life stories

Thomas Clutton Salt, 1789 – 1859

Founder of the Birmingham Political Union and 1839 Convention delegate.

Thomas Clutton SaltThomas Clutton Salt was a Birmingham delegate to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention), and one of 12 delegates whose portrait (left) was drawn William Lovett’s newspaper The Charter.

Salt was one of the founder members of the Birmingham Political Union, which provided much of the driving force behind the Great Reform Act of 1832, and had rejoined when it was re-established in 1837.

A lamp manufacturer whose real interest was in currency reform, he was a late convert to universal suffrage, but took a bold initiative in calling a meeting of 12,000 women on 2 April 1838 to support the BPU’s cause.

Salt resigned as a delegate to the Convention on 28 March 1839 along with other Birmingham men citing its departure from peaceful means as the reason. However, by this stage Salt and other BPU members were increasingly out of sympathy with the majority of the movement and had begun to lose interest in the cause of radical political reform.

Salt returned to Birmingham and to the recovery of his lamp manufacturing business, which had been defrauded by an assistant during his absence. He took no further role in politics.

Carlos Flick in his 1978 book The Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain 1830-1839 says of Salt:
“He was widely regarded as a good-hearted man, and his espousal of the causes of the lower classes seemingly was more genuine than was that of the other ‘currency’ leaders, whose bent was aristocratic. He was loquacious, and although his voice was thin and his reasoning often poor, he spoke at every opportunity.”

The profile of Thomas Clutton Salt below appeared alongside his portrait in the 3 March 1839 issue of The Charter.

The Charter newspaper masthead
Portraits of Delegates No. 1: Thomas Clutton Salt

The benevolent and talented subject of the first of our series of Personal Sketches of the members of the National Convention, is about forty-eight years of age. Mr Salt is neither slender nor muscularly built, being as many as a man beseems, however, about five feet ten or eleven in height, broad shouldered, and of an open bearing and gentlemanly deportment. Although, in the artist’s sense of the word, the patriot’s is not a handsome face, it is, at all events, what ladies significantly denominate good-looking. The predominant expression in the countenance, is a kind of reflective watchfulness, which is expressed by the strongly-marked angular brows, shading the eyes, and sweetened by a persuasion of benevolence. The mouth has much sensitiveness and refinement about it, being tremulous but full of purpose; something, in this instance, like that of the late Mr Shelly. The contour of the face is highly expressive.
Mr Salt’s life has been almost as romantic as it has been various. In 1811, when he was about twenty years of age, he found himself wandering along the coast of France, seeking, and waiting for an opportunity, to escape from that country. He had neither friends, nor passport, and the whole line of coast, at the time, was being perambulated by Gens d’armes. In this distress, Mr Salt found that his best friends were the women, for, in writing to a friend, he says, that when his difficulties forced him to ask assistance, he “always chose the women, and never felt a doubt of their fidelity, or had to repent of his confidence in them.” Mr Salt for some time endeavoured to join some of the ships cruising off the coast of Normandy, but was unsuccessful. Subsequently he tried the line of coast opposite to Jersey and Guernsey, and while there, a French vessel captured a Jersey packet which was going to England, with some officers on leave of absence. Scouring the coast, he kept the convoy of prisoners for several days within view, and even sheltered in the same inn with them, but was, unluckily, unable to obtain an opportunity of any communication with them, which might be the means of their proving of assistance to him. At length, he tried to take the police boat at Portfeuille, but the state of the tide prevented him. He was pursued to Caen, where he seized a very old boat that served as a sort of ferry across the river Vine. It was 12 feet long, by 4 and a half wide, and 18 inches deep. By this he got to Constance, from which place he dragged it over the country, a distance of six miles to a town, in which place he repaired it in a deserted convent, and having, with the help of an old fisherwoman caulked it, he waited till the moon went down, at midnight, and dragging it to the beach, jumped into it, and without any other guide than the wind, swam into Grenville Bay, Jersey, by eight o’clock on the following night. This was an adventure more interesting to read of, than pleasing to experience.
Although Mr Salt’s family were Tories, his mind enabled him from the first to perceive that, under their government, honesty and industry were no security against poverty; and that religion was outraged as well as humanity by attributing to God and the dispensations of Providence the wrongs worked on man by his brother man. As he pertinently says, in the letter above alluded to, he “reverted to the real principles of Christianity and humanity, and was a Radical.” In 1826, he got up a memorial, detailing the absurdities of the system adopted by the government, and the then present and prospective injuries which were and would be attributable to them. This memorial was signed by one hundred of the greatest firms in Birmingham. His subsequent interview with Lord Liverpool, Peel, and others, gave him no cause to hope for the success of his mission; and therefore, on returning to Birmingham, he got up a petition to the House of Commons, complaining of “the iniquitous system of fiscal oppression.” The neglect the petition met with from the House, gave rise to some reflections, by which he was convinced that the salvation of the people depended upon reforming it altogether. In 1829, the Birmingham Political Union, of which Mr Salt, Thomas Attwood, G F Muntz, Benjamin Hadley, Charles Jones, and George Edmonds, were the originators, was founded; and henceforth Mr Salt became one of the most active and able champions of the people’s cause. His popularity in and around Birmingham, is unbounded, for he is as much beloved as a man and an employer (he has upwards of one hundred men in his lamp manufactory) as he is admired as a political leader. To him is to be attributed, we believe, the formation of the female unions, and we doubt not that, in any case of emergency, he could command at least 10,000 of the fair sex, to help fight the battle of reform.
During the severe winter of 1837, he got up a memorial to Lord Melbourne, signed by 13,000 workmen and 3,000 traders of Birmingham. The memorial and the deputation carrying it (of which he was one) effected no good, so he returned to Birmingham, and, to use his own words, “declared that, if the unemployed workmen were not relieved, he would bring forth from their desolate homes, man, woman and child, lead them himself and marshal them on each side of the roads to the churches as Christians went to church. The appointment of a relief committee was the consequence, and 11,000 l [Editor’s note: £11,000] were subscribed. At the great meeting at Holloway Head, in August, 1837, Mr Salt was elected one of the delegates to represent his townsmen in the General Convention; and few men are better fitted for the task. He has much knowledge, a clear head, a benevolent heart, and an untiring zeal; while the suavity of his manner and the courtesy of his demeanour are calculated to conciliate even the bitterest opponent.
We cannot conclude this slight memoir better than by quoting the benevolent and earnest avowal of its subject in the letter before alluded to – “My zeal grows with the distresses and difficulties of my country.”
[Source: The Charter, Sunday 3 March 1839]