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Exploring British history through a popular form of political participation

By Dr. Richard Huzzey and Dr. Henry Miller 

The rise of e-petitioning websites has recently brought an antiquated form of political representation back into the news headlines. This has encouraged historians to further examine petitioning and its relationship to social, political, cultural, and economic history.

For students and researchers examining the United Kingdom and the British Empire, the records from the Select Committee on Public Petitions (SCPP) reveal the enormous scale and powerful role of past petitions to the House of Commons.

Sitting outside the run of other parliamentary papers available to scholars, the petitions reports capture the range and enthusiasm of petitioners since 1833. The growing volume of petitions to the House of Commons led politicians to create the SCPP and start recording the submissions in an organised manner. By 1918, the SCPP had recorded more than 960,000 petitions.

From Perennial Favourites to Bursts of Unexpected Enthusiasm

Some petitioners joined intense, national campaigns which have long been familiar to historians; for example, from 1839 to 1843 thousands of petitions against the Corn Laws garnered more than six million signatures. The Anti-Corn Law League continued to organise petitions even after embracing elections and other campaigning methods, until the victory for free trade in 1846. Using the SCPP reports, it is possible to shed new light on the geographical range and overlapping political demands of those petitioners, showing how this issue appealed well beyond the heartland of Manchester and other industrial towns.

Besides offering new insights into existing controversies and questions, the petitions reports allow students and scholars to investigate new topics. For example, the perennial popularity of some issues – such as the campaigns against vivisection – and the occasional bursts of enthusiasm over unexpected issues – such as the adoption of the metric system – direct new insights into the history of modern Britain.

A Voice for the Voiceless

In many cases, including the campaign for women’s suffrage, petitioning offered a means of exerting pressure on the House of Commons by those denied the right to vote. Because petitioning was relatively open to women and poorer men, the records of petitions provide insights into a wider segment of society than election results. They also give us a barometer of the popularity – or, perhaps, organisational prowess – of campaigns over time. In 1866, the first Women’s Suffrage petition received barely 1500 signatures, but brought together many of the women who would build a movement in the following 50 years. By 1893, they would muster a quarter of a million signatures. Tracing certain petitions in local sources and archives offers a chance to construct a microhistory of the meetings, speeches, and communities which sought to address MPs.

International and Domestic Policies

The SCPP records will prove useful for historians exploring Britons’ opinions about imperial and foreign policy, as well as domestic issues. The staggering popularity of anti-slavery petitioning in the 1820s and 1830s was one of the motives for establishing a committee in 1833, for example. And the permissibility of parliamentary petitions from colonized peoples means there are traces of representations from – or of – them in the records. In the first year of the reports, for example, “inhabitants of Calcutta, and places adjacent” petitioned, alongside others, for an end to the taxes on sugar and rum which disadvantaged British India. The clerks in the House of Commons recorded ‘signatures in native characters’ amongst those in English, bringing new voices to bear on long-running debates about sugar taxation.

Digging into the Details

Appendices to each of the regular reports can yield examples of petition “prayers,” with the names listed of the first three signatories on those petitions. While these can indicate how petitioners framed their requests, they are not universal and, disappointingly, do not let us know the names of all the signatories. Moreover, the reports are only as reliable, of course, as the judgement of the clerks collating them: The 1848 petition in favour of the People’s Charter for universal (male) suffrage and other electoral reforms was, infamously, recorded as containing 2 million signatures – and not the nearly 6 million claimed by the Chartist campaigners.

Access to the petitions – and the tools to measure and map them – will enhance studies of a range of issues and the movements which sustained pressure about them. Moreover, the sources offer a rich vein of research for those undertaking undergraduate or postgraduate research for senior essays and dissertations.

The growing mountains of petitions sent to the House of Commons in the past few centuries are awaiting exploration and, combined with other sources, promise unparalleled perspectives on modern Britain and its empire.

About ProQuest’s Public Petitions to Parliament

Public Petitions to Parliament, 1833-1918 is an online collection of Parliamentary Papers covering the records of the Select Committee on Public Petitions. It includes individually rekeyed metadata records for over 960,000 petitions accepted by Parliament and includes the full text of each petition that the Committee transcribed. Integrated fully with UK Parliamentary Papers, this collection shows how the people during the 19th century influenced Parliament on political, ecclesiastical, colonial, taxation and many other topics relevant to the study of Britain and the British Empire within a range of different disciplines within historical and social studies.

Dr. Richard Huzzey and Dr. Henry Miller lead the ‘Re-thinking Petitions, Parliament, and People, c. 1780-1918’ project, which is based at Durham University and funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (RPG-2016-097). Read more about their project at their website.


02 Nov 2017

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