Birmingham and the heart of political reform.

MS 3097 Petition of the inhabitants of Birmingham to Thomas Attwood

Petition of the inhabitants of Birmingham, to Thomas Attwood, for Parliamentary Representation. 1832.  [MS 3097]

A petition was sent in 1832 from the ratepayers of Birmingham to the House of Lords requesting that they pass the Reform Bill then before them. This bill, which eventually passed in June 1832, abolished fifty-six of the smallest Parliamentary boroughs, and removed one MP (all boroughs at this date returned two MPs to Parliament) from a further thirty boroughs. In their place the bill enfranchised forty-three new towns, including Birmingham.

Birmingham had been at the heart of the agitation for the Reform Bill and was the origin of the first Political Union. This organization and over 100 others like it played a significant role in securing the passage of the Reform Bill by exerting considerable public pressure on Parliament and the government.

The petition [MS 3097] is an unusual and useful document. Although we know that many petitions were sent to Parliament in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because their receipt was recorded in the Journal of the House of Commons and the Journal of the House of Lords, the actual texts of these petitions were mostly destroyed when Parliament burnt down on 16 October 1834. The existence of this document allows us to examine who signed this petition. It is a rare chance to gain an insight into the rank and file supporters of Parliamentary reform, a topic that has received little historical comment because of the paucity of sources such as this.

For example, the image above shows part of one of the pages of this document. On this page Thomas Clark has signed his name. Clark was a key radical figure in Birmingham from the 1790s until his death in 1847. He was educated by Joseph Priestley in the New Meeting House Sunday School, was a member of the Birmingham Society for Constitutional Information (an organization that campaigned for political reform in the 1790s), was associated with the reformist poet John Freeth and appeared as a defence witness in 1797 at the trial of John Gale Jones, a political radical who was prosecuted for seditious libel. Clark was, however, also an important figure in Birmingham’s local government. He was a Street Commissioner and a Guardian of the Poor. Clark’s signature on this document alongside thousands of others from the richest members of the town’s governing elite to small masters and employees, illustrates the strength of the cause of Parliamentary Reform in Birmingham in the 1830s. Without documents such as this our knowledge of Birmingham, and Britain’s past, would be much diminished.

Harry Smith

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