William Scholefield: Birmingham’s First Mayor

On May 4th, 2017, the people of the West Midlands will have the opportunity to elect a Mayor. This is different to the usual appointment of Lord Mayor, which does not fall to a public vote. Birmingham’s last elected mayor was James Smith, who took office in 1895. The first mayor was William Scholefield, who was granted his position on December 28th, 1838. Scholefield was the son of the Birmingham MP Joshua Scholefield (who also held a Birmingham ‘first’, being one of the town’s first MPs along with Thomas Attwood) and would later become an MP himself.

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William Scholefield (c) New York Public Library

Scholefield’s term of office should have represented a triumph for Birmingham as the town celebrated the institution of its first municipal corporation. But instead he found himself at the centre of controversy at a time of immense social tensions. Some of the difficulties were of Scholefield’s own doing. At the time of the first town council elections he put himself forward as returning officer. That is, he oversaw the counting of votes, a role which was supposed to fall to the High Bailiff of the town. Scholefield had been High Bailiff until October 1838, at which time local button manufacturer James Turner who held that position. When the local Tory party, the Loyal and Constitutional Association, began a legal challenge against the legitimacy of the wholly Radical town council, Scholefield’s dodgy appointment gave real momentum to the anti-corporation campaign.

By the summer of 1839, Birmingham’s first town council had become more generally unpopular within the local community. Chartism was becoming increasingly popular, but the town councillors had allied themselves with another political agitation, the Anti-Corn Law League. This created a really strong line of tension that would erupt into violence in July, 1839. Once again it was Scholefield who found himself at the centre of the controversy.  Groups of Chartists had been gathering in the Bull Ring twice daily and creating something of a disturbance. Shopkeepers complained about the nuisance and Scholefield sought support from the magistrates. A dispersal notice was posted in the Bull Ring on May 10th, but protesters took no notice. Nightly, torchlit parades were held in the streets. The council had been given responsibility for policing and keeping the peace, but they had no money to manage this. Scholefield and a magistrate went to London and requested support from the Home Office. On July 4th 1839 a body of Metropolitan Police arrived in the Bull Ring with instructions to disperse the crowds and arrest any Chartist speakers. What ensued was what can only be described as a mass brawl. The protesters broke the staves of their flags and banners, using them as weapons against the police; railings around the nearby parish church, St. Martin’s, were pulled up for the same purpose. Among the many injuries two of the London Met officers were stabbed and left fighting for their lives. The Riot Act was read and Dragoons from nearby barracks raced in to break up the melee. Over subsequent weeks numerous skirmishes broke out between the London police and locals. On July 15th, following claims of police violence against working men, shops in the Bull Ring were looted and torched in a riot that shocked the whole country. As a result three men and a youth were transported to Australia. They were lucky to have their original death sentence overturned.

Although the first Mayor of Birmingham had a difficult year in office, nevertheless he oversaw the introduction of the town’s own magistracy and law court – previously there had been a total dependency on the county bench in Warwick. Birmingham also got its first coroner, Dr. Birt Davies. Again the previous coroner, though a local man, had been appointed by the magistrates in Warwick. Even with all the difficulties of political differences and the very real possibility that the council might be found to have no legitimate role, Scholefield and the other municipal men made an important step towards independence from the county and showed admirable tenacity in the face of intense opposition.


‘Birmingham Tranquility’: 1776

Birmingham’s last mayor who held the position as a result of being elected to office, was James Smith in 1895. On the appointment of the city’s first Lord Mayor in 1896, in fact (now Sir) James Smith again,  the City Librarian, Charles Scarse oversaw the re-publication of an eighteenth-century trades directory, which was ‘Dedicated to the First Lord Mayor of Birmingham’. The frontispiece of the directory contained a ballad which may have inspired Scarse to choose this particular publication as a suitable dedication. The ballad was by John Freeth, a famous balladeer of the town during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Freeth was also landlord of the Leicester Arms, a public house in Birmingham where men gathered to drink, smoke a pipe and discuss issues of the day. The ballad came to my mind as I picked up the ballot card that had dropped through my letterbox, for the upcoming West Midlands Mayoral election on May 4th (2017), so I thought I’d share it here. It’s also interesting to witness an obvious pride in Birmingham’s industry and an insight into how important work was to the identity of the town. More information on Freeth and his coffee shop at the Leicester Arms can be found at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – head up to the third floor and check out the fabulous History Galleries there if you haven’t already.

Birmingham Tranquility
John Freeth

In England’s fair capital, every year,
A tumult is raised about choosing Lord Mayor;
Each party engages with fury and spleen
And nothing but strife and contention is seen

Ye wrangling old cits, let me beg you’d look down,
And copy from Birmingham’s peaceable town,
Where souls sixty thousand or more you may view,
No justice dwells here, and but constables two

In no place besides that’s so populous grown,
Was ever less noise or disturbances known:
All hands find employment, and when their work’s done,
Are happy as any souls under the sun.

With hammer and file time is carefully beat,
For such is the music of every street;
The anvil’s sharp sound is the artist’s delight,
And stamps, lathes and presses in concert unite.

Let cities and boroughs for contests prepare,
In choosing of sheriffs, recorders or mayor,
With most kinds of titles they’ve nothing to do,
Nor discord in choosing of officers shew.

The envy and hatred elections bring on,
Their hearty intention is always to shun;
No polling, no scratching, no scrutinies rise,-
Who friendship esteem must such measures despise.

To far distant climes doth her commerce extend;
Her channels of traffic admit of no end;
And Birmingham, whilst there is trade in the land,
In brightest invention unrivalled shall stand.

The First Corporation Supper

On February 2nd, 1839, the Birmingham Journal ran an advertisement for a Town Hall dinner event to celebrate the institution of Birmingham’s first municipal corporation.

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Birmingham Journal, February 2nd 1839 © BritishNewspaperArchive

It was an expensive event, clearly not intended for the hoi polloi of the town. On the 21st February the Town Hall was decorated in fitting style. A further report in the Journal, published on the 23rd, revealed that,

Immediately above the mayor’s chair, in the way of a canopy, a large and very handsome crown, festooned with laurel and having a union jack waving over it. Over the vice-president’s chair, there was a splendid silk banner with the Birmingham Arms painted on it, and resting on the rail of the great gallery was the well-known symbol, the bundle of sticks surmounted by a cap of liberty, to indicate that freedom can only be upheld by union; and accompanied by a pair of scales, as emblematic of equal justice to all, the great purpose why liberty ought to be vindicated and maintained.

The symbolism of the decor was very telling, and perhaps slightly hypocritical given that the majority of ‘people’ had been debarred from the event by way of a prohibitive pricing policy. The mayor was clearly intended to be seated in a regal manner. It was William Scholefield who was granted this auspicious honour. His father was one of Birmingham’s first MPs and William would himself hold that seat a few years later. Scholefield, along with many of the other new town councillors, had also been an active member of the Birmingham Political Union, a Radical political group that had played a significant role in the establishment of  the Chartist Movement. The cap of liberty had been a hugely controversial symbol of Radicalism in the early part of the century when it was considered an expression of revolution and could get a man thrown in gaol just for displaying it. Now it held pride of place at Birmingham’s first corporation supper.

The silk banner bearing the Birmingham Arms was doubtless an expression of civic pride. Taken together, it is possible to come to a tentative conclusion that these men, Birmingham’s first municipal men, felt themselves to hold a vital position in ensuring that the town was properly represented. They were exciting times, the 1830s,  with the nation sitting in the cusp of modernity and at the very beginning of what would become recognised as the Victorian era. The railways were coming and life was running at an increasingly fast pace. Over subsequent months the municipal men would be faced with huge challenges and find themselves becoming very unpopular amongst the local community. But for now they made the most of their moment, celebrating the incorporation of the borough with good port, a fine dinner and a toast to what they earnestly believed to be a triumph of Radicalism.

The results are in:Birmingham’s first council election,1838

common seal british library stock

The Birmingham ratepayers elected their first town council on Wednesday, 26th December 1839.  There was a limited electorate because of legislation passed in 1835 which restricted voting to ratepayers of three years standing. Anyone who, for some reason, had not paid their rates during the course of  the previous three years was excluded from taking part in the election. As may be guessed, women were not permitted a vote even if they were long-standing ratepayers.

Shown below are the results of Birmingham’s first council election. The candidates were divided between ‘Radicals’ and ‘Tories’. This might appear odd; when I voted today there was a choice of five candidates from very different political parties. In fact, the choice presented in 1838 as controversial then too. In the run up to the election there were some candidates who were not Tories, but equally did not consider themselves to be Radical. In the list below you’ll see that some candidates are presented as ‘placed upon both lists’.  This was a form of protest. In the end, the Radicals won every seat and on first sight this does appear something of a rout, however the outcome was closer in some districts than others. By my quick calculation, the Radicals took 66% of the total votes.

One interesting name on the list is that of Richard Tapper Cadbury, father of John (who perhaps needs no introduction here).  He was a stalwart of the Street Commissioners, Birmingham’s self-elected administration which held responsibility for managing the town’s infrastructure. In 1851 the council usurped the commissioners, but from the first election until that date there was an uneasy relationship between the two. This is perhaps why Cadbury (and a few other commissioners) made the decision to take part in the election.

The report reveals the returning officer for the elections to be William Scholefield. He was the son of Joshua Scholefield who, along with Thomas Attwood became one of Birmingham’s first MPs. William Scholefield was a known Radical and was elected councillor for St. Peter’s ward, so it might seem a bit off that he was in charge of ensuring fair vote counting. However, at the time of the election, he also held the office of High Bailiff and it was acting in this capacity. He holds the distinction of being Birmingham’s first mayor.

The following is taken from the Birmingham Journal,  December 29th 1838. This newspaper is available to read online, by subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and free of charge (appointment advised) at the Library of Birmingham.

Corporate Elections in Birmingham

Each ward in the town was contested by Tory candidates, every one of whom were defeated. Elections commenced in the different wards precisely at nine o’clock in the morning under the superintendence of deputy returning officers, and the poll was kept open until four o’clock when the boxes were conveyed to the committee room of the Town Hall and their contents examined by W. Scholefield esq., the returning officer, and the following were declared the result of the elections.

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©The British Library Board

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©The British Library Board 


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©The British Library Board

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©The British Library Board


A humble petition

Petition gov.uk

A couple of weeks ago I signed an on-line petition that was calling for a change in a certain government policy. On reaching 100,000 signatures the petition was then presented for debate in Parliament and the response made public. All British citizens can take part in petitioning the government on any subject that they feel strongly about, it is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years and was particularly popular in the early part of the 19th century, the so called ‘Age of Reform’. Petitions from Birmingham during this time included one in 1812 demanding an end to trade embargos  (as a result of Orders in Council) that were having a negative impact on the town’s trade with America and another around the same time calling for the repeal of the East India Company’s charter. Other large manufacturing and port towns, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol, also petitioned and as a result both policies were repealed. Petitioning could be a powerful political tool, especially when combined with outbreaks of popular unrest.

Petitions then were, of course, hand written and signed. On a recent archive trip I was lucky enough to see an example of an original petition.

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1828 Birmingham petition (Donna Taylor)

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1828 Birmingham petition (Donna Taylor)

As you can see it was quite a chunky scroll, but with the exception of a few holes along the paper between the signatures, is in great condition. It was fascinating to see. This particular petition can be dated to 1828, because the first signature is that of ‘Charles Shaw, High Bailiff’. Bailiffs were elected annually and Aris’s Birmingham Gazette published their names around the same date each year, so it was pretty easy to trace.

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1828 Birmingham petition (Donna Taylor)

There’s something rather special about seeing a person’s signature, I always feel it’s as close as I can get to a handshake with the past. Although it was not possible to unroll the whole scroll, it was possible to see that it comprised several petitions attached together. This makes sense, because it was likely that petitions were left in multiple locations to attract plenty of signatures.  In parts it looked as though sheets were glued together, but there was also evidence of stitching:

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1828 Birmingham petition (Donna Taylor)

This is a great resource. But why is it in Birmingham, and not tucked away in a Parliamentary archive? Well, in 1828 there was an attempt in the House of Commons to have the Nottinghamshire constituency of East Retford disfranchised (that is, they would lose their MP) following decades of alleged electoral corruption. There was a suggestion that one of the big industrial towns that did not have an MP could instead be given the East Retford seat; the two towns primarily tipped for the transfer were Manchester and Birmingham – and Birmingham set about gathering signatures requesting that it be given the Parliamentary seat. In the end, East Retford retained its MP for another few decades, while Birmingham and Manchester would have to wait until 1832 to realise their ambition of representation. As a result, the petition was never delivered to the House.

The Birmingham petition can be found at Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, Library of Birmingham – reference MS 3097 (1 of 2) 


If you are interested in current Parliamentary petitions, the official website is here: https://petition.parliament.uk/

A truly Birmingham Meeting: Radical supper at the Town Hall, 1836

On January 30th, 1836, the Birmingham Journal published an enthusiastic report of a dinner held in the Town Hall in the previous week. Although there were many ‘distinguished guests’, the paper declared this had been a ‘truly Birmingham meeting‘ with ‘no false glare thrown about it by any specious show of aristocratical influence or sanction‘. The Hall had been decorated ‘appropriately’ and the galleries were adorned ‘with a galaxy of  beauty and fashion’. It was customary at Town Hall dinner meetings for the ladies to sit in the galleries, while the gentlemen drank and feasted in the main hall below. This ‘respectable assemblage’ of gentlemen included Birmingham MPs Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield, along with the Irish MP and ‘Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell.

Many toasts were drunk during the course of the evening: ‘to the Mayors of the Liberal Corporations’; ‘to the Spirited and Judicious conduct of the Mayor of Leicester’; ‘to Poland, may England and France speedily vindicate the rights of humanity by the restoration of Poland’. (Polish exiles were among the distinguished guests). Speeches were political and Radical. They called for ‘Justice for Ireland’ and  spoke of the great hopes held for the reform of municipal corporations (the 1st Municipal Corporations reform Act having recently been passed).

Musical entertainment was provided by the Town Hall organ, played by Mr. Hollins, whose performance ‘and his performance on that noble instrument delighted the company’. He was accompanied by Mr. Pearsall, ‘in excellent voice’ led the singing of ‘Here’s health to all good lasses’ and ‘Roast beef of Old England’ (see video above). The evening, claimed the report, was ‘magical’.

‘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.


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.


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.

‘All the colours of the rainbow’: a local insight to the 1832 reformed Parliament


In just a few short weeks the theatrics of election campaigning will be replaced, once more, with the theatrics of Parliamentary discourse. We have become familiar with the sometimes questionable behaviour of the House through televised debates. In the nineteenth century, Birmingham’s first returned MPs had something of a shock when they took their seats. At a Town Hall dinner in 1833, the two men, Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield, gave some account of their first year’s experience. These were Birmingham men and Attwood in particular seemed to have, initially at least, felt some sense of awe at having found himself in the presence of the King. Although he couched his description in the language of reform, he was not shy at emphasising the ‘greatness’ of the company he had witnessed – dignitaries of the Church, others great officers who could fight in battles, a vast number skilled in law and many ladies of rank. However, Attwood questioned their ability to understand the difficulties of the ordinary people, adding that they looked down, as if from the altitude of a balloon, and consequently could scarcely see such a man as John Bull and his poor family travelling through all the hardships of trade and commerce. Attwood’s awe was tempered by his values.

Joshua Scholefield’s speech made no bones about his initial perception of the House, he could but not express his disappointment at the sort of company he had met with in the House of Commons. Scholefield said that he had hoped that the reformed Parliament would have comprised a set of men who wished to serve their country but declared that he had soon found them to be made up of the old leaven. Both men had been struck by the dress of the Members – there appears to have been no stuffy grey suits in the 1832 Parliament – they dressed in red and blue, with cocked hats and swords and exhibiting on the whole more the appearance of theatricals than senators collected to decide upon the destinies of a great nation.  I often think the same about our recent Parliaments when they heckle like a lot of school children! Attwood’s revelation that the MPs appeared in all the colours of the rainbow met with much laughter. Scholefield stated that the Members appeared ludicrous, but their conduct was mischievous.

This apparent mischief was of far greater concern to the local Members, particularly the manner in which some of the MPs voted on important issues. Scholefield said that their servility to the ministry was shocking revealing that it was no unusual thing to see them coming into the House at twelve o’clock at night (dressed up as he described) for the sole purpose of voting for the ministers citing one occasion when twenty three of these members came in from a levee, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, just in time to vote in the majority. Scholefield claimed that he was often left ashamed at their conduct, saying that the man who talked of the wants of the country was looked upon as mad; and when distress was said to exist it was flatly denied or inattentively considered. Attwood himself, with his Birmingham accent and tendency to drag his speeches out over the course of hours, would come in for such contempt later in the decade as he called for an extension of voting rights to all working men.

It may be of some regret (or prudence!) that there are no longer any cocked hats and swords in the House. But there are some things that clearly have not changed.

The quotes in this post are taken from the Birmingham Journal, December 14th, 1833. Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge in the Local Studies Centre, fourth floor, Library of Birmingham – note that because of recent government cuts the library is no longer open on a Sunday.  Please support our libraries and archives. 

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 http://bit.ly/1lZ5c5c). 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.

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.  http://bit.ly/1lzsfnv

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)