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Millions signed the three great Chartist petitions of 1839 to 1848. Thousands were active in those years in the campaign to win the vote, secret ballots, and other democratic rights that we now take for granted.
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I would like to thank the many historians, researchers and the descendents of those associated with Chartism who have helped with this site since it was launched in 2003.
Mark Crail, Editor
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What happened on 10 April 1848?
From The Illustrated London News, 15 April 1848
THE CHARTIST DEMONSTRATION
The long-expected “monster meeting” of the Chartists on Kennington Common, and their procession with a petition to the Legislature in favour of “the people's Charter,” took place on Monday last. Notwithstanding the fineness of the morning, during which a hot and brilliant sun shone forth, the demonstration was in every respect a failure, when measured by the standard of the vauntings and grandiloquent sayings of the delegates at the Convention during the preceding week. As the speeches of those gentlemen had led the public to anticipate some serious disturbance of the peace of the metropolis, the Government and the civil authorities had made some extensive and well-arranged preparations to suppress effectually any violation of order or tranquillity, should such be attempted. However, the interference of the authorities was not called for; the brave Chartists, notwithstanding all their blustering about physical force, having given most satisfactory proof of their believe in the propriety of the sentiment, that “discretion is the better part of valour.” The nature of the day's proceedings, of which we furnish some graphic Illustrations, was, it will be seen, very ordinary and common-place. The delegates assembled at nine o'clock in the morning at their usual place of meeting, the Literary and Scientific Institution, John-street, Fitzroy-square. A large number of persons had gathered round the entrance to the institution and considerable excitement was manifested in the neighbourhood. Many of the members and their partisans wore rosettes of red, green, and white - the colours of the Convention. Mr. F. O'Connor not having arrived at nine o'clock, Mr. Reynolds was called to the chair. Mr. Doyle, the secretary, said, that a communication had been received from Scotland-yard, stating that the Commissioners of police were instructed to inform Mr. M`Grath, that the petition would be allowed to be taken to the House of Commons; but that no procession would be allowed to take place, or be permitted to proceed through the streets of the metropolis: he observed that he considered that to be a strange way of managing matters in the nineteenth century. Mr. West then addressed the assembly, enjoining them to proceed with the procession at any risk. Technically, Government would not allow it to take place, but, practically, they would be compelled to do so. They would carry their petition down to the House of Commons, and if the procession followed them to Kennington -common they would hold their meeting there. They would then give instructions to the people not to come in collision with the authorities, or give an opportunity to the Government to have a bloody slaughter among them - for he knew that they only wanted the smallest excuse for doing so. They (the Chartists) were for peace; but if the Government were for blood, he said the cup should be filled for them brimming full, and they should be allowed to drain it to the last dregs. Mr. O'Connor (who had entered during the latter portion of Mr. West's observations, and taken his place in the chair, from which Mr. Reynolds retired) said that that being the last morning the Convention would sit before the presentation of the petition, he would make a few observations to them. He would assure them that he had nothing that he had ever said or done to them to retract. If, indeed, he was to withdraw anything, he would be a most unfit and improper person for a movement of the kind. Therefore he cautioned them now, as he had cautioned them before, that their position was one of opposition to the Government; and he said now, as he had said before, that if it was not for certain persons out of the Convention, England would never see such a day as the one before them for popular demonstration. He announced to them that they had 5,600,000 signatures to the national petition. He thought it quite natural that the Government should, under the circumstances, place themselves in a position of defence, and he thought that they (the Convention) would do the same if they were in the same place. Nevertheless, he would go to the meeting to preserve the lives of those who were jeopardised, and that the cause which was so near and dear to his heart might not be injured. Indeed, he could not absent himself without doing a gross injustice to those persons who had confided to him a quarter of a million of money, and the responsibility of carrying on their cause; and if he did so act, the whole of his life would be stamped as one long course of duplicity and deception. But he avowed to them that he had thought over the matter during the last week, and had spent the previous night also anxiously and thoughtfully. He had come to the determination that he would go to the meeting, and take the responsibility on himself, in the event of any physical force on the part of the Government, to persuade the people not to bring themselves into collision with the authorities, for whom the smallest excuse for an attack would be sufficient. If, therefore, the procession was forbidden, he would ask them to abstain from any demonstration of the kind until he could go down to the House of Commons, and remonstrate upon such a step being taken. He put the question to them, whether they would, by persevering in the procession, do, perhaps, incalculable injury to their cause, or, by a wise moderation, strengthen and support it? It was impossible that they could get their Charter that day; but there was no doubt that the Government could not refuse it, if they only took the proper steps to obtain it. He said, supposing that simultaneous meetings and demonstrations in every part of the country should take place, and supposing that he obstructed the business of the House of Commons every day, by asking questions relative to the people's Charter, what condition would the Government then be in? The Government was now weak, and if the people persisted in the course it was proposed to take, they would only strengthen that Government by their own folly. After alluding to the services which he had rendered to the cause during former agitations at Manchester and elsewhere - having had at one time 39 warrants out against him for sedition - and after speaking of the many difficulties which surrounded him in his present post, which he could have avoided that day, had he chosen, on the authority of a medical certificate - for he was more fit to be in bed than to be present on that occasion - the hon. member proceeded to say that if the meeting itself was prohibited, it ought not to take place; in fact, they ought to do nothing which could bring them into collision with any force. He had stated in the House of Commons that he and some other men were marked to be fired at, in the event of any conflict with the authorities; he had since then had about five hundred letters from members of the police force, and other persons, warning him that he especially was marked out for slaughter; that such were the orders given. He concluded by requesting them in God's name not to proceed, if any opposition were offered to them. Mr. E. Jones expressed some surprise at the recommendation of the chairman, and urged in strong terms the necessity, unless they wished to compromise their expressed opinions and resolves, and excite the contempt of their enemies, to proceed with the procession in the teeth of every prohibition. These sentiments were received with great applause, and a resolution was immediately passed adjourning the meeting to the Common, as arranged. The meeting adjourned accordingly.
ADJOURNMENT TO KENNINGTON COMMON.
During this discussion two newly-constructed cars had driven up to the doors of the institution. The one intended for the conveyance of the monster petition was on four wheels, and drawn by as many very splendid farm-horses. The body of the car was square, and surmounted by a tastefully constructed canopy. The attendants bore streamlets in the varied colours of red, green, and white, having appropriate inscriptions. The van or car in waiting for the delegates was upwards of 20 feet in length, with seats arranged transversely, in so commodious a manner as to afford comfortable accommodation to the delegates, as well as several representatives of the press. The body of the car was inscribed on the right side with the motto, “The Charter. No surrender. Liberty is worth living for and worth dying for;” on the left, “The voice of the people is the voice of God;” while on the back of the car was inscribed, “Who would be a slave that could be free?” “Onward, we conquer; backward, we fall.” Eight banners were fixed (four on each side) to the car, inscribed, “The Charter,” “No vote, no muskets,” “Vote by ballot,” “Annual Parliaments,” “Universal suffrage,” “No property qualification,” “The payment of members,” and “Electoral districts.” To the vehicle were harnessed six farm-horses of superior breed, and in the highest possible condition. The marshals (designated by a silk sash of the colours red, white, and green) having announced, at ten minutes past ten o'clock, all in readiness, Mr. F. O'Connor was the first to ascend the car. The hon. gentleman was received with loud cheers by the crowd which thronged John-street, and took his seat in front of the van. He was followed by Mr. Ernest Jones, Mr. Harney, Mr. M`Grath, Mr. Clark, Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Reynolds, Dr. Hunter, and other leaders of the Convention. The rest of that body having also taken their seats, the cortège set forth amidst loud cheers. Passing along Goodge-street into Tottenham-court-road, along High-street, Bloomsbury, the National Land Company's office was reached, and from that building five huge bales or bundles, comprising the petition, with the signatures, were brought out, and secured on the first car, prepared for their reception. Again the cavalcade moved forward, and progressing along Holborn and Farringdon-street reached New Bridge-street, the crowd increasing the train at every step. So far the shops in the line which had been passed were only partially closed; the utmost order prevailed, though the delegates were recognised by numerous friends and adherents, and at intervals most vociferously cheered. At the Waithman obelisk the alderman of the ward (Sir James Duke) was in attendance, with his deputy, Mr. Obbard; but up to this spot not a single policeman was to be seen. The windows of the houses in New-Bridge-street were filled with spectators, and, amidst much applause, the moving mass took an onward course across Blackfriars-bridge. At this time (eleven o'clock) a strong detachment of the battalion of Pensioners, under arms and fully accoutred, were observed to have just landed at the City pier, from Woolwich, and were loudly cheered by the vast concourse that now crowded the bridge. On reaching the Surrey side, the first display of the civil force appeared. On each side of Albion-place were drawn up, in military order, a strong body, in double file, of the L division of Metropolitan police, while the City police maintained the ground on each side of the bridge, which was within the limits of the City jurisdiction. This force was under the orders of Mr. Henry, one of the magistrates of Bow-street. Opposite the end of Stamford-street, a party of the mounted police, fifteen strong, under the command of an inspector, was stationed. In its passage along the Blackfriars road to the Elephant and Castle the crowd continued to increase and hem in the vehicles on both sides: still, everything was peaceable and well-conducted. At the Elephant and Castle a new mass joined in the rear of those who, walking eight abreast, had followed the train from the place of departure, and on reaching Newington Church the appearance of the masses was most bewildering. Proceeding along the Kennington-road the Common was reached at half past eleven o'clock. Here had already assembled the Irish confederalists and the various bodies of the trades of London, who had intimated their intention of joining in the demonstration. These had taken their position in numerical order on the Common, having arrived from their different rendezvous some time previously. Each trade had its emblematic banner, and the Irish confederalists displayed a very splendid green standard emblazoned with the harp of Erin, and the motto “Erin go bragh.” The numbers assembled at this time have been variously estimated at from 20,000 to 50,000. A careful estimate formed by military persons of experience in such computations, represents the number present, both as spectators and members of the procession, at from 23,000 to 25,000. On arriving about the centre of the Common, the carriage in which Mr. F. O'Connor and the delegates were seated halted, while that in which the monster petition was deposited took its station on the south side, opposite the Horns Tavern. In a few minutes after the halt had been made, an inspector of police approached Mr. O'Connor, and communicated to that gentleman that the Police Commissioners desired to confer with him. Mr. O'Connor immediately descended from the car, and, accompanied by Mr. M`Grath, proceeded on foot across the Common in the direction of the Horns Tavern, where it was understood the Commissioners and Magistrates had assembled. A cry went forth that Mr O'Connor had been arrested, but Dr. Hunter (one of the delegates) set the matter at rest by announcing the real state of the case. In a short time Mr. O'Connor (with Mr. M`Grath) was observed wending his way back, and his re-appearance in front of the car was the signal for the most enthusiastic cheering. On the motion of Mr. Clark, seconded by Mr. Adams, the chair was taken by Mr. C. Doyle, the Secretary of the National Chartist Association. The Chairman having delivered a short speech of the usual Chartist character, Mr. Feargus O'Connor presented himself, amidst the prolonged cheers of the multitude, and spoke at some length in a strain of much self-laudation, and uttering many vague generalities about “Liberty, ” “Rights of the People,” &c., and concluded by urging his auditory to disperse peaceably, as the Government had taken possession of each of the metropolitan bridges, where the Chartists could not therefore pass without a sanguinary struggle; and consoling them by the assurance that “the Executive” of the Chartist Association would convey the petition to the House of Commons, and that he himself would present it that evening. Mr. Ernest Jones next addressed the meeting. Though he was what was called a physical force Chartist, it was useless for them - peaceable men - to engage in a collision for which they were wholly unprepared. He regretted that this meeting had not been held on the other side of the river Thames, as in that case the bridges would not have to have been passed. As it was they had achieved a victory; for they now held a meeting which had been forbidden and proclaimed down. Under these circumstances, he trusted those present would follow the admirable advice given to-day by their friend and leader; and if so, eventual success was certain. Mr. F. O'Connor again came forward, and asked the meeting to give him authority now to wait upon Sir George Grey, and to tell the right hon. baronet that the people were determined not to come into collision with any armed force, police or military; and that they were resolved to keep the peace inviolate that day. The meeting at once responded to this demand, and Mr. F. O'Connor quitted the van and proceeded on his mission, cheered on by vehement plaudits. From the moment Mr. O'Connor took his departure impatience and uproar began to manifest themselves in the meeting. First, the mob, which could not hear, showed signs of dissatisfaction, and then the delegates in the van displayed symptoms of unruliness also. The tendency in the crowd showed itself by violent rushes made from one point to another, much to the annoyance of the horses in the van, who every now and then attempted to kick out. There was also very distinctly heard that peculiar cry with which the young thieves of London signal to each other, and which, mingling with the general uproar, had a very strange effect. As these evidences of disorderly spirit gathered around, speakers sprang up in every corner of the van. Three or four men, some of them delegates, others not, squabbled about the propriety of having abandoned the procession. A person named Spur, supported by Mr. Cuffey, the delegate, insisted that the petition should have been accompanied by the people until opposed by the military, and then, on the ground that such opposition was illegal, should have been withdrawn altogether. He offered to carry his proposal into effect, and a portion of his hearers violently applauded; but here some of the less intemperate delegates interfered to terminate at once and decisively a question which, if opened, might have led to very serious results. Mr. Clark then moved the adoption of the following petition to the House of Commons:- “The humble petition of the inhabitants of the metropolis of England, in public meeting assembled, showeth: That your petitioners have heard, with feelings of indignation and astonishment, that, by a bill which is now before your honourable House, for the ostensible purpose of providing more efficiently for the security of the Crown and the Government of these realms, it is sought to alter the law relating to the indefinite charge of sedition, and to punish by transportation that which is at present punishable by fine and imprisonment. That your petitioners regard this bill as an attempt to deprive the people of the right of expressing their just horror at the atrocious legislation which is generally practised by your honourable House, and your petitioners beg your honourable House to stamp this infamous measure with condemnation, by its unanimous and ignominious rejection.” Mr. Kydd seconded the motion, which was also supported by Mr. Reynolds. The meeting was then declared to be dissolved at a quarter past one o'clock, and the four large bundles forming the petition were removed from the carriage and placed in cabs, and taken in charge of the Executive Committee to the House of Commons. The delegates then mounted the carriage, which was dismantled of its trimmings and decorations, and, with its companion, conveyed to a neighbouring stable-yard; and, at two o'clock, not more than 100 persons were to be seen upon the Common. Many of these consisted of its usual occupants - boys playing at trap-ball and other games; and, by a quarter past two, a stranger to the day's proceedings would never have guessed, from the appearance of the neighbourhood, that anything extraordinary had taken place.
THE IRISH CONFEDERATES.
During the delivery of Mr. O'Connor's speech, a deputation of the delegates, consisting of Mr. Reynolds, Mr. G. J. Harney, and Mr. West, left the car with a view of addressing the Irish Confederates or democrats, who were drawn up in military array at the south-eastern boundary of the common, headed by a handsome green flag, containing a harp and the words “Irish Confederation.” “Let every man have his own country.” An audience, which at one time numbered about 5000 persons, assembled here, and were certainly not the least enthusiastic portion of the crowds upon the common. Permission having been obtained for the deputation to speak from the balcony of a window overlooking the common, Mr. Daly said he was glad the Irishmen in the metropolis had taken this first great step of identifying themselves with the body of the English democracy. His friends had advised him not to bring the Irish flag to that meeting, because it had been taken down from the mast at Liverpool, but they were determined to stand by their Chartist friends in the assertion of the great constitutional right now at stake. (Cheers.) The Government must recognise the rights of the working classes in England, as they had been compelled to recognise them in France and elsewhere. He begged they would give a warm reception to their friends who formed the deputation. Mr. Reynolds, Mr. West, the Stockport delegate, and others then spoke at considerable length.
THE ASPECT OF THE METROPOLIS DURING THE FORENOON.
At an early hour the City and suburbs gave preliminary signs of the approaching demonstration. The various troops billetted around London left their temporary quarters, and were posted and concentrated at various points where it was feared their presence might be wanted, long before sunrise. The trains which arrived at the London and North-Western Railway brought several persons from Manchester, Birmingham, Rochdale, Liverpool, and other parts of Lancashire, to be present during the proceedings of the day; and there were some from as far even as Edinburgh and Glasgow. The persons thus delegated to attend the great metropolitan demonstration brought with them large rolls of signatures to be appended to the monster petition. The rallying points of the Chartists in various localities began to fill at an early hour. The chief of these were Russell-square, Stepney-green, Clerkenwell-green, besides other open spaces in the various outskirts. The Chartists of Kentish-town. Somers-town, Hampstead, Paddington, St. Pancreas, and Marylebone, assembled in Russell-square at eight o'clock. A few minutes before ten o'clock that procession being formed two and two, the whole body left the square, and went towards Southampton-street, into Upper King-street, through Holborn, into Farringdon-street, from thence to Kennington-common. A large body of special constables, under the command of Lieut.-Col. Clarke, were present in the square. The Chartists who had arranged to meet at Stepney-green arrived there early. At nine o'clock a procession was formed, and in a short time it started, preceded by a band. To every party of 30 or 40 men there was a white flag, bearing the number of the section to which they belonged. There were numerous banners, with the words, “The Charter, and no surrender;” “The Bethnal-green National Land Company;” “Live and let Live.” The men walked arm-in-arm, six abreast, with pink and white ribbons attached to their button-holes. They mustered several thousands, and, with the lookers-on, formed a large assemblage. The body was advised to keep peace and order, and the victory would be theirs. At half-past nine they marched down the Whitechapel-road, over London-bridge, to Kennington-common. The churchwardens of Clerkenwell assembled the special constables of the parish at the workhouse, and proceeded subsequently to Clerkenwell-green, in the absence of the G division, for the purpose of preventing any riotous proceeding. About eight o'clock a body of Chartists appeared on the ground, several of them carrying flags and banners, one of which had on it the following inscription - “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” There were two poles surmounted with the cap of liberty, with a tri-coloured flag and an American flag. The procession was formed two-and-two, shortly before nine o'clock, consisting of between 300 and 400 persons. It entered St. John-street, crossed Smithfield, and passed through Farringdon-street to Kennington-common. There were about 4000 persons present. The proceedings of the other sections differed but little from those detailed above, until their arrival at Kennington-common. The streets of the metropolis, after the various processions had passed, presented nearly the same appearance as that on a holiday. The police having been mostly withdrawn from their regular duty, and concentrated on special localities, the town was guarded by special constables, who, either singly or in bands, paraded the streets and squares, being distinguished from their fellow-citizens by white bands on their arms and by staves. Except that in the various lines of the different processions the majority of the shops were shut, there was nothing to indicate public alarm; the more timid part of the community - the female portion - had not been kept at home, for well-dressed females in numbers no less than usual appeared. The predominant expression in the countenances of the passers-by of both sexes was merriment; partly occasioned by the “specials,” who, despite the excellent and praiseworthy feeling which prompted them to enrol themselves to preserve order, did not, of course, look so well drilled or uniform as the regular police. Their varieties of stature and dress forced upon the spectator associations of the comic; neither did the union of spectacles (which some wore) and umbrellas (which others carried) harmonise with the insignia of office, or tend to lessen the merriment. Large bodies of special constables were stationed in Bridewell, the various churches, and in many of the large manufactories standing in or near the lines of the processions, and at Kennington-common - besides the police and soldiers. All the public buildings were fortified and invested with soldiery, and the officials and clerks armed not only with staves, as special constables, but with fire-arms. Somerset House was packed with the household troops; the Admiralty was occupied with a detachment of the 16th and the Sappers and Miners; while the Horse Guards and the Home Office were taken possession of by other regiments of the line. The Treasury, the British Museum, &c., were also strongly guarded and fortified. The minor offices, as the Board of Control, &c., were also defended by armed detachments; while other measures, the closing up of the gates, barricading the windows, and strengthening the external defences, were extensively adopted. The Custom-house was garrisoned by the east metropolitan division of the enrolled out-pensioners of Chelsea Hospital. The residence of the Duke of Northumberland at Charing-cross, Montague-house, and the residences of Sir Robert Peel and other noblemen and commoners in Whitehall-gardens, were fastened up. The area surrounding the fountains in Trafalgar-square was occupied by a detachment of police, amounting to about two hundred men. The special constables, in the meantime, performed the duties of the police, by keeping idlers upon the move, and preventing the gathering of knots of persons upon the streets and pavements. The parks were closed, and the entrance to St. James's was guarded by a double file of guards and the wardens of the parks, the latter acting as gate-keepers, under the orders of the military, a corporal or sergeant being stationed as commandant at each gate. Ingress and egress were immediately allowed to all persons exhibiting the “pass” granted by the authorities of Scotland-yard. Patrols of the household troops marched up and down the Mall, and officers held constant communication with the several posts. Apsley-house was barricaded, and the bullet-proof shutters were drawn over the windows. Buckingham Palace did not appear to be guarded by any extra strength, but a strong force was ready to march from the drill-ground of the Wellington Barracks at any moment. The private servants of the officers were armed, as well as the regular soldiery. In the City hundreds of spectators were to be observed at the different stations appointed to be most strictly attended to, attracted, no doubt, by the military arrangements, which to some were matters of curiosity, to others of alarm. The spectators of the Bank fortifications were very numerous throughout the day, and the soldiers, as they entered the building, were most vociferously cheered. The Lord Mayor and the Commissioner of the City police had an interview on Sunday, at the Home-office, with Sir G. Grey and the commissioners of the metropolitan police, when final regulations were made as to the course to be adopted and placed in the hands of the authorities, and throughout the whole of Sunday night the principal officers of the City force were occupied at the several stations in preparations to carry the instructions into effect. Apart from the innumerable special constables who assembled at the various wards under the aldermen, and the greater part of whom were provided with staves and armlets, upwards of 2000 of the younger “specials” were selected by the aldermen, and placed in direct communication with the City police, under the commissioner. This latter body had received instructions to take up positions at the Cross Keys, in Gracechurch-street, the Royal Exchange, which was placed at the complete disposal of Mr. Harvey, and Bridewell Hospital, and as they mustered at the several places of appointment, they were immediately marshalled into bodies of 100 each, and again subdivided into twenties, and followed under the command of captains and sergeants of their own station, with inspectors of the City police force controlling the whole. At eight o'clock the police and special constables marched in large bodies to the three bridges and took up their stations there in immediate communication with the metropolitan constables, who attended at each in great numbers. About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge. On their return to the Stock Exchange, “God save the Queen” was sung by the whole house; and shortly afterwards, Mr. Hutchinson, the chairman of the committee, announced publicly the thanks of the Lord Mayor for their services, which was received with hearty cheers.
The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force. The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o'clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge - the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder. After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill's Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o'clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.
Waterloo-bridge - thanks to its toll - would, but for the police, have presented the same peaceful appearance as on other days. The toll-bars were guarded by companies of the force, while the seats over the piers were occupied by their comrades, either lounging, or sleeping, or eating, or enjoying the pleasures of a pipe. Could they have been seen by their busy brethren on the next bridge, they would have been much envied.
The toll of the Charing-cross-bridge seemed, also, to have a protective influence over it. It was quite quiet.
Westminster-bridge, being that over which the gigantic petition was threatened to be drawn in procession, was filled with the bustle of mounted and foot police. At an early hour in the day crowds of persons had assembled in its neighbourhood, and in that of the House of Commons, to await the arrival of the procession, which was expected to cross the bridge from Kennington-common. Up to twelve or one o'clock very little preparation appeared to have been made for their reception. But as the day wore on and the crowd became more dense, the police might be observed walking about in large bodies, and compelling the people to “move on” - a command which was obeyed sometimes with an ill grace, but in no case with any manifestations which resulted in a breach of the peace. This bridge, it was supposed, would be the scene of any collision which might take place. The report, however, which had been set afloat respecting artillery, &c., appeared to be totally unfounded, for there was no appearance of anything of the kind. Bills were posted on the bridge, warning the public not to assemble there in large numbers, as it was apprehended that the wooden hoarding which supplies the place of the former stone balustrade would give way on a pressure of a nature by no means inconsiderable. The public, however, which always considers itself the best judge of matters connected with its own safety, treated the warning with a degree of contempt, which was manifested by the increasing density of the crowd upon the prohibited spot. Shortly before two o'clock the police began to emerge from their hitherto inglorious state of inactivity. A troop of the horse patrol proceeded on to the bridge, and set about the somewhat arduous task of clearing it. Stationing themselves at the foot of the bridge, on the Surrey side, they succeeded in driving the mass inch by inch, and step by step, completely to the other end. At the corner of Bridge-street there were several additional bodies of the force to receive them, so that the majority had no resource but to escape up Parliament-street, the road to the House being efficiently guarded. A considerable number, however, still continued to occupy Bridge-street. They consisted principally of idlers and bad characters, having no political object in view, and being employed for the most part in the indulgence of various little popular pleasantries at the expense of the police and the special constables, the latter being especially victimised in this manner. Thus the time passed away until the arrival of the Petition, which took place shortly before three o'clock. The demonstration was not very strong or alarming in its appearance. It consisted simply of two hackney cabs, containing three members of the deputation and the petition itself. The latter, which consisted of several very ponderous piles of paper, was conveyed by instalments into the house, and delivered over to the proper authorities. The deputation returned immediately on foot, and was loudly cheered on its way. The great event being brought to a close, the crowd began gradually to disperse, and in a comparatively short space of time the thoroughfares were clear. A portion of the police, however, remained for some hours on the spot and in the immediate neighbourhood. Except what is recorded above, there was no casualty, either arising from accident or unpleasant feeling between the executive and the public. It is due to the higher authorities to point out, that their arrangements - with the single exception of keeping the bridges closed some hours longer than necessary - appear to have been most efficiently planned.
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Crisis? What crisis...
Historians have usually painted the great Kennington Common rally that preceded the presentation of the third Chartist petition to Parliament as a fiasco.
Taking their leader from Robert Gammage, the first chronicler of the Chartist movement - and a protaganist in its internal battles - they have viewed events of that day as having "inflicted a wound on Chartism from which it has never recovered". Gammage believed that "after the 10th of April, and the exposure of the National Petition, the Assembly should never have met".
In fact, there is little to suggest that the Chartist leadership saw 10 April 1848 as the tipping point for a British revolution. And for many months after that, Chartist activities continued at a high pitch throughout the country.
But there can be little doubt that Feargus O'Connor misplayed the already weak hand he held, while the state exploited its position to the full - finally demonstrating that it could rely on the support of the middle class to face down the radical threat, and making effective propaganda from the day's events.
O'Connor had done nothing in the months leading up to the Kennington rally to temper the violent rhetoric of his supporters - but neither had anything been done to give substance to the hot air that emanated from some delegates to the Chartist Convention.
The government, meanwhile, had called the Duke of Wellington out of retirement to mastermind the "defence" of London. In addition to a mobilisation of the army, it had sworn in thousands of special constables - including not just the servants of the nobility and Eton schoolboys, but more importantly the shopkeepers and others who might in other circumstances have sided with the Chartists.
As a result, when the authorities called O'Connor's bluff and demanded that he abandon plans for a march on Westminster to present the petition, his capitulation looked like defeat.
The row that then ensued over how many had attended the Kennington Rally (as many as 500,000 according to O'Connor - as few as 15,000 according to the government, 20,000 according to The Times, and only 50,000 according to the sympathetic Sunday Observer) and over the number and quality of signatures on the petition (5,700,000 according to O'Connor - 1,975,496 according to the Commons committee on public petitions, and among these, apparently, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, and a host of "obscene" made-up names such as Pugnose, Longnose, Punch, Snooks and Fubbs)) made the Chartist leadership look like buffoons.
Perhaps it is an indication of the novelty of government "spin" at the time that few of the Chartist leadership realised how seriously they lost the propaganda battle on 10 April 1848.
From then on, though Chartism continued to thrive in the provinces with massive rallies in Yorkshire and elsewhere, the authorities felt able to crack down hard on the Chartists themselves. Just as they had when the first two waves of Chartist petitioning dashed themselves to little effect on the unmoveable House of Commons, they arrested many of the best known and most radical of the Chartists.
Among the Chartists arrested in 1848 were Ernest Jones, William Cuffay - who with his comrades was to be transported to Australia - Leach, M'Douall and Rankine. The organisation was, in effect, deprived of many of its best leaders.
Relevant external links
"Chartism and the state, 1848" by the eminent historian John Saville from 1848: The British state and the Chartist movement (published by Cambridge University Press, 1987).
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