The name of Muntz is printed across the map of Birmingham almost as commonly as Tesco or Asda. There is a Muntz Park in Selly Oak (off Umberslade Road), a tower block called Muntz House in Ladywood, and a Muntz Street in Small Heath.
This is not altogether surprising, for Birmingham was once awash with Muntzes; so much so that it’s easy to mix them all up. Three of them were Members of Parliament, three were called Philip, and most of them sported great bushy beards. If the surname itself doesn’t exactly sound local, this is no surprise either. The Muntz family originated far away in the North-east of Europe, before heading westwards.
It was Philip Frederic Muntz, who crossed the great divide into England, shortly after the French Revolution, and here he established himself as a merchant and manufacturer in Birmingham. The firm of Muntz & Purden specialised in steel toys, with its headquarters in St Paul’s Square.
Having married the daughter of his business partner, Catherine Purden, Philip Frederic settled down at Selly Hall on the Worcestershire fringe of the town.
Philip senior died in 1811, but there were already two more Muntzes on the conveyor-belt. George Frederic Muntz combined the life of an industrialist with that of a radical politician. His chief claim to fame, industrially speaking, was in patenting the alloy known as Muntz Metal, which was used for the protective sheathing of ships’ hulls. By the mid-1840s Muntz’s company was producing some 4,000 tons of the stuff a year.
In terms of his politics, George Frederic was just as ambitious. After cutting his teeth in the cause of Reform, George replaced Joshua Scholefield as one of Birmingham’s two Liberal MPs in 1840, and represented the town until his death in 1857.
George’s younger brother, Philip – younger by all of 17 years – began his political career as an alderman on the town council, and was elected as Birmingham’s second ever mayor in 1839. Only after his elder brother’s death did the thoughts of Philip Henry Muntz turn to Westminster. And when Birmingham was awarded a third Parliamentary seat in 1867, Philip was a fairly unanimous choice, not so much for his political views as for his background in manufacturing. It was in this regard that the electors of Birmingham considered him a useful representative in the House.
How the Muntz fly by.
For the sake of completeness, we ought to tackle the fourth of the set as well. George’s son, Philip Albert Muntz, entered Parliament in 1884, though this time as a Conservative. By then Munzian politics had shifted to the right.
There was, then, a Muntz in the House of Commons for all of 66 years, though never (to avoid further confusion) more than one at a time. In all it was a longer, though less celebrated, family occupation of the green benches even than the Chamberlains.
There’s a recognisable pattern to all of this. First, secure your business and your electorate, then move to a country seat (at arm’s length from the town), and then settle into the life of the landed gentry. And if your radical brand of politics survives this upward Muntzability, then you’re an unusual fish indeed.
That flight from the city, hinted at in Philip’s move to Selly Hall, was finally accomplished by George, who (a decade into his time as a Birmingham MP) took over the lease of Umberslade Hall in Warwickshire, not far from Tanworth-in-Arden.
There was a lot to be said for cutting out the middle man, and moving the whole House of Commons up to Umberslade. Its owner (Edward Bolton King) was an MP, the new tenant was an MP, and the house had been built for an MP too, albeit 150 years earlier.
The latter was Andrew Archer, whose family were lords of the manor for some six centuries, as well as featuring in a long-running soap. Andrew’s son, you won’t be surprised to learn, was also an MP.
George Frederic Muntz was content simply to rent Umberslade for the seven remaining years of his earthly term. On his death, however, when George’s son (also called George) took possession, he purchased the estate and hall. And thus the Muntz family completed their transformation from Birmingham metal merchants to Warwickshire aristocrats; it had taken them just six decades.
Such elevated status is not to be relinquished lightly. The Muntz family remain the owners of the Umberslade estate today, running it as both as a commercial concern (mostly for livestock) and as a child-friendly farm park.
The hall itself, however, no longer houses Members of Parliament, or not as far as I know, anyway. In the 1960s it was leased out to industry, becoming the research & development headquarters for BSA-Triumph Motorcycles. There was a marvellous symmetry to all that, given the owners’ origins.
But rarely history is perfectly symmetrical. BSA moved out in 1972, and in 1978 Umberslade Hall was converted into apartments, and so it remains today. By any rights, one of the tenants ought to be an MP.