Event review: Parliament and Popular Sovereignty in the nineteenth century, 22 March 2018.

Today’s blog is a summary of our afternoon event about Parliament and Popular Sovereignty in the nineteenth century, which was held before Easter at the Palace of Westminster …

On  22 March 2018 the History of Parliament hosted an event in the Jubilee Room at the Palace of Westminster entitled, ‘Parliament and Popular Sovereignty in the nineteenth century’. The event was another chance to hear some of the papers given at our conference in partnership with the University of Durham at the People’s History Museum in Manchester in November 2017. The conference was to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act; this topic which was also the subject of our annual lecture.

Our own Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the Commons 1832-1868 project, chaired this three paper session and facilitated an engaging and lively post-presentation discussion with the audience. The first paper, ‘Spectators or Participants? The role of the unenfranchised in Victorian elections’, was given by our own Philip Salmon, Editor of the Commons 1832-1868 project. Philip’s paper discussed the many ways in which those without the vote influenced and were involved in election campaigns, elections and associated events. His paper focused predominantly on the role of women but acknowledged other groups of non-electors, such as working class men. Philip stated that women were astute and politically aware during the Victorian period and illustrated their participation in election campaigns with photographs of hustings where women, and indeed their families, were present to listen to the speeches. He also shared evidence relating to the involvement of women and other non-electors during campaigns and argued that women were highly effective and sometimes independent campaigners for candidates, mainly within their families and community. Additionally Philip outlined the changing landscape of the electoral system after the Great Reform Act of 1832. He highlighted the role of the electoral registration process in disenfranchising men who had previously been able to vote,  due to the expensive annual voter registration fee. And, he posited that at this time non-electors became a more clearly defined group than before.

Next, Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller of Durham University, and our 2017 conference partners, took the floor. They presented research from their ongoing Leverhulme funded project, ‘The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918’. Richard began with an overview of the project and detailed the structure of their areas of analysis of petitions to the House of Commons. Firstly the project plotted how many petitions were submitted; they have found that mass petitioning took off from the 1820s and 1830s and was in decline by the late nineteenth century. They continue to reassess the culture of petitioning, how petitions were used, by whom and about what subjects people petitioned. The pair originally grouped surveys into five categories: Parliament, Ecclesiastical, Colonies, Taxes, Miscellaneous. They have divided Miscellaneous into the other categories and have been adding new ones, such as Economy, Infrastructure, Individual, Legal, Social or War and Peace. Henry used the Ecclesiastical petitions dataset as an example of what could be extracted from their source material. This dataset is one of the larger categories in terms of petitions and signatures. He contended that religious petitioning helped to mobilise the masses and to spread the practice of mass petitioning from the 1820s, with issues such as Catholic Emancipation (Roman Catholic Relief Act being passed in 1829), Sabbatarianism and tmperance featuring regularly in the data.

Rounding off the afternoon was Matthew Roberts of Sheffield Hallam University with his paper, ‘Daniel O’Connell, Repeal and Parliamentary Reform’. Matthew described O’Connell as a product of eighteenth-century thinking shaped by the radical enlightenment, who was portrayed in the English press as a scheming Irishman. The main focus of his paper was to consider O’Connell’s position as a radical, looking at him not just in an Irish but in a British and indeed Atlantic context. This included reassessing O’Connell’s rather fractious relationship with the Chartist movement, as well as highlighting the resonance of his name for later campaigns such as that for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Matthew’s presentation gave some fascinating insights into the complex views of this major political figure. We are delighted that he is contributing a biography for O’Connell to the Commons 1832-1868 project, which will be available on the project’s preview site in the near future. To gain access this and other unpublished work from this project please get in touch via the website  for the log in information.


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