The ‘leviathan petition’, as a Northern Star reporter dubbed it, was bigger than any paper petition before or since. This page looks at the events of Monday 2 May 1842, when a huge crowd processed through the streets of the capital to take it to Parliament.
This is one of a number of articles dealing with the leviathan petition. See also:
Organising the 1842 petition
The 1842 Chartist Convention
MPs vote to ignore the petition
Engraving to mark the petition
The 1842 petition in numbers
A few days after the Chartist Petition of 1842 was taken with great ceremony in procession through the capital to the Houses of Parliament, Feargus O’Connor, never usually lost for words, declared: ‘My beloved friends, – I really know not how I am to commence my communications of this week, it has been so full of Chartism!’ (NS, 7 May 1842 p1). He soon found his voice, describing the petition as a ‘BEAUTIFUL THING’. He put the Chartist crowd at half a million, ‘the largest, the very largest gathering of people that ever was seen in London’. And he reported with glee how the leviathan petition had ‘smashed the doorframes’ of the House of Commons.
For six months, Chartists all over the country had actively canvassed for signatures to the second petition for the Charter. And by the time the Convention called to oversee its presentation to Parliament convened in April 1842 and the counting had finished, the Executive Council of the National Charter Association was able to announce that it had collected 3,317,752 names (though slightly different totals appear in various sources).
The radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, who had previously presented the 1841 petition seeking the release of Chartist prisoners, took charge of many of the arrangements, but the members of the convention still had much work to do, agitating Londoners for support, dealing with matters of policy and personal animosities within the movement, and handling practicalities: four men were set to work pasting the petition sheets together to create a single great roll of paper, and volunteers were found to bear it on the procession to Westminster. The Northern Star’s report of the convention claimed that ‘the petition committee might by a superficial observer have been taken for a quantity of journeymen paperhangers, so immersed were they in reems of paper and pails of paste’ (NS, 7 May 1842, p6)
The Northern Star made a number of startling claims about the sheer size of what its reporter called ‘the leviathan petition’. Could it really have been six miles long, as the paper claimed? Would it have weighed 6cwt (a little over 300kg), requiring a team of 30 men to carry it? And was it so large that the doors of the House of Commons had to be removed before the great mass of paper could be brought into the Chamber, to spill over from the clerks’ table and across the floor? The answer to all these questions appears to be an unequivocal yes – with modern calculations supporting the three great claims. Read more aboutr this on the Chartist Ancestors blog.
What follows is the Northern Star’s own account of the procession and presentation (NS, 7 May 1842), and reports of the event taken from The Times and the Morning Chronicle. It features the Star’s list of banners, flags and slogans that took part in the procession, and of the seven bands that marched with them – including, apparently, the Band of the Grenadier Guards!
Further articles about the organisation of the 1842 petition, the convention called to organise its presentation, and the response of MPs, can be found with articles on other Chartist petitions on the Chartist Petitions page.
THE GRAND NATIONAL DEMONSTRATION.
On Monday morning all promised well-the sun shone gaily-and thousands were seen assembling together in their local divisions, previous to commencing their march to the central appointments. By nine o’clock vast masses had collected in Finsbury-square, Waterloo-road, Bethnal-green, Church and Circus- streets, Marylebone, &c. Colours were flying, bands playing, and marshalmen on horseback were hurrying to and fro, collecting and conveying intelligence. In the mean time, the members of the Convention were not idle: from an early hour they were assiduously engaged in adding signatures to the huge document, and in preparing for the procession.
By eleven o’clock, the immense area of Lincoln’s-inn- fields was occupied more densely than ever it had previously been In the memory of its oldest inhabitant; and much curiosity was evinced as to the cause of such an Imposing spectacle, which was shortly gratified by the arrival of the great National Petition itself. About twelve o’clock, it was with considerable labour placed in a frame made for that purpose, attached to which were two wooden bearers or poles, thirty feet long; on the front of the frame was painted in large figures 3,317,702, this being the number of signatures the petition contained; and under this was written in large characters, “the Charter;” the back of the frame had inscribed on it the word “Liberty,” and also the number of signatures; the sides were ornamented with the Six Points of the Charter. The weight of the petition was immense; its length was ascertained to be six miles and fifty yards; the bearers, consisting of men from the various trades of the metropolis, having arrived, the giant was lifted on high, and the bearers commenced slowly wending their way towards Lin- coins Inn-fields, preceded by Dr. M’Douall and Mr. Ruffy Ridley on horseback, as marshals, and numerous flags and banners, followed by the members of the Convention, three abreast, headed by Feargus OConnor, Esq., Mr. Moir. and Mr. McPherson; following the Convention were numerous delegates from Manchester, Cheltenham, Reading, Brighton, Nottingham, Northampton, and many other places. The arrival of the petition and Convention at Lincoln’s Inn Fields was greeted with triumphant cheering, and after making the circuit of the place, this monster petition was deposited on mother earth much to the ease of the bearers, who, though thirty in number, were compelled to be relieved several times during this short distance. Among the bearers were several of the masons who had the honour of carrying the last petition; also, a Scotchman in the national garb of his country. Owing to the immense assemblage in this place, it was a work of some time to arrange the procession in marching order; but the arrangements had been well conducted; the marshalmen, twenty- four of whom were on horseback were well acquainted with the duties, and about half-past one o’clock they commenced moving towards the place of their destination amid the most deafening shouts of applause.
The route taken by the procession to the House of Commons, was down Queen-street, Holborn, Museum- street, Russell-street, Tottenham Court Road, Oxford-street, Regent-street, Waterloo Place, Pall Mall, Charing Cross, and Parliament-street; all of which were crowded with spectators, windows, house-tops, and every portion of the buildings being put in requisition. Waggons, carts, &c. were stationed in places along the line for their accommodation, and much profit derived by their proprietors. In many places the procession was greeted with immense cheering from the assembled multitude, and with waving of handkerchiefs, &c. from the windows and house-tops. Omnibuses and cabs sported the tricolour; and all seemed to be aware of the respect due to such a demonstration of the party of the people.
The balconies of the various club-houses in Pall Mail and Its neighbourhood were crowded with Members of Parliament and other persons of distinction; and on passing these places the cheering was truly deafening, and reverberated along the whole line, which extended upwards of a mile and a half in length, and was allowed by all parties to be larger and more I splendid than the procession of the Trades’ Unionists for the release of the Dorchester labourers. Of the numbers present, It would be impossible to form any calculation, suffice it to say that the Times, Tory paper, gives us 50,000, and we may fairly calculate upon ten times the numbers, an opponent gives us; indeed towards Pall Mall and Parliament-street, the whole was one dense mass of human beings. The procession reached to the House of Commons, previous to a portion of it leaving Oxford-street. At the House of Commons, the pressure was so tremendous, that it was scarcely possible for the marshals to clear a road for the petition to be conveyed to the House. The policemen were busy with their staves; but taking their conduct as a whole during the day they acted well, no party attempting to offer the least obstruction.
When the petition reached the lobby of the House, they found that the bulk of the petition was so great that the frame was compelled to be broke, and the petition partially unrolled ere it could be admitted. In the course of this operation, a few of the windows were broken; but eventually, the prayer of the nation was laid before the bar of the House. Mr. F. O’Connor and other members actively assisted in the duty of forcing the petition into the House, and were loudly cheered by those around the doors of the House. This was taken up by the line of procession, and the whole line speedily became one vast echo of triumphant cheering. To avoid confusion, the great bulk of the procession after a few moments pause, passed over Westminster Bridge, and continued their route up York Road, where ten minutes rest was allowed for the banner men and others to obtain refreshment, and though the heat was intense and the dust very inconvenient, yet to the honour of the men of London be it said, that not a single instance of drunkenness occurred during the whole route. If it had been a procession of teetotallers they could not have acted in a more sober or orderly manner; indeed their conduct on this day will show that the foul charge of ignorance, violence, &c. so often brought against them is a base and and calumnious falsehood. From York Road the procession proceeded up Stamford-street, across Blackfriars-bridge, where though the numbers were considerably lessened still the appearance was very imposing, the banners and flags being brought into closer contact. The line of route was then up Farringdon-street, Holborn-hill, Holborn, Smithfeld, John-street Road, Pentonville, to White Conduit House,
The following was the order of procession from Lincoln’s-inn fields:-
Ten Marshalmen on horseback, wearing Executive scarfs.
Motto-” The sufferings of the people shall be redressed.”
Councilmen of the Western Division, four abreast, wearing Executive scarfs, oud carrying red wands.
Delegates from Yarmouth, bearing splendid banner-
On one aide, “Yarmouth Universal Suffrage t Association.”
Reverse- “May every lover of his country unite I until we obtain our rights.”
The following were a few of the other flags, with their mottos :-
Universal Suffrage, and no surrender.
Universal Suffrage, Vote by Ballot, &C-.
Cap of liberty.
“We have set our lives upon a cast;. we will abide the hazard of a die.”
The Six Points of the Charter.
Cap of liberty, and bundle of rods.
“We demand our rights.”
“We demand our rights.’
“He that oppresses the poor shall perish from the land.”
“The abolition of close corporations.”
Two splendid Union Jacks.
Splendid Welsh tri-coloured flag.
“We are determined to have the Charter.”
Excellent painting, representing the card of the Association.
Portrait of Henry Hunt.
“United we stand, divided we fall.”
“Thou shalt neither vex the stranger, nor the poor.’
Large black banner, showing the enormous expenditure of money on the Bishops, &c,
Body of carpenters.
Motto-” United Carpenters’ Association;”
And various other trade devices.
A Stonemasons’ Scotch banner.
Large tri-coloured flag.
Body of Stonemasons, with various trade emblems.
Flag – “Dr. M’Douall, the tyrants dread and the friend of the poor.”
Large black flag with the following inscription: “Question, ‘What man is that when you ask him for bread will give you a stone?’
Answer,’The parson of the Church of England.”‘
Large tricoloured Flag.
Motto, “Finsbury locality.”
A large banner with portraits of the Welsh victims.
“Dr. M’Douall, the friend of the factory children.”
“United we stand, divided we fall.”
“Our birthrights-we are determined to have them.”
Lictors with cap of liberty.
“Truth and Justice will prevail”
Finsbury banner, tricolour,
Followed by marshals on horseback.
THE GRAND PETITION
Supported by the extra bearers on each side.
Band of Grenadier Guards.
The members of the Convention three abreast.
Country Delegates three abreast.
Motto – National Charter Association Reading.
Beautiful banner representing the Manchester massacre, and on the reverse –
“Murder demands justice.”
On passing the United Service Club House, this banner was displayed to the members of the club at the balcony, and some trifling excitement was manifested. This banner attracted universal attention, and many hundreds were heard to express their sentiments of abhorrence and resentment at that brutal transaction.
Large tricoloured flag, –
“The People’s Charter, equal rights and equal laws.”
“Freedom of the Press.”
Green Flag –
Reverse-” Cheltenham Association.”
“Dr. McDouall. the Tyrant’s Foe.”
“Our Rights, we are determined to have them.”
“Universal Suffrage and no Surrender.”
“Feargus O’Connor, the People’s Friend.”
“Love mercy and truth, and defend the rights of the Poor.”
“Calverton National Charter Association.”
“Feargus O’Connor, the Tyrant’s Foe,”
Reverse- “They have set up kings but not by me.
God is our king him will we obey.”
“Silk Weavers, Tower Hamlets,”
“Justice before Charity.”
“The Charter and no Surrender.”
Salford Association – Brick Line Association.
Salaries of the Bishops in full detail.
Salford large tri-colour.
Large white banner, preceding the bagpipesplayers in full national costume.
“Six Points of the Charter.”
“Freedom of the Press.”
Cap of Liberty.
“We know our Rights and will have them.”
Henry Hunt cheering from the clouds Feargus O’Connor.
“Charter and no Surrender.”
Portraits of Frost, Williams, and Jones.
And some hundreds of other flags of which it is impossible to give any account. In fact such a numerous and imposing quantity of banners (thanks to our country friends) was never before seen in the Metropolis.
Source: Northern Star, 7 May 1842.
Inevitably, the numbers were contested. Whatever the true size of the procession, the police estimate, reported in The Times, that it consisted of 1,960 people seems not remotely credible, while its assertion that the petition weighed two cwt (a third of the organisers’ claim) is demonstrably untrue. But reports of the day carried in The Times and the Morning Chronicle, neither of which were sympathetic to Chartism, broadly support the Northern Star’s account – and were repeated by the Star in full for their readers’ benefit.
From The Times
Yesterday was what may be termed a grand demonstration of the strength of the political body called Chartists.
According to the instructions issued to the various divisions and sections, the Chartist party began to assemble in the Waterloo-road, Bermondsey, Deptford, Croydon, Bethnal-green, Shoreditch, Finsbury, Marylebone, Somerstown, Pancras, and numerous other places, at various hours, varying from seven to eleven o’clock, so as to enable them to be in proper order in Lincoln’s-inn-fields, where the different bodies were to assemble and form themselves by twelve o’clock. Accordingly, the neighbourhood of the place of assemblage began to present a very bustling appearance as early as ten o’clock, and the multitude continued to increase up to the time the procession began to move, about half past one o’clock, at which hour the number of persons who were drawn to the place could not have been less than 20,000 persons; the greater part were, a however, merely spectators, for the numbers of persons who actually formed in procession were, according to the returns made to the Commissioners of Police, 1960, and fraction above, females included. The numbers were ascertained by persons belonging to the police being placed ae in different parts with orders to count. The number of banners and flags was 70; there were six bands of music, and three Scotch pipers, and three caps of liberty surmounting the lictor’s rods. As soon as the procession was formed the movement commenced by four persons on horseback, bearing wands mounted with tricoloured ribands, the riders, as well as the rest, wearing a tricoloured rosette and a tricoloured silk scarf. They were followed by a purple silk banner, with the inscription, “The sovereignty of the People,” followed by others bearing such as “The Charter,” “Universal Charter,” ‘”No Surrender,” ‘Liberty,” and “Free Press.” One of the flags from the inscription of “More pigs and less parsons,” with “Universal suffrage,” occasioned a vast deal of amusement. The first and second divisions having passed along Little Queen-street and Holborn, were followed by the division to whose care was entrusted the petition, which was placed upon a framework of wood: it weighed about two cwt., and was carried by 33 men, the woodwork being ornamented with “The Charter – the People’s right;” and the whole body then moved forward at a slow rate, but in a most peaceable and orderly manner, along Holborn, Tottenham-court-road, New-road, down to Langham-place, Regent-street, and then in a direct line at to the House of Commons, which place they reached at about half-past three o’clock. Long before their arrival both sides of Parliament-street and the open space before the House of Commons, as well as those points which commanded a view of the procession, were crowded to excess; so that at the time the petition arrived the number of persons assembled could not have been less than 50,000. Across Palace-yard a strong body of police, under the directions of Superintendents May and Grinsell, were placed so as to afford a free passage for the members of the two Houses of Parliament, while to prevent any more inconvenience than was necessary, the procession filed off towards Westminster-bridge. The leader having informed Mr. Superintendent May that they only required the delegates and those who carried the petition to be admitted, an avenue was immediately formed by the police.
The windows of the House of Commons, looking into the open space, were filled with Members, the most prominent being the Hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe), who having agreed to present the leviathan petition was loudly cheered. The petition as was then carried to the Members’ entrance, but from the height and bulk it got jambed in the doorway, much to the annoyance of several Members, who were prevented from entering the House.
The Hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. J. Hume), who happened to come down at the time, upon seeing the petition jambed in the doorway, suggested that it should be taken round to the other door, but a dilemma again presented itself – the petition was immovable. It was at length suggested that the framework in should be removed; this, in a few minutes, was broken away, and the petition carried into the House.
Owing to the excellent arrangements the police, not the slightest accident occurred, while the only instance of disapprobation expressed by the mob was at some barristers, who had placed themselves at the window over the private entrance to the Court of Queen’s Bench.
From the Morning Chronicle
Yesterday being the day appointed for the presentation of “The National Petition,” the Chartists assembled in large bodies in different quarters of the town at an early hour. Soon after nine o’clock, the streets leading to Lincoln’s inn-fields were thronged with members of the various Associations of the metropolis and elsewhere, all wending their way towards the place of rendezvous – viz. the square of Lincoln’s-inn-fields. The time appointed for the formation of the procession was one o’clock, and by that time the square was densely crowded. The windows of the houses in the vicinity were occupied by spectators, principally ladies. The members of the d National Convention arrived in the Square at one o ‘clock; those who were recognized by the assembled multitude were greeted with loud cheering. The members of the Convention were preceded by the monster petition, borne, on the shoulders of thirty-three able-bodied men, selected from the different trades In the metropolis. It was carried on a kind of portable stage or platform, which bad been constructed for the purpose, and was covered with ribbons, and otherwise decorated. On the front was placed placard, displaying the number of signatures which it contained, and from which It appeared that the number was 3,317,702.
The procession was formed soon after one o’clock, the petition being placed in front. After the petition came a large and ample black flag, bearing the inscription, ” Murder demands Justice, 19th August,1819.” On the other side the flag was a representation of the Manchester massacre. Next to this flag were several staves, bearing on each a representation of the Cap of Liberty. Then came several flags, bearing each the inscription, ” United ‘we stand, divided we fall.” The first band followed these flags. Next to the band was a flag inscribed “We require justice before charity – the People’s Charter, and no surrender” and on the other side of it were these words, Every man Is born free, and God has given man equal rights and liberties; and may It please God to give man knowledge to assert those rights, and let no tyrannical faction withhold them from the people.” Then followed the flags belonging to the Huddersfield and Kettering Association, together with those from the association at the Tower Hamlets. Following these was another band, in the midst of which was a flag inscribed, “O’Connor, the tried champion of the people.” The appearance of this flag was hailed with a loud burst of cheering from the persons assembled in Lincoln’s-inn-square to view the procession as it passed. Immediately following this flag was one bearing the quotation from Exodus, “Whosoever sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.” Several other flags followed, and by two o’clock the procession had left the square. It proceeded up Great Queen-street, Drury-lane, up Holborn, to Oxford-street, and arrived at the House of Commons at a quarter past three.
Everything was conducted in the most peaceable and orderly manner. Not the slightest confusion pre-vailed from the time of the assembling of the multitude in the morning to that of its departure with the procession.
A large body of the police, under Superintendent Sandrock, were in attendance, but they were not required to act in any way.