Skip to main content

Petitions and peers: petitioning the House of Lords

31 January 2019

This month, Dr Henry Miller looks at the House of Lords' historic role in receiving petitions


Petitions and peers: petitioning the House of Lords

Surviving in the Parliamentary Archives are a few hundred of the million petitions that were sent to Parliament during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   However, these rare examples of original petitions from the heyday of petitioning were addressed to the House of Lords, not the Commons, to whom petitioners typically appealed.  These documents provide a rare glimpse not only of the material forms of petitions otherwise lost of posterity (including the signatory lists of individuals signing them), but reveal the importance of the Lords and its distinctive role within the wider culture of petitioning.


The material culture of petitions

The petitions contained in the House of Lords petitions boxes (Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/6) date from 1875 to 1910. Yet the surviving examples from even a relatively brief timespan such as this reveals the rich diversity of forms of petitions. Petitions came rolled up in large scrolls, consisting of pasted sheets of paper; in other cases they were inscribed on outsize paper, folded up irregularly; or had their sheets tied together like a book.  Petitions were written on a variety of different types of paper, and signatures were variously organised, in tight columns, sometimes separated according to gender, or more chaotically.  Numerously signed petitions, such as the 1875 petition in favour of the claimant to the Tichborne baronetcy (1000 signatures), organised names into regimented columns.  Petitions from institutions, such as town councils, came stamped with their wax seal as a marker of their status. Sometimes petitioners listed their addresses, or other information. The Lincolnshire signatories to the 1875 petition in favour of preventing the poisoning of horses included their acreage, presumably to impress the great landowners who constituted the bulk of the upper house at this time (HL/PO/6/1/36).


Peers and petitions

The documents in the petitions boxes generally have a peer's name written on them, indicating who presented the petition to the House. While nineteenth-century peers, unlike MPs, did not electorally represent geographical constituencies, presenting petitions enabled them to act as representatives. For example, the bishops (or spiritual peers), often took the lead in presenting petitions on religious and moral issues. William Connor Magee, Bishop of Peterborough, presented a number of petitions in favour of his 1875 church patronage bill (e.g. HL/PO/6/1/20-27).  As well as representing petitioners through presenting petitions on specific issues, landownership and family ties gave temporal (or hereditary) peers strong connections to particular counties, towns, or regions, from where they presented petitions. In the early and mid-nineteenth century the 4th and 5th Earls Fitzwilliam presented many petitions in favour of reform, the abolition of slavery, and free trade from Yorkshire, where most of their immense estates lay.  While after 1833, MPs were prevented from using the presentation of petitions to initiate debate, no such restriction was ever introduced in the upper house, meaning that peers had greater latitude to discuss the merits of specific petitions and, indeed, specific petitioners. 


Petitions and the House of Lords

Petitions to the House of Lords reveal the power and importance of the upper house, especially before the 1911 Parliament Act abolished peers' legislative veto. The Lords, unlike the Commons after 1833, did not systematically record the number of public petitions it received. However, it is clear that petitioners could and did appeal to peers in great number, with the patterns of petitioning reflecting the distinctive role of the Lords. The nineteenth-century Lords' conservative bias, and the presence of the spiritual peers meant that petitioners seeking to resist reforms of the established churches of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales often called on peers to exercise their veto power.  In 1869, over 3,500 petitions, containing over 650,000 signatures were sent to the Lords opposing the Liberal prime minister William Gladstone's bill to disestablish the Irish church. Petitioners often petitioned the Lords after the Commons, following a bill through the legislative process. The Lords received petitions from all over the United Kingdom and the British empire, highlighting its significance within the Victorian political system.  Petitions in favour of altering the coronation oath from Catholic subjects in Natal, South Africa, and Rhodesia survive in the petition boxes and were signed by 2,235 and 500 signatures respectively (HL/PO/6/14/21 & 26). 

While most of the blogs in this series, and scholarship more generally, have focused for understandable reasons on petitions to the Commons, which were more numerous and associated with many well-known campaigns such as anti-slavery or Chartism, the subject of petitions to the Lords shows another side to the petitioning process, with important differences in terms of procedure, peers' role and petitioners tactics and strategies in appealing to the House.



Dr. Henry Miller is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of History, Durham University, and Principal Investigator of the AHRC Research Network on Petitions and Petitioning from the Medieval Period to the Present (AH/R008868/1). He is Project co-ordinator of the Petitions, Parliament and People project. This article is informed by research conducted as part of that project, which he leads alongside Dr. Richard Huzzey and is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2016-097).