material culturepetitions

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 great General Convention of the Industrious Classes being planned for early 1839. 

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

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.

This broadside, probably intended to be both handed out and pasted up as a placard, and not much different to a modern sheet of A4 in size, appears to be a somewhat longer text than that which the ubiquitous social reformer Francis Place recorded in his papers (see below). It is, however, also much shorter than the petition adopted by London radicals at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor on 28 February 1837 and recorded by William Lovett, secretary of the London Working Men’s Association, in his autobiography The Life and Struggles of William Lovett (1876). The Northern Star fails to include the text of the petition in its report of the Palace Yard meeting (NS, 22 September 1838)..

Unfortunately, as the final document sent to Parliament, along with its 1,280,958 signatures, is believed to have been destroyed some time in the nineteenth century, there is no definitive version, and we do not know what MPs may have seen. We do know, however, that on 12 July, two months 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, and the petition was rejected unheard.

And as for the Palace Yard meeting: the petition was, of course, adopted by those present, and though both the London Working Men’s Association and the East London Democratic Association organised their own candidate lists, 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 here is in the collection of Mark Crail, who runs the Chartist Ancestors website. Around 11 by 81/2inches (the old ‘letter’ paper size) it was printed by Henry Hetherington, who also published the People’s Charter and other publications on behalf of the London Working Men’s Association.

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.

Text of the first petition (according to Place)

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).