Forward: the Corporate Common Seal

common seal british library stock

One of the loveliest surprises when looking through the minute books of the Town Council, was turning a page and seeing, for the first time, the still vibrant, red, waxy seal of the Corporation. The seal would sit out proudly next to the signature of the current mayor, representing a stamp of approval against a lofty petition to Parliament or memorial to the nobility. Each year it appeared as a stamp of authority beneath the very long-winded explanation of the rate levy. Despite my best efforts, I was never able to make out clearly just what the image on the stamp represented, although I had a good idea of what was on there. So I was very pleased to come across the image above on the British Library’s Flickr site  [https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/]. Although it is a slightly later version, from the description of the seal presented in the minute books, this must be very similar. The only part of it that I am unsure of is the buckled belt at the bottom (any information on this would be gratefully appreciated!).

The Town Council appointed a committee to procure a common corporate seal on January 1st, 1839, only a few weeks after Birmingham’s returned its first Borough Council. The committee consisted of councillors William Pare, Thomas Clark, Thomas Clutton Salt, Edward Lucas and Thomas Phillips. Two weeks later they presented a meeting of the council with five devices for their consideration. The committee recommended device number one ‘with the motto Unity, Liberty, Prosperity’. However, no decision was made at this meeting and the five devices were left at the office of the Town Clerk, available for inspection by the members of the council for further consideration. The next mention is at a general meeting held on February 27th, 1839, when Councillor Pare presented the corporation seal. The Town Clerk, thankfully, included a description ‘The Birmingham Arms, encircled with wreaths of laurel and oak and with the words on a ribbon underneath “Incorporated by Royal Charter, 1838” and the whole enclosed in a garter, inscribed “Common Seal of the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Birmingham”. This description is pretty close to the image presented above, with the final addition of the motto also decided on at this meeting, where it was resolved that “The said seal, with the addition of the word ‘Forward’ as a motto be and is hereby adopted by this Council”. [BCC1/AA/1/1/1, Archives, Heritage and Photograph at the Library of Birmingham]  ‘The Arms’ I believe, refers to the heraldic coat of arms in the centre, being that of the local manorial family.

There is no indication in the minute books of how the motto ‘Forward’ was arrived at. Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham claims that it was councillor William Middlemore, a local saddler,  who suggested the word, in preference to any Latin and that ‘Vox populi vox dei’ (‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’) had been mooted. I think this was a good move and that Birmingham has and continues to represent its motto very well. Other parts of the seal have changed over the years, though the motto and the Birmingham Arms remain. The words on the garter, declaring this to be the seal of the ‘Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses’ was very much of its time and represents a subtle emphasis of the ‘grand principle’ of representation. It is a simple statement of cohesion, one which was not popularly felt in reality. When the common corporate seal was stamped on a petition to Parliament demanding alterations to the postal service or tariff reform, the municipal men were really suggesting that they were expressing the opinion and demands of the whole of the borough electorate.

The seal was engraved by Mr Halliday, of Newhall Street.

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