The Municipal Corporations Act entered the statute books in September of 1835. Like the Poor Law Amendment Act of the previous year, the MCA was representative of rational policy making. In 1834 a Royal Commission had been established to investigate the state of England’s local authorities. The Commission, under the leadership of Birmingham radical lawyer Joseph Parkes and Blackburn radical MP John Blackburne, had presented a damning report of maladministration, poor infrastructure and shady dealings. Despite strong opposition from the Lords the act was passed, albeit with a number of significant concessions. The act included clauses which permitted emerging industrial urban centres to apply for a charter of incorporation: Birmingham, Bolton and Manchester were all granted this charter in October, 1838.
The motivations for this particular reform are debateable. It seems highly probable that emerging party politics was a primary factor. However, for many it represented an extension of the the Great Reform Act of 1832, sweeping away the last vestiges of borough rot. The new act also introduced a franchise into local government. Though limited to rate payers of three years standing it was seen by many as an important contribution to the principle of political representation. Certainly this ‘principle’ features as a recurring phrase in Birmingham’s early Town Council minute books and as such should be given some consideration.
A key idea underscoring my research is that the Municipal Corporations Act was viewed by certain influential local men as an ideology, or rather as a vehicle for promoting ideologies. Many of Birmingham’s early municipal men, along with all those who had campaigned for a Charter of Incorporation, had cut their teeth in earlier political movements. In particular, many had been members of the Birmingham Political Union. Some had held strong associations with the early Chartist Movement. Part of my research will consider how effective the MCA really was in bringing about material change in the provinces and so it is important to become acquainted with the early Municipal Men and the values that motivated them. As well as being at the forefront of local politics, these men also represented the economic backbone of the town. Amongst them were leading manufacturers, merchants and professionals from the Birmingham community, many of whose names were synonymous with innovation.
The early years of Birmingham’s Town Council were marked with tensions. From the time of the first election until the end of 1851, administration of the town was shared between a number of local bodies. The new Borough Council found itself facing strong opposition and legal challenges which prevented them from taking any real authority for three years. That the municipal men were able to absorb all of those other bodies in little more than a decade is a strong testimony to their tenacity and shrewd political acumen.