The Disappearance of Thomas Attwood

In June 2013 I had a letter published in the Literary Review. It was in response to a comment in the previous month’s issue by the Oxford historian Boyd Hilton that Thomas Attwood ‘died unacknowledged, even in Birmingham’. Unacknowledged, I thought … no, he wasn’t. They erected a huge statue of him in the middle of the town. For the rest of the century the political leaders of Victorian Birmingham subscribed to a man to the idea that Attwood’s Birmingham Political Union more or less brought about the 1832 Reform Act. And they hadn’t forgotten that it was Attwood, one Friday evening in July 1839, who urged MPs to consider the first great Chartist petition. So I wrote a letter to the Literary Review about all of this.

The statue of Attwood was unveiled on 7 June 1859 in front of several thousand Brummies. They’d got a top man in to do the job – John Thomas, whose work adorned the Houses of Parliament. Nine feet high, the marble statue depicted Attwood in full flow. (With its base, the statue reached a towering 22 feet). Attwood’s old colleague George Edmunds made the speech & local writer J.A. Langford added a poetic eulogy:

Look on him moulded here,
Look on him face-to-face,
The very linaments of him are here,
His living fire still animates the stone.

Later on a band turned up to play ‘Rule Britannia’ & ‘Auld Lang Syne’ & a really good day was had by all.

When Attwood’s bank collapsed in 1865, there were calls for the statue to be moved; but those who had subscribed the £800 to get the job done in the first place made their feelings about that idea pretty clear. And so Attwood stayed put … & stayed put for a very long time. He eventually found himself in Calthorpe Park in Birmingham. A park is perhaps not the best place to put a Victorian statue. Attwood got covered in spray paint.

When I was invited recently to give a talk on Thomas Attwood at the Library of Birmingham, I was asked where the statue was now. He certainly wasn’t in Calthorpe Park. I had to confess I didn’t know. So I consulted my old friend Professor Carl Chinn. And I learned that Attwood wasn’t now in any park. The city council had put him into storage and that is where he is likely to remain. Carl, in association with Honorary Alderman Matt Redmond, had pressed for the statue to restored to a public place, but had drawn a blank.

Now this is the fate that befell John Bright, the famous Victorian radical who represented Birmingham from 1859 until 1889. Bright was spending his days in a cage in Rowley Regis until Tory MP Bill Cash engineered his rescue. Who knows where the Attwood statue is now. Of course, we have the modern statue of him reclining over the steps in Chamberlain Square. But the Victorian statue has disappeared. It’s a crying shame. One wonders if this would happen in London to a statue of one of their most famous political sons …

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