People’s Vote march: when it comes to crowds, history shows it’s not all about size

Aaron Chown/PA Wire

People’s Vote march: when it comes to crowds, history shows it’s not all about size

The recent People’s Vote march demanding another say on Brexit in London has re-opened the debate about attendance figures which surfaces every time there is a mass protest. The argument hinges on a correlation between magnitude and success – protesters claim a million people marched while others have sought to discredit such claims. But my ongoing research into 19th-century crowds who demanded electoral and social reform suggests that attendance figures play a much smaller part in the impact of mass protest than the impression of the power they symbolise.

During a crisis over British political reform in 1831-32, a series of meetings were held at Newhall Hill, a disused sandstone quarry in Birmingham. At stake was a conversation about extending the right to vote and the entitlement of industrial cities to return MPs to Westminster.

Birmingham was part of the constituency of Warwickshire where just 400 men were entitled vote. An alliance between an empowered working class and an aspirational middle class came together to lobby for radical change. The Birmingham Political Union, led by politically astute banker Thomas Attwood spearheaded the Newhall Hill meetings – the first of which, held on October 3, 1831 to “Petition the Lords to Pass the Reform Bill”, claimed an attendance of 80,000.

At Westminster, the traditional party dichotomy between Whigs and Tories at the time was exacerbated by internal party divisions about whether and how to achieve reform. The situation was not dissimilar to today’s constitutional crisis over Brexit, though there were undeniable differences. In 1832, for example, the impasse was between the Lords and the Commons, rather than between the government and parliament. At one point, during what’s been called the “May Days” crisis of 1832, King William IV accepted the resignation of the prime minister, Charles Grey, in favour of the Tory Duke of Wellington only to reappoint him two days later without an election even taking place.

Newhall Hill attendance was reported as 100,000 on May 10 and an implausible 150,000 on May 7. A final meeting on May 16 to celebrate Grey’s reinstatement was said to have drawn 50,000. Then, as now, these figures were challenged, with magistrates suggesting a maximum capacity of 30,000. My ongoing PhD research roughly corroborates this at nearer 40,000.

A meeting of the Birmingham Political Union during May 1832 at Newhall Hill. Benjamin Haydon via Wikimedia Commons

But regardless of figures, the Newhall Hill meetings were perceived to be persuasive demonstrations of power. They were acknowledged by Grey as having been influential during the reform crisis, and historian E P Thompson attributed the “triumph” of the 1832 Reform Bill at least in part to the “well-ordered proceedings, extended organisation, and immense assemblages of people” in Birmingham.

But the victory was a Pyrrhic one. Although Attwood was subsequently returned to parliament as one of two MPs for the newly created Birmingham constituency, the Reform Act failed to deliver the vote to the ordinary working man as only those with property could vote. Further acts of parliament in 1867 and 1884 gradually extended the franchise until finally in 1928, all men and women over 21 had the vote.


Read more: How Brexit brought Britain's constitution to the brink


Power of anticipation

At other times during the struggle for electoral reform the power of the crowd was paramount. It’s been 200 years since the Peterloo massacre, as depicted in Mike Leigh’s recent film. Again, the reported figures for the crowd were contentious and my ongoing research suggests that attendance may have been 35,000 rather than the 60,000 recorded. This means the 654 recorded injuries and 17 deaths represent a higher percentage of the total than previously thought. But the fact that the country is still talking about Peterloo 200 years later demonstrates the extent of penetration of the political power it signified.

The anticipation of a large crowd can be just as powerful as the aftermath. The Great Chartist Meeting at Kennington Common on April 10, 1848 was expected to be such a serious threat that the Royal Family was evacuated to the Isle of Wight. London was subjected to a military lockdown with 8,000 troops billeted to defend key buildings with provisions laid-in for a ten-day siege. There were 4,000 police on hand to defend the bridges and 80,000 special constables were enlisted.

This show of force may have been the reason why the attendance didn’t meet expectations which by my calculation didn’t exceed 25,000, meaning the Chartists were seriously outnumbered. But they managed to convince the state that their arguments had a seriously potent reach. Although most of them didn’t live to see their objectives realised, within 80 years all but one of their six points had been achieved.

Today, as in the 19th century, the vote is not the only way ordinary people engage with national decisions and hold leaders to account. Marching collectively in shows of power such as the People’s Vote march continues a long tradition of orderly mass protest asserting legitimate demands via the power of political persuasion. But focusing on whether attendance reached one million is missing the point. Just as in the 19th century, modern political crowds are demanding to have their voices heard by the legislature.