Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Attwood, Thomas (1783-1856)

ATTWOOD, THOMAS (1783–1856), political reformer, born at Hawne House, in the parish of Halesowen, Worcestershire, on 6 Oct. 1783, was the third son of Matthias Attwood (1746–1836), a banker of Birmingham, by his wife Ann (d. 8 Oct. 1834), daughter of Thomas Adams of Cakemore House, Halesowen. He was educated at the grammar school at Halesowen, and afterwards at that at Wolverhampton. On leaving school about 1800, he entered his father's bank in New Street, Birmingham. On 9 Sept. 1803, when a French invasion was expected, he was gazetted a captain in the third battalion of the Loyal Birmingham volunteer infantry, and retained his commission till 8 March 1805. In 1806 he married, and took up his residence at the Larches, Sparkbrook, near Birmingham, whence in 1811 he removed to the Crescent, Birmingham. In October 1811 he was elected high bailiff of Birmingham. In the following year he first took a prominent part in public affairs, by agitating for the repeal of the orders in council which restricted British trade with the continent and the United States. Attwood and Richard Spooner were chosen to represent to government the position of the manufacturing interest of the town. The orders were partially revoked in June, and on 6 Oct. 1813 the artisans of Birmingham presented Attwood with a silver cup in acknowledgment of his services. In 1823 he spoke vehemently against the renewal of the East India Company's charter, and, proceeding to London, exerted himself to organise a parliamentary opposition. Although the charter was renewed, many of its conditions were modified, and the company's monopoly of trade was abolished.

In 1815 or 1816 Attwood first appealed to the public on the subject of the currency, which became henceforth the central interest of his life. He was opposed to the policy of government in reducing the paper currency while specie was scarce. In his own words, 'by limiting the amount of our money' the government 'have limited our means of exchanging commodities, and this gives the limit to consumption, and the limit to consumption gives the limit to production.' In 1816 he published his first currency pamphlet, 'The Remedy, or Thoughts on the Present Distress.' It reached a second edition, and was followed in 1817 by 'Prosperity Restored, or Reflections on the Cause of the Public Distresses' (London, 8vo), and by 'A Letter to Nicholas Vansittart on the Creation of Money, and on its Action upon National Prosperity,' in which he maintained that 'the issue of money will create markets, and that it is upon the abundance or scarcity of money that the extent of all markets principally depends.' Attwood's arguments had some influence with Vansittart, and Cobbett complained that in 1818, at the suggestion of Attwood, the chancellor of the exchequer 'caused bales of paper money to be poured forth as a remedy against the workings of those evil-minded and designing men who were urging the people on for parliamentary reform.' His 'Prosperity Restored ' attracted the notice of Arthur Young (1741-1820) [q. v.], and a correspondence ensued, which terminated in the publication by Attwood of 'Observations on Currency, Population, and Pauperism, in Two Letters to Arthur Young' (London, 1818, 8vo). In this work he urged that 'every increase of the population carries with it the ample means of its own support ; at least so long as the circulating medium is kept equivalent to its purposes and as a single acre of land remains to be cultivated or improved in the country.' Animated by these principles Thomas Attwood and his brother Matthias opposed Peel's bill in 1819 for the resumption of cash payments by the bank of England. In 1819 he published two letters of remonstrance addressed to the prime minister, the Earl of Liverpool.

In 1830 Attwood, most of whose connections were members of the tory party, definitely declared himself of opposite convictions by founding, on 25 Jan., the 'Birmingham Political Union for the Protection of Public Rights.' The object of the Political Union was to secure the adequate representation of the middle and lower classes in the House of Commons. Similar associations were rapidly formed all over the country, including the notable Northern Political Union, founded by Charles Attwood (1791-1875), Thomas's brother, at Newcastle-on-Tyne, about 1830. These unions enthusiastically supported Earl Grey's government during the passage of the reform bill. On 3 Oct. 1831 an open-air meeting was convened upon Newhall Hill to protest against the rejection of the reform bill by the House of Lords. A resolution, supported by a hundred thousand men, was passed and transmitted to Lord John Russell, who replied, in reference to the opposition in the House of Lords, 'It is impossible that the whisper of a faction should prevail against the voice of a nation.' The Birmingham Union was unjustly accused by the tory press of having sent emissaries to Bristol to organise the riots which took place there, and of having secretly introduced ten thousand men into London to promote revolution. The whig ministry became uneasy at the power of the unions, and at their elaborate organisation under leaders of various ranks with powers to act in cases of emergency. Alarmed at the turbulent proceedings in London, they issued a proclamation on 22 Nov. against such organisations. This manifesto, however, was met by the Birmingham Union with a motion abandoning the idea of organisation, and reverting to the principle of simple association. They thus avoided the possibility of their position being declared illegal. On 7 May 1832 the government were defeated in the House of Lords, and immediately resigned. The result in Birmingham was that a number of the more wealthy inhabitants joined the Union, which had hitherto been confined to the poorer classes. On 10 May an immense meeting was held on Newhall Hill, the banners and trophies being covered in black drapery. It was proposed to refuse payment of the taxes, but Attwood succeeded in persuading his audience to confine themselves to more legal methods of resistance. Attwood was also in constant communication with the London unions and exerted his influence to prevent any outbreak of violence. The populace was devoted to him, and on a rumour that he was to be arrested his house was guarded by armed men. On the news of the reinstatement of Lord Grey ten thousand people assembled round Attwood's dwelling to celebrate the triumph. On 19 May he had an interview with Lord Grey at the treasury, when the prime minister acknowledged his indebtedness to Attwood's exertions, and expressed his desire to make some return. Attwood, however, declined any reward, remarking that his action had been on public grounds alone. On the rumour of fresh opposition from the Duke of Wellington, Attwood proposed to assemble a million men on Hampstead Heath. On 23 May he received the freedom of the city of London, and five days later he made a triumphal entry into Birmingham amid great enthusiasm. At this time he was the 'idol of the populace, his portraits were in every shop window, ballads in his praise were hawked through every street, … and twenty boroughs selected him to represent them in parliament.' Cobbett, in the 'Political Register,' styled him 'King Tom.'

On 7 June 1832 the reform bill received the royal assent. On 12 Dec. Attwood and Joshua Scholefield [see under Scholefield, William] were returned to parliament unopposed for the new borough of Birmingham. In the House of Commons, like other popular leaders, he failed to maintain the reputation he had acquired outside. His vehemence of manner, his violence of expression, his incessant advocacy of his views on the currency, and, above all, his disregard for party interests disqualified him for success. On 12 Feb. 1833 he made a strong attack on Lord Grey's Irish policy in his maiden speech, and expressed his sympathy with Daniel O'Connell, a course of action which alienated protestant feeling. A motion which he brought forward on 21 March 'that a general committee be appointed to inquire into the causes of the general distress existing among the industrious classes of the United Kingdom, and into the most effectual means of its relief,' was defeated, it being universally understood that it aimed at rectifying the currency. On 20 May a meeting of two hundred thousand men at Newhall Hill petitioned the king to dismiss the ministry: but it was clear that many middle-class supporters had been alienated by Attwood's support of O'Connell. On 18 Jan. 1836, at a meeting at the Birmingham Town Hall, Attwood threatened the opponents of reform with the wrath of twenty millions of men. This extravagance caused Benjamin Disraeli to address to Attwood the third of his 'Letters of Runnymede,' a vapid rebuke of a ridiculous boast. The Political Union, which had fallen into abeyance on the passage of the reform bill, was revived in May 1837 as the Reform Association, a title which was soon abandoned for the older designation.

Year by year Attwood became more democratic in his political principles, and he allied himself with the chartists. The growth of the chartist movement alienated many of the moderate advocates of reform and compelled the remainder to take a more extreme position. Liberals of birth, rank, or wealth gradually disappeared from the ranks of his supporters. The Birmingham Political Union, which already had proclaimed themselves in favour of universal suffrage, the ballot, and annual parliaments, were easily brought to give a formal adhesion to the charter. Attwood gave his enthusiastic support to the great chartist petition. But, though his own language had not formerly been free from menace, he recoiled from the violence of the more advanced chartists, and constantly deprecated their threats of appeal to physical force. In March 1839 the Birmingham delegates withdrew from the National Convention, protesting against an appeal to arms. On 14 June 1839 he presented the chartists' monster national petition to the House of Commons. It demanded universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, the payment of members of parliament, and the abolition of the property qualification for members. On 12 July he moved that the house form itself into a committee for the purpose of considering the petition, but his motion was rejected by a large majority.

Attwood found that he had lost popularity by his tardy repudiation of physical force, and the riots which broke out in Birmingham itself in July 1839 showed that his influence was gone. Many chartists also denounced his pet scheme of a paper currency. Mortified by his position, he determined to retire from public life, and in December 1839 he published a somewhat querulous farewell address to his constituents, and for two years sought at St. Heliers to recruit his health, which had been impaired by his labours. In 1843 he was requested by sixteen thousand inhabitants of Birmingham to re-enter political life, and he attempted without success to organise a 'National Union,' which was to hold 'the ministers of the crown legally responsible for the welfare of the people.' He died on 6 March 1856 at Ellerlie, Great Malvern, the house of the physician Walter Johnson, and was buried in Hanley churchyard, near Upton-on-Severn. On 7 July 1859 a statue of him by John Thomas was unveiled in Stephenson Place, New Street, Birmingham. Attwood was twice married. On 12 May 1806, at Harbourne church, he married his first wife Elizabeth, eldest daughter of William Carless (d. 24 June 1787) of the Ravenhurst, Harbourne, and aunt of Edward Augustus Freeman [q. v. Suppl.] By her Attwood had four sons and two daughters. The eldest daughter, Angela (d. 30 Nov. 1870), married Daniel Bell Wakefield of New Zealand, and was mother of Charles Marcus Wakefield, Attwood's biographer. Attwood married, secondly, on 30 June 1845, Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph Grice of Handsworth Hall, Staffordshire; she died without issue on 26 June 1886.

[Wakefield's Life of Attwood, 1885 (with portraits), printed for private circulation; Jaffray's Hints tor a History of Birmingham, published in the Birmingham Journal, Dec. 1855 to June 1856; Runnymede Letters, ed. Hitchman, 1885; Langford's Century of Birmingham Life, 1868, ii. 629-50, 612-48; Langford's Modern Birmingham and its Institutions, 1873, i. 92-3, 391-2, 432, 436; Burritt's Walks in the Black Country, 1868, pp. 16-22; Dent's Old and New Birmingham, 1880, pp. 349-50, 354, 396-414, 460-61; Dent's Making of Birmingham, 1894; Greville Memoirs, 1888, ii. 210, 211, 220; Doubleday's Political Life of Sir R. Peel, 1856, ii. 23; 164, 250; Mrs. Grote's Life of Grote, 1873, pp. 78-9; Correspondence of Daniel O'Connell, 1888, i. 199-200; Graham Wallas's Life of Francis Place, 1896.]

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