BIRCH, Joseph (1755-1833), of Red Hazles, Prescot, nr. Liverpool, Lancs.
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Family and Educationb. 18 June 1755, 1st s. of Thomas Birch, merchant, of Liverpool.1 m. 6 Mar. 1786, Elizabeth Mary, da. of Benjamin Heywood, merchant banker, of Liverpool, 1s. surv. 3da. suc. fa. 1782. cr. bt. 30 Sept. 1831. d. 22 Aug. 1833.
Capt. Liverpool ind. vols. 1797, maj. 1798.
Birch, a Unitarian, had various commercial interests, including East Indian stock and West Indian property, centred on Liverpool, where he had once harboured electoral ambitions and still occasionally participated in political affairs.2 At the general election of 1820 he again came forward for Nottingham, an expensive borough to contest, in alliance with the Whig corporation. On the hustings, he proclaimed his support for parliamentary reform as a means of re-establishing the people’s rights, but declined to endorse the call for universal suffrage and annual parliaments, as such sweeping and impractical changes would only ‘precipitate us all into the abyss of tyranny’ by increasing royal power. Nevertheless, he declared himself an orthodox Whig, who would do everything in his power to alleviate distress, and he reiterated his commitment to the abolition of abuses and reduced taxation. After a fortnight’s poll, he and Thomas Denman were returned ahead of two supporters of the Liverpool administration, and they survived a petition.3 At a celebratory dinner in August, when he denounced the ‘mean and contemptible’ bid to unseat them, he advocated free trade, but commented that the necessary preliminary of commercial relief would only occur ‘through the medium of a reformed Parliament’.4 He remained a diligent attender in the Commons, where he sometimes served on select committees and frequently presented constituency petitions, especially on mercantile matters.5 He divided with the Whigs on the civil list, 5, 8 May, and against the additional baron of exchequer in Scotland, 15 May 1820; in subsequent sessions he voted regularly with them for retrenchment and reduced taxation.
He divided against Wilberforce’s compromise motion on the Queen Caroline affair, 22 June 1820, and, as in his vote to censure ministers’ conduct towards her, 6 Feb. 1821, he acted consistently in the opposition campaign on her behalf early the following year. Following his presentation of the Nottingham corporation’s petition for ending the proceedings against her, he urged William Heygate to ‘change his view of the question’, 26 Jan., and he was in the minority on Denman’s motion to print one from the inhabitants for the impeachment of ministers, 20 Feb. He attended the City of London Tavern reform dinner, 10 Feb.6 He voted in condemnation of the Holy Alliance over Naples, 21 Feb., and Sicily, 20, 21 June. Favouring an inquiry into the corn laws, he produced statistics to disparage their operation, 6 Mar., and reminded the House that both agriculturists and consumers deserved relief; this was no time, he averred, to assist ‘one distressed party at the expense of another’. He defended the Nottingham magistrates from imputations of negligence, 15 Mar., declined to support the prayer of the Liverpool petition for advantageous repayment provisions for debtors, 19 Mar., and backed resistance to the revised corn averages, 29 Mar.7 He declared it foolhardy to justify excessive military expenditure by a favourable comparison with the war estimates of 1792, 14 May. He voted for repeal of the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, 8 May, to criticize delays in the commission on the courts, 9 May, for inquiry into Peterloo, 16 May, and the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May. Contributing to the debate on the repeal of husbandry horse duties, 18 June 1821, he reminded ministers of their former objections to motions for retrenchment and cautioned them against the futility of transferring the burden of taxation from one section of society to another.
Birch voted for Hume’s amendment to the address on distress, 5 Feb., and against the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland, 7 Feb. 1822. He was shut out of the division on the 11th, but sided with opposition for another for more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress, 21 Feb., and divided frequently for economies that year. He was in minorities for inquiry into Sir Robert Wilson’s* court martial, 13 Feb., to vote interference with Members’ post a breach of privilege, 25 Feb., and for the remission of the remainder of ‘Orator’ Hunt’s* prison sentence, 22 Mar., 24 Apr. He deprecated rumours that lobbyists for the landed interest were pressing government to assist in raising the price of corn, 25 Mar., urging that reduced taxation was the only equitable means of providing relief ‘not only to the agricultural interest, but to all classes of the community’.8 He divided for parliamentary reform, 25 Apr., 3 June, criminal law reform, 4 May, and Brougham’s motion condemning the undue influence of the crown, 24 June. He presented and endorsed Nottingham parochial petitions complaining of the poor removal bill, 13, 31 May 1822, and the laws on insolvent debtors, 14 Feb. 1823.9 He divided against the appointment of Lord Beresford as lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 19 Feb., and paired for tax reductions of £7,000,000, 28 Feb. He voted for inquiries into the Irish church establishment, 4 Mar., and the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and to repeal the foreign enlistment bill, 16 Apr. He divided for information on Inverness elections, 26 Mar., parliamentary reform, 24 Apr., and alteration of the Scottish representative system, 2 June. He voted to relieve Barbados and the Leeward Islands from taxes on their trade, 17 Mar., 9 June. In presenting his constituents’ anti-slavery petition, 8 May, he declared his support for any reasonable measure which might ameliorate the condition of colonial slaves, though he disagreed with their claim that no improvements had yet been made.10 At a local dinner in September 1823 he spoke of his long-standing commitment to civil and religious liberty, applauded the corporation’s revised policy on the nomination of honorary freemen, and denounced the Nottingham Peace Act of 1803 as nothing more than ‘a punishment ... for returning two Whig Members’.11
Birch was added to the standing committee of the West India planters and merchants’ committee, 10 Feb. 1824.12 He divided for information on Catholic burials, 6 Feb., and had something to say on the emigration of artisans, 12 Feb., and the insufficient reduction of the silk duties, 22 Mar. A consistent opponent of the aliens bill, he congratulated the Nottingham corporators for their stand against this ‘unjust, arbitrary and unconstitutional measure’ on presenting their hostile petition, 30 Mar.13 He favoured legislation to permit felons to be defended by counsel, 6 Apr., and spoke and voted to postpone the additional churches grant, 12 Apr.14 He divided for inquiries into the state of Ireland, 11 May, and its church establishment, 27 May, and for Brougham’s motion condemning the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He voted against the Irish unlawful societies bill, 15, 21 Feb. 1825, and, as he had on 28 Feb. 1821, for Catholic relief, 1 Mar. 1825. His only other recorded votes that session were against the duke of Cumberland’s annuity bill, 6, 10 June, and for inquiry into chancery administration, 7 June 1825. Bringing up his constituency’s petition complaining of unemployment among ‘skilful mechanics’, 13 Feb. 1826, he derided the corn laws as a bolster to the landed interest, ridiculed the inconsistency of government’s economic policy, dwelt upon the impossibility of besting foreign commercial rivals ‘when no competition was allowed in corn’, and advocated tax reductions and tithe reform as a means of alleviating distress. He was in the minority for a select committee to consider the silk trade petitions, 24 Feb., and presented one from the Nottingham hosiers, 16 Mar.15 He voted in condemnation of the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar. He divided for cuts in military expenditure, 3 Mar., to abolish the treasurership of the navy, 7 Apr., against giving the president of the board of trade a ministerial salary, 10 Apr., and for inquiry into the corn laws, 18 Apr. He voted for reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 13 Apr., and parliamentary reform, 27 Apr. He described the price of foreign corn as already ruinous to the home producer, 5 May, and briefly recommended deferring legislation to permit the exportation of machinery, 11 May 1826.16
Birch stood again for Nottingham at the general election that summer, when he reaffirmed his support for economies and his opposition to the corn laws and pledged to vote for the abolition of slavery. Repudiating opposition attempts to foment a bread riot, he cautioned his supporters against unwittingly assisting in an attempt to unseat him by petition, just ‘as he was before, by perjury’. He was returned at the head of the poll, with his former Whig colleague Lord Rancliffe, after a severe contest against a Tory pretender.17 He voted for Hume’s amendment to the address, 21 Nov. 1826, and against the grant for the duke of Clarence, 16 Feb. 1827. He divided for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. He was in minorities for the lower pivot prices of corn, 9, 27 Mar., and against increased protection, 12 Mar.; on 6 Apr. he maintained that the warehousing system was a sine qua non of government policy. He voted to postpone the committee of supply, 30 Mar., and for a select committee on the Irish miscellaneous estimates, 5 Apr. He was not at first, apparently, intending to support the new Canning ministry, as, according to Sir Robert Heron*, he begged Michael Angelo Taylor ‘to keep for him the seat next his own, directly opposite to the treasury bench’. But on the first day’s sitting after the Easter recess, 1 May, he sat on the government side, his son Thomas having that morning been appointed private secretary to William Lamb*, the Irish secretary.18 On the 25th, as ‘an advocate for liberal principles’, he declared his support for Canning, ‘whose principles were manifestly more liberal than those by which several of the late ministers were actuated’. He voted against the bill relating to the magistrates of Coventry, 11, 18 June, when he defended them from censure by alluding to their exemplary conduct during the Luddite riots. He divided for the Canadian water communications improvement grant, 12 June 1827.
On voting for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828, he objected to ‘those odious and intolerant laws which had so long disgraced our statute book’. He voted to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 21 Mar., and spoke for relaxing the corn laws, 22 Apr., dividing in this sense on 29 Apr. He voted in minorities to rationalize the law relating to customs and excise prosecutions, 1 May, and against the archbishop of Canterbury’s registrar bill, 16 June. He brought up, but declined to endorse, the Nottingham Sion chapel petition against Catholic relief, 8 May, and voted in favour of this, 12 May. He presented the Nottingham artisans’ petition against repealing the Small Notes Act, 20 June, declaring that ‘whatever attempts may be made to restrain the march of intellect, these petitioners are advancing at double quick time’. He paired against the misapplication of public money on Buckingham House, 23 June, and voted against the additional churches bill, 30 June, and to reduce the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July 1828. On bringing up two favourable Nottingham petitions, he applauded the ‘wise and honest course’ adopted by the Wellington administration, 18 Feb., and duly voted for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829. He was incredulous of the West India Dock Company’s need to raise capital, 14 Apr. He divided to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, against O’Connell’s exclusion from the House for refusing to swear the oath of supremacy, 18 May, and for Lord Blandford’s reform motion, 2 June. On a visit to his constituents in June 1829 he criticized ministers for their political failings, especially in not pressing forward with essential commercial liberalization.19
He did not vote for Knatchbull’s amendment to the address, 4 Feb., but insisted on the extent of national distress, 8 Feb. 1830, alluding to the ‘inconceivably distressing’ condition of factory employees in Leeds and Sheffield, as well as the ‘almost entire destitution’ of Nottingham’s work force. He called on government to implement its proposed salutary reforms without delay, though he remained confident of the economy’s viability. He divided for reduced taxation, 15 Feb., and subsequently participated regularly in the opposition’s renewed campaign for economies that session. He voted for parliamentary reform, 18 Feb., to enfranchise Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and again to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar.; he paired for reform, 28 May. On 17 Mar. he commended a Nottingham petition against the truck system to the House as ‘a sensible and touching description of the hardships to which a most deserving class is exposed by this oppressive practice’; he brought up others against the sale of beer bill, 1 Apr., 4 May, and divided against the measure, 1 July. He voted for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. He paired for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, and divided for this in person, 7 June. He paired for inquiry into the Canadian judiciary, 25 May, but was present to vote for one on the government of Ceylon, 27 May. He attended the meeting of Members interested in the West Indian colonies, 2 June, but voted for Brougham’s motion to end colonial slavery, 13 July 1830.20
Despite having reached the age of 75, Birch intended to stand again at the general election that year, but at length declined on grounds of ill health, feeling unequal to the heavy session which lay ahead.21 At a celebratory dinner in December 1830 he denied the rumour that his resignation had been precipitated by Rancliffe’s retirement or by any fear of a contest. He also spoke of the ‘unmerited obloquy and gross defamations’ which his former constituents had endured in the cause of independence, and welcomed the return of Denman, who, as attorney-general in the Grey ministry, would ‘never persecute the press, the great bulwark of our rights and liberties’.22 He was created a baronet in September 1831 and died in August 1833. According to the Liverpool Mercury, he was a ‘steady and consistent Whig’, who ‘conciliated political hostility not by truckling to principle or party, but by an unswerving rectitude of conduct ... and by honest and independent votes in the senate’.23 Following the rebellion in the West Indies and the emancipation of the slaves there, he remade his will, 10 July 1833, ‘in consequence of the change of circumstances and from the unfavourable alteration in the prospect of my affairs in Jamaica’. By it, he left the bulk of his landed and remaining personal wealth to his only surviving son, Thomas Bernard (1791-1880), Liberal Member for Liverpool, 1847-1852.24
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Authors: Stephen Farrell / Simon Harratt
- 1. Perhaps the Thomas Birch who married, at St. George’s, Liverpool, 12 Sept. 1754, Eleanor Bushby, who was possibly the da. of Bernard Bushby of Whitehaven, Cumb., where this Thomas’s fa. had once lived (IGI).
- 2. Oxford DNB; see LIVERPOOL.
- 3. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 207-8; M.I. Thomis, Politics and Society in Nottingham, 157; Nottingham Rev. 10 Mar. 1820.
- 4. Nottingham Rev. 11 Aug. 1820.
- 5. Black Bk. (1823), 140; Session of Parl. 1825, p. 451.
- 6. The Times, 11 Feb. 1821.
- 7. Ibid. 7, 16, 20, 30 Mar. 1821.
- 8. Ibid. 26 Mar. 1822.
- 9. Ibid. 14 May, 1 June 1822, 15 Feb. 1823.
- 10. Ibid. 9 May 1823.
- 11. Nottingham Rev. 26 Sept. 1823.
- 12. The Times, 11 Feb. 1824; Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915/4.
- 13. The Times, 13 Feb., 13, 31 Mar., 15 May 1824.
- 14. Ibid. 13 Apr. 1824.
- 15. Ibid. 14 Feb., 17 Mar. 1826.
- 16. Ibid. 6 May 1826.
- 17. Nottingham Rev. 9, 23 June 1826.
- 18. Heron, Notes, 168.
- 19. Nottingham and Newark Mercury, 20 June 1829.
- 20. Inst. of Commonwealth Stud. M915/11/7; St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 2871.
- 21. Glynne-Gladstone mss 195, T. to J. Gladstone, 21 July; Nottingham and Newark Mercury, 24 July 1830.
- 22. Nottingham and Newark Mercury, 4 Dec. 1830.
- 23. Ibid. 31 Aug.; Liverpool Mercury, 30 Aug. 1833.
- 24. PROB 11/1826/9; Gent. Mag. (1833), ii. 369.