Organising the Chartist petition of 1842

The Chartist petition of 1842 would exceed in size its predecessor – and all other petitions previously presented to Parliament. This page tells the story of its origins and organisation, ending with the start of the National Convention called to oversee its presentation to Parliament.

This is one of a number of articles dealing with the leviathan petition. See also:
The 1842 Chartist Convention
Presenting the 1842 petition
MPs vote to ignore the petition
Engraving to mark the petition
The 1842 petition in numbers

By the time Feargus O’Connor walked free from his eighteen-month prison term in York Castle in September 1841, there was already talk of a second national petition for the Charter.

In May of that year, the radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe had presented a petition with more than 1.3 million names to Parliament seeking a pardon for the Chartist prisoners rounded up in the wake of the first wave of Chartist agitation some two years earlier. Despite deepening splits with the middle-class reformers led by Joseph Sturge, it was clear that there was widespread support – in England at least – for a second attempt to take the case for Chartism to Westminster.

The need for a new petition was widely discussed. It was just one straw in the wind when on Monday 30 August between 1,000 and 1,200 people took part in a meeting at Bath, an important radical centre in the West of England, to call for a petition to Parliament in favour of the Charter (Northern Star, 4 September 1841). There were many other such meetings.

In October 1841, the Executive Council published a much-anticipated address to the National Charter Association (NCA), stating: ‘We have decided on the adoption of a National Petition, to be presented to the House of Commons during the next Session of Parliament’ (Northern Star, 9 October 1841, p8). It concluded: ‘Brothers… Resolve to be energetic, and immediately prepare to obtain signatures for the National Petition, and be ready to select intelligent and judicious men for the Convention. These are important matters, and we require your utmost assistance.’

Newspaper cutting showing the first few lines of text from the petition.
The National Petition for 1842, from the Northern Star (16 October 1841).

The following week’s Northern Star carried the full text of the new petition (NS, 16 October 1841, p4). This kept the famous six points or demands that had appeared in the first petition of 1838-39, but there are significant differences. By 1842, all mention of the 1832 Reform Act had been excised, with much greater emphasis placed on the poverty and exploitation faced by ‘working men’, and on the vast sums spent supporting members of the royal family; there is more emphasis on class in place of the broader definition of ‘the People’ previously used; in place of the biblical language of 1838, there is a swipe at the cost and privileged position occupied by Church of England and its clergy; and there is opposition to the very existence of an ‘unconstitutional’ police force and army.

The authors of the second petition are far less well known than William Lovett, who had written the first in 1838. They were Robert Kemp Philp, a printer, publisher and bookseller originally from Cornwall who co-edited the National Vindicator with Henry Vincent, and Peter Murray McDouall, a Scottish surgeon who had represented Ashton-under-Lyne at the first Convention in 1839 and served a year in prison. Both were members of the Executive Council.

Much of the argument they advanced in favour of the Charter is based on the ‘ancient custom and statutes’ of the ‘Realm of England’, an assertion, however ahistorical, of the idea that an Anglo-Saxon golden age of democracy had been suppressed under the Norman yoke. And for the first time, the demand for a repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland was placed at the centre of the petition.

This final point is important. Ireland had been a full part of the Union with England, Wales and Scotland since its own Parliament was voted out of existence in 1801, but Chartism had failed to take root there. Daniel O’Connell, the leader of the campaign to repeal the Act of Union, bitterly opposed Chartism, as did the Catholic Church, which opposed radicalism of every hue. By 1841, however, there was an Ireland-based voice arguing that repeal and reform went hand in hand. The emergence of the Irish Universal Suffrage Association, based in Dublin and with significant support in Belfast, meant that the Chartist cause now had a foothold, and potential votes, there.

By backing Repeal, however, the NCA alienated Protestant Scottish Chartists, and a delegate conference called by the Scottish Chartist Central Committee decided, on the casting vote of the chair, to ‘disapprove of the petition’ citing both the threat to the union and its opposition to the New Poor Law, which did not apply in Scotland. Many Scottish localities rejected the convention’s decision and worked for the petition regardless, but Scotland would eventually return far fewer signatures in 1842 than it had in 1839

For now, however, the Executive Council had practical matters to address. ‘To secure an uniform size of the sheets, we have decided that the breadth of each sheet shall be twenty-four inches – a demy paper, each sheet containing four columns for signatures,’ it told the movement. This meant that petition sheets, which the Executive promised to supply more cheaply than they could be obtained elsewhere, could be pasted or stitched together to form a single huge roll of paper. And with the Northern Star of 16 October now off the press, Joshua Hobson was set to work printing copies of the petition text and separate ruled sheets for signatures. Ambitiously, the Executive set a target of 4 million names.

Local Chartist organisations eagerly took up the petition. Wolverhampton Chartists declared, ‘We fully reckon on twenty thousand signatures for the Petition’ (NS, 23 October 1841, p1); Redruth Charter Association in an ‘Address to the men of Cornwall’ called for ‘60,000 Cornish boys to sign it’ (p8); and at Carlisle, ‘Mr Arthur, bookseller, was ordered to procure 100 copies of the Petition from the Star office’ (p3).

From the Black Bull Hotel in Glasgow, after what he presented as a triumphant week-long tour of Scotland, Feargus O’Connor wrote in his front-page letter for the Star: ‘Let no man mention the words “moral force” and “physical force” any more; we have in Scotland stripped the hobgoblin naked, and whipped it from the land.’ Promising a detailed account of his tour the following week, he declared: ‘Meantime let every man, woman and child sign the Petition. It is a “whole hog” petition and so much the better. We reserve nothing, and he who is our friend will sign it.’

Black and white engraving of Black Bull Hotel, a Georgian coaching inn, with engraving of Feargus O’Connor superimposed.
Feargus O’Connor wrote from the Black Bull Hotel of his triumphant tour of Scotland (Northern Star, 23 October 1841)

As in every Chartist endeavour, however, there were violent disagreements along the way. Both Henry Vincent and Robert Philp took part in a complete suffrage conference with Joseph Sturge, and signed up to a programme which included all six points of the Charter, but abandoned the name itself – to the outrage of the Northern Star and many Chartist localities. Though widely condemned, Philp defended his actions, arguing that he had not compromised his support for the Charter one bit. Although he failed to gain re-election to the Executive Council, Philp was elected to attend the Convention; but hounded out by the Star and its supporters for his apostasy, both he and Vincent, a chastened figure following his prison experience, would subsequently shift their allegiance to Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union.

As the weeks went by, it became clear that the February date originally set for presenting the petition to Parliament could not be met. When the time came, the Executive Council announced that the National Convention for which localities were electing delegates would not take place until April. In part, it argued, this was to give time to collect more names and raise funds; but the EC was also keen to extend an olive branch to Scottish Chartists, declaring that it had ‘no desire to come into collision with the Central Committee for Scotland or to be dragged into controversy with any of our neighbours’ (NS, 19 February 1842, p5).

By the end of the month, the Executive Council had fixed on a firm date of 12 April for the start of the Convention, and further announced that it would be cut back from a month to three weeks to reduce costs. Despite their earlier enthusiasm, the Chartists of Cornwall, along with those of Devon and Dorset, had already come to the conclusion that they would not be able to send a delegate (NS, 26 February 1842, p4). But the business of holding meetings, collecting signatures and organising the Convention went on, with delegates travelling to London advised to visit John Cleave, who had been appointed to manage the finances of the event, at his bookshop in Shoe Lane on their arrival.

Finally, with signatures still being collected all over the country, the General Convention of the Industrious Classes convened on Tuesday 12 April 1842 at Dr Johnson’s Tavern, Bolt Court, Fleet Street – the same venue that had hosted meetings of the first convention in 1838 (Northern Star, 16 April 1842, p1).

Further articles about the the convention called to organise its presentation, the procession and presentation of the petition to Parliament,and the response of MPs, can be found with articles on other Chartist petitions on the Chartist Petitions page.

Sources and further reading

Chartism: A New History, by Malcolm Chase, Manchester University Press, 2007.

‘What did Chartism petition for? Mass petitions in the British movement for democracy’ by Malcolm Chase in Social Science History 43:3, 2019. Access 18 November 2023 at https://www.jstor.org/stable/26753195.

Full text of the 1842 petition

(Northern Star, 16 October 1841, p4).
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THE NATIONAL PETITION FOR 1842.

[The following is the petition we have spoken of in a short leading article; and we again beg to press it upon the attention of every working man in the United Kingdom.]

To the Honourable the Commons of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled.

The Petition of the Undersigned People of the United Kingdom,

Sheweth. – That Government originated from, was designed to protect the freedom and promote the happiness of and ought to be responsible to, the whole people;

That the only authority on which any body of men can make laws and govern society, is delegation from the people;

That as Government was designed for the benefit and protection of, and must be obeyed and supported by all, therefore, all should be equally represented;

That any form of Government, which fails to effect the purposes for which it was designed, and does not fully and completely represent the whole people who are compelled to pay taxes to its support, and obey the laws resolved upon by it, is unconstitutional, tyrannical, and ought to be amended or resisted;

That your Honourable House, as at present constituted, has not been elected by, and acts irresponsibly of, the people; And hitherto has only represented parties and benefited the few, regardless of the miseries, grievances, and petitions of the many. Your Honourable House has enacted laws contrary to the expressed wishes of the people, and, by unconstitutional means, enforced obedience to them; thereby creating an unbearable despotism on the one hand, and degrading slavery on the other;

That if your Honourable House is of opinion that the people of Great Britain and Ireland ought not to be fully represented, your Petitioners pray that such opinion may be unequivocally made known, that the people may fully understand what they can or cannot expect from your Honourable House; Because if such be the decision of your Honourable House, your Petitioners are of the opinion that where representation is denied, taxation ought to be resisted;

That your Petitioners instance, in proof of their assertion that your Honourable House has not been elected by the people, that the population of Great Britain and Ireland is at present time about twenty-six millions of persons; And that yet, out of this number, little more than nine hundred thousand have been permitted to vote in the recent election of representatives to make laws to govern the whole;

That the existing state of representation is not only extremely limited and unjust, but unequally divided, and gives preponderating influence to landed and moneyed interests, to the utter ruin of the small-trading and labouring classes;

That the borough of Guildford, with a population of 3,920, returns to parliament as many members as the Tower Hamlets, with a population of 300,000; Evesham, with a population of 3,998, elects as many representatives as Manchester, with a population of 200,000; and Buckingham, Evesham, Totness, Guildford, Honiton, and Bridport, with a total population of 23,000, return as many representatives as Manchester, Finsbury, Tower Hamlets, Liverpool, Marylebone, and Lambeth, with a population of 1,400,000! these being but a very few instances of the enormous inequalities existing in what is called the representation of this country;

That bribery, intimidation, corruption, perjury, and riot, prevail at all parliamentary elections, to an extent best understood by the members of your Honourable House;

That your Petitioners complain that they are enormously taxed to pay the interest of what is termed the national debt ­­- a debt amounting at present to eight hundred millions of pounds – being only a portion of the enormous amount expended in cruel and expensive wars for the suppression of all liberty, by men not authorised by the people, and who, consequently, had no right to tax posterity for the outrages committed by them upon mankind. And your Petitioners loudly complain of the augmentation of that debt, after twenty-six years of almost uninterrupted peace, and whilst poverty and discontent rage over the land;

That taxation, both general and local, is at this time too enormous to be borne; and in the opinion of your Petitioners is contrary to the spirit of the Bill of Rights, wherein it is clearly expressed that no subject shall be compelled to contribute to any tax, talliage, or aid, unless imposed by common consent in parliament;

That in England, and, Scotland, and Wales, thousands of people are dying from actual want; and your Petitioners, whilst sensible that poverty is the great exciting cause of crime, view with mingled astonishment and alarm the ill provision made for the poor, the aged and infirm; and likewise perceive, with feelings of indignation, the determination of your Honourable House to continue the poor law bill in operation, notwithstanding the many proofs which have been afforded by sad experience of the unconstitutional principle of that bill, of its unchristian character, and of the cruel and murderous effects produced upon the wages of working men, and the lives of the subjects of this realm;

That your Petitioners conceive that bill to be contrary to all previous statutes, opposed to the spirit of the constitution, and an actual violation of the precepts of the Christian religion; and therefore your Petitioners look with apprehension to the results which may flow from its continuance;

That your Petitioners would direct the attention of your Honourable House to the great disparity existing between the wages of the producing millions, and the salaries of those whose comparative usefulness ought to be questioned, where riches and luxury prevail amongst the rulers, poverty and starvation amongst the ruled;

That your Petitioners, with all due respect and loyalty, would compare the daily income of the Sovereign Majesty with that of thousands of the working men of this nation; and whilst your Petitioners have learned that Her Majesty received daily for her private use the sum of £164 17s 10d., they have also ascertained that many thousands of the families of the labourers are only in the receipt of 3¾  pennies per head per day;

That you Petitioners have also learned that his Royal Highness Prince Albert receives each day the sum of £104 2s., whilst thousands have to exist upon 3d per head per day;

That your Petitioners have also heard with astonishment, that’s the King of Hanover daily receives £57 pounds 10s., per day whilst thousands of the taxpayers of this empire live upon 2¾d  per head per day;

That your Petitioners have, with pain and regret, also learned that the Archbishop of Canterbury is daily in the receipt of £52 10s., per day, whilst thousands of the poor have to maintain their families upon an income not exceeding two-pence per head per day;

That notwithstanding the wretched and unparalleled condition of the people, your Honourable House has manifested no disposition to curtail the expenses of the state, to diminish taxation, or to promote general prosperity;

That unless immediate remedial measures be adopted, your Petitioners fear the increasing distress of the people will lead to results fearful to contemplate; because your Petitioners can produce evidence of the gradual decline of wages, at the same time that the constant increase of the national burdens must be apparent to all;

That your Petitioners know that it is the undoubted constitutional right of the people, to meet freely, when, how, and where they choose, in public places, peaceably, in the day, to discuss their grievances, and political or other subjects, or for the purpose of framing, discussing, or passing any vote competition, or reminisce trance, upon any subject whatsoever;

That your Petitioners complain that the right has unlawfully and unconstitutionally been infringed; And five hundred well disposed persons have been arrested, excessive bail demanded, tried by packed juries, sentenced to imprisonment, and treated as felons of the worst description;

That an unconstitutional police force is distributed all over the country, at enormous cost, to prevent the due exercise of the People’s rights. And your Petitioners are of the opinion, that the poor law Bastille and the police stations, being co-existent, have originated from the same cause, – viz., the increased desire on the part of the irresponsible few to oppress and starve the many;

That a vast and unconstitutional army is upheld at the public expense, for the purpose of repressing public opinion in the three kingdoms, and likewise to intimidate the millions in the due exercise of those rights and privileges which ought to belong to them;

That your Petitioners complain that the hours of labour, particularly of the factory workers, are protracted beyond the limits of human endurance, and that the wages earned, after unnatural application to toil in heated and unhealthy workshops, are inadequate to sustain the bodily strength, and supply those comforts which are so imperative after an excessive waste of physical energy;

That your Petitioners also direct the attention of your Honourable House, to the starvation wages of the agricultural labourer, and view with horror and indignation, the paltry income of those whose toil gives being to the staple food of this people;

That your Petitioners deeply deplore the existence of any kind of monopoly in this nation; and whilst they unequivocally condemn the levying of any tax upon the necessaries of life, and upon those articles principally required by the labouring classes, they are also are sensible, that the abolition of any one monopoly, will never unshackle labour from its misery, until the people possess that power under which all monopoly and oppression must cease; – and your Petitioners respectfully mention the existing monopolies of the suffrage, of paper money, of machinery, of land, of the public press, of religious privileges, of the means of travelling and transit, and a host of other evils, too numerous to mention, all arising from class legislation but which your Honourable House has always consistently endeavoured to increase instead of diminish;

That your Petitioners are sensible, from the numerous petitions, presented to your Honourable House, that your Honourable House is fully acquainted with the grievances of the working men, and your Petitioners pray that the rights and wrongs of labour may be considered, with a view to the protection of the one, and to the removal of the other; because your Petitioners are of opinion that it is the worst species of legislation, which leaves the grievances of society to be removed only by violence or revolution, both of which may be apprehended if complaints are unattended to and petitions despised;

That your Petitioners complain that upwards of nine millions of pounds per annum are unjustly abstracted from them to maintain a Church Establishment, from which they principally dissent, and beg to call the attention of your Honourable House to the fact, that this enormous sum is equal to, if it does not exceed, the cost of upholding Christianity in all parts of the world beside. Your Petitioners complain that it is unjust, and not in accordance with the Christian religion, to enforce compulsory support of religious creeds, and expensive Church Establishments, with which the people do not agree;

That your Petitioners believe all men have a right to worship God as may appear best to their consciences, and that no legislative enactments should interfere between man and his Creator;

That your Petitioners direct the attention of your Honourable House to the enormous revenue annually swallowed up by the Bishops and the clergy, and entreat you to contrast their deeds with the conduct of the founder of the Christian religion, who denounced worshippers of Mammon, and taught charity, meekness, and brotherly love;

That your Petitioners strongly complain that the people of this kingdom are subject to the rule of irresponsible lawmakers, to whom they have given no authority, and are enormously taxed to uphold the corrupt system, to which they have never in person or by representation given their assent;

That your Petitioners maintain that it is the inherent, indubitable, and constitutional right, founded upon the ancient practice of the Realm of England, and supported by well-approved statutes, of every man inhabitant of the United Kingdom, he being of age and of sound mind, non-convict of crime, and not confined under any judicial process, to exercise the elective franchise in the choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of parliament;

That your Petitioners can prove that by the ancient custom and statutes of this realm, Parliaments should be held once in each year;

That your Petitioners maintained that members elected to serve in Parliament ought to be the servants of the people, and should, at shorten stated intervals, returned to their constituencies, to ascertain if their conduct is approved of, and to give the people power to reject all who have not acted honestly and justly;

That your Petitioners complained that possession of property is made the test of men’s qualification to sit in parliament;

That your Petitioners can give proof that such qualification is irrational, unnecessary, and not in accordance with the ancient usages of England;

That your Petitioners complained, but by influence, patronage, and intimidation, there is at present no purity of election, and your Petitioners contend for the right of voting by ballot;

That your Petitioners complained that seats in your Honourable House are sought for at a most extravagant rate of expense; which proves an enormous degree of fraud and corruption;

That your Petitioners, therefore, contend that, to put an end the secret political traffic, all representatives should be paid a limited amount for their services;

That your Petitioners complain of the inequality of representation; And contend for the division of the country into equal electoral districts;

That your Petitioners complain of the many grievances borne by the People of Ireland; and contend that they are fully entitled to a repeal of the Legislative Union;

That your Petitioners have viewed with great indignation the partialities shewn to the aristocracy in the courts of justice, and the cruelty of that system of law which deprived Frost, Williams and Jones, of the benefit of the objection offered by Sir Frederick Pollock during the trial at Monmouth, and which was approved of by a large majority of the judges.

That your Petitioners beg to assure your Honourable House that they cannot, within the limits of this their petition, set forth even a tithe of the many grievances of which they may justly complain; but should your Honourable House be pleased to grant your Petitioners a hearing by representatives at the bar of your Honourable House, your Petitioners will be enabled to unfold a tale of wrong and suffering – of intolerable injustice – which will create utter astonishment in the minds of all benevolent and good men, that the People of Great Britain and Ireland have so long quietly endured their wretched condition, brought upon them, as it has been, by unjust exclusion from political authority, and by the manifold corruptions of class legislation;

That your Petitioners, therefore, exercising their just constitutional right, demands that your Honourable House, to remedy the many gross and manifest evils of which your Petitioners complain, to immediately, without alteration, deduction, or addition, pass into a law the document entitled “The People’s Charter;” which embraces the Representation of Male Adults, Vote by Ballot, Annual Parliaments, No Property Qualification, Payment of Members, and Equal Electoral Districts;

And that your Petitioners, desiring to promote the peace of the United Kingdom, security of property, and prosperity of commerce, seriously and earnestly press this, their petition, on the attention of your Honourable House.

And your Petitioners, &c.

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