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The West Midlands, 1760-1793: Politics, Public Opinion and Regional Identity in the English Provinces during the late Eighteenth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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In these Midland districts, the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another; after looking down on a village dirty with coal dust, noisy with the shaking of looms, he might skirt a parish all of fields, high hedges and deep rutted lanes; after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantage of a near market for corn, cheese, and hay, and where men with a considerable banking account were accustomed to say that “they never meddled with politics themselves.”

The passage is from the preface to George Eliot's novel Felix Holt the Radical, written between 1865 and 1867. It describes a world which the writer knew intimately; she grew up in it, and it provided the setting for much of her best work. George Eliot's father, Robert Evans, whose influence profoundly affected the novelist's development, was born in Staffordshire two years before the beginning of the American War of Independence. He was apprenticed to the family trade of builder and carpenter, and rose through “his large knowledge of building, of mines, of plantations, of various branches of valuation and measurement” to become agent to Francis Newdigate of Arbury in 1806. Newdigate had interests in the North Warwickshire coalfield and in the canal navigations which, before the coming of the railway, had played such an important part in the development of the region. It might be inferred from this that he was among the most advanced landowners of the day. Progressive notions in estate management, however, went hand in hand with an enlightened, but profoundly conservative paternalism in political and social affairs: an attitude shared by his steward, whom Marian Evans remembered to have pronounced “the word ‘Government’ in a tone that charged it with awe, and made it a part of my effective religion, in contrast to the word ‘rebel,’ which seemed to carry the stamp of evil in its syllables.”

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Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1970

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References

1 For the circumstances in which the novelist grew up, and their effect on her work, see Allen, Walter, George Eliot (London, 1965), chapter 1Google Scholar, and at greater length. Haight, Gordon S., George Eliot, a Biography (Oxford, 1968).Google Scholar

2 For Sir Roger's political career, see SirNamier, Lewis and Brooke, John, The History of Parliament, the House of Commons, 1754-1790 (3 vols., London, 1964Google Scholar — henceforward cited at Hist. Parl. — III, 196-199.

3 Barlow, Richard B., Citizenship and Conscience, a Study in the Theoty and Practice of Toleration in England during the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1963), 184189.Google Scholar

4 cf. Crane Brinton on William Gobbett as an example of the “conservatism of the flesh,” English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1933, and Cambridge, Mass., 1949, reprinted, New York, 1962), 62, 75.Google Scholar

5 Warwickshire County Record Office, Newdigate Mss, CR 136/B 2592. The fragment is undated and incomplete.

6 Newdigate Mss, CR 1367B 2369; B 2374; B 2375; B 2199: letters to Sir Roger Newdigate on the Coventry and Oxford Canal, the first three from N. Wetherill, sometime fellow of University College, Oxford, and Dean of Hereford, the fourth from Francis Parrott, a fellow mine owner in the North Warwickshire coalfield. For Sir Roger's library, see Newdigate Mss, CR 136/ B2460; B2461; a-f; B2462, a, c; B 2466, c, d, e, k, — invoices from various printers and booksellers — and ‘Catalogue of Society Books,’ B 2429a, which records the accessions of a book buying syndicate, to which Sir Roger belonged, during 1795 and 1796. In general, see Antony C. Wood, “The Diaries of Sir Roger Newdigate, 1751-1806” in Essays in Honour of Philip B. Chatwin,” Transactions of the Birmingham Archaeolgical Society, 78 (1960), 4054Google Scholar. Wood cites Newdigate's obituary (Gentleman's Magazine, Dec. 1806), which described Sir Roger's private branch from the Coventry Canal to his own mines as “by far the greatest length of canal solely belonging to an individual in the kingdom.” Newdigate's many interests, which included the Grand Junction Canal, and the Leicester and Coventry Turnpike, kept him very busy, even after he had retired from Parliament in 1780. During his later life, however, his abiding attention was fixed on the rebuilding of the house at Arbury in the gothic style. It was at this time that he he really became the archetypal country gentleman who provided George Eliot with the original for SirCheverel, Christopher in “Mr. Gilfil's Love Story,” part of Scenes from Clerical Life (1858).Google Scholar

7 For the early history of industrial development in the Midlands, see Court, W. H. B., The Rise of the Midlands Industries, 1650-1838 (London, 1938, reprinted Oxford, 1953).Google Scholar

8 The Victoria History of the Counties of England, Warwickshire, Vol. VII (London, 1964 — henceforward cited as VCH Warwicks, VII —85, 273.Google Scholar

9 Sir J. B. Stone, Annals of the Bean Club, Central Reference Library, Birmingham — henceforth cited as BRL — 34513, 1.

10 See The Catalogue of the Birmingham Collection (Birmingham, 1918), 696700Google Scholar, for full details, and also, Webb, R. K., The British Working Class Reader, Literacy and Social Tension 1790-1848 (London, 1955), 43-44, 5758Google Scholar. The Nott pamphlets appeared regularly between 1790 and 1832. A second series began in 1835, and the third and final collection, Job Nott's Twelve Affectionate Addresses, not only to his Fellow Townsmen, but to All Others, was printed between 1847 and 1850. The authorship of the pamphlets is uncertain. The Catalogue of the Birmingham Collection attributes the earlier examples to John Morfitt, a nail merchant of Harborne near Birmingham, while Parish, Charles, History of the Birmingham Libiary (London, 1966), 98Google Scholar. credits them to Theodore Price, himself a bucklemaker and one of the local magistrates. Certainly more than one person was involved, for the Nott “family” expanded rapidly, and the pseudonym was freely used by writers of all political persuasions. Thus, while “Job Nott, Bucklemaker” wrote for Church and King, he was taken severely to task by his “elder brother,” “John Nott, Button Maker” (not to be confused with yet another pseudonym: “John Nott, Button Burnisher,” “cousin” to the original Bucklemaker).

11 For Birmingham's own local network of canals, which linked the town to the longer navigations, see VCH Warwicks, VII, 3337Google Scholar. For the development of the Midland waterways in general, see Hadfield, Charles, The Canals of the West Midlands (Newton Abbot, 1966)Google Scholar, and The Canals of the East Midlands (Newton Abbot, 1966).Google Scholar

12 See Farrer, K. E., ed., Wedgwood's Letters to Bentley (2 vols, privately printed, 1903), I, passim, esp. 4869Google Scholar: letters between August and November 1765 on the drafting of Thomas Bentley's View of the Advantages of Inland Navigation. The Liverpool edition of Bentley's pamphlet, together with further correspondence on the Trent and Mersey Canal, is reprinted as a supplement to Farrer, K. E., ed., The Correspondence of Josiah Wedgwood, 1781-1794 (privately printed, 1906)Google Scholar. See also Finer, Anne and Savage, George, eds., The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood (London, 1965), 30-34, 3940.Google Scholar

13 This development may well have been accelerated by the demand for news created by the war. News could reach Birmingham from Bristol and Liverpool at least as fast as it could be relayed from London, and while the capital remained the last resort for confirmation of important information, there was a notable increase in the number of news items received from the Atlantic ports and printed in anticipation of the contents of official despatches.

14 Samuel Garbett to the Earl of Shelburne, 2nd November 1784, Letters &, Chiefly from Samuel Garbett to the Earl of Shelburne, later Marquis of Lansdowne, 1766-1802 (photostat copies of the original papers, Central Reference Library, Birmingham) — henceforward cited as Garbett-Lansdowne Letters. Garbett was thoroughly exasperated by the official view of the episode as retailed via George Rose, Secretary of the Treasury, and Sir Robert Lawley, Member of Parliament for Warwickshire:

“I have not the smallest doubt that Mr. Rose's attention to this business is like his answer, and like the attention of the Minister in Vienna, who sent no account of the edict. The whole is ‘Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant etc. etc. …’”:

Garbett to Matthew Boulton, 14 Feb. 1785, Boulton and Watt Collection, the Assay Office, Birmingham — henceforth cited as Assay Office Papers.

15 See Norris, J. M., “Samuel Garbett and the Early Development of Industrial Lobbying in Great Britain,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., X (19571958), 4060Google Scholar, and, more generally, Mantoux, Paul, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century (first English ed., London, 1928, rev., 1961), 390392Google Scholar, and Bowden, Witt, Industrial Society in England towards the End of the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1925, reprinted, London, 1965), 164. 169-193, 196.Google Scholar

16 Garbett to Lord Rawdon, ? May 1784, copy in Garbett-Lansdowne Letters. In general, see correspondence between Garbett, Wedgwood and Boulton, February to June 1785, in Assay Office Papers. In particular, compare Garbett and Wedgwood on whether the manufacturers should take the initiative by petitioning Parliament to suspend discussion of the Irish Commercial Treaty pending information from the newly formed General Chamber of Manufacturers:

Wedgwood to Boulton, 4 Apr. 1785.

“We may no doubt publish our resolutions and propositions voluntarily to the public, but I always understand it to be our idea that we should wait to be called on before we do anything that could, even by our enemies, be construed into giving information immediately to Parliament.”

Garbett to Boulton, 9 Apr. 1785.

“Depend upon it, the Chamber sinks if, when the delegates meet, they go no further than wording good resolutions at a tavern to put into newspapers. It appears to me immaterial whether they use their own names, or the names of those they represent, and surely the difficulty that may attend their petition being accepted is too trifling to embarass, much less to stop such men from advancing.”

17 Wedgwcod, to Bentley, Thomas, 20 May 1780, Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood, 250251Google Scholar. See also Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 161–75Google Scholar. Although the emphasis differed in each case, the proper nature of representation and consent was being re-examined on both sides of the Atlantic at this time. The notion of particular Representation, now placed in opposition to that of Virtual Representation, was in the first instance a revival of seventeenth century assumptions, which were in turn derived from medieval forms of attorneyship. The predicament of the American Colonists forced these ideas into prominence once more, so that they became capable of new development. In England, the concerns of Wedgwood, and of others like him, produced similar results. The experience of these men, while obviously not the same as that of the Colonists, was equally novel.

18 Great Britain, Public Record Office, Treasury Solicitor's Papers, TS 11/962, Minute Book of the Society for Constitutional Information, 1792-1794. For Leicester and the Leicester Herald, see Patterson, A. Temple, Radical Leicester (Leicester, 1954).Google Scholar

19 Priestley, Joseph to Wyvill, Christopher, 14 Feb. 1782, Christopher Wyvill, Political Papers, Chiefly Respecting the Attempt of the County of York and Other Considerable Districts … to effect a Reformation of the Parliament of Great Britain (York, 17941808), IV, 157.Google Scholar

20 Wyvill to Boulton, 31 Jan. 1785; Political Papers, IV, 458.Google Scholar

21 Deane, P. to Boulton, , 28 Jan. 1785, Assay Office Papers.Google Scholar

22 See his essay, Political Man” in Clifford, James L., ed., Man Versus Society in Eighteenth Century Britain, Six Points of View (Cambridge, England, 1968), 12Google Scholar. I have given a more detailed account of much of what follows in an article, “Taverns, Coffee Houses, and Clubs, Local Politics and Popular Articulacy in the Birmingham Area in the Age of the American Revolution,” to be published in The Historical Journal. I have therefore reduced references here to the minimum, except in the case of new material or new aspects for discussion.

23 For Coventry, see Hist. Parl., I, 401Google Scholar; Whitley, T. W., The Parliamentary Representation of the City of Coventry (Coventry, 1894), 165–8Google Scholar; and Jopson's Coventry Mercury, passim. The role of Worcester will be apparent from what follows.

24 Plumb, J. H. in Man Versus Society, 11-12, 17, and 12, n. 1 on p. 154.Google Scholar

25 Aris' Birmingham Gazette — henceforth cited as Aris — 1774, passim.

26 Aris, 10 Feb. 1772.

27 Introduction to Voltaire's Creed Proved Insufficient for Man's Salvation (Birmingham, 1771)Google Scholar, BRL 62409; VCH Warwicks, VII, 210Google Scholar; Hill, Joseph, The Bookmakers and Booksellers of Old Birmingham (Birmingham, privately printed, 1907), 73Google Scholar; S winners Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle, 2 Feb. 1175 (in “America” box, Assay Office Papers'), and 24 Dec. 1778 (when it was also printed by J. W. Piercy in Coventry); Jopson's Coventry Mercury, 20 Nov. 1780, 15 Jan. 1781, and Public Record Office, Home Office Papers, H.O. 42/25, John Brooke to Evan Nepean, 7 June 1793.

28 In his speech to the House of Commons supporting the Birmingham Playhouse Bill at its first reading, 26th March 1777, as reported in Aris, 31 March 1777. Burke later withdrew his support, not because his own opinions had changed, but because of representations from prominent Quaker citizens of Bristol, his own constituency. These were in close contact with the Quaker community in Birmingham, which led the local opposition to the Bill. Burke covered his retreat by flowery compliments to the Manager of the Birmingham theatre, by the argument, rather specious in the circumstances, that he felt bound by the wishes of his own constituents, and by a hastily discovered concern for the supposed majority opinion in Birmingham. For details, see Aris, 5 May 1777, and Underdown, P. T., “Religious Opposition to the Licensing of the Bristol and Birmingham Theatres,” University of Birmingham Historical Journal, VI (19571958), part 2, 149-60.Google Scholar

29 Aris, 16 June 1783, Prologue spoken at the opening of the summer season of the New Street Theatre.

30 Aris, 16, 23 May 1774.

31 Arts, 4 Feb. 1788.

32 VCH Warwicks, VII, 217, 218.Google Scholar

33 Aris, 15 Sept. 1777.

34 Born 1731; apprenticed to brassfounder in Park Street, Birmingham; took over the Leicester Arms at the corner of Lease Lane and Bell Street from his mother in 1768; first song, in praise of Birmingham Beer, printed in Aris, 31 Oct. 1763; listed in 1767 directory of Birmingham under “Miscellaneous Tradesmen” as “Poet, Park Street”; acquired a wide reputation as an election poet. “Freeth's Coffee House” was the meeting place of the Birmingham Book-Club (which still exists) from at least as early as 1758. A fuller biographical note is included in my “Taverns, Coffee Houses, and Clubs.”

35 Aris, 1769: - 25 Sept. and 9, 16, 23, 30 Oct.; Rudê, George, Wilkes and Liberty, a Social Study of 1763 to 1774 (Oxford, 1962), 133 n. 3.Google Scholar

36 Aris, 13 Nov. 1769.

37 Hist. Parl., I, 425427.Google Scholar

38 Aris, 1774:- 8, 22 Aug. and 3, 10 Oct.

39 Aris. 26 June 1769; Hist. Parl., II, 450.Google Scholar

40 Hist. Parl., I, 399400.Google Scholar

41 Aris, 13, 20 March, 1769. Birmingham's first Improvement Bill was causing considerable controversy in the town at the time. Nevertheless, Birmingham voters were agreed that, in the words of John Freeth's “Epigram on the Bill Now Depending for Removing Public Nuisances,”

“The Greatest Nuisances that we want Fairly from the land to shove, Are worse than any town complaint, And every day are seen above.”

42 Aris, 30 Oct. 1769.

43 In Aris of that date. Only one hint of a possible opposition preceded this. It came from the Free Debating Society, which met at the Red Lion, Birmingham, on 25th March, to consider whether an opposition at the ensuing election for the County of Warwick would not be “of much consequence in supporting the Freedom and Independence of the Freeholders thereof. See Aris, 21 Mar. 1774.

44 Hist. Parl., I, 400Google Scholar. The schedule of the entire General Election was very tight. The Ministry had dissolved early in order to try and steal a march on the opposition. The proclamation of dissolution, issued on Saturday, 1st October, could hardly have been common knowledge in the Midlands until Aris printed it the following Monday. Mordaut's retirement, announced on 4th October, had to wait till the following week for wide promulgation, unless Swinney's Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle printed it on Thursday, 6th October, which cannot be verified as the particular issue of Swinney's paper has not survived. Even if Swinney did print the news, precious little time was available before the nomination meeting on 13th October and the start of the Poll at Warwick on the 20th.

45 Aris, 7, 14, 21, 28, Nov. 1774, 16 Jan. 16, Oct. 1775.

46 Hist. Parl., I, 322Google Scholar; Aris, 28 Nov.; 5, 12, Dec. 1774.

47 See, for example, Reasons for the Late Increase of the Poor Rates, or a Comparative Review of the Price of Labour and Provisions as abridged in Jopson's Coventry Mercury, 17 Feb. 1777. The author, “one of the last men who would wish to unhinge order, or loosen the bonds of society,” nevertheless recommended fairer rates of pay for labourers, to be achieved by relating wages to current provision prices. The newspaper discussion of this, and other related matters, conformed to the general description given by Coats, A. W. in “Changing Attitudes to Labour in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd ser., XI (19581959), 3551CrossRefGoogle Scholar:

“Much … lacks interest beyond the confines of the immediate problem of rising prices. Some … were positively puerile, others represented partisan efforts to lay the blame on the luxury of the rich; the Government's debt policy; the engrossing of farms; the middlemen, or the corn bounty. Partisanship however does not invalidate these writings as evidence of a change in the contemporary attitude towards the labourer's difficulties.”

Most of those who filled the correspondence columns of the newspapers were grouping towards an understanding of economic and social change with little information and less analytic skill. Occasionally, however, the discussion was lifted onto a different plane, and there were signs of the dissemination of more sophisticated and penetrating ideas. Particularly interesting from this point of view was Thoughts on Commerce, and the Riches of a State in Jopson's Coventry Mercury, 19 Aug. 1776. This, which bore all the marks of the re-recently published Enquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, started from the apparent paradox that “Commerce flows from want and from abundance,” noticed the significance of an expansion of consumption and enhanced expectations in relation to economic growth, emphasized the interdependence of commerce and agriculture, and tried to found its argument on general natural laws rather than particular cases or scapegoats. Within any society, it was the relationship between production and consumption which was the basic criterion of prosperity or decay. If left to itself, this relationship had a natural tendency to find its own balance over a sufficient period of time. Like everything else, economics were subject to natural laws which were fundamentally benign, and which functioned best if left to themselves.

48 More Advice from Job Nott (4th ed., Birmingham, 1795) BRL 63933, 6.Google Scholar

49 The Life and Adventures of Job Nott, Bucklemaker of Birmingham, First Cousin to the Celebrated Button Burnisher (Birmingham, 1793), BRL 63937.Google Scholar

50 Job Nott's Humble Advice with a Suitable Postscript (5th edition, Birmingham, 1793), BRL 63934, 5.Google Scholar

51 Life and Adventures, 17.

52 An Appeal to the Inhabitants of Birmingham, designed as an Answer to Job Nott Bucklemaker, by his Elder Brother, John Nott, Button Maker, and First Cousin to John Nott Button Burnisher (Birmingham, 1792), BRL 12381, 1617Google Scholar

53 Morley, John, Life of Cobden (1910), 663Google Scholar, cited in VCH Warwicks, VII, 223.Google Scholar

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