Organising the first Chartist petition, 1839

The first Chartist petition originally had little if anything to do with Chartism. This page looks at its origins and at how petition and Charter came together in an unexpectedly powerful way.

The first National Petition for the Charter originated in the revival of the Birmingham Political Union in 1837, and the internal politics of its unhappy alliance of middle-class reformers and working-class activists over the following year. At first, however, the proposed petition had nothing to say about the right to vote, and still less ambition to become the basis of a mass movement like Chartism.

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

The old BPU had played a central role in agitating for the 1832 Reform Act, but had been dissolved in 1834 as the bankers and manufacturers who led it had retired from national politics to take their seats on the new Birmingham Corporation and to increase their fortunes during the coincidental economic boom of the early 1830s.

Revival of the Birmingham Political Union
Thomas Attwood.
Unknown artist © National Portrait Gallery, London. Click for larger image.

It was only when trade began to falter, unemployment started to rise and the cruelty of the New Poor Law of 1834 became apparent that the BPU was revived. At its head was Thomas Attwood, the man who had led it to success in 1832, a banker – and a man with a very clear idea of how all these problems (and to his mind, pretty much every problem) might be resolved: currency reform and the introduction of paper money.

To be fair, Attwood’s proposal to replace gold with paper, so that the money supply could be increased in times of hardship to boost business and pay higher wages, increase employment and pay off debt, now sounds like a fairly standard Keynsian programme. But it was not a solution with immediate appeal to the BPU’s working-class supporters, and not the programme they expected of an organisation that had led demands for radical political reform in 1832.

The BPU had decided in June 1837 to draw up a petition in favour of vaguely defined radical reforms. Its focus, however, would only become clear after the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, rejected Attwood’s ideas out of hand in November 1837, As a result, Attwood announced his conversion from household to universal suffrage, and the BPU adopted a new programme with this as its main point. The work of drafting the petition was delegated to R.K. Douglas, the editor of the Birmingham Journal, who duly included calls for paper money, universal suffrage, and the repeal of the corn laws.

Enthused by the response to their plans, leaders of the BPU began to talk of obtaining millions of signatures, and somewhat foolishly of the ulterior measures and use of violence that would win their reforms if the government rejected the petition. Attwood and his supporters were, in reality, horrified by the idea of physical force, but hoped that they could sway their opponents by strong language without having to make good on their threats. Things would look very different later in the year as more radical voices came to the fore, and even more so in 1839 once Parliament had closed the door on the petition. But all that was in the future.

Petition, Charter and Convention

In the meantime, the petition, the London Working Men’s Association’s People’s Charter and a new proposal from Attwood for a National Convention, first came into contact with one another on Glasgow Green, at a great radical meeting on 21 May 1838. Attwood and others from the BPU spoke at length about the petition, and Thomas Murphy and Arthur Wade of the LWMA spoke about the Charter, to a huge crowd, albeit one that diminished in size during the afternoon as the rain poured down. It was immediately obvious that the two organisations needed to work together.

The negotiations were difficult. The LWMA despatched Thomas Murphy and Henry Vincent to Birmingham to agree a form of words that would satisfy all parties. Attwood had already dropped his earlier support for household suffrage in favour of universal male suffrage, and the BPU also conceded that there should be a demand for annual rather than triennial parliaments. The LWMA in turn agreed that the call for equal electoral districts would not appear in the petition (though it remained a part of the Charter). There was to be no mention of repealing the New Poor Law and its workhouse system. And despite Douglas’s best efforts, currency reform was also dropped. The petition (which put the argument for reform) and the Charter (which set out how this might be achieved in law) were now, more or less, as one.

That summer, as news of the petition and Charter spread across Yorkshire and Lancashire, the BPU set out its proposals for the convention: it was to be called the General Convention of the Industrial Classes; to conform with the laws against corresponding societies, it would have no more than forty-nine members, and delegates would be elected at open public meetings.

From committee room to monster meetings

Birmingham was first to elect its delegates, with 200,000 attending a meeting at Newhall Hill on 6 August 1838 that adopted the Charter and petition, and chose eight of Attwood’s BPU allies as their representatives. Attwood himself chose not to stand for election as he was already a Birmingham MP.

Further meetings took place throughout the summer and into the autumn, often with huge crowds in attendance. In London in September, the LWMA’s own slate of eight candidates was successful against a challenge from the more radical London Democratic Association. But at meetings in Yorkshire and Lancashire, supporters of the incendiary Tory Radical Joseph Rayner Stephens and of Feargus O’Connor were elected as amid excited talk of the need to arm for the time when moral arguments would need to give way to physical force.

Neither the London nor the Birmingham leaders had been prepared for the way in which O’Connor in particular would be able to marshall the economic desperation of those in the manufacturing districts and their anger at the inhumane Poor Law behind the cause of parliamentary reform, or for the scale of the movement they had unleashed across the country. Already, O’Connor’s Northern Star was proving to be a potent tool for organising the rank and file. By the end of the year, many among the BPU’s leadership were having second thoughts, while O’Connor, who never hesitated to turn up for BPU meetings and make his case in person, had become the beneficiary of a growing divide between the Birmingham body’s middle-class leaders and working class rank and file. Both the BPU and LWMA would eventually be consumed by their joint creation – but all that was still in an unforeseeable future.

Canvassing for the petition

The process of collecting signatures for the petition helped to consolidate support for the Charter among activists with a wide range of economic and political grievances and demands. It also provided an opportunity for those most politically active to engage neighbours and workmates, and potentially to bring them into the emerging Chartist movement.

As the historian Malcolm Chase has noted, Chartists typically ‘canvassed’ for signatures. Rather than leave petition forms in public places for passers-by to sign, they took their forms from door to door, and into factories and mills. ‘In Tavistock, west Devon, members of the local Working Men’s Association walked the whole town with petition sheets and subscription lists, “missing scarcely a door”. They collected 1,366 signatures, about 22% of the borough’s population and a figure far in excess of the number of parliamentary electors in the borough (247 in 1832).’

And it was not just men who signed. As Chase has noted, in 1839, where separately reported for individual communities in the Northern Star, women’s signatures ranged from 13 to 20 per cent. ‘Some localities exceeded this: for example Falkland, a Fife textiles village, claimed its numbers of female and male signatures exactly matched (Fife Herald, 14 June 1838).’ And women were not simply passive supporters of the movement. ‘At Newcastle in 1839, an audience of female Chartists were asked whether, if Parliament rejected the petition “they ready to make a sacred month of it [that is, to support a general strike], and take to the hillside?” They chanted repeatedly, “We will” (NS, 15 June 1839). This was exhilarating imagery: a chosen people gathered in the assurance of divine dispensation.’

The petition at the Convention
Cartoonist George Cruikshank on the Chartist petition. Click for larger image.

On 10 January 1839 a committee of delegates met in Birmingham to make final arrangements for the opening of the Convention. However, as the historian Kenneth Judge has noted: ‘It was decided to meet on 4 February at Brown’s Hotel, Palace Yard, but already there were signs of what was going to become a characteristic of the Convention, lack of preparation, and when the date came round, it was discovered that the Hotel had been reserved by the anti-Corn Law League for their first conference.’ An alternative venue was swiftly found.

When the Convention finally met on 4 February 1839 in Bolt Court, just off Fleet Street, the process of collecting signatures and sending petition sheets to London where they could be compiled was still under way. Local groups were urged to send their petition sheets, postage paid, to John Collins, the leading working-class activist among the Birmingham delegates, by no later than the end of April, while frantic last-minute efforts were put in place to collect more signatures in London, where there had been little canvassing and far too few names added to the petition.

All this came to an end in early May, by which time the signatures had been totalled at 1,280,958, and the petition sheets joined end to end to form a single great roll of paper. As the Northern Star would later report: ‘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’ (NS, 22 June, 1839).

All that now remained was to present it to Parliament, and for the Convention to decide what would come next…

Sources and further reading

The Chartist Movement by Mark Hovell (Manchester University Press, 1918), available online via Wikisource (accessed 8 January 2024).

‘Early chartist organization and the convention of 1839’, by Kenneth Judge in International Review of Social History (Vol 20(3), December 1975, pp.370 – 397), available online via JSTOR (accessed 8 January 2024).

 ‘What Did Chartism Petition For?: Mass Petitions in the British Movement for Democracy’ by Malcolm Chase in Social Science History (Vol 43(3), July 2019, pp.531-551) available via JSTOR.  Also available online on the White Rose University Consortium website (accessed 8 January 2024).