material culturepetitions

Document: Petition for the People’s Charter

The broadside shown here dates from August 1838, at the very start of the Chartist period. At the time it must have been printed and distributed in large numbers to summons London’s radicals to a great meeting at New Palace Yard, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. Here they would be asked to endorse the text of the National Petition, and vote for the capital’s representatives at the General Convention of the Industrious Classes being planned for early 1839. 

The National Petition and a meeting at Palace Yard. Click for larger image.

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

Probably intended to be both both handed out and pasted up as a placard, the broadside is not much different to a modern sheet of A4 in size (around 11 x 81/2inches – the old ‘letter’ paper size). Like the People’s Charter and much else published by the London Working Men’s Association, it was printed by Henry Hetherington, a well-established radical printer and founder member of the LWMA.

The text, agreed between the Birmingham Political Union and the LWMA, is identical to that which had already appeared in the Northern Star (16 June 1838, p3), and to that later recorded by William Lovett, secretary of the London Working Men’s Association, in his autobiography The Life and Struggles of William Lovett (1876).

Today this may be the last surviving copy of this important document.

Although the text at the top of the page gives notice of the Palace Yard meeting, the bulk of it is in fact given over to the wording of the petition. For many, this would have been a first opportunity to read it before adding their name to one of the thousands of sheets that would eventually be stitched together into a great roll of paper. The final petition must have been an incredible sight. As the Northern Star would later report when it was carried to Parliament the following summer: ‘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).

How the First Chartist Petition even got that far, however, is a story in its own right, with Radical MPs having second thoughts, heated debates over what ulterior measures Chartist might take when the petition was eventually rejected, as they knew it would be, and the arrest of many leading figures in the Chartist movement.

The petition was introduced to Parliament by Thomas Attwood with its 1,280,958 signatures on 14 June 1839. On 12 July 1848, a month after the great three-mile long roll of paper arrived at Westminster, the Birmingham MP Thomas Attwood’s motion to have it debated on the floor of the Commons was defeated by 235 votes to 46. It is believed to have been destroyed some time in the nineteenth century along with many other petitions and papers.

And as for the Palace Yard meeting: the petition was, of course, adopted by those present. Both the London Working Men’s Association and the East London Democratic Association organised their own candidate lists for that meeting, but it was the LWMA that would triumph, winning all eight London seats at the forthcoming convention and forcing The ELDA’s George Julian Harney and others to seek nomination elsewhere.

The document shown above is in the collection of Mark Crail, who runs the Chartist Ancestors website.

Palace Yard, Westminster, where London’s radicals gathered in 1838 to adopt the Charter. The buildings to the left were demolished in the 1860s, and Big Ben stands where the tree is. Westminster Bridge is in the background. The image is taken from a panorama painted by Pierre Prevost and now in the Museum of London.