Thomas Attwood – the acknowledged leader of the reform movement in Britain who headed the Birmingham Political Union
‘One Thousand Years of Brum’,1999
From all over the West Midlands they’d come for this gathering of the unions on 7 May 1832. In long columns they marched to Brum, with banners aloft and bands playing them on their way.
From the looms of Coventry there traipsed ribbon weavers, from the fields of Warwickshire and Worcestershire there trudged farm labourers, and from the mines of Droitwich there tramped diggers of salt. They were joined by tens of thousands of chaps and wenches who’d strode in from the Black Country.
There were manufacturers of tubes from Wednesbury, lock makers from Willenhall and saddlers from Walsall. There were hardware workers from West Bromwich, nailers from Dudley and fashioners of metal from Smethwick. And there were puddlers from Bilston, chain makers from Cradley Heath and colliers from Cannock.
As these determined folk poured into Birmingham they were met by a tide of Brummies sweeping out from each street and yard. It seemed that every trade in the town was represented, from button makers and pin workers to smiths and jewellers, and from engineers and minters to gun makers and brass workers.
It was the greatest gathering in Brum’s history. No. It was more than that. It was the greatest gathering in the history of England. There they were all assembled, over 200,000 men, women and children packed into that natural bowl flanked by Summer Hill, Newhall Hill and Easy Hill. Many were ragged and barefoot, others were well-clothed and shod but the differences between them mattered not. For the bond that joined them overrode all distinctions of status. The poor and the well off, the able-bodied and the halt, the young and the old had all come together with one intent: to press for reform.
United they cried out for all men to have the vote. United they shouted out for each industrial town to be given its own Member of Parliament. United they called out for the ending of rule by a few and for the coming of democracy.
Think of it. Birmingham had a population of 150,000. It was one of the biggest and most important towns in the kingdom. Its wares were renowned throughout the world. Its workers were famed for their craft and prowess. And its industrial pioneers had been crucial in thrusting Britain into international pre-eminence. Yet Brum did not have its own MP. It had no-one elected specifically to represent the town’s interest. More than that, the great majority of Brummies did not have the vote, with the franchise restricted as it was to a wealthy elite.
This democratic host was determined to change things. The air was rent by clamours for liberty and then it began to quieten as everyone’s eyes were drawn to a carriage which pushed its way down from Great Charles Street. When the vehicle reached the spot where The Parade now joins Camden Street and George Street a trumpet sounded and a hush fell upon the huge crowd. A man stood up on the cart and was greeted with thunderous applause. It was Thomas Attwood, the Halesowen-born banker who headed the Birmingham Political Union and who was the acknowledged leader of the reform movement in Britain. He raised his hands and began to speak. Each person fell silent and strained forward to hear him, and as if they were precious gifts those in the front ranks passed his words to their fellows further back.
Attwood called out to them, ‘Would you be the slaves of borough mongers or would you rather not die!’ With one voice the people cleft the skies, roaring out ‘All! All!’ They clasped on to each and every word of the speech which followed and acclaimed Attwood when he urged them to struggle for their aims through, ‘Peace, Law and Order’. When he was ended, he and all the reformers uncovered their heads and with their faces turned upwards towards God they pledged collectively that, ‘In unbroken faith, through every trial and privation, we devote ourselves and our children to our country’s cause’.
Unable to withstand the pressure for reform that was now boiling up nationally, within weeks a Parliament dominated by landowners passed the Great Reform Act. At last Birmingham and other manufacturing towns like Manchester gained two MPs – but the hopes of the democratic movement were not fully realised for only middle-class men were given the vote. It would not be until 1918 that all adult working-class men would be enfranchised and it would not be until 1929 that all adult women would have the same right. Still, a partial victory had been gained in 1832 and through their own efforts the people had pushed open if only a little the door towards liberty.
Unsurprisingly, in the first election which followed the Great Reform Act the electors of Birmingham sent Thomas Attwood to Parliament. He held the post until forced to resign through ill health in 1839. His last prominent action in the House of Commons was to present a petition which had been collected by the Chartists, campaigners fighting for the vote to be given to working men. Bolstered by support from the newly-enfranchised middle class, a parliament still controlled by the aristocracy and the gentry rejected the petition.
Attwood himself retired into private life and died aged 73 on 6 March 1856. Three years later a statue of him was unveiled in Birmingham. Originally placed at the top end of Stephenson Street facing up to what would become Corporation Street, it stands now in a park off the Highgate Road in Sparkbrook. This site is close to Attwood’s home at The Larches, now recalled in Larches Street – although he also had a house in Harborne. Today there is another statue of him in Chamberlain Square, behind the Town Hall. Sculpted by Siobhan Coppinger and unveiled in January 1993, it has Attwood reclining and surrounded by tablets which record his desire for peaceful reform.
Before he died he had expressed a wish to be buried on Newhall Hill so as to be close to the Brummies who had supported him so loyally. The new statue at least makes sure that he is remembered in the heart of the city for which he strove so hard. It is all the more appropriate given that there is no street called after him. For a short time in the 1830s, Wellington Street was named Attwood Street – a wise choice given that the Duke of Wellington was a vehement opponent of reform. But soon after, that route became Pershore Street. This shift was encouraged by the fact that the street ran into the Pershore Road, which had been a footpath until it was turnpiked in 1825 Perhaps it is meet that Thomas Attwood’s fight for democratic rights should be recognised once again in a street recalling him.#
Those interested in the history of Birmingham may go to Carl’s website: