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.

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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 http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/4930/

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