The 1842 Chartist Petition – why over 3 million signatures translated into less than 50 votes

Today’s blog about the Chartist Petition of 1842 is part of our focus on wider electoral and political reform throughout this significant anniversary year in women’s political history – for more blogs in the series see here. The following blog has been written by year 10 work experience student, Layla Barwell from Dartford Grammar School for Girls. Layla spent the week with the public engagement team working on several projects including researching and writing this blog with guidance from Dr Kathryn Rix of the Commons 1832-1868 Section and The Victorian Commons blog… 

The 1842 Chartist petition was one of the most impressive petitions in British history. The 1840s was a time before easy communication and organisation of events – there was no social media, television or radio, so it is remarkable that Feargus O’Connor still managed to obtain 3,315,752 signatures for his appeal, on a 6 mile-long, 300kg roll of paper. In fact, the 1842 Chartist petition is the second biggest petition ever in Britain, in absolute number of signatures, and the biggest in terms of percentage of the population who signed, with around a third of British men and women over 21 signing it (the 1848 Chartist petition professed to be bigger than its predecessor, but Parliament found that there were far fewer signatures than O’Connor claimed).

The Chartists’ campaign had undeniable flaws: the exact aims of Chartism, besides the Six Points, were not always clear. O’Connor and his fellow Chartist leader, William Lovett, certainly had different views on what the Chartist manifesto should be, and the Chartists’ link to the riots which accompanied the General Strike of 1842 also negatively affected the chance of their demands being accepted by the government. Yet it may still be surprising to some that the House of Commons rejected a motion to hear from the Chartist petitioners at the bar of the House, by 287 votes to 49, despite the huge number of signatures it had. Why did the Commons ignore the people of Britain, despite the magnitude of the petition? And how truly useful were petitions for those who wanted change in the 19th century, and indeed to this day?

One of the main obstacles to the Chartists obtaining their goals was the MPs’ personal, vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Many MPs would have disagreed with the Chartists’ aims, for if the People’s Charter was passed into law, then this could lead to further reform that unfavourably affected their wealth. The power and influence of the established elite would be severely diminished if the six points of the Charter were implemented. The Commons was made up almost entirely of the established elite – almost half of MPs could trace their descent from a titled family, within two generations, and the majority were wealthy landowners. The Charter’s third and fourth points – removal of the property qualification for MPs and the introduction of the payment of MPs – would lead to the possibility of working class Members of Parliament, and therefore competition for the existing members of the Commons. The Charter’s fifth point – ‘Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors’ – threatened the position of MPs who sat for small ‘pocket’ boroughs, under the control of rich patrons.

For the majority of the MPs debating the Charter in the Commons in May 1842, it was simply too soon to change the electoral system yet again. Only four general elections had taken place since the major overhaul of the political system under the 1832 Reform Act. That reform had created a franchise firmly based upon the ownership or occupation of property, with the aim being to limit the electorate to ‘respectable’ voters. This was a far cry from the universal male suffrage demanded by the Chartists.

Many Members of Parliament would have been against the Charter because they felt as if the working classes were ‘not ready’ to be given the vote – perhaps due to feelings of paternalism. They may have been concerned that the working classes were too uneducated to make an informed vote, given that in 1842 only just over 20% of the adult population had been enrolled in primary education as children. MPs would therefore have feared that members of the working class would make decisions that would have a negative effect on Britain’s economy. This was the viewpoint of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who said in the debate regarding the Charter on 3rd May 1842 that,

‘he could not conceive a course more likely to be disastrous than to excite hopes which were certain to be disappointed, and to hold out expectations which those who consented to the inquiry were aware would be fallacious… I believe that universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists… it is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation’.

Lord John Russell seemed to hold similar sentiments, saying that the Charter would ‘throw the working classes into a still worse condition than that in which they are at present placed’. The People’s Charter, if successful, would certainly have led to more MPs in the Commons with radical political agendas, such as Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, who presented the 1842 petition to the Commons.

In addition, Chartism influenced many of the strikes in the 1830s and the 1840s, so the Government feared that, if they accepted Chartism, it would set a bad precedent: that strikes and riots were an effective way to get the Government to change policy. As far back as 1831, the Queen Square riots in Bristol had caused £300,000 of damage and dozens of people are believed to have been killed in arson attacks by the rioters. These took place in protest at the House of Lords’ rejection of the Whig ministry’s reform bill (which was eventually passed in 1832). The November 1839 Chartist rising at Newport involved thousands of Chartist supporters. In 1842 itself, the General Strike – which took place after the Commons rejected the Charter – was clearly linked to Chartism, and had a very negative impact on British commerce. Supporting Chartism would have seemingly condoned these violent actions.

Feargus o'connor
Feargus Edward O’Connor (c) NPG

With very few Members of Parliament willing to voice their message, the Chartists were always doomed to fail. One Chartist supporter remarked that no-one ‘who signed the petition ever thought for one moment that the legislature would grant the Charter. The people expected nothing at the hands of the government’; Feargus O’Connor himself said that ‘a million of petitions would not dislodge a single troop of dragoons’. However, with no other ‘peaceful and constitutional method’ for them to protest and after three petitions, the Chartist movement began to fade after 1848.

In theory, petitions should be more effective today. For one thing, it is far easier to collect signatures given changes in technology (although there are still paper petitions). For another, modern politicians should be more open to persuasion, because the vast majority of those who sign petitions are eligible to vote. Moreover, there is now a direct mechanism for petitions to influence government policy. Since 2006 any petition that asks for a change to the law will receive a response from the government if it has 10,000 signatures; any petition with 100,000 signatures is considered for debate within Parliament. But of the top 10 most signed petitions, only one has been successful (‘Accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugees’).

MPs still seem to ignore petitions, unless they align with their own personal viewpoints or those of their party leader. Therefore, it may be argued that petitions themselves are an ineffective way of bringing about reform. Unlike the Chartists, who turned to petitioning because they did not have the vote, all adults now have the opportunity to vote in a democratic election for the candidate that fits their views the best. If a Chartist-like movement does re-emerge in modern society then perhaps it will be joined predominantly by children and young people who are denied the vote but have easy access to social media, for example, in a campaign for the voting age to be lowered to 16.


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