From rumour to riot

firefightersbrr

Rioters attacking firemen in the Bull Ring

In the wet and stormy summer of 1839, Birmingham was in turmoil. There was a strong Chartist presence in the town, holding meetings in the Bull Ring twice a day promoting the ideal of universal suffrage to large crowds. It was the newly established town council which had the responsibility of policing the tensions, a difficult task given that the Churchwardens had taken up a legal challenge against the legitimacy of the council. They refused to hand over any of the rate money to the council, leaving them hamstrung and unable to properly suppress the growing unrest. In consequence the town’s first mayor, William Scholefield, decided to approach the Home Secretary for support. A body of Metropolitan Police had been dispatched, arriving in Birmingham on July 4th and subsequently being subjected to a severe beating as they attempted to break up a meeting. Two of the London police were stabbed, although they did make a recovery at the General Hospital. In consequence of this a new, bitter antagonism grew between the Brums, the alien police force and the town council who had called them in. Across the course of several days the Metropolitan officers exacted their response, operating a random stop and search policy and confiscating any tools that might be deemed as offensive weapons. In an artisan town where men relied on their tools to earn a living this act only added to the pervasive tensions. The riot act was put in place, but few observed the magistrates’ ban on assembling in public places. On July 15th a notorious riot took place in the Bull Ring, a number of shops were razed, firemen were attacked and some local families were forced to clamber down from upstairs windows as Birmingham burned. The episode caused a good deal of national scandal, the young Queen Victoria summoned a meeting with Prime Minister Melbourne and  wrote of her concerns  in her diary.

The case against the arrested rioters reached the Warwick Assizes in September, during which three men were found guilty of the capital offence of pulling down property. The following is the witness statement of Edward Savage, a shoe maker of Bow Street (near Horsefair). This is a useful statement as, if accurate, really reveals just how the riot of July 15th began. The Lovett and Collins mentioned in the transcript were William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and John Collins, a journeyman pen maker from Birmingham who was a leading Chartist. The two had been arrested and imprisoned in Warwick gaol for penning and publicly posting an objection to the behaviour of the London police. The news of their bail on the 15th had clearly reached Birmingham.

Edward Savage, a shoe-maker, Bow Street:- I left work about seven o’clock on the night of the 15th of July, and went with a few neighbours to the meeting at Holloway-head. There were some hundreds there. We came from Holloway-head down Exeter Row, where Wilkes directed the mob to go down Smallbrook Street, down Digbeth to the Warwick Road to meet Lovett and Collins. I and my companions saw two policemen endeavour to take a man into custody. We afterwards followed the crowd to Camp-hill, and the man, who was not taken, told the people there assembled how he had been treated by the police. When the man told the mob what had happened, some of them said they would go and ‘hammer’ the police. Two hundred, I should think, went back towards the Bull Ring.

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