Middle England's revolution: How the provinces rebelled when a Westminster elite blocked reform of Parliament


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On 7 May [1832], the Opposition carried the day. Despite a further fine speech from [prime minister Earl] Grey, the Government was defeated. The defeat was not a puny one: the majority was 45. This meant that the entire effort of the Government up till now, since the presentation of the First Reform Bill in March 1831, was in effect put on hold.

That is to say, the elected Government of a country shouting for Reform – literally so in the case of many demonstrators – was unable to bring it about due to the action of an unelected Chamber. The placards in the streets of London which anticipated this vital debate were proved right: "Seventh of May, Crisis Day".

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To add to the woes of the Government, there was an element of disagreeable surprise in what had happened… As Sir Denis Le Marchant wrote in his Diary: "We went down to the Lords on Monday wholly unconscious of our fate." He had dined with Lord Brougham, and together they agreed that things were going well. Lord Howick, Grey's eldest son and an MP, reported afterwards that his father too had not expected "a serious collision" that night… As a result "the majority was startling," wrote Le Marchant. "We had not counted on such hostility from Waverers or Bishops."

On this very same day, before the news of the defeat of the reformers' cherished hopes could reach Birmingham, the biggest public meeting yet known took place at that celebrated point of protest, Newhall Hill. The London placards featuring the Seventh of May could equally be applied to the provinces. The inspiration for the meeting was that of the Birmingham Political Union. On the previous Friday the National Political Union had had its own gathering in London, threatening the House of Lords with the non-payment of taxes, leading to the extinction of "the privileged classes" if the Bill was not passed in its entirety.

The Birmingham meeting was held under [the reformers' leader Thomas] Attwood's presidency and representatives of 30 other unions from the Midlands were invited to take part. From late April onwards, Joseph Parkes collected money and visited local towns to urge participation – money for the movement was an increasing preoccupation of his, as funds ran low. Francis Place also toiled, as he told Parkes on 28 April: "Dear Joe, I am 'working like a devil in a mud wall' in all directions and in all ways for you…"

Throughout the preceding weekend, people flocked to the city. Harriet Martineau evoked the scene in her history of the period, published at the end of the next decade: "From forge and furnace, from mine and factory, from loom and plough, from the cities of Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, they marched with banners."

The Times estimated that there were a quarter of a million people at Newhall Hill by noon, with the numbers increasing thereafter. Of course these figures were contested – there was nothing new in that. A week later a clergyman wrote to the Duke of Wellington, telling him that he had been assured by a member of the military that the numbers had never exceeded 30,000. Attwood himself, when asking Brougham to present a petition to the House of Lords on behalf of the meeting, referred to 200,000 people in the course of the day – which was possibly the more accurate estimate.

£5 and £10 notes were handed about as subscriptions poured in; some of them were from members of the upper classes hoping to avoid molestation. The bonnets, shawls and dresses of female figures, as well as an elegant lady in a riding habit on a horse, can be seen in [the artist] Benjamin Haydon's preliminary depiction of the event. This, with the intention of securing a wide subscription for copies, was done by Haydon very soon afterwards, using the descriptions of actual participants to achieve verisimilitude.

The Bromsgrove Union arrived late. As they approached in force, the verses of the Hymn of the Union, so familiar to children in the streets, swung out over the waiting crowds:

"Over mountain, over plain
Echoing wide from sea to sea,
Peals, and shall not peal in vain
The trumpet call of liberty!
Britain's guardian spirit cries –
Britons, awake! Arise, arise."

The penultimate verse made allusion to previous heroes of liberty such as the chiefs of glorious Runnymede (who were in fact barons – but 600 years later, what of it?) and John Hampden. The last verse, with reference to these heroes, was momentous – if it were to prove true:

"But not to war or blood they call,
They bid us lift not sword or gun,
Peaceful but firm, join one and all
To claim your rights, and they are won.
The British Lion's voice alone
Shall gain for Britain all her own!"

The answering song was equally emphatic:

"We kindle not war's fatal fires,
By union, justice, reason, law
We claim the birthright of our sires."

Then Thomas Clutton stepped forward and, taking off his hat, invited all those present to join him in a vow: "with unbroken faith, through every peril and privation, we here devote ourselves and our children to our country's cause." Many people wept.

Fortunately for the guardians of public order, the military were not unprepared. There was to be no repetition of [the fatal riots in] Bristol and Colonel Brereton's solicitude for the locals, considered unbecoming in a military man, and ending in personal tragedy. The order went out to "roughsharpen" the soldiers' swords. The purpose of this was to make the swords inflict a "ragged" – that is, more lethal – wound. The swords of the Greys had not been submitted to this process since before Waterloo; now the old soldiers told the young ones anecdotes about it as the latter silently worked on their swords. Alexander Somerville, then serving in the Greys, described how they were "daily and nightly booted and saddled" with enough cartridges in their possession for three days.

In fact there was nothing aggressive about this huge assembly, according to the deepest conviction of Thomas Attwood that it was peaceful protest not violence which would lead to progress. As The Times put it in a somewhat breathless early report once the news of this vast demonstration had begun to filter in: "The utmost harmony prevailed." Later, having received fuller reports, the newspaper saw no reason to revise this judgement; the most magnificent meeting for its numbers and strength "that was ever seen in England or the world" was also the most impressive for its "order, discipline and resolution".

Otherwise the atmosphere was one of almost rural enjoyment, with the whole occasion treated as a gala outing… Attwood's speech was an inspiring one even by his high standards of demagogic oratory. "We have had but to stamp upon the earth…", he said, "and constantly from above the ground and from beneath the ground one hundred thousand brave men, besides the thousands of beautiful women I see before me, determined to see their country righted, present themselves at our call". He continued by confronting the dilemma of popular demonstration: "If we hold no meetings, they say we are indifferent – if we hold small meetings, they say we are insignificant – if we hold large meetings they say we wish to intimidate them." And Attwood made his own position completely clear: "I would rather die than see the great Bill of Reform rejected or mutilated in any of its great parts or provisions."

As for the King, Attwood continued to lavish the praise upon him which had always been his custom, using what he considered to be appropriate naval terms. William IV, he said, "has stood on the quarter deck with the waves of the political storm heaving around him; he has stood firm at the helm of the vessel of State; he has boarded the enemy when the occasion demanded". Would he now throw himself from the topgallant mast of the vessel into the depths of the raging ocean? "Oh no! my countrymen," declared Attwood staunchly – with a confidence that those in London were no longer feeling quite so strongly. But perhaps his last declaration was the most important of all from the point of view of the political watchers. Attwood predicted a "violent Revolution" if the Bill was not passed.

Four weeks later, on 4 June 1832, the Bill was passed. © Antonia Fraser, 2013. Extracted from 'Perilous Question: the drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832' by Antonia Fraser. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback (£20) and ebook (£9.99)