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II. Taverns, Coffee Houses and Clubs: Local Politics and Popular Articulacy in the Birmingham Area, in the Age of the American Revolution1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

John Money
University of Victoria, British Columbia


It has long been a commonplace among historians of eighteenth-century England that effective participation in the political affairs of the nation was confined to the privileged few. The substantial truth of this is undeniable, but its recognition has carried with it the questionable assumption that there were

Two worlds of politics in the eighteenth century—a tight political establishment, linked to small groups of powerful managers in the provinces, who controlled parliament, the executive, and all that was effective in the nation, and outside this an amorphous mass of political sentiment that found expression in occasional hysteria and impotent polemic, but whose effective voice in the nation was negligible.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1971

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2 Plumb, J. H., ‘Political Man’, in Clifford, James L. (ed.), Man Versus Society in Eighteenth Century England, Six Points of View (Cambridge, 1968), pp. 12, 138. Professor Plumb questions the assumption, and goes on to draw attention to the need for more investigation of the continuing links between the ‘two worlds’. He remarks in particular on the role of tavern clubs and cliques.Google Scholar

3 In the West Midlands, Coventry and Worcester both provide good examples of this. Both had wide franchises; both were notorious for the corruption and violence of their election contests; in both the political situation was dominated by the local battle between freemen and corporation and, in both, popular response to the Wilkite movement was merged with local animosities. There, however, the similarities end. In Worcester, the popular cause continued to be closely associated with the followers of Wilkes, and played an important part in shaping the political consciousness of Birmingham and the Black Country. In Coventry, the merging of Wilkite sympathies with the local situation distorted the former out of all recognition. To the ‘True Blue’ freemen of Coventry, fighting for their rights against a Whiggish, Occasionally Conforming Corporation, ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ meant specifically an end to the Corporation's powers to tamper with the freedom of the city so as to deprive them of their votes. At the by-election in December 1768, Sir Richard Glyn, a London banker who was backed by the ministry, made skilful use of the local situation to turn the tables on the Corporation of Coventry, and to alter completely the wider political affiliations of the freemen. Although he had been severely mauled by the Wilkites in London earlier in the year, when he stood for the City at the general election, Glyn could offer the Coventry freemen what they really wanted, in the shape of mandamus writs against the Corporation. By deliberately keeping the contest local, and by concealing as far as possible his unspectacular performance in London earlier in the year, Glyn was able to seduce the freemen into supporting him. The cry of ‘High Church—Glyn and Liberty—Now or Never!’ made an ironic contrast with the usual slogans of liberty at this time. In due course, writs were served on the Corporation, and its influence in local politics was severely curtailed. If the columns of Jopson's Coventry Mercury are any guide, there had been considerable sympathy for Wilkes in the city before the closing months of 1768. After 1768, however, the paper spent as much time ridiculing the Wilkite movement, and heaping fatuous contempt on its leaders, as it had done previously on its advocacy. Thus, the Coventry freemen were ‘converted’, and although they subsequently formed themselves into tavern clubs and cliques of the kind which accompanied the rise of popular articulacy elsewhere, such associations in Coventry remained for the most part closely linked with the traditional True Blue cause. See Hist. Parl., i, 401;Google ScholarWhitley, T. W., The Parliamentary Representation of the City of Coventry (Coventry, 1894), PP. 165–8. Jopson's Coventry Mercury, various dates.Google Scholar

4 Plumb, J. H., ‘Political Man’, Man Versus Society, pp. 1112, 17, and n. 1 to p. 12, on p. 154.Google Scholar

5 Cranfield, G. A., Handlist of English Provincial Newspapers and Periodicals, 1700–1760 (Cambridge Bibliographical Society Monograph No. 2, 1952), p. 2.Google Scholar

6 Briggs, Asa, ‘Press and Public in early Nineteenth Century Birmingham’, Dugdale Society Occasional Papers, no. 8, 1949, p. 7.Google Scholar

7 Briggs, Asa, ‘Press and Public’, p. 7.Google Scholar

8 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 210;Google ScholarHill, Joseph, The Bookmakers and Booksellers of Old Birmingham (privately printed, Birmingham, 1907), p. 73.Google Scholar Reaction to the Wilkite movement was an obvious cause of this spurt in provincial journalism, and Hill also mentions David Garrick's illfated Shakespearian Jubilee at Stratford-on-Avon in 1769 as a major stimulus to Birmingham publishing. Among those involved was Orion Adams, one of a family well known in provincial journalism. Orion's father, Roger Adams, produced The Manchester Weekly Journal between 1719 and 1726, and in 1732, founded the great Adams' Weekly Courant in Chester. Orion himself had published a paper of his own in Manchester in 1752. For details, see Cranfield, G. A., The Development of the Provincial Newspaper, 1700–1760 (Oxford, 1962), p. 56.Google Scholar

9 In 1771, eyebrows were raised when Swinney, who at the time was collaborating with Samuel Aris of the Gazette, printed Voltaire's Thoughts on Religion in The Warwickshire Journal, one of the three precursors of the Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle; in the early months of 1775, he supported those who were raising a petition in Birmingham in favour of concilation with the American colonies, while Aris' Birmingham Gazette made itself the mouthpiece of Matthew Boulton's counter-address in favour of the Coercive Acts; between 1778 and 1781, Swinney collaborated with J. W. Piercy of Piercy's Coventry Gazette in a joint venture which incurred the wrath of the rabidly Tory Jopson's Coventry Mercury, not only for its opposition to the ministry, but also for its espousal of the Corporation's cause in the Coventry election of 1780, one of the most violent and corrupt of the century. The surviving file of Swinney's Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle is blank during the 1780s, but even in 1793, when the two Birmingham papers had drawn closer together to face the threat of revolution, the difference between their characters was still important. In June of that year, John Brooke, one of the local magistrates, wrote to Evan Nepean, under-secretary at the Home Office, to suggest that the Government acquire control of Swinney's paper, which was by then influential over a wide area of the West Midlands (P.R.O., Home Office Papers, H.O. 42/25, John Brooke to Evan Nepean, 7 June 1793). Arts' Birmingham Gazette was loyal, but its cautious approach made it unwilling to ‘insert anything that is likely to offend the Dissenters’, and it would not be a very effective tool in the hands of government. Swinney's paper, on the other hand, was known as an active organ of opinion, which would therefore be of special value in the dissemination of Government propaganda. Brooke urged the ministry to act swiftly as Swinney was thinking of selling the paper, and there was a real danger that it would fall into the hands of ‘violent supporters of Priestley and Paine’. There is no clear evidence of government action on Brooke's suggestion, either in the Home Office papers, or in the Secret Service accounts in Chatham MSS, P.R.O. 30/8/229, which only record subsidies to the London press. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the local representatives of government clearly attached considerable importance to Swinney's paper as a possible means of influencing public opinion in a crucial region of the country.

For details of this sketch of Swinney's paper, see V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 210;Google Scholar Introduction to Voltaire's Creed Proved Insufficient for Man's Salvation, in Five Letters to Anonymous, four of which have already appeared in the Warwickshire Journal, by the Objector (Birmingham, 1771),Google Scholar BRL 62409, which was prompted by ‘Voltaire's Thoughts on Religion being exhibited in a public newspaper’; Aris, 19 Nov. 1769; Swinney's Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle, 2 Feb. 1775 (in ‘America’ box, Boulton and Watt Collection, Assay Office, Birmingham), 24 Dec. 1778 (printed also by J. W. Piercy in Coventry); Jopson's Coventry Mercury, 20 Nov. 1780, 15 Jan. 1781.

10 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 218. The Duke had complained in 1765 that Birmingham ‘deserved a superior accommodation; that the room was mean and the entrance still meaner’. The new Royal Hotel, it was boasted, ‘would not disgrace the royal presence of the Duke's brother’.Google Scholar

11 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 217. V.C.H., pp. 209–22, gives a full survey of the town's social history before 1815.Google Scholar

12 Aris, 15 Sept. 1777. The Masons and Bucks played a particularly important part, which I hope to discuss in a second article. One Birmingham society, the Bean Club, has been omitted from consideration. The Bean Club, founded soon after the Restoration as a Loyalist dining club, played an important part in Birmingham life, but it involved the town's leaders rather than the common people.

13 The house owned by the Freeth family at the corner of Lease Lane and Bell Street was already known in the first half of the eighteenth century as a place where tradesmen, small businessmen, attorneys and the like met to transact business, as well as for refreshment. By 1758, a book club, which still exists, had been formed, and ‘The Reading Society at Mr Freeth's Coffee House’ was listed among the pre-publication subscribers to a local edition of Calcott's, WellinsThoughts Moral and Divine (2nd ed., Birmingham, 1758),Google Scholar BRL 259403. John Freeth, born in 1731, and initially apprenticed to a brassfounder in Park Street, took over the coffee house from his mother in 1768, by which time it was known as the Leicester Arms, or simply, the Bell. Freeth's first song, in praise of Birmingham beer, was printed by Aris on 31 Oct. 1763, and by 1767 Sketchley's Birmingham Directory was listing him under ‘Miscellaneous Tradesman’ as simply ‘John Freeth, Poet, Park Street’. By 1782, Freeth was known as one of the best political ballad writers in the kingdom. Aris' Birmingham Gazette of 5 July 1784 undoubtedly was referring to Freeth when it drew attention to the work of ‘a well known and much admired song writer of this town’, which was included in a recent anthology of topical verse compiled in London, and published as The Wit of the Day, or the Humours of Westminster. See Langford, J. A., ‘John Freeth, the Birmingham Ballad Maker’ Mid-England, i (Birmingham 18801881),Google Scholar BRL 63089; Light, S. W., ‘Poet John Freeth’, The Central Literary Magazine (Journal of the Central Literary Association of Birmingham), Dec. 1960,Google Scholar and Haynes, Andrew, A Sketch of the Early History of the Birmingham Book Club, among the records of the Birmingham Book Club, deposited in the District Bank, Bennett's Hill, Birmingham, 1. I wish to express my thanks to the present librarian, Eric Dinwiddie, Esq., for permission to examine these records.Google Scholar

14 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 220–1. This had its attendant disadvantages. In 1775, patrons of the King Street Theatre were admonished for not dressing ‘as gendemen should who appear in boxes’; in 1788 and 1790, the actors at the New Street Theatre were pelted with ‘bottles, plates, apples etc.’.Google Scholar

15 Hutton, William, Courts of Requests, their Nature, Utility, and Powers Determined, with a Variety of Cases Determined in that of Birmingham (Birmingham 1787), BRL 2409, p. 249. ‘The trades in Birmingham everlastingly fluctuate … but I know of no trade that has undergone so many vicissitudes as the stage…. But the comedian, sailing along the tide of fourscore years, sometimes moving two leagues forward, and sometimes one backward, now figures in an elegant stile.’Google Scholar

16 Aris, 12 Nov. 1781. At the time, Adam Walker's astronomical lectures on the Eidouranion, or Transparent Orrery, were the talk of the town. The Eidouranion was a working model of the celestial sphere which must have required considerable precision in its construction if it was to be effective. Hoeamphelius' letter was inspired by the coincidence of Allen's benefit with Walker's lectures. Walker was one of the best known of the travelling lecturers who helped to popularize an interest in science and technology, and he was in contact with several members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. See Schofield, R. E., The Lunar Society of Birmingham, a Social History of Provincial Science and Industry in Eighteenth Century England (Oxford, 1963), pp. 220, 234,248.Google Scholar

17 Aris, 16 June 1783.

18 For a full examination of the unsuccessful attempt to obtain a licence, and of the opposition to it, which was particularly powerful among the Quakers, see Underdown, P. T., ‘Religious Opposition to the Licensing of the Bristol and Birmingham Theatres’, U.B.H.J., vi, 2 (19571958), 149–60.Google Scholar

19 Boulton, who, with Dr William Small, the founding father of the Lunar Society, was one of the original proprietors of the New Street Theatre, outlined his thoughts on the usefulness of a properly regulated theatre in a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth on 22 March 1777 (H.M.C. Dartmouth 111, 233). The evangelical Earl's support had already been enlisted by those opposed to the petition and, presumably, Boulton felt obliged to explain his presence among its supporters, when the greater part of ‘respectable’ opinion was on the other side.

20 When the Birmingham playhouse bill came before the House of Commons, Edmund Burke echoed Boulton's view: ‘The question is not, whether a man had better be at work than go to the play? It is simply this—being idle, shall he go to the play or to some blacksmith's entertainment? Why, I shall be free to say, I think the play will be the best place that it is probable a blacksmith's idle moments will carry him to.’ Burke argued that the situation in Birmingham would not in any way be the same as that which existed at Liverpool and Manchester, where the licences were general and unrestricted, and held by ‘the same strolling manager, who, when he once enters the town, never quits it whilst by any arts he can force company to his theatre’. The Birmingham theatre would be licensed for the four summer months only, and would be managed ‘by a man very eminent in his profession as a comedian, who in London conducts the most elegant entertainment in Europe, and who never has, nor wishes to be there but during the time the theatres of Drury Lane and Covent Garden are shut up in the summer’. Birmingham, said Burke, was ‘the Great Toy Shop of Europe’, and he asked the House ‘to consider if Birmingham on that account is not the most proper place in England to have a licensed theatre’. See Aris, 31 Mar. 1777, report on the first reading of the Birmingham playhouse bill. Unfortunately, by the time of the second reading, pressure had been brought to bear on Burke by several prominent citizens of Bristol who were in touch with the Quakers in Birmingham, and he withdrew his support as gracefully as he could, pleading that, whatever his own opinions on the matter, he felt bound to serve the wishes of his own constituents on this occasion.

21 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 219–20.Google Scholar

22 Davies, George, Saint Monday, or Scenes from Low Life (Birmingham, 1790), BRL 239216, pp. 1314.Google Scholar

23 Aris, 4 Feb. 1788, Lord George Gordon became a Jew in 1786 or 1787. He was indicted for a libel on the moral and political conduct of Marie Antoinette in August 1786, and was tried the following June, whereupon he fled, first to Amsterdam, and then to Birmingham, where he hid among the Jews until he was arrested on 13 Dec. 1787. Decastro, J. P., The Gordon Riots (Oxford, 1926), pp. 245–6.Google Scholar

24 For Leicester and Lincoln, see Aris, 14 June 1790 and 10 May 1790 respectively; for Newcastle–under–Lyme, see Leveson–Gower MSS, Staffordshire County Record Office, D 593, S/16/10/5: account of John Massey for election expenses, 1790–3, which included several entries for travel to Birmingham to secure voters, and for money advanced to Birmingham voters via one Moses Snape. The sustained interest of Birmingham people in Worcester politics, particularly between 1773 and 1780, will appear below.

25 Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley, 27 Sept. 1765, Farrer, K. E. (ed.), Wedgwood's Letters to Bentley (privately printed, 1903), i, 57–8.Google Scholar

26 Staffordshire County Record Office, Dyott MSS, D 661/19/2.

27 The reporting of news in the Birmingham papers, for example, was not consistently coloured by the sort of violent partizanship which characterized Jopson's Coventry Mercury, a paper which saw nearly everything in terms of the running battle between the Freemen and the Corporation of Coventry.

28 Aris, 29 Sept. 1777.

29 History of Birmingham, p. 129.

30 Aris, 10 Nov. 1777. The papers listed were the London Gazette, available on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the Morning Post, the Morning Chronicle, the Public Advertiser and the Gazetteer, daily; Lloyd's Evening Post and the London Pacquet, published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., and available at Overton's on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays by 2 p.m.; the General Evening Post, St James' Chronicle, the London Chronicle and the London Evening Post, published Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and available at Overton's on Mondays (per post), Wednesdays and Fridays by 2 p.m. To maintain such a service, a major undertaking in itself, Overton must have been able to take advantage of a larger organization which could afford to employ relays of messengers working full time.

31 Overton's initial advertisement stressed the fact that his coffee house was to be run ‘On the London Model’ in implicit distinction from houses which had evolved locally. In this sense, his establishment probably was the first of its kind in Birmingham.

32 Langford, 1, 255, mentions a field adjoining ‘the Navigation Coffee House’ as the scene of an equestrian exhibition in 1772.

33 Aris, 2 May 1774. The debating societies of Birmingham are discussed below.

34 Aris, 7 Dec. 1778.

35 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 277.Google Scholar

36 Aris, 3 Feb. 1772.

37 See Thomas, P. D. G., ‘The Beginning of Parliamentary Reporting in Newspapers, 1768–1774’, Eag. Hist. Rep. lxxiv (1959), 623–36. John Almon was prominent among those unsuccessfully persecutted by the House of Commons in Match 1771 for publishing reports of debates, and was the leading parliamentary reporter during the uncertain period which followed. He was the only journalist not defeated after the prosecutions of 1771 by the Commons' continued use of their power to exclude strangers during debates. Other newspapers either copied Almon's reports or those of the Gazetteer until 1774, when they began to print their own versions.Google Scholar

38 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 211;Google ScholarLangford, , i, 57, and footnote 13 above. I hope to examine the Birmingham Book Club in greater detail in a later article.Google Scholar

39 Freeth's invitation cards, 1770–1801, photostat copies, BRL 523407.

40 Plumb, J. H., ‘Political Man’, Man Versus Society, pp. 1819, and n. 1 to p. 19 on pp. 155–6.Google Scholar

41 Preface to The Political Songster (Birmingham, 1790), BRL 233171, pp. iii, iv.Google Scholar

42 Aris, 24 July, 14 Aug., 4, 25 Sept., 9, 16, 23, 30 Oct. 1769. In addition, a probable meeting of the freeholders of Staffordshire was noticed on 13 November. An added reason for excitement was the unopposed return of Sir Thomas Skipwith, the independent candidate, in the Warwickshire by election in March 1769, which followed the death of William Bromley (Hist. Parl., i, 399400).Google Scholar Birmingham's unanimity on this occasion was a matter for self–congratulation (Aris, 20 Mar. 1769), and on 25 September, it was associated with the petitioning movement in the county by ‘Several Independent Freeholders’. Particularly significant was the argument of ‘Aemilius’ on 23 October: ‘As Birmingham is a commercial town, whose very being depends upon the encouragement and success of trade, which can never prosper unless the General Liberties and Rights of the People are preserved inviolate, it is incumbent upon us to oppose with vigour any invasion of the Constitution. In this just cause, it is hoped the landed interest will join, and indeed, all parties concur.’ In the event, however, the Warwickshire petition failed to materialize, despite expectations strong enough for The Independent Chronicle to include the county among those publicly thanked on 13 January 1770. See Rudé, George, Wilkes and Liberty, a Social Study of 1763 to 1774 (Oxford, 1962), p. 133, n. 3.Google Scholar

43 Aris, 7 Nov. 1768.

44 Aris, 9 Jan. 1769.

45 Aris, 6, 13 Mar. 1769.

46 The attention drawn to the use of John Baskerville's type shows that this was to be no ordinary serial publication, and that special pains were being lavished on its production. Baskerville, one of the outstanding figures in the history of printing, was also one of the leading personalities in Birmingham at this time, and several of the other printers in the town, including Myles Swinney of the Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle, learnt their trade in his workshops at Easy Hill. Swinney, who set up his own type foundry in 1785, is said to have acquired some of Baskerville's matrices

when the master printer's stock was auctioned following his death in 1775. Baskerville, an avowed Deist, and a disciple of the Earl of Shaftesbury, was in contact with many of the intelligentsia of his day, including Benjamin Franklin, a close friend since 1758, and Voltaire, with whom the printer exchanged letters in 1771, and whose works he may have been planning to publish in translation at the time. Baskerville was well known in Birmingham for the distinct individualism of his opinions, especially on religion and superstition, but, so far as the ordering of society was concerned, his views led him to an enlightened and rational paternalism, rather than to more revolutionary conclusions. This may explain why the serial edition of Wilkes' writings, though set in Baskerville's type, did not actually carry his imprint when it was collected and published as a single volume. However, although the master stood aloof on this occasion, he seems to have had no scruples about John Freeth, and the acknowledged publications of the Baskerville press two years later included the 1771 edition of the poet's Political Songster (BRL 81720). That such work could come from the press of one who was at the same time an associate of men like Franklin and Voltaire, and whose other work drew subscrip tions from many of the first names in Europe, is an indication of the way in which a printer, especially one as famous as Baskerville, might act as a link, both in person and by his work, between the fame of the few and the obscurity of the multitude: ‘The Republic of Letters ’ was no mere fiction. Thus, for example, given the association of Swinney with Baskerville, and the fact that, in 1771, the latter may have been contemplating an English edition of Voltaire's works, it is tempting to see in the conjunction of the two considerations a possible explanation of the appearance of the French sage's Thoughts on Religion in the Warwickshire Journal during that year, when the paper was under Swinney's management. Baskerville's own views on the subject reinforce the conjecture. See Hill, Joseph, The Bookmakers and Booksellers of Old Birmingham (Birmingham, privately printed 1907), pp. 61, 63;Google ScholarBennett, William, Baskerville, John, the Birmingham Printer, his Press, Relations, and Friends, 1 vols. (Birmingham, 1937), i, 9, 114–5, ii, 27–9, 32;Google ScholarSchofield, R. E., The Lunar Society of Birmingham, pp. 23–4, and footnote 9 above.Google Scholar

47 James Sketchley was typical of the middling businessman and Jack-of-all-trades who played such an important part in provincial town life. Until 1759 a printer, bookseller and auctioneer in Tamworth, he opened his Birmingham Universal Register Office in 1760. This was an employment exchange based on the London prototype established by Sir John and Henry Fielding in 1749. Sketchley was best known in Birmingham as an auctioneer and as the compiler of a series of trades directories of the town, but these were not his only interests. He was an intimate friend of John Freeth, an enthusiastic Freemason, and much involved in local publishing and journalism. He and his partner, Thomas Luckman of Coventry, produced Luckman and Sketchley's Coventry Gazette and Birmingham Chronicle between 1757 and 1762, and in 1764, the two of them, together with J. Jones of Coventry and Thomas Warren junior of Birmingham, tried their hands unsuccessfully at magazine publication, first with Jones' Coventry, Warwick, and Birmingham Magazine, the earliest recorded local literary periodical, and then with The Birmingham Register, or Entertaining Museum, published on alternate weeks in Coventry and Birmingham to avoid stamp duty, which ran until 1765. In 1770, Sketchley, this time collaborating with Orion Adams, revived the magazine as The Repository, or Weekly General Entertainer; the partners were also responsible for the Birmingham and Wolverhampton Chronicle, one of the three original sources of what became Swinney's Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle. Though their nature makes them virtually impossible to trace, and conclusions can therefore never be absolutely free from speculation, there can be little doubt that personal connexions of the kind which existed in Birmingham between local printers, newspapermen and small time businessmen, formed one of the avenues by which ideas were disseminated, especially when it is far from implausible to relate them to the influence of a man like Baskerville, who was in contact with a wider world. Many of these Birmingham citizens were Freemasons, and I hope to explore their activities in this, and in other respects, in a future article. See Walker, Benjamin, ‘Birmingham Directories’, Trans. Birm. Arch. Soc. LVIII (1934), 113;Google ScholarHill, Joseph, Bookmakers, pp. 6475;Google ScholarCranfield, G. A., Handlist of English Provincial Newspapers and Periodicals, 1700–1760, p. 6.Google Scholar

48 Aris, 20 Mar. 1769, ‘Epigram on the Bill for Removing Public Nuisances’.

49 Aris, 16 Apr. 1770.

50 Aris, 23 Apr. 1770.

51 The political traditions of Wenlock were such that the resolutions of the burgesses on this occasion probably indicated not so much a desire for change as their wish to maintain the borough's undisturbed tradition of uncontested elections. The ‘free, safe, and peacable exercise of their rights’ implied specifically the freedom to go on being represented in Parliament by the Forester family, of whom thirteen, not counting relatives, sat for Wenlock between 1529 and 1885. Thus the resolutions passed by the burgesses were probably more significant for the attention which they attracted in places like Birmingham than for the novelty of their implications in Wenlock itself. See Hist. Parl., i, 364; ii, 450–1.Google Scholar

52 Aris, 29 Apr., 13 May 1771; Rudé, , Wildes and Liberty, pp. 158–64.Google Scholar

53 Aris, 19 Aug. 1771.

54 Rudé, , Wildes and Liberty, pp. 166, n. 1; 170; 195. When Bull succeeded Sir Robert Ladbroke as M.P. for London in November 1773, he became the first member to take his seat after giving specific pledges to his electors.Google Scholar

55 The following account of Worcester politics is based on Hist. Parl., i, 425–7.Google Scholar

56 Aris, 8 Nov. 1773.

57 On the occasion of the first poll in 1773, Sir Watkin arrived too late to arouse much support or interest on his own account, and merely took over Kelly's campaign. Nevertheless, he managed to poll 635 against 900 for Thomas Bates Rous. His adoption of a Wilkite stance, and the success of his petition on 8 February 1774 to have the return annulled, drew attention to the contest, and at the second poll on 1 March 1774, when neither side dared to try and influence the result, Sir Watkin's position improved from 635 to 713, while the vote for Nicholas Lechmere, temporarily substituted for Rous, fell ominously from 900 to 796. At the general election later in the year, Lewes' share of the poll rose to 736, but he again finished third behind Rous and John Walsh with 981 and 893 votes respectively. In 1780 Sir Watkin once more finished third with 711 votes against 1,106 for Rous, and 847 for the Hon. William Ward. The figures bespeak both the consistency of Lewes' support, and the fundamental hopelessness of his cause. See Hist. Parl., i, 425–7.Google Scholar

58 Bernard Donoughue, British Politics and the American Revolution, the Path to War, 1773–1775 (London, 1964), p. 196.Google Scholar

59 Aris, 12 Aug. 1776, 17 Mar. 1777. The plaintiff in the first case was a Mr Molton, and in the second, Lewes himself.

60 Hist. Parl., i, 426, quoting Henry Strachey to Lord Clive, n Feb. 1774.Google Scholar

61 Not only did more than fifty freemen walk from London to Worcester during February 1774 in order to vote for Lewes at the second by-election poll, but his London friends also formed a club in the capital during the following August to support him at the general election. This had yet to be announced, but Lewes' men were meeting every fortnight, and were ready for action when the time came. See Aris, 14 Feb., 8 Aug. 1774.

62 Their strength was offset by the influence of the country gentlemen over the local out-voters. See Aris, 21 Feb. 1774, before the second by-election poll: ‘The city voters are much in favour of Sir Watkin Lewes, but the friends of Mr Lechmere apprehend that, through the influence of the country gentlemen in the neighbourhood, the out-voters will turn the scale so far as to secure the election.’

63 When Lewes was chaired by his supporters after his first defeat in November 1773, he espoused the general cause of the freedom of elections, and associated with it the particular grievance of the Worcester freemen. His address before the second by–election poll referred to ‘the late corrupt proceedings by the enemies of their country, and to your particular liberty’. See Aris, 29 Nov. 1773; 21 Feb. 1774.

64 Donoughue, , British Politics and the American Revolution, p. 196.Google Scholar

65 Aris, 24 Oct. 1774.

66 Aris, 12 Dec. 1774, reporting the hearing in the court of King's Bench of John Steel, journeyman potter, vs the Corporation of Worcester. Steel had been refused his freedom on the grounds that, as an apprentice, he had not fulfilled the necessary residence requirements. Lord Mansfield's judgment for Steel enfranchised ‘several other men belonging to the manufactory, who, … these fifteen or sixteen years have applied for their freedom, but were always refused for the above reasons’.

67 Aris, 8 Nov. 1773.

68 Aris, 8 Aug. 1774.

69 Aris, 22 Aug. 1774. The description is paraphrased from that in the paper.

70 Aris, 22 Aug. 1774.

71 Aris, 10 Oct. 1774.

72 At least not specifically; but ‘The Independent Constitutional Society of the Freeholders of Warwickshire’, announced in Aris' paper of 7 Nov. 1774 to celebrate and to consolidate Sir Charles Holte's victory in the contested Warwickshire election, may well have owed a good deal of its initial impetus to enthusiasm first aroused by the Worcester contest. Also, the artisans' debating societies formed in Birmingham at this time can be associated with the interest aroused by Sir Watkin Lewes' campaigns.

73 The fact that it was printed not as an advertisement, but in the column of the paper devoted to local news and commentary, where the first cautious signs of authentic ‘editorial ‘opinion were beginning to appear, suggests some degree of countenance for the address by the Birmingham paper.

74 Aris, 14 Aug. 1780.

75 Hist. Parl., i, 400. An analysis of the poll book, published after the election, shows the voting of the towns of Hemlingford Hundred:Google Scholar

76 The demonstration for the first time of the crude voting strength of the Birmingham area did not ipso facto signal the appearance of a fully organized ‘Birmingham interest’. Despite the near unanimity of 1774, opinion in the town was divided on the American War, and the supporters of the minority at the election contained several prominent Birmingham names, Boulton's among them. In 1780, steps were taken prior to the county meeting to ensure a nomination acceptable to Birmingham, and by 1784, the newly formed Birmingham Commercial Committee was taking the initiative in the town's deliberations. See Boulton and Watt Collection, Assay Office, Birmingham: John Mordaunt to Matthew Boulton, 11 Nov. 1774; transcript of letter from ‘Veritas’ to the London Evening Post, 7–9 Feb. 1775 in ‘America’ box; undated note from Lady Aylesford to Boulton concerning the possible candidature of her son, Lord Guernsey, for the Warwickshire seat (Guernsey's name was put forward as a possible ‘lordly’ candidate to succeed Sir Charles Mordaunt, but he withdrew in favour of Mordaunt's son John). See also Dartmouth, H.M.C., iii, 252–3, Thomas Gem to the Earl of Dartmouth, 14 Sept. 1780; Aris, 11 Sept. 1780; 9 Feb., 29 Mar., 5 Apr. 1784.Google Scholar

77 Hist. Parl., i, 322.Google Scholar

78 Rickards, a Birmingham attorney, may have been involved in Sir Charles Holte's own campaign, though whether as an organizer or a victim is not clear. He inserted a notice in Aris on 7 November 1774, asking for information on those who had damaged his premises during the when Sir Charles had made his triumphal entry into Birmingham after the election. Rickards was at pains to point out that, contrary to common report, he had received no compensation for the damage from Holte's committee.

79 Sir Henry Houghton's bill ‘For the relief of Protestant Dissenting Clergymen, Schoolmasters, and others, in the affair of subscription’ passed its third reading in the House of Commons on 25 March 1773, but was thrown out by the House of Lords. Sir Roger Newdigate of Areley, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, member for Oxford University, took a leading part in the defeat of the bill. See Barlow, R. B., Citizenship and Conscience, a Study in the Theory and Practice of Religious Toleration in England during the Eighteenth Century (Pittsburgh, 1962), pp. 184–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

80 Stephen Addington had been Independent minister at Market Harborough since 1752; he ran a Dissenting Academy, and was the author of several books on education, as well as one on the effects of enclosures. That such a man should support one of Hungerford's reputation was not as odd as it may seem, Hungerford, who lived at Dingley Hall, Market Harborough (Hist. Parl., iii, 255),Google Scholar was a neighbour; moreover, Addington was theologically a conservative, and may well have been among those ministers, mainly from country districts, who had presented a counter-petition on 29 January 1773, opposing the action of the General Body of Protestant Dissenting Ministers, which led to Houghton's relief bill. See D.N.B., i, 121,Google Scholar and Barlow, , Citizenship and Conscience, p. 184.Google Scholar

81 Circumstantial evidence in support of this interpretation comes also from the opposite side. On 12 December 1774, the Tory Jopson's Coventry Mercury printed ‘The Leicestershire Compromise’, lines by ‘T. Wagg’, ‘Occasioned by the general attack of Dissenters upon the Revd. Stephen Addington on account of his generous declaration in favour of Mr Hungerford’:

Truce with your jarring politics,

My plan will make all even;

Let Pochin take the Schismatics,

Give Hungerford Saint Stephen.

82 This card is in a newspaper cutting book among the records of the Birmingham Book Club in the District Bank, Bennett's Hill, Birmingham, 1.

83 Aris, 21 Mar. 1774.

84 The questions advertised in Aris on 25 Apr. 1774 included the following, reproduced here together with the resolutions which were recorded in the paper on 2 May:

“‘Is Mr Wilkes, considering his public and private Character and his Circumstances, a proper Person to Represent in Parliament any County, City, or Borough in this Kingdom?”—Resolved that he was a very proper person.

“Is Colonel Luttrell a legal Member for the County of Middlesex?”—Resolved that he was not.

“Whether the Act of Parliament lately passed respecting the Bostonians is founded upon the Principles of Justice or Equity?”—Resolved that it was founded on neither.’

Similar questions and resolutions were printed in Aris on 21, 28 Mar.; and on 4 Apr.

85 Freeth, John, The Political Songster, 1771, Addressed to the Sons of Freedom and Lovers of Humour (Birmingham, Baskerville, 1771), BRL 81720, pp. 99100. For the involvement of the Baskerville press, and its significance, see footnote 46 above.Google Scholar

86 Langford, 1, 240, takes the meeting on 1 April as ‘the first which was held for actual discussion’, probably because this was the first whose resolutions were printed in Aris, but there is nothing positive to indicate that the meeting advertised for 25 March did not take place as planned.

87 Unless otherwise explained, subsequent dates referring to the meetings of the debating societies are those of the issue of Aris in which the relevant notice appeared.

88 ‘N.B. A plan has been formed, and will be put into execution, that cannot fail of preserving order and regularity, and notwithstanding the illiberal attempts that have been made to suppress this society, yet there is no doubt to be made, as some respectable persons have promised their aid and support, but it will soon become the first society of the kind in the kingdom.’

89 It was to meet on Thursdays in the assembly room of the Red Lion Inn, Wolverhampton, and was to circulate its questions and resolutions by handbill.

90 The notice of the Birmingham Old Robin Hood Society was signed by J. Jones, who had issued the notices of the original society as president until 4 July. The Birmingham Robin Hood Free Debating Society announced that it still met at the Red Lion, and would do so on the morrow under the presidency of Shatford. Henceforward, the two societies advertised separately.

91 The notice referred to an admission fee of 6d., and to ‘customary allowances’, which suggests that the society had been meeting regularly. This, and the reversion to the original name, show that the club's local origins were more permanent than a short-lived response to the political excitements of 1774.

92 See notice of 6 June 1774.

93 Langford, 1, 243, 245. Langford also notices a series of lectures which were being given at the time on English pronunciation by a Mr Walker, ‘Author of the Rhyming Dictionary, and General Idea of a Pronouncing Dictionary’.

94 They began at eight o'clock, and finished at a quarter past ten.

95 Milton's own lines were:

…deep on his Front engraven

Deliberation sat and publick care;

And Princely counsel in his face yet shon.

96 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 217,Google Scholar cites only the parody, but quotation at length shows that ‘Alpha's’ attitude and aims were more constructive than mere supercilious mockery. In this respect, his letter compares favourably with that of ‘Ironicus’ in Jopson's Coventry Mercury on 13 July 1772, which ended with ‘An account of money expended by the Zociety inztituted vor the zupport of Liberty in this parish: Paid Dr Bolus vor a plaister vor Ralph Henpeck's head which was broke by his wife as he went whoame vuddled vrom the last meeting of this zociety, vor which reazen he was looked on as a zufferer in the cause of Liberty—6d.’ The Coventry letter made fun of a stereotyped country bumpkin; ‘Alpha’ wrote from experience, and even while raising a laugh, took the society at the Red Lion seriously.

97 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 217,Google Scholar refers to the Amicable Debating Society's complaints of attempted suppression. This is a misinterpretation of Langford, 1, 241. It was the Free Debating Society which complained, and Langford, noticing the coincidence of the complaint in Aris with the Amicable Debating Society's first notice, suggests a rivalry between the two societies.

98 Langford, 1, 242, suggests that the questions were pointed specifically at the rival society. The implication of the first question is obvious enough; less so those of the other two. The third was possibly directed at the spurious patriotism affected by the political opposition; the second may refer to occasional conformity.

99 Attention was drawn to this procedure in the notice of 2 May 1774.

100 Aris, 18, 25 Nov. 1776. Between 1765 and 1779, when it was opened, the building of the Birmingham General Hospital played a major part in local life. Discussion of the project began in 1765 and, by 1768, a series of concerts had been organized to support the charity. Progress was slowed down by the financial stringencies of the American War, and by the counter-attractions of more profitable investment in canals and more pleasurable subscription to the theatre, but by 1777, the hospital was attracting attention over a wide area, and its patrons included the Earl of Dartmouth and Lords Clarendon and Warwick. The festivals of concerts and oratorios for the benefit of the new foundation, which became a major event in Birmingham's calendar, and a regular attraction for the Quality of the region, began in 1778, and the charity was the subject of sermons in the principal Birmingham churches. An annual subscription, headed by Lord Craven, was opened in 1779. The hospital's standing committee included Sir Charles Holte, Sir Robert Lawley, who succeeded him as M.P. for Warwickshire in 1780, Sir George Shuckburgh, the other new county member, and Robert Augustus Johnson, Esq., of Kenilworth, the most obscure member of the Lunar Society. At least three other Lunar Society members, Matthew Boulton, Dr William Small, and William Withering, were prominent in hospital affairs. See Aris, 30 Sept., 18 Nov. 1765, 7 Sept. 1778, 9 Aug., 20 Sept. 1779; V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 218;Google Scholar Langford, 1, 160–1; Dartmouth, H.M.C., vii, 235,Google Scholar Dr John Ash to the Earl of Dartmouth, 3 Apr. 1777; Schofield, R. E., The Lunar Society of Birmingham, p. 88.Google Scholar

101 Aris, 28 Mar., 11 Apr., 23 May, 6, 20 June, 18 July, 15 Aug. 1774.

102 Aris, 27 Feb. 1775.

103 Aris, 4, 18 Apr., 9, 23 May 1774.

104 BRL, Hutton-Beale MSS, Hutton, 24, William Hutton to ‘the President of the Debating Society’, 29 July 1774. The problem of remedies for distress among the common people was among the questions advertised on 18 July for the meeting on the 19th. These seem to have been postponed. Aris, 25 July 1774, contained no order paper from the society, but the summary of resolutions printed on 1 August fits that of 18 July. The questions were thus probably debated a week later than originally advertised, on 26 July. Hutton's letter complained that in discussion of the problem of distress, which, he said, was taken second, the question was never put. The report on 1 August recorded that ‘the second question was debated for near an hour and a half, when the society resolved to refer it to a certain great assembly, who will, it is presumed, put it off sine die’.

105 Aris, 9, 16 May 1774.

106 Though no specific evidence remains of debating societies during the years 1780 to 1789, they were a familiar enough part of town life to merit inclusion in a comedy billing at the New Street Theatre in 1785, when Mr Cowdroy's ‘Celebrated Satyric, Humorous, and Entertaining Dissertation on Faces ‘featured’ The faces of a learned Pedant, with his Speech as President of a Debating Society’, and ‘The two faces of an unlearned Pedant’. See Langford, 1, 394.

107 V.C.H., Warwicks, VII, 217.Google Scholar

108 V.C.H., Warwicks, vii, 277. Amongst Freeth's own invitation cards (BRL 523407) is one from the Society for Free Debate for 26 September 1791, announcing a meeting at Mr McCorkell's Assembly Rooms to discuss ‘which is most conducive to the happiness of man, a state of nature or civilization?’Google Scholar

109 Bissett signed the society's notices in Aris during 1792 and 1793 as president. His memoirs mention not only his debating activities, but also other related occupations. Although he himself did not drink, he was fond of tavern company:

‘Convivial parties used often to meet at “The Poet Freeth's”, as also at Joe Warden's, and at “The Fountains”, where I very frequently attended, but my general evenings were spent at “The Union”, “Shakespeare”, or “Hen and Chickens Tavern”, then kept by Mrs Lloyd. I was president for many years of a debating society, and president also of Saint Andrew's Club, and in the Masonic Order, I was Provincial Grand Master for the County of Warwick.’

Bissett was included in a group portrait of Freeth's friends at his coffee house, painted in 1790, and was deputy chairman of the dinner commemorating the French Revolution, which precipitated the Priestley Riots in 1791. See Dudley, T. B. (ed.), Memoir of fames Bissett, written by himself (Birmingham, 1904), pp. 76, 78.Google Scholar

110 Aris, 25 Jan. 1790.

111 Aris, 15 Mar. 1790.

112 Langford, 1, 387.

113 Aris, 11 Mar. 1793.

114 Aris, 21 Oct. 1793.

115 V.C.H., Warwicks, VII, 277.Google Scholar

116 Light, S. W., Poet John Frceth, p. 23.Google Scholar

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

118 The Life and Adventures of Job Nott, Bucklemaker, of Birmingham (Birmingham, 1793), BRL 63937. p. 17.Google Scholar Pamphlets, usually written in fake vernacular, by various members of the ‘Nott’ family, typical Birmingham master craftsmen, and fictitious paradigms of virtue and patriotism, continued to appear until 1850. See The Catalogue of the Birmingham Collection (1918), pp. 696700;Google ScholarWebb, R. K., The British Wording Class Reader, Literacy and Social Tension, 1790–1848 (London, 1955). PP. 43–4, 57–8.Google Scholar

119 For a comparison of the Birmingham pattern of agitation during the nineteenth century with that of Manchester, see Briggs, Asa, The Age of Improvement (London, 1959), pp. 208–9.Google Scholar

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