A series of large and sometimes violent working class protests caused by a combination of a poor economy, a bad harvest and growing poverty culminated on 10 April 1848 in a huge demonstration involving tens of thousands of mainly working class people on an area of grassland in south London then known as Kennington Common. The protest was organised by a group known as the National Charter Association (formerly the Working Men's Association) whose aims were the extension of the political, economic and land rights of the working class.
The Association was at the head of what became known as the Chartist movement, a movement in support of The People's Charter. This was a document created in the most part by William Lovett, Francis Place and John Arthur Roebuck. It contained six points demanding change and improvement to the political system. The charter was first published on 8 May 1838 and was presented to Parliament along with a petition supporting its implementation. It was, however, rejected.
In 1848 a gathering on Kennington Common was arranged in support of a third petition backing the charter. The plan was that, once assembled, the crowd would listen to leading Chartists including Ernest Jones and George Julian Harney speak. The crowd would then to march to Parliament with the petition which would be presented to the House of Commons.
Due to recent working class unrest across the country, and revolutions throughout Europe, the government and authorities greatly feared that Kennington Common would become the start of a huge revolutionary uprising. They therefore implemented an extraordinary security operation in the days leading up to the demonstration. Thousands of Special Constables were sworn in, thousands of troops were positioned on London's bridges and the Bank of England's walls were reinforced.
Despite the authorities' fears the demonstration was virtually completely peaceful. However the crowd was forbidden from accompanying the petition to Westminster. Once the petition was presented to Parliament by leading Chartists it was laughed out of the House of Commons chamber and completely rejected. Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor had told the crowd that the petition contained 5,706,000 signatures. However, when examined by MPs it was said to have only 1,975,496 signatures, and many of these were clear forgeries.
The petition's failure and the indecision of the Chartist leadership and ease with which they backed down in the face of government pressure hugely dented the popularity and success of the Chartist movement.
Find out more about Chartism and the Library's extensive collection of Chartist material here.