A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1964.
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POLITICAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY
POLITICAL HISTORY TO 1832
The beginnings of Birmingham's political self-consciousness seem to date from the early 17th century, and reflect the doubling of the town's population from less than 2,500 in 1563 to more than 5,000 by 1650; (fn. 1) in the Warwickshire ship-money assessment of 1617 Birmingham was assessed equally with Warwick, and second only to Coventry. (fn. 2) In 1640 the inhabitants, with the encouragement of John Grent, the Puritan Vicar of Aston, (fn. 3) petitioned the king 'in regard to the great want of justices of the peace' in the neighbourhood. This must almost certainly be regarded as an intrigue against the courtier, Sir Thomas Holte of Aston Hall, (fn. 4) of whose vigour as a local magistrate there is - and was - no doubt. (fn. 5) There were at least three other justices within Hemlingford hundred in 1640 (fn. 6) one of whom, Sir George Devereux, (fn. 7) resided at Sheldon, within five miles of Birmingham, so that the petition takes on something of the aspect of a municipal protest against the rule of country gentlemen. It was certainly treated with some suspicion in London, and at least one petitioner, Edward Brandwood of Aston, later a Commonwealth justice of the peace, (fn. 8) was briefly imprisoned because of it.
Long a centre of Puritan teaching, (fn. 9) Birmingham was well known in the Civil Wars for its consistent parliamentarian sympathies. A royalist chronicler in 1643 found it 'a pestilent and seditious town'; (fn. 10) to Clarendon, in retrospect, it seemed a place 'of as great fame for hearty, wilful, affected disloyalty to the king as any place in England'. (fn. 11) In August 1642 Birmingham sent 400 men to stiffen Coventry's defiance of the king, (fn. 12) men to whom Baxter paid tribute as 'the most religious men of the parts round about ... men of great sobriety and soundness of understanding as any garrison heard of in England'. (fn. 13) When, on 17 and 18 October, Charles marched through Birmingham on his way south from Shrewsbury, spending the two days with Sir Thomas Holte, at Aston Hall, the inhabitants seized part of his baggage train, including personal plate and furniture. (fn. 14) At the same time parties of the Cavalier forces were roughly handled by the Warwickshire train bands in confused engagements south of the town, according to one probably exaggerated account losing some 600 men. (fn. 15) These events occurred a week before the battle of Edgehill, which virtually cleared Warwickshire of royalists, and in the spring of 1643 the Birmingham parliamentarians were reinforced by a garrison of 300 Coventry men. These were withdrawn only three days before a royalist force again confronted the town on 3 April 1643, (fn. 16) and their commander, Prince Rupert, demanded permission to quarter his troops in peace. In reply the local parliamentarians, rallied by Captain Richard Greaves of Moseley, (fn. 17) manned defences south of the town. The royalists then attacked and quickly overcame the defenders. They first overran the defences on the Bordesley side of the Rea, but then found their way into Deritend blocked by wagons and so crossed the river farther downstream. Meanwhile, the defenders had withdrawn into Digbeth, but the royalists crossed Lake Meadow, dispersed them, (fn. 18) and then burned part of the town, including Porter's Blade Mill (fn. 19) 'wherein swordblades were made and imployed, only for the service of the parliament'. According to a contemporary account 'near a hundred dwellings' were burned in the Dale End, Welsh End, and Moor Street district. (fn. 20) The citizens were also compelled to pay a fine, part of which was exacted in shoes and stockings. (fn. 21)
Although the best known, the sack of 1643 was not the only occasion on which Birmingham was pillaged by the king's forces. Prince Rupert was there again in April 1644 'to the utter undoing of and impoverishing of the inhabitants' (fn. 22) and a year later Prince Maurice occupied the town shortly before his defeat at Sherborne, 22 April 1645. (fn. 23) Royalist soldiers were again quartered in the town in May 1645, (fn. 24) and a parliamentarian chronicler commented wearily, about this time, on their expertise in seeking out every corner in the town that was likely to provide plunder. (fn. 25) The royalist fury was in part inspired by the continued survival of Birmingham as a symbol of resistance. When, in December 1643, a royalist garrison was put into Aston Hall from Dudley Castle, the Hall was promptly attacked by some 1,200 men and reduced after a three-day siege. (fn. 26) Edgbaston Hall was occupied for Parliament about the same time by a party of men from Walsall under John Fox, described contemptuously as 'tinkers' by a royalist sheet, and therefore, most probably, workers in the metal trades. By the end of February 1644 Fox had recruited a garrison of some 200 that was said to 'rob and pillage very sufficiently', (fn. 27) and he was commissioned Colonel by the Earl of Denbigh, to command six troops of horse and two companies of dragoons. (fn. 28) In June 1644 he was given possession of Edgbaston Hall and manor, and of other revenues of the Middlemore family, in order to support the garrison (fn. 29) - the owner, Richard Middlemore (c. 1589-1647), who was a Roman Catholic, being then with the king's forces. (fn. 30) Fox not only resisted an attempt to retake Edgbaston Hall in October 1644, (fn. 31) but in the course of the year planted subsidiary garrisons at Stourton Castle (Staffs.), and Hawkesley House (King's Norton), another property of the Middlemores, and captured Bewdley (Worcs.), complete with its royalist governor, overthrowing the garrison there. (fn. 32) Fox and the soldiers were still at Edgbaston Hall in November 1646, but had left by the following February, under pressure from the Warwickshire County Committee, (fn. 33) which accused Fox of misappropriating funds placed at his disposal. (fn. 34)
Little is known of the political history of Birmingham during the Interregnum. The Restoration was accomplished without serious local incident, and on 10 January 1661, when extra precautions were taken following anti-Stuart riots in London, the town was commended for 'its readiness to serve king and country'. (fn. 35) Robert Dod (1625-86), of Lea Hall, Yardley, who had been first commissioned by the Commonwealth in April 1660, was then engaged in rounding up the local irreconcilables. (fn. 36) Among those he was ordered to secure (fn. 37) were one 'Girdlow of Birmingham' possibly Samuel Girdler, licensed as a congregational teacher in 1672, (fn. 38) with others 'of his fanatic principles', and 'Rotheram', probably the Quaker, Robert Rotherham of Aston. (fn. 39) Also to be arrested were a Captain Robert King and William Thornton, a Major in the Warwickshire Militia, (fn. 40) whose house was searched for arms. (fn. 41)
Several nonconformist congregations appear to have survived the Restoration, and the Bishop of Lichfield expressed his mistrust, in 1669, of the 'desperate and very populous rabble' of dissenters that lived at Birmingham. (fn. 42) As late as 1676 the rebellious and anti-Stuart tradition of the 'common people' was still regarded with uneasiness by local royalists. (fn. 43) On the other hand the leading local Cavalier family, the Holtes, emerged from the Civil Wars with an inheritance of personal injury and heavily encumbered estates. (fn. 44) In the years between the Restoration and the Revolution of 1688 they were distinguished for a vigorous persecution of nonconformists in and around Birmingham. Sir Robert Holte, Bt. (d. 1679), grandson of Sir Thomas, was made Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1660, and a justice of the peace in the following year. From 1661 he also served as one of the county members, (fn. 45) and was quickly noted in the Commons for his hostility to the leaders of the reconciled Presbyterian party, Baxter and Calamy. (fn. 46) Of the local nonconformists, Thomas Wilsby, the ejected Vicar of Wombourn (Staffs.), who was preaching at his house in Birmingham in 1669, is said to have been 'much troubled there by Sir Robert Holte'. (fn. 47) Sir Robert was succeeded by Sir Charles Holte, whose zeal for the eradication of dissent is discussed elsewhere. (fn. 48) A justice of the peace for Warwickshire from 1682, Sir Charles was Deputy Lieutenant from 1683 and a county member 1685-8. (fn. 49) In 1685 he was responsible for an attempt to upset the charter of the Birmingham Free School, and so eliminate the last traces of nonconformity in its governing body. Among other local men associated with the project were Sir Henry Gough, of Perry, Sir John Bridgeman of Castle Bromwich, Sir John Wyrley of Hamstead, Robert Dod, and the ironmaster Humphrey Jennens; (fn. 50) the list may be an indication of the predominance of 'Tory' sympathies amongst the local gentry. In 1688, however, the presence in Birmingham of Henry Booth, 2nd Lord Delamere, with a substantial force from Manchester and the north, (fn. 51) prevented any demonstration on behalf of James II, and the Revolution was ushered in, instead, with violence against the Jacobite partisans. In November the newly-built Franciscan church in Masshouse Lane was destroyed, on Delamere's orders, (fn. 52) and he is said to have taken 500 horse to Edgbaston Hall and seized a great quantity of arms. (fn. 53) The Hall was afterwards burned down, presumably to prevent its use once again as a fortified bastion. (fn. 54)
The Hall may have been, at this date, a residence of Sir John Gage (d. 1699), 4th Bt., (fn. 55) 'a noted Roman Catholic', (fn. 56) who married Mary (d. 1686), heir of the Middlemores, and whose daughters succeeded to the Edgbaston estate. (fn. 57) In 1687 Gage had joined with King James in making a gift towards the building of the Roman Catholic church at Birmingham. (fn. 58) In 1690 he was imprisoned in the Tower for high treason. (fn. 59)
The Revolution of 1688 brought an immediate benefit to Birmingham in the shape of a county member of the Convention Parliament who was sympathetic to the needs of the town. In 1692 Sir Richard Newdigate, Bt., of Arbury, M.P. 1688-9, managed to secure a Board of Ordnance contract which provided a marked stimulus for the local gun trade; in the same year the Company of Gunmakers in Birmingham sent a joint gift and testimonial to their benefactor. Their contract was renewed in 1693. Encouraged by Parliament's new responsiveness to the needs of the trading classes, in November 1695 the 'chief inhabitants and tradesmen of Birmingham' petitioned to complain of the great scarcity of milled money 'as well on behalf of themselves and several other tradesmen as of several thousands of the poor workmen living in and about the said town'. This seems to have been the first organized attempt by the Birmingham commercial and industrial interest to influence Parliament. In 1707 a sectional interest, the gunmakers, combined again to petition the Commons against alleged obstruction of their trade by the London gunmakers. (fn. 60)
Despite the Puritan and nonconformist tradition of 17th-century Birmingham, the Protestant Succession was by no means popular in the district, and when, in November 1714, several of the principal 'Whigs' arranged a public celebration of the coronation of George I some hundreds of people attacked the houses of the dissenters William Guest and Thomas Gisburne, and that of John Murdock; the defenders were forced to open fire with shotguns and to use their swords. From this date the ominous cry 'Damn King George, Sacheverell for ever!' became current in the town, (fn. 61) and in April 1715 justices had to be brought in from Solihull 'to still the mob there'. (fn. 62) The Jacobite invasion of 1715 precipitated a general outburst of mob violence in the Midlands, and alarm was felt for the security of Birmingham, 'a town which by reason of its manufacturing of firearms was capable of furnishing vast quantities'. In the event riots began at West Bromwich in July and spread to Birmingham by the 17th. The justices and constables were powerless before the mob which succeeded in demolishing one Presbyterian meeting-house, seriously damaged another, and again attacked Gisburne's house. To restore order the Warwickshire justices called out the posse comitatus, but the force of about 1,000 men which the constables managed to turn out proved to be itself 'tumultuous and mutinous... being made up chiefly of mercenary rabble', so that it was not until 26 July that the High Sheriff, accompanied by some mounted gentlemen, and 60 horse 'of the late militia' arrived in Birmingham and put a stop to the riots. (fn. 63) The inadequacy of the manorial administration, even when supported by the justices, in the face of these repeated disorders persuaded the loyalist merchants in 1715 to petition for a charter of incorporation 'to support their trade, the king's interest, and destroy the villainous attempts of the Jacobites', (fn. 64) but the petition met with opposition from Sir John Bridgeman, of Castle Bromwich, (fn. 65) and was unsuccessful.
In 1745 the Pretender had sympathizers in Birmingham and district for whose equipment arms were collected by a group of 'Gentlemen of the Midland Counties'. As late as 1807 these arms were said to be 'yet concealed in the site of the manufactory of one Shelley or Shirley, or his successors'. Shelley was probably engaged in the iron trade, for, on the failure of the rebellion, he fled to Portugal and set up a foundry on the Tagus. (fn. 66) In 1744 a large chest of basket-hilted swords was seized which had been sent from Birmingham to the Belle Sauvage, on Ludgate Hill, while 20 chests, containing 2,000 cutlasses, sent to the Saracen's Head, met with a similar fate. (fn. 67) On the other hand, Birmingham was warmly commended for supplying 200 horses for the use of two battalions of Guards who were sent north from London to help contain the Jacobite invasion. (fn. 68) These men were probably part of the force under the Duke of Cumberland which encamped on Meriden Heath on 7 December, en route for Lichfield. They appear to have reached Birmingham on the nth, and to have been billeted in the Square for a few days. (fn. 69)
With the growth of her industry and trade the people of Birmingham began increasingly to associate for political ends. The 'chief inhabitants and tradesmen' had petitioned Parliament in 1695 and 1715, the gunmakers in 1707. In 1717 the 'ironmongers, smiths and others' of Birmingham petitioned, with other interested parties, on the occasion of the prohibition of Swedish ore imports. Their suggestion that the production of iron and copper in America should be encouraged was, however, balanced by a counter-petition in the name of the 'iron-masters, ironmongers, cutlers, freeholders, nailers, smiths and artificers in the iron manufacture in and about Birmingham'. (fn. 70) Throughout the 18th century, and later, the local manufacturers and merchants were particularly sensitive to governmental measures affecting the American trade. There was always, however, a conflict of view between those who feared the possibility of American competition in the production of raw metal or even finished goods, and another group whose main interest was to secure a good, constant supply of pig and bar iron in the face of a worsening of the conditions of the Swedish trade. Ranked among this second group was a number of Birmingham merchants and founders themselves personally involved, from the 1730s at the latest, in the development of the American iron manufacture. (fn. 71) By mid-century the 'American' party seems to have become predominant, and in 1757 a meeting at the Swan tavern was called to prepare another petition to Parliament, to press for the duty-free import of American bar iron to all English ports. (fn. 72) This petition of the Birmingham 'iron manufacturers' also attacked 'a few ironmasters' who had 'in a manner monopolized that commodity' and contributed to the contemporary shortage and high price. (fn. 73) In 1765 the interested merchants and manufacturers again met to consider the interruption of American trade due to governmental measures, and petitioned for steps to relieve the growing discontent of the colonists, which was affecting commercial relations. (fn. 74) The antiAmerican interest revived in the seventies as the Anglo-American political crisis deepened, and in 1775 a Birmingham petition was presented 'praying the enforcement of the late acts against the Americans, as the most likely to promote trade and give employment to the poor'. (fn. 75) This was quickly followed, however, by a petition of the 'American' party, in the reverse sense, signed, amongst others, by Matthew Boulton, (fn. 76) and Burke suggested darkly that the House would find that the persons who had signed the first petition 'were neither merchants, traders to America nor manufacturers, but shop-keepers and other inferior people, who had been induced to set their names from motives that would appear on examination'. (fn. 77) The founding of the Birmingham Commercial Committee, after a Town's meeting in 1783, (fn. 78) reflected a closer, permanent political organization of the Birmingham merchants and manufacturers which lasted until about 1800, and may be regarded as the precursor of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, refounded in 1811. A permanent committee of from 60 to 100 members was elected to lobby Parliament, and machinery existed, through the General Chamber of Manufacturers in London, for joint action with merchants and manufacturers from other parts of the country. Although the Birmingham Committee supported, with a petition, the ironmasters' national campaign for protection in the face of Pitt's proposals for the regulation of the Irish trade in 1783, it welcomed the conclusion of the Eden Treaty for freer trade with France, (fn. 79) and it is generally conceded that 'when views divided it was the opinion of the merchants that prevailed'. (fn. 80) Amongst these were many representatives of the old 'American' party, including the chemist Samuel Garbett, a Street Commissioner who served as chairman, and William Russell, the dissenters' leader. (fn. 81)
The Birmingham merchants had no direct representation in Parliament in the 18th century. Indeed, there seems never to have been a Midland iron merchant or manufacturer in the Commons. (fn. 82) It is, however, only partly true to say that Birmingham was unrepresented in the unreformed House of Commons. The success of Sir Richard Newdigate, one of the two Warwick county members, in promoting the interests of his Birmingham constituents has already been described. In 1766 Samuel Garbett counted on 'an old acquaintance' with Sir Charles Mordaunt and William Bromley, the county members, for support in presenting a petition to Parliament, although he felt sure of other friends in the house, (fn. 83) notably Sir Roger Newdigate, M.P. for Oxford University, (fn. 84) and the Staffordshire members, William Bagot, (fn. 85) and George Harry Grey, 5th Earl of Stamford. (fn. 86) Such old country families, Garbett believed, 'look upon themselves as patrons of the trade in the neighbourhood and really have the inclination to serve it when they distinctly understand the subject'. Among other 'friends to Birmingham' at Westminster mentioned in a correspondence respecting the proposed licensing of a Birmingham theatre in 1777 (fn. 87) were Sir Henry Bridgeman (M.P. 1748-94), (fn. 88) Heneage Finch, afterwards 4th Earl of Aylesford (M.P. 1772-7), (fn. 89) his brother Charles Finch (M.P. 1775-80), (fn. 90) and William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth. (fn. 91) T. C. Skipwith, one of the county members, presented the anti-American Birmingham petition of 1774. (fn. 92) Of these men the Earl of Dartmouth, who sat in the House of Lords from 1754, was the most important and influential. Twice, from 1765 to 1766, and from 1772 to 1775, he served as President of the Board of Trade, and on the second occasion as Secretary of State for the Colonies also. He was afterwards Lord Privy Seal until 1782. Dartmouth, who had an estate in West Bromwich, seems to have been a personal acquaintance of Matthew Boulton, (fn. 93) and to have been readily accessible to representations from the Birmingham merchants, (fn. 94) although it was he who, in September 1775, piloted the bill for restraining trade with the American colonies through the Lords, resisting all Whig attempts at conciliation.
The retirement in 1774 of Sir Charles Mordaunt, Bt., M.P. for the county since 1733, provoked a crisis in Warwickshire politics, since his son John, a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, was regarded by Birmingham and the industrial north of the county as a courtier and unacceptable. Sir Charles Holte, Bt., of Aston, was prevailed upon to stand in an attempt to secure a more satisfactory representative. (fn. 95) In the contested election that followed Holte secured a narrow victory by 58 votes, thanks to the almost solid support of the freeholders of Birmingham, Aston, Sutton Coldfield, and Tamworth. (fn. 96) The result was long remembered as a triumph for Birmingham, and John Freeth, the Birmingham versifier, exulted that
'The free sons of trade, by unity sway'd Display such a powerful connexion; When contests arise, 'tis the Birmingham boys That always can crown an election'. (fn. 97)
In 1792 another pamphleteer recalled with pride that when Birmingham had 'shown the Country Gentlemen the odds on't' by returning Holte, nearly 20,000 people had assembled to welcome him to the town. (fn. 98)
When Holte retired in 1780, the Birmingham merchants were virtually permitted to choose their own nominee, Sir Robert Lawley, to replace him. In soliciting the support of Lord Dartmouth for this candidature, Thomas Gem explained in September 1780, that 'the various commercial regulations so frequently made by the legislature affect the trade and manufactures of this place very much, and render it an object of great importance to its inhabitants that gentlemen may, if possible, be chosen for the county who are connected with the people and not entirely uninformed of the particulars in which their interest consists'. (fn. 99) This election was held incidentally to mark the end of Lord Warwick's political predominance in the county. (fn. 100) Since Lawley continued to sit for Warwickshire from 1780 until 1796, when he was succeeded by Sir John Mordaunt, Birmingham appears to have been represented in the Commons in all but name at least from 1774 to 1796. It is perhaps less surprising, therefore, that early proposals for parliamentary reform met with little enthusiasm in the town. John Wilkes, in 1776, urged in Parliament the enfranchisement of Birmingham, together with Leeds, Sheffield, and Manchester, (fn. 101) but it was not until some years later that local interest began to be roused. In 1782 Joseph Priestley agreed to distribute in Birmingham copies of the second address of the Yorkshire Committee for the Reformation of Parliament, sent him by Christopher Wyvill, the Yorkshire reformer, (fn. 102) and in 1783 Aris's Gazette printed a letter urging Birmingham to join the campaign for reform. (fn. 103) When Pitt proposed to extend the franchise to populous boroughs in 1785 Wyvill wrote to Boulton and Garbett to enlist their support for a Birmingham petition. William Russell, however, the leader of the 'more decided friends of reform' was forced to let him know that no petition for reform was to be expected from Birmingham. (fn. 104) The proposal had come at a time when the Birmingham Commercial Committee were fighting Pitt's Anglo-Irish trade proposals, and Birmingham was consequently in no mood to offer him any kind of support. (fn. 105)
Such secular political organization as Birmingham possessed before the outbreak of the French Revolution was informal. From 1715 Joe Lyndon's 'Minerva', Peck Lane, was the 'Tory' House, (fn. 106) while the 'Whigs' normally met, in the latter part of the century, at John Freeth's 'Leicester Arms' tavern in Bell Street, otherwise known as 'Freeth's Coffee House'. (fn. 107) In 1774 a more radical club began to meet at the Red Lion. This was the Free Debating Society or Robin Hood Free Debating Society, which published accounts of early debates show to have been Wilkesite, to have favoured 'mild measures respecting the Americans', and to have denounced the high price of provisions as 'owing to luxury'. Although an entry fee of 6d. was charged, mechanics and apprentices attended, as well as lawyers, and women were allowed to speak to the motions. On one occasion, in 1774, the members discussed the somewhat slanted question 'Is the custom so much practised (in Birmingham) of sending children to the shops to work as soon as they are well able to walk injurious or advantageous to the inhabitants in general?' (fn. 108) The Robin Hood society disappears from the record in 1775, but a 'Society for Free Debate' persisted in 1789, linked with the clientele of Freeth's Coffee House, (fn. 109) which may have been its descendant.
The earliest evidence for trade combination among workmen or artisans in the vicinity of Birmingham concerns the nailers working for Birmingham merchants. In 1697 the Warwickshire nailmakers were said to have got together and marched round in a tumultuous manner from place to place, (fn. 110) though their grievance was not specified. In 1737 nailmakers from Worcestershire marched into the town in a body and forced the iron merchants to sign an agreement for the raising of prices. (fn. 111) In February 1744 the Dudley and Stourbridge nailers prepared a similar document which they successfully presented to the masters and to the Birmingham nail merchants. (fn. 112) In 1772 the gun finishers employed by Farmer and Galton and by Thomas Hadley formed a club at the 'Nag's Head' and picketed Farmer and Galton's. They were encouraged, out of trade rivalry, by Hadley, who reminded them of recent successes of the Cornish tinners and other groups. (fn. 113) Some Birmingham trades were already organized on a more or less permanent basis in the 18th century. In 1777 the filesmiths of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and Walsall agreed to call a meeting to create a strike fund and asked 'the stewards of the respective societies to bring their accounts to the meeting', (fn. 114) and the same year the Birmingham joiners and carpenters held a meeting at the house of T. Dudley, in Needless Alley, to concert strike action in the event of a wage demand being rejected; a system of weekly meetings was inaugurated. (fn. 115) In 1777, too, an attempt was made by the master tailors to break the journeymen tailors' association and to force the men to accept piece-work. In the course of the dispute the journeymen advertised for direct commissions at their house of call, the Coach and Horses, Bell Street. (fn. 116) The tailors were again on strike in 1790 and 1796. (fn. 117) Several other associations of skilled tradesmen were in existence by 1792, a year in which the journeymen brushmakers and shoemakers demanded higher wages, and the buttonmakers 'assembled together in a tumultuous manner' in furtherance of a trade dispute. (fn. 118) The bricklayers had a house of call at the 'Prince Eugene' in Worcester Street as early as 1793. (fn. 119)
Perhaps more characteristic of 'working-class' political action in 18th-century Birmingham than individual trade combinations was the provision riot or price riot, which united the many strata of labourers, artisans, and small masters in joint action against the erosion of living standards by rising prices. Though there were food riots in Birmingham in 1756 and 1757 (fn. 120) and in 1762 and 1763, (fn. 121) it was not until 1766 that a riot against prices occurred of which any detailed record has survived. Troubles began in early September, when rioters seized butter in the market priced at 10d. a lb. 'sold it at 7d. and gave all the money to the dealers'. (fn. 122) Later, on Michaelmas fair day, 'a common labourer' said to have been a Dudley miner (fn. 123) 'erected his standard, an inverted mop, and called out "Redress of grievances" ', (fn. 124) after which parties went round forcing stallholders and grocers to sell bread, cheese, (fn. 125) bacon, and other provisions (fn. 126) at a fixed price. John Wyrley Birch, an active magistrate from Handsworth, managed eventually to restore order with the aid of 80 special constables armed with staves, and the threat of military reinforcements. (fn. 127) The rioters, however, won the promise that the bakers would 'make a sufficient quantity of household bread' for sale at 1d. a lb. (fn. 128) At the beginning of October a party from Birmingham, said to be 'well armed' went to Stratford and stopped all the wagons on the route, seizing the wheat and selling it at a low price. (fn. 129) In October 1782 Black Country colliers invaded Birmingham via Wednesbury, where they compelled a reduction of the price of flour and malt. (fn. 130) According to one account, the rising began among 'the black gentry' of Dudley and Walsall, and was led by the legendary champions 'Irish Tom' and 'Barley Will'; the colliers were soon joined by the nailers and spinners of the district. (fn. 131) An orderly party arrived in Birmingham at about 4 p.m. on 17 October and marched to the Bull Ring where they negotiated with the 'officers of the town' a list of prices for malt, flour, butter, cheese, and other goods, before withdrawing. On 23 October, a meeting of inhabitants ratified the price list, and also the appointment of 140 special constables to prevent further disorder; a subscription was raised to subsidize the price of bread at a third of the normal retail price. (fn. 132)
The riots of 1714 and 1715 set the pattern of Birmingham politics in the 18th century: a 'political nation' of merchants and manufacturers, with a strong leaven of dissent, and an unruly populace with strong 'church and king', and even, in the early years, Jacobite proclivities. Sporadic riots and disorders against Wesleyans and Quakers in 1751 (fn. 133) and 1759 (fn. 134) respectively confirm the continuance of this pattern throughout the century, and the 'bunting, beggarly, brass-making, brazen-faced, brazen-hearted, blackguard, bustling, booby, Birmingham mob' was already notorious by 1789. (fn. 135) There were serious fears that the Gordon riots in London might inspire an outbreak against local Roman Catholics in 1780. In the event, though dangerous crowds gathered, they restricted their hostility to chalking 'no-popery' on a few doors before dispersing. (fn. 136)
Within such a pattern, the question of the Test and Corporation Acts assumed a peculiar importance. Before repeal of the Acts began to be mooted in 1787 nothing suggests that the solidarity of the upper-class 'political nation' at Birmingham was threatened by sectarian differences. After that date relations between the Anglican and dissenting elements steadily worsened until the disastrous culmination of the 'Priestley' riots of 1791.
Behind the move to organize local support for the dissenters' national campaign were William Russell, a prominent merchant and Unitarian layman, and Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian minister of the New Meeting. Russell associated himself with the work of the London dissenters' committee in January or February 1787, (fn. 137) and Priestley published the first of several tracts on the subject about a month later. (fn. 138) That the Unitarians should be in the forefront of the agitation was in keeping with their strength in Birmingham, where the proportion of their numbers to the rest of the dissenters was believed to be greater than in any other town. Even so, they were said to comprise only about a quarter of the dissenting population. (fn. 139) In October 1789, however, a 'committee of the seven congregations of the three denominations' of Presbyterians, Baptists, and Independents was formed, with Russell as chairman. (fn. 140) Shortly afterwards, on 5 November, Priestley preached to the congregations of the Old and New Meetings on The conduct to be observed by Dissenters, in order to procure the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts. The publication of this sermon was the prelude to a bitter controversy in which Priestley and the dissenters were attacked from the pulpits of St. Philip's and St. Martin's. (fn. 141) The tone of George Croft, lecturer at St. Martin's, was noted for its particular virulence. In one sermon, printed in 1790, he charged the dissenters with Republican principles, regretted that their right to vote for Members and sit in Parliament could not be withdrawn, and - an ominous note - warned his hearers that 'while their meeting-houses are open they are weakening and almost demolishing the whole fabric of Christianity'. (fn. 142) The temper of the controversy may be judged by the printed reply of John Hobson, the minister of Kingswood Unitarian chapel, which denounced Croft as 'viciously prejudiced', 'scurrilous, morose, persecuting and abusive' and accused him of possessing 'a contracted and dishonest mind'. (fn. 143)
Many of the local clergy and Anglican gentry were convinced with Dr. Samuel Parr, the Whig Perpetual Curate of Hatton, near Warwick, that 'things were ripening for a revolution' in church and state. In January 1790 he wrote to warn a friend that a storm was gathering, and that if the Church did not exert itself it would fall. (fn. 144) The Church did exert itself, however, and a meeting was held at Warwick in February 1790, attended by the 'noblemen, gentlemen and clergy' of the county, to concert measures of opposition to repeal. (fn. 145) A local committee was also formed to conduct opposition to the dissenters in Birmingham. (fn. 146) The pamphlet war continued throughout the year, and in December 1790 relations became so strained that the magistrates obtained the sanction of the War Office for the despatch of dragoons in case sectarian rioting seemed imminent. (fn. 147) In January 1791 Priestley told Dr. Price 'With respect to the Church, with which you have meddled but little, I have long since drawn the sword and thrown away the scabbard, and am very easy about the consequences'. (fn. 148)
Curiously enough, the precipitating factor was not religious but political. The French Revolution of 1789 having revived his old interest in parliamentary reform, in June 1791 Priestley made an attempt to recruit members for a reform society, apparently the Warwickshire Constitutional Society, (fn. 149) pledged to universal suffrage and short parliaments. (fn. 150) Thousands of printed copies of a prospectus of the society are said to have been found at the house of William Russell in July 1791. (fn. 151) Though this venture seems to have come to nothing, (fn. 152) a dinner held at the Birmingham Hotel on 14 July to commemorate the capture of the Bastille attracted 90 reformers and sympathizers with the French Revolution, drawn from all sects. (fn. 153) The chairman, Captain James Keir, a manufacturing chemist from West Bromwich, was an Anglican. (fn. 154) Priestley had, after some hesitation, decided not to attend, although the minister of the Old Meeting, John Coates, was present. (fn. 155) Priestley had, however, already made his sympathy with the revolution quite clear in a reply to Burke's Reflections, published early in 1791, of which more than 3,500 copies were printed before 20 January. (fn. 156)
The dinner proved to be the signal for more than three days of mob violence during which three Unitarian meeting-houses and one Baptist meeting-place were damaged or destroyed, and the houses of at least 27 persons were attacked or threatened, and several of them burned or pulled down. The rioters seem to have considered three classes of persons legitimate targets for their attentions. The reformers who attended the Bastille day dinner were the first to suffer. Dissenters of various denominations were then attacked, as were 'philosophers' or members of the Lunar Society, a discussion group or philosophical society in which Boulton, Watt, Priestley, and Keir were prominent. (fn. 157) But though the expressed slogans of the mob were 'destruction to the Presbyterians, Church and King for ever', and 'no philosophers' it would be wrong to regard the riots as the product of pure zeal alone. There is much evidence that the episode represented the deliberate unleashing of a looting, drunken, unruly mob by the Anglican and loyalist magistrates Joseph Carles, Dr. Benjamin Spencer, vicar of Aston, and John Brooke, under-sheriff for Warwickshire, against the dissenters, the reformers and their friends, in an attempt to check their new political aggressiveness. (fn. 158) The net result was to create a catastrophic new division in the political life of Birmingham. James Watt commented in November 1791 on the sharp antagonism between the democrats and the professed aristocrats, who had, in fact, become encouragers of the mob. (fn. 159) It was not long before the leading 'democrats' had been driven from Birmingham, Hobson (fn. 160) and Priestley (fn. 161) at the time of the riots, William Russell in 1793. (fn. 162) While Priestley's successors at the New Meeting, John Edwards and David Jones, continued in the same tradition, condemning the French war and the repressive tendencies of Pitt's government, (fn. 163) the Church and King interest obtained much temporary success in driving the Unitarians out of public life. Thomas Lee, the steward of the manor, a Unitarian who had been a victim of the rioters, (fn. 164) died during 1791, and John Brooke, his successor, managed by packing the leet jury, to secure the election of a Churchman as Low Bailiff, in violation of the tradition that the office should be reserved for a dissenter. (fn. 165)
The shock of the July riots effectively checked the growth of a reform movement in Birmingham. Of the younger generation of reformers, William Priestley went to live in France in June 1792; (fn. 166) he followed James Watt the younger, who, in April, had presented an address to the Jacobin Club, on behalf of the Manchester Constitutional Society. (fn. 167) If the diners of 1791 continued to associate, it was only to announce, in May 1792, their intention not to hold another Bastille celebration that year. (fn. 168) In the course of 1792, however, a new current of reform began to be felt, in response to the revival of the national reform movement. The London Constitutional Society sent 600 handbills to Birmingham defending and advertising a cheap edition of Paine's Rights of Man; (fn. 169) when William Belcher was prosecuted for selling this and other democratic pamphlets he complained that 'there was not a bookseller in Birmingham but sold the same publications, though only two or three of the poorest unfortunate objects were selected out'. (fn. 170) In November 1792 twelve local members of the London Society for Constitutional Information founded a Birmingham branch, pledged to friendship with France, peace, 'a more equal representation' and shorter parliaments. (fn. 171) In February 1793 the committee reported to London that numbers were 'daily flocking to the standard of Liberty'. (fn. 172) The officers of the Birmingham society were obscure individuals (fn. 173) without any traceable connexions with the older 'friends of Reform', but in December the 'dissenters of Birmingham' met and, with William Russell in the chair, declared themselves unanimously to be warm and zealous friends to a parliamentary reform, which should include more frequent elections and a more equal representation. In the face of the prosecution of Belcher, who was a Unitarian, (fn. 174) they also affirmed the liberty of the press to be 'the most invaluable of the privileges of Englishmen and the firmest bulwark of their rights'. (fn. 175) The dissenters do not appear to have again intervened politically as a body after this date.
In March 1793 the Birmingham Society for Constitutional Information published an attack on the French war, drawing attention to the plight of 10,000 persons without work in Birmingham as a result of the interruption of foreign trade. (fn. 176) At the same time the society began to circulate to factories and workplaces (fn. 177) a reform petition for 'a more equal representation' in the House of Commons and annual Parliaments, together with an attack on the new protectionist Corn Bill. (fn. 178) According to an opponent the framers were in favour of universal suffrage, but the Birmingham society cannot be shown to have adhered to the parent club's advocacy of this until the beginning of June 1793. (fn. 179) The petition was presented to the Commons on 2 May 1793 by Samuel Whitbread, with 2,720 supporting signatures. (fn. 180) After this achievement the society appears to have lost ground, and in November 1793 the committee regretted their inability to send a delegate to the Edinburgh Convention, the war having badly affected trade and driven many members to emigrate to America. (fn. 181) The prevailing poor state of trade in Birmingham was confirmed by the Birmingham Gazette on 23 December, in a comment on the 'want of employment among the labouring classes' which was 'uncommonly great'.
The Birmingham club continued to struggle on into 1794, and its epitaph may well be the observation of James Watt, in May, that 'there are king's messengers in Birmingham, who have taken up on Parr, who kept a reforming club at his house and on one or two others. The soldiers were ordered under arms to prevent tumult'. (fn. 182) Parr, the landlord of the Cottage of Content, Ladywood, was, however, again host to a reforming club in 1797. (fn. 183) The demise of the earlier club was the culmination of a new 'Church and King' terror, launched in 1792. The governmental moves against the freedom of the press in May 1792 were closely followed in Birmingham by a meeting called in early June in support of a loyal address expressive of 'attachment to the Constitution' and gratitude for the recent proclamation against seditious writings and criminal correspondence. The address was presented at a levee in June by Joseph Carles. It expressed the 'surprise and indignation' of the framers 'that there should be found in your majesty's dominions a subject so insensible to the blessings he enjoys as to be capable of uttering a murmur of discontent'. (fn. 184) An anti-reform 'Church and King' club was in existence by November, with Edward Carver as president and John Brooke as secretary, (fn. 185) but in December the task of combating democratic principles was placed on a new, organized footing with the creation of the Birmingham Association for the Protection of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, federated with the London Association of similar name. Brooke also served as secretary of this group, and the committee included, as well as Carles and Spencer, Sir Robert Lawley, Bt., M.P. for Warwickshire, and the four other principal Anglican clergymen of the town- Croft, Curtis, Madan, and Burn. (fn. 186) A meeting of Birmingham Roman Catholics proffered their support to the new club, (fn. 187) but the dissenters refused to be associated. (fn. 188)
There were other and less respectable 'loyalist' clubs that flourished at the same time. Perhaps the most active were the 'Loyal True Blues' who began to meet at the Union Tavern, Cherry Street, at the beginning of December 1792. (fn. 189) In that month the Birmingham press reported that 'the younger partisans of the associations' had recently 'paraded the streets singing God Save the King, compelling all whom they met to join with them, finally attacking the doors of some respectable dissenters'. (fn. 190) According to the London Chronicle account 'vast numbers' were called to meetings at the Union Tavern and Church Inn on the evening of Monday 5 December by press advertisements and circulated handbills. After an evening of disturbances, about 11 p.m. they forced William Hutton and his family to come to the windows of his house in High Street and join them in shouts of 'Church and King'. About 3 a.m. 'a very large party' threatened William Humphreys at his house at Sparkbrook, and extorted money from him. They were only pacified after Humphreys had left Birmingham. (fn. 191) Both Hutton and Humphreys had suffered heavily during the July riots of 1791. In February 1793 the True Blues were collecting a list of 'suspects'; (fn. 192) a month later they persuaded 120 innkeepers to agree to close their doors against the democratic clubs. (fn. 193) In February an effigy of Tom Paine was paraded through the streets and publicly burned. (fn. 194) The trade crisis of 1793, with its accompanying unemployment, seems to have temporarily calmed the ebullience of the loyalists, but the fall of Valenciennes brought the Church and King mob out into the streets again on 2 August 1793, to break the windows of about 150 houses belonging to Quakers and others who had refused to illuminate in celebration of the allied victory. (fn. 195) A more serious disturbance occurred in October over the collection of the hundred rate levied to compensate the victims of the 1791 riots; two days of disorder, including an attack on the gaol, were only checked after the intervention of troopers from a newly-built barracks at Ashted. On this occasion Carles was prominent in the organization of measures against the rioters. (fn. 196)
A Birmingham club was said to be in correspondence with the London Corresponding Society in 1794, (fn. 197) and the society had a branch in Birmingham in March 1796, when it was visited by two London delegates, John Binns and John Gale Jones. The occasion was an application from the 'Birmingham United Corresponding Society' to the parent body for instructions as to the procedure to be adopted under the treason and sedition laws of 1795. (fn. 198) Two meetings of just under 50 each were called to hear the delegates, at the Swan, Swallow Street, and the Bell, Suffolk Street. The magistrates intervened to disperse one meeting but found that the other was already over, (fn. 199) and a few days later both delegates were arrested on warrants from the Home Office. (fn. 200) Binns was brought to trial at Warwick in August 1797, but the jury refused to convict. The list of Birmingham witnesses for the defence makes possible a tentative assessment of the nature of the contemporary support for the reform movement in Birmingham. It comprised two schoolmasters, George Fenton and Thomas Clark, Edward Porter, a button-maker, Henry Dixon, an anvil-maker, J. P. Lucas, an auctioneer's clerk, and John Fawkener, agent to the Liverpool wagon. (fn. 201)
The club itself was said, in September 1797, to be 'daily increasing in numbers', (fn. 202) and there is evidence for a meeting of about fifteen 'Jacobins' at Parr's Cottage of Content in August, at which Binns was present. The members played a part in the agitation for the dismissal of the Pitt ministry which culminated in a country meeting at Warwick in August, and helped to collect about 4,500 signatures for a supporting petition from Birmingham. (fn. 203) There is, however, no record of the club's survival after 1797.
Apart from a brief period during the crisis of 1793 the Birmingham reformers appear to have been able to recruit little support among the artisans and the workers in the 1790s. On the other hand the economic depression which Birmingham entered after 1792 and its resulting privations were reflected in a radical change of temper of the Birmingham populace, so that by 1798 Lord Warwick, as Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, was writing to the Home Secretary of the need for regular troops to maintain security in the manufacturing districts of the county. (fn. 204) James Bisset, a contemporary Birmingham writer and publisher, recalled about 1805 the significant change in the slogans to be found scratched on walls about the town. In 1791 'Church and King' was to be read everywhere, in 1792 'Damn the Jacobins' and in 1793 'War and Pitt'. For all these loyal declarations by 1800 there had been substituted an assortment of seditious utterances including 'No damned rogues in grain', 'No badgers', 'No war', 'Damn Pitt', 'No K..g, Lords or Commons', 'Large loaves, peace, no taxes, no tithes, free constitution'. (fn. 205)
Two years of dear bread, 1795 and 1800, superimposed on the persistent economic depression, had gone far to bring about this revolution in political attitudes. In June 1795 a mob of about 1,000, including many women, attacked and forced an entry into James Pickard's mill and bakehouse in Snow Hill, crying out against the new small loaf which he had introduced and protesting that they were to be 'starved to death'. The magistrates were alarmed by the circulation of a seditious handbill, calling the people to arms, (fn. 206) and troops of the King's Own from the barracks joined Heneage Legge's Aston troop of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, formed in 1794, in an attempt to guard the mill and preserve order. (fn. 207) In the resulting troubles two of the rioters were shot by the troops and five arrested; dragoons were despatched to Dudley, Stourbridge, and Bromsgrove to prevent a spread of the outbreak. (fn. 208) Immediately after the riots, however, the magistrates ordered a sale of cheap flour and a soup kitchen was opened in Peck Lane. (fn. 209)
Disorders that occurred in 1800 were graver and more general. In February women rioted in the market over the price of potatoes. In May the windows of millers and bakers were broken, and a farmer's rick burned in fresh hunger riots, which were suppressed after joint action by the Yeomanry, dragoons, and Volunteers, with the arrest of 30 rioters. On this occasion the prices of wheat, barley, and potatoes were lowered by order of the magistrates, (fn. 210) but by September wheat was up again to 14s. a bushel, and 'the mob assumed the right of disposing of the bread at reduced prices'. There was an outbreak of attacks on corn dealers, bakers, and mealmen, and Pickard's mill suffered again in a new wave of looting which was only put down after the renewed intervention of troops, Volunteers, and Yeomanry. (fn. 211)
A visitor to Birmingham in 1802 was shocked to note the extent of the spread of sedition amongst the factory hands. The factories, he found, had their politicians and republicans as well as the barber's shop and the ale-house, and it was common to hear matters of state discussed and determined by workmen while 'casting a button, or pointing a pin'. (fn. 212) At the same time the opening years of the 19th century were marked by a revival of the spirit of combination. The tailors' strike of 1796 was exceptional, and most trades had remained quiescent during the depression which followed the prosperity of 1792. In 1799 Aris's Gazette printed an abstract of the new Combination Act, with a solemn warning, (fn. 213) but requests of the journeymen carpenters and tailors for increases were readily granted at the beginning of 1801. (fn. 214) The shoemakers struck in 1802, (fn. 215) and the sawyers combined to demand an increase in 1804. (fn. 216) There were further strikes by the tailors (fn. 217) and the brushmakers (fn. 218) in 1806 and by the journeymen cabinet-makers in 1807. (fn. 219) In 1808 the Combination Acts were invoked against the shoemakers, and several men were prosecuted. (fn. 220) Six journeymen tailors were convicted under the Acts in 1809, (fn. 221) and four candlestick makers in 1810. (fn. 222) In 1810, however, labour activity quite suddenly swelled to an uncontrollable torrent and the metal and 'Birmingham' trades were affected, for the first time since the 18th century.
Among the groups combining to petition their respective masters for an increase in wages were: metal platers, (fn. 223) scalebeam and steelyard makers, iron spoon makers, (fn. 224) journeymen bone and ivory brushmakers, turners and toymakers, cast-iron hingemakers, mathematical instrument makers, (fn. 225) brassfounders, spurmakers, (fn. 226) bayonet filers, (fn. 227) gilt and plated buttonmakers, journeymen of the horn, button and hard white metal spoon trade, (fn. 228) bellows pipemakers, (fn. 229) and steel grinders. (fn. 230) At the same time other workers secured rises, though less certainly as a result of combining, among them the firetongs makers, (fn. 231) filemakers, (fn. 232) wood turners, (fn. 233) journeymen brass and iron rim lockmakers, (fn. 234) whipthong makers, (fn. 235) reaphook-and-sickle makers, (fn. 236) Norfolk and thumb-latch makers, blacksmiths, (fn. 237) bellowsmakers, planemakers, (fn. 238) and cabinet lockmakers. (fn. 239)
The hard-wood turners, the steel-toy forgers, the gimlet makers, and the brass founders claimed that they had received no advance in payment for more than 50 years, the steelyard makers for 40 and the brushmakers for 30. If these claims were correct, and they were not refuted, the implication is that the wage rates in many of the staple Birmingham trades had remained stationary during a period in which corn prices had practically doubled. (fn. 240)
The advances of 1810 were achieved at the height of a revival of trade. By 1812 Birmingham was once again sunk in a depression, for which the Orders in Council were blamed, and which according to one Birmingham merchant halved the average worker's wage, (fn. 241) and according to another meant that only half the Birmingham workers were working full-time. (fn. 242) In these circumstances the popular desperation was again expressed in hunger riots, and combination was by contrast little in evidence. Already, in June 1810, the dragoons, the Yeomanry, and the Handsworth Cavalry had been called out to intervene in a market riot over the high price of potatoes; (fn. 243) in April 1812 a similar outbreak resulted in three days of rioting suppressed by the same forces, this time with the assistance of the Marines. (fn. 244)
'On one occasion' a contemporary wrote, apparently of this episode, 'there was a curious attempt of the mob to fix the rate of prices. A body of men seized on the loads of potatoes brought into the Birmingham market, and their leaders, having fixed on a price which they considered proper, though much below the actual value, they sold all the potatoes accordingly and handed over the proceeds to the owners. The result of this proceeding was that for a whole month afterwards not another potato was brought to the Birmingham market, and the article could not be obtained at any price'. (fn. 245)
The new economic crisis resulted in a revival of democratic politics in Birmingham. In June 1812 about 700 'artisans' attended a meeting at the Shakespeare Tavern, New Street, called ostensibly to support a campaign by the Birmingham employers to persuade Parliament to repeal the Orders in Council, but also to test the legality and feasibility of a meeting of workers for political ends. (fn. 246) A 'committee of arrangement' was appointed that outlasted the immediate agitation, and was still meeting in October 1813 to organize a presentation to Thomas Attwood for his exertions against the East India Company's monopoly. (fn. 247)
Prominent among the members of the artisans' committee was George Edmonds (1788-1868), the son of Edward Edmonds, a minister of Bond Street Baptist chapel. Edmonds is said to have begun life as a button burnisher, but he had by then become a schoolmaster. (fn. 248) In 1816 he organized the Birmingham Hampden Club, based on a nucleus of old members of the artisans' committee. The club was formally founded on 24 September 1816, and a month later claimed 80 members; (fn. 249) in January 1817 about 300 were said to attend the weekly club meetings. A subscription of 1d. a week was charged, on the model of the Manchester Union Society. Membership was small compared with the 3,000 claimed by Manchester. The spirit of the Birmingham club was moderate, for Edmonds himself professed to regard Hampden Clubs 'as the only thing to prevent a revolution, as they direct the people's efforts into a legal and a constitutional path'. (fn. 250)
The threat of revolution was very much a matter of concern in Birmingham in 1816, and the town was particularly turbulent throughout the year. In May Attwood warned the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, that the colliers, ironworkers, gunsmiths, and nailers of the neighbourhood were only half employed, and that the rest of the inhabitants of Birmingham would soon be in the same predicament 'on account of the total stagnation of trade'. The mind of the whole populace was in a state of ferment, and his lordship might expect 'to hear of serious commotions breaking out among them, which were the more to be feared in that place on account of the facility of obtaining fire arms and other offensive weapons'. (fn. 251)
In the course of May William Withering wrote from Birmingham to warn the Home Secretary of 'certain indications of a tendency to riotous proceedings', (fn. 252) and William Bedford wrote to ask for a garrison. The Home Office agreed to station troops at Birmingham. (fn. 253) At the end of June two parties of unemployed colliers passed through Birmingham, allegedly on their way to London to present wagon-loads of coals to the Prince Regent, (fn. 254) and the town was filled with flocks of dismissed colliers and forge workers from the neighbourhood of Bilston and Wednesbury. (fn. 255) 'The squalid complexion and dejected countenance of the poor' was said to attract 'immediate notice on going into the street'. (fn. 256) At the beginning of August Luddite nailers were reported to be plotting an attack on 'the newly invented machinery to press nails' installed at the Britannia Brewery on the outskirts of Birmingham, and Bromford Mill, about a mile outside the town, (fn. 257) and on 23 August 'some evil spirits' were said to be endeavouring to produce mischief by chalking the cryptic message 'One and All' on the walls. (fn. 258) There was no violence, however, until 28 October when a crowd variously estimated at from 200 to 500 broke the windows first of Richard Jabet, publisher of the antiradical Commercial Herald, then of a baker's shop next door, and finally of one of the constables. On both 28 and 29 October the Riot Act was read, and detachments of the 15th Hussars and the 73rd Foot, assisted by four troops of the Warwickshire Yeomanry and the Handsworth Cavalry, were used to disperse the crowd. (fn. 259) Though one of the club's leaders was accused of complicity in the riots, the Hampden Club, in a pamphlet published on 28 October over Edmonds' signature, expressly attacked violence. (fn. 260)
The disturbances of October appear to have provoked a strong reaction. Immediately afterwards a camp of 2,000 troops was created at Sutton Coldfield. (fn. 261) In Birmingham itself a permanent force of about 200 special constables 'composed of the principal inhabitants' was recruited to aid in maintaining order, (fn. 262) and in January 1817 the 5th Dragoons were quartered in the centre of the town. (fn. 263) At the end of May 'a very turbulent spirit' continued to pervade 'the lower orders of people', (fn. 264) and a reinforcement of two companies of the 21st Infantry was moved up from Coventry. (fn. 265)
The Hampden Club continued to meet, though in an atmosphere of espionage and persecution. The notorious government spy Oliver was in Birmingham in 1817, trying unsuccessfully to draw the radicals into seditious plots. (fn. 266) In October 1816 the radical editor and publisher W. H. Smith, printed a complaint that 'the head man of the police rules the publicans with a rod of iron. Every rumour of political heresy reaches his ears by a thousand channels'. (fn. 267) Hampden Club meetings were 'industriously and constantly disturbed', and publican after publican was forced to close his doors to the radicals, until, at the end of 1816, the club moved to a private room in Peck Lane. (fn. 268)
On 22 January 1817 Edmonds, the chairman of the club, presided over a public meeting on Newhall Hill, the first of a famous series of radical gatherings on the Hill. On this occasion some ten to twenty thousand people were present, though some workmen had been threatened with dismissal by their employers for attending, and the meeting decided in favour of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. (fn. 269) A petition was drawn up protesting against the prevailing distress, and sent to the Coventry Members for presentation, with the supporting signatures of 12,500 artisans; (fn. 270) it was received by the Commons in April. (fn. 271)
A counter-meeting was convened for 11 February 1817, at the instance of the Tory Pitt Club, founded in 1814, (fn. 272) to draw up an address to the Prince Regent, among other things deprecating the abuse of the right of petition. Edmonds organized the capture of this and turned it into an excuse for another open-air demonstration on Newhall Hill. (fn. 273) By June, however, it had been made impossible to hold radical functions in Birmingham - the Hampden Club itself had been forced to suspend meetings by April (fn. 274) - and the radicals instead concentrated their efforts on securing support for the Warwick County Meeting called to petition against the renewal of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. This was held at Warwick on 18 June 1817.
On the day of the meeting the Birmingham radicals fitted out a flotilla of boats to carry their 200 or 300 closest supporters to Warwick and back, by the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, starting early in the morning and returning in the evening. (fn. 275) This outing appears to have been the last important venture of the Hampden Club as such, (fn. 276) although Edmonds presided over a public meeting on 26 February 1818, at which money was collected for the radical cause. (fn. 277) The year 1818 was one of comparative inactivity by the radicals, although Birmingham sent a delegate in September to a national meeting for promoting 'an Union of Trades' held in Manchester. (fn. 278)
Agitation was resumed in the summer of 1819, when, on 12 July, a mass meeting on Newhall Hill elected Sir Charles Wolseley 'Legislatorial Attorney' and directed him to attempt to take a seat in the Commons as Member for Birmingham, with a mandate to require annual parliaments and the ballot. The July meeting was the occasion of an important radical demonstration at which Major Cartwright and T. J. Wooler were present. The chief local promoter was Edmonds, by this time the editor and publisher of a radical journal, the Weekly Recorder and Saturday's Advertiser. Estimates of the numbers of those attending vary from 15,000 to 50,000, but are generally placed in excess of 20,000. (fn. 279) Sir Charles Wolseley was also present at a Newhall Hill meeting called by Edmonds on 23 September 1819 to protest against the Peterloo massacre, (fn. 280) at which many thousand of those present were said to have armed themselves with pistols against a repetition of the Manchester events at Birmingham. (fn. 281)
In August 1819 a new radical club, the Union Society, began to meet in Slaney Street, Snow Hill. This was largely the work of Charles Whitworth, a former member of the Hampden Club, and although Charles Maddocks, one of the promoters of the July meeting, figures in the list of its founder members, Edmonds does not, and he apparently did not play a leading rôle in its subsequent history. The club acquired its own 'Union Rooms', where it was proposed to open a library, a reading room, and a Sunday school. (fn. 282) Membership is said to have reached 2,800 (fn. 283) in the brief period before the full force of repression was brought to bear on the Birmingham radicals towards the end of 1819. Its views were expressed in the Birmingham Argus (1818-19), a weekly edited by the Vice-President of the society, George Ragg, a Birmingham printer. (fn. 284)
The growing popular support for the radicals revealed by the 12 July meeting appears to have seriously alarmed the government, and the development of repressive activity dates from shortly afterwards. On 27 July Isaac Spooner, a Birmingham magistrate, was directed by the Home Office to buy seditious tracts as a preparation for future prosecutions. (fn. 285) In August the pattern of such prosecutions was set by the conviction of Joseph Russell for selling Hone's Political Litany, despite the fact that a London jury had acquitted the author of seditious or blasphemous intent. Russell, who had two young motherless children, received an eight months' sentence, although the troubled jury had added a recommendation to mercy - to a conviction for blasphemy and sedition. (fn. 286) In the next few months the Treasury spent more than £1,000 on four trials for libel, and other prosecutions were initiated locally. (fn. 287) Among those who suffered in 1819 or 1820 were Edmonds, the booksellers Osborne, Joseph Brandis, and R. Mansfield, and George Ragg, (fn. 288) who was prosecuted in December 1819 and sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment. (fn. 289) The chairman of the Union Society, Charles Whitworth, was also arrested in December, for an 'inflammatory handbill' printed by Ragg. (fn. 290)
The organizers of the 12 July meeting received special attention. At the beginning of August 1819 true bills were found against them at Warwick Assizes, (fn. 291) and at the following Spring Assizes, in 1820, a Grand Jury indicted Cartwright, Wooler, the Birmingham radicals Edmonds and Maddocks, and William Greatheed Lewis, editor of the Coventry Recorder, for seditious conspiracy. (fn. 292) The trial, which began in August 1820, (fn. 293) eventually resulted, in June 1821, in a fine for Cartwright and imprisonment for the other defendants. (fn. 294)
As in 1792 the radical scare produced a strong and organized local reaction. In October a petition opposing any reform of the constitution was circulated in Birmingham and received 4,500 signatures. (fn. 295) At the beginning of November the 'Birmingham Association for the Refutation and Suppression of Blasphemy and Sedition' was formed to collect evidence for prosecutions, and to pay for the publication of anti-radical tracts. (fn. 296) Anathema was preached against the radicals from the pulpits of the churches, and while Edward Burn, Perpetual Curate of St. Mary's, preached a sermon 'to inculcate the Christian duty of subjection to lawful authority', (fn. 297) J. H. Spry held forth in Christ Church on The Duty of Obedience to Established Government. (fn. 298) The members of the Union Society were driven to the extremity of marching to Spry's sermons in a body, in mute protest. (fn. 299)
It is not clear whether the persecution of its leaders succeeded in destroying the Union Society, although nothing is heard of it in 1820 or 1821. At the end of 1822, however, 'The Birmingham Union and Patriot's Friend Society' gave a public dinner to welcome Wooler on his release from Warwick gaol, (fn. 300) and on 14 July 1823 the 'Birmingham Union Society of Radical Reformers' gave a dinner for Henry Hunt, at which Edmonds took the chair, and Ragg, Russell, and Brandis were present. (fn. 301) Earlier in the year an enthusiastic crowd had gathered at the Bull Ring to welcome Edmonds back from Warwick gaol. (fn. 302) In August 1824 J. H. Spry, Vicar of Christ Church, commenting on the outbreaks of riot and combination which swept Birmingham after the repeal of the Combination Acts, wrote to warn Peel 'that the old disturbers of the public peace are endeavouring to take advantage of this state of things' and to give the discontents of the men a political bias, (fn. 303) but the leadership of the reform movement had already begun to fall into other hands. In declining an invitation to the 1822 dinner Thomas Attwood assured the members of the Birmingham Union and Patriot's Friend Society that he had become convinced that 'a radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament' was 'necessary for the national welfare', (fn. 304) a confession which marked the beginning of a new middle-class radicalism in Birmingham.
Discontent with the existing arrangements for the indirect representation of Birmingham in Parliament had already been growing among Birmingham merchants and industrialists for a decade. In 1812 Thomas Attwood and Thomas Potts, though armed with a petition carrying 16,000 signatures, found the Warwick County M.P.s unresponsive to their plea for the revocation of the Orders in Council, which was regarded as a matter of life or death for Birmingham trade. Though eventually successful, they were forced instead to enlist the aid of Brougham in order to have the matter raised in Parliament at all. (fn. 305) As a result the 'commercial interests of Birmingham' called a meeting in October 1812 to censure Sir Charles Mordaunt, M.P. for Warwickshire 1804-20, for his 'great inattention to applications of great commercial importance to this town and neighbourhood'. The meeting, with Attwood in the chair, agreed that by his conduct Mordaunt had 'rendered himself unworthy of his constituents'. (fn. 306)
The 18th-century arrangement, by which one of the Warwickshire members was held to represent Birmingham and the industrial north of the county, could no longer be relied upon. In an attempt to restore the situation, Richard Spooner, Attwood's partner, and a prominent Birmingham banker, twice contested a county seat, after an attempt in 1820 to secure election for Boroughbridge (Yorks.). (fn. 307) On each occasion he was unsuccessful, although in 1820 he polled 428 out of the 468 freeholders' votes from Birmingham, Aston, and Deritend. (fn. 308) In 1822 a maximum effort was put forth. 'Every vehicle in Birmingham was hired to convey voters to Warwick on the day of nomination. Blue ribbons, flags, streamers, bands of music, enlivened the whole length of the road from Birmingham to the county town; and round every man's hat was pinned a blue paper with the inscription "Spooner for ever".' (fn. 309) But although the Birmingham voters still amounted, as in 1774, to about a sixth of the total for the county, (fn. 310) there was insufficient support from the country districts. The Birmingham party tried in desperation to poll the Coventry freeholders who claimed an ancient right to take part in the county hustings. (fn. 311) When this device failed, it became clear that Birmingham was no longer capable of nominating a member to represent the special and particular interests of the industrial district.
This defeat did not mean, however, that Birmingham had completely ceased to have a voice in Parliament, for as late as 1828 the prominent citizens of the town expressed themselves as 'gratefully sensible for the attention of ... the members for Warwickshire; and of that eleemosynary assistance which they constantly derive . . . from the members for Staffordshire'. The sheer pressure of business - there were said to be more than 150 private or local Acts affecting Birmingham in 20 years (fn. 312) - rendered such a system defective at best, and the county members themselves were ready to admit to a lack of competence in attending to the special needs of the industrial and commercial interests. In 1827 D. S. Dugdale, member for Warwickshire 1802-31, confessed to a gathering of the chief inhabitants of Birmingham that he and Francis Lawley, the other member, 'had always endeavoured to do the best in their power to further the interests of Birmingham; but they had felt that their knowledge of various subjects connected with the manufactures of the place was defective'. (fn. 313)
The new inadequacy in the representation of the Birmingham interest was the more serious since it coincided with the rise of a new spirit of self-assertiveness on the part of the Birmingham merchants and industrialists. Their leaders felt themselves to be the representatives of the great Midland hardware trade, and of the 2,000 masters and 500,000 workers they believed concerned in it. (fn. 314) In 1812 and 1813, under the leadership of Thomas Attwood, they had campaigned by public and private meeting against the Orders in Council and the renewal of the East India Company's monopoly, (fn. 315) both of which were felt to be harmful to the hardware trade. In 1813 the old Commercial Committee was revived as the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, to represent the 'manufacturers and commerce of Birmingham' against 'shipping, colonial, and other great and powerful interests'. Behind this move were the two banking houses of Spooner & Attwood and Taylor & Lloyd, Samuel Galton, manufacturer and banker, and Joshua Scholefield, manufacturer and merchant. (fn. 316)
The chamber soon showed its temper in 1814 by attacking the proposal to add further protection to corn. (fn. 317) In March 1815 the support of many of 'the clergy and magistrates and a considerable number of the most respectable inhabitants' was obtained for a meeting at the National School, Pinfold Street, to protest against the new Corn Bill, and the sponsors drew up a petition for which they claimed 48,600 signatures. (fn. 318) The Birmingham Chamber itself petitioned in 1826 for free trade in grain. (fn. 319) The chamber also twice protested, in 1816 and 1818, against Peel's factory regulation Bills. (fn. 320)
Apart from lobbying the Warwickshire members and other sympathetic members, it was open to Birmingham, as in 1791 and 1797, to make her influence felt at County Meetings at Warwick. One such meeting was held in 1815, to oppose the retention of the income tax, (fn. 321) and another in 1817, to protest against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. 'To a County Meeting at Warwick', the editor of a Birmingham journal wrote in 1817, 'it may easily be conceived that Birmingham would pour forth its multitudes. Every possible means of conveyance was put in requisition: coaches, chaises, gigs, and travellers on foot crowded the roads'. (fn. 322)
Such indirect representation as a minority group within the county was at best a poor substitute for a local member, and could hardly be expected to satisfy the merchants and industrialists of the fast-growing industrial city for long. In the 1820s more or less defined groups began to press for a measure of parliamentary reform which would give the Birmingham interest direct access to Westminster.
The most radical group, christened 'The Cabal' by the Tory press, (fn. 323) was centred on the Benthamite attorney Joseph Parkes and his circle. (fn. 324) Other prominent associates were William Redfern, another lawyer, and T. H. Ryland, (fn. 325) a manufacturer and merchant. Parkes, himself a Unitarian, was married to Priestley's daughter Elizabeth, and there was a strong Unitarian element within the group. In 1825 he became secretary of the newly formed and professedly non-political Birmingham Mechanics' Institute, (fn. 326) a body quickly and splenetically denounced by the Tory Birmingham Journal as 'as poisonous a hot-bed of sedition as was ever formed of those two most hopeful and promising materials, operatives and radicals'; (fn. 327) amongst the other moving spirits behind this venture was George Edmonds. The first president was Richard Spooner, and the first treasurer Attwood. (fn. 328)
As a correspondent of Place and Grote, Parkes provided the link between Birmingham reform and the national radical movement. Although he also believed in a wide franchise, his dominating political enthusiasm was the ballot, which he strove to secure for any future election of a member for Birmingham.
A more moderate degree of reform was advocated by the group which formed round Thomas Attwood, (fn. 329) who had long been a leader and occasional spokesman of the Birmingham merchants and manufacturers. Attwood was converted to political radicalism only slowly and with great reluctance. In 1812 he had dismissed a rioting Birmingham mob contemptuously as 'a parcel of hungry Burdettites', (fn. 330) in a private letter in 1819 condemned 'the Whigs... for the evil which their drivelling about reform has occasioned', (fn. 331) and even as late as 1830, at one of the opening meetings of the Birmingham Political Union, he publicly recalled his affiliations as a life-long Tory. (fn. 332)
On the other hand, in 1812 Attwood had been personally affronted by the apparent indifference of the House of Commons and the government to the life-and-death needs of Birmingham industry. During the next few years the obstinate refusal of successive governments to listen to his private scheme for an expanding paper currency, and, by contrast, the deliberate return to the gold standard in 1819 bred an increasing fury with the governing class. (fn. 333) 'In truth', Attwood told a Birmingham meeting on currency reform in 1820, 'there is not much reason to expect anything but error and crime from the aristocratic canaille which governs England'. (fn. 334) In 1821 the 'canaille' rebuffed Attwood again, when an Agricultural Committee of the Commons refused to pay attention to his views on the currency system as a prime cause of agricultural distress. 'The men in Parliament', he concluded, 'are a sad specimen of the lords of human kind'. (fn. 335)
This new disillusionment coincided with the double failure of Spooner in the county elections, despite the support of Attwood and Joshua Scholefield and their friends, and converted Attwood to the idea of a separate representation for Birmingham. Both the middle-class reforming groups were prepared to cooperate for the realization of this minimum programme, though they were deeply divided by two issues: Attwood's unorthodox currency views, which were unacceptable to the Parkes group, and Parkes's insistence on the ballot, which was equally rejected by Attwood and his associates.
As the 1820s progressed, another political issue arose which served further to divide the ranks of the reformers - that of Catholic Emancipation. In 1787 a Roman Catholic priest, Joseph Berington, a friend of Priestley, published an appeal for joint action for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, (fn. 336) but the Birmingham Roman Catholics appear to have been by comparison with the Protestant dissenters a small and inarticulate body, while anti-Catholic sentiment was strong. In 1807 a Town's Meeting condemned Lord Howick's Catholic Relief Bill, (fn. 337) and it was not until 1824 that local Roman Catholic opinion began to make itself felt. In that year a meeting at the Royal Hotel resulted in the formation of a Midland branch of the Catholic Association (fn. 338) and Daniel O'Connell addressed a meeting of members at the hotel in 1825. (fn. 339) At the height of the national agitation, in 1829, Edmonds, Richard Spooner, and J. A. James, the Congregational minister of Carrs Lane Chapel, organized an 'Emancipation' meeting at the Public Office that resulted in a petition with some 5,000 signatures in support of O'Connell's campaign. When the 'Liberator' himself came to Birmingham, however, in 1829, his carriage was surrounded and threatened by a 'No-Popery' mob, and an anti-Catholic counter-petition is said to have attracted more than 36,000 signatures. (fn. 340)
As well as the 'Whig' group associated with Parkes and the extreme radicals of Edmonds's circle, there was now developing a Tory-radical party in Birmingham, whose mouthpiece was the Birmingham Argus, and whose supporters appear to have believed, with the Marquess of Blandford, that after an effective reform of Parliament and an extension of the franchise, 'Roman' pretensions would be swamped by a new Protestant mass vote. The affinities of Attwood and his friends were most clearly with this party, (fn. 341) though they were only by the most gradual processes won over to radical reform.
In June 1827 Charles Tennyson, M.P. for Bletchingley 1826-31, introduced into a Commons debate on the disfranchisement of East Retford (Notts.) the suggestion that the two seats concerned should be allocated to 'the Manor of Birmingham', and sponsored a Bill to this effect. (fn. 342) The attempt to secure direct representation for Birmingham within an unreformed Commons was abandoned after a year's intermittent discussion and debate, despite the active support of D. S. Dugdale and F. Lawley, the members for Warwickshire, and E. J. Littleton, member for Staffordshire. (fn. 343) It was revived again in 1830 by Lord John Russell, who unsuccessfully moved a Bill to secure representation for Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, at the expense of three corrupt boroughs, which should be disfranchised as the occasion arose. (fn. 344) Even as late as February 1831 the Marquess of Chandos attempted to persuade the Commons to transfer the seats belonging to Evesham (Worcs.) to Birmingham. (fn. 345) By many members (though not by Russell) such moves for a partial readjustment of the representation were regarded as the best answer to the growing demand for a general reform. Thus Palmerston, in supporting Tennyson's Bill, reminded the Commons in 1828 that 'to extend the franchise to large towns on such occasions as the one in question was the only mode by which the House could avoid the adoption at some time or other, of a general plan of reform'. (fn. 346) Conversely the refusal of Parliament to make any concessions at all to the needs of Birmingham was responsible for inducing many of her most conservative citizens to give their support to the cause of radical and general reform.
In May 1827 a meeting was held at J. Beardsworth's Repository to organize local support for Tennyson's motion. (fn. 347) The Repository was a large building in Cheapside, close to the Bull Ring, and was normally used by the owner for showing and selling horses, harness and carriages. (fn. 348) At the meeting Attwood defended universal suffrage for Birmingham, 'if it was practicable', but the context makes it clear that he did not in fact regard it as practicable, and he was still opposing its introduction in May 1830. (fn. 349) A committee of 31 was appointed to collect information and to discuss the regulation of any future Birmingham elections, should a member be secured. Both Attwood and Parkes were committee members, (fn. 350) but Parkes, who served as joint secretary January-May 1828, appears to have had the greater influence. According to his own account he managed to convert the members from a relatively high property qualification to a ratepayers' franchise, though he failed to 'cram' the ballot 'down the committee'. Partly as a result of this political capture the committee was disavowed by the Tories, and the High Bailiff and Overseers refused to meet its accounts once the parliamentary Bill was seen to have failed. Even so some members of the committee continued to meet together as late as October 1829. (fn. 351)
The failure of Tennyson's motion came at a time when Birmingham trade was once more entering a period of crisis as a result of the decline in prices of manufactured goods and of employment which characterized the years 1825 to 1830, and coincided with rising wheat prices. (fn. 352) At the same time the Birmingham artisans and other workers had already begun to develop and expand their own forms of industrial and political association; the first Owenite Birmingham Co-operative Society was founded in 1828 by James Guest and William Pare, a retail tobacconist, who, at 15, had attended the great radical meeting on Newhall Hill in 1819. (fn. 353) In April 1831 James Bronterre O'Brien, the future Chartist leader, began to publish the ultra-radical Midland Representative in Birmingham, claiming 'a proprietary of 3,000 shareholders', most of whom resided in Birmingham. (fn. 354) During the same year the National Co-operative Congress was held in Birmingham for the first time. (fn. 355)
Despite the dearth of trade-union activity after 1811 it is clear that some of the old trade clubs survived. In 1815 Birmingham was a divisional head of the brushmakers' tramping route; (fn. 356) the club-house stood, in 1829, at the Old Cross, Philip Street. (fn. 357) Tramping members were entitled to 2s. 3a. in money, 1s. in beer, and a sixpenny bed, before moving on to Bewdley, 21 miles away. (fn. 358) In 1825 the Birmingham Joiners and Carpenters had a house of call in John Street to handle orders for work. (fn. 359) In October 1818 seven journeymen shoemakers of Birmingham were prosecuted for combination; (fn. 360) journeymen of the trade were again on strike in 1826, (fn. 361) and their association was still flourishing in 1833. (fn. 362) A committee of the journeymen printers was collecting money in 1826 to aid the London printers in dispute. (fn. 363) Scattered indications suggest the survival of a spirit of combination in the metal trades as well as the traditional crafts. In 1818 two journeymen gun-furniture forgers were convicted under the Combination Acts. (fn. 364) In 1820, when William Osborne of Bordesley introduced machine-turning and machine-welding of gun barrels and tubes, his workshop was attacked by 'Luddite' hand workers, and had to be guarded by soldiers. (fn. 365) In 1822 four braziers (fn. 366) and a plasterer (fn. 367) were prosecuted for combining, and the Birmingham Gazette expressed itself as 'sorry to find that the same spirit of combination' as that which had affected the Black Country colliers 'is diffusing itself among the workmen of other branches of trade'. (fn. 368)
The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 brought about an outburst of militancy reminiscent of 1811. In July the hammer, compass, pincer, saddlers' tools, and heavy steel-toy makers secured an advance. (fn. 369) Other groups known to have combined during the year were: the platers, (fn. 370) the button stampers and tool makers, (fn. 371) the jewellers, the twine and cordage makers, the wireworkers, the brassfounders, (fn. 372) the cabinet case makers, (fn. 373) and the patten ring makers. The Birmingham 'engineers' called their first public meeting in November. (fn. 374) During the first half of 1825 there is evidence for combination among the spoon makers, the master bit and snaffle makers, (fn. 375) the saddlers and harness makers, (fn. 376) the whipthong makers, (fn. 377) and the brass coach-harness furniture makers. (fn. 378) The building trades were affected in May 1825, when the plumbers, painters, glaziers, (fn. 379) and bricklayers demanded increases, (fn. 380) and the carpenters went on strike. (fn. 381) Already, in April, the affronted master manufacturers of Birmingham had joined in the national campaign to limit the trade clubs' new rights of association with a petition to the Commons complaining of 'the arbitrary and pernicious conduct of their workmen'; (fn. 382) the master builders sent in a similar petition in May. (fn. 383) The 'operative mechanics', on the other hand, drew up a joint resolution to explain to Parliament that 'great benefits had resulted to the petitioners from the repeal of the Laws' and to oppose any new restriction. (fn. 384) The amended Act of 1825 was, nevertheless, reflected locally in a stiffening of the employers' attitudes. In August the metal button makers were locked out, (fn. 385) and the first conviction was secured against a member of the association for Common Law conspiracy. (fn. 386)
Yet despite this apparent prelude to industrial strife in 1824-5 the difficulties suffered by Birmingham trade after 1825 served, just as in 1812, to unify middle-class and working-class discontents, this time into an effective and powerful political alliance. In May 1829 a meeting was held at Beardsworth's Repository to consider 'the distressed state of the country', at which Attwood secured wide support for a 'last appeal' to Wellington to end the crisis by a currency reform. A petition advocating a freely-circulating non-convertible paper currency was drawn up and signed by 40,000 persons before being forwarded to Westminster. But although William Cobbett was converted, Wellington was not, and only 40 members could be collected to listen to the petition. According to Attwood's grandson 'the contemptuous rejection of his currency petition and the sarcasms of Wellington were the last straws which broke the camel's back' and drove the Tory banker into the arms of the radicals. The meeting also marked the end of the political association with Richard Spooner, who did not share his partner's conversion to radicalism; but of equal if not greater significance was the presence and support of Edmonds, a pledge of mass support for the new programme. (fn. 387) At this period Edmonds still exercised an immense influence over the Birmingham population. It was said of him that 'though nature had given him a weak voice he could control thousands and bring order out of chaos by a mere movement of his hands'. (fn. 388)
In December 1829 a group comprising Attwood, Joshua Scholefield, and fourteen others met at the Royal Hotel (fn. 389) to complete plans for 'a general political union between the lower and middle classes of the people' for the promotion of 'an effectual reform in Parliament, and the redress of public wrongs and grievances'. (fn. 390) The 'Birmingham Political Union' that resulted was launched at a public meeting held at Beardsworth's Repository in January 1830, which is said to have been attended by 15,000 persons. The chair was taken by G. F. Muntz, a metal manufacturer, who then emerged for the first time as a political figure. Among the 36 members of the Political Council of the Union appointed at the meeting were Edmonds and William Pare, the Owenite socialist, (fn. 391) but Parkes and other 'Whigs' remained aloof, and did not begin to cooperate closely with the Union until 1831. (fn. 392) At the height of the Reform Bill crisis, in May 1832, some 500 'merchants, bankers, solicitors, surgeons, master manufacturers and other influential men' finally completed the adhesion of middle-class Birmingham by joining the Union in a body. (fn. 393) By this time the organizers had succeeded in reconciling the most diverse elements behind the Union banner of 'Peace, Law, and Order', (fn. 394) from T. M. McDonnell, a Roman Catholic priest who served on the Political Council, to Hugh Hutton, a Unitarian minister who preached at its meetings. (fn. 395) Among the members were at least two former members of the Artisans' Committee of 1812 and of the Hampden Club, Edmonds and William Jennings, as well as the greater part of the Parkes and Attwood groups.
While the Union itself pressed, from 1830, for a taxpayers' and ratepayers' franchise and for the ballot, (fn. 396) its leaders agreed, in 1831, to support the more moderate Whig Reform Bill. (fn. 397) In October 1831 they organized a vast demonstration in favour of the Bill, said to have been attended by more than 100,000 persons, including 20,000 from the Black Country collieries, from Bilston, Darlaston, and Dudley. (fn. 398) The meeting-place, as in 1817 and 1819, was Newhall Hill. The repeated delays in the parliamentary transit of the reform measure provided an opportunity for recruiting members, for proselytizing, and for creating links with the other Unions that sprang up throughout the country on the Birmingham model.
The final crisis came in May 1832. A great 'Gathering of the Unions' was held, attended, according to the contemporary and probably much exaggerated estimate, by some 200,000 people, 50,000 of them from Birmingham. At the meeting Joseph Parkes spoke of 'a violent revolution in this country which may at once destroy public credit, depose the boroughmongers, and utterly destroy their wicked domination', (fn. 399) and, a few days later, on 11 May Parkes agreed at a meeting of delegates of the Unions held in Francis Place's library in London, that in the event of Wellington accepting office in a last bid to avert reform, the standard of revolt should be raised at Birmingham. (fn. 400) Rumour magnified certain judiciously extremist pronouncements and discussions into serious preparations for full-scale revolution. A revolutionary high command was chosen (though not demonstrably with the concurrence of the selected) comprising Colonel William Napier, General W. A. Johnson, and Count Czapski, a Polish refugee with insurrectionary experience who was then in Birmingham. (fn. 401) The Midland Unions were to march to join detachments from the rest of the country on Hampstead Heath, to form an assembly a million strong. (fn. 402) At the same time the Scots Greys, in barracks at Birmingham, were kept on orders from London 'daily and nightly saddled, with ball cartridge ready for use at a moment's notice', but some were on the Union books and their reliability was doubtful. (fn. 403)
In the event, as was probably intended, the threat of civil war was alone sufficient to force the Reform Bill through, without its actuality. As a result Birmingham at last received direct parliamentary representation. In the elections for the first reformed parliament, held, in Birmingham, on 12 December 1832, Attwood and Joshua Scholefield were returned unopposed to represent the new parliamentary borough. (fn. 404) Edmonds, who had expected to be nominated by the reform party, was quickly disabused. (fn. 405) He subsequently announced his intention of standing as an independent reformer, but abandoned the project in the face of a Tory threat to take advantage of the split vote and contest the election. (fn. 406)