Commons revolutionary Edmund Burke’s musings spelt danger for Birmingham arms dealers, writes Chris Upton.
For perfectly understandable reasons, no weapons of any kind are permitted on the floor of the House of Commons. Michael Heseltine was even expelled from the chamber for waving the mace in the air.
Such, at least, are today’s rules. In previous centuries they were considerably more lax.
Take, for example, the infamous events of December 28, 1792, when the noted Parliamentarian Edmund Burke produced a dagger from inside his coat and hurled it to the floor of the house. As a way of making a point, it was something of a show-stopper.
Edmund Burke was one of the Commons’ finest and firiest orators, whether he was armed or not, and he was just as much a critic of his own side as of his enemies. Today he would have had the whip removed but, as I say, the rules were looser in the eighteenth century.
Burke is best remembered today for his pamphlet, published in 1790, entitled Reflections on the French Revolution. It was Burke’s forthright rebuttal of those, like Tom Paine, who championed the cause of political freedom in France and, perhaps, wished to import it into England.
Indeed, it was this issue that had rattled his cage again in 1792, when events on the other side of the Channel were beginning to turn uglier. “There’s French fraternity for you!” he shouted.
“Such is the weapon which French Jacobins would plunge into the heart of our dear King!”
This was, as it happened, less than a month before Louis XVI went to the guillotine.
Burke’s speech and dagger throwing in 1792 caused a sensation across the country, and remains one of the great moments in Parliamentary history.
But it was felt acutely by the people of Birmingham in particular, for the dagger was pointed directly at them.
Many young intellectuals felt the tug of Gallic liberty in those first months after the French Revolution, among whom was William Maxwell (1760-1834), a would-be Scottish doctor, who had not yet settled down to his chosen career.
Maxwell’s father – a Catholic, like all of the Maxwells – had been a supporter of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Neither father nor son had much time for the Hanoverians who occupied the throne of England.
Soon after the revolution broke out in Paris, William Maxwell held a fund-raising event at his home in Great Portland Street, London. The idea was to find money in order to buy arms for the revolutionaries in France. How much would such a scheme cost ?
William Maxwell’s brother, James, suggested that he might look up an old friend in Birmingham called David Blair.
Birmingham was, after all, the arms capital of England, and David Blair was himself a gun manufacturer.
We know little of David Blair, except that he had making guns and pistols in Birmingham since 1784, first in Navigation Street and then in St Paul’s Square.
Blair’s surname and his acquaintance with Maxwell suggests that he came from Scotland, perhaps from Dumfries. There were, in fact, two David Blairs, father and son, who ran the business jointly.
Blair was more than happy to put Maxwell in contact with three Birmingham sword-makers.
They were Thomas Gill, whose workshop was in Jennens Row, Samuel Dawes, a sword-cutler of Cannon Street and James Woolley & Co, who made all manner of swords, bayonets and hilts in Edmund Street.
As the town which had cheerfully supplied swords to the king’s enemies in the English Civil War, we might guess that Birmingham’s arms manufacturers would not have worried too much that their blades were wanted in a similar cause in France.
And after all, Great Britain and France were not yet at war.
All the same, this was a very risky business deal. Anti-French feeling was already running high in Birmingham and across the country. And it was only a couple of years since supporters of the French Revolution had seen their houses torched in the Priestley Riots.
David Blair and his colleagues had their hands very close to the fire.
However, Maxwell’s covert dealings did not advance much further. The Birmingham newspapers got hold of the story and from them it reached the ears of Edmund Burke.
It was not long before Burke had flung down his dagger and the scandal was out in the open.
All of this put William Maxwell in a very awkward position. First he professed his loyalty to the British Crown (though his father’s reputation somewhat went before him), and then (just to be on the safe side) he legged it.
Over in France the Scotsman was welcomed as something of a hero, and was given the singular honour of being head of the guard that led King Louis out onto the scaffold on January 21, 1793.
The irony of an ex-Jacobite heading a royal execution party was not lost on Dr Maxwell. He returned hot-foot to England, gave up politics and became a hard-working and low-profile GP instead.
As far as we can tell, the Birmingham manufacturers managed to evade public censure.
In October 1792 Thomas Gill admitted to Aris’s Gazette that he had supplied 20,000 daggers to William Maxwell, but claimed that he knew nothing of how and where they were intended to be used.
No contract could be found tying the Birmingham men to the supply of arms to France.
The go-between, David Blair, too escaped the fall-out, and he continued in business as a successful gun-maker in the Jewellery Quarter until his death in 1814. Both Blair and Maxwell got off, as it were, Scot-free.
As for Edmund Burke’s famous dagger, it’s now in the archives of Trinity College, Dublin.