Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Henry Miller, ‘Popular politics before democracy: the culture of petitioning in Manchester, c. 1780-1914’

Dr Henry Miller, formerly of the History of Parliament Trust, but now at the University of Manchester, reports back from his recent seminar paper discussing the enormous popularity of petitioning in the ‘long 19th century’ (c. 1780-1914)…

The second ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar of the summer term took place on the 26 May. The premise of my paper was that many accounts of modern British political history privilege the struggle for the right to vote, voting, elections and electoral culture, and political parties. As a result they have almost entirely ignored petitioning, which was the most popular, accessible and open form of political activity in this pre-democratic era. Thousands of petitions, containing millions of signatures were sent to the House of Commons every year after 1833. These figures do not take into account other forms of petitioning activity, such as petitions to the Lords, monarch, government departments and ministers, and local authorities.

Displaying graphs of the number of petitions and signatures per year to the Commons revealed that petitioning remained at a high level through the period, and there was no straightforward ‘decline’ after the extension of the franchise in 1867 and 1885 as sometimes assumed. After this general overview, the focus of the paper shifted to Manchester, centre of the cotton industry and home to many of the major political campaigns in this period. Painting with a broad brush, it was suggested that there were three phases of petitioning. Firstly, in the late 18th and early 19th century petitioning was about representation. Business interests in Manchester used petitions to Parliament and government to further the town’s economic interests at a time when it lacked representation in the Commons. This use of petitioning as a tool for business lobbying was institutionalised after the formation of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce in 1820. At the same time, petitioning was a means for nascent urban elites to claim to represent wider public opinion through the formalised process of public meetings. Petitioning at this time was conceptualised as an open, public, deliberative form of political activity, with petitions frequently left in public places to be signed.

Resuming after an unexpected fire alarm, the paper argued, secondly, that after 1830, petitioning was increasingly used as tool for mass mobilization by extra-parliamentary campaigns. Perfecting many of the techniques pioneered by anti-slavery and radicals, the Anti-Corn Law League, women’s suffrage movement and others, mobilised huge numbers from the wider north-west region. A particular feature was the more aggressive and systematic use of canvassing. Petitioning campaigns were timed to peak to coincide with parliamentary debates, requiring considerable co-ordination by figures such as Lydia Becker, architect of the women’s suffrage campaign in the 1870s. The methods used to generate huge numbers of petitions led some politicians and constitutional commentators to question the legitimacy and value of such petitions in the late Victorian period. At the same time the extension of the franchise seemed to render petitions an increasingly redundant form of political activity. Yet in the third and final part of the paper, I challenged the idea that petitioning declined before 1914, highlighting continued innovations in the culture and practice of petitioning by the women’s suffrage campaign and its continued relevance to popular politics.

Questions focused on the evolution of petitioning after 1918 into other forms, such as letters to MPs, and the importance of religion in Victorian petitioning campaigns. In answer to the question of why people petitioned given the high failure rate and the opposition of MPs to many demands, I suggested that it was in part due to the lack of other options as well as the simplicity and flexibility of petitioning that enabled it to be continuously adapted in myriad ways.


Our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar takes place tonight, when our own Dr Kayleigh Milden will speak on our oral history project ‘From the grassroots: an oral history of community politics in Devon′.  You can find out more about From the Grassroots here. Hope you can join us!

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