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The parliamentary debate on the Third Chartist Petition: 1848

Chartism appeared in 1836 and the Chartists presented petitions to parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848. After the third Chartist Petition had been presented to the House of Commons, Russell's government ordered a special report from a Select Committee on Public Petitions. The report called into question many of the claims made by Feargus O'Connor about the petition and made the Chartists appear to be both frauds and rogues.

MR THORNLEY brought up a special report from the Select Committee on Public Petitions, which was read by the clerk at the table as follows:-

"The House, on the 26th of November last, directed your Committee, in all cases, to set forth the number of signatures to each petition; and also, having regard to the powers delegated to them, to report their opinion and observations thereupon to the House, and they have agreed to the following special report:

That on the 10th of April last, a petition for universal suffrage, &c., from the inhabitants of the British Isles, and subjects of the British Crown, was presented to the House. Your Committee strongly feel the value of the right of petition, and they consider that the exercise of it is one of the most important privileges of the subjects of this realm. They feel the necessity of preserving the exercise of such a privilege from abuse; and having also due regard to the importance of the very numerously signed petition forming the subject of the present report, they feel bound to represent to the House, that in the matter of signatures there has been, in their opinion, a gross abuse of the privilege. The hon. Member for Nottingham [Feargus O'Connor] stated, on presenting the petition, that 5,706,000 names were attached to it; but upon the most careful examination of the number of signatures in the Committee-room, and at which examination thirteen law-stationers' clerks were engaged upwards of seventeen hours, with the person ordinarily employed in counting the numbers appended to petitions, under the superintendence of the clerk of your Committee, the number of signatures has been ascertained to be 1,975,496. It is further evident to your Committee, that on numerous consecutive sheets the signatures are in one and the same handwriting. Your Committee also observed the names of distinguished individuals attached to the petition, who can scarcely be supposed to concur in its prayer: among which occurs the name of Her Majesty, as Victoria Rex, April 1st, FM Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, &c., &c. Your Committee have also observed in derogation of the value of such petition, the insertion of numbers of names which are obviously fictitious, such as "No Cheese," "Pug Nose", "Flat Nose". There are others included, which your Committee do not hazard offending the House and the dignity and decency of their own proceedings by reporting. It may be added that there are other signatures appended obviously belonging to the name of no human being."

On the question that the report do lie on the table,

MR F. O'CONNOR said, he was happy to think that there had been unusual activity with respect to this petition. It was announced to him yesterday, about twelve o'clock, by a Member of the Government, that the petition had been examined, and that there were not above 1,900,000 signatures to it. He did not undertake to say, nor had he ever said, nor would it be possible for him to say, that there had not been some o the practices resorted to which the Committee had re-presented; but there was an old saying, "He who hides can find;" and he had no doubt that in a great national undertaking like that, something like the spy system had been had recourse to. He had, however, pretty strong collateral proof that the number of signatures to the petition had far exceeded what the Committee had reported; and, without wishing to cast the slightest blame upon the Committee on Petitions, he should move for a Committee to investigate that particular petition. He had himself received statements from parties who had been concerned in getting up that petition, and who, he was sure, would not lend themselves to anything of an improper kind, showing that in London alone the petition had received 175,000 signatures, and in Birmingham 75,000; and he had other statements from England, Scotland, and Wales, from parties who had undertaken the petition, showing upwards of 4,800,000 signatures. He had presented a petition, praying for the introduction of the Land Company Bill, which contained 203,000 signature. In that number there was no error, and he did himself lift that petition, and place it upon the table of that House. The petition which he presented on Monday, however, was on four rolls, and not a Member of that House could have lifted the largest of them. He did not impute anything to the Committee, but he did say, that if they left out absurdities, such as "Pugnose", "the Duke of Wellington" and so forth, he had no doubt but there would be left five million of legitimate signatures. He asserted, moreover, that thirteen clerks could not have counted 1,900,000 signatures in seventeen hours, nor could twenty have done it. He did not believe any such thing as that the petition was only signed by 1,900,000 persons; and if the House doubted his assertions, he would, ere long, present one with two or three times the amount.

MR THORNLEY, as Chairman of the Committee on Petitions, assured the hon. and learned Gentleman that the petition in question had been received with all the respect due to a petition so very numerously signed; and if he might take the liberty of speaking of an individual so humble as himself, he would say, that there were points which the petitioners urged for the consideration of that House - the ballot for instance - in which he entirely agreed with them. But the House would be aware - a fact of which the hon. and learned Gentleman was, perhaps, ignorant - that when the Committee on Petitions was appointed, at an early part of the Session, they were instructed to report to the House the number of signatures to each and every petition presented. It had been necessary to call in additional aid for that purpose in the case of the present petition; but he believed, and indeed he had no doubt that the number had been fairly ascertained. He should add that the petition had been weighed, and that its weight was 53/4 cwt. He had no more to say, except that the Committee was too well known to require any vindication by him.

MR CRIPPS said, after what the hon. Gentleman had said, and the reflections he had made upon the Committee - [Mr F. O'Connor: I made no reflections upon the Committee] - if the hon. Gentleman did not mean to reflect upon the character of the Committee he meant nothing at all. The Committee had taken every pains with this petition, that there should be no mistake. His attention was first called to the circumstance when the hon. Member made that audacious statement, that the petition was signed by 5,000,000 persons. He went from his place as soon as he heard that statement, and spent two hours and a half over that very interesting document, the Population Abstract for 1841; and he might state, that upon every calculation which he could make he came to the conclusion that the petition could not be signed by half that number. He certainly was not aware at that time that the petition was signed by women. He found, however, upon taking a number of sheets at random, that in very 100,000 names there were 8,200 women. The hon. Gentleman said the petition weighed five tons. They had weights and scales in the Committee-room, and found that it weighed little more than five hundred weight. Perhaps the hon. Member would say he meant five hundred weights. [Mr F O'Connor: I never said so.] He would pledge his word of honour to the House, that the hon. Gentleman had said it weighed five tons. He had himself heard him say so. At any rate three crazy cabs brought it down to that House. He did not wish to throw ridicule and obloquy upon the petition, but he did throw ridicule and obloquy upon the hon. Gentleman who presented it.

MR F O'CONNOR: I rise, Sir, to order. The hon. Gentleman's observations require explanation.

MR SPEAKER: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make an explanation with regard to personal conduct, though he has no absolute right to speak upon the subject, I have no doubt the House will allow him. If the hon. Gentleman does not wish to explain personal conduct, he must no interrupt another hon. Member when he is addressing the House.

MR CRIPPS continued: He would repeat the observation, and he would say that if ever any Member of that House had laid himself open to charges which ought to deprive him of every credence to which man is entitled, that Member was the hon. Member for Nottingham. He would say for himself, that he could never believe the hon. Member again; and he trusted that those deluded persons who had assembled on Kennington Common would also withdraw their confidence from him. Were such meetings to be allowed, bearing in their train robbery and the most notorious results; was another meeting to be held within a fortnight, for the purpose of concocting such a ribald mass of obscenity and impiety as was contained in the petition under consideration? Language the most disgusting pervaded the whole petition; there were words in it which the vilest strumpet in the street would blush to name. The Duke of Wellington's name occurred fifteen or sixteen times. The name of the hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln [Colonel Sibthorp] several times; and the names of the hon. Members for Manchester and West Yorkshire he did not know how many times. On one of the sheets he knew, and he believed on several of them, were written the words, "We could not get paid for any more today." He was thankful from the bottom of his heart, that he had not done what he was very nearly tempted to do. If he had only taken up a sheet of the petition, when it lay at the foot of the table, and had happened to have stumbled upon one of the ten or twelve sheets, he should have objected to the receipt of that petition; for he could have put sheets into the Speaker's hands, which he could never have read to the House. He deeply regretted that such blasphemy and obscenity should have caused the Government so much uneasiness, and have put them to so much expense. Now the hon. Gentleman said he could present a petition signed by three times as many persons. Why, the whole number of males in England above 15 years of age did not exceed 7,000,000 persons. He hoped the House would not cast a reflection upon the Committee on Public Petitions, by appointing another Committee to consider this particular petition.

MR O'CONNOR: There are three points on which I must give some explanation. I hope I shall do so without the excitement which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cirencester [Cripps] has displayed. The first point has relation to the house; the second to the Committee; and the third to myself personally. I stated at the outset that I attributed not the slightest blame - not even a sinister intention - to the Committee; but I said it was impossible for the number of clerks employed to have got through the work in double the time they were employed. With regard to the petition itself, I could not be supposed to be accountable for anything written in it. Was it possible for me, in the nature of things, to examine the different sheets? I never saw one of them till I saw them rolled up here. I am now told I had no business to present any petition the character of which I did not know. If such were the rule, that petition would never have been presented at all. As to my having forfeited my title to credence, in having presented a petition for which I am not responsible, with all respect to the House and the Committee, I shall have that explained elsewhere.

The hon. Member immediately left the House.

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