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Birmingham Political Union (act. 1829–1839) was England's leading extra-parliamentary reform organization in the 1830s. It served as a model, if not leader, of a national extra-parliamentary movement demanding an extension and redistribution of suffrage rights in pre-Victorian Britain and for the subsequent Chartist campaign. Initiated by the banker Thomas Attwood (1783–1856), the Birmingham Political Union brought together the ‘industrious’ classes of that midland city behind the goal of parliamentary reform.

Attwood began his campaign for parliamentary reform as a means to achieve his true goal of currency reform. He believed that unemployment, low wages, and depressed trade stemmed from insufficient currency being in circulation, for which the remedy was the restoration of paper notes. On 14 December 1829 he convened a meeting at the Royal Hotel, Birmingham, along with the radical banker, merchant, and manufacturer Joshua Scholefield, and fourteen others, who agreed to found the Political Union for the Protection of Public Rights. On 25 January 1830 its rules and constitution were endorsed by a gathering, numbering about 10,000, at Beardworth's Repository, Birmingham. Trade depression was attributed to ‘mismanagement of public affairs’, which could be ‘only remedied by an effectual reform in the Commons' House of Parliament’. To achieve this, and to redress ‘public wrongs and grievances’, it was agreed ‘to form a General Political Union between the lower and middle classes of the people’ (Report of the Proceedings of the Great Meeting of the Inhabitants of Birmingham, 25 January 1830). Intended to replicate the success of the single-issue campaign of popular political bodies like Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Association, the Birmingham Political Union raised dues of one penny per week from members, who were enjoined to be loyal subjects of the king, to obey the laws, and to use only legal methods to change those laws. It adopted a strategy of weekly meetings, parliamentary petitions, and reports in the local and national press, as well as assisting the development of similar organizations outside the city.

General management of the Birmingham Political Union was vested in a political council of thirty-six members, initially self-elected, which brought together advocates of Attwood's theories of cheap money as well as Birmingham radicals. Businessmen like Scholefield, George Frederick Muntz, proprietor of a metal-rolling mill, Benjamin Hadley (1791–1843), a pearl button manufacturer, Charles Jones, a silversmith, and Thomas Clutton Salt (d. 1859), a brass lamp maker, joined ultra-tories such as Joseph Allday (d. 1861), editor of the Monthly Argus, and local radicals, who included William Pare, a tobacconist prominent in the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute and the Owenite Co-operative, George Edmonds (1788–1868), a solicitor's clerk, Joseph Russell (d. 1840), a printer, and Josiah Emes (d. 1844), who had a button shop. Other radicals who joined the organization included John Pierce (d. 1840), a thimble manufacturer, while the ultra-tories included Attwood's eldest son, George de Bosco Attwood (1808–1855), who was involved in the family bank. The union's ultra-tory associations were reinforced when George Spencer-Churchill, marquess of Blandford and later sixth duke of Marlborough, was made an honorary member. His proposals for parliamentary reform, to restore the independence of the House of Commons, were supported by the union.

The union endorsed the reform bill introduced by the newly elected whig government in March 1831, and vigorously campaigned in support of the measure. Having outspokenly opposed the foundation of the union at its inaugural meeting, the Birmingham solicitor and official whig adviser to Lord Grey on popular opinion Joseph Parkes affiliated himself to the union. Attwood and Parkes had previously worked together towards enfranchising Birmingham as a borough, in spite of their significant ideological differences and Parkes's aversion to what he saw as Attwood's posturing and pandering to mass audiences. Parkes informed Lord Althorp of the union's activities, while trying to ensure that Attwood did not alienate the ministry, and deflect it from its intention to pass a reform bill, by making inflammatory speeches with threats of violence. Parkes later referred to this as ‘keeping a chain and collar round Attwood and the Birmingham Political Union … [like] a keeper's first month with a dancing bear’ (Parkes to Edward Ellice the elder, 12 Sept 1833, UCL, Joseph Parkes MSS, folder 11, H16).

Following the Birmingham Political Union's lead, over 100 political unions were formed on this model, campaigned for the reform measure, exerted considerable public pressure, and otherwise influenced the reform bill debates. The artist B. R. Haydon sketched the portraits of the union's leading council members at the meeting on Newhall Hill on 16 May 1832, when thousands gathered in anger after the House of Lords voted against the government on the Reform Bill. The meeting was one of many where plans were presented to ensure the Reform Bill's passage. Attwood hinted that the union would form a militia to protect the people's interest, but Parkes and others reassured Grey that no revolution was in progress. The union also supported the campaign of the Northern Political Union, based in Newcastle, to stop all tax payments and make a run on the banks until the Reform Bill was passed. The hint of such action, however unrealistic, secured the king's and Lords' support of the bill, and it became law in June.

Following the passage of the Reform Act, two of the leaders of the Birmingham Political Union, Attwood and Scholefield, were elected to be the first representatives of the newly created constituency of Birmingham in the House of Commons. G. F. Muntz (who was to succeed Attwood as Birmingham's MP in 1840) presided over the organization and set about a second reform campaign to extend suffrage rights and work towards economic reforms. But after the December 1832 general election, internal quarrels between the tories, whigs and radicals, currency and political reformers, as well as middle- and working-class members, ended the illusion that the organization was still a union of the ‘industrious classes’. While membership was estimated to be 20,000 in May 1833, by 3 June 1834 the leaders met to suspend the society. Working-class leaders, trade unionists and Owenites, such as Arthur Savage Wade, parted company with ultra-tories and radicals, and middle-class members concentrated on municipal reform.

Disappointment with the results of the Reform Act led to an attempt to reconstitute the union in the summer of 1836 as the Birmingham and Midland Reform Association, chaired by the Birmingham merchant Philip Henry Muntz (1811–1888), younger brother of George Muntz. This led to the resurrection of the Birmingham Political Union, marked by an inaugural public meeting in June 1837, to campaign for household suffrage, the ballot, triennial parliaments, payment of members, and abolition of the property qualification for members of parliament. The council's decision in late 1837 to demand universal manhood suffrage attracted working-class support, and missionaries such as John Collins (d. c.1850), a journeyman penmaker, were sent to Scotland and the north of England to promote the cause. Early in 1838 a council member, the tory–radical Robert Kellie Douglas (b. 1785/6), editor of the Birmingham Journal, drafted a national petition for reform, contemporary with the people's charter promoted by the London Working Men's Association, with whom contacts were established to achieve a uniform position on parliamentary reform. A large meeting organized by the union in Birmingham in August 1838, to elect eight delegates to attend the proposed Chartist convention, has been identified as a founding moment of the new movement.

Class tensions, however, made the union untenable under a council dominated by manufacturers. As the working-class membership gained greater influence, and tensions grew between ‘moral’ force and ‘physical’ force factions, middle-class members like Douglas, Edmonds, Hadley, Pierce, Salt, and Muntz left. Many such middle-class reformers concentrated their energies on local government positions after 1838, when Birmingham was incorporated as a borough: fourteen members of the union's council were elected to the first Birmingham town council, and William Scholefield, son of Joshua, was chosen as the first mayor. Working-class members of the union were meanwhile drawn to the broader Chartist movement. In April 1839 the union's council was suspended indefinitely; the tenuous union of the ‘industrious classes’ had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

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 organizational 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.

Nancy LoPatin-Lummis

Sources  

A. Briggs, ‘Thomas Attwood and the economic background of the Birmingham Political Union’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 9 (1948), 190–216 · A. Briggs, ‘The background of the parliamentary reform movement in three English cities, 1830–32’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 10 (1952) · A. Briggs, ed., Chartist studies (1959), chap. 1 · H. Ferguson, ‘The Birmingham political union and the government, 1831–32’, Victorian Studies, 3 (1960), 251–76 · C. Flick, The Birmingham Political Union and the movements for reform in Britain, 1830–1839 (1978) · N. D. LoPatin, Political unions, popular politics, and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (1999) · ‘Refining the limits of political reporting: the provincial press, political unions and the Great Reform Act of 1832’, Victorian Periodicals Review (winter 1999) · ‘Ritual, symbolism and radical reform: political unions and political identity in the age of parliamentary reform’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 3/1 (spring 1998) · D. Moss, Thomas Attwood: the biography of a radical (1990) · D. Thompson, The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution (1984) · C. Behagg, ‘An alliance with the middle class: the Birmingham Political Union and early Chartism’, The Chartist experience: studies in working-class radicalism and culture, 1830–60, ed. J. Epstein and D. Thompson (1982) · D. Fraser, Urban politics in Victorian England (1976) · VCH Warwickshire