Scottish Convention 1842

Scotland’s Chartists baulk at widening of the 1842 petition.

In October 1841, the National Charter Association decided to launch a second great petition to Parliament to test opinion in the new parliament, elected in August of that year.

During November, petition sheets were printed at the Northern Star’s works in Leeds and despatched around the country. The aim this time was to collect 4 million signatures

In addition to the famous six points, the 1842 petition included a series of other “grievances. Among these were calls for:
* repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland (a deliberate ploy to woo Irish nationalists both in Ireland and in the major cities of England and Scotland, where they numbered in the tens of thousands);
* repeal of the New Poor Law; and
* freedom of assembly, the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, a pardon for the Newport prisoners, no taxation without representation, cuts in the cost of the monarchy, army and police, and reductions in working hours.

Some of these points were to prove a problem in Scotland, where the union was a sensitive issue complicated by questions of religion, and where the New Poor Law did not apply.

In January 1842, a Scottish delegate conference called by the Scottish Chartist Central Committee gathered to discuss what attitude it should take to the Charter. Sixty-one delegates were approved by the convention.

First, however, delegates elected John Duncan of Dundee to the chair, and Robert Malcolm of Glasgow as secretary.

With the overwhelming support of 51 of the 58 delegates voting, and on a motion put forward by William Pattison, secretary of the steam-engine makers’ union and a significant figure in Scottish Chartism, the convention also committed itself to “peaceful, legal and constitutional means” of obtaining the Charter, adding that they would “neither sanction nor support any individual or party who may advocate or adopt any other means”.

Now came the bombshell. James Jack, the delegate from Balfron in Stirlingshire moved a resolution (seconded by Robert Mackervail of Cumnock):

“That this meeting of Scottish delegates, disapprove of the petition proposed by the English executive council, and recommend to the people of Scotland the adoption of a petition for the People’s Charter , without embracing any question of detail.”

The main Chartist newspaper in Scotland, The Chartist Circular, reports that “Mr Jack spoke at some length in support of this motion”, explaining that the detail he objected to “were the English Poor Law, and the question of a repeal of the Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain”.

John McCrae of Beath, seconded by William Thomasan (Vale of Leven) moved an amendment that the national petition be adopted without alteration. In a second amendment Robert Lowery (Bonnyrigg) sought a compromise, suggesting the Scottish movement should circulate both the English petition and one of its own containing just the six points, leaving each locality to decide for itself which to support.

This compromise was defeated “by a considerable majority” and the convention was asked to decided between Jack’s motin and McCrae’s amendment. Voting split down the middle, with 27 votes for each.

“The votes being equal, it was agreed to decide the matter by the casting vote of the chairman. Mr Duncan here requested a short time to consider upon the vote, which, being acceded to, that gentleman retired for ten minutes, and, on returning, voted for Mr Jack’s motion.”

The Chartist movements of England and Scotland were now divided.

The next few weeks, however, saw confidence in the Scottish convention’s position weaken. Peter McDouall, a leading Scottish member of the NCA, questioned it on procedural grounds, and asked why Scotland could not back the petition when William Lovett’s National Association felt able to do so.

As a signficant number of Scottish localities also rejected the Convention’s position, sometimes blaming their delegates for ignoring the instructions they had received from their constituents.

By mid February, Scotland was “effectively but not totally” behind the main petition, as Malcolm Chase explains in his Chartism: A New History.

Though the total number of signatures to the 1842 petition was 3,250,000 compared with just 1,280,000 for that of 1839, just 78,000 names were collected in Glasgow and Lanarkshire combined (compared with 80,000 for Glasgow alone three years earlier), and in Paisley, the number signing slumped from more than 15,000 to just 2,000.