The Great Chartist petitions of 1839 to 1848
* Suffrage for all men age 21 and over (not to be confused with Universal Suffrage)
* Equal-sized electoral districts
* Voting by secret ballot
* An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
* Pay for Members of Parliament
* Annual election of Parliament
Chartism is defined by the three great petitions to Parliament of 1839, 1842 and 1848. What is often overlooked is that there was a fourth petition, collected in the spring of 1841 and presented to MPs in such theatrical style that it is hard to see how it has been largely forgotten.
Furthermore, this fourth great petition was rejected by the House of Commons only on the casting vote of the speaker.
Here is how Peter Murray McDouall reported the events of 25 May 1841 in McDouall's Chartist and Republican Journal (note, additional paragraph breaks have been inserted for ease of reading):
THE FUSTIAN JACKETS AND THE NATIONAL PETITION
It will be a memorable day in the recollection of everyone concerned in carrying down the gigantic mass of signatures to the House of Commons on Tuesday the 25 th day of May, 1841. Previous to the appointed day, roll after roll arrived and were added to the parent sheet. There seemed to prevail a universal enthusiasm throughout the nation, and when the numbers were proclaimed, 1,300,000 signatures, on the morning of the 25 th , the cheers resounded through the Old Bailey, and rolled away in its granite recesses.
Eighteen stone-masons, principally from the New Houses of Lords and Commons volunteered to carry the mass down, and preparatory to the march a meeting was held in an adjoining tavern. The men were in high spirits, and on eight names being called they filed out like soldiers, and capital ones they would have made.
Our little room, 55 Old Bailey, was crowded to suffocation, and the street blocked up. With some difficulty, the eight masons, attired in clean white fustian jackets, got admission, and the place being cleared of the strangers, a large frame was brought in, composed of two long beams of wood, supporting a cup like a socket the size of the immense role. It was like the end of a tun sawed off, into which the equally tun-like petition was placed, then completing the resemblance.
At a quarter-past-three we got under weigh, the Members of the Convention marching three abreast in front, and a vast procession three and three in the rear. Eight masons bore the mass on their shoulders, and eight more walked side by side to relieve the bearers at intervals. The weight was so unexpected that frequent stoppages and changes of hands ensued.
The spectacle attracted great attention, from the ragged street sweeper to the duchess with the golden eye glass. The city police behaved very favourably, but the metropolitan blues were very indifferent. The omnibus drivers were very rough and violent. We marched down, slow march, through Fleet-street, the Strand, past Charing Cross, the Horse Guards, and to the Parliament House. The windows of the public offices were particularly crowded, and great curiosity seemed to prevail.
The door of the house was finally reached, and around it there was an immense crowd awaiting. Then, but not until then, did the cheering commence. It began in front and rolled back along the line, and swelled louder and louder, until the thunder reached the inner House. Horses pranced and galloped off, carriages clanked together in confusion, and the astonished police ran together to defend the entrance to the house.
The fustian jackets were pushed into the doorway, and for a short time the immense mass stuck fast in the entrance, whilst the cheers rang along the passages and lobby, bringing out every member in the house.
The police drew their bludgeons, but were ordered by several individuals to put them in their pockets again, an advice very properly attended to, for certain am I that had a single blow been struck, the house would have been taken by storm, and the petition or a fustian jacket placed in the chair. The police belonged to the A division, and no doubt remembered how their roofs were untiled at Birmingham.
A message arrived for the petition to be carried into the lobby, and consequently the fustian jackets moved up the matted stairs, and along the entrance, through a line of strangers and Members of Parliament. In the lobby the usual order was upset and a great crowd besieged the door of the house itself, the great petition seeming like the head of a battering ram against the green base doorway.
Presently, Mr Duncombe appeared, and the mass being lowered and turned on its side, it was rolled on to the floor of the house like a mighty snowball, bearing with it the good wishes of all around, and 1,300,000 people's blessings. The doors closed, order was restored, and the fustian jackets were ushered into the gallery.
The petition was presented, the debate began, finally a bell rang, and the Speaker cried out clear the gallery. All strangers rushed out, the doors were bolted, and whilst murmers of anxiety filled the passages the bolts creaked again, and out rushed the members. “How has it gone sir.” “Votes equal, 58 and 58.” “How has the Speaker given it.” “Against.” “Damn him.” Out rushed the members, and away went the strangers, leaving the house deserted by nearly all except the officers and understrappers.
The 1848 petition
On 10 April 1848, Feargus O'Connor organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The estimate of the number of attendees varies depending on the source (O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Sunday Observer suggested 50,000, which was more accurate). According to John Charlton the government was well aware that the Chartists had no intention of staging an uprising as they had established an extensive network of spies. However, they were very afraid that they could have been mis-informed or that a revolution would start spontaneously. To counter this threat they organised a very large show of force. 8,000 soldiers were in London that day, along with 150,000 special constables. In any case, the meeting was peaceful. However the military had threatened to intervene if the Chartists made any attempt to cross the Thames.
In a separate incident, rioters in Manchester attempted to storm the hated workhouse. A pitched battle resulted with Chartists fighting the police, eventually the mob was broken up, but rioters roamed the streets of Manchester for three days.
The original plan of the Chartists, if the petition was ignored, was to create a separate national assembly and press the Queen to dissolve parliament until the charter was introduced into law. However the Chartists were plagued with indecision, and the national assembly eventually dissolved itself, claiming lack of support.
The petition O'Connor presented to Parliament was claimed to have only 1,957,496 signatures – far short of the 5,706,000 he had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries (some of the false signatories included Queen Victoria, Mr Punch and 'Pugnose'). However, O'Connor argued that many people were illiterate, and did not know how to write their own signatures, and so had to copy someone else's. O'Connor has been accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism, but the movement continued for some years, with the final National Convention being held in 1858.
Source: Wikipedia and www.chartists.net