Predicting a riot: violence as a community response to perceived injustice


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.


Charges and regulations for use of the Town Hall, January 1851

As 1851 drew to a close, Birmingham’s administrative bodies were amalgamated into the single body of the town council, as enacted by the 1851 Birmingham Improvement Act. As part of the act, public assets which had previously come under the authority of the Birmingham Street Commissioners were passed to the new administration. These included the town’s large, capital investments – the markets and the Town Hall. The hand over had been organised over several months and for the most part, the status quo was continued, though managed by newly formed committees. Regulations and bye-laws were formally presented at meetings held early in 1852 with new regulations gradually introduced (see for example, my earlier post on regulations for slaughter houses Regulations and charges for the Town Hall, previously  under the authority of the Town Hall Committee of the Street Commissioners, had been transferred to the new Estates and Buildings Committee of the Borough Council. The democratic aspirations of this new body can be seen in the insurance form that those hiring the hall were required to sign. Any expenses for damages are not now due to the Street Commissioners, but to the ‘Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses’ of the borough – a confirmation of corporation ownership. These regulations can be found in the minute books of the Birmingham Town Council held at The Library of Birmingham, Archives, Heritage and Photograph BCC1/AA/1/1/2

Regulations and charges for the use of the Town Hall, presented by the Estate and Building Committee at a quarterly meeting of the Town Council held on January 2nd, 1852

For the Hall

No. 1.,   That all borough meetings called by or held under the sanction of the Mayor be held gratuitously

No. 2.,   All other meetings, except as  hereafter mentioned   –   £5

No. 3.,   All meetings, concerts or balls called or held in support of religious charitable or benevolent institutions or in support of any of the Scientific Institutions of the Borough – £2,,10s

No. 4.,   All concerts, balls and other entertainments of that nature and all lectures and other assemblies of inhabitants if for personal benefit or advantage –  £10
If for personal personal or individual profit when not inhabitants –  £20

Besides the above charges, the lighting of the Hall with gas and cleaning of the Hall to be paid for.  The expense of the removal of the benches is included in the charge for the Hall. When the use of the Hall is granted gratuitously, it is to be subject to the charge for removing the benches and cleaning the Hall as well as lighting with gas.

For the Lower Room

No. 1.,   That all Borough meetings called by or under the sanction of the Mayor be held gratuitously

No. 2.,   All other public meetings (except as hereinafter mentioned)  – £1

No. 3.,   All meetings, concerts or balls called  held in support of religious, charitable or benevolent institutions or in support of any of the Scientific Institutions of the Borough – £1

No. 4.,   All concerts, balls and other entertainments of that nature and all lectures and other assemblies of Inhabitants if for personal benefit or advantage – £2,,10s

If for personal or individual profit when not inhabitants – £5

Subject to the same charges as above

For the Committee Room

No. 1.,   That all Borough meetings called by or under the sanction of the Mayor be held gratuitously

   and in every other case, 10s, subject to the same charges as above

For the Kitchen

To be charged per day, including coal for a dinner party, the sum of – £2

To be charged per day, including coal for a tea party, the sum of  – £1

Subject to the same extra charges as above, all charges to be paid in advance

The following guarantee to be given in all cases, against damage to the Hall or furniture:

Borough of Birmingham

In consideration of permission having been granted at request to use the Town Hall of the said borough on the _____ day of  _____, 18__, hereby undertake and agree on demand of the Town Clerk to pay the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses the amount of any damage or injury which may be occasioned, done or committed to the building, furniture or fittings in consequence of such permission being granted.

Alternative narratives: John Binnon, an ordinary man in big history

This year marked 175 years since the Newport Rising. It is also 175 years since the Birmingham Bull Ring riots, which took place over several weeks in July 1839. This unrest has also been considered part of the Chartist unrest; three of the men found guilty of being involved in the Birmingham riots were transported to Tasmania on the same ship as John Frost and the other Newport protesters.

Several years of research into Birmingham’s Chartist riots has led me to believe that the outbreaks of violence that took place in 1839 were antagonised by the presence of a body of Metropolitan police. During their secondment to the town, the force introduced an invasive stop and search policy, confiscating the tools of many a local artisan’s trade and establishing a mini reign of terror that included one incident of aggressive ‘kettling’ on New Street. This post is to remember a man called John Binnon. His story has been completely overlooked in the analyses of Birmingham’s Chartist riots, but I found it to reveal another narrative of the prevailing unrest.


On July 15th, 1839 rioting broke out in Birmingham. It was not the first incident of rioting during that summer. Two weeks earlier a London police officer had been left fighting for his life after a mass brawl had broken out near St. Martin’s church. Rumbling unrest prompted the imposition of an 8pm curfew and dragoons from the local barracks patrolled the streets along with a body of Metropolitan police. The rioting on this evening took a different tone: the windows of the public office were smashed by bricks, shops around the Bull Ring were looted and set ablaze. As residents tried to escape burning buildings down ladders, attending fire officers were assaulted. For some unknown reason, the dragoons and the London police had been given orders by mayor William Scholefield to ‘stand down’ from their recent nightly patrols. It was an unwise move, one which would lead to a criticism from the Duke of Wellington and much heated debate.

John Binnon was described as a ‘quiet young man’ by his landlady and other acquaintances who spoke at his inquest. It was claimed that he had no involvement with the Chartists. On July 15th, perhaps out of curiosity, John crossed the Bull Ring, just as the riots were beginning to disperse.  He stayed close to the market hall, there is no evidence that he had any involvement in the riots.  As he watched the unfolding drama, a foot soldier approached him, ordering him to move along. John replied that he move along when he was ready, a response which must have infuriated the foot soldier who was probably already under a good deal of pressure. The soldier then called on a dragoon who, from atop his horse, made a brutal attack on John, bringing down his sabre and allegedly shouting ‘damn your soul to hell, you will go back’. In his statement to the jury, the dragoon claimed that John had tried to pull the horse down, grabbing the bridle. My own thinking is that John panicked, perhaps putting his hand up to deflect the blows during the terrible encounter.

John’s hat and coat were presented to the jury at the inquest. There were clear sabre slices through both and it was revealed that he had received a substantial cut to his elbow, deep enough to expose the bone. He was treated at the General Hospital, dying from septicaemia after having his arm amputated. At his inquest, the jury first returned a verdict of ‘legally justified homicide’. The coroner advised the jury to reconsider, stating that their wording indicated a ‘disapprobation of the law’. The jury argued that the military had over reacted to John’s refusal, but must have acquiesced and dropped the word ‘legally’, as the coroner’s roll has only the words ‘justified homicide’.

John Binnon’s reaction to being ordered to move along, for me, revealed a sense of frustration at the situation that had been imposed on the town. The Brummies were tired of curfews and the aggressive uniformed presence. The rioting that took place on the 15th began when a crowd marching along Camp Hill received news that the Metropolitan police had assaulted yet another man in the Bull Ring. There is no evidence that this had happened, but the rumour proved to be the spark that lit a very short fuse. His story shows that history has multiple narratives. That the life of the ordinary man and woman is as relevant to our understanding of the past as the grand narratives.

The coroner’s inquest into John Binnon was reported in the national press, including the Times. The information here was taken from The Morning Chronicle, August 13th, 1839. The coroner’s roll can be seen on microfilm in the Local Studies Centre at the Library of Birmingham. Visitors to the permanent exhibition Birmingham, its people, its history at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery will be able to see a brief reference to the Bull Ring riots in a cabinet which contains a Birmingham police officer’s truncheon. The reference ‘one man died’, is to John Binnon. My thesis on the riots can be downloaded here

Remember, remember: illegal manufacture of fireworks in Birmingham, November 1866

This item is from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, dated Saturday 10th November, 1866. Copies of Aris’s can be viewed on microfilm in the local studies area at the Library of Birmingham.

There is quite a moralistic tone running through this item, particularly at the end where celebrations in the ‘second and third-rate’ areas of the town are reported. The reporter certainly misjudged the continued popularity of Guy Fawkes night. Have a safe bonfire night – and don’t try any of this at  home!


The Fifth of November

The celebration of Guy Fawkes day on the 5th of November, although shorn of its former prestige by the fact that the special service appointed for the occasion to be read in churches has been abrogated, still continues to be celebrated by the juvenile portion of the population. Of late years certain restrictions have been placed upon the sale of fireworks, and the making of such dangerous missiles has been removed from the town to places where an accidental explosion could do no damage except to the artisans employed. There are, however, persons to be found who are not only willing to risk their own lives, but the lives of their neighbours by carrying on the dangerous process, and with the view to discover such delinquents, Sanitary-inspector Woolley and his assistants have been actively employed during the past week, and have succeeded in discovering several persons who have been guilty of infringement of the laws. 

During the past week, Inspector Woolley discovered a large quantity of materials and fireworks in process of manufacture at the premises of Mr. J. Wilder at Duddeston. The whole of the articles were seized. At about five o’clock on Saturday evening, Assistant Inspectors Harris and Wagstaff visited the premises of Mr. Henry Gooch in Steelhouse Lane, where they found the process of manufacture being carried on, and a large quantity of materials and articles in process of manufacture was seized. On Monday Mr. Woolley and officers went to the premises of Mr. Joseph Wilkes in Weaman Street, where they found Mrs Wilkes engaged in filling a quantity of cases, Mrs Wilkes and a girl being engaged in finishing the fireworks. There was also found a quantity of gunpowder, sulphur, charcoal and other materials, all of which were seized by the officers. These persons will be called upon to answer for their conduct in front of the magistrates in due course. 

Last night a large number of courts in the second and third-rate streets of the town were illuminated with bonfires, and a fair amount of money was wasted in the useless discharge of gunpowder. The march of education has shown its influence in the more orderly manner in which the proceedings of the celebration are conducted; but although the special service for the 5th of November in connection with Guy Fawkes has been discontinued, still the recollection that 5th November is the anniversary of the Battle of Inkermann will cause the expiring celebration of Guy Fawkes day to be celebrated for some time to come. 

The burgess: annual town council elections

With the exception of the first year of incorporation (1838), elections of the town council took place annually, at the start of November, though it is important to state that my own research covers only the first dozen years of the council and so the procedure may have altered.

polling booth

‘An act to provide for the regulation of municipal incorporation of towns in England and Wales’ was passed in September of 1835. Joseph Parkes, a Birmingham solicitor, had been instrumental in conducting the national survey of town administration. His report concluded that the majority of towns were governed by self-elected oligarchies and as result there was much corruption and little accountability amongst provincial authorities. The report, drafted hastily into a bill, passed with little objection through the commons, but a number of concessions had to be made before it left the Lords. It was perceived, however, as a successful extension of the 1832 Great Reform Act that would sweep away the last vestiges of borough rot For the radicals who had supported the bill’s passage, it was also viewed as a means of extending the franchise. This was not necessarily the case and a number of historians have shown that less people were eligible to vote in local elections than in parliamentary ones.

The granting of a charter of incorporation in 1838 ushered a new social distinction for some members of the Birmingham community: they became burgesses. The electoral regulations relating to burgesses were included in the 1835 act. Clause 9 of the act stated that:

Every male person of full age on the last day of August in any year shall have occupied any house, warehouse, counting house or shop within in any borough during that and the whole of the two preceding years, and during the time of such occupation shall have been an inhabitant householder within the said borough or within seven miles of the said borough, shall, if duly enrolled that year…shall be a burgess of such borough.

In addition to being male and resident in the borough for three consecutive years, the householder must have also contributed to the local poor law rate for the whole period. Not only that, he must not have been in receipt of any alms, pension or ‘charitable allowance’ during the twelve months prior to having his name placed on the burgess roll. The roll was compiled by the local board of overseers of the poor each September with a copy to be fixed on the doors of the town hall by September 15th. This was so that any objections could be posited in plenty of time before the November election.

For the purpose of elections, large towns were divided into wards and each ward would have a list of eligible voters for that area, taken from the burgess roll and administered by the clerks to the town council.

Polling would be open between 9am and 4pm on November 1st (excepting where this fell on a Sunday). The polling booths were appointed by the mayor, supervised by clerks to the borough, though unsurprisingly the act specifies that no booths could be placed in any house of worship. The clerks at the booth were to challenge each voter with three questions and, the act emphasises, ‘no other’:

1. Are you the person whose name is signed as A.B. to the voting paper now delivered in by you?
2. Are you the person whose name appears as A.B. on the burgess roll now in force for this borough, being registered therein as rated for property described to be situated in _____?
3. Have you already voted at the present election?

It was a criminal offence to give false answers to any of these questions.

The title ‘burgess’ conferred a sense of citizenship on those who were eligible for inclusion. It could be argued that it also introduced a new and exclusive public identity in Birmingham (and other towns, such as Manchester and Bolton, incorporated in the same year). The corporate common seal, which was fixed to official correspondence from the council was deemed the common seal of approval of the ‘mayor, aldermen and burgesses of the borough’, the relationship thus also conferring a sense of democratic legitimacy on the mayor and aldermen.

For a comprehensive insight into the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, Geoffrey Finlayson Decade of Reform: England in the Eighteen Thirties (1969)

A more recent account of local elections, equally insightful, appears in Philip Salmon’s Electoral Reform at Work: local politics and national parties, 1832-1841 (London: the Royal Historical Society, 2002)