The walk at www.jquarter.org.uk
8. GEORGE ST & THE 1832 REFORM ACT
|Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter|
Walk along the top side of St Paul's Square, with the church to your left. Continue straight ahead along Brook Street, cross Newhall Street and continue ahead into George Street (1), (2).
A. The former string factory on the corner of St Paul's Square and Caroline Street
B. This picture is taken from the same point as the main picture, but looking slightly more to the right. The rock face can still be seen below the flats. St Andrew's Meeting would have been behind the far end of the flats.
C. This is where the Whitmore Arm of the canal crossed George Street. There is a slight hump in the road, and a red brick wall between a green wall and a white building. The red brick wall is the parapet of the former canal bridge
D. This block of flats now obscures the view shown in the main photo, B, which was taken from the point shown at the extreme right of this picture
View taken through the gates of Newhall Court, to the left of the building shown in the picture above. The rockface at the back of the sandpit can be seen below the striated retaining wall at the back.
There is a clear hump where the Whitmore Arm crossed Charlotte Street (location not shown on plan)
The line of the former Whitmore Arm (it has been backfilled here) as seen from Charlotte Street, heading towards George Street
B. The sandpit photographed in February 2001
(To see what this view looks like now, see photo D.)
Passers-by in George Street in the early months of 2001 were privileged to have sight of something that had remained hidden for decades and will not be seen again for decades to come - the great George Street sandpit.
The hills on which the city centre and the Jewellery Quarter stand are both composed of rock sand. The name is descriptive; the material is half way between sand and sandstone. From an engineering point of view it is a beautiful material; whilst being cohesive enough to stand unsupported, as shown below the retaining wall in the centre right of the photo, it is also soft enough that you can dig it. It also makes excellent moulding sand which was much in demand by foundries. Consequently, in the early nineteenth century there were a number of sandpits in this area (we shall see another one later), but the one in George Street, which was gouged out of the hillside known as Newhall Hill, was the biggest of them all. This was probably because it had direct access to the canal. A private branch canal, the Whitmore Arm, belonging to William Whitmore who had a foundry (no surprise there!) in Newhall Street, and which is now abandoned, left the Birmingham & Fazeley main line at the pound between locks 7 and 8 just above Newhall Street. The stub end of the branch and the bridge carrying the towpath over it are still extant (you may remember we saw them from the boardwalk) and you can see where it passed under Charlotte and George Streets (see photos), after which it ran the full length of the sandpit, terminating where the Rystar car showroom is today. Using the Whitmore Arm, sand dug from this pit could be loaded directly into barges for efficient transportation.
(NB. There is also a map showing what the area was like in 1824. To make the detail of the picture visible I have had to render it as a large file, so please be patient.)
In the tumultuous early 1830s this huge sandpit, gouged out of the hill known as Newhall Hill, was the scene of a series of vast public meetings which helped to change the course of British history and to save the country from revolution.
The most celebrated of all those meetings, held on 7th May 1832, was reported as having been attended by 200,000 people. That famous meeting was depicted in the equally famous picture The Gathering of the Unions, which is shown above. Once the crowd were assembled, a carriage came from the town down Newhall Street, turned into George Street and stopped, probably about half way along the street. Five men alighted, climbed onto a cart or some form of staging, and for three hours proceeded to address the patient crowd, most of whom couldn’t hear a word, of course. How silly, you might think - but not a bit of it. These people knew exactly what they were doing.
This was a meeting of the Birmingham Political Union (BPU), which in those turbulent times when the country stood on the brink of a violent revolution, played a pivotal role in securing a measure of Parliamentary reform and starting the country on the road to democracy. The BPU had been formed on 14th December 1829 to campaign for reform. In those days only the well-to-do had the vote, and the industrial towns such as Birmingham were altogether unrepresented, since they returned no MPs. At the same time the industrial revolution, the parallel agricultural revolution in the countryside, and the depression of trade due to the Napoleonic wars had led to great hardship and distress in the country. The BPU's basic argument was that if more people were represented in Parliament ordinary people would be better off because the country would have to be run for the wider benefit, and not just for the landed gentry.
Several of Birmingham's prominent figures were involved in the establishment of the BPU, but there is no doubt that its leader was Thomas Attwood, a Birmingham banker and a remarkably astute and intelligent man, who deserves to be better known. Crucially, the BPU was a union of both the middle and working classes - the bosses and the workers - who had no difficulty in making common cause in Brum. This was critically important, because each class provided its own vital ingredient in the BPU's highly effective strategy. This involved organising huge meetings such as the one on 7th May 1832, meetings vast enough to create a sensation and therefore to get reported in the national press. So whilst most of those present couldn't hear the speeches, everyone in the country could read them when they opened the newspaper. By this simple strategy the BPU gained national influence and importance, to the extent that Thomas Attwood had been discussed in debates in the House of Commons, where his supporters had described him as ‘the most influential man in England’, a view that his detractors tacitly conceded when they branded him as ‘dangerous’. This achievement, which no other town could equal (see right-hand panel) depended simultaneously on the working class providing the crowds that attracted the press, whilst the middle class provided the intellectual arguments that were reported in the press.
During 1830 the BPU held a series of meetings in the George Street sandpit, which helped bring reform up the political agenda. In November of that year the Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, was forced from office after making a speech denouncing reform, thus bringing to an end a period of Tory rule that had lasted even longer than eighteen years. A Whig government was then formed under Earl Grey. In April 1831, after an attempt to pass a reform bill had failed in the House of Commons Grey asked the king, William IV, to dissolve parliament so that the Whigs could gain a larger majority in the Commons. The country being in crisis at the time, the king recognised that there was a risk of revolution and agreed to elections in the hope of forestalling an uprising by providing an outlet for the excitement in the country. (In fact, when he heard that the Lords were planning to block a dissolution, the king went down to Westminster despite attempts to prevent him, famously saying, "Damme, I’ll go in a cab if I have to!", and personally dissolved Parliament.) The Whigs were returned with a huge majority and the Commons now passed the Reform Bill on 22nd September 1831.
On 3rd October 1831 the BPU held another meeting in the sandpit, which was attended by 100,000. The meeting was timed to coincide with the start of the Lords’ second reading of the bill, but despite the BPU’s pressure and the threat of revolution, when the Lords, who were dominated by Wellington’s Tories, voted on 8th October they threw out the bill by a majority of 41. This led to serious rioting in many towns, though not in Brum. Nottingham Castle was burnt down and serious damage and many casualties occurred in Derby, Bristol and elsewhere.
The bill was watered down to try to attract more support in the Lords and the king agreed if necessary to create a dozen new Whig peers as a sign that more might follow. Negotiations took place with waverers in the Lords and with the bishops, and the amended bill passed its second reading in the Lords in April 1832. But the Lords then passed a resolution which could have led to many of the bill’s provisions being delayed or neutered.
It was in response to this move that the BPU’s great meeting of 7th May 1832 was called, with a view to exerting pressure to resist the Lords’ manoeuvre. At the meeting Thomas Attwood called for a general strike 'in which not a hammer shall be wielded, an anvil sounded, nor a shuttle moved', should petitioning fail to deliver reform. Back in London on the same day Grey asked the king to create 50 new Whig peers; the king would not exceed 20. In taking this stand the king was signalling that he thought the already watered-down measure should be further diluted so as to attract greater support in the Lords.
Grey's response was to resign on 9th May, by which time reports of the BPU’s meeting had reached London. The king then invited Wellington to establish a government, which was tantamount to bestowing the kiss of death on any prospect of meaningful reform. This move on the part of the king cost him the public credit he had earned through his earlier stance, and plunged the country into an acute crisis. Attwood's call for a general strike was heeded and work stopped up and down the land. There was a serious run on the Bank of England. Over 200 meetings were held around the country by the BPU and its allies and 300 petitions were collected. It took all of Attwood's very considerable influence to insist that the BPU should continue to confine itself to peaceful and legal action. In these conditions Wellington could not form a government because Peel and many of the other Tories would not support him. The king was left with no choice but to send for Grey again. Grey agreed to resume office, provided the king created sufficient new peers to carry the bill. This time the king agreed and Grey resumed office on 16th May. On hearing the news Wellington ordered the Tory peers to either vote for the bill or to absent themselves. The bill was consequently passed with a large majority on 7th June 1832, and the revolution never happened.
What effect did the BPU have in bringing about reform? Here are some contemporary opinions:
In 1833, O’Brien wrote of the BPU, ‘To this body, more than to any other, is confessedly due the triumph (such as it was) of the Reform Bill. Its well-ordered proceedings, extended organisation, and immense assemblages of people, at critical periods of its progress, rendered the measure irresistible.’
Daniel O’Connell wrote, ‘It was not Grey and Althorp who carried the Reform Act, but the brave and determined men of Birmingham.’
It was reported that, 'The opinion of a majority in Parliament, society, and in the streets, was that Attwood and Birmingham were primarily responsible for the success of Grey.'
Five years later, Eliezer Edwards wrote: 'And this is Birmingham! The place which I ... had so often heard of, but never seen. This is the town which ... vanquished the conqueror of the great Napoleon! This is the town which, for the first time in his life, had compelled the great Duke of Wellington to capitulate! This is the home of those who, headed by Attwood, had compelled the Duke and his army - the House of Lords - to submit.'
Earl Grey virtually admitted as much when he told the king that he would not have persisted with reform in the face of the Lords’ opposition, but for the public pressure brought to bear by the BPU and its allies, and the threat of revolution.
In other words, it was Brum, first and foremost, that brought about the country's first faltering step on the long road to meaningful democracy.
© 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 Bob Miles