‘Fit and proper persons’: the Birmingham election, 1832

The Great Reform Act of 1832 enabled Birmingham to return, for the first time, two Members of Parliament. The elections were organised somewhat differently then, taking place over several weeks, in this case between December 1832 and January 1833. Nominations of ‘fit and proper persons’ were made and polling would take place a few days later. Although the Great Reform Act had also extended the franchise, there were still very few people who qualified to vote. This new legislation is sometimes called ‘the £10 franchise’, because only those householders who paid an annual rent of at least £10 qualified. And of course, women were not allowed to vote however wealthy they might be. It is estimated that around 7% of the population were allowed to take part in this election. Of far greater importance were the changes introduced that gave growing, industrialised towns the opportunity to Parliamentary representation for the first time.

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Lithograph 1832 ‘ The Meeting of the Unions on Newhall Hill’

Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield had both been part of the movement for extending the franchise. Attwood had founded the Birmingham Political Union, the first political union in Britain. Other towns and cities quickly followed suit and soon a movement became established. The ‘monster meetings’ held at Newhall Hill in Birmingham captured the public imagination and tensions began to escalate. From 1831, serious rioting broke out across the country (Bristol and Nottingham were amongst the worst) and fears of revolution began to spread. There is some debate about whether these protests prompted the move for Parliamentary reform. It seems to me very likely that there was a necessity to try and placate the people and that the Great Reform Act was a (fairly tame) attempt to do just that. Nevertheless, this was a move to a sort of democracy.

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On  Wednesday December 12th, 1832  Schofield and Attwood were nominated, unopposed, as ‘fit and proper persons’ to represent the borough of Birmingham. The following account is taken from the Birmingham Journal of December 15th, 1832:

Birmingham Election


On Wednesday last the election of two burgesses to serve in Parliament for this borough took place at the Public Office. Temporary Hustings were erected in the front of the building for the accommodation of the candidates and their immediate friends. By nine o’clock, the hour fixed for the nomination, Moor-street was completely filled, from the Bull Ring to Carrs-lane, with a dense mass of people. At the hour named, the High Bailiff and the Low Bailiff, with Thomas Asquith Esq. and Joshua Scholefield Esq., accompanied by their separate committees, appeared in the hustings, and immediately commenced the preparatory proceedings. The precept and the bribery acts having been read, and the customary oaths administered, John Simcox Esq., the High Bailiff, called upon the electors to nominate two burgesses as fit and proper persons to represent them in Parliament. The call of the High Bailiff was received with waving of hats and cheering, which lasted for a considerable time. 

There were then some long speeches from various people in the hustings. These were grand declarations, perhaps fitting for the occasion of a first election; references were made to Sampson and the Philistines, to ‘Liberty’ and to the ‘great United Britannic Nation’ of which Birmingham was now decidedly a part. The formal nominations were made – Mr. T. W. Hill nominated Attwood, John Betts seconded the motion. George Muntz – who would also go on to be an MP – nominated Scholefield, seconded by Thomas Clarke. All through the speeches and nominations, great cheers from the crowd were reported.  Thomas Attwood concluded by thanking his fellow townsmen for the friendly and generous confidence they had reposed in him; and he retired from the hustings wishing all manner of liberty and prosperity, and happiness, to them and their children forever. After which, Attwood left immediately for Walsall, to support his son, De Bosco Attwood, who was standing for election there. The scene in Walsall had been altogether less cordial in the run up to the election; the military had been called in and several people were shot and wounded. Although is father had mustered a huge support from followers of the Birmingham Political Union, Attwood jnr. lost out to the Tory candidate, Charles Smith Forster.

Note: there are numerous books on the Great Reform Act, if you want to read more I would recommend Linda Colley’s ‘Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837’. There are fewer generally available books on the Birmingham Political Union, but if you can find it David Moss’s biography of Thomas Attwood has a lot of information and also Carlos Flick’s ‘Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain, 1830-1839’ is quite informative. Local newspapers, including the one this article was taken from, are available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, Local Studies as well as by subscription through the British Newspaper Archive.

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