The Birmingham Political Union was one of the principal organisations in Great Britain involved in the agitation for the reform of Parliament which culminated in the Representation of the People Act 1832, known as the first Reform Act or Great Reform Act. The Birmingham Political Union ‘of the Lower and Middle Classes of the People’ (BPU) was formed by Thomas Attwood1 and others in December 1829. Its first priority was to campaign for reform of the House of Commons, which had become, in Attwood's words, "the seat of ignorance, imbecility and indifference". On 25 January 1830, about 10,000 people attended the first meeting of the Union. People listened for six hours to speeches made by Attwood and others.
Another meeting on 17 May 1830 at the Beardsworth Repository in Birmingham was attended by over 80,000 people. The proceedings of this meeting are noted in a report which we have acquired for the Library collection. In political terms the BPU represented an alliance between the working classes and the middle classes. Although radicals joined the organisation, as the political union medal illustrated here shows the BPU was reformist but also royalist in character, and would have no truck with revolutionary ideas. It speaks of ‘the safety of the king and of the people’. BPU demands are noted in the report as falling within ‘the constitution, nothing less and nothing more’ although with an unwritten constitution, the proper meaning of this slogan is unclear.
The first paragraph of the 1830 report notes an argument about whether or not ‘a band of martial music should precede the procession’ which took place prior to the meeting. That may well be because setting a band at the front of a crowd, meaning that people behind marched in step, had connotations of the use of physical aggression. The band did play, and according to the proceedings ‘struck up GOD SAVE THE KING! and other of our most popular national airs’, possibly deliberately to soften their potential for seeming threatening.
Other manufacturing towns in Britain began to follow Birmingham's example and over 100 Political Unions were formed. The BPU was looked upon as a model ‘due to its size, its good organisation, its unified class structure and Attwood’s articulate and sincere leadership’ according to www.parliament.uk. The Political Unions called for:
• Shorter term Parliaments – to increase the accountability of MPs to their constituents
• Abolition of property qualifications for MPs and payment of MPs – to allow ordinary people to become MPs
• The vote for all men who contributed to local or national taxation, either directly or indirectly.
During 1831 and 1832, while Reform Bills were being introduced to Parliament but rejected, Attwood regularly addressed open-air reform meetings of between 50,000 and 200,000 people. On 7 May 1832 the Gathering of the Unions was held on New Hall Hill, Birmingham. This was a huge demonstration involving 40 Unions and 200,000 people.
Despite this massive show of popular support for the Bill, it was defeated in the Lords on the same evening. According to www.parliament.uk, ‘What followed was a period of intense political agitation which many believe to have been the closest that Britain came to revolution. The Political Unions threatened a campaign of tax withholding, and encouraged a run on gold from the Bank of England. Tensions were running very high, and many towns were garrisoned’. Eventually, after much political manoeuvring, the House of Lords allowed the Bill to pass through and the Great Reform Act, as it came to be known, finally became law on 7 June 1832.
One feature of the Act, however, meant that voting in the boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with ‘the clear yearly value of not less than Ten Pounds’. There were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. As a result, only one in seven adult males had the vote.
The alliance between the working classes and the propertied middle classes fell apart when it became apparent that the £10 property qualification would not be extended to include working people. The BPU’s working class supporters ‘felt betrayed and frustrated by the Reform Act's failure to give them the vote. Manufacturers and merchants withdrew from the Union. Having gained parliamentary representation for themselves, they now feared the radical nature of working class demands. The two classes no longer shared a common political aim’ (First Attwood Memorial Lecture, by James Robertson, 2002).
The report of the proceedings of the fourth annual meeting of the BPU in September 1833, which the Library has also recently acquired, show clear signs of this frustration. ‘The Council are...compelled to acknowledge that the Reformed Parliament has disappointed the expectation of the people...The Reform Bill has had its trial, but what has been the fruit which it has produced?’ asks the BPU. It states that ‘taxation and representation should be made co-extensive; or at least, that every householder should be allowed to vote in the choice of members of the House of Commons’, and continues to call for the other Political Union reform aims such as payment for MPs and vote by secret ballot - which would soon thereafter be picked up in the six points of the People’s Charter.
Many working class members of the BPU were drawn to the broader Chartist movement. George Muntz2, Chairman of the Council, is quoted in the 1833 report as saying: ‘It [the country] was not in that state in which every man who laboured could obtain that which he ought to have – a large and just remuneration for his labour. It was not in that state which would afford the comforts of life to the great mass of the people’. In June 1834 the BPU leaders suspended their organisation. Although there were attempts to get it going again in relation to various campaigns, in April 1839 the Union's council was suspended indefinitely.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘The promise of the Birmingham Political Union as a model of extra-parliamentary politics, as the architect of a national reform movement, and as a respected voice of public opinion could not be sustained after the initial transformation in parliamentary representation in 1832. However, its organisational influence on all the parliamentary reform movements and political campaigns of the middle and working classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is clear’.
1 Thomas Attwood (1783–1856) Attwood started working life in the family bank and his political background was that of a ‘church and king’ Tory. Having founded the BPU, however, he became one of the main leaders in the campaign for parliamentary reform. When the Reform Act was eventually passed in 1832, Attwood, now popularly known as ‘King Tom’, was installed as a freeman of the City of London in recognition of the important role he had played in the fight for the vote. In the general election held in the autumn of 1832 Attwood and another leading member of the BPU, Joshua Scholefield, were elected unopposed as the first two MPs for Birmingham in the parliamentary seats created by the 1832 Reform Act. In June 1839, Attwood presented to the House of Commons the first National Petition endorsing the six points of the People's Charter. Although it had been signed by over 1,280,000 people, the Commons rejected it by 235 votes to 46. Two weeks of rioting in Birmingham ensued. Attwood decided to resign from Parliament, and took no further part in politics.
2 George Frederick Muntz (1794–1857) Muntz, political reformer and industrialist, was co-founder with Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield of the BPU. In May 1840 Muntz was elected MP for Birmingham, replacing Attwood, and he retained the seat, despite serious opposition, until his death. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Muntz's unpolished oratory and his thorough contempt for all convention made him a favourite with the population, and an acceptable speaker at meetings of the working class....Muntz's brand of tory radicalism fitted no accepted mould and his fierce political independence infuriated potential allies. Although opposed to universal suffrage, he voted for the Charter and was elected an honorary Chartist deputy for Birmingham. Hostile to sanitation standards and environmental controls, he nevertheless supported factory reform’.
You can read more on this topic at: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/chartists/case-study/the-right-to-vote/thomas-attwood-and-the-birmingham-political-union/
And of course you are welcome to come in and read the original BPU reports here in the Library.
The Birmingham Political Union reports were purchased in 2015 with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of our project in partnership with the People’s History Museum, Voting for Change – more details here.