Illustration: The Birmingham Rioters Attacking the Firemen
These disgraceful riots, involving the destruction of property to a very great extent, occurred on the evening of Monday the 13th of July 1839, and were the result of a long course of agitation created by the exertions of a body of men called Chartists, to obtain the adoption by Parliament of certain popular reforms of the constitution of the country, by which they conceived that the poorer classes of Englishmen might procure for themselves a better system of representation, and, therefore, a larger share of the government of the country than they had hitherto possessed. Throughout the history of every civilized state it is to be observed, that there are always parties whose desires of reform or alteration of the existing law more than keep pace with the changes which the legislature deems it fit to make. The violence of the views entertained by these persons, usually tends to render the immediate, or even the ultimate granting of their wishes, incompatible with the maintenance of those rules by which society is governed, so that whatever may be the eventual estimation in which, in the process of time, or by reason of the occurrence of events, their views may be held, a necessity exists for their being presently discouraged and checked. Of a class such as we have alluded to, are the Chartists. Denominated from the charter, upon the procurement of which they base their faith, their principles will be best comprehended by a recital of the articles of their creed; and as these have been described by themselves in a petition which they have presented to parliament, we shall have recourse to their own statement of their views, in preference to repeating in general terms that which is, in the ordinary acceptation, the groundwork upon which they proceed.
The petition to which we refer was presented by Mr. Attwood to the House of Commons on the evening of Friday the 14th of June, and was the result of numerous meetings held in Birmingham and elsewhere, at which the principles of the charter were advocated. It was denominated the "National Petition," and bore the signatures of a vast number of individuals appended to it; and it was so bulky in its form as to require to be conveyed into the house upon a platform constructed for the purpose.
It was in the following terms: --
"Unto the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled, the petition of the undersigned, their suffering countrymen,
"Humbly sheweth,-- That we, your petitioners, dwell in a land whose merchants are noted for enterprise, whose manufacturers are very skilful, and whose workmen are proverbial for their industry. The land itself is goodly, the soil rich, and the temperature wholesome; it is abundantly furnished with the materials of commerce and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility of internal communication it exceeds all others.
"For three-and-twenty years we have enjoyed a profound peace. Yet, with all these elements of national prosperity, and with every disposition and capacity to take advantage of them, we find ourselves overwhelmed with public and private suffering.
"We are bowed down under a load of taxes which, notwithstanding, fall greatly short of the wants of our rulers; our traders are trembling on the verge of bankruptcy; our workmen are starving; capital brings no profit, and labour no remuneration; the home of the artificer is desolate, and the warehouse of the pawnbroker is full; the workhouse is crowded, and the manufactory is deserted. We have looked on every side, we have searched diligently, in order to find the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued. We can discover none in nature or in Providence.
"Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect. The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement. The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few; while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon.
"It was the fond expectation of the people that a remedy for the greater part, if not for the whole, of their grievances would be found in the Reform Act of 1832. They were taught to regard that Act as a wise means to a worthy end; as the machinery of an improved legislation, where the will of the masses would be at length potential. They have been bitterly and basely deceived. The fruit which looked so fair to the eye has turned to dust and ashes when gathered. The Reform Act has effected a transfer of power from one domineering faction to another, and left the people as helpless as before. Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship to liberty, which has aggravated the painful feeling of our social degradation, by adding to it the sickening of still deferred hope.
"We come before your honourable house to tell you, with all humility, that this state of things must not be permitted to continue; that it cannot long continue without very seriously endangering the stability of the throne and the peace of the kingdom; and that if, by God's help and all lawful and constitutional appliances, an end can be put to it, we are fully resolved that it shall speedily come to an end.
"We tell your honourable House, that the capital of the master must no longer be deprived of its due profit; that the labour of the workman must no longer be deprived of its due reward; that the laws which make food dear, and those which, by making money scarce, make labour cheap, must be abolished; that taxation must be made to fall on property, not on industry; that the good of the many, as it is the only legitimate end, so must it be the sole study of the Government.
"As a preliminary essential to these and other requisite changes, as means by which alone the interests of the people can be effectually vindicated and secured, we demand that those interests be confided to the keeping of the people.
When the state calls for defenders, when it calls for money, no consideration of poverty or ignorance can be pleaded in refusal or delay of the call.
"Required as we are, universally, to support and to obey the laws, nature and reason entitle us to demand, that in making the laws, the universal voice shall be implicitly listened to.
"We perform the duties of freemen; we must have the privileges of freedom.
"We demand Universal Suffrage.
"The suffrage, to be exempt from the corruption of the wealthy and the violence of the powerful, must be secret.
"The assertion of our right necessarily involves the power of its uncontrolled exercise.
"We ask for the reality of a good, not for its semblance.
"We demand the Ballot.
"The connexion between the representatives and the people, to be beneficial, must be intimate. The legislative and constituent powers for correction and for instruction ought to be brought into frequent contact. Errors, which are comparatively light when susceptible of a speedy popular remedy, may produce the most disastrous effects when permitted to grow inveterate through years of compulsory endurance. To public safety, as well as public confidence, frequent elections are essential.
We demand Annual Parliaments.
With power to choose, and freedom in choosing, the range of our choice must be unrestricted. We are compelled, by the existing laws, to take for our representatives, men who are incapable of appreciating our difficulties, or who have little sympathy with them; merchants who have retired from trade, and no longer feel its harassings; proprietors of land, who are alike ignorant of its evils and their cure; lawyers, by whom the honours of the senate are sought after only as a means of obtaining notice in the courts. The labours of a representative, who is sedulous in the discharge of his duty, are numerous and burdensome. It is neither just, nor reasonable, nor safe, that they should continue to be gratuitously rendered.
We demand that, in the future election of members of your honourable house, the approbation of the constituency shall be the sole qualification; and that, to every representative so chosen, shall be assigned out of the public taxes a fair and adequate remuneration for the time which he is called upon to devote to the public service.
"Finally, we would most earnestly impress on your honourable house, that this petition has not been dictated by any idle love of change; that it springs out of no inconsiderate attachment to fanciful theories; but that it is the result of much and long deliberation, and of convictions, which the events of each succeeding year tend more and more to strengthen. The management of this mighty kingdom has hitherto been a subject for contending factions to try their selfish experiments upon. We have felt the consequences in our sorrowful experience -- short glimmerings of uncertain enjoyment swallowed up by long and dark seasons of suffering. If the self-government of the people should not remove their distresses, it will at least remove their repinings.
"Universal suffrage will, and it alone can, bring true and lasting peace to the nation; we firmly believe that it will also bring prosperity.
"May it, therefore, please your honourable house to take this our petition into your most serious consideration, and to use your utmost endeavours, by all constitutional means, to have a law passed, granting to every male, of lawful age, sane mind, and unconvicted of crime, the right of voting for members of parliament; and directing all future elections of members of parliament to be in the way of secret ballot; and ordaining the duration of parliaments so chosen shall in no case exceed one year; and abolishing all property qualifications in the members; and providing for their due remuneration while in attendance on their parliamentary duties.
"And your petitioners," &c.
During a considerable period antecedent to the preparation and presentation of this petition, the agitation which prevailed at Birmingham and throughout the neighbouring manufacturing districts was of a highly dangerous and mischievous character. Excited by the inflammatory harangues of their leaders, the people had not been averse to follow the advice which was given them, and to provide arms, ready to meet and repel any attack which might be made upon them, or to secure and maintain those privileges to which they deemed themselves to be entitled. Of the Chartists there were two classes; one, the more violent, whose hopes or designs were based upon "physical force," in preference to the quiet consideration and discussion of the question at issue; the other, who viewed "moral force "as presenting the more favourable means of procuring a determination of the existing evils. Pikes and other arms, as may be supposed, were the weapons of the former, while arguments of a more peaceable character, aided by the employment of such means as abstinence from labour, and the maintaining of a period "sacred" to the Charter, were the measures by which the latter sought to obtain their end.
The cause of violence had been too strenuously urged upon the minds of the people of Birmingham, to permit of their viewing with much satisfaction any arguments of a very peaceable character. The general violence of their tone produced apprehensions among the authorities that mischief might be anticipated; and unhappily their fears were realised in a manner as dangerous as it was destructive.
The undisguised and inflammatory language used by many of the Chartist leaders, rendered it necessary that the magistrates should take steps to prevent the increase of the popular irritation, by removing from the power of doing mischief some of those who were its chief exciters. A body of persons had assembled in London, who were styled "The Convention," and who were delegates from various parts of the country, charged to exert themselves to procure the adoption of their favourite Charter by the legislature; and when the sittings of this mock parliament -- for it assumed the character and method of business of the House of Commons -- ceased, its members dispersed themselves through the country, haranguing their "constituents" upon the subject of their labours, and engaging them to new exertions to secure the object which they all had in view.
Some arrests were made of persons, the violence of whose language had marked them as objects of public notice, and this served for a time to check the violence of the proceedings of the supporters of the principles of the Charter; but during the ensuing month it appeared as if the flame of sedition was smouldering only to burst forth with renewed vigour. In July new excitement was created. Meetings were frequently held, both at the Bull-ring and at Holloway-head, by the Chartists; and on the 4th of that month, a serious disturbance occurred at the former place.
For the better security of the town, a body of about ninety of the metropolitan police force had been despatched to Birmingham, under the orders of Superintendant May. On the day in question an unusually large meeting was held at the spot pointed out, when banners and flags, bearing mottoes and other insignia, were displayed. Speeches were made, in which the most inflammatory language was employed; but, in the midst of the meeting, the London police, who had marched direct from the railway-train to the Bull-ring, presented themselves, and required the dispersion of the crowd. The order was peremptorily given, but no effort was made to obey it, and force was resorted to, to clear the spot of its present occupants. The mob resisted with success, for although the police were a well organised body, and most determined in their efforts, the number of Chartists to whom they were opposed, and their evident preparation to meet any attack which might be made, led to their temporary defeat. For about ten minutes the conflict was dreadful, and individuals on both sides sustained severe and dangerous injuries. The police were driven back into Moor-street, and, for a time, an attack on the prison by the mob was apprehended. Fortunately, however, the 4th Royal Irish Dragoons, commanded by Colonel Chatterton, and accompanied by Mr. Scholefield, the mayor, arrived in time to afford assistance to the civil authorities, and to prevent the riot proceeding to any more dangerous lengths. The dragoons were soon aided by the Rifle Brigade, and their formidable appearance quickly inspired alarm where confidence the moment before had been displayed. The mob quickly took to flight, but to proceed only to Holloway-head, where a new meeting was held. Here Dr. Taylor and others addressed them, exhorting them to abstain from violence; but, in spite of the exertions of these persons, they committed some acts of serious mischief. During this riot no fewer than seventeen persons were taken into custody, and many of these were proved to have been implicated in the disgraceful proceedings of the evening.
The events of this day were not calculated to produce tranquillity, and during the remainder of the week Birmingham was in a state of high excitement. On the following Monday a crowd again assembled in the Bull-ring, rather from curiosity, however, than any other cause; but upon the police attempting to disperse them, they obstinately and pertinaciously refused to retire. The resistance to authority appeared to be mainly attributable to their dislike for the police, and the members of that body adopted a course of violence in order to procure obedience to their directions, that the mob should move on, not likely to increase their popularity. Blows were resorted to, and, in some instances, considerable injuries were inflicted upon individuals, and threats of violence in return were not unfrequently heard; but, by dint of perseverance, the officers succeeded in the course of the evening in pushing their way as far as John-street on one hand, and Holloway-head on the other, and thus procuring the observance of peace; but in the course of their exertions much violence, though perhaps it was not unnecessary, appeared to be done to the feelings as well as the persons of the people.
On Tuesday the town resumed its wonted appearance, and but for the presence of the London police, and the business-like manner of the magistrates, who were observed to be actively engaged in the execution of their duty, there would have been observed but slight evidence of the late commotions; and the peace of the town being on Wednesday and Thursday (as it was supposed) firmly re-established, fifty of the police on the latter day returned to London.
On Thursday evening an address was posted on the walls of the town from Mr. T. Attwood, M.P., which enjoined the maintenance of "Peace, law, and order," and in which the honourable gentleman announced, among other things, that he had fixed Friday the 12th of July instant, for bringing the national petition under the notice of Parliament.
To the consideration of this question all eyes seemed now to be turned; but on the appointed night, the motion of Mr. Attwood that the petition should be considered by a committee of the whole house was negatived, by a majority of two hundred and thirty-five to forty-six.
The following Monday witnessed the renewal of the excitement at Birmingham, and the enactment of the most disgraceful scenes of riot and plunder in that town. In the morning a meeting was held at Holloway-head, but it proved a failure; and a second meeting was called for the evening. This was most numerously attended, but at its breaking up, a very large number of persons proceeded to the Bull-ring, while others branched off on the road towards Warwick, by which it was expected that Messrs. Lovett and Collins, who had been sent to Warwick jail, in default of bail, on a charge of publishing a seditious libel, on the 6th of July, in the shape of resolutions condemnatory of the conduct of the police on the 4th of that month, and who were expected to be set at liberty on that night, would arrive at Birmingham. Between seven and eight o'clock the mob in the Bull-ring increased very considerably, and the police, limited in number as they were, received orders to procure its dispersion. Having met with some resistance, they were compelled to resort to violence, and they wounded three men somewhat severely; but now in order to avoid all further cause for irritation, they were recalled into the yard of the police-office, out of the sight of the mob, in the hope that the people would ere long separate. This most desirable effect, however, was not produced, but the crowd soon exhibited symptoms of tumult, and commenced breaking the windows of the police-office, and throwing stones into the yard where the police were drawn up.
At half-past eight the riot may be said to have actually commenced. The mob at that hour began an attack upon all the lamps in High-street, and Spiceall-street, and this was immediately followed by a furious assault upon the windows of the houses there, and then upon the houses themselves. An entrance was attempted to be forced into many of them; but the infuriated crowd finding the weapons which they possessed (clubs and sticks) insufficient to enable them to effect this object, turned to procure others of a more formidable character. These were speedily afforded by the palisades surrounding the Nelson Monument, in the midst of the Bullring, which were speedily wrenched from their mortices, and thus armed they proceeded to the work of destruction. In an incredibly short space of time they had forced their way into the house of Messrs. Bourne, tea-dealers, whose premises were situated at the corner of the Bull-ring, and Moor-street, and extended to a frontage of twenty feet in the former, and sixty feet in the latter. The shutters and doors having yielded to their attack, they were immediately torn down,-- the warehouses were entered , and pillaged, and their contents thrown into the street. At five minutes past nine, so rapidly did they complete their dreadful designs, they turned to the premises of Mr. Leggett, an upholsterer, which in like manner they sacked, carrying from it, among other things, large rolls of bed-ticking, which was speedily spread, like a carpet, over the whole area of the space on which they were assembled. At a quarter-past nine, a shout was raised that they should extinguish the lamps, and speedily the mob ascended every lamp-post, and turned off the gas, and darkness added her powers to increase the horrors of the night.
At this period the inhabitants of the vicinity were engaged in removing their families, and such of their property as they could conveniently carry; for the fury of the mob would evidently call for still further mischief, before it was satiated. The houses of Mr. Murcott, a cheesemonger; Mr. Dakin, a tea-dealer; Mr. Horton, a silversmith; and Mr. Parkes, a tobacconist, were in succession assailed, and the windows of the shop of the last-named individual were actually battered in with silver candlesticks, removed from the shelves of Mr. Horton. The bed-ticking which had been spread over the Bull-ring, was now collected in a heap, and, as if to afford light to the diabolical marauders, was set on fire.
Simultaneously with these proceedings another party of rioters had been engaged in like acts of determined violence. By these the houses of Mr. Allen, a biscuit-baker, Mr. Perkins, brush-maker, who was the head-borough of Birmingham; Mr. Arnold, pork-butcher; Mr. Pounteney, grocer; Mr. Heath, cheesemonger; Mr. Walton, butcher; Mr. Fincher, leather-seller; Mr. Bliss, (the Spread Eagle,) a person who had never rendered himself obnoxious; Mrs. Marty a cutler; Mr. Banks, druggist; and Mr. Gooden, (the Nelson Inn,) were successively attacked, and more or less injured and pillaged. The mob were about to visit the house of Mr. Wainwright, liquor-merchant, with the same species of violence, when, however, their respect for his articles of traffic seemed to overcome their determination, and a cry of "No! no!" was instantly raised, and obeyed.
The shout of "Fire!" was now heard, and scarcely had the idea been expressed when numbers of the rioters were seen carrying heaps of the burning materials from the streets into the houses of Messrs. Leggett and Bourne. Within a quarter of an hour the flames burst forth with awful violence amidst the hellish yells of the rabble. The police nor the soldiery had appeared, and the astonishment of the peaceful witnesses to these dreadful scenes at the apparent supineness of the magistracy, maybe easily appreciated. The alarm of fire was speedily conveyed through the town, and an engine now drove into the Bull-ring, but the threats of violence of the crowd compelled the firemen to lash their horses and escape from the dreadful scene of confusion into which they had intruded themselves. New efforts were then made by the mob to carry the fire to other houses, but by good fortune they were unavailing, and before they could secure their object the whole body of metropolitan police in the town, under the orders of Mr. Superintendant May, rushed upon them armed with sabres. This was at a quarter before ten, and thus for nearly an hour and a half had the town been left to the unchecked violence of a furious mob. The abject fear with which they instantly fled upon the appearance now of resistance to their further mischievous designs, showed the ease with which their previous proceedings might have been stayed. They were pursued by the police only to a short distance, and then this body returned to the late scene of action, in order to procure the extinguishment of the flames which were still reigning with unabated violence in the houses which had been the objects of the fury of the mob. The appearance of bodies of dragoons marching towards the Bull-ring through Moor-street and High-street served to complete the rout; and the immediate advance of three hundred of the Rifle Brigade, at once dispelled all apprehension of future danger.
While a portion of the troops remained in the Bull-ring to aid the firemen who had now again arrived with several engines, in preventing the further spread of the conflagration, the rest proceeded to scour the neighbouring streets, and to clear them of the crowds of people by which they were still occupied. This they did in excellent style, and by a few minutes after ten o'clock there were few of the people to be seen in the vicinity of the Bullring. The flames at this time were bursting from every part of the burning houses, presenting a spectacle of awful grandeur. At about eleven o'clock the roof of Mr. Bourne's house fell in, and by midnight that of Messrs. Leggett had shared the same fate. The engines continued playing upon the ruins until a late hour, so as to avoid the possibility of a renewal of the danger.
During the night the police made many prisoners who were charged with having been parties to the riot.
Throughout the whole of Tuesday the Bull-ring presented an appearance of desolation which was much increased by the stillness which prevailed. The whole town was pervaded by a similar gloom; and few shops, except those in the outskirts, were open. As night approached, the streets began to exhibit their usual feverish aspect; and, according to an announcement which had been made, between seven and eight o'clock a meeting was held at Holloway-head, which was attended by considerable numbers. Loud complaints were to be heard escaping from many of the persons present as to the treatment which they had experienced on the previous night from the police, and threats of vengeance were held out. Others pointed out the means of revenge by suggesting the seizure of the cannon in the barrack-yard; but at about eight o'clock the whole party was suddenly put to flight by the appearance of a troop of dragoons and yeomanry advancing towards the spot where the meeting was held. At first a few hisses and groans escaped them, but presently the advance of the soldiers induced them to give way, and then they were finally entirely put to rout by the riflemen, who scoured all the neighbouring streets, many of the more refractory of the malcontents receiving some slight wounds in the violence of their opposition to the authority of the law. The soldiers soon afterwards returned to the town, and charge of the streets was then given up to the special constables, who had been sworn in in great numbers during the day, and the police. Parties of the military, however, were posted at Holloway-head and the Bull-ring, at each of which places a cannon was placed with a view to awe the people, and to show the determination of the authorities that any new act of aggression should be received with becoming firmness. . On Wednesday, the town seemed to be again restored to quietude, but the military and constabulary were still on the alert.
During the week many persons were committed to Warwick jail to stand their trial for having been parties to the riots, and for having committed depredations in the houses which they had ransacked: but we shall hereafter refer to the particular cases of these individuals.
With regard to the precise and immediate cause of these distressing riots, many suggestions were thrown out, without, however, doing more than showing them to have arisen from a general and undefinable feeling of discontent, increased perhaps by the supposed harshness of the conduct of the police-force. The correspondent of a morning newspaper, who appears to have made assiduous inquiries upon the spot upon the subject, thus sensibly describes the result of the information which he was able to obtain. He says,-- "The more opportunities that I have of conversation with different parties, and different classes of persons in this town, the more thoroughly am I convinced that the social condition of the people is disorganised, and that the worst feelings, consistent with the stability and safety of property, prevail. There is a bitter and almost universal feeling of hatred amongst the operative classes against employers, or those who are apparently raised above the pressing wants and necessities of life. This is the feeling which has been conveyed to me, not only by bankers and the richest merchants with whom I have conversed, but it is confirmed to the letter even by employers whose means are so humble that they toil as hard as the very workmen to whom they pay wages. One of the latter class of employers said to me, that what the operatives want is, 'to make every one as poor as themselves,' to drag all down to their own level, in order that all may feel how great are the evils of poverty. The general spread of such a feeling was ascribed by this person to the speeches of the Chartist leaders, to the doctrines of political economy (if they can be called so) which they now preach, and to the incitements which they have held out for the working classes to arm themselves. In this respect it is plain that great pains have been taken to accustom the minds of the populace to consider the best means of fighting with the regular soldiers, and the most suitable means of destroying them.
"Having stated what is the description given to me of the feeling and condition of the operatives, I next endeavoured to ascertain what were the notions of the operatives themselves; and I may say that to my questions, I received but one answer, namely -- that it was a shame to bring the London police amongst them; that the police had acted very badly; that they attacked them without telling them to disperse; that many innocent men, some bringing home their work to their employers, were struck down by the police; and that in short the town would never be quiet again until the London police were sent away."
With reference to the number of persons engaged in the riot, the same writer declared his impression, that no more than two hundred individuals were actually employed in those scenes of disorder which we have described. Hundreds looked on without attempting to check the progress of the events which they were witnessing, exhibiting perhaps feelings of satisfaction rather than regret, at seeing, as they supposed, the wealthy shopkeepers reduced to the level of poverty of themselves; but the persons who were actively engaged did not exceed the number mentioned. The checking of the riot, according to the same authority, would have been of easy accomplishment, for the greater proportion of the mischief was commenced by parties of two and three, who were not joined by any others until it was perceived that the attack was successful. Had the inhabitants joined to repel these assaults upon their property, much of the mischief might have been prevented, and still more so if the military and police forces had been brought into operation at the commencement of the proceedings.
The conduct of the magistrates almost immediately became the object of attack and animadversion; and memorials were presented to the government that it might be made the subject of investigation. Mr. Dundas, a barrister, was subsequently appointed to undertake the task of inquiring into the grounds of complaint made, and we subjoin extracts of the report which he presented upon the subject to the Marquis of Normanby, Secretary of State for the Home Department. Having stated the nature of the memorial presented to the government, in which it was alleged, that "on the evening of the 15th of July, from half-past eight to a quarter before ten o'clock, the mayor and magistrates failed in their duty, by leaving the property and lives of the citizens unprotected to the violence of an organised mob, although full and authenticated information had been early given to the mayor and magistrates of the borough of the intentions and plans of the rioters," he proceeded to detail the mode in which he had carried on the investigation, and then he said, --
"I have now the honour to transmit to your lordship the short-hand writer's notes of the evidence, together with my opinion on the points submitted to me.
"It appeared on the inquiry, that for several weeks before the day in question, that is to say, before Monday, the 15th of July last, Chartist meetings, at times consisting of many hundred persons, were frequently held in Birmingham and the immediate neighbourhood. These meetings, although calculated to alarm the peaceable inhabitants of the place, for the most part passed off quietly; but some of them, and especially a meeting held on the 4th of July, it was necessary to put down by the military in aid of the civil power. To preserve the peace thus disturbed, the Birmingham police was altogether inadequate, a few constables and street-keepers being the whole force of the borough; but between the 10th of May and the day in question, upwards of two thousand special constables were sworn in, ward and section leaders appointed, and instructions furnished them from the public-office for organising and effectually employing the men in time of need. For additional security, two detachments of the metropolitan police were sent from London on the 4th and 5th of July; and though forty had returned in a few days after, the rest (about fifty) remained at Birmingham, and on the day in question were stationed at the public-office under Mr. May, an active superintendant of the force.
"The usual course of the public-office was for some of the magistrates to give daily attendance there from about eleven in the forenoon to three or four in the afternoon, for the despatch of business; but it appeared that for some time before the day in question not only were they there in the day-time, but that some of them staid to a late hour at night.
"The officer in command at the barracks (three-quarters of a mile off) used to call twice a day at the office, to communicate with the mayor on the state of the peace of the town; nor should it be omitted, that an excellent understanding was kept up between the civil and military authorities, and that on every occasion when the soldiers had been called upon to act in aid of the civil power, the assistance required was both promptly and efficiently given.
"Some of the magistrates resided in the town; Dr. Booth's house, for instance, was about six minutes' walk from the public-office; the mayor and some others lived in the suburbs; while the houses of a few were still further off; George Redford, the prison-keeper, lived at the public-office -- a well-known, confidential, and intelligent man of business.
"Such was, in general, the state of things at Birmingham, when, in the forenoon of the day in question, a bellman was heard in several of the streets, crying a Chartist meeting to be held that day at Holloway-head at one, or, as it was differently reported, at half-past twelve and half-past six o'clock. Holloway-head and the Bull-ring, about a mile from each other, were the usual places of holding such meetings.
"It appeared, also, that at eleven o'clock of the forenoon the following letter was sent to Captain Moorsom, a special constable of the borough, who had acted as the medium of communication between the ward leaders and the magistrates, viz. --
"Public-office, Monday July 15, 1839, 11 a.m.
"Dear Sir,-- The magistrates here assembled are desirous, with your permission, to avail themselves of the advantage of your aid and means in watching and ascertaining the character and proceedings of the meeting, should one take place, at Holloway-head. Some magistrates will be in attendance at this office, and quite prepared to act according to circumstances, and to the nature of the information you may transmit to them. This is a precautionary measure which the magistrates feel it incumbent upon them to adopt, although they venture to anticipate a peaceful issue. They would not have felt themselves warranted in taking this liberty, but from the encouragement they have derived from your uniformly courteous, able, and kind co-operation with them during the existing troubles.
"I remain, dear Sir, yours faithfully,
"Captain Moorsom, R.N.
"J. K. Booth.
"On receiving the letter at noon, Captain Moorsom arranged with the Edgbaston ward leader that proper men should be appointed to convey information to the public-office as to the character of the meeting, while he himself watched its proceedings; but nothing occurred to cause any apprehension. By two o'clock about three hundred persons had assembled at Holloway-head; in an hour or so afterwards the numbers had diminished, and seemed to Captain Moorsom to be quite insignificant.
"About this time Colonel Chatterton, of the dragoons, called as usual at the public-office, and was told by the mayor that there was no occasion to keep the soldiers at the barracks in readiness, since, from all he heard, the town was quiet. Hence it appeared that the mayor set no value on the information of Mr. Coburn, who had told him in an earlier part of the day that from what had been said in his hearing the day before, at a meeting at Holloway-head, disturbance was to be expected at night.
"At five o'clock the mayor left the public-office to go home to his own house, about a mile-and-a-half off, the other magistrates having left before him; and before going away he gave express directions to George Redfern, the prison-keeper, that if magistrates were wanted he was to send or go for him or Dr. Booth.
"It further appeared that later in the evening, about seven o'clock, a great number of persons (probably about one thousand) was assembled at Holloway-head, and these, instead of dispersing when they left the ground, proceeded in a body towards the Warwick-road, to meet (as was supposed) two Chartists who had been bailed out of prison that day, and were expected to return to Birmingham that night. From some cause or other, never satisfactorily accounted for, a mob of men and boys came back from the Warwick-road, and suddenly arrived by hundreds in the Bull-ring, about half-past eight o'clock; there they violently set fire to several valuable premises, burned and destroyed a great deal of furniture and other property, broke many of the windows of the public-office (a little way off), and having done the work of destruction uninterruptedly for not less than an hour, at last they gave way and retired, either seeing the police had turned out against them, or expecting the speedy arrival of the military.
"It is here to be observed that Captain Moorsom had been watching the proceedings of the people at Holloway-head (in the evening), till he saw them go away; then, thinking they might have adjourned to the Bull-ring, while in fact they had passed it on their left, he went to the Bull-ring, and finding nothing that to his mind indicated disturbance, about eight o'clock he proceeded to the public-office to report what he had witnessed, and ascertain from the magistrates what were their arrangements for the night; but though he asked for a magistrate he did not go or send for one; and having told the superintendant of police, whom he saw there, that everything was quiet, he returned home about a quarter before nine, after expressing his opinion to the Edgbaston ward leader that there was no fear of disturbance. George Redfern, the prison-keeper, stayed at the public-office till some time after eight, when a constable came in and asked for the magistrates, adding that the town was in an excited state. On hearing this he lost not a moment, but set off to Dr. Booth's, and thence to the mayor's. He found both of them at home; and the mayor having joined Dr. Booth at his house, they proceeded to the barracks as quick as they could, called out the military, and accompanied them on horseback to the Bull-ring, Whilst George Redfern was thus away for forty-two minutes, and after he returned to the public-office, the superintendant of police was repeatedly called upon to act against the rioters, but he steadily refused, in consequence of orders that without the military or a magistrate's sanction the police were not to go out, nor, in fact, did the police begin to act at all till Mr. Walker (a magistrate) came to the public-office, and with him they went against the mob soon after half-past nine. It was the opinion of some, that had the police gone out and acted earlier the mob might have been dispersed, or at least that the property thus destroyed by the rioters might have been defended; but it appeared a very doubtful question.
"Upon such a state of facts, though the evidence will supply a great deal more in relation to the issue, the mayor and magistrates are charged with neglect of duty.
"Now, the case must be looked at as it presented itself to the mayor and magistrates at the time, and not as if they could have foreseen the extent of calamity, which their want of preparation, their absence from the public office, or any other circumstances may be thought to have occasioned.
"Believing then that they acted with perfect good faith throughout, and considering besides that they took reasonable measures to watch the proceedings of the Chartists at Holloway-head, that they relied on information which led them to apprehend no disturbance or outbreak, that on leaving the public-office in the afternoon at five, the mayor gave directions to George Redfern, the prison-keeper, to send or go for him or Dr. Booth, if magistrates should be wanted; and taking into account that the mayor and Dr. Booth were each of them at home when George Redfern came for them, I am of opinion that under all the circumstances, the mayor and magistrates were not guilty of neglecting their duty on the occasion referred to in the memorial.
"The general orders to the police, which prevented them from acting when first they were called upon to do so, I think ought not to have been given; but it is reasonable to believe that the mayor and magistrates laid on the restraint purely out of consideration to the men themselves.
"I have, &c.
This was a report which entirely exonerated the magistrates from all blame; and leaving this part of the case, we shall now proceed to the trial of the persons implicated in these transactions, which took place at the Warwick assizes, in the month of August, in the same year.
On Thursday the 1st of August, a lad named Perry, was first tried for breaking into the house of Mr. Horton, the silversmith, and stealing a silver sugar-basin; but he was acquitted. In a second indictment, the charge made was that he had received the basin well knowing it to have been stolen. The evidence went to show that the basin had been found in his possession, and that he refused to give it up; but it appeared that he had picked it up, and the jury acquitted him, discrediting the allegation of his felonious intention.
On the next day John Neale, William Shears, John Storey, William Edes, and Frederick Mason, were tried upon an indictment charging them with being parties to the riot of the 4th of July, and a verdict of "Guilty" returned.
On Saturday the 3rd of August, Jeremiah Howell, aged thirty-four; Francis Roberts, twenty-six; John Jones, twenty-one; Thomas Aston, fifteen; and Henry Wilkes, twenty-one; were put upon their trial. The indictment charged them with having at Birmingham, on the 15th of July 1839, with other persons to the number of two thousand, unlawfully and feloniously assembled, to the disturbance of the public peace, and with having feloniously pulled down and demolished the house of James and Henry Bourne. The evidence showed the implication of all except Wilkes, and with that exception the prisoners were found guilty.
On the same day John Collins, whose name has been already alluded to, was called in and arraigned upon an indictment preferred against him. The indictment recited that there had been an unlawful assembly called together in the town of Birmingham on the 4th of July, and that George Masters and John Hugh Sweeting, being officers of the London Metropolitan Police, and being duly sworn in as special constables did, by order of the magistrates, remove such unlawful assembly; and then it alleged that John Collins, being a wicked, seditious, and disaffected person, and endeavouring to bring into hatred and contempt the police force, and to excite tumults amongst the Queen's subjects, did cause to be written and published a certain false, scandalous, and malicious libel on the police and the administration, which were the resolutions of the National Convention. These resolutions were then set forth.
The libel was proved to have been taken to the printer by the prisoner, and to have been printed and posted through the town by his directions. It was in the following terms: --
"Resolutions unanimously agreed to by the General Convention, "Resolved -- 1. That this Convention is of opinion that a wanton, flagrant, and unjust outrage has been made upon the people of Birmingham by a bloodthirsty and unconstitutional force from London, acting under the authority of men who, when out of office, sanctioned and took part in the meetings of the people, and now, when they share in the public plunder, seek to keep the people in social slavery and political degradation.
"2. That the people of Birmingham are the best judges of their own right to meet in the Bull-ring or elsewhere, have their own feelings to consult respecting the outrage given, and are the best judges of their own power and resources to obtain justice.
"That the summary and despotic arrest of Dr. Taylor, our respected colleague, affords another convincing proof of the absence of all justice in England, and clearly shows that there is no security for life, liberty, or property, till the people have some control over the laws they are called upon to obey.
(By order) W. Lovett, Sec.
"Friday, July 5, 1839."
The prisoner was found "Guilty," but recommended to mercy on account of his former good character.
On Tuesday, William Lovett, who was the secretary to the National Convention, was tried upon a similar indictment, charging the publication by him of the same libel; and after a long and impartial trial, in which the prisoner defended himself with much tact, a verdict of "Guilty" was returned.
Several other prisoners were, during the ensuing week, found guilty of riot, but the prosecutions against many were withdrawn.
On Thursday morning, the 8th of August, Mr. Justice Littledale passed sentence on the prisoners against whom convictions had been recorded.
Jeremiah Howell, Francis Roberts, and John Jones were first placed in the dock.
The Clerk of the Arraigns asked the prisoners what they had to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon them.
Mr. Justice Littledale then put on his black cap, and addressed them. They had been convicted of felony by a jury of their country, for demolishing the house of James and Henry Bourne, of Birmingham. This offence, by the policy of our law, had for many years been punishable with death; and though of late years many offences which were before capital had, by the humanity of the legislature, been mitigated, the punishment for that offence had not been reduced, and it was still thought proper to retain the punishment of death for it. Even at this time, as to such offences as remained capital, where there were any alleviating circumstances, mercy was usually and properly extended. But, he regretted to say, that their offence was not one of that description, nor could he, in the discharge of his public duty, honestly recommend them to mercy. They had been aware that Birmingham had for some time been in a very excited state. Riots had from time to time occurred, which it had been found very difficult to suppress, till at length on the 15th of July they reached their highest pitch -- houses were then demolished and burnt, property to a great value destroyed, and, but for the interposition of a superior force, the mob might have had possession of the town, and a much greater amount of property might have been destroyed, and many lives sacrificed. In this act of demolition the prisoners unfortunately engaged themselves, and began the devastation. He therefore found it necessary, as far as lay in his power, to make an example of those who had been convicted, in order to prevent similar outrages in Birmingham and other parts of the kingdom where such things might be contemplated. He hoped that some benefit to others, at least, would result from their sad example, and that those who should hear the account of these lamentable outrages and their result, would be warned by it from the commission of similar offences. But although he could hold out no hope of mercy here, there was for them a hope of obtaining it in another world from that Almighty Being who understood all hearts, and was always disposed to grant it where there was an humble and true repentance. Their time here was fast approaching to its end, and they must be prepared to meet their God. He entreated them to employ that time in true repentance for all their offences, and endeavour to obtain, through the merits and intercession of our Saviour Jesus Christ, that mercy from God which they could not hope for from man. It now only remained for him to pronounce the awful sentence of the law, which was, that they, Jeremiah Howell, Francis Roberts, and John Jones, be severally taken to the place from whence they came, and that they be severally taken from thence to the place of execution, and there severally hanged by the neck till they were dead; and (concluded the judge) may the Lord, in his infinite mercy, have mercy on your souls.
Thomas Aston (the lad who was convicted for the same offence as the other prisoners) was then brought to the front of the dock.
Mr. Justice Littledale said, in his case it did not appear to him that the awful sentence of the law, which would be recorded against him, should be carried into effect, and his life would probably be spared. He would take time to consider for what his sentence should be commuted.
John Neale, William Shears, William Edes, Eleazer Hughes, and James Pomeroy, convicted of misdemeanour and riot, were next placed the dock.
The learned judge, after commenting on the offences of which they had been found guilty, said he found it necessary in their cases, and in order to discourage such scenes of tumult, the consequences of which, when once begun, no man could foresee, and protect life and property in Birmingham and elsewhere, to inflict a severe punishment. He, therefore, sentenced them severally to eighteen months' imprisonment in the House of Correction, and hard labour.
The following prisoners, convicted of the same offence, some of whom pleaded guilty, and in favour of whom there were mitigating circumstances, were then placed at the bar, and received the following sentences:--
John Drinkworth, twelve months' imprisonment and hard labour.
James Rhodes, nine months' imprisonment and hard labour.
John Storey, Frederick Mason, and Thomas Salter, six months' imprisonment and hard labour.
John Taplow, for the same offence (who pleaded guilty), one month's imprisonment and hard labour.
John Smith, William Clift, and Thomas King, were discharged on entering into their own recognizances in 40l. each to appear and receive judgment when called upon.
John Collins and William Lovett were then brought up and asked why the court should not pronounce sentence upon them for the misdemeanour of which they had been convicted?
Mr. Lovett addressed the Court:-- Because, in the first place, he was convinced that the jury were prejudiced against him. He had it from very good authority that several of them declared their express wish that all the Chartists should be hanged. That, he submitted, was a very good reason for a lenient sentence. His lordship would also take into consideration the evidence on the trial, and the proof of the facts set forth in the placard, combined with the prejudiced feelings of the jury -- circumstances which ought to weigh much in the present case.
Mr. Justice Littledale then addressed the prisoners. They stood severally convicted of having published a seditious libel. He had taken all the circumstances of the case into his serious consideration. John Collins had received a good character, and the jury, on that account, had recommended him to mercy. In Lovett's case, the jury did not so recommend. At the same time he observed, that Lovett had received a very good character, and though the jury had not recommended him to the merciful consideration of the court, he would not on that account make any difference in their sentence. The sentence of the court was, that they be severally imprisoned in the common jail of this county for one year.
They applied to be imprisoned on the debtors' side; but the learned judge said he had not the power to make such an order.
The business of the assize was then closed.
The final merciful consideration of the cases of the convicts who had received sentence of death, exhibited the leniency with which the government desired to deal with their offences, in spite of their enormity. On Thursday the 15th of August, a large deputation of members of parliament waited upon the minister of the crown within whose department of office the subject came, for the purpose of soliciting mercy for the condemned men. They happily succeeded in their philanthropic object, and a reprieve was instantly despatched to Warwick. It was felt, however, that although the punishment of death was removed, the infliction of a severe penalty was rendered necessary by the enormity of the offence, and the sentence of the prisoners was commuted only to transportation for life.
It would be impossible in the space to which we are limited, to go through the cases of all the persons who were convicted in the course of the years 1839 and 1840, for their advocacy, by the violence of their language, or of their deeds, of the cause of Chartism. Throughout the greater part of the manufacturing districts of England, the agitation which prevailed upon this subject was very great, and repeated and frequent acts of violence were committed, the participators in which suffered the penalties of their offences; but to recite each particular case would be little more than to repeat the same details.
The events of the latter end of the year 1839, when a most systematic and violent attempt was made to seize the town of Newport, in Monmouthshire, by an organised band of Chartists, will be found to be hereafter described; and for a more complete view of the abominable conspiracy which existed in reference to the advancement of the cause of Chartism, we must refer our readers to the article in which the riots of Wales are delineated.