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Birmingham Chartism

Geographically, Birmingham is situated in the Midlands, half way between London's crafts and the industrial north.

Economically it is also split between crafts and industry - an uneasy mixture which 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. Also heavy industry such as coal and iron could be found. Birmingham was the hub of the canal network. Birmingham Chartists were more akin to the London Working Men's Association than to the northern Chartists because they were lower middle-class artisans rather than factory hands.

In December 1829 the Birmingham Political Union was founded by Thomas Attwood, 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 that

'It was not Grey and Althorp who carried [the Reform Act] but the brave and determined men of Birmingham'

In October 1832 Henry Hetherington arrived to spread propaganda for the National Union of the Working Classes. He wanted separate working-class action. His ideas were unacceptable to Attwood, but Attwood was also disillusioned with the 1832 Reform Act. He also criticised the Whigs and Tories, 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 12 November 1836 that

'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'

In September 1836 the Reform Association was set up following the first indications of economic collapse. It was aimed at alleviating the distress, but quickly developed into a political movement. Attwood believed that all the economic evils stemmed from the Corn Laws and money laws. In March 1837 Birmingham merchants, manufacturers and others tried to tell Prime Minister Melbourne how serious things were.

In April 1837 workmen asked for 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 19 June 1837 the revival was celebrated with a mass meeting on Newhall Hill which advanced a programme of parliamentary reform:

  1. household suffrage (changed to universal manhood suffrage in November)
  2. vote by ballot
  3. triennial parliaments
  4. payment of MPs
  5. abolition of the property qualification for MPs

As the depression deepened, the BPU became more active. Early in 1838, RK Douglas drafted a National Petition setting out the demands of the BPU and TC Salt talked of collecting two million signatures in support of Chartist demands. PH Muntz worked out plans for a National Convention and Attwood planned a 'sacred week' [a general strike]. Letters of encouragement were sent to other reformers and John Collins was sent to Glasgow on a 'missionary' visit, followed in May be a deputation from Birmingham. It was here that the BPU made contact with the LWMA.

On 14 May 1838 the BPU adopted the national petition for reform and on 5 June 1838 the BPU council adopted the Charter. The LWMA had approached the BPU as early as June 1837 without result, but was the first to respond to the BPU. Ideas for a Charter and petition came together. On 17 July 1838 the BPU met and planned for a convention to elect delegates.

On 6 August 1838 a rally was held on Newhall Hill, attended by about 200,000 people. Birmingham led the way and chose delegates for the national convention. Mark Hovell commented that the BPU 'died in giving birth to the Chartist movement'

In February 1839 the First Chartist Convention took place and on 7 May 1839 the National Petition was ready to be presented by John Fielden and Thomas Attwood. However, Attwood was unhappy at the idea that if the Charter became law, the Irish would get two hundred of the six hundred seats proposed for the new House of Commons. The "Bedchamber Crisis" intervened.

On 13 May 1839 the Convention reconvened in Birmingham at the Owenites' Lawrence Street chapel. Birmingham Chartists had become more provocative since the demise of the BPU but neither the LWMA nor the BPU could work with the northern Chartists under Feargus O'Connor. A 'Sacred Month' or 'national holiday' was proposed for August 1839 - in effect, a general strike. It was in fact attempted in Bolton, and two men (John Warden and George Lloyd) were tried at the Liverpool Assizes for riot. The proposal for a 'Sacred Month' shows the divisions in Chartism: London and Birmingham wanted a peaceful protest; O'Connor and the northerners wanted a revolutionary rising.

Events of 1839

1 July

convention reassembled in Birmingham

4 July

Bull ring Riots

5 July

moderate leaders including Lovett were arrested

12 July

petition and Charter were rejected by parliament

15 July

another riot in Birmingham


convention was dissolved

4 November

violent rising of Newport miners

The government wisely used London police to control the rioters and to arrest the leaders, which was less provocative than using troops. After the leaders had been arrested, the rank and file Chartists were disunited and dispersed.

The events of 1839 were important because they resulted in moderate men abandoning Chartism because they disliked riots, social disorder and the more extreme demands of, for example, the National Charter Association. The leaders - Lovett, Attwood, Sturge - left the Chartist movement.

In 1842 the Birmingham Complete Suffrage Union was formed. This was an attempt by Joseph Sturge and Edward Miall to unite moral and physical force Chartists. They tried to persuade Chartist leaders to go for only universal suffrage. The also tried to link Chartism to the Anti-Corn-Law League.

Joseph Sturge is a good example of a Utopian leader. He was a Quaker, a close friend of Cobden and Bright and close ally and member of the ACLL up to 1841. He opposed slavery, and stood against the Police Act of 1839. He was a pacifist. In November 1841 he proposed founding a movement for franchise extension at an ACLL meeting, which got a mixed reception because the leaders of the ACLL were unwilling to become involved with political radicalism. Sturge did find support from among the Non-conformists and the Chartists who opposed O'Connor also supported the Complete Suffrage Union.

On 5 April 1842 a conference was held in Birmingham attended by such men as O'Brien, Collins and Lovett. The Six Points were carried - to Sturge's surprise - and the dispute between Chartists and the CSU was reduced to whether or not the CSU should commit itself to support the Charter in name. The middle class objected because Chartism was associated with violence. The Chartists thought the middle classes were lukewarm.

In December 1842 a second conference was held, attended by O'Connor and many of his followers. Once again the meeting divided over the adoption of the 'name' of the Charter. Sturge was prepared to compromise because he had already decided that free trade should come after the Charter had been obtained. He had proposed prohibitive tariffs on slave produced goods, which had caused him to break with the ACLL. Sturge's group was overwhelmingly defeated. At its peak the CSU had had about sixty branches in different towns, but it collapsed because of O'Connor. The National Charter Association was strengthened because the moderates were divided and disillusioned. All of them abandoned Chartism and left it to O'Connor and the violent elements.

The Plug Plots also helped to divide Chartism as did the failure of the second Petition. The moderates discovered that they had been too idealistic with regard to the working class and had not realised how gullible they were, nor how illiterate and uninformed. They had attributed too much ability to the working man, who needed to be educated and informed before movements like Chartism could succeed. Lovett then began to devote his attention to his National Society for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People, with Francis Place and Hetherington: a London self-help organisation especially to educate the workers. Asa Briggs comments that: 'Lovett had lost faith; not in his doctrinaire principles, but in the men through whom alone they could be made actual'

Sturge also abandoned Chartism. He had hoped to ally Chartism with the ACLL but this was impossible because the middle-and working-classes had little common ground - as evidenced by the 1832 Reform Act, the Ten-Hour Campaign, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the differing attitudes towards Trade Unions. Any Chartist allying himself with the ACLL was regarded by the Chartists as a traitor. The ACLL could not guarantee better wages for the working classes and the Chartists believed that any profits from free trade would not be passed onto the workers. Thus the Birmingham Chartists put their hopes on universal suffrage and left economic reform to the ACLL. Sturge promoted voluntary education schemes and world peace. He became President of the Peace Society. He was also a Birmingham philanthropist. As G.D.H. Cole notes, 'Sturge was, indeed, from first to last, indefatigable in his pursuit of good causes'.

Birmingham also had a strong element of Christian Chartism: an active Chartist Church with schools and sick clubs existed, 'partly due to a desire to base democratic principles upon the strong rock of Christian doctrine' (Mark Hovell). and an attempt to link temperance with Chartism.

Birmingham's style of Chartism was very mixed:

Asa Briggs comments:

'After 1842 there was no ONE Chartist movement: there were only factions, each claiming to represent the true Radical tradition, and none having behind it the mass following necessary for commanding the respect of the governing classes'.

The National Chartist Association was the 'one' movement - and after 1842 it was violent and unpredictable. It was also northern based.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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