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The Birmingham Political Union

On 14 December 1829 Thomas Attwood and fifteen other men met to form the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) for the Protection of Public Rights. It was intended to appeal to the middle-and lower-classes alike. Its first meeting, held on 25 January 1830, was attended by 12-15,000 people. The petition that the BPU launched attracted some 30,000 signatures and demanded parliamentary reform. Attwood found himself being opposed by Whig reformers because he was a Tory, and he therefore needed to disprove the Whig taunt that he was no friend to reform. The meeting may well have indicated how many people saw parliamentary reform as a panacea, although this was an illusion.

The BPU was a strictly law-abiding organisation. Attwood made sure it kept this reputation and thus

  1. attracted middle-class support
  2. deprived the government of the opportunity to suppress it.

The BPU won the support of such diverse characters as Daniel O'Connell, the Marquis of Blandford and William Cobbett together with his Political Register. Other towns followed Birmingham and set up their own Political Unions early in 1830. Leeds and London were among the first although by November 1830 some 27 Political Unions existed. Furthermore, the concept of reform was backed by most of the London press, including The Times. By August 1830, the BPU had a membership of about 6000.

Parliament was concerned about the sudden upsurge in demands for reform. On 11 February 1830 William Huskisson told the Commons that a quick solution would be to give Retford's seats to Birmingham and then make sure that Attwood was elected as one of the MPs: he would be less dangerous as an MP. However, Attwood was NOT leading a national movement - no-one could do that until after the railways had been built - and Corresponding Societies were still illegal (1799 Act). In spite of this, Francis Place noted in November 1830 that the BPU was 'now acknowledged as the leading voluntary public Association (and Attwood was) the most influential man in England'.

Attwood was effective because he had the support of

Attwood's difficulties were greater than he imagined: he faced a closed circle:

The BPU therefore claimed to speak for the common interest, as against the exclusive interest of the ruling aristocracy. The aims of the BPU were set out at its founding meeting on 25 January 1830. It said that the House of Commons:

in its present state, is evidently too far removed in habits, wealth and station, from the wants and interests of the lower and middle classes of the people... The great agricultural interests of all kinds are well represented there. The landed interest, the church, the law, the monied interest - all these have engrossed, as it were, the House of Commons into their own hands ... But the interests of industry and of trade have scarcely any representatives at all! These, the most vital interests of the nation, the sources of all its of all its strength, are comparatively unrepresented.

The BPU was set up to secure proper representation for industry. It was to be a permanent body because spasmodic activity had failed to exert pressure on parliament or government. A political Council of 36 was to direct the BPUs business of organising the 'peaceful expression of Public Opinion'. Attwood chaired the inaugural meeting, supported by Joshua Scholefield, GF Muntz and TC Salt who were local businessmen and by George Edmonds, a solicitor who had led the local radical movement in 1819. Attwood wanted a return to paper currency so he campaigned for parliamentary and currency reform because he believed that only a reformed parliament would put his currency reform ideas into practice. He felt that the post-war return to gold had produced

'more misery, more poverty, more discord, more of everything that was calamitous to the nation, except death, than Attila the Hun caused in the Roman Empire'.

The BPU attacked the Whigs as being 'insincere' in January 1830 and looked to the Tories to reform parliament: they had just conceded Catholic Emancipation. Attwood said he was a Tory at the founding meeting. Local Whigs, led by Joseph Parkes, opposed the formation of the BPU on the grounds that it would only encourage the Tories to pass further repressive legislation. The Whigs were unsuccessful, and the BPU went on to form the core of a much wider influence. It held regular and carefully stage-managed public meetings throughout the Reform Crisis, which publicised the BPUs work far beyond its membership which by January 1831 had reached 9,000.

Joshua Scholefield commented that the BPU had

'higher objects than mere local ones in view - our wish is that our fellow sufferers in the manufacturing districts of Yorkshire arid Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, and all other places where commercial or agricultural distress exists may find relief'.

The BPU was supported by all classes and was the most skilfully led. It set out to lead the country in support of a Reform Bill. The Northern Political Union was led by Attwood's brother Charles, a Gateshead glassmaster. It had the support of all classes in the north-east.

The relationship between the Government and the BPU was uneasy. Most ministers hardly understood middle class opinion and suspected that Political Unions aspired to be the rivals of parliament, and therefore they did not want to recognise the Political Unions.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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