On July 15th, 1839 a large crowd of people gathered at Holloway Head in Birmingham, in expectation of hearing local M.P. Thomas Attwood address the local community on the issue of working class votes. Just a few days before Attwood’s presentation of a million signature petition, demanding an extension of the franchise, had been laughed out of parliament. Attwood never appeared, there is no evidence that expectation of his arrival was any more than a rumour.
As the evening wore on, the crowds dispersed and a large group began to make their way towards the Warwick Road, with the intention of meeting Chartist delegates John Collins and William Lovett, who had been released on bail from the county jail. This group only got as far as Camp Hill, just outside the city centre when a report was received that a man had been assaulted by the visiting Metropolitan police outside the public office. The response was almost instantaneous as a cry went up ‘to the Bull Ring’ and the procession headed back to town, where the windows of the public office were smashed in, and shops were looted and burned.
The events that took place in Birmingham on July 15th attracted a good deal of attention. They appeared in the national press, were raised in Parliament and feature in Queen Victoria’s personal diaries. They have remained a significant representation of agitation for voting reform in all significant histories of Chartism. But there is another narrative underlying the rioting which has tended to be overlooked and it is an important one. I believe that the riots which took place on July 15th 1839 were a violent response to policing tactics that were imposed during a time of heightened tensions. There was a sense of communal injustice which can still be witnessed today, such as during the riots which followed the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011, and of Michael Brown in Ferguson. In Birmingham, 175 years ago it was the working man who was targeted, subjected to stop and search and ‘offensive’ weapons confiscated. In an artisan community these weapons were most usually tools of their trade, without which many were unable to work.
Below are a few examples of complaints received about the Metropolitan Police, visiting Birmingham who did not have its own professional force until December of that year. When taken together it is possible to see why the local community felt victimised and, while not an excuse for violence, why a single claim of police brutality might have ignited a keg of tensions. These instances, and others which appeared in the local press, will have been the subject of much local discussion, exacerbating already present tensions during a time of economic recession and unemployment. Birmingham was barricaded and subjected to an 8pm curfew, while troops as well as police were patrolling the streets.
These accounts are taken from The Mirror of Parliament, July 10th, 1839 and the Report of the Committee appointed by the Town Council t investigate the late riots, both of which are available at the Cadbury Research Library, Special Collections, University of Birmingham and the Birmingham Journal, July 13th, 1839, available on microfilm in the Local Studies department of the Library of Birmingham
Eyewitness accounts of incidents of violence by the Metropolitan Police:
William Jones, journeyman tailor of Aston Rd., – detained by up to 20 officers; searched and beaten about the head; charged with striking a police officer, his case dismissed at the assizes
John Rathbone, coach harness maker of Sherlock St., – knocked down by 3 or 4 officers on Allison St. as he was returning from work; unable to work as a result of his injuries
James Smith, plater of No. 4 court, Blucher St., – on July 8th he witnessed police knocking down a neighbour who had been ‘quietly smoking his pipe in his shirt sleeves and without his hat’; Smith intervened and was beaten so severely by the police officers that he was unable to work for 9 days
Henry Green, lamp maker of Fordrough St., – witnessed a police officer knocking down an ‘aged woman’ on New St., and then ‘assaulting a peaceable workman in his trade clothes’. Claims to have seen the same officer confiscate a whet stone from a work man and calling the same workman ‘a damned liar’
Thomas Power, bricklayer of No. 3 court, Thorpe St., – Power is described as a 73 year old man ‘exceedingly emaciated’. He claimed that on July 9th he was knocked down by a body of London police and taken to the jail on Moor St. where he was detained overnight, despite no evidence of misdeed. He was released the following morning without charge
Mr Thomas Redfern, merchant, Birmingham, – claimed to have witnessed London police beating people in an ‘unjustifiable manner’ for around 30 minutes on New St. on July 8th at 9pm. Two men at the scene ‘wearing respectable clothes’ reportedly told Redfern that they had been beaten across the shoulders with police staffs
William Blaxland, Town Councillor, Birmingham, – claimed to have been struck on the arm with a stave by a London policeman on July 8th as he made his way to a council meeting
George Jones, occupation and address unstated, – beaten to the ground by 3 police officers as he walked along Sandy Lane on Sunday, August 18th. There were a number of witnesses to this event and the accused London police officer was found guilty at the local assizes and fined 40 shillings
July 10th, 1839: House of Commons, – Thomas Duncombe, M.P., claimed reports were coming from Birmingham of a concerted assault on civilians by London police and the military.
While crowds were assembled in the Bull Ring, the military blocked off all entrances and exits, after which no one was allowed to pass these lines. After some time the Metropolitan police divided into sections, each section followed by a troop of dragoons. Immense crowds were congregated and the police commenced an indiscriminate attack with their staves. Men, women and children were thrown down and trampled upon, while the police beleaguered them right and left. Broken heads with other severed wounds were the result. One man, who was returning from work, had his teeth knocked out. Special constables have expressed horror at what took place.