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Thomas Attwood was a remarkably gifted and intelligent man, who deserves greater recognition than he has been given. Dubbed in his own time as 'the very first economist of the age', he was arguing for twentieth century economic policies, such as the abolition of the gold standard and the expansion of the money supply to counter recessions, while the nineteenth century was still young. Though apparently an indifferent public speaker, he was very good at arguing a case, a talent he put to good use during the Birmingham Political Union's (BPU's) campaign for Parliamentary reform, and in the process made himself 'the most influential man in England'. Many of his contemporaries thought  the Reform Act of 1832, which began the process of modernising British democracy, owed more to Thomas Attwood than it did to Earl Grey - and that was not the only change of government policy that he was instrumental in bringing about.

Born at Halesowen in 1783 and educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School, in 1800 he started work in his father's bank, Attwoods, Spooner, Goddington & Co, which was in Lower New Street, Birmingham, next to the Hen & Chickens pub (roughly where the Odeon is now).

In 1811 Attwood was appointed high bailiff of Birmingham. This was not of itself a very important post, but in a town that had no elected representatives in Parliament it fell by default to Attwood to represent the town on two issues of vital importance to it, both concerning impediments to trade that were damaging the town's economy. The first concerned the Orders in Council, enacted in 1806, which banned trade with French territories in response to Napoleon's Berlin Decree, which had ushered in the Continental System. Disastrously for Brum the Orders in Council led to retaliatory action by the Americans, which destroyed the town's hitherto lucrative American trade. 

The second issue concerned the East India Company, which had a monopoly of trade with the far east. This was an example of a still common practice, of a powerful London interest which was quite content to damage business in the provinces in pursuit of its own gain.  As leader of a delegation from Birmingham which gave evidence to a House of Commons committee, Attwood  proved an impressive witness and was prominent in persuading the government to change tack. To the relief of Birmingham's manufacturers the Orders in Council were revoked in 1812 and the East India Company's monopoly was restricted. Attwood became an overnight hero in Birmingham. 

It was after this that he developed his economic theories. The country was then in the throes of recession and he attributed this to ill-advised economic policies. He argued, as Keynes was still needing to argue over a century later, that Britain should have a paper currency not linked in value to gold. He further argued that the government should boost the economy in times of recession by increasing the money supply, a policy that US President Roosevelt most successfully applied, again over a century later, as part of his New Deal. Attwood's argument was that the supply of money should be based, not on the quantity of gold held at the Bank of England, but on the productive capacity of the economy. In other words, the money supply should be so regulated as to be just sufficient to maintain full employment. In 1816 he campaigned for the Bank of England to increase the money supply by issuing more notes. There was a revival of trade, which William Cobbett attributed to Attwood's influence. 

In 1825, Thomas Attwood's theories were put into action again, and to strikingly good effect. It was a time of fevered speculation and on 22nd November of that year Attwood wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, advocating the urgent preparation of a supply of 1 notes. On 16th December, the panic which Attwood had foreseen set in. Banks failed in all directions and there was a run on the Bank of England. It was only by the issue of the notes that had been produced with the benefit of Thomas Attwood's foresight that the Bank of England itself was saved from collapse.

Despite collecting 40,000 signatures on a petition calling for economic reform, he failed to persuade the Duke of Wellington (who was not noted for sharpness of intellect) and his government to even consider his ideas. Reverses like this persuaded Attwood that it was important that the basis of the House of Commons, which then represented only the landed interest, the church, law and finance, should be broadened to include representatives from the manufacturing towns, who knew something about business. 

He therefore turned his mind to political reform and, in 1829 took the lead in establishing the Birmingham Political Union (BPU), to campaign for reform of the franchise and for representation for manufacturing towns. Other leaders were drawn not only from the town's elite but also from among its shopkeepers and small manufacturers. Its supporters included a wide cross-section of the middle and working classes, and by the simple stratagem of  holding vast public meetings that attracted the attention of the press, which reported the speeches to the nation, the BPU became the most effective agent in the campaign for reform. (There is more about the BPU on the walk page)

The Reform Act was passed on 4th June 1832. Attwood returned to Birmingham from London a hero. Massive crowds turned out to welcome him; medals and mugs with 'King Tom's' head on sold like the proverbial hot cakes. In the general election held in the autumn of that year, he and Joshua Scholefield, another leader of the BPU, were returned unopposed. 

He tried hard to persuade his fellow MPs of the wisdom of his economic theories, but to no avail. This brought him to the conclusion that further reform of Parliament was needed and he once again became active in the BPU when it was revived in 1837. As described on the walk page, he was active in the drafting of the People's Charter and the national petition for its introduction, but despite the petition attracting 1,286,000 signatures the House of Commons voted to reject it by 235 votes to 46. Bitterly disillusioned and in poor health, he resigned his seat and took no further part in politics. He died at Great Malvern in 1859, aged 75.




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'Such a set of feeble mortals as the members of both Houses [of Parliament] are, I never did expect to meet in this world. The best among them are scarce equal to the worst in Birmingham.' - Thomas Attwood

He described the House of Commons as a seat of 'ignorance, imbecility and indifference'. Later, after he had become an MP himself, he was asked if he still stuck to that opinion. Not at all, he replied, he now realised it was actually much worse than that.

Charles Greville on the Duke of Wellington: 'A man who does not understand the character of the times ... he is in fact, and has proved it in repeated instances, unequal to argue a great constitutional question. He has neither the power of reasoning, the command of language, nor the knowledge requisite for such an effort.'


What about a statue to Thomas Attwood? There used to be one in New Street, but it is now hidden away in Sparkbrook. And the recent sculpture of him in Chamberlain Square is hidden away in a litter-strewn corner where hardly anybody sees it. Once again, not good enough.

2001, 2003 Bob Miles