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Representing the people before the vote: Petitions to parliament in the eighteenth century

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This post was written by Dr Philip Loft.

When we think of the ‘golden age’ of parliamentary petitioning, thoughts may first turn to the nineteenth century. When slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean colonies in 1833, it followed the presentation of some thirteen thousand petitions over the previous forty-five years, whilst the Chartist movement saw 1.3 million people in 1839 and 3 million in 1842 sign petitions in support of parliamentary reform and greater enfranchisement. The eighteenth century, in contrast, was the age of aristocracy, oligarchy, and the country house.

This nineteenth-century petitioning, however, built on a long practice of public petitioning directed towards parliament. Aside from petitions presented for legal redress, collective petitioning gained ground in the tumultuous decades of the 1640s and 1650s. When the ‘Long Parliament’ assembled at Westminster in 1640, some fifteen thousand Londoners had petitioned it calling for the abolition of episcopacy in the English church.

But it was only really the revolution of 1688-89 and the resulting transformation in the role of the Westminster parliament that enabled public petitioning to assume a regular and sustained presence in English parliamentary culture. Through meeting annually, for around a hundred days each time, and with the Commons printing a skeleton form of its business in the form of the Votes, the wider public were better able to learn of, and then influence, proposals currently before parliamentarians.

My research and interest in the Parliamentary Archives has come from seeking to quantify the growth of petitioning directed at Westminster, and then determining how the petitioning-political nation differed from that defined by the right to vote and the distribution of parliamentary constituencies. From working with the Lords and Commons Journals, the main paper series of the House of Lords and the large parchment collection, my research has found that petitioning increased eleven-fold in the first thirty years after the revolution of 1688-89 compared to the Restoration of 1660-1688 (an annual average of eleven increasing to nearly 130).

Due to the fire of 1834 that destroyed the records of the House of Commons, very few of the twelve-thousand petitions presented to parliament survive. But those that remain through being presented to the Lords are varied and valuable, and total nearly seven hundred in number. Their topics are multifarious, but primarily economic and social in nature. They include everything from shoemakers petitioning against taxes on leather, to parishioners complaining of the construction of water pipes in Southwark, citizens demonstrating their support for a night watch in Bristol, or landholders against the cutting of a new river navigation or canal.

Historians have often asked how the unrepresentative parliament was able to satisfy the demands of a rapidly changing society before the parliamentary reforms of the nineteenth century. The patterns and presence of these petitions offers one important explanation. Even by 1832, substantial and growing cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds lacked their own representatives. But all were able to make use of petitioning to represent their opinions and expectations to parliamentarians. For example, unrepresented Manchester sent some 120 petitions in the century to 1784, whilst represented Clitheroe only eleven.

The underrepresented population were also able, on occasion, to represent their opinions to parliamentarians. The signatures, marks and scribbles of nearly one hundred thousand people from 1660 to 1784 can be found on the petitions surviving in the Parliamentary Archives. Some are from noblemen, town magistrates and gentlemen, but many more are from merchants, parishioners and workers. Although rare, significant concentrations of female signatures can be found on petitions relating to the enclosure of land, the organisation of poor relief, and the strength of the woollen and silk industries. The largest surviving petition for the surveyed period between 1660 and 1784, of eighteen thousand rural Welsh inhabitants in 1689, also contains the marks of fifteen hundred illiterate men.

This exploration of the parliamentary archives has shown that the business and records of the Westminster parliament are not solely concerned with the propertied elites. Instead, they offer a valuable window into the social structure of local societies and the culture of early modern politics experienced by those lacking the right to vote.

Dr Philip Loft is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge (Grant number pf160004). Many thanks to the staff of the parliamentary archives for making so many records available.

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