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Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter remembers Thomas Attwood

May 5, 2017

The Jewellery Quarter Walk, devised by Bob Miles, shows where, in the unsettled 1830s, under the leadership of Thomas Attwood, a series of vast public meetings held on Newhall Hill (below). were part of a campaign in which Birmingham played the leading role in achieving the Parliamentary reform which, Miles writes, almost certainly saved the country from revolution.

Thomas Attwood was called ‘the very first economist of the age’; he was arguing for twentieth century economic policies, such as the abolition of the gold standard and the expansion of the money supply to counter recessions, while the nineteenth century was still young. He was appointed high bailiff of Birmingham and as such he represented the town in opposing the East India Company’s monopoly of trade with the far east. This was an example of a powerful London interest which was content to damage business in the provinces in pursuit of gain.

As leader of a delegation from Birmingham which gave evidence to a House of Commons committee, Attwood proved an impressive witness and was prominent in persuading the government to change tack.

To the relief of Birmingham’s manufacturers the Orders in Council were revoked in 1812 and the East India Company’s monopoly was restricted. Attwood became an overnight hero in Birmingham.

The country was then in the throes of recession and he argued, as Keynes was still needing to argue over a century later, that Britain should have a paper currency not linked in value to gold. He further argued that the government should boost the economy in times of recession by increasing the money supply, a policy that US President Roosevelt most successfully applied, again over a century later, as part of his New Deal. Attwood’s argument was that the supply of money should be based, not on the quantity of gold held at the Bank of England, but on the productive capacity of the economy. In other words, the money supply should be so regulated as to be just sufficient to maintain full employment. In 1816 he campaigned for the Bank of England to increase the money supply by issuing more notes. There was a revival of trade, which William Cobbett attributed to Attwood’s influence.

In November 1825, a time of fevered speculation, Attwood wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, advocating the urgent preparation of a supply of £1 notes. On 16th December, the panic which Attwood had foreseen set in. Banks failed in all directions and there was a run on the Bank of England. It was only by the issue of the notes that had been produced with the benefit of Thomas Attwood’s foresight that the Bank of England itself was saved from collapse.

He led the Birmingham Political Union’s (BPU’s) campaign for Parliamentary reform which led to the Reform Act of 1832 and began the process of modernising British democracy.

William Dargue’s account of the local meetings is more detailed:

“Newhall Hill is most famous as the site of very large public meetings called by the Birmingham Political Union to campaign for parliament to pass a Reform Act which would draw more people into the democratic process.

“The current system of parliamentary democracy was rooted in a semi-feudal society, in time when the majority of people lived in the countryside and few people were literate. “By the 1800s literacy had spread considerably and almost half the population lived in towns and cities which had no parliamentary representation. The political unions demanded household suffrage and secret ballots, salaries for MPs, the abolition of the property qualification for MPs and triennial elections. The most famous meeting was that of 7th May 1832 which was attended by 200 000 people”.

The Reform Act was passed on 4th June 1832. Attwood returned to Birmingham from London a hero. Massive crowds turned out to welcome him; medals and mugs with ‘King Tom’s’ head on sold like the proverbial hot cakes.

In the general election held in the autumn of that year, he and Joshua Scholefield, another leader of the BPU, were returned unopposed – Birmingham’s first MPs.

Miles asks about the memorial; the city council put the relocated Sparkbrook statue into storage and Alderman Matt Redmond long pressed for the statue to be restored and restored to public  view, but it was said that the considerable funding needed for this was not available.

We hope that the more recent bronze statue, commissioned and donated to the city by his great, great, granddaughter and seen on this website’s header, will be replaced prominently in the redesigned Chamberlain Square as promised.





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