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
1776

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.