Perspective: How to Win Elections without the Right to Vote
Byline: Chris Upton
Thomas Attwood sits on the steps in Chamberlain Square, contemplating his next speech. When people ask me who he was (the explanation is on the wall several yards away) I give the simple version: he was Birmingham's first MP.
The full explanation is more than most people need or want: that in 1832 Birmingham was awarded two seats in the newly reformed Commons, and Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield were returned unopposed to fill them.
There was the same result three years later, except that in 1835 Messrs Attwood and Scholefield did not have the ballot box to themselves. A Tory - Richard Spooner - stood against them and polled 915 votes.
A tiny return for a general election, you might think, but the franchise in the 1830s was limited to those male householders who paid more than pounds 10 a year in rent. Thus there were only around 5,000 voters in a town of 125,000 people.
But was the result in 1835 the right one ? The United States and Zimbabwe do not necessarily have the monopoly on dodgy elections. 19th-century Britain had some dirty laundry as well, at least until William Gladstone's Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883.
Such, at least, was the opinion of Mr John Gilbert, a Birmingham wine merchant and pub owner, who in June 1835 found himself in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Bribery at Elections. Mr Gilbert was convinced that intimidation and threat had prevented the Tory candidate, Richard Spooner, from taking his rightful place in the House of Commons.
John Gilbert was himself a Tory and so, you could argue, he would think that, wouldn't he ?
But Gilbert was also a trader and publican, based in the Bull Ring, and like his ilk before and since, he kept his ear to the ground.
'Was there extensive intimidation in practice at the last election ?' asked the committee.
'Yes, there was,' replied Mr Gilbert. …