In February I was lucky enough to go to an event at the Houses of Parliament celebrating the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta. In the Queen’s Robing Room, we saw the four original copies of Magna Carta that survive today. Two are held by the British Library, one by Lincoln Cathedral and one by Salisbury Cathedral. All are written on parchment, but vary in size and shape. It was amazing to see all of the four Magna Cartas together, to compare versions and marvel at their preservation over such a long period of time.
Over the last ten years of working with young people on archive collections, some of the most engaging items have been about protest and the local population of Birmingham’s involvement in demanding change for themselves and their communities. A brief look at some of these items will hopefully inspire you to come and look at them, take up your own research or capture your own activism on democracy to inspire future generations!In our archive we can go back to the 17th century pamphlets around the Civil War where a “print explosion” was said to take place as both sides of the argument turned to print to put forward their view and take apart their opposition. There was an exchange in pamphlets between Royalist commander Prince Rupert after his sack of Birmingham on 3rd April 1643 and his Parliamentary opponents. This earlier pamphlet is explicit in its assertion that a King is made ‘by the people’s consent’.
A favourite and well published image from our archive is the rally of an estimated 200,000 people at Newhall Hill led by Thomas Attwood of the Birmingham Political Union in 1832 to call for a Parliamentary act to increase political representation. Not only do we have the print entitled The Gathering of the Unions but also a flag embroidered with the words Reform which very likely was waved at the meeting.The most exciting item on display for me in the House of Lords was the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise Act) of 1928, finally enfranchising women. We have run two projects for young people based on the many resources in Birmingham Archives for Birmingham women’s fight to get the vote. These resources include the Prison Committee Minutes detailing the first force feeding of suffragettes and the ticket for Mrs Pankhurst speaking at the Town Hall as leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union. An overview of these resources, are on the Connecting Histories website.
On display with the Representation of the People Act was the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act, designed to protect the imprisonment rights of all citizens, The Bill of Rights of 1689, and the 1832 Great Reform Act. There were also the earlier Representation of the People Act, 1918 and the Human Rights Act, c. 42, 1998. Seeing this legislation laid out together told a strong story of activism and reform across many centuries, every change hard fought and with profound implications for the people it affected, the policies that would enfold, and the cultural change that would ensue.
A walking trail for the Right to Vote both in Birmingham City Centre and the wider City, can be downloaded here http://www.connectinghistories.org.uk/righttovote.asp.