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 HISTORY FROM 1832 (fn. 1)
The passing of the Reform Bill of 1832 did not lead to the immediate dissolution of the Birmingham Political Union. The suffrage had been extended to meet middleclass aspirations, but the objectives which Attwood and his group wished to achieve - particularly currency reform - still remained to be struggled for. 'To stay the march of anarchy - to relieve the general distress - to rectify the general wrongs - to secure a full measure of justice, liberty and prosperity for all, and to unite all classes and all sects of my countrymen in peace, happiness and contentment' was the declared object of Attwood at the general election of December 1832. (fn. 2) The generality of the language concealed the particularity of the Birmingham middle-class radicals' approach to politics. (fn. 3) 'To relieve the general distress' meant applying the currency formula; 'to unite all classes' meant preserving the alliance of middle-class and working-class reformers which was proclaimed in the very existence of the Political Union itself and which was made possible by the social structure of the local community. The emphasis on 'prosperity' was both a testimony to the vulnerability of the local economy to trade fluctuations and a recognition of the strategic importance of these fluctuations in shaping the mood and the course of Birmingham politics. Attwood had no more illusions about the Reform Bill than had the little group of extreme working-class radicals who in October 1832 formed a branch in Birmingham of the National Union of Working Classes. (fn. 4) 'The Reform Bill', he remarked, 'can no more rectify our ills than it can have caused them. It is from a different system after the Reform Bill is disposed of that we are to expect any improvement in our affairs'. (fn. 5)
Already in 1833, which was a year of good trade and a good harvest, Attwood expressed disillusionment with the Reform Bill. 'Once more, in your countless masses, come with me', he exclaimed in May 1833, 'Hearts of lions, but with the gentleness of lambs, meet me again at Newhall Hill'. (fn. 6) At a mass meeting in the same month, at which O'Connell was present, one of the speakers attacked the Whig government for its refusal to extend the suffrage still further, and for 'the great hostility... shown to the interests of the working classes, which exceeded that of the Tories'. (fn. 7) A few months later a parade was held at which leaders of the Political Union and leaders of the local trades honoured Joseph Russell, an ultra-radical and free-thinking critic of Attwood, who had just been released from gaol after serving a sentence for libel. It was a gesture which did much to heal old sores. (fn. 8)
The Political Union withered away in the relative prosperity of 1834 and although there were demands for its revival in 1835, (fn. 9) it was not until the economic depression of 1837 which followed the financial crash of 1836 that it re-emerged as an active force both in local and national politics. (fn. 10) Attwood had long foreseen that bad years would re-invigorate radicalism. In November 1836, for example, he stated that with a million able-bodied unemployed in the country and a bad harvest or two 'a further reform of parliament would be a much quicker and easier operation' than it had been in 1832. (fn. 11) He recognized moreover that the working classes would play a decisive role in any new agitation, and in January 1836 claimed that 'in a great cause he was content to stand or fall with the workmen alone' even if the middle classes were against him. (fn. 12) By utterances of this kind he prepared himself for the advent of Chartism, which in Birmingham at least marked no sharp break with the existing local tradition of radical activity. The break in Birmingham came later when Attwood and his friends, notably T. C. Salt, a local manufacturer, and R. K. Douglas, the editor of the Birmingham Journal, realized that a Chartist movement led by Feargus O'Connor was a different kind of agitation, both in outlook and in methods, from an agitation led by themselves. (fn. 13)
Before the break Birmingham politics helped to shape the infant Chartist movement. The revived Political Union, which was formally reconstituted in May 1837, (fn. 14) held its first mass meeting on Newhall Hill on 19 June. The rallying call was suffrage extension to achieve 'permanent employment and fair remuneration for all', (fn. 15) and during the early months of 1838 Douglas was drafting a 'National Petition' to propound grievances and declare aspirations. A 'holy and peaceful pilgrimage' was planned to Glasgow, where reformers of a similar frame of mind were gathering together, (fn. 16) and while in Glasgow in May 1838 Attwood and Douglas had talks with representatives of the London Working Men's Association, which had drafted the People's Charter. (fn. 17) The National Petition may well have become more radical in tone than it otherwise would have been because of this new contact, (fn. 18) which prompted Attwood, P. H. Muntz, Salt, and Douglas to believe that victory was just round the corner. Douglas dreamed hopefully of a 'petition signed by two million men, drawn like a Cheshire cheese of twenty feet diameter, in a cart of white horses to the House of Commons'. (fn. 19) 'Ulterior measures' were planned to be put into effect if Parliament refused to listen to the 'voice of the people'. (fn. 20) Attwood talked of a 'sacred week', during which masters and men would participate in a general strike to coerce the government, (fn. 21) and Muntz eagerly looked forward to a National Convention, 'a national meeting of delegates of the people', (fn. 22) which 'would reign and rule, unopposed, unchallenged till the great day of deliverance comes'. (fn. 23) 'They were going to try the masses', exclaimed Attwood, 'they were going to put power into the hands of the people'. (fn. 24)
For all this talk there was to be no repetition in the national history of the Chartist movement of the theme of Birmingham leadership which had been so prominent in the struggle for the Reform Bill. For a brief moment at a great mass meeting at Holloway Head on 6 August 1838, attended by O'Connor as well as by the leaders of the Birmingham Political Union, it seemed as if Birmingham was to retain its position of primacy, but already O'Connor had recognized the politically explosive potentialities of the industrial north of England and the value, even in Birmingham, of appealing to physical force. (fn. 25) The meeting of 6 August has been described as 'the official beginning of the Chartist movement', (fn. 26) but from the very beginning of the new national agitation it was clear that there were sharp differences of approach between the different leaders. The eight Birmingham delegates chosen to represent the city at the Convention were moderate men, many of them, like Salt and Douglas, prosperous representatives of the middle classes. Benjamin Hadley, another delegate, was an alderman and a church-warden of St. Martin's. Collins was a working man, but he was known to be moderate in his views. Before the Convention met in February 1839 rifts had already appeared between this group and the O'Connorites. O'Connor himself deliberately widened them. In September he told a crowd in the town hall to 'try their right arms' to get their rights. (fn. 27) On 13 November he daringly attended the weekly meeting of the Political Union and protested against misrepresentation by Salt and Douglas. (fn. 28) A week later O'Connor's eloquence was so effective that Muntz was hissed in his own stronghold, and the meeting had to be adjourned. (fn. 29) Attwood, who as a member of Parliament, had chosen not to stand as a representative for the Convention, became more and more alarmed by what he saw and heard. When he finally attended a meeting of the Council of the Union the rift was open, and he complained bitterly of 'imprudent and dangerous men' who would gain control of the Convention and undermine its authority. It was a gesture of hope rather than of conviction which urged him to add that if the Convention failed 'the Birmingham Union would still remain an unflinching and efficient rallying point for the country'. (fn. 30)
There were many signs of independent working-class activity in Birmingham late in 1838 and in early 1839, which jeopardized the traditional local alliance between the middle and working classes. In particular, an artisans' committee to collect national rent to finance the Convention brought new individuals into positions of prominence. Edward Brown, its secretary, was an enthusiastic O'Connorite, who quoted with approval J. R. Stephens's remarks on the usefulness of 'an ounce of lead and the cold steel', (fn. 31) and he and John Donaldson quickly supplanted artisans like Henry Watson and Thomas Baker who were more favourable to Attwood. In January and February 1839 they made it clear that Attwood's leadership was no longer wanted by a large section of Birmingham working men, and they did not hesitate to attack radical councillors for betraying 'the interests of the working men, on whose shoulders they were carried to the eminence they now enjoy'. (fn. 32)
Weeks before the opening of the Convention in London the Birmingham delegates realized that they were completely out of touch with most of the other elected delegates. R. K. Douglas was the first chairman of the formal sessions, but the Birmingham delegates quickly made excuses for not attending the debates on policy and tactics. Salt claimed that since the National Petition had attracted only 600,000 signatures it could no longer be fairly described as 'national', (fn. 33) and the Birmingham Journal pleaded that until more signatures were collected the Convention should adjourn. (fn. 34) The Birmingham O'Connorites were angry at these manoeuvres. They argued that adjournment would be 'fatal to the interests of the working classes' (fn. 35) and later rebuked their elected delegates for failing to discharge their duties. (fn. 36) A few of the delegates began to attend meetings in March, but on 28 March Dr. Wade, the militant vicar of St. Nicholas's, Warwick, and former supporter of Hetherington, resigned, (fn. 37) and a few days later all the Birmingham delegates followed his example. (fn. 38) The reason they gave was the willingness of the Convention to flirt with physical force. They were violently attacked both in the Convention and in Birmingham, and there was a further confrontation of opinion when the Convention completed the first part of its programme and on 7 May handed over the National Petition to Attwood and Fielden for presentation to the House of Commons. Attwood demanded that before its presentation the Convention should formally pass a resolution condemning the use of physical force. (fn. 39) A keen debate followed in the Convention, but Attwood's demand was not granted. He complained bitterly of 'the brutal stupidity of the members of the General Convention' and the way he had been treated 'with insolence, calumny and suspicion merely because I resisted their brutal passions'. (fn. 40) By the time that he in his turn abandoned his scruples and on 14 July 1839 opened a debate on the House of Commons on a motion to go into Committee of the whole House to consider the National Petition, Birmingham had been in the forefront of the news again. The headlines, however, were calculated to fill few non-Chartists, least of all Attwood, with confidence.
When the middle-class delegates from Birmingham resigned from the Convention, Brown, Donaldson, John Fussell, and John Powell took over the directorship of Birmingham Chartism. They talked of a middle-class conspiracy, and finally broke up the Political Union, the Council of which held its last meeting on 9 April 1839. (fn. 41) On 22 April Brown, Powell, and Donaldson were elected as new delegates to the Convention, and in a fine symbolic gesture of defiance at the old alliance between middle classes and working classes the Birmingham Journal was publicly burnt along with a placard bearing the name of T. C. Salt. (fn. 42) The new working-class leaders began to hold regular public meetings in the Bull Ring, where dense crowds listened to highly inflammatory speeches. A letter from one of the O'Connorites vividly described the local mood early in May 1839. 'There has been no work done here for this last week - all is excitement - the Bull Ring is crowded from noon till night... The state of fermentation is such that I have been obliged to address the people in the middle of the day for the purpose of protecting the peace'. (fn. 43) Shopkeepers and manufacturers were increasingly alarmed and began to demand an order prohibiting large open-air public meetings.
It was in such a heavily-charged atmosphere that the National Convention moved from London to Birmingham. By contrast the atmosphere of London, in O'Brien's word, was 'deadening', (fn. 44) and if there was to be violence Birmingham seemed likely to be able to provide both 'troops' and 'battlefield'. (fn. 45) The attitude of the local magistrates, moreover, was open to doubt, despite the professions of Salt and Douglas, for many of them were well-known radical reformers. (fn. 46) On the arrival of the Convention in Birmingham on 13 May Julian Harney addressed the huge crowds at Holloway Head with the words, 'It might be if the government began the reign of terror, the people would end it... It might be that the people should oppose them with the musket and the pike'. (fn. 47) Fussell added as a local man that if anyone dared to arrest him Birmingham would become a 'hell on earth'. (fn. 48) It is not surprising that he and Brown were arrested on 17 May, (fn. 49) and a warrant was also issued against Harney. (fn. 50)
The removal of these men did not save Birmingham from actual violence. Throughout June despite attempts at prohibition there were many noisy meetings in the Bull Ring, and a number of prosecutions for obstruction. The action of the magistrates was bitterly condemned by the crowds and their spokesmen. 'It appears to me very strange that the working classes should now be prosecuted', Henry Wilkes, a radical leader, told P. H. Muntz, one of the magistrates. 'In the year 1832 when I took an active part, there were no such interruptions or prosecutions. The influential gentlemen then took part with the people, and there were no such objections raised'. (fn. 51) When the magistrates, goaded into anger by noisy demonstrations both inside and outside the Court Room, decided to summon a contingent of Metropolitan Police, they were playing with fire. Already there were more than 2,000 special constables and two companies of riflemen in Birmingham: the sixty policemen from London, brought down by the mayor, William Scholefield, (fn. 52) were more of a provocation than an aid to law and order. They arrived at 8.0 p.m. on 4 July, when a peaceful and orderly Chartist meeting was being held in the Bull Ring. The mayor and a magistrate ordered the crowd to disperse and told the police to arrest the Chartist who was speaking at the time. The crowd was 'for a moment stationary, as though spell-bound'; then there was action. The police advanced, and the crowds were soon engaged in a pitched battle with them. Only the arrival of troops restored order. (fn. 53) There were further violent disturbances on Saturday and Monday. In clearing the streets the policemen used very little discrimination. 'Several most orderly and inoffensive inhabitants fell beneath their staffs, with severely bruised heads and bodies'. (fn. 54)
Two moderate Chartists, Collins and William Lovett, were arrested, and in August 1839 sentenced to a year's imprisonment. The Birmingham Chartists, still led by supporters of O'Connor, raised funds on their behalf and tried to extend the local agitation. There were further visits in the Bull Ring on 15 July, which, although there was no looting, led Muntz to remark that there was a 'general disaffection of the working classes and strong feeling in favour of a conflagration'. (fn. 55) Excitement did not die down with the return of the Convention to London. There was continued agitation, interrupted only by the action of police spies (fn. 56) and internecine personal conflicts like that between Brown and James Porter, a shoemaker and treasurer of the Lovett-Collins Fund. (fn. 57) Towards the end of 1839 there were signs of a slackening of Chartist pressure, and in 1840 when a branch of the newly-formed National Charter Association was founded in Birmingham it had only 26 members. (fn. 58)
The exceptional pattern of violence of 1839 was never repeated in Birmingham during the 1840s. Instead, the more familiar pattern of close association between middle classes and working classes was re-established, this time not under the leadership of Attwood, who passed out of politics, (fn. 59) but of Joseph Sturge. In 1822 Sturge had moved the headquarters of his business as a corn-dealer from Bewdley to Birmingham, and even before that date he had been active in 'good causes', notably the peace movement and the campaign for the abolition of slavery. (fn. 60) Once settled in Birmingham he played an active part in Quaker politics, becoming secretary of the Birmingham branch of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1826. (fn. 61) In 1830 he was elected to serve on the board of street commissioners and in 1838 he became an alderman of the Birmingham Town Council. Like his distinguished co-religionist, John Bright, he was an early supporter of the Anti-Corn Law League. He took no part in the early Chartist movement, although in 1839 he was appointed chairman of the committee appointed by the town council to investigate charges of brutality and violence against the London police. (fn. 62) When Attwood resigned his seat as one of the two members of Parliament for Birmingham in 1839 a number of citizens pressed Sturge to stand, but he withdrew to let in G. F. Muntz, a member of the old Political Union circle. It was only in 1841 that Sturge assumed a position of leadership in Birmingham politics, and even after establishing his position he continued to meet with a considerable amount of local hostility.
Attwood had sought to persuade middle-class citizens and working men to unite together in politics on the grounds that they were both victims of the existing currency system: Sturge found the grounds for union in the existence of the corn laws which, he claimed, penalized business and increased the working-class cost of living. He stressed also the religious basis of union, and it is significant that the germ of the Complete Suffrage Union, Sturge's new organization founded in 1842, was first expressed by Edward Miall in his anti-establishmentarian journal, The Nonconformist. (fn. 63) Birmingham was a good centre from which to launch a new movement of class union, for despite all the activities of Chartist extremists there was far less open class antagonism in Birmingham than in Manchester, the headquarters of the Anti-Corn Law League. Indeed, one section of Chartist opinion may be said to have anticipated Sturge. In December 1840 a Christian Chartist Church had been founded in Birmingham by a recent immigrant from Scotland, Arthur O'Neill. (fn. 64) The Christian Chartists were cautious about forming an open alliance with the Birmingham middle classes, (fn. 65) but they challenged the O'Connorite philosophy of George White and the National Charter Association (fn. 66) and upheld the claims of rationality, morality, and respectability. (fn. 67) Although they helped the O'Connorites to defeat an Anti-Corn Law resolution at a repeal meeting in May 1841, (fn. 68) a few months later many of them acclaimed Joseph Sturge as an honest leader and became active members of his organization.
For his part Sturge refused to dissociate the need for suffrage reform from the battle against the corn law. His plans were resented and even lampooned by some of the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, (fn. 69) but he stood firm by the so-called 'Sturge Declaration' of November 1841, which affirmed that 'a large majority of the people of this country are unjustly excluded from that full, fair, and free exercise of the elected franchise to which they are entitled by the great principle of Christian equity and also by the British Constitution'. (fn. 70) The meeting of the Birmingham Complete Suffrage Union, which formally set up the national body, was held in Birmingham on 5 April 1842. (fn. 71) Vincent, Lovett, O'Brien and O'Neill, and Collins were among the Chartists present. John Bright was also there, as were Dr. Wade and Archibald Prentice, who had been trying for years to accomplish in Manchester politics what Sturge was now trying to do first in Birmingham and then nationally. (fn. 72)
The April conference endorsed the People's Charter, and at a second conference, also held at Birmingham, in December 1842 O'Connor and his friends were present. (fn. 73) Lovett and O'Connor joined forces to retain not only the name 'Charter' but the idea of a distinctive working-class movement to secure it. Sturge's party was overwhelmingly defeated, and in the words of his biographer he and his friends returned from the meeting 'thankful that this result left him at liberty honourably to withdraw from such uncongenial fellowship'. (fn. 74) Although the politics of class reconciliation remained important in Birmingham, (fn. 75) the possibility of Birmingham taking the lead in yet another national radical campaign had once more been shattered. In Birmingham itself Sturge came bottom of the poll at a by-election in 1844 which followed the death of Joshua Scholefield, and for the first time a Tory member, Richard Spooner, Attwood's old business partner, was returned.
As early as 1832, in the first post-Reform Bill election, an attempt had been made to run J. H. Palmer, an East-India merchant, against Attwood and Scholefield, but this was abandoned when the canvass proved unfavourable. (fn. 76) Spooner was nominated for the first time at the general election of 1835, (fn. 77) however, and the Birmingham Conservatives contested the general elections of 1837 (fn. 78) and 1841 (fn. 79) and a by-election in 1839 (fn. 80) with a gradually increasing vote. The Birmingham Loyal and Constitutional Association, founded in 1834, (fn. 81) published tracts, sponsored petitions, canvassed electors, and in general acted as a registration association. In 1836 the Conservatives opened a news-room and reading-room in Union Street. (fn. 82) They claimed support from the 'less opulent tradesmen, and the more respectable of our industrious workmen', (fn. 83) but the Association was led by an alliance comprising middle-class Birmingham Tories, grouped around Spooner, (fn. 84) leading Anglican clergymen, (fn. 85) and the gentry of the surrounding countryside. (fn. 86)
Meanwhile, in the world of local radical politics O'Connorite Chartism remained a formidable force. In 1843 O'Connor chose the city as the centre of a National Convention at which his 'Land Plan' was approved, and within a few months Birmingham had five branches of the new 'Land Plan' organization. (fn. 87) In 1848, when Chartism revived in Birmingham as elsewhere under the triple influence of economic depression, food shortage, and the French Revolution, a new organization was founded on 31 March with the title the Birmingham Political Council. (fn. 88) Its officers were 'new men' - Councillor James Baldwin, a paper manufacturer, as chairman and G. J. Mantle as secretary - and its motto was 'Peace! Justice! Prosperity!'.
To catch the flavour of Birmingham politics in 1848, as in 1830, it is necessary to turn to attempts at concerted radical politics. There were prominent national moves in this year to secure parliamentary reform by peaceful means through the action of organizations led by the middle classes. (fn. 89) Joseph Hume was the most influential national figure, strongly backed in his campaign for 'the Little Charter' by John Bright, and in Birmingham there were many public meetings on the subject. On 1 May a crowded meeting in the town hall, attended by Vincent, O'Neill, P. H. Muntz, Sturge, and a new figure, George Dawson, Minister at the Church of the Saviour, (fn. 90) carried resolutions in favour of 'complete suffrage'. (fn. 91) Two days later a second meeting, at which George Edmonds represented the voice of the old radical tradition, declared itself in favour of the creation of a new Reform League. (fn. 92) Nine thousand persons signed a declaration approving of such a new body, which was duly founded under the presidency of G. F. Muntz. (fn. 93) On 31 May the Reform League gave its support to Hume, an attempt by the Chartists to carry an amendment in favour of the Charter being defeated. (fn. 94) On 7 June 1848 a well-attended meeting in the town hall voted unanimously in favour of a petition to Parliament advocating universal suffrage, vote by ballot, no property qualification, equal electoral districts, and payment of members. (fn. 95)
Hume's motion was defeated in the House of Commons on 6 July. In the meantime there were serious fears of Chartist disturbance in Birmingham. An open-air meeting on Sunday, 11 June, revived the mood of 1839, and the following day two companies of infantry arrived from Weedon. (fn. 96) The small Irish population of the town was active in this last burst of Chartism just as it was in other places, and George White, along with Edward King, was committed to the Warwick Assizes on 15 August on charges of having delivered seditious speeches at the People's Hall. (fn. 97) G. J. Mantle was also arrested on the same day. (fn. 98) The Reform League continued to advocate an extension of the suffrage, and on 22 August as a new expression of the close local association between distress and 'agitation' it drew up a memorial urging the queen 'not to prorogue Parliament until measures have been devised for remedying the existing and apprehended distress of the Kingdom'. (fn. 99) The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce appealed to its Manchester counterpart to join in a common approach to the government, (fn. 100) and P. H. Muntz's testimony before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Commercial Distress (1848) recalled that of Birmingham 'political economists' earlier in the century. (fn. 101)
During the relatively prosperous years of mid-Victorian England the mood of Birmingham politics was radical but not extremist. The main determinants of politics were first, the prosperity which kept relations sweet between the classes, secondly, the willingness of a majority section of local middle-class opinion to battle for a further extension of the suffrage to working men, and thirdly, the relatively high level of technical and political education of the Birmingham artisans. Many comparisons were drawn between Manchester and Birmingham during this period, almost all of them in Birmingham's favour. One of the best known was that of Cobden, commenting on John Bright's 'translation' to Birmingham as M.P. in 1857 after losing his seat in Manchester. According to Cobden there was 'less aristocratic snobbery' and more class co-operation in Birmingham than in Manchester. While 'the great capitalists of Manchester form an aristocracy, individual members of which wield an influence over sometimes two thousand persons', in Birmingham business men and working men were not separated by high walls of social privilege. Workshops were small, and manufacturers were often skilled artisans who had risen by their own efforts. (fn. 102) The middle classes believed in a 'thorough union'. It was this thorough union which Bright himself was most anxious to build up not only in Birmingham but throughout the whole country. It was, in his view, a pre-condition of any further extension of the franchise. (fn. 103) Cobden's and Bright's opinions had been anticipated long before by Birmingham radicals. In 1849, for instance, John Mason, a shoemaker who had originally come to Birmingham from Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1841 as one of O'Connor's lecturers, remarked at a tea party in his honour, given just before he emigrated to the United States: 'The strength of democracy consists in reconciling the various classes of society, and inspiring every man with a just confidence of public order and security'. (fn. 104)
One of the most significant expressions of mid-Victorian politics in Birmingham was the emergence of a non-electors' association. Already at the general election of 1847 Mason had been prominent in the formation of a Committee of Non-Electors to secure the return of two members 'favourable to the enfranchisement of the working classes'. (fn. 105) The committee gave its support to G. F. Muntz and William Scholefield and campaigned actively in their favour. At the general election of 1852 whole-hearted support was given to Scholefield, who had supported Lord John Russell's Reform Bill. Ward committees were organized and an appeal to the public was published, (fn. 106) and after Scholefield had once again been successful at the polls a 'Non-Electors' Testimonial Committee' presented him with an address lithographed on a plate. (fn. 107) The candidature of Bright was enthusiastically endorsed by the non-electors in 1857, (fn. 108) and they welcomed his launching of a large-scale radical offensive in October 1858. Making his first speech in Birmingham as member for the town he called for unity between middle and working classes, warned of the danger of a 'country gentleman's Reform Bill' and ended with a most effective peroration: 'Am I not in the town of Birmingham, England's central capital, and do not these eyes look upon the sons of those who 30 years ago shook the fabric of privilege to its base? Not a few of the strong men of that time are now white with age. They approach the confines of their mortal day. Its evening is cheered with the remembrance of that great contest, and they rejoice in the freedom they have won. Shall their sons be less noble than they? Shall the fire which they kindled be extinguished with you?' (fn. 109)
The answer was 'no', and Bright used Birmingham as a great base in his abortive reform campaigns of 1859 and 1865 and the successful campaigns which led up to the passing of the Second Reform Bill in 1867. Various Birmingham organizations were created to help him. The first was the Reformers' Union, which was in existence before Bright's first Birmingham speech; (fn. 110) it was a deputation from this body which in October 1858 formally asked Bright to prepare a new reform bill. (fn. 111) It included middle-class radicals like J. S. Wright, a button manufacturer, and working men like William Radford, a clerk, and William Beddows, a bricklayer. In November 1858 the Reformers' Union gave way to the Birmingham Reform Association. It made the claim that 'it embraces men of all shades of liberal opinion, enfranchised middle-class and non-electors'. 'We have agreed', its manifestor went on, 'to sink all minor differences and work together to obtain an extension of the franchise, vote by ballot and redistribution of seats'. (fn. 112) In 1861 the Radical Reform League made its appearance. It included two men who were later to sit on the Liberal'Caucus' - George Bill, an engine turner, and Henry Bishop, a tinplate worker. (fn. 113) In March of the same year a Ballot Society was also founded. (fn. 114)
The multiplicity of these political bodies and their tendency to meet ad hoc requirements - a general election or the launching of a new oratorical campaign by Bright - were, in retrospect at least, symptoms of organizational immaturity. The function of the Birmingham Liberal Association in February 1865 cannot be understood, however, without full attention being paid to this earlier record of political commitment. The Association has often been considered as the prototype of modern mass politics, (fn. 115) the beginnings of an 'Americanization' of the English political system. (fn. 116) In fact, it was a natural growth, a product of social forces as much as of political pressures. Recognition of its importance in national history has obscured understanding of its local origins, yet its national as well as its local importance should not be minimized. The Association was the parent of the 'Caucus', and the 'Caucus' was the parent of many new national political bodies, notably the Education League, and ultimately of the National Liberal Federation which was founded in 1877. (fn. 117) If Bright was the key figure in the background of the story, Joseph Chamberlain soon moved into the foreground. From that point onwards the themes of Birmingham's history and national history once more converged. Bright remained member of Parliament for Birmingham until his death in 1889, but he had little love for the new forms of political organization which his ambitious young colleague had perfected.
The Birmingham Liberal Association began modestly enough in February 1865. Indeed, the adjective 'Liberal' was chosen because it was felt that it might attract many people who were frightened of the noun 'Reform'. (fn. 118) The Association was pledged to secure Liberal candidates for Birmingham itself and for Warwickshire and to pursue 'Liberal principles'. In the same month as its formation the Reform League was founded in London, and a Birmingham branch of this new radical body was established, with trade-union support, in November 1865. (fn. 119) This branch was soon directly associated with the Birmingham Liberal Association. Financial help was provided, (fn. 120) and James Baldwin, one of the founders of the Association, was chosen as first president of the Midlands 'department' of the League. A large-scale political campaign followed, once again in economic circumstances which favoured agitation - a rise in the bank rate, an increase in unemployment, and a threat to trade-union activity. (fn. 121) In the year following August 1866, the Reform League held six hundred public meetings in its Midlands 'department' and enrolled twenty thousand members. (fn. 122) Its first Birmingham meeting was on 4 July 1866 when members of the local trades unions assembled in the Bull Ring and marched to an open-air rally behind the town hall; (fn. 123) its two biggest demonstrations were at Brook Fields in August 1866 and April 1867. (fn. 124)
The Reform League did not long survive the passing of the Second Reform Bill and the general election of 1868, (fn. 125) but the Birmingham Liberal Association did. It played such a crucial part during the election that purely mechanical reasons have often been given for its rise and with it the rise of the 'Caucus'. By the 1867 Reform Act Birmingham was given three seats in Parliament, but each elector on the extended franchise retained only two votes. To make sure that the Liberals were returned, it has been argued, tighter control of the extended electorate was necessary. Such a cause-and-effect explanation is too technical. As has been shown, the new Liberal organization was more a major cause than a major consequence of the Reform Act. (fn. 126) Joseph Chamberlain, who moved to Birmingham in 1854 as a young man of eighteen and from 1866 onwards began 'to interest himself in the public life of the town', (fn. 127) had no illusions about the wide-reaching social changes that were responsible for the shift of control in local politics. 'It is no longer safe', he wrote, 'to attempt to secure the representation of a great constituency for the nominee of a few gentlemen sitting in private committee, and basing their claims to dictate the choice of the electors on the fact that they have been willing to subscribe something towards the expenses. The working class, who cannot contribute pecuniarily though they are often ready to sacrifice a more than proportionate amount of time and labour, are now the majority in most borough constituencies, and no candidate and no policy has a chance of success unless their good-will and active support can first be secured'. (fn. 128)
At the general election of 1868 the three Birmingham Liberals secured enormous majorities, and by skilful organization on the part of the leaders of the Liberal Association, notably William Harris, a journalist and in Chamberlain's opinion the initiator of the caucus, (fn. 129) there was less than a thousand votes difference between the first and the third Liberal candidates. In some wards Liberals had been asked to vote for Bright and George Dixon, in others Dixon and Muntz, in the remainder Muntz and Bright. The result was so successful that advice about electioneering was requested by Liberals in many other constituencies. (fn. 130)
So great was the local sense of triumph that in the autumn of 1868 Birmingham Liberals were circulating to their friends and opponents a black-edged card announcing that the mortal remains of 'Old Toryism' would be consigned to their last resting place on 17 November. At the foot of the card were printed the words 'No Resurrection'. (fn. 131) In fact, Birmingham Toryism had not succeeded in becoming a dominant force in the middle years of the century. A substantial section of the local upper middle classes, particularly Anglican manufacturers and lawyers, had remained Conservative, resenting the close alliance between radicalism and nonconformity and looking for social alliances to the neighbouring gentry of Warwickshire and Staffordshire. They often shared the views of their Liberal fellow-citizens on such matters as currency reform (fn. 132) or even the extension of the suffrage, (fn. 133) but often, too, broke with them sharply on church rates, education, and questions of local patronage. Birmingham working-class conservatism was probably based on old traditions, reinforced by Anglican churches and schools, (fn. 134) and in 1867 the Working Men's Liberal Conservative Association claimed two thousand members. (fn. 135) The election result confirmed, however, that the Liberalism of the caucus was a more effective message than the liberalism (with a small '1') of the Conservatives. (fn. 136)
There were many efforts to tighten Conservative organization after 1868 and more particularly after 1874, (fn. 137) but meanwhile the caucus became the real centre of power in Birmingham. At its base were the Liberal electors, who chose ward committees to organize canvassing and recruitment. The ward committees elected a central representative committee which increased as Birmingham grew. In 1868 it had 400 members, ten years later 600, subsequently 800, and ultimately 2,000. This committee met eight or nine times a year, usually at the summons of its smaller management committee, occasionally by requisition of any two ward committees or any twenty members. Apart from disseminating propaganda, the central committee chose parliamentary candidates and Liberal candidates for the school board elections. It was not, however, the hub of the whole system. At its centre were two other committees, an executive committee and a small management committee of eleven people, who served as an inner cabinet and took key decisions. (fn. 138)
The caucus had many of its greatest victories in the sphere of local government. Men like George Dawson had proclaimed that 'a great town exists to discharge towards the people of that town the duties that a great nation exists to discharge towards the people of that nation'. (fn. 139) They believed in a civic gospel and a renaissance of municipal government. (fn. 140) The caucus was the means whereby 'positive' local government was achieved particularly during the period of Chamberlain's mayoralty from 1873 to 1876. It had many local critics who complained that it kept out of positions of power and influence many men of ability and responsibility, (fn. 141) but its defenders rejoined that there was no town outside Birmingham 'in which democracy has been so largely interpreted as the life of the people as a whole'. (fn. 142) 'It cannot be too strongly insisted on', Chamberlain added, 'that the caucus does not make opinion, it only expresses it... It will not turn Conservatives into Liberals or secure for a Liberal minority a representation to which its numbers do not entitle it'. (fn. 143)
Local differences of opinion about the caucus in Birmingham were mirrored nationally when Chamberlain passed from local to national politics. He became acting chairman of the National Education League founded at Birmingham in 1869, and 'as such was chiefly responsible for originating and conducting its policy in the country'. (fn. 144) One of his chief assistants behind the scenes during the education controversy was Francis Schnadhorst, a 'spectacled, sallow, sombre' Birmingham draper, who had made his way into Liberal politics through nonconformity and had been 'discovered' by the Congregationalist minister of Carrs Lane chapel, Dr. Dale. Schnadhorst succeeded Harris as secretary of the Birmingham Liberal Association in 1873, and in 1877 became the secretary of the newly-founded National Liberal Federation. (fn. 145) The replacement of the National Education League by the National Liberal Federation as Chamberlain's and Schnadhorst's field of political activity was a sign of the national development of broad-based radicalism on the Birmingham model. 'I have long felt that there is not force in the education question to make it the sole fighting issue for our friends', Chamberlain wrote to John Morley in 1873 during the first year of his mayoralty. (fn. 146) The Liberal Party 'will not be re-united until a programme has been elaborated which shall satisfy the just expectations of the representatives of labour as well as conciliate the nonconformists who have been driven into rebellion'. In other words Chamberlain was seeking to extend positive radicalism from a municipal philosophy into a national party programme. 'My hope, therefore, is that the reforms and changes we require will be accepted some day as part of the whole platform of the party to whom the future belongs, and whose victory, when it comes, will involve the acceptance of a new political system'. (fn. 147) In 1876 he was elected member of Parliament for Birmingham, and a year later he was proud to announce 'the formation of a Federation of Liberal Associations with headquarters in Birmingham and the league officers as chief cooks'. It is not fanciful to suggest that some of the recipes, for all their apparent novelty, were out of the same book as the recipes of Attwood and Sturge in the first half of the century. Working-class grievances and middle-class grievances were once more to be identified, and the enemy, not for the first time, was 'Whigs and Whips'. (fn. 148) It was Disraeli who was responsible in the first instance for branding the new federation as 'the Birmingham Caucus' (fn. 149) and starting a prolonged debate about the techniques of political organization, but, whereas he and most of Chamberlain's critics were concerned only with techniques, Chamberlain himself was concerned with the content and purposes of politics. He emerged as the outstanding figure of Liberal radicalism during Gladstone's ministry of 1880-5, when he served as President of the Board of Trade. Once again the economic climate was favourable to political programme-making. The good years of mid-Victorian England had given way to years of falling profit margins and bouts of cyclical unemployment. There were persistent challenges from foreign competitors to the economic prosperity of Birmingham, and Chamberlain was prominently associated with both the demand for the further extension of the suffrage to agricultural labourers in 1884 and for comprehensive measures of social reform.
The Irish question transformed the shape of English politics in the mid-1880s, but did not break Chamberlain's hold on Birmingham. As the disruptive force of Gladstone's Home Rule proposals became clear, many Birmingham Liberals continued to argue that 'it would be a national calamity if Mr. Chamberlain resigned in consequence of the miserable Irish question'. (fn. 150) Even as late as 1888 A. C. Osier, the president of the Birmingham (Gladstone) Liberal Association, wrote that there was a general tendency among Liberals of all shades of opinion in Birmingham to ignore differences on the Irish question. (fn. 151) Nonetheless, once Chamberlain had resigned from Gladstone's government on 26 March 1886, (fn. 152) there were bound to be Liberal splits in Birmingham as elsewhere both about the rightness of his actions and the merits of Gladstone's proposals. Chamberlain was well aware of the importance of holding Birmingham. 'In that arena would the thumbs be turned up or down? If he lost Birmingham all was lost'. (fn. 153) He knew that Schnadhorst, who favoured 'a bold and thorough' Home Rule policy in Ireland, was 'working against' him, (fn. 154) but Bright was on his side and he took steps to make sure that he had the full support of J. T. Bunce, the influential editor of the Birmingham Daily Post. Schnadhorst attempted to dissuade Chamberlain from addressing the Birmingham 'Two Thousand', but failed, and on 21 April 1886 Chamberlain addressed them in the most critical meeting of the many critical meetings of his life. Dr. Dale was in the chair, and Chamberlain defended his actions with supreme skill. He was loudly cheered and secured overwhelming majorities in favour both of his personal actions and of his policies. From Chamberlain's point of view only Schnadhorst 'behaved badly', (fn. 155) and on 5 May he had his revenge for Chamberlain's victory in Birmingham when the general committee of the National Liberal Federation supported Gladstone by a crushing majority. (fn. 156)
At the general election of 1886 Birmingham returned seven supporters of Chamberlain, two of the old Liberal members who decided to stand as Gladstonians being defeated by 'Unionists'. From 1886 to 1914, the year that he died, Chamberlain was in no danger of losing his hold on the city. Nevertheless as he drew closer to the Conservatives and after 1895 held high office in Conservative and Liberal Unionist cabinets, he lost the support of new generations of confirmed Liberals. The nonUnionist Liberals were always at a disadvantage, but they were never annihilated. What was lost was something of the dynamic which had made Birmingham the centre of radicalism in the late 1860s and 1870s. 'Birmingham is still a remarkable place', wrote Dr. Dale in 1892, 'but it seems to me that the interesting people are gone... There was Dawson... Vince, John Henry Chamberlain and Harris, and Joseph Chamberlain in his fresh and brilliant promise. Dawson, Vince, and John Henry Chamberlain are dead; Harris remains, and is as kindly and epigrammatic as ever; but in the break up of the Liberal Party he remained with Gladstone and I seldom see him (fn. 157) ... Joseph Chamberlain is, of course, still immensely interesting; but I am not sure that he is as interesting as he was twenty years ago, and he is necessarily much away from Birmingham... The split of the Liberal Party has made an immense difference to our private life. There are two clubs and I belong to neither; I have friends on both sides, but the discussions that we had at the old Arts Club before the quarrel I look back upon with lasting regret'. (fn. 158)
The poignancy of this letter reflects the extent of the break in 1886. Chamberlain held Birmingham and as late as March 1887 saw no reason for 'interfering with the old organization'. (fn. 159) In February 1888, however, the Gladstone Liberals captured the 'Two Thousand', winning seats even in Chamberlain's division, (fn. 160) and Chamberlain and his henchmen had to create from scratch an entirely new Liberal Unionist machine. It was constructed in a remarkably short period of time and by April 1888 was 'going like wildfire'. (fn. 161) In its essentials it duplicated the old caucus. There was a Grand Committee for the whole city, an inner executive committee, and a small management committee of seven. (fn. 162) The two Liberal bodies were arrayed against each other in the autumn of 1888 when Gladstone visited Birmingham to speak to huge crowds at Bingley Hall: it was one of the finest platform speeches of his career. (fn. 163) In the municipal elections of 1888 Liberals and Liberal Unionists opposed each other for the first time. In the four wards where they met the Liberal Unionists won three. The split was complete when in 1889, the year of John Bright's death, the old Liberal Club failed and closed its doors. (fn. 164)
Birmingham Conservatives watched the split with interest. Before 1886 they had been gaining ground, and from 1877 onwards they had a 'democratic' form of party organization. A central executive committee included elected representatives from wards, 36 members of Conservative clubs - key institutions - and the officers of the association. There was an inner committee of management consisting of the secretary and treasurer and twelve members. (fn. 165) The association gave unstinted support to Lord Randolph Churchill who regarded himself as a pioneer of 'Tory democracy', and in 1883 Birmingham was chosen as the rendezvous for the conference of the National Union of Conservative Associations. (fn. 166) Churchill did not hesitate to pay tribute to the efficiency of 'machine polities'. 'The caucus', he declared, 'may perhaps be a name of evil sound and omen in the ears of aristocratic or privileged classes, but it is undeniably the only form of political organization which can collect, guide, and control for common objects large masses of electors'. (fn. 167) On 13 October 1884 there were serious disturbances in Birmingham - the so-called 'Aston riots' - when Churchill and Northcote appeared at a mass rally. 'My God', Churchill is reported to have told Dilke afterwards, 'there will be somebody killed at Birmingham next time'. (fn. 168) Chamberlain was anxious to keep Churchill out of Birmingham, although he failed to do so. Churchill was invited to contest one of the Birmingham divisions in 1885, but he lost to Bright by fewer than 800 votes. (fn. 169) After the Liberal split he advised Birmingham Conservatives not to oppose Liberal Unionists at the general election of 1886, (fn. 170) but on Bright's death in 1889 he was invited to stand again by a group of Birmingham Conservatives. This was the crucial moment in the relations between Chamberlain and the Birmingham Conservatives. He made it abundantly clear that he did not wish to be challenged from the right as well as from the left, and Churchill decided not to stand. (fn. 171) There could be no 'two kings at Brentford'. Relations between Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were very sore in 1889, but a year later a joint committee was appointed to deal with both differences and means of co-operation. It staged its first demonstration of strength in March 1891 when Salisbury and Chamberlain appeared on the same platform in Birmingham. In 1893 there was effective common action against the proposed new Liberal Home Rule Bill. (fn. 172) Two years later Chamberlain joined Salisbury's cabinet, and by 1900 organized Birmingham 'Unionism' - Liberal and Conservative - was a massive and well-integrated political reality.
It may be argued that Chamberlain's break with Gladstonian Liberalism in 1886 and his gradual rapprochement with the Conservatives reflected changes in Birmingham political attitudes as a whole. Business men were ceasing to be naturally 'radical', and many of them anticipated Chamberlain in turning to the Conservatives. Between 1882 and 1885 the Conservatives were winning far more votes in local elections, particularly in the centre of the town, and they could usually count on about 1,000 votes in each of the wards which they contested. (fn. 173) Sir Robert Ensor has plausibly argued that in 1886 Chamberlain 'lost the Liberal leadership, but he regained that of the modern English bourgeoisie'. (fn. 174) There were signs during the late 1890s that he was abandoning the free trade views which he had eloquently expressed as late as 1887. (fn. 175) Certainly other Birmingham business men anticipated him in the battle for fiscal reform, which he opened in May 1903; the origins of the revival of Birmingham protectionism can be traced back to the 1870s and even then these were echoes of opinions expressed earlier in the century. (fn. 176) It was protectionism rather than radicalism with which the name of Birmingham was associated in national politics in the decade before 1914. Once again there was a contrast with Manchester, a contrast which has given the two cities something of the character of opposing symbols in the unfolding of 19th- and 20th-century English social and political history. (fn. 177)
At the general election of 1906, when the Liberals gained a resounding national victory, Birmingham remained 'an impregnable stronghold of Unionism' and Liberal and Conservative Unionists celebrated the victory with a joint election banquet. There was another great triumph at the two elections of 1910. So close was the co-operation between Liberal and Conservative Unionists by this time that schemes for fusion of the separate Liberal and Conservative Unionist organizations were mooted in 1914. In 1919 the two organizations united, dropping the words 'Liberal' and 'Conservative' from the title of the new Unionist Association. It was Joseph Chamberlain's son, Neville, who wrote of this important event: 'The decision to unite practically places the direction of Unionist politics in Birmingham in my hands. I am not quite sure whether all those present perceived this; I did not mention it'. (fn. 178)
Birmingham remained a stronghold of Unionism throughout the inter-war years both in local politics and at general elections. In middle-class Edgbaston there were only three contested council elections between 1921 and 1938, and even in working class districts there were large Unionist organizations. In the four years before the outbreak of the Second World War the Unionists had an enormous majority on the city council over all other parties combined. (fn. 179)
If Unionism was the 'official voice' of Birmingham after 1886 there were signs also of the emergence of a local labour movement, which did not capture the local government of the city or the main share of its national political representation until after the Second World War.
The origins of socialism at Birmingham may be traced back to 1828, when, under the inspiration of the radical tobacconist, William Pare, and of James Guest (fn. 180) and W. H. Smith, (fn. 181) both publishers, an Owenite Co-operative Society was founded, to work for 'community of property in land and goods'. (fn. 182) The members met in 1829 in Old Meeting Street, (fn. 183) and in 1830 in Peck Lane. (fn. 184) In 1832 the Birmingham socialists were already collecting money to found a socialist colony. (fn. 185) From 1831, when the first national Co-operative Congress was held at Birmingham, (fn. 186) the town played a prominent part in the various abortive ventures of the Owenite socialists.
The Birmingham branch of the National Equitable Labour Exchange, in Coach Yard, Bull Street, opened in July 1833, (fn. 187) and was probably the most successful institution of its kind. When it was wound up in 1834 a surplus of about £8 was paid to the Birmingham General Hospital. (fn. 188) The second 'builders' parliament', or Grand Lodge of the Builders' Union, met at Birmingham in 1834. (fn. 189) About the same time the socialist architect, Joseph Hansom, was active in organizing building workers' productive co-operatives and in erecting the builders' guild hall in Shadwell Street. (fn. 190) In 1839 Birmingham was again selected as the venue of an Owenite congress, the foundation meeting of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists. (fn. 191) At that date there were no fewer than five socialist societies in Birmingham, (fn. 192) one of which advocated emigration to America to found a community there. (fn. 193) The more 'orthodox' partisans of Robert Owen had been meeting in rooms in Allison Street since about 1837; (fn. 194) in 1839 they opened a separate branch, at Lawrence Street chapel, which flourished for a few years before the socialists finally broke up in the 1840s. (fn. 195)
It is not easy to measure the impact of Owen's teachings on Birmingham. In 1831 Bronterre O'Brien claimed 3,000 shareholders for the Midland Representative, which gave space to Co-operative views. (fn. 196) In 1832 a crowd of 8,000 gathered at Beardsworth's Repository to hear Owen lecture on labour exchanges, (fn. 197) and in 1840 a similar number of people signed a petition protesting against some of the more abusive charges levelled against the Owenites. (fn. 198) Such figures, however, seem to bear no relationship to the minute body of active supporters of any particular socialist project, and Chartism and political radicalism plainly had a more powerful appeal for the Birmingham working class.
When in 1868 G. J. Holyoake offered himself to the electors as a progressive working men's candidate, he himself noted that the time was still not ripe. 'The object of my being a candidate at Birmingham', he declared, 'was to test and advocate the question of working-class representation. At that time there was no strong feeling on the part of the working class in favour of the representation of their order'. (fn. 199) The first working man to win a Birmingham parliamentary election was the 'Lib-Lab' leader Henry Broadhurst, originally a stone-mason, who was elected member for Bordesley in 1885. He did not stand at the general election a year later, however, and after the Liberal split W. J. Davis, a brassworker and later historian of the Trades Union Congress, was defeated as a Lib-Lab candidate in the same constituency in 1892. (fn. 200) Davis had been one of the first advocates of separate working men's representation (fn. 201) in Birmingham, but, whereas before the Liberal split of 1886 the main difficulty had been to distinguish the Liberal-Labour combination from orthodox Chamberlain radicalism, after 1886 the main difficulty was to win electoral support at all. In both periods the fortunes of the Lib-Lab were inextricably bound up with the fortunes of the Liberal Party.
To many of the militant socialists of the 1880s and 1890s the union of Liberalism with Labour was tarnished with expediency and compromise. The socialist gospel was an alternative to Liberalism not an adjunct to it. It was an old Birmingham Chartist, John Sketchley, who in 1879 published a pamphlet called The Principles of Social Democracy and went on to try to found a Midland Social Democratic Federation. (fn. 202) In 1883 he was one of the founders of a Birmingham branch of the newly-founded Democratic Federation which under H. M. Hyndman's influence and leadership changed its name to the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. (fn. 203) J. Haddon, one of the Birmingham Social Democrats, stood as a candidate for a municipal election in St. Mary's ward in 1887 and polled over 750 votes. (fn. 204) Another local socialist, J. T. Tanner, contested several municipal elections with limited success, (fn. 205) but it was not until 1902 that J. A. Fallows won a municipal election in Birmingham on a specifically socialist ticket. (fn. 206) The Lib-Labs had been more successful at the polls. As early as 1889 J. V. Stevens, a tin-plate worker, beat young Austin Chamberlain by eleven votes in a spectacular contest in St. Thomas's ward. (fn. 207)
The Social Democratic Federation, with its secularist, doctrinaire, and sectarian approach to socialism, has often been contrasted with the 'more English' Independent Labour Party founded in 1893. In Birmingham, however, where an 'independent labour' branch was set up in June 1892 several months before the foundation of the national party, (fn. 208) the two bodies were allies more than rivals. For the first big Labour Day demonstration of 6 May 1894 preparations were made by a joint committee which included representations of the S.D.F., the I.L.P., the Fabian Society, the Co-operative Society, and some of the trade unions. (fn. 209)
A more important manifestation of joint action on the part of the militant Birmingham socialist minority was the Birmingham Labour Church, founded in September 1892. While the Liberals had their caucus, the Socialists had their Church. It gathered distinguished speakers of all kinds of socialist persuasion and actually absorbed the local branch of the Fabian Society. (fn. 210) It aimed at encouraging the foundation of 'One Socialist Party', based on the amalgamation of the existing bodies. (fn. 211) It was not successful, however, in maintaining its numbers. In 1898 only one third of its members paid their subscriptions, and the minute book of the organization proclaims that 'between 1895 and 1901 some 30 of the original members of the Labour Church became Laodicean and showed the lack of staying power in their characters'. (fn. 212)
By 1901 the first decisive steps had been taken in the foundation of the 20th-century Labour Party, and Birmingham, like other great cities, played its part. In the first instance the party was not avowedly socialist, and it depended for its growth not so much on socialist convictions as on trade-union moral and financial support. The Birmingham Trades Council, set up in 1866 by representatives of the local crafts, (fn. 213) was one of the first provincial trades councils to affiliate to the Labour Representation Committee, which was founded in 1900. With its 25,000 members it was also the biggest body of its kind to affiliate. (fn. 214) It had begun as a moderate Liberal body, developing naturally out of the earlier and looser trades' organizations and activities of the age of the Political Union and the Chartists, and in its time it had often supported Joseph Chamberlain. (fn. 215) By the beginning of the 20th century, however, it was the most important element in the local coalition of groups which founded the Birmingham and District Labour Representation Council, the local instrument of the L.R.C. 'The eyes of some of us here have been opened', wrote a correspondent to the Daily Argus in 1897, 'and we are beginning to think that it is about time Labour had a bit of an innings'. (fn. 216) The Trades Council quoted this letter with approval in one of its manifestoes, and its president, A. Keegan, was an advocate of independent labour action and a staunch supporter of the L.R.C. (fn. 217) Yet he and his friends linked their case to the experiences of the past, stating that they wished 'to see a little of the spirit of the old Chartists, who were men and not flunkeys'. (fn. 218) They made what they called a 'parting shot' to 'middle-class men'. 'Can you curb the ambition of "Unionist Joe"? No, neither can you suppress the bold purposes of "Citizen Jack".' (fn. 219)
For all the tightening up of organization the Birmingham and District Labour Representation Council was no more able to provide an effective challenge to Birmingham Unionism than was the admittedly weak local Liberal Party. At the general election of 1906 the two L.R.C. candidates in the Birmingham area - Bruce Glasier, a frequent speaker at the Labour Church, and James Holmes, a railwayman - were both defeated, the former in Bordesley, the latter in Birmingham East. In neither case did the Liberals oppose the L.R.C. candidates, who had straight fights with Unionists. George Cadbury even gave the new labour movement both moral and financial support. (fn. 220) Progress was slow, however, and the high-water mark of Labour strength before 1914 was the 'miniature general election' for members of the enlarged city council in 1911. Of fifteen Labour candidates six were successful, four of them heading the poll. (fn. 221) It was not until 1924 that a Labour representative was returned for one of the Birmingham seats at a general election. In 1929 four of the twelve seats were captured, but the Unionists were universally successful both in 1931 and in 1935. 'Labour in Birmingham has little reason to feel proud of the general election', commented the Labour Party's Annual Report for 1935. (fn. 222)
The explanation of the delayed development of a strong labour movement in Birmingham must be social and economic as well as political. It was not only that it had to batter against the massive and well-directed forces of the Unionist caucus but that social and economic conditions in the small workshop continued to favour class collaboration rather than class conflict. (fn. 223) As a political magazine put it in 1896, 'the trades of the town were so diversified and there were so many opportunities for the advancement of enterprising workmen that a sense of individual independence generally prevailed'. (fn. 224) Only when those social and economic conditions changed significantly did Birmingham politics also change. In the meantime the years of greatest political militancy were the years of sharpest economic depression.
It was in 1945 that for the first time Birmingham politicians ceased to be highly distinctive. At the general election of that year, when the number of seats was raised from 12 to 13, there were 10 Labour gains. 'In Birmingham', it was remarked, 'an ice cap has melted and the waters flow'. (fn. 225) The Unionist machine was renovated between 1945 and 1950 until its organizers could claim that 'its strength and efficiency' had become 'the envy of our friends and the constant despair of our opponents'. (fn. 226) Nonetheless at the general election of 1950 the Unionists recaptured only one of the 10 seats which had been secured from them by the Labour Party in 1945. In the meantime, the Labour Party had taken over control of the city council in 1946. When the Unionists made gains in 1951 and 1955 it was not so much on account of the 'distinctiveness' of Birmingham politics as because of shifts in national trend.
Behind these changes in political orientation were changes in social structure. These were the growth of large factories, some of them very large, like the Austin works; (fn. 227) an increase in the strength of local trade unionism; a decline in the influence of some of the old families who had supplied Birmingham with political leaders for several generations; and the development of 'suburbia'. Class collaboration could no longer be taken for granted in industrial relations, although, in externals at least, some of the old social marks of class were being rubbed away in what was one of Britain's most prosperous areas. Birmingham political opinions were increasingly part of a national pattern, fashioned by national pressures. In this respect the change was not unique. It was taking place in most parts of the country.