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.
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.
The social reformer Francis Place included in his papers, now held in the British Library, a text of the first Chartist petition taken from the proceedings of the Birmingham Political Union. It is set out below – although a separate, longer version, also circulated in London in 1838.
Text of the first petition
Unto the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled, the Petition of the undersigned, their suffering countrymen,
“That we, your petitioners, dwell in a land where merchants are noted for enterprise, whose manufacturers are very skilful, and whose workmen are proverbial for their industry.
“The land itself is goodly, the soil rich, and the temperature wholesome; it is abundantly furnished with the materials of commerce and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility of internal communication it exceeds all others. For three-and-twenty years we have enjoyed a profound peace. Yet with all these elements of national prosperity, and with every disposition and capacity to take advantage of them, we find ourselves overwhelmed with public and private suffering.
“We are bowed down under a load of taxes; which, notwithstanding, fall greatly short of the wants of our rulers; our traders are trembling on the verge of bankruptcy; our workmen are starving; capital brings no profit and labour no remuneration; the home of the artificer is desolate, and the warehouse of the pawnbroker is full; the workhouse is crowded and the manufactory is deserted.
“We have looked upon every side, we have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued.
“We can discover none, in nature, or in providence.
“Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect.
“The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement.
“The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon.
“It was the fond expectation of the people that a remedy for the greater part, if not for the whole, of their grievances, would be found in the Reform Act of 1832.
“They were taught to regard that Act as a wise means to a worthy end; as the machinery of an improved legislation, when the will of the masses would be at length potential.
“They have been bitterly and basely deceived.
“The fruit which looked so fair to the eye has turned to dust and ashes when gathered.
“The Reform Act has effected a transfer of power from one domineering faction to another, and left the people as helpless as before.
“Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship to liberty, which has aggravated the painful feeling of our social degradation, by adding to it the sickening of still deferred hope.
“We come before your Honourable House to tell you, with all humility, that this state of things must not be permitted to continue; that it cannot long continue without very seriously endangering the stability of the throne and the peace of the kingdom; and that if by God’s help and all lawful and constitutional appliances an end can be put to it, we are fully resolved that it shall speedily come to an end.
“We tell your Honourable House that the capital of the master must no longer be deprived of its due reward; that the laws which make food dear, and those which, by making money scarce, make labour cheap, must be abolished; that taxation must be made to fall on property, not on industry; that the good of the many, as it is the only legitimate end, so must it be the sole study of the Government.
“As a preliminary essential to these and other requisite changes; as means by which alone the interests of the people can be effectually vindicated and secured, we demand that those interests be confided to the keeping of the people.
“When the State calls for defenders, when it calls for money, no consideration of poverty or ignorance can be pleaded, in refusal or delay of the call. Required, as we are universally, to support and obey the laws, nature and reason entitle us to demand that in the making of the laws, the universal voice shall be implicitly listened to. We perform the duties of freemen; we must have the privileges of freemen. Therefore, we demand universal suffrage. The suffrage, to be exempt from the corruption of the wealthy and the violence of the powerful, must be secret.”
Source: Place MSS., 27,820, f. 374. [July 1838].
Cited in British Working Class Movements: Select Documents 1789-1875 edited by GDH Cole and AW Filson (Macmillan, 1951).