Article by Joseph Hunt
Set like jewels in a circlet round the crowned head of Worcestershire’s Malvern Hills are a few picturesque and lovely villages, one of which is Hanley Castle. There was a castle there in the reign of King John, but now only the moat remains. The village church, dedicated to St. Mary has a most attractive setting. To the north of it is a massive cedar tree and nearby are timber framed almshouses dating from 1600 and the original building of the Grammar School built only a few years later.
Under the shadow of the church’s 17th century weathered brick tower is a flat polished red marble gravestone marking the grave of Thomas Attwood. The casual visitor could be excused for thinking that this was the unremarkable resting place of an unremarkable man, for the stone records only Attwood’s date of birth – October 6th 1783 and the date of his death March 6th 1856. Could this possibly be the last resting place of someone who has been described as `once the most popular man in all England’, and about whom the Birmingham Journal, in his obituary notice said: `Twenty – five years ago there was no more popular man in the whole of the British Empire’?
It could indeed, for Attwood was so self-effacing few today realise that, on one occasion, he was instrumental in saving the country from bankruptcy and that it was only his scrupulous regard for peace, law and order, and his intense loyalty to the Crown which prevented the great democratic movement which he had inaugurated from degenerating into bloody revolution of the sort which beset our neighbours across the Channel at that time.
The Attwood family has centuries old connections with the Hales Owen district, and Thomas’s great-great-Grandfather, George Attwood, married Mary Foley (also of Hales Owen) at St. Kenelm’s Church, Romsley, on May lst 1678.
Thomas was the third son of Matthias Attwood, a prosperous banker and iron manufacturer. His mother, Ann, was one of the Cakemore Adam’s Hales Owen yeoman farmers who had for generations worked land rented from the Hagley Lytteltons. He was born at Hawne House, Hales Owen on October 6th 1783. Hawne House (now demolished) stood on fertile land overlooking the Stour approximately a mile from the town centre and was surrounded by beautiful cherry orchards; circumstances commemorated today by Attwood Street and Cherry Street. This is the only way in fact in which his birthplace has commemorated him and I doubt very much whether one in a hundred of the population of Hales Owen today knows now just why these streets are so called.
Like William Shenstone (who left Hales Owen Free School to complete his education at Solihull School) Attwood went further afield for his final schooling – to Wolverhampton, leaving it seems at the age of 17 in 1800.
He did not go on to University and so lacked a full classical education, though he could use an apposite Latin tag when need arose and he had a keen appreciation of ancient history; perhaps because the example of heroic patriotism he found there equated with his own intense loyalty to the Crown and his love of his mother country.
In 1800 at the age of seventeen he entered the family banking business of Attwood and Spooner in Birmingham, which his elder brothers, George and Matthias, had joined some years earlier. The first document surviving, relating to the adolescent Thomas, is dated 1803, so we have little or no knowledge of how the intervening years were spent, but we can safely assume that he was a studious youth and that, being involved in banking, he was formulating ideas which were later to burgeon into his theories on currency reform for which he was later to campaign for so many years.
In 1803, with a Napoleonic invasion threatened, military preparedness was deemed essential and young Thomas was gazetted as a captain in the 3rd battalion of the Loyal Birmingham Volunteer Infantry. (Doubtless he owed his officer’s rank to the fact that his firm had donated £315 towards the High Bailiffs appeal for money to buy equipment for the volunteers!) Young Thomas however had no stomach for soldiering. He served with the militia for only two years, resigning on March 8th. 1805.
You would expect that a handsome young banker, appearing at local functions in a resplendent uniform would not escape the attentions of the fair sex. Thomas was no philanderer however, and the young lady who first attracted him eventually became his wife. His first letter to Miss Elizabeth Carless, of Grove House, Harborne is dated September 12th 1803, and, five letters and 33 days later, on October 15th 1803, he wrote to Elizabeth; `I hope you have not forgotten our intended walk to Frankley Beeches, and if, fortunately, you should be well enough, I shall be happy to accompany you there on Wednesday, this being just the right time of the year’.
From Attwood’s correspondence of 1805, we can also date to that year his first acquaintance with Richard Spooner, who was to become his business partner, his personal friend and, somewhat uniquely, his political opponent.
Thomas married Elizabeth Carless at Harborne Church on May 12th 1806. Elizabeth was a lady of great beauty and was also possessed of a considerable fortune. Following their marriage Thomas and Elizabeth lived for some years at The Larches, Sparkbrook, now a Birmingham park. Meanwhile, in the year of their marriage Matthias Attwood, Thomas’s father, purchased the Leasowes and the property remained in the Attwood family until 1865, when it was sold for £17,000 to a Mr. B. Gibbons. The young Attwoods removed from the Larches, Sparkbrook, where their first two sons were born, to The Crescent, Birmingham in 1811.
Birmingham in Attwood’s young days was a town in which young men came very rapidly to the front. It was growing very fast, thriving on orders for war materials. But it had no municipal corporation, being still subject to a manorial jurisdiction which had, in practice, lapsed largely into government by a body of Street Commissioners appointed under a special Act of Parliament. There were feudal survivals in the form of a High Bailiff and a Low Bailiff, but neither had many functions. The High Bailiff presided over all meetings of the townsmen of Birmingham and was by custom chosen from among the towns churchmen while the Low Bailiff summoned the Manorial Court Leet and was usually a prominent Dissenter.
In 1811 Attwood, then only 28, was chosen as High Bailiff. This meant little in relation to municipal affairs, but his period of office coincided with the widespread agitation over the Orders in Council and the threatened war with the United States. This gave his function as summoner and chairman of town meetings an exceptional importance, for the continental blockade and the American troubles were reacting disastrously on Birmingham’s industries, causing employers and workmen alike to make common cause against the Government.
The following year (1812) was a busy and important one for Attwood, who campaigned fiercely against what he saw as two evils which were causing great unemployment, poverty and distress: (1) The Orders in Council which placed great restrictions on our overseas trade and (2) the Monopoly of the East India Company. His campaign to revoke the Orders in Council was a success, and Attwood was thanked at a great meeting of Birmingham workers which was held on June 17th 1812. It would be true to say (if one excepts the deplorable Priestley riots of 1791) that this was the first occasion when Birmingham workers took any part in public life and, when one hears of Tillett, Keir Hardie, and Ernie Bevan being lauded to the skies for their efforts on behalf of the British working man, one could wish that this hierarchy of working class saints could be extended to include one who did much more than those mentioned to benefit the working classes – Thomas Attwood.
Attwood did not, however, rest on his laurels. He began the next year with an all-out attack on one of the most monstrous abuses of the age – the monopoly of the East India Company. His famous speech on the subject, delivered at a crowded meeting of Birmingham citizens at the Royal Hotel on January 9th 1813 is a lucid, clear, and convincing exposition of the relations between the East India Company and the public. That Company’s monopoly, along with many other abuses to which the body politic was then subject, has long since disappeared, but unfortunately so has remembrance of the man who fought long and selflessly for its abolition. Attwood’s initial efforts were not however successful in preventing a renewal of the Company’s charter, but he was able to have deleted from it some of its most objectionable features.
That the workers of Birmingham were sensitive to the good work Attwood had done on their behalf, is evidenced by the fact that on his birthday (October 6th 1813) they presented him with a silver cup valued at £300, all subscribed, as someone had said, in pennies, by the working men of Birmingham. This massive cup, designed by Samuel Lines, had on it the following inscription:
by the Artisans of Birmingham, as a memorial of their gratitude to Thomas Attwood, Esq.
(High Bailiff 1812) for his constant attention to their interests, and for his well directed zeal to support and extend the Commerce of the Country
This was the very first occasion (certainly in Birmingham, most probably in England) upon which such a testimonial was originated and carried out by working men alone.
There can be no doubt that the greatest interest of Attwood’s political life was currency reform and in 1815 there began a twenty-five year period in which he spoke and wrote voluminously on the subject. It is too complex a matter for us to deal with in detail, but very simply Attwood’s theory on currency reform was that the supply of the means of payment – that is, of money – ought not to depend on the stock of gold held by the Bank of England or available for coinage, but on the productive capacity of the people. So long as the supply of money was based on the supply of gold, it could not be stretched to cover the quantity of goods the country was capable of producing, except by means of a drastic fall in prices. If prices fell, however, this, far from causing increased production, would inflict heavy losses on both farmers and industrialists, who owed debts subject to the payment of interest at fixed rates. They could not reduce their costs to correspond with the fall in prices, except by reducing wages. And a reduction in wages would bring an immense decline in popular purchasing power, which, apart from other factors, would be sufficient to ensure depression and recession.
The consequences of a deflationary monetary policy, said Attwood, would be disastrous. Employers, unable to cut their costs in the fact of fixed charges, would have to discharge workers and contract production. Their only other weapon was to reduce wages, thus curtailing the ability of the workers to buy the products of industry. Real income would be transferred from the active business man and the workers to the fund-holding classes, and, at the same time, overall production of wealth would be reduced by universal unemployment.
The remedy, in Attwood’s view, was to maintain the supply of money at a high enough level to make it worth the while of producers to employ all available workers. Were this to be done there was no reason why prices should not remain at a reasonable level, because the costs of production would be lower with full employment than with fixed charges being spread over a smaller output. The reasonable level for prices was, in effect, that at which it would just pay employers to use all available supplies of capital and labour – neither more nor less. I have not been able to more than scratch the surface of Attwood’s monetary theories, but during his lifetime Attwood issued a whole string of pamphlets, which, I feel sure, would be well worth reading today.
It is not generally known that ten years later, in 1825, Attwood was instrumental in saving the country from near bankruptcy. This is how the Birmingham Journal of March 8th 1856, tells the story:
It was through his [Attwood’s] efforts that the Bank of England and the credit of the country were saved from irretrievable ruin. On November 22nd 1825, Mr Attwood addressed a note to Lord Liverpool, then Prime Minister, urging him to cause the Bank of England to prepare, without delay, a supply of £I notes, as there was an extreme probability that their issue would soon be necessary, and the mere signing of a sufficient number of notes would require a period of six weeks, even if 200 clerks were employed. This foresight was amply confirmed by subsequent events. The exchanges were against this country; speculations in all sorts of property, in banks and joint stock companies, was at its height, and the nation was in a state of financial fever. The Bank of England had scarcely a million worth of gold left in its vaults. Mr Attwood was called to London at the beginning of December, and, shortly after his arrival, the expected crisis came. The panic began on December 16th. Banks failed in all directions, and there was a run on the Bank of England. The soundness of the advice given by Mr. Attwood nearly a month before was then apparent. It was only by the issue of the £1 notes that the national credit was preserved.
For his important services on this occasion, as indeed on many others, Attwood does not appear to have received any reward or even thanks from the government.
In 1829 Attwood emerged from the comparative provincial obscurity in which he had lived since 1813, and commenced that arduous period of political activity which culminated in the passing of the Reform Bill, which certainly saved the country from anarchy and bloodshed, at the same time ruining his health and almost ruining his family.
On December 14th. 1829, Attwood and fifteen other Birmingham men met at the Royal Hotel, New Street, and founded the Political Union for the Protection of Public Rights. Its objects – “Parliamentary Reform and tax reductions through Peace, Order Unity and Legality”, were put to a huge meeting of 15,000 in Beardsworth’s Repository in Cheapside (then the largest building in the town suitable for a meeting) on January 25th 1830 and were approved with acclaim and standing ovations. Huge outdoor meetings in support of the Union continued to be held, all complete with banners, processions, and even an `I’m backing Britain’ motif on a Union Jack lapel badge.
A Union dinner, held on October 18th 1830, attracted an attendance of 3,600 diners and was intended to commemorate the French Revolution. Two months later the Union sent a huge petition to Earl Grey’s new Liberal government, calling for salaried MPs, secret ballots, no property voting qualifications, triennial general elections and universal suffrage.
When in August 1831 the Commons passed the Reform Bill, it was rejected by the Lords, and it seemed that Britain really was on the brink of bloody revolution. This was only averted by the skill with which Attwood took his supporters to the brink, but still managed to make them adhere to his motto of `Peace, Law and Order’. In October Attwood addressed a huge meeting of some 100,000 supporters on Newhall Hill. During the week in which the meeting was held the Scots Greys were in barracks in Birmingham, fully alerted to deal with violence which never materialised. Such was the magnetism Attwood could exercise over his followers.
Another show of strength came on May 7th. 1832 when Attwood addressed an even larger gathering of 200,000 supporters, again on Newhall Hill. Contingents numbering 25,000 had come from Stourbridge, Hales Owen and Dudley. Others made the journey from as far afield as Stratford, Coventry, Warwick, Worcester, Droitwich and Leamington.
The contingent from Bromsgrove arrived rather late and when it reached Newhall Hill it was greeted by the Union’s hymn, sung by practically the whole of that vast assembly, for both words and music were familiar at that time throughout the Midlands. The last verse of that hymn with its fervent expression of the spirit and the hopes which stirred the reformers of that day goes as follows:
God is our guide, no sword we draw;
We kindle not war’s fatal fires.
By union, justice, reason, law,
We claim the birthright of our sires.
And thus we raise, from sea to sea,
Our sacred watchword – Liberty.
Nine days later there was another meeting of some 50,000 Union supporters at the same place. They were celebrating Earl Grey’s return to power after the Duke of Wellington had failed to form a government. Attwood travelled to London with a deputation to wait on the Prime Minister. The delegation shared in the capital’s general rejoicing, and Attwood received an honour hitherto reserved for princes, potentates and illustrious foreigners – he was made a `Freeman of the City of London’. I understand that the casket and scroll presented to him on that occasion are still in the possession of his descendants.
When Attwood and his deputation finished their work in London they had a wonderful journey home – a journey which the Birmingham historian Jaffray described as `a march of triumph’: “Agricultural labourers left their work in– the fields and waved their blue ribbons as they passed. Every little village poured out its scanty population and cheered them; some threw arches of evergreens across the roads; others presented addresses; children strewed flowers on the way, and even humble stone-breakers by the roadside raised their little rude banners which bore the legend ‘ATTWOOD AND LIBERTY’ “.
When they came near Birmingham a large part of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood turned out to greet them, and they were escorted home by a vast procession of grateful supporters.
The long awaited Reform Bill received the Royal Assent on June 7th 1832 and its passing was followed by a General Election in the following Winter. To the new House of Commons Birmingham sent not another `legislatorial attorney’, Sir Charles Wolseley, but two active members, both radicals, and both elected without opposition. One, as a matter of course, was Thomas Attwood, the other was Joshua Scholefield.
Birmingham’s first contested election under the new legislation took place on January 7th 1835, amid great excitement. The election was held in the town’s newly erected Town Hall (of which you will recall that Joseph Hansom of Hansom Cab fame was the architect). So great was the crush inside the building that the front of the great gallery collapsed under the strain, precipitating many voters onto the heads of those below. Attwood and Scholefield stood in the Liberal Interest, while Attwood’s great friend and business partner Spooner was the Tory nominee. The result was: Attwood 1718 votes; Scholefield 1660; Spooner 915.
But Attwood was not a successful Parliamentarian. He found the atmosphere in the house much too casual for his liking. He could never understand why, when important measures were being debated, there was often only a handful of members present.
Attwood ceased to be a politician when radical politics developed in such a way as to make him choose between the workers and the middle classes. He would choose neither, being convinced that currency reform was the panacea for the ills of both.
His frustrations in parliament culminated in his resignation in December 1839 but his withdrawal into private life was hastened also by domestic anxieties and failing health, and by the realisation that his great ambition, currency reform, would never be realised in his lifetime.
Attwood died at Great Malvern on March 6th 1856 and, as mentioned earlier, was buried in the churchyard of Hanley Castle.
Three years later Birmingham paid a tribute to Attwood when, on June 7th 1859, his statue, by John Thomas, was unveiled in Stephenson Place. Nearly a century later it was moved to Calthorpe Park, and has latterly been relegated to the Larches Park, Sparkbrook, where he once lived, an area where I doubt whether one person in a thousand has the faintest idea who Attwood was, or what the city and the nation owes to him.
If Attwood had died earlier in 1832 his memory would have been kept greener than it is; for men would have remembered his successes instead of his failures. As it was the Chartists regarded him as a deserter, and the middle class radicals as a man who had played with fire and got burnt.
His currency notions were buried under piles of new gold from California and Australia. These increased for the time being the supply of money as effectively as his regulated currency would have done. Not until this century has anyone bothered to resurrect his ideas about the right relationship between money and productive power. Today, when many of the things he said are being said again, there are very few who know who first said them. Even to some economists (who should know better) he is still Attwood the `currency crank’ who flirted with the Chartists in order to further his crack-brained notions. An intelligible verdict, but a totally unjust one.
How do we see Attwood today? He was tall and slim; most of his acquaintances deemed him handsome. Devoted to his wife and his children, great lover of animals, he was ever ready to be of service to his friends. He was a devout churchman at a time when the Church of England was not popular in radical circles. He was an acute business man, good at making money but very little interested in keeping it for himself. He enjoyed popular esteem and enjoyed the devotion of his followers and missed it when it was withdrawn. Attwood was, if anything, over sensitive. He accepted failure and thereby narrowed the niche he undoubtedly occupies in the temple of fame. In this temple the successful get the most conspicuous monuments, but perhaps the next best are reserved for the failures, who, like Attwood, are unaware that they have failed.#
Since this article was written in 1980, thanks very largely to the efforts of the author and the generosity of Mrs Priscilla Mitchell, Attwood’s closest surviving relative, Attwood has received at least some significant recognition in the following ways:
On 24 September 1983 the Rt Hon Roy Hattersley, the elected MP for the area, laid a wreath of laurels in Sparkbrook Park at the foot of Attwood’s statue which the City Council had washed and cleaned and painted the railings for the occasion.
An oil painting by Edna Painting hangs in the lounge of The Whitley Hotel in Halesowen.
A memorial banquet, hosted by the then Lord Mayor, Councillor Bill Sowton M.B.E. was held at the Birmingham Council House on 7 December 1983 to commemorate the bicentenary of Attwood’s birth.
A statue, newly commissioned by Mrs Priscilla Mitchell from the sculptress Sioban Coppinger sits (literally) on the steps of Birmingham’s Chamberlain Square, and finally again due to the generosity of Mrs Mitchell, Professor David Moss of McGill University, Montreal was commissioned to write a full scale biography of Attwood, a copy of which is held in the B.MI’s library.
BMInsight – Issue 4 2001