The Gathering of the Unions

A map showing the area as it was in 1824, eight years before the meeting. St Andrew's Meeting is shown at 1. The artist has shown St Paul's in this direction (2), and in a valley, and yet in reality there is a hill here and St Paul's is off to the right. 3 indicates where the rock face is visible below the modern flats (see photos B on the walk page). The artist appears to have painted the picture from around 4. Thomas Attwood's carriage is at 5. The sandpit is marked and the Whitmore Arm of the canal is clearly shown passing through it. I have since learned from Jennifer Davies that the artist was Henry Harris and the lithograph was printed by C Hullmandel.

Commentary on the picture

I am grateful to Keith Powell for pointing out that this picture, which I had understood to be a painting, was in fact a lithograph. Apparently the colours on the picture reveal that some of the flags being waved were French tricolours, a symbol of revolution in those days and a warning to the authorities of what might happen if reform were not forthcoming.

It is a little difficult to know just what to make of this famous picture. In those days, such lithographs of big events were the equivalent of today's news photographs. They were produced quickly, this one going on sale just three days after the meeting, and they were intended to give those who bought them an impression of the scene. The artist's purpose was therefore to produce an accurate record, rather than a work of art. Nevertheless, in this case the artist seems to have been unable to resist the temptation to improve on what he or she saw, for whilst  the rendition of the spire of St Paul's (top right hand corner) is perfectly accurate, St Paul's is shown in quite the wrong place. St Andrew's Meeting, a place of worship that stood close to the corner of Graham and Vittoria Streets, has also undergone improvement. This is pictured as a kind of Grecian temple (top, slightly right of centre) and yet the building, which was essentially octagonal in plan, is unlikely to have looked like that, and nor was it anything near  so big (see map).

On the other hand, there is much that rings true: the factory by the canal near St Paul's; the existence of a chapel of some kind on Graham Street; the rocky edge of the sandpit below the chapel, which is not unlike the exposed face of the sandpit in the centre right of our modern main photo on the walk page. In fact, apart from the two details noted - the depiction of St Andrew's Meeting and the location of St Paul's, both of which are incidental to its main function  - the picture is entirely plausible, and given the purpose of the lithograph as a document of record it is reasonable to assume that it provides a tolerably accurate picture. So what can we make of it?

Roughly in the centre of the picture we can see Thomas Attwood's carriage in the midst of the crowd. It is going from right to left, indicating that it has come down Newhall Street. It must have turned into George Street, because Newhall Street was built up at that time and there was nowhere else to turn. It would have to continue along George Street to cross the canal, and it is reasonable to assume that it carried on along the street, which had no buildings on it in 1824 and was apparently still not built up eight years later.

This suggests that the artist is standing somewhere over by Charlotte Street, which was partially built up at the time. (The shadows suggest that it is early afternoon.) This implies that the whole of the space from Charlotte Street to the back of the sandpit was full of people, and we can also see crowds massed on Graham Street, atop the face of the sandpit. 

So - how many people were there?

Contemporary reports put the size of the crowd at 200,000. If true, this would be remarkable, being equal to almost 1 in 100 of the entire population of Great Britain and Ireland at that time. No wonder the meeting was sensational in its day! But down the years since that time, the claimed attendance has been the subject of a good deal of scepticism and has often been dismissed as unrealistic. However,  if we analyse what the picture tells us and make use of other available data,  we come to the conclusion that a crowd of 200,000 is by no means implausible. 

The  area assumed to be filled with people is around 3 to 3.5 times the size of Centenary Square, which even under modern safety restrictions can accommodate 50,000. From that point of view, therefore, a crowd of something in the region of the claimed 200,000 is plausible.

But we have to remember that the population of the area in those days was much lower than it is now. We know that people came to the meeting from the Black Country, from Coventry, Redditch, Droitwich, Cannock and the Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire countryside. I have not been able to acquire complete population statistics for all those places, but such figures as I do have from the 1831 census yield a total population of 320,000 for Birmingham, Solihull and parts of the Black Country. I would imagine that the total population of all the towns and the rural areas from which people came would have exceeded 400,000. 

Now the picture shows that there were whole families in the crowd, so given the degree of passion that attended the issue of reform, the BPU's organisational skills and the momentum that the BPU had built up, it is possible that a high proportion of the adjacent population was present. A crowd in the region of 200,000 does not seem implausible in the circumstances.

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