The 1842 leviathan petition, as it was called at the time, was an extraordinary document – and some quite extraordinary claims were made about it. But how true were they?
Here, we look at Feargus O’Connor and the Northern Star’s claims that the petition:
- Was six miles long;
- Weighed 6 cwt (about 305kg);
- Required thirty men to carry it; and
- Got stuck in the doorway of the House of Commons.
The petition carried 3,315,752 names. Although the commemorative engraving produced by the Northern Star gives the number as 3,315,702, this is most likely a misprint as it appears nowhere else at the time, and in any event makes little difference. Although numerous MPs challenged the substance of the petition, none voiced any doubt about the number of signatures.
The petition – and other Chartist petitions – have not survived, but the claims can be examined using other information published at the time, cautious and conservative estimation, and some basic maths.
This is one of a number of articles dealing with the leviathan petition. See also:
Organising the 1842 petition
The 1842 Chartist Convention
Presenting the 1842 petition
MPs vote to ignore the petition
Engraving to mark the petition
Was the petition six miles long?
The National Charter Association provided standard, printed petition sheets for supporters all over the country to sign. These were 24 inches wide – described by the Executive Council as ‘demy’, but also the size of a broadsheet newspaper, which is no surprise as they were printed by the Star’s own publisher Joshua Hobson in Leeds.
Six miles, the claimed length of the petition, is 380,160 inches. If this number is divided by the number of signatures, each row of names would have taken up barely one-eighth of an inch (3.2mm), which is clearly not enough space. However, the petition sheets were printed to take signatures in four columns, and this would allow for 2.2 names per column inch (roughly one for each column cm) – which seems to leave sufficient space for most people to sign their name.
So given the number of signatures, and a reasonable estimate of the space needed for each name, six miles is a wholly reasonable measure. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to argue that the four columns of names should be considered as a single measure – of around 24 miles.
Did the petition weigh 6cwt?
One cwt (a hundredweight) is calculated as 112lb in the UK (though in the US it is 100lb). So 6cwt is 672lb (305kg).
Dividing the total number of signatures (3,315,752) by the number of signatures on each petition sheet (200) gives 16,578 broadsheet pages. But of course, not every sheet would have been entirely full. Many individual collectors and smaller localities must have sent in sheets with fewer than 200 signatures. So a round figure of 20,000 sheets of paper seems reasonable.
A broadsheet page is roughly equivalent to around six A4 pages. It is actually a little more than this. Taking modern 80gsm photocopier paper as a proxy, a reem of 500 pages weighs 5lb. Multiply this by six, to get a figure for a broadsheet page gives a weight of 30lb (13.6kg) for each reem of 500 sheets. Multiplying 30lb by 40 reems of broadsheet paper gives a total of 1,200lb (544kg).
This equates to 10.7cwt – which more than meets the claimed 6cwt weight of the petition. It is possible that the cheap newsprint used for the petition sheets was lighter than modern photocopier paper – and just as likely that having joined the sheets into a single document the Chartists had no means of accurately weighing the leviathan petition and undre-estimated its true weight.
Did the petition need 30 men to carry it?
The first Chartist petition in 1839 had been rolled around a single pole. The 1842 petition was three times larger, which would have produced a huge roll of paper and probably required an enormously long central pole to give the number of bearers space. So a different approach was taken. As in 1839, every sheet of signatures was pasted end to end to create a single petition, but it was then put in a wooden frame, as the Northern Star’s engraving of the procession shows.
But if the claimed 6cwt (305kg) weight was distributed among 30 men, this would have left each of them carrying just 10kg. Even if they had to carry the petition from the Chartist Convention’s meeting room in Bolt Square off Fleet Street all the way to the Houses of Parliament, this hardly seems like a great challenge.
However, the wooden frame and the poles must have added considerable extra weight. Based on the image alone, each of the poles must have been at least 20ft (6m) in length to accommodate the 15 bearers on each side and the length of the petition frame. Based on the standard weight of a telegraph pole, and allowing for these to be substantially thicker than those used in 1842, the two poles together would have added perhaps another 4cwt (203kg) to the total. Add in perhaps another 1cwt for the box-like frame, and the total weight has gone up to around 11cwt (558kg).
The calculations show that each of the 30 men would have had to carry around 40lb (18.5kg) – and completely supports the claim.
Did the petition get stuck in the doors?
Each broadsheet petition page would have been some 24 inches wide by 29.5 inches long. Stacked one on top of the other, 20,000 sheets, or 40 reems, of modern A4 photocopier paper would stand 80 inches (203cm) high. But the engraving does not appear to show a pile of paper this tall. Based on the image, the petition may have been divided into three piles, and stacked long side (29.5 inches) to long side from front to back.
Loose paper, of course takes up more space than machine-packed unopened packets, and so the pile of paper would probably have stood around 36 inches (91cm) high, with a breadth of 29.5 inches (151 cm) and a total length, front to back in the engraved image, of some 70 inches (178 cm).
This would then all have to fit inside the wooden frame – quite likely a misnomer since nothing short of a fairly stout structure could have contained the vast quantity of paper and been strong enough to be carried to Parliament. Allowing some space on all sides of the petition sheets as these would have been difficult to keep neat and flat, often having been touted around pubs and front doors, folded into pockets then posted back to London, this could easily have added around 8 inches (20cm) to each dimension, giving an overall height of 44 inches (112cm), breadth of 37.5 inches (95cm) and length of 78 inches (198 cm). This is almost exactly how the petition frame appears in the picture.
But could it really have become stuck in the doorway? Following the fire that had destroyed the Palace of Westminster in 1834, the Commons was meeting in 1842 in ‘temporary accommodation constructed within the ruins of the old Palace’ (Victorian Commons blog, accessed 1 December 2023). So it is quite possible that the entrance was narrower than the wide double doors leading in to the chamber today.
A standard modern internal door is 30 inches wide (76cm) while a Victorian front door was around 36 inches (90cm). At a breadth, as calculated above, of around 37.5 inches (95cm), the petition not only could have become stuck, it almost certainly would have done so – with, as reports at the time said, the Commons authorities having to remove not just the doors but the door jambs to get it in.