A is for Attwood, Thomas
Alphaspaghettical Guide to the West Midlands by Pete Millington. Reproduced with permission
Have you ever wondered who that fine old gent is, reclining with his papers on the steps of Chamberlain Square by the Central Library? Well, his name was Thomas Attwood and he lived in Birmingham over two hundred years ago.
Still none the wiser? Well read on…
Thomas Attwood was born in Halesowen on 6th October 1783. His father Matthias was a successful business man who owned coal and iron works in Halesowen and a banking firm in Birmingham. As a boy Thomas was educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School and in 1800 he went to work for his father’s bank. As a young banker Attwood was already developing an interest in politics and in 1811 he was elected high bailiff of Birmingham.
In common with many of his contemporaries in Birmingham during this era, Thomas Attwood was a man with a strong moral conscience and a commitment to equality and justice. Attwood became an active campaigner against the East India Company whose business activities in India, Attwood believed, were impacting on export trade for local business and leading to unemployment in Birmingham. It was partly Attwood’s very convincing arguments put forward to a House of Commons select committee in 1812 which convinced the government to place restrictions on the monopoly of the East India Company.
Thomas Attwood was a radical thinker who argued that Britain should have a paper currency not linked to gold stocks. His economic theories were popular in liberal thinking Birmingham where 40,000 people signed his petition to bring in currency reform. But Attwood’s theories were not so popular in London and it was this negative response from the Duke of Wellington’s government which persuaded Attwood and his allies that the House of Commons needed to become more democratic and have a wider cross-section of elected MPs. In Attwood’s day, a number of large manufacturing towns like Birmingham did not even have representation in Parliament whilst many rural areas with low populations were greatly over-represented in comparison.
Attwood decided to start a local campaign to gain fairer representation in the House of Commons. He joined with 15 similar minded men to form the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) for the Protection of Public Rights on 14th December 1829. On 25th January 1830, about 10,000 people attended the first meeting of the BPU. The crowd listened for six hours to speeches made by Attwood and other leaders of the organisation. Another meeting in May at the Beardsworth Repository in Birmingham was attended by over 80,000 people.
As the BPU started to take off, other towns around Britain began to form similar unions and for two years Attwood became one of the main leaders in the campaign for parliamentary reform. On May 7th 1832, a Great Rally was organised at Newhall Hill which attracted a crowd estimated to have been in the region of 200,000 – possibly the greatest gathering in the history of England. People marched in long columns from all over the West Midlands to hear Attwood calling for reform. When the campaign eventually proved successful, with the Reform Act of 1832, Attwood was elected with Joshua Scolefield as Birmingham’s first ever MPs.
Not satisfied with the new rights within the Reform Act, Thomas Attwood continued to campaign for further reform of Parliament and new demands were drawn up, including currency reform, household suffrage, triennial parliaments, payment of MPs, and the abolition of the property qualification. The reinvigorated BPU formed a close bond with the London Working Men’s Association in a campaign to widen the vote.
Attwood was a very important and influential man in the campaign which eventually led to the vote for all working class men. He was inspired by the Irish Catholic rights leader Daniel O’Connell and his monster rallies in Birmingham reflected those of O’Connell in Ireland. At a later stage, Attwood and O’Connell would inspire the suffragettes of Edwardian England who staged a similar campaign to obtain the vote for women. Attwood represented Birmingham in the House of Commons until 1839. He died on 6th March 1856 at Great Malvern.
So next time you are in Chamberlain Square, spare a moment to visit the reclining bronze statue designed by Sioban Coppinger and Fiona Peever in 1993 and in doing so, remember a fellow Brummie who did such great things for freedom and democracy.