Monday, 17 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Birmingham 1

Geographically, Birmingham is situated in the Midlands, half way between London’s crafts and the industrial north[1]. Economically it is also split between crafts and industry, an uneasy mixture that was reflected in Birmingham’s Chartism. Industries included the precision metal trades such as silver crafting and small arms manufacture. Artisans and silversmiths also made buckles and buttons; pottery thrived in the area. In addition, heavy industry such as coal and iron could be found. Birmingham was the hub of the canal network. The traditional view is that Birmingham Chartists were more akin to the London Working Men’s Association than to the northern Chartists because they were artisans rather than factory hands. Clive Behagg has effectively demolished the view of Birmingham as a town in which class collaboration and class peace were widespread[2].

Traditional views challenged

Behagg argues that the traditional view of Birmingham as a town in which there was a community of interest between employer and employee is based on the predominance of the workshop within the town’s economic structure[3]. This, it is suggested explained the degree of unity between working class and middle class radicals in the Birmingham Political Union in the 1830s. This analysis focused on the closeness between masters and men forged by a combination of close physical proximity in workshops, the indispensability of skilled labour to small-scale production, the absence of large-scale capital investment and the acknowledged possibility of upward social mobility from employee to employer status. This, historians suggested, created a degree of social cohesion that led to stability in local political relations. The problem with this view of the town is that recent research fits uneasily into the pattern. R. B. Rose has suggested that by the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 a working class with a political consciousness was beginning to emerge in the town. Michael Frost, in his study of the education of working class children suggests that the extension of schooling in Birmingham was a response to the breakdown of traditional authority. Interest and investment in education for working class children corresponded to times of social upheaval, particularly in the 1790s, 1815-20 and 1827-33. Hooper’s analysis of the town in the 1850s emphasises the importance of trade unionism while Bramwell shows a clear segregation of the classes in the town at the same period. Behagg shows that in the early nineteenth century, the economic and social relationship between the artisan and small master was strong. However, by the 1850s, the small masters had been marginalised and replaced by small manufacturers with their emphasis on the ethos of individualism and the Victorian gospel of achievement. The individualism of this petit-bourgeoisie set them increasingly apart from the collective attitudes of the working community.

The Birmingham Political Union

In December 1829, the Birmingham Political Union[4] was founded by Thomas Attwood[5], deliberately designed for class co-operation. Attwood was a banker and is a rare example of a Chartist with any economic sense. He said, “The interests of masters and men are in fact one. If the masters flourish, the men are certain to flourish with them; and if the masters suffer difficulties, their difficulties shortly affect the workmen in a threefold degree.” Attwood was a conservative at heart; he favoured currency reform. He made the BPU the strongest and most influential radical organisation in England between 1829 and 1832. Daniel O’Connell commented, “It was not Grey and Althorp who carried [the Reform Act] but the brave and determined men of Birmingham”.

The BPU’s middle class leadership often claimed to have actually created any sense of political awareness that existed among the working class in Birmingham in the 1830s. In fact, by 1830, the working class elements within the town’s radical movement had a long tradition of political activity. Many of the artisans who were active in the BPU were veteran reformers of the post-1815 period when there was little support from the town’s upper middle class. Radical organisations had centred on a local Hampden Club in 1816-17. The Club began a tradition of open-air meetings and radical publications attacking Old Corruption and calling for economic retrenchment and representative government through universal suffrage. Two important points emerge from this.  First, by the 1820s, artisan radicalism had evolved a political programme centred on universal suffrage.  Secondly, this period of agitation took place without the support of that section of the upper middle class that played a central role in the BPU. This lay the movement open to attack from local Tories who organised in 1819 as the Loyal Association for the Suppression and Refutation of Blasphemy and Sedition. It was involved in the prosecution of leading radicals and by 1821 eleven of the local leaders were in prison for seditious offences.

The vulnerability of the radical movement without ‘respectable’ support was the great lesson of the post-war agitation as far as Birmingham’s radicals were concerned. This helps explain the willingness of the working class leadership in the Reform agitation to subsume its wider programme and identity within the broader complexion of the BPU. Bronterre O’Brien, editor of the Midland Representative, announced that the working class were “willing to receive [the Bill] as an instalment, or part payment of the debt right due to us”. Attwood, though he consistently opposed universal suffrage in the early 1830s shrewdly kept the notion of further reform open at BPU meetings. The notion of piecemeal reform had yet to be discredited.

In the aftermath of the Reform campaign, working class activities were contained in three separate organisations: the Committee of the Non Electors, the United Trades and the Committee of the Unemployed Artisans. Once the full impact of the failure of the Reform campaign to provide comprehensive suffrage reform became obvious, the working classes fell back on the programme of the earlier radical tradition. A meeting of the Unemployed Artisans in September 1832 declared for universal suffrage, the ballot, annual parliaments and the abolition of property qualifications for MPs. This programme was endorsed at a meeting to form a Midland Union of the Working Class (MUWC) in November as a branch of the National Union of the Working Classes. Though short-lived, the MUWC is important since its creation followed the rejection by the BPU leadership in July 1832 of a petition of the National Union for the adoption of universal suffrage as part of its programme. The MUWC showed potential tensions within the BPU and was an indication that the town’s working class entered the 1830s with both a radical leadership and a political programme. However, a direct challenge to the BPU was not possible at this time. Its middle class leadership retained its credibility among the working class and Attwood’s popularity was increasing.

At this stage, fundamental differences did exist between middle and working class radicals in Birmingham. In October 1832, Henry Hetherington arrived to spread propaganda for the National Union of the Working Classes. He wanted separate working-class action and universal suffrage. His ideas were unacceptable to Attwood, but Attwood was also disillusioned with the 1832 Reform Act. He also criticised the Whigs and Tories, attacked the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and wanted the extension of the franchise. The BPU shrank in size in the period of relative prosperity, but Attwood believed that it would revive if the economy worsened. Attwood noted in the Birmingham Journal on 12th November 1836 “Mr. Cobbett used to say, ‘I defy you to agitate a fellow with a full stomach.’ Nothing is more true. Men do not generally act from abstract principles, but from deep and unrewarded wrongs, injuries and sufferings.”

Attwood’s position in the mid-1830s was ambiguous largely because Birmingham’s middle class was ambiguous in its attitude to universal suffrage. Substantial sections of the middle class remained outside the BPU and though sympathetic to the representation of the urban interest in Parliament, drew back from a popular campaign. This came to a head in the agitation for a Charter of Incorporation after 1835. This has been seen as a struggle for supremacy within the urban middle classes in Birmingham and was a successful attempt to break of dominance of local administrative bodies by family-oriented factions and move towards cheap, efficient local government responsive to the needs of ratepayers. It was also an attempt to sever links with the county families. The campaign ran from late 1837 to December 1838 when the first municipal elections took place. Of the thirty-four members of the BPU Council, fourteen were elected to the new Town Council.

In September 1836, a Reform Association was set up following the first indications of economic collapse to maintain the radical momentum of the original BPU. It was aimed at alleviating the distress, but quickly developed into a political movement. In March 1837, Birmingham merchants, manufacturers and others tried to tell the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne how serious things were. In April 1837, workmen asked the BPU to be revived. The middle classes wanted working class support, which was forthcoming. Consequently, in May 1837 the BPU was formally revived and on 19th June 1837 the revival was celebrated with a mass meeting on Newhall Hill that advanced a programme of parliamentary reform: household suffrage (changed to universal manhood suffrage in November), vote by ballot, triennial parliaments, payment of MPs and Abolition of the property qualification for MPs.

Parallel to this, independent working class activity organised by the Working Men’s Memorial Committee occurred. This included a petition with 13,000 signatures requesting a joint meeting of masters and men to discuss distress that took place on 30th May 1837. In October, the Committee called a town meeting to petition parliament over distress. The BPU supported this petition but received little support from the government. This further emphasised the need for manhood suffrage and raised the question of what could be done if parliament refused to introduce measures to relieve poverty and extend trade. The BPU was moving towards an acceptance of manhood suffrage that it had previously resisted. This was endorsed on 15th January 1838 together with the idea of lobbying other towns for a projected National Petition for political reform[6]. On this basis, the Working Men’s Memorial Committee committed itself to association with the BPU on 23rd January 1838.


[1] Eric Hopkins Birmingham: The First Manufacturing Town in the World, 1760-1840, Weidenfeld, 1989 is the most accessible history of the town in this period.

[2] Behagg’s views in relation to Chartism are best approach through Clive Behagg ‘An Alliance with the Middle Class: the Birmingham Political Union and Early Chartism’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, Macmillan, 1982, pages 59-86 and Politics & Production in the Early Nineteenth Century, Routledge, 1990, especially pages 184-222.

[3] The view of Birmingham as a centre of class collaboration can be found in Robert Kirkup Dent Old and New Birmingham, Birmingham, 1880, Robert Kirkup Dent The Making of Birmingham, Birmingham, 1894 J. A. Langford A Century of Birmingham Life: or a Chronicle of Local Events from 1741 to 1841, Birmingham 1868 and John Thackeray Bunce History of the Corporation of Birmingham, three volumes, Birmingham, 1878-1902. The modern myth perpetrators include Conrad Gill History of Birmingham, 1952 and Trygve Tholfsen ‘The Chartist Crisis in Birmingham’, International Review of Social History, volume III, (1958).

[4] Carlos Flick The Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain 1830-1839, Dawson, 1978 is the best study of the BPU and covers its ‘Chartist year’. George Barnsby maintains in the bibliography to his Birmingham Working People, Wolverhampton, 1990, “This is something of a rogue item. Flick’s thesis is that the reputation of the BPU as the national leadership of the fight for the Reform Act was a figment of Attwood’s imagination and a result of his propaganda machine. This would seem to take debunking too far…”

[5] David J. Moss Thomas Attwood: The Biography of a Radical, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990 is the most valuable biography but see also Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 28-33.

[6] Two events perhaps help to explain the change of policy by the BPU. In November 1837, Lord John Russell made clear in his ‘Finality speech’ that the Whigs would not introduce further reform. Attwood claimed that his conversion to manhood suffrage stemmed from shock at the Queen’s recent speech in which she made no reference to distress at home.

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