In the first quarter of 1839, the General Convention of the Industrious Classes - attended by 53 formally elected Chartist Delegates from all over the country - assembled in London. Its purpose was to manage and present to Parliament a massive nationwide petition calling for political reform. John Collins, the well-known Birmingham radical and leading spokesman for the Birmingham Political Union was among the Delegates attending the Convention.
However, since the time of the 1832 Reform Bill, the Bull Ring had been the traditional open-air meeting place in Birmingham.
With the onset of Chartism, the townspeople gathered in their thousands around Nelsons Monument in the Bull Ring to hear speakers on parliamentary reform or, in the case of the illiterate, to hear the local newspaper being read. They wanted to know what was happening at the General Convention, and especially what progress was being made with the National Petition calling for electoral reform.
The people considered it their accepted right to congregate, and consequently the ban on public meetings carried little weight! Additionally, the absence of the well-respected, non-violent John Collins who was in London and subsequently Scotland, together with the demise of the Birmingham Political Union under its equally non-violent middle class oligarchy, left the town exposed to the hell-raising speeches of a growing number of working class militants and the physical force devotee Feargus O'Connor.
The Birmingham authorities had asked London for police support to enforce the ban on public meetings. At that time Birmingham did not have its own official police force, and Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, provoked the masses when he offered government aid, including arms, to any town or village to help put down any signs of rebellion.
So when a large crowd met in the Bull Ring on the evening of Thursday 4th July 1839 the Birmingham magistrates ordered a newly arrived detachment of 60 London police (Hansard HC Deb 09 July 1839 vol 49 cc85-8) to break up the meeting. Armed with truncheons the police charged right in and indiscriminately assaulted unsuspecting men, women and children. What had begun as a gathering to hear speakers and the latest news rapidly turned into an all-out riot.
Nor did it help the situation that relations between the public and the police had soured since May of that year when locally sworn-in constables entered houses in Birmingham in search of Chartists, and without proper warrants seized private correspondence. (London Standard 18 May 1839.)
The arrival of the military in the form of the 4th Irish Dragoons and a Rifle Brigade restored law and order to the Bull Ring, but the damage was done and thus the scene was set for the arrest of John Collins (Birmingham Chartist), William Lovett (London Chartist), and many others.
The following morning (Friday 5th July) the Convention, attended by Delegates and outraged members of the public, held a protest meeting, chaired by John Collins, at the Golden Lion Inn in Aston Street, Deritend. Like many public houses of the time, it was used for meetings as well as drinking!
The Three Resolutions
“1. That this Convention is of opinion that a wanton, flagrant, and unjust outrage has been made upon the people of Birmingham by a blood thirsty 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 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.
“3. 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.”
Published on August 26th 1839, this is a pen and ink sketch by Richard Doyle, a young English boy. It shows London police attacking people attending a peaceful rally in the Bull Ring, Birmingham on July 4th that year. The police are wearing Peel's top hat and double buttoned, swallow tailed uniform. [Image: Library of Congress]
Temple Street area of Birmingham. Showing New Hall Lane later Ann Street, later Colmore Row. To see a larger map click on the following link:
The Plan of Birmingham 1731 by Westley.
In an act of courage on the part of John Collins -- who surely knew the local authorities would seek retribution on those who censured the police and the authorities, and thus encouraged further unrest -- Collins (Not James Watson - as erroneously written in other places) took the Resolutions to Charles Watson's print shop on Temple Street.
There he ordered 500 copies of the Resolutions to be printed, and arranged for people employed as "Bill-Stickers" to post copies of the Resolutions in various parts of the town. As a result both Collins and Lovett (who signed the Resolutions) were arrested on 6th July and charged with seditious libel, and held on remand for 9 days.
"There were but a few persons present, who commenced groaning, and showed some indications of an attack on the police; but the delegates immediately interfered, and, with Mr. Lovett, insisted that the officers should not be interrupted in the discharge of their duty. Mr. Lovett then accompanied Mr Bolton to the Police-office (at Moore Street). Shortly after Mr. Collins was brought in. It appears that Mr. Collins, having heard that a warrant was out against him, surrendered himself to Mr. Bolton.
"At nine o clock Messrs. Lovett and Collins were taken before the recorder (Mr Hill) at Birmingham, Messrs. Clarke, P H Muntz, C. Shaw, F. Clarke, and W. Chance, the latter was chairman. After a lengthy investigation the chairman stated that there was sufficient evidence against them, and that they were committed for trial at the next assizes. Bail for their appearance would be accepted, £500 themselves and two sureties of £250 each, (total £1,000 forty-eight hours notice being required.)"
Moor Street Public Office & Prison
"These buildings are placed in a confined situation in Moor-street. They were erected at a heavy expense in the year 1806, and are substantially built, with an ornamental front elevation of stone. The first division of the building contains the Public-office, the upper floor of which is occupied by the magistrates, who hold their meetings here every Monday and Thursday morning. The ground floor is appropriated chiefly to the commissioners of the street act. Behind the public-office, but separated by a court yard, is the prison keeper's house, with the prison in the rear. The latter is well adapted to its purpose, clean, and as airy as the situation will allow; and subdivided, so that the male and female prisoners are kept apart.”
New & Compendious History of the Court of Warwick by Wm Smith
In anticipation of Collins and Lovett being released from gaol on July 15th a throng of about a 1,000 (Newgate Calendar) had gathered on the Warwick Road. However when the two men failed to arrive the crowd headed for the Bull Ring where the situation erupted into another round of rioting and violence, during which property was burnt and destroyed.
The destruction went on until the fire engines arrived and the Dragoons, swords drawn, galloped into the fray. Some ladies had to be rescued by ladder from upper windows.
The Indictment - A Wicked & Seditious Person
Read out at Collins' trial, the indictment stated 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."
William Scholefield - Examined by Gilbourn
I am the mayor of Birmingham. I know Collins. So far as I know, his character is that of a peaceable man. I applied to him in May last, when the meetings were begun to be holden in the Bull Ring, to use his influence to prevent disturbances.
Joseph Gillott - Examined by Gilbourn
(Gillott was the owner of the Gillott Steel Pen Company)
Collins has worked with me as a journey man for more than six years. I am a metallic pen maker. His character has been during that time in every respect as I could wish.
Three days after the guilty verdict, Judge Littledale sentenced Collins and Lovett to one year's imprisonment each in Warwick County Gaol.
The jury recommended John Collins for mercy, but Littledale chose to ignore that recommendation since he didn’t think it right to show mercy to Collins and not Lovett!
On being sentenced for seditious libel the two men were asked if they had anything to say. Lovett did not. Collins, however, requested that Justice Littledale order the two men be placed on the Debtor’s Side of the prison (where they would get better treatment and conditions) instead of the Felon’s Side. Collins cited several precedents including George Edmonds, Charles Maddox, Wm Lewis and Thomas Wooler who were sentenced for a like offence in 1821 and were confined on the Debtors' Side of the prison. Littledale refused inferring he did not have the power to do so. Collins persisted, saying eighteen months before two persons, Guest and Watts of Birmingham, were imprisoned on request to the Debtors Side, not for debt but other offence. Once again, Littledale refused, ignoring the fact that the jury had recommended Collins for mercy.
Since time immemorial, people at the bottom of the social ladder have been stepped on or treated worse than those at the top, just because of their social credentials - or lack thereof. If John Collins had been a politician, a wealthy man, or connected to the aristocracy Judge Littledale would undoubtedly have recommended Collins to the Debtor’s Side of the prison regardless of rules, regulations, or the law!
Preferential Treatment in Prison
"Gilbert Wakefield (politician), in prison, was allowed a separate parlour and the use of his library; Leigh Hunt (poet) had his piano and his flowerpots when Lord Byron, and (Thomas) Moore visited 'the wit in a dungeon;' Sir John Hobhouse of course had the comforts which a man of fortune could buy; and other genteel breakers of the law have experienced the lenity due to their condition in life.
"Not so with the 'operatives,' Lovett and Collins. Their offence was a 'seditious libel' - as was Wakefield's, Hunt's and Hobhouse's - but their punishment is that of felons."
The Annual Register
A View of the History & Politics of the Year 1839
Collins and Lovett were not allowed to wear shoes on the cold brick floor of their damp, unheated cell. Food and diet were severely restricted, consisting mainly bread and potatoes five days a week. During the first six months Collins had meat on three occasions only, and one of those was on Christmas Day when he was allowed to buy it.
One or other of the men was always sick, and at one point both men were ill in the prison infirmary. A visitor to the prison reported he was shocked by Collins’ appearance. (Dr J Robert Black to Thomas Duncombe MP). Neither fire nor candles were allowed - which may have been deemed a good thing since Lovett once discovered a "very fine black beetle" in his food.
Besides Joseph Hume, there were other Members of Parliament including Lord Brougham, William Collins (no relation), Wakely, Fielding and more who were sympathetic to Collins and Lovett. As a result the prisoners' case was the subject of much debate in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
By February 1840, six months into their prison sentence, there was enough of an outcry from the public and the newspapers (even a petition to The Queen) that the House of Commons ordered copies of memorials, petitions and other correspondence regarding Collins and Lovett to be printed in a Government Paper entitled "Warwick Gaol." It was at this point that the Warwick Magistrates made some long overdue adjustments to the prisoners' bread and potato diet with the addition of 1 lb of solid meat per week.
Following his release from prison, Collins said the one good thing to come out of it was that all the prisoners in Warwick Gaol (not just Collins and Lovett) got an improvement to their prison diet.
"One of the restrictions was that they (Collins and Lovett) should not be allowed to see any individual, however nearly related, except once a quarter. The wife of Collins had applied for leave to visit her husband, but it was not till the quarter had expired that she was allowed to visit him."
Mr Warburton, Member of Parliament
HC Deb 14 April 1840 vol 53 cc1103-17
A Call for Lovett and Collins to Receive Better Treatment
"While Messrs. Lovett and Collins, and the other persons to whom he had referred, were treated in the manner that had been described, the Rev. Mr. Stephens, who had been convicted of a similar offence, was actually living in the gaoler's house, and enjoying the society of his friends.
"Mr. Bronterre O'Brien and Mr. M'Douall were also treated, in Chester gaol, with much less severity than was observed towards Messrs. Lovett and Collins, though not so well as the Rev. Mr. Stephens. As an instance of the petty severities that were inflicted on Mr. O'Brien, he would mention that his snuffbox was taken away from him."
Mr Dunscombe MP
HC Deb 10 July 1840 vol 55 cc618-55
For additional information on protests and government debates against Collins' and Lovett's prison treatment, including an original copy of the Government Paper entitled "Warwick Gaol" please click here.
We know little of John Collins' wife, Hannah, except she was left bereft of his companionship and financial support during his twelve month imprisonment in Warwick Gaol, and there were three children 18, 15 and 12 years old. Fortunately, John Collins was of sufficient stature and popularity that his family was able to avoid financial ruin. His friends quickly raised the £1,000 bail, which was an excessive amount for a working man, and he received money toward his defense attorney.
During Collins' incarceration the people of Birmingham, and as far away as Dunfermline, Scotland, rallied with financial support for his family, and Working Men's Associations set up committees in Birmingham and London to handle the money. Mrs Lapworth, chair of the female wing of the Birmingham Political Union informed one of their Monday night meetings at the Lawrence Street Chapel that Mr Collins' constituents in Kettering (Northants) had sent £5 including £1 from the patriotic women of Kettering [Birmingham Journal, 5 Oct 1839] . Calling on the inhabitants of Birmingham for their support, Ryan's Royal Ampitheatre in Bradford Street put on a performance of the tragic play "Pizarro," the proceeds to benefit the John Collins' family. Well known London chartist William Cardo spoke at a meeting in Birmingham to raise funds for the families of Collins and his co-prisoner William Lovett.
After six months in prison (West p138), Collins and Lovett were allowed writing materials, and in spite of continuing gross mistreatment and declining health they used their remaining imprisonment to write their famous 130 page book entitled Chartism: A New Organization of the People. Ignoring a few well-deserved jabs at the ruling and middle classes for their rejection and apathy for political reform, and the Warwickshire jury for their prejudicial attitude against all Chartists, the book was intended to help educate the working class population, who had no access to free education, and prepare them for the exercise of their political rights.
Chartism was published in 1840 after Collins and Lovett were released from Warwick Gaol, and went into a second printing. It was well received by the public, and in reviewing the book The Odd Fellow newspaper said "the authors showed a general acquaintance with the subject, a degree of intelligence, and a high tone of moral and imaginative, that does honour to themselves and the class from which they have sprung"! The review finished by "heartily commending persons of all classes and both sexes to read the work for themselves, adopt its principles, and lend their aid to carrying out it views."
Shortly after publication some 80 leading reformers, including Lovett, Collins and Hetherington, published an address to The Political and Social Reformers of the United Kingdom calling for a National Association in order to set up plans detailed in the book.
Fergus O'Connor the owner of a popular chartist newspaper was one notable detractor. O'Connor, who rose to become the "evil genius" [Birmingham Post, Jan 28 1939] and the sole leader of the Chartist Movement and who helped sway public opinion against other Chartists leaders such as Collins and Lovett, cast aspersions on their educational effort by referring to it as "Knowledge Chartism."
"Chartism" (which sold for one shilling and went into a second printing) advocated temperance and morality, together with the importance of education and self-improvement for the masses. That philosophy formed a large part of the Christian Chartists’ creed/doctrine of which Collins was a great believer. He was deacon at the Chartist Church on Newhall Hill, Birmingham which he helped establish, and he was involved in the People's Hall of Science built on Loveday Street, Birmingham.
Lovett and Collins were self-taught men, and Collins especially understood the need to improve the education and well-being of the ‘lower orders’ having come from that end of the social spectrum. Collins was a Sunday school teacher, which in those days was the only form of education for the working poor.
Henry B Stanton in Sketches, Reforms & Reformers of Great Britain & Ireland (p 313) wrote that "Chartism" was said to be “able and eloquent, filled with the noblest sentiments, and contains suggestions for the instruction and elevation of the masses, which would, if acted upon by the government, place England a century in advance of her present position.” Needless to say, the government did not take action upon the recommendations in the book!
Warwick on the banks of the River Avon
Later, that month (27 May 1840) when the harsh treatment of other well-known Chartist prisoners came up for discussion in Parliament, Mr Warburton MP said it was the general opinion that Collins and Lovett had been treated with much more severity than expected. Furthermore, he suggested the government had acted illegally in demanding as a condition of remitting two months of their sentence that the two men should enter recognizances for 12 months. (The Examiner, May 31 1840).
Nevertheless, the two men served out their 12 month sentence in Warwick Gaol. So much for British justice!
There was some question as to whether or not the government would allow the anticipated great congregation and procession of people expected to meet John Collins. In the end commonsense prevailed, and the Home Office allowed plans for Collins' reception into Birmingham to go ahead.
Finally, after serving one long year in prison, John Collins was released at 6am on the morning of Saturday 25th July 1840 from Warwick Gaol. He was met by a crowd of supporters, and he and Lovett partook of breakfast that had been laid on for them and Collins' family and friends at the home of a Mr French in Warwick Town.
Police reports indicated a procession of several conveyances containing men and women and a long train of about 400 pedestrians that departed from The Angel Inn off the Warwick Road (a mile or so from Birmingham) at 10am.
Some 15,000 spectators formed a larger assemblage that increased as they made their way into Birmingham (Police Commissioner Burgess' letter to the Home Office.)
Various reports said the procession numbered 30,000 and reached a mile or more in length, and it was estimated (Freeman's Journal dated 31 July 1940) that approximately a 100,000 people turned out to welcome the procession through the streets of Birmingham.
At Gosta Green, between Woodcock and Duke Streets, the carriage halted and speeches were given. Addressing the mass of people as "friends, townsmen, and brother slaves" Collins spoke of his continued support for the Chartist cause and of his harsh treatment in prison which left no doubt that the authorities had much to be ashamed of.
Numbers of Confined Chartists
Chester, County Jail 29
Durham, County Jail 3
Kent, House of Correction 1
Lancaster Lancaster Castle 5
County Jail and House of Correction, Kirkdale 156
House of Correction, Preston 3
Lincoln, Lincoln Castle 1
Middlesex House of Correction, Giltspurstreet 1
Ditto, Coldbath-fields 13
Jail of Newgate 3
Westminster Bridewell 13
Monmouth, County Jail 63
House of Correction, Usk 4
Northumberland, House of Correction, Newcastle 19
Nottingham, County Jail 23
House of Correction, Southwell 12
Somerset, County Jail, Ilchester 3
Surrey, Queen's Bench Prison 2
Warwick, County Jail 28 (incl John Collins & William Lovett)
Wilts County Jail 8
House of Correction, Devizes 1
Worcester, Jail and House of Correction 3
York, York Castle 69
E. Riding, House of Correction, Beverley 2
N. Riding, House of Correction, Northallerton 12
W. Riding, House of Correction, Wakefield 19
Brecon, County Jail and House of Correction 12
Glamorgan, House of Correction, Swansea 1
Montgomery, Jail and House of Correction 50
In Leafy Sketches of Warwick by George Morley, published 1895, Warwick Gaol is described as black and dismal with the clang of the iron gates that clap like thunder, and the clank, clank of men in chains. It was a ghastly place where public hangings took place in the front of the prison gates. The prison was close to the ancient Market Place, and the hangings attracted cursing, jeering, bloodthirsty mobs! The last hanging was believed to be in 1859. Inside the prison was no less hideous, and at the end of the previous century malpractises of the lash and the silent treatment were exposed.
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