The first in a series of articles exploring Sheffield's radical history. From the Fargate Speaker, the paper of Sheffield Anarchist Federation.
Walking through Sheffield city centre today, it can be hard to find any trace of a past at all. As gleaming new glass and steel buildings replace disused old factories, the city seems like it's determined to erase its memories. But there's more to Sheffield's past than just cooling towers and the Human League - our city also has a rich hidden tradition of fighters against oppression and exploitation. In the Peace Gardens, for instance, you can find a water feature commemorating Samuel Holberry, a Chartist leader who became disillusioned with the government's refusal to grant democratic reforms, and was arrested while organising a workers' militia for a planned revolt. In court, he freely admitted his intention to upset the government, and 50,000 people attended his funeral after he died in jail.
In part, this tradition is just a natural result of the fact that life for most people in Sheffield has often been bloody miserable. In his study of The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels examined the harsh realities of Sheffield's steel industry, where the average life expectancy for fork-grinders was about 30. But the people of Sheffield wouldn't take this lying down, and the city quickly became one of the centres of the emerging trade union movement. One of the first trades councils in the UK was formed in Sheffield in 1859, and the difficulties of union organising at the time only increased the determination of the workers involved. By the mid-1860s, frustration led some militant workers to turn to violence, leading to the "Sheffield Outrages", where miserly employers or strikebreaking workers were punished with explosions and attacks. The outrages led to the formation of a Royal Commission on Trade Unions, and the historian A.L. Morton suggests that the Reform Act of 1867, which granted the vote to urban working-class men, was intended as a concession to stop violent militancy like that of the Sheffield Outrages spreading across the country.
While the workplace was one important site of struggle, it certainly wasn't the only thing the radicals of 19th-century Sheffield cared about. Edward Carpenter, a noted socialist thinker living in Millthorpe just outside Sheffield, struck up a long-lasting relationship with a working-class Sheffield man called George Merrill in 1891. Despite the vicious homophobia of Victorian England, which included widespread legal persecution against gay men, Carpenter and Merrill refused to hide their sexuality, and in 1908 Carpenter published The Intermediate Sex, which was the first widely available book in English to portray homosexuality in a postive light, rather than as a disease or a sin. Three years later, he published Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk, which challenged established gender roles and sexual norms by studying homosexual and transgender behaviour among non-Western people. This was pretty daring stuff for 1911.
Edward Carpenter's activity wasn't just limited to his agitation for gay rights (although that was impressive enough in itself): he also campaigned for environmental protection, the women's movement, and animal rights. Much of his energy went into the establishment of the Sheffield Socialist Society in 1886, which set up a cheap cafe and meeting room on Solly Street, held regular stalls on Fargate, and brought a range of speakers including William Morris, Annie Besant and Peter Kropotkin to the city. In 1891, the group split, with the most determined elements forming the Sheffield Anarchists, who set up their own newspaper and a club at West Bar Green. When the noted Victorian explorer and imperialist Henry Morton Stanley spoke at Sheffield City Hall, the Sheffield anarchists turned up to distribute a pamphlet on the crimes of the British Empire in Africa, and chased him down the road after the meeting. Much like today, in 1891 England was gripped by an economic crisis, and the Sheffield Anarchists threw their efforts into helping people cope with the effects of this, encouraging tenants faced with high rents to simply refuse to pay. Dr John Creaghe, one of the group's main activists, became notorious for chasing bailiffs away with a poker when they attempted to repossess people's property.
This is just a brief survey of some of Sheffield's hidden history, but we hope it gives a glimpse of some of the many stories that lie in the stones of the streets we walk every day. The steel industry that Sheffield was built on often involved horrific exploitation and terrible work conditions, but the people of Sheffield have always been willing to stand up against these injustices, both at work and elsewhere.