Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Petitioning, Parliament and Representation, 1780-1918

This evening the IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar series returns with a paper about Edmund Burke, Whiggism and party, given by Dr Max Skjönsberg. Ahead of the event, we look back to our final seminar of 2019 with a blog from Dr Henry Miller, reviewing his paper on the importance of petitions within nineteenth century political representation...

The House of Commons received over 1 million public petitions between 1780 and 1918.  The presentation of these petitions by MPs and the interactions between parliamentarians and petitioners was central to parliamentary representation in the nineteenth century. Petitioning provided a much more regular form of interaction and representation than elections, which before 1910 could be up to seven years apart. Focusing on petitions also reveals what parliamentarians did – rather than what they said about representation.

During the eighteenth century petitions to Parliament remained an important outlet for competing local, economic and sectional interests and were conceived as part of a system of ‘virtual representation’. From the late eighteenth century, however, public petitions were increasingly viewed by petitioners, parliamentarians and the press as representing aggregated popular opinion, hence the emphasis placed on petitions within mass popular campaigns such as anti-slavery. Accordingly, petitioners placed increasing weight on the number of petitions and signatures and Parliament began to systematically record such data from 1833.

At the same time, petitions were conceived by petitioners but also politicians as a mighty instrument of popular power, which at times could potentially rival the legitimacy of Parliament, and hence, its authority. Petitions – such as the massive Chartist petitions for democratic rights presented in 1839, 1842, 1848 – could claim through their signatory lists to represent ‘the people’ beyond the limited electorate for parliamentary elections. At specific moments, parliamentarians might even encourage such petitions as expressions of popular will, or the ‘vow of the people’ as one MP opposed to Catholic emancipation declared in 1829.

The unspoken notion underpinning the nineteenth-century system of parliamentary government was that while not everyone had the right to vote, all subjects had the right to be represented. Petitioning was the principal mechanism that enabled this representation. For these reasons, even when they disagreed with petitioners’ requests, very few MPs or peers declined to present a petition. For example, stout anti-suffragists like the marquess of Londonderry and Sir Henry James presented petitions for votes for women in the 1870s. Presenting petitions was regarded as a duty of MPs to those they represented. As the Liberal MP Joseph Cowen told his constituents in 1885, he would present ‘any petition to Parliament that any number of citizens sign and send me, provided it is respectful and in legal form’.

As well as presenting petitions, a substantial and routine part of MPs’ workload was corresponding with petitioners. MPs advised petitioners about procedure, provided inside information about the parliamentary process and served as advocates as well as presenters of petitions. For their part, petitioners were often anxious to impress politicians with the number and respectability of the signatories. On other occasions, and less successfully, petitioners adopted a bossy tone, attempting to dictate the timing of presentation of petitions and also lobbying MPs to vote in favour of their petition’s request. 

These interactions between parliamentarians and petitioners reveal some of the tensions about representation in this period. While keen to accommodate petitioners, MPs were reluctant to concede their independence and act as delegates of petitioners, however respectable or numerous they were. In certain cases, MPs who acted contrary to the feeling of their constituency – as measured by petitions – could be criticised for failing to ‘represent’ them. In 1845, Colonel Rawdon, MP for Armagh was attacked for supporting the bill to permanently endow the Catholic seminary at Maynooth in Ireland, which was not to the taste of his Protestant constituents.

Finally, presenting petitions enabled MPs – even those otherwise known for their silence in debate and general inactivity – to represent their constituents, even when they disagreed with the prayer (or petition’s request). Presenting petitions made petitioners present through the act of presentation, the material form of the petition, and its encoding in the parliamentary record. MPs also presented petitions from outside their constituency, often reflecting their association with a particular issue; for example, Charles Newdegate, MP for North Warwickshire, presented many anti-Catholic petitions from all over the UK during his long career. Presenting petitions thus enabled issue-based as well as geographic representation.

While petitioning should not be isolated from other forms of interaction between Parliament and people in this period, it was clearly crucial to the distinctive culture of representation that emerged in nineteenth-century UK politics.


This paper was based on research undertaken for the Leverhulme Trust-funded ‘Rethinking Petitions, Parliament and People in the Long Nineteenth-Century’ project (2016-RPG-097) at Durham University, 2016-19, which was led by Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller.

For details about this evening’s seminar as well as upcoming dates and topics click here.

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