted separately, and in those areas a quarter of those signing were women. A further month passed before MPs voted on whether to consider the petition. Then, on 12 July, Attwood’s motion was defeated by 235 votes to 46, and the petition was rejected.