Public Meetings

An important part of the Chartist campaign was to hold large public meetings. These meetings gave great orators such as Fears O'Connor and George Julian Harney the opportunity to persuade people to join the campaign for the six points of the Charter. It was also a way of showing the government the scale of the support that they had for Chartism.

Although not a great orator himself, Thomas Attwood, MP for Birmingham, was able to draw large crowds to his Chartist meetings. In August 1838, Attwood held a meeting at Newhall Hill, Birmingham, that was attended by over 200,000 people.

Throughout 1838 large meetings were held all over Britain. Estimates of how many people attended these meetings varies. The Northern Star claimed that 500,000 people were at the Kersal Moor meeting in Manchester on 24th September, 1838, whereas the report in the Manchester Guardian estimated the crowd to be only 30,000. However, even hostile newspapers in Scotland admitted that over 100,000 people assembled at Glasgow Green on 28th June, 1838, to hear Chartist speakers.

George Julian Harney went on a tour of Northern towns in the summer of 1839. Numbers at these meetings ranged from 10,000 in Carlisle to 100,000 in Newcastle. The Chartist, Ben Wilson, who organised a meeting in Halifax, claimed that over 200,000 people turned up to hear the Chartist speakers. The authorities became concerned when people began taking weapons to these meetings. Government spies were instructed to attend these Chartist gatherings and during 1839 it was reported the distribution of pamphlets headed: "Be ready to nourish the tree of liberty with the Blood of Tyrants'. On 4th June a Chartist meeting in Birmingham ended in a riot and in Newcastle, 6,000 Chartists clashed with the army and special constables. Eyewitnesses claimed that over half of the people who attended the meeting carried weapons.

Kennington Common, Illustrated London News (April, 1848)
Kennington Common, Illustrated London News (April, 1848)

The size of the crowds that attended Chartist meetings fell after 1839. In the 1840s Feargus O'Connor made valiant attempts to organize large meetings. In April 1848 O'Connor organised a meeting on Kennington Common. O'Connor warned that after the speeches he intended to lead the large crowd to the House of Commons where he would present a petition to the government. The authorities, afraid that the meeting would result in a riot, called up 8,000 soldiers and 150,000 special constables. O'Connor claimed that over 500,000 assembled at Kennington, the government said it was only 15,000. However, the size of the crowd still worried the authorities and after negotiations, O'Connor agreed to the request of the police not to march the crowd to the House of Commons.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book, History of the Chartist Movement (1894), R. G. Gammage described a speech made by Thomas Attwood in Birmingham.

Mr. Attwood delivered a speech. He professed himself a peaceful man, and declared that he would never sanction the commission of violence for gaining the people's object, but as he warmed to the subject, he talked about the legislature being unable to resist the demand for two millions of men, which, which, if not speedily complied with, would result in the two millions being increased to five. If petitioning was found to fail in making the necessary impression, the honourable gentleman suggested a national strike for one week, during which time not a hammer was to be wielded, nor an anvil sounded, not a shuttle moved, throughout the country, and he told his hearers that although he would be opposed to the employment of any violence, if the people were attacked the consequences must fall on the heads of the aggressors. He told the meeting too, that if the government dared to arrest him in the execution of his peaceful purpose, a hundred thousand men would march to demand his release.

(2) George Julian Harney, speech at a Chartist public meeting in Derby on 28th January, 1839.

We demand Universal Suffrage, because we believe the universal suffrage will bring universal happiness. Time was when every Englishman had a musket in his cottage, and along with it hung a flitch of bacon; now there was no flitch of bacon for there was no musket; let the musket be restored and the flitch of bacon would soon follow. You will get nothing from your tyrants but what you can take, and you can take nothing unless you are properly prepared to do so. In the words of a good man, then, I say 'Arm for peace, arm for liberty, arm for justice, arm for the rights of all, and the tyrants will no longer laugh at your petitions'. Remember that.

(3) The Sunday Observer (16th April, 1848)

The metropolis presented on Monday a scene of unusual excitement and alarm. The determination announced by the members of the Chartist National Convention to hold their meeting and procession in defiance of the law and the constituted authorities - the military preparations, almost unparalleled for extent and completeness to put down any insurrectionary attempts.

The weather was exceedingly favourable for the demonstration; no obstruction was offered by the police to the processions which left the Middlesex side of London for Kennington Common; a free thoroughfare was permitted to all who wished to take part in the public meeting; and yet, instead of the 300,000 persons who, we were told would assemble on Kennington Common does not reach 50,000

(4) Feargus O'Connor, speech at Kennington Common (April, 1848)

My children, have now for a quarter of a century been mixed up with the democratic movement - in Ireland since 1822, and in England from the year 1833. I have always, in and out of Parliament, contended for your rights, and I have received more than 100 letters, telling me not to come here today, or my life would be sacrificed. My answer was, that I would rather be stabbed in the heart than abstain from being in my place. And my children, for you are my children, and I am only your father and bailiff; but I am your fond father and your unpaid bailiff.

My breath is nearly gone, and I will only say, when I desert you may desert me. You have by your conduct today more than repaid me for all I have done for you, and I will go on conquering until you have the land and the People's Charter becomes the law of the land.