The following essay explains the political history of Birmingham from the successful termination of the struggle for reform to the end of the second quarter of the century. Birmingham having thus become a Parliamentary borough, it became necessary to elect two members to the reformed Parliament. The people had already resolved, immediately upon the passing of the bill, that they would endeavour to return the president and vice-president of the Union, Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield. There was at first some fear of their being divided in their choice, as George Edmonds formally announced himself as a candidate; but before the day of nomination the latter withdrew, and Messrs. Attwood and Scholefield were on the 12th of December, 1832, unanimously chosen and returned as the first representatives of the people of Birmingham in the House of Commons.
Working-Class Disappointment in the Reformed Parliament
The inevitable reaction followed close upon the hardly-won triumph. Men had begun to think that no sooner had the reformed Parliament settled down to its labours than all burdens would be removed, that there would be an immediate revival of trade, with higher wages, cheaper provisions, and an ushering in of a long period of general prosperity. When this state of things did not come about during the first session of the new Parliament agitation re-awoke, and once more Newhall Hill was the scene of a great gathering, on the 20th of May, 1833, this time for the purpose of petitioning the King to dismiss the ministry whose recall had given them so much satisfaction only a year ago. The Conservative party speedily took advantage of this reaction, and the old Loyal and Constitutional Association was revived; and at the election which took place on the dissolution of Parliament in the autumn of 1834 they brought forward Mr. Richard Spooner as their candidate.
This attempt to obtain a share of the representation did not, however, succeed, for on the declaration of the poll on the ioth of January, 1835, the result was:
- Attwood ..... 1,718
- Scholefield ... 1,660
- Spooner ....... 915
During this election the new Town Hall was used for the first time for the purpose of a great political meeting. Charles Reece Pemberton has given a vivid and picturesque description of the scene on this occasion. He says:
On that day there were ten or perhaps twelve thousand people packed together. The seats being removed, left the great floor clear; and every avenue, aisle, and accessible window place was filled with bodies crushed up into the smallest dimensions; thousands of arms were literally wedged to the sides by the pressure. The organ-loft, from which my view is taken, was occupied by the committees and friends, who were admitted by ticket. From this station the eye ran over the whole plain and mountain of hats and faces ; up from which rose, on every occasion of circumstantial or verbal appeal to their approving senses, cheers that would have made silent the loudest thunder; rattling, and ringing and reverberating with such passionate sublimity, that one actually, for a moment, felt a dread that the roof and walls would split under that mighty burst of voices; while hats and arms shook and shivered like the crossed and splintering billows of the sea, in a black night, when opposite and furiously sharp blasts are battling o’er its surface. And, look there—I am supposing the reader has eyes—imagination would scarcely have helped me to the conception of such a scene and effect, if I had not witnessed them de facto. There were many dashings, rushings of those who were outside the building, in bodies of some hundreds at once, attempting to force themselves into that an ocean from without had made a tremendous send of its waters into the land-locked haven, which it caused to heave, and sway, and swell as though it would burst every barrier, and overwhelm all in its course. Another send—and another—and then I had the similitude of a dark pine forest, swinging its clinging and intertwisted branches, at one instant with one motion, as the rattling tempest rolled over them, unfearing and unscathing. I have seen many strange and stirring things in my time, but that is, perhaps, one of the most extraordinary.”
At the general election which followed the accession of Queen Victoria, in July, 1837, the Conservatives brought forward the Hon. A. G. Stapleton as their candidate, but they were again defeated. Something approaching a riot occurred on this occasion, a crowd having gathered in front of the Royal Hotel, the headquarters of the Conservative candidate, and being somewhat irritated by an attempt of that party to drive them away, took up stones, and broke several of the hotel windows. The Riot Act was read, and the military were called out to disperse the crowd. Their services were again in requisition on the following day, when, but for the forbearance and tact of Colonel Wallace, of the 5th Dragoons, serious consequences might have ensued, as the Yeomanry, who had also been called out, had been ordered to load with ball, and, on the throwing of the first stone, to fire into the crowd. They were, however, directed by Colonel Wallace to retire, as the crowd was becoming irritated. This having been accomplished, not without difficulty, the disturbance subsided, and peace was restored.
Matters were ripening, however, for a serious outbreak on the part of the people. A new doctrine was being insidiously taught by a few earnest but misguided men, disclaiming the old watchwords of the Union, and proclaiming that the people were justified in obtaining their rights by physical force. This was the beginning of the Chartist agitation. In 1838 this doctrine was promulgated in Birmingham, but the old leaders of the Reform movement denounced the new evangel with much energy. “ No, by the great God,” George Edmonds emphatically exclaimed, “the honest men of Birmingham will never stand this! ’ But the Chartists found almost as great a following in Birmingham as the Union had done. In August, 1838, a hundred thousand of them had met at Holloway Head, and the ‘national petition ’demanding the ‘five points of the Charter’ was adopted. These were Universal Suffrage, Vote by Ballot, Annual Parliaments, Payment of Members, and the Abolition of the Property Qualification; and 96,643 signatures were obtained in Birmingham to the petition praying for their adoption.
‘The Charter’ became the focus of all the political aspirations of the people. The Anti-Corn Law League, which had then newly come into existence, failed for the time to find a hearing in Birmingham. As with the Reformers on Newhall Hill before the passing of the Reform Bill, so it was now with the Chartists, they would have “the Charter, nothing less, nothing more.” All through the spring of 1839 the excitement continued and grew daily more intense. The national convention’ of the Chartists removed its sittings to Birmingham, and large crowds met in the Bull Ring every night for some time, where inflammatory addresses were delivered by the leading spirits of the movement. Many of the people who attended these meetings were armed, and it became necessary, in the interests of public safety, that these disorderly and dangerous gatherings should no longer be held in the very heart of the town. Under these circumstances, therefore, the magistrates issued the following proclamation :
“Whereas evil-disposed persons have of late held meetings, during the evening, in the Bull-ring, and then and there, by seditious harangues, have endeavoured to excite the people to violence and illegal proceedings ; and whereas such seditious speeches have, on several occasions, caused a large concourse of people, to the great alarm of her Majesty’s subjects,—we, the undersigned Magistrates, deem it our duty to command all persons to refrain from attending such meetings, as being contrary to law, and dangerous to the tranquility of the borough; and we further declare it to be our determination to prosecute all those who, after this notice, shall hold such meetings, or who, by inflammatory speeches, shall attempt to excite the people to any disturbance or breach of the peace.
William Scholefield, Mayor,
W. C. Alston P. H. Muntz
S. Beale C. C. Scholefield
T. Bolton C. Shaw
W. Chance Joseph Webster
J. B. Davies Joseph Walker
J. T. Lawrence.
Public Offices, May 10, 1839.”
This proclamation seems to have had but little result, for on Monday, the 13th of May, the Convention met in Birmingham, and every evening meetings were held, as before, in the Bull Ring. Several hundreds of special constables were sworn in, and a few of the leaders of the movement were arrested and escorted out of the town by a troop of dragoons; yet still the meetings were continued, and the fine open space around Nelson’s statue was thronged with excited men, night after night, all through May and June. On the 1 st of July, Feargus O’Connor appeared among them and advised them to adjourn to Gosta Green, where he would address them, and by this means the crowd was drawn for the time from their old place of meeting. This was but a temporary respite for the inhabitants of the disturbed quarter, however, for as soon as O’Connor had finished speaking, they marched back to the Bull Ring and took possession of their accustomed place amidst tremendous cheering. On the succeeding evenings of that week they varied the usual proceedings by forming themselves into a procession and marching through the principal streets with flags and banners, cheering and hissing as they went.
It seemed now as if mob law were to prevail, and the more peaceable inhabitants were beginning to entertain fears of a serious outbreak now that the lawless throng had discovered that they were masters of the situation. In this dilemma the magistrates sought the help of the London Police, and a large contingent of this force was brought into the town to put an end to the reign of misrule on the 5th of July. Their appearance in the streets was the signal for increased disorder; they were stoned, kicked, and in various ways maltreated, one or two of them being even stabbed, and severely wounded. Considerable rioting ensued, the mob being driven by the troops (who had been called out from the barracks) to Holloway Head, where they pulled down a considerable length of the railings, using the palisades as weapons, and again marched back to the town in triumph. It seemed indeed as if they had completely got the mastery; and for several days afterwards the excitement continued. One of the leaders of the movement, Dr. Taylor, was arrested on the day after the arrival of the London police, whereupon the chartists’ Convention immediately published the following resolutions:
“ 1st.—That this Convention is of opinion that a wanton, flagrant, and unjust outrage has been made upon the people of Birmingham by a blood-thirsty and unconstitutional force from London, acting under the authority of men who, when out of office, sanctioned and took part in the meetings of the people, and now when they share in the public plunder, seek to keep the people in social and political degradation.
“2nd.—That the people of Birmingham are the best judges of their own right to meet in the Bull King or elsewhere, have their own feelings to consult respecting the outrage given, and are the best judges of their own power and resources to obtain justice.
“3rd.—That the summary and despotic arrest of Dr. Taylor, our respected colleague, affords another convincing proof of the absence of all justice in England, and clearly shows that there is no security for life, liberty, or property, till the people have some control over the laws they are called on to obey.
“ By order,
“ W. Lovett, Secretary.
“ Friday, July 5> 1839.”
Lovett and John Collins, who were both concerned in drawing up this placard, were speedily arrested. From this time until the 15th of July, the excitement although still intense, seemed to have been allayed. Crowds still assembled in the Bull Ring and at Holloway Head, but no further outbreak took place. But this was, events proved, only the lull before the storm; the discordant elements were all the while present, under the surface. On the 15th the case of Lovett and Collins was brought before the magistrates, and they were committed for trial, both, however, being liberated on bail. A large crowd waited in Moor Street and in the Bull Ring for the result of the magisterial examination, and on hearing what had been done, gradually dispersed. But some organisation had evidently been at work, preparing for a demonstration of the power of the mob, and that night was enacted another of those lawless scenes for which Birmingham had gained an unenviable notoriety. Mr. Jaffray has thus vividly described the occurrences of the Bull Ring Riots of 1839, as they have come to be known, in his Hints for a History of Birmingham: “ About seven o’clock [on the evening of July 15th,] the Bull Ring became crowded with a number of persons, many of whom, from their appearance, were evidently attracted by curiosity. Their conduct was perfectly orderly, so much so that no attempt was made, as on the previous nights, to disperse them. The pressure, however, was so great, that the shopkeepers in the Bull Ring closed their shops before eight o’clock, a little earlier than usual, but without any anticipation of a riot. Shortly after eight o’clock a mob of persons, to the number of about 500, were seen coming up Digbeth, armed with pieces of iron, wooden railings, and other weapons. On their arrival at Moor Street, they turned down to the Prison, and immediately commenced a furious attack upon the windows, almost all of which they demolished. The policemen who were inside closed the gates, having, it appears, orders not to act against the people without instructions from the Magistrates. The mob having demolished the office windows, and dared the police to an encounter, retraced their steps> and immediately commenced an attack upon the windows in the long range of building, on the premises of Messrs. Bourne, grocers. After smashing every pane in the building, which is five storeys high, with a frontage of about 40 feet, they divided themselves into parties, and commenced the work of destruction in good earnest. One party, at a quarter to nine o’clock, burst in the shop-door of Messrs. Bourne’s house, and immediately commenced destroying the property. Tea, sugar, and every article they could lay their hands upon were thrown into the street, the canisters kicked out amongst the rioters, and the whole frontage battered in. The shopmates and inmates were paralysed, and fled out of the house by the side and other doors. Whilst this work of devastation was going on, another party effected their entrance into the shop of Mr. Leggett, feather dealer and upholsterer, and having got possession of a number of pieces of bed-ticking, some of them rushed into the street with them, and spread them like carpeting in all directions about the Bull Ring.
“Having placed the linen in this manner upon the pavement, one of the rioters deliberately went to a lamp at Nelson’s Monument, and having lighted a piece of paper, he set fire to the ticking. When in flames it was rolled up into a heap, opposite the Monument, and from thence carried in different portions into the shops of Messrs. Bourne and Leggett. The fire almost instantaneously seized the with great effect, and happily confined the flames to the premises of Messrs. Bourne and Leggett.
The confusion and alarm of the night were terrible. Many of the inhabitants in the Bull Ring and neighbourhood fled with their families, account books, and such portion of their valuable property as could be easily conveyed away. Mr. Belcher, who lived in the house adjoining Mr. Leggett’s premises, and two ladies, escaped by means of a ladder. Detachments of the troops and rifle brigade were sent in all directions to clear the streets; and the most fearful apprehensions were entertained, that other parts of the town would be attacked in a similar manner.
Nothing, however, of the kind occurred, and with the exception of the above outrage, which had been attended with the loss of many thousand pounds the Liberal party being divided, two candidates came forward in their interest, Mr. Joseph Sturge and Mr. G. F. Muntz. This being the case, the Conservative party felt that their opportunity had now come of obtaining a share of the representation, and they nominated Sir Charles YVethcrell. Mr. Joseph Sturge, however, being unwilling to imperil the cause of Liberalism, declined to go to the poll, and the result was a victory for Mr. Muntz, the polling being, for Mr. Muntz, 1,454; for Sir Charles Wetherell, 915, giving the former a majority of 539.
The Corn Laws and Movement for Their Repeal
In 1841 Birmingham began in earnest to take up the question of the repeal of the Corn taws, and in June of that year a petition in favour of their repeal was signed by 18,900 persons. A local Council of the Anti-Corn taw League was formed in the town, and held meetings ever)' week, numbering among its members some of the most influential of the inhabitants. The energy which had formerly been devoted to what was at that time impracticable was now turned into a channel in which it might be productive of great good to themselves and the country at large. The agitation of this important question in Parliament, and the conversion of Sir Robert Peel to the principles of Free Trade, led to the dissolution of Parliament in June, 1841. Messrs. Scholefield and Muntz offered themselves again for re-election for the borough, the Conservatives bringing forward Mr. Richard Spooner and Mr. W. C. Alston. Mr. Alston retired from the contest before the polling day, and the Liberal candidates were both returned, the figures being—for Mr. Muntz, 2,175; for Mr. Scholefield, 1,963; and for Mr. Spooner, 1,825. And still the agitation went on.
The long-continued depression of trade, and the consequent poverty and misery of many of the artisans and their families, afforded the keenest incentive to the agitators, and the repeal of the Corn Laws became a theme for the pulpit as well as the platform. The Rev. John Angell James preached a sermon on the subject, and brought his discourse to a practical conclusion by reading a petition praying for a repeal of this tax on the staff of life, which he declared to be impolitic, unjust, and unscriptural. Fifty thousand signatures were obtained to this petition, and it was presented to the House of Commons by Mr. Scholefield on the 14th of February, 1842. Great meetings were held in the Town Hall during this and the succeeding years, and in 1846 the men who had laboured in this cause reaped their reward in the success of the bill for the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which passed its third reading in the House of Lords on the 25th of June in that year.
In 1844 Birmingham lost its senior member, Mr. Scholefield, who had represented the borough since its enfranchisement. He died in London on the 4th of July in that year, in the 70th year of his age. And now for the first time the Conservatives obtained a share in the representation of the borough. The Liberal party was again divided, Mr. William Scholefield, the son of the late representative, being brought forward by one section, and Mr. Joseph Sturge by another; and as both candidates insisted on going to the poll Mr. Richard Spooner, the nominee of the Conservatives, was elected, the numbers being
For Mr. Spooner ....... 2,095
For Mr. Scholefield ... 1,735
For Mr. Sturge .......... 346
The success of the Conservative party was, however, a short-lived one, as at the general election of 1847 two Liberals were again returned for the borough. At this election Mr. George Frederick Muntz considerably disturbed the minds of the Liberal wirepullers by refusing to unite with Mr. William Scholefield in canvassing the electors, declaring that he would not coalesce with anybody, or make any personal canvass, such an act being, in his opinion, degrading alike to the constituency and the candidate. It was hinted to him that if he persisted in his refusal, many of the electors would plump for Mr. Scholefield, whereupon he is said to have exclaimed indignantly, “plump for Scholefield and be damned!” It is even averred that this comminatory advice formed the burden of one of the electioneering posters; and a caricature print was published in which the big bearded figure of the senior member for Birmingham was depicted standing in front of the great organ which had recently been placed in the Town Hall, with huge walking stick and wide, baggy trousers, striding like a Colossus across the orchestra, and surrounded by a group of pigmy supporters, with the title, “ The Great Brummagem Organ ” The polling took place on the 30th of July, and the result was as follows:
For Mr. Muntz ......... 2,830
For Mr. Scholefield ... 2,824
For Mr. Spooner ....... 2,302
For Serjeant Allen.... 890
The year 1848 was one of great political excitement. The wave of revolution which had swept over Europe exercised a disturbing influence in Great Britain also. There were popular outbreaks in several of the large towns, and great apprehension was felt in Birmingham lest there should be a repetition of those disturbances for which the town had become so notorious during the preceding half-century or more. Pieces of ordnance were brought from Weedon, the barracks were closed to all outsiders, and the police were concentrated at the Town Hall, arms being provided, ready to be served out to them. Nearly two thousand special constables were also sworn in as a further precaution, and as many of these were working men this step served in a great measure to restore tranquility. To these prompt measures was doubtless owing, in some degree, the fact that Birmingham was free from outbreak during this period, but this was also due, it is to be hoped, to the conviction which was steadily growing in the minds of the artisan population that their interests could best be advanced by peaceable and constitutional agitation. And in this hopeful condition local politics and politicians remained at the close of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Dent, Robert K. The Making of Birmingham: Being a History of the Rise & Growth of the Midland Metropolis. Birmingham: J. L. Allday, 1894. Birmingham: Hall and English, 1886. 398-403. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 4 October 2022.
Last modified 5 October 2022