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.

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.