Called to oversee the presentation of the second great Petition for the Charter to Parliament, the Convention that met in London in 1842 was bitterly divided over its attitude to middle-class reformers – and to those of its members prepared to work with them.
This is one of a number of articles dealing with the leviathan petition. See also:
Organising the 1842 petition
Presenting the 1842 petition
MPs vote to ignore the petition
Engraving to mark the petition
The 1842 petition in numbers
The Chartist Convention that gathered in Dr Johnson’s Inn just off Fleet Street on 12 April 1842 was intended very much as a working conference rather than a forum for new policies and directions. Called to oversee the presentation of the second great Petition for the Charter to Parliament, its twenty-five delegates spent much of their time agitating at public meetings and lobbying those MPs who might give the petitioners a sympathetic hearing.
The Convention took place, however, against the backdrop of a rise in middle-class radicalism, led largely by the Quaker reformer Joseph Sturge and former Congregationalist Minister Edward Miall’s Nonconformist paper. This development offered Chartism both the great opportunity to rebuild the alliance of 1838, and the threat of competition and the dilution of its demands for the Charter. The decision by Henry Vincent, Robert Kemp Philp (one of the co-authors of the 1842 petition) and others from the National Charter Association to Sturge’s proposed Complete Suffrage Union was an alarming sign, and had already led to bitter divisions in person and in print before the Convention met.
Continuity and conformity
At 11am on the morning of Tuesday 11th, Abram Duncan called the meeting to order, and the Convention began. Just nine of the twenty-five delegates who were expected had arrived at this point, but Duncan, a veteran of the First Convention, was nonetheless elected as chair with John Campbell, the secretary of the National Charter Association, as secretary to the Convention.
Though widely referred to as the ‘Second’ Chartist Convention, there was in fact little continuity from its 1839 predecessor. Delegates to the First Convention had been elected at public meetings, some called by local parish and town officials; in 1842, they were delegates from branches of the NCA. William Lovett, who had been secretary to the First Convention and was gaoled for his efforts, had by now parted company with Feargus O’Connor; he was neither an NCA member nor a delegate, and his National Association of the United Kingdom for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People was not represented there. In fact, just seven of the twenty-five had been delegates in 1839.
But the 1842 Convention clearly saw itself as the legitimate successor to the earlier Convention. In the course of the first two days of its meetings, which were largely given over to procedural matters, delegates looked back to it for precedent more than once. Edmund Stallwood and Peter Murray McDouall were asked to dig out the First Convention’s rule book (something which might well have been anticipated at an earlier date). And ‘some little discussion took place respecting a book, a writing desk &c, public property having belonged to the late Convention, which was now in the hands of private individuals, and could not be obtained until the arrival of Mr Pitkethly [the West Riding delegate]’.
In his absence, the Convention decided to buy a new book in which to record the minutes. Delegates also agreed to have 600 visitors’ tickets printed, allocating the Convention’s members four each. And committees were appointed to deal with finance, agitation in the capital, and the organisation of conference business. The Convention also agreed an ‘Address of the National Convention of the Industrious Classes to the People’, drawn up by Duncan, McDouall and Stallwood, urging a final ‘immediate and active canvas’ for votes, and instructing that the Scots and Irish should post their final petition sheets in on Wednesday 27 April, while the English and Welsh had until Friday 29 April.
All petition sheets were to be posted to the radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe at his home in Albany, Piccadilly. As the historian Malcolm Chase noted, ‘It almost beggars belief that the Petition’s six miles of paper (weighing over six hundredweight, or 305kg) was assembled at one of London’s most exclusive addresses, where Duncombe’s neighbours included the former Whig Cabinet Minister [Thomas Babbington] Macauley’ (Chartism, 2007).
As the petition sheets rolled in, delegates despatched deputations to see sympathetic MPs – despite a disagreement over whether those sent off to see Duncombe at Piccadilly could reclaim their cab fare; Ruffey Ridley, one of the London delegates, grumbled that they if they had set out earlier, they could have walked. One by one, delegates also began reporting on the state of Chartism in their own localities – a lengthy process which took them well into the middle of the second week of the Convention, but which ensured that the national leadership collectively now had a clear picture of the movement’s strengths and weaknesses.
The convention also spent the best part of a morning debating a motion put forward by the Glasgow delegate James Moir that they should ‘respectfully recommend the people that they should stand firmly by the six points of the Charter, even the name’. The issue was, of course, never in doubt. But it had proved a sticking point at the launch of the rival National Complete Suffrage Union the previous month when a pro-Chartist contingent had successfully committed Joseph Sturge’s new organisation to all six points of the Charter while meeting entrenched resistance from middle-class reformers to the name itself. This was, however, an opportunity for the Chartist delegates to reassert the importance of every aspect of the Charter, their unwillingness to accept the piecemeal reforms sought by middle-class reformers, and to attempt to pressure the likes of James Bronterre O’Brien and Philp (both of whom were present as delegates) and Vincent (who was not) over their willingness to work with Joseph Sturge and his suffrage reformers. It seemed that every delegate wanted their say – with the Northern Star’s report of their discussion running to some 7,500 words and filling four and a half columns of the paper (more than two-thirds of a page).
The great day approaches
As the date for the presentation of the petition approached, London’s Chartist organisations issued instructions on where and when those wishing to take part in the procession should assemble (see cutting, right).
But in the Convention itself, delegates turned their attention to other matters: Philp proposed that the Convention should recommend the people abstain from intoxicating liquor, tobacco, snuff and other excisable goods; Stallwood proposed that the Convention should seek to establish Chartist Registration Societies throughout the country to get as many supporters as possible on the voting register; and William Beesley moved that Chartist candidates who won their constituencies on the show of hands should attempt to take their seats in Parliament regardless of the later poll result. All three proposals were eventually postponed or withdrawn, but only after a lengthy airing.
With the date for the procession and presentation of the petition set for Monday 2 May, the Convention held an exceptional weekend session to complete its work. On the morning of Saturday 30 April, ‘every member was at his post fully occupied’. And practicalities took priority: ‘Upwards of 200,000 signatures were received from various districts, and 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’, declared the Northern Star. All those thousands of petition sheets were to be joined into one great length of paper before Monday.
Meanwhile, ‘During this and the preceding day, an artist of first-rate ability has been actively engaged in making preparations for the splendid engraving of the Convention &c., which in due time will be presented to the readers of the Northern Star, the likenesses of those members who have sat to the artist are pronounced by judges to be excellent.’
And with that the great day had arrived. With the members of the Convention at its head, a huge crowd assembled to carry the petition in procession through the streets of London to the Palace of Westminster. The story of the procession and presentation is told here.
Dinner, dancing and division
Their job now done, the main body of the crowd dispersed peacefully. But that evening, the movement’s leaders were among a gathering of more than 600 who sat down to dinner at White Conduit House – a fading leisure resort and ballroom in Islington on the site of what is now a pub-turned restaurant called the Little Victoria on the corner of Barnsbury Road and Tolpuddle Street. There, in return for the half crown (2s 6d) price of their tickets, they were served a ‘substantial and excellent repast’.
James Bronterre O’Brien’s British Statesmen reported the evening at length (8 May 1842, p11). After grace had been said, McDouall, who had been called to the chair, gave, ‘in brief but energetic terms’ the first toast: ‘The People, the only source of legitimate power.’ More speeches followed: first Abram Duncan, as president of the Convention; then Feargus O’Connor, followed after a second toast to Thomas Slingsby Duncombe and John Temple Leader, the Westminster MP who had earlier seconded Duncombe’s motion that the petitioners be heard at the bar of the House. ‘After the health of the learned Doctor [McDouall] had been drank, amidst loud cheers, the company adjourned to the large pavilion, and the dining room was cleared for dancing.’
O’Brien’s paper reported: ‘A very superior band had been engaged, and about nine o’clock the dancing commenced, much to the delight of the female and juvenile branches of the many families present… Quadrilles and country dances formed the programme of the evening, under the able superintendence of Mr Wall, and many of the delegates and others present proved their feet to be as nimble and graceful in the dance, as their tongues are eloquent on the hustings. Dancing was kept up to an early hour on Tuesday morning, and all departed to their homes, well satisfied with the proceedings of the day.’
The following day it was back to business for the Convention, with delegates turning their attention inwards. With earlier denunciations of those who had been willing to engage with the Sturge-ites very much in mind, William Thomason proposed that an independent committee should be set up to which future disputes could be referred for resolution. ‘These denunciations have been the cause of driving many good men from the ranks,’ he warned. It was clear that the guilty parties were Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star. Not surprisingly, Bronterre O’Brien threw his weight behind Thomason’s sentiments (if not his proposed solution). But more seriously, so too did W.P. Roberts. The Bath solicitor was close to O’Connor, but now warned: ‘No man had done more for the movement than Mr O’Connor; but such wholesale adulation was calculated to turn the head of any man; and Mr O’Connor must have been almost more than man, if he was not affected by it.’
O’Connor was defended by his loyal allies McDouall and Stallwood, but resorted to bluster in his reply. He denied that he had ever denounced anyone, offered his hand in friendship to O’Brien, and averred that he had even publicly praised O’Brien. To which O’Brien declared acidly that he, ‘hoped Mr O’Connor would cease from praising him; he only wanted him not to abuse him; and of allowing him the opportunity to state a few facts in his paper to the public’. The dispute rumbled on into the following day, neither side giving way until at last a bland compromise was reached, with O’Connor moving, O’Brien seconding, and all present voting to ‘invite our brother Chartists throughout the empire to close their ears against all private slander levelled against the character of the people’s friends and advocates’.
Finally, the convention was able to turn its attention back to the business for which it had been elected. With MPs having voted overwhelmingly against Duncombe’s plea for the petitioners to be heard, O’Brien and O’Connor were able to unite in declaring that ‘the working people of this empire can have no hope of justice from the House of Commons, as at present constituted’, and calling for a committee to be established to draw up a memorial to the Queen. After a desultory debate over the attitude Chartists should now adopt towards corn law repealers who adopted the six points of the Charter, the Convention ended with further housekeeping measures: the finance committee reported that the Convention was some £12 or £13 in debt; it was agreed that ‘all the property at the disposal of the Convention should be placed in the hands of Mr Cleave, until it was claimed by a body elected in a similar manner to the present’; and with votes of thanks all round, the Convention dissolved.
Notes and sources
The Northern Star reported the Convention’s sessions in great detail in its issues of 16, 23 and 30 April, and 7 and 14 May 1842.
The dinner at White Conduit House was reported in James Bronterre O’Brien’s British Statesman of 8 May 1842.
As ever, Chartism: A New History by Malcolm Chase (Manchester University Press, 2007) has been invaluable.
The Northern Star names the delegates present at various stages of the three-week Convention, but does not provide a consolidated list. In his History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854 (1894), R.G. Gammage gives the following names:
Abraham Duncan [more usually Abram Duncan – the Alloa delegate and president of the Convention]
Peter Murray McDouall
Robert Kemp Philp
Lawrence Pitkeithly [more usually Lawrence Pitkethly]
James Bronterre O’Brien