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'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’s success led to political unions being formed in several other towns, but these failed to match the impact of the BPU, usually because they were riven on class lines, with separate middle class and working class unions being formed. Lacking the vital contributions of both classes, these unions were relatively impotent. That the two classes had no trouble making common cause in Birmingham is due to  Brum's social cohesion which, as we have seen, was in contrast to other industrial towns. Due to the BPU's vastly superior effectiveness, national leadership remained firmly in its hands.


The reform that was introduced in 1832 was very modest by modern standards, in effect extending the vote only to middle class men and removing the grosser injustices and most corrupt aspects of the old system. Another 87 years were to pass before all men gained voting rights and it was not until 1929 that women gained equal rights with men.


The passing of the Reform Act coincided with a period of prosperity and for a time the country was tranquil, but by 1836 recession had set in, and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (passed by Grey’s government), which introduced the inhumane treatment of the poor that characterised the Victorian workhouses, had heightened resentment in the country. Many people felt that the Reform Act had not gone far enough to remedy the country’s ills and in April 1837 Birmingham workmen asked for the BPU to be revived, a proposal that attracted middle class support. The Union was duly revived in May 1837 and on 19th June a list of demands for further reform was presented to another huge gathering in the sandpit. The new demands were for

- household suffrage (later changed to universal manhood - though not womanhood - suffrage)

- salaries for MPs

- abolition of the property qualification for MPs, thus enabling working class men to become MPs

- secret ballots

- triennial elections.

The BPU was active throughout 1837 and 1838 as recession deepened. The idea developed of drawing up a People’s Charter, to be presented to Parliament with a huge national petition. The charter essentially contained the BPU’s five demands, but with annual rather than triennial parliaments and with the addition of a demand for equal electoral constituencies. On 17th July 1838 the BPU met and drew up plans for a national Chartist Convention. On 6th August the last of the BPU's big meetings, again said to have attracted 200,000, chose delegates for the Chartist Convention. This meeting marked the end of the BPU. As Mark Howell commented, ‘the BPU died in giving birth to the Chartist movement’.

The People’s Charter was presented to Parliament in June 1839 by Thomas Attwood. The national petition for its introduction bore 1,286,000 signatures. Nevertheless the Commons rejected it by 235 votes to 46. Disillusioned and in failing health, Attwood resigned as MP and took no further part in politics. This was a great pity because without his leadership the Chartist movement fell victim to factionalism and violence, and was ultimately unsuccessful.




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Other sites: The BPU Birmingham Chartism Reform Act (1)  (2)  Earl Grey



© 2001 Bob Miles