The early months of 1848 were full of excitement for the Chartists. Names continued to gather on the third great petition. All over the country meetings were held to hear the leaders speak and to pledge their support. In Ireland, the Confederalists grew in strength. And in France, the monarchy and its despotic government was overthrown.
News of the French Revolution filled the Chartists with hope. An address was adopted jointly by the National Charter Association, the Fraternal Democrats, the Chartist Delegate Council and a public meeting at the German Society’s Hall to be presented to the people of Paris. At the Circus of the National Baths in Lambeth on 2 March, a tremendous gathering took place addressed by Edward Jones, James Grassby, George Julian Harney, Szonakowski (a Pole), Clark, Dixon, O’Connor and others where a resolution was adopted warning the British Government against interfering in France. Jones, McGrath and Harney were appointed to go to Paris as a depution to meet the Provisional Government.
When a largely middle-class protest against income tax organised for Trafalgar Square was cancelled by its original organisers, the Chartists took control. G.W.M.Reynolds – later to be better known as the proprietor/editor of Reynolds News and other papers bearing his name – took the chair, and the rally voiced its support for the people of Paris and the Charter. Great meetings were held on Kennington Common in London, at Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere, and bridges were built with the Irish Confederates.
As the tension mounted and a date drew near for the presentation of the petition, the central organisation of the Chartist movement began to come together.
A Chartist Convention assembled for business on Tuesday, 4 April 1848 at the John-street Institution, “the gallery of which was opened to the public”. McGrath was elected president, and Doyle, secretary. Immediately, there was a constitutional wrangle as delegates questioned the credentials of McCarthy, who had been elected by the Irish Democratic Confederation, with Cuffay and O’Connor opposing his admission, and Jones supporting it. Eventually, McCarthy was admitted, “thus making the Convention an illegal body”, according to R.C.Gammage’s History of the Chartist Movement .
The following are the names of the representatives and their districts:
Exeter, J.Prater Wilkinson
Ipswich, Samuel G.Francis
Bolton, Matthew Stevenson
Halifax, Ernest Jones
Wigan, James Hitchins
Leicester, George Buckby
Nottingham, George Julian Harney
Birmingham, Joseph Linney and J.A.Fussell
Oldham, Samuel Kydd
Manchester, Daniel Donovan and James Leach
Liverpool, Edmund Jones and Henry Smith
Edinburgh, James Cumming and Dr Hunter
Dundee, James Graham
Barnsley, Frank Mirfield
Newcastle-on-Tyne, James Watson
Bury, Thomas Tattersall
Staffordshire Potteries, Samuel Bevington and Edward Sale
Aberdeen, James Shirron
York and East Riding, George Stevens
Paisley, Robert Cochrane
Glasgow, James Adams
Irish Democratic Confederation, C.McCarthy
Bath, Charles Bolwell
Leeds, F.O’Connor and J.Shaw
Carlisle, John Lowerey
Merthyr Tydvil, David Thomas
Ashton-under-Lyne, Robert Wyld
Worcester, Edward Walter
London, William Cuffay, Henry Child and James Bronterre O’Brien
Plymouth, John Petrie
Norwich, William Dixon
Huddersfield, Mr Murphy
After much heated debate, the convention adopted a programme on which delegates could agree:
“1st – That in the event of the National Petition being rejected by the House of Commons, this Convention prepare a National Memorial to the Queen to dissolve the present Parliament, and call to her council such ministers only as will make the People’s Charter a cabinet measure.
“2nd – That this Convention agree to the convocation of a National Assembly, to consist of delegates appointed at public meetings, to present the National Memorial to the Queen, and to continue permanently sitting until the Charter is the law of the land.
“3rd – That this Convention call upon the country to hold simultaneous meetings on Good Friday, April 21st, for the purpose of adopting the National Memorial, and electing delegates to the National Assembly.
“4th – That the National Assembly meet in London on April 24th.
“5th – That the present Convention shall continue its sittings until the meeting of the National Assembly.”
The Convention then decided to hold a mass meeting on Kennington Common to be followed by a procession to the House of Commons to present the petition. The Government responded by issuing a proclamation that such a procession would be illegal. Despite the Convention’s protests that its plans were peaceful, special constables were sworn in, and the Government made detailed plans to deal with the Chartists should they defy it. The Convention was in no mood to back down, however. A motion from T.M.Wheeler that it should go ahead with its public meeting “notwithstanding the foolish proclamation of the Government” was carried unanimously with speeches in support by Cuffay, West, Child, Adams, Stevenson, Cochrane, Shaw, Bolwell, Watson, Wilkinson. O’Connor, Kydd, E.Jones, Mcarthy, Frances, Reynolds, Clark, Ashton, Buckby, Walter, Cumming and Tattersall.
In the event, of course, although the mass meeting took place at Kennington Common on 10 April, there was to be no mass procession. Instead, the petition was taken by O’Connor, Doyle, McGrath, Jones, Wheeler and Harney in a cab, first to the Common and then on to Westminster, as thousands of soldiers and sailors kept London under armed guard. Heavy gun batteries were brought from Woolwich, marines were stationed at the Admiralty, mounted police were armed with pistols and broadswords and a total of 70,000 special constables sworn in.
That same day, O’Connor presented the petition to Parliament claiming that it held 5,700,000 names. Within days, the Commons committee on public petitions reported that it in fact contained 1,975,496 signatures, and that in addition a number of the names on the petition consisted of such unlikely signatories as “Victoria Rex”, and the “Duke of Wellington”, while others – “Longnose”, “Flatnose”, “Punch” and “Snooks” – were clearly fictitious.
Delegates to the Convention were furious. Meetings took place around the country in support of the Charter – 6,000 people in Aberdeen voting to form a National Guard, while in Manchester 100,000 people were said to have pledged their support to the Convention in any emergency.
On Monday 17 April the Convention met again, and for the first time delegates acknowledged that a number of the signatories to the petition might well be far less than claimed. On Clark’s motion, the meeting of the National Assembly was postponed to 1 May, but the mood remained defiant. In the following week, the first delegates were elected as further public meetings took place. At this point, O’Connor chose to claim that the National Assembly would be an illegal gathering.
When the National Assembly finally met, the following delegates handed in their credentials:
J.Shaw, Tower Hamlets
W.J.Vernon, West London
J Matthews, Bury
A.Sharp, Tower Hamlets
Dr M’Douall and T.O’Malley, Nottingham
J.Bassett, South London
T.M.Wheeler, South London
W.Brook and J.Barker, Leeds
J.Adams and A.Harley, Glasgow
Dixon was appointed chairman and Shirron secretary. At first concern was expressed that the Assembly was illegal because it contained more than 49 people. O’Connor came in for criticism, not least from Shirron, who complained that no trust could be placed in the word of a man who had first declared the event legal and subsequently illegal.
Captain O’Brien attended as a visitor on behalf of the Irish Confederates but did not sit in the Assembly. McCarthy too attended and presented his credentials as a delegate, but was not admitted as he had not been elected at a properly convened meeting. The Assembly went on to admit further delegates:
Carver, Birmingham District
It soon became evident that most delegates were opposed to physical force – though Shaw of London, Sharp, E.Jones, McLean. Henry, Shirron, McIntosh and T.Jones said their constituents would fight if necessary. The Assembly resolved that its programme should be to give increased vigour to the movement, to deal with the organisation and policy of the Chartist body, to organise the presentation of the Memorial to the Queen, and to find the best practical method of making the Charter law.
Further delegates took their seats:
Churchill and McCarthy, Finsbury
The split between O’Connor and the Chartist body became irretrievable as O’Connor condemned the Assembly as unlawful, and the Assembly charged his Northern Star newspaper with unfair reporting. Edward Jones resigned his position on the paper.
The Assembly went on to adopt a new scheme of organisation dividing the country into districts, localities and sections. There was to be a five-strong Executive and 10 Commissioners, with district and local officers appointed by their localities. The Executive’s members were to have £2 each week, and when travelling a further 2s 6d plus their second class fare. A liberty fund of £10,000 was to be raised by voluntary subscription and an office taken in London. A provisional Executive was appointed consisting of McCrae, Jones, Kydd, Leach and M’Douall.
On 9 May, Mitchell took his seat for Rochdale. T.Adams, Wheeler, Brook, Rankin, Pilling, Stevenson, Sharpe, cochrane, Peacock, Shaw, Harley, Bassett, Cumming, Child, Donovan, Shirron, Henry, Lightowler and West were appointed Commissioners for six weeks until elections could be held.
Meanwhile, the Assembly was setting out a policy agenda that went far beyond the Charter. On a motion from West it voted to repeal the union between Great Britain and Ireland; it backed Carver’s call to sever the connection between Church and State; it carried Kydd’s motion advocating the employment of the poor on public lands; and on a motion from Jones it recommended the people to arm. All sense of reality now gone, the Assembly adjourned for six weeks to take the debate back to their constituents. It was not to meet again.