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.
Broom Hall Burning
The second article in the Fargate Speaker's series on Sheffield's radical history.
The last Fargate Speaker featured a look at some of the neglected corners of Sheffield's history, like Samuel Holberry's attempted insurrection, and the proud tradition of the first Sheffield Anarchist group. This article aims to cover a bit more ground, and help keep alive the memory of a few more stories from Sheffield's unruly past.
One of the first major disturbances in modern Sheffield history came in 1791, when the enclosure of 6,000 acres of common land with no compensation prompted an angry reaction, leading to Broom Hall, the home of local vicar and magistrate James Wilkinson, being set on fire. The riots, accompanied by chants such as "no king, no taxes", lasted three days, and the situation was only calmed down when dragoons arrived from Nottingham, and troops were stationed in the city for a few years afterwards, not to protect the city from invasion but simply to keep the population under control.
The famous revolutionary agitator Thomas Paine, who was influential in both the American and French revolutions, lived in Rotherham for a while, and his radically democratic ideas certainly proved popular in South Yorkshire, as the Sheffield Constitutional Society formed in 1791, one of the very first societies to be formed promoting working-class involvement with politics in the UK, and inspired similar groups in London, Leeds and Birmingham, attracting 2,000 members by 1792. The Sheffield Register was one early local paper promoting radical ideas, and quickly attracted the hostility of the authorities, especially after its editor, Joseph Gales, published the first cheap copy of Paine's classic pamphlet, The Rights of Man. The paper closed down in 1794 after Gales had to flee to Germany and then America to escape repression after publicly criticising the government. It was then relaunched as the Sheffield Iris by James Montgomery, but the change of name didn't bring a change of luck: Montgomery was sent down to prison for three months for publishing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille in France, and was released, only to be given another six months when he then criticised troops who shot two people dead at a protest in Norfolk Street. Writing for the local rabble-rousing press seems to have been a distinctly unlucky business: Karl Marx wrote a few articles for the Sheffield Free Press in the 1850s, but never got paid the money he was promised for it.
The next few decades saw the growth of the Chartist movement in Sheffield, and Paradise Square became a popular place for mass meetings. The French revolution of 1848 was greeted by a large assembly in Paradise Square, who composed A Communistic Address to the French People, which was then delivered to France by Isaac Ironside, another prominent Sheffield radical.
While most of the names mentioned here are male, agitation and disorder in Sheffield was never just boys' fun. The Sheffield Female Political Association, founded in 1851 by female Chartists, was the first women's suffrage group in the UK. Its founders included the magnificent Anne Knight, who'd been an active anti-slavery campaigner (so much so that the village of Knightsville in Jamaica was named after her), then moved to France to take part in the 1848 insurrection there, and still had the energy to fight for women's rights when she returned to Sheffield. By the start of the 20th century, campaigning for women's suffrage had really taken off in the city, so when the prominent Liberal politician Reginald McKenna spoke at Cutlers' Hall in 1908, he needed a police cordon to protect the event from disruption. More extreme tactics were used by the suffragist and socialist Molly Morris, who bombed post boxes to draw attention to the cause. She later went on to marry J.T. Murphy, a militant trade unionist who'd been involved with the Sheffield Workers' Committee in World War One and the national Shop Stewards' Movement.
While it took various different forms over the years (such as a major rent strike in the 1960s), militancy in Sheffield never really died out, so that by the 80s gained the nickname of "the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire", famous for cheap buses (how times have changed!) and the red flag flying over Sheffield Town Hall. Of course, South Yorkshire was central to the great miners' strike, meaning that Thatcher had to be protected by 1,000 cops when she spoke in Sheffield. Meanwhile, the Sheffield Anarchists were reviving a tradition of more grassroots activity, getting involved in supporting strikes and confronting fascists directly. Sheffield was also solid against the poll tax.
This tradition of dissent has been carried on to the present day, with the big protests in 2005 against the G8 Justice Ministers meeting in Sheffield, and more recently the activities of Sheffield Activist Network and the university occupations over Gaza helping to keep the flames of dissent alive. We just hope that we can play a small role in honouring the spirit of Sheffield rebels like Samuel Holberry, James Montgomery and Molly Morris.
"When they come to attack our people, we will stand our ground and fight!"
The third article in the Fargate Speaker's series on Sheffield radical history.
Continuing the Fargate Speaker's exploration of neglected parts of Sheffield history, here's another look at some of Sheffield's long tradition of radicalism. One notable form this took in around the 18th Century was in the growth of rebellious religious traditions, with Upper Chapel on Norfolk Street being built as the first non-conformist chapel in Sheffield in 1700, with several other Unitarian, Methodist and Quaker congregations joining it shortly after. The state viewed these dissident religious traditions with intense suspicion - Timothy Jollie, the first minister of Upper Chapel, was asked to swear an oath never to resist the king or attempt to alter the government of Church or State, and given six months' imprisonment in York Castle when he refused. The laws that were passed persecuting these religious dissenters helped to radicalise them further, so that by 1758 the Upper Chapel appointed as Minister the Reverend Joseph Evans, a remarkable man who developed strong revolutionary convictions. After Evans died in 1803, his adopted son described him by saying that "his opinions were extreme on the side of ‘Freedom’… He was a hearty well-wisher to the French in their Revolution. He gloried in the destruction of the Bastille and he certainly did not turn with much abhorrence from the acts of cruelty perpetrated on the French (royal) family and court... Corresponding with this, he had the most cordial hatred of the Ministry of Mr Pitt. This dislike was extended to the Crown and he would gladly have seen a Revolution at home. Nothing was too violent, no expression of sedition however seditious which he would not repeat. In these political sentiments he was by no means peculiar."
Inevitably, Sheffield people were unwilling to limit their disobedience to just religious matters, so that throughout the 19th Century it found expression in a more material form: rioting. In 1812, an increase in the price of potatoes sparked off a large riot against potato dealers, with several of the offending dealers having their stock seized, while "a barrel of red herrings [was] broken, and the fish thrown amongst the spectators." Two hours into the riot, some of the crowd took up the cry "All in a mind for the Volunteer arms!" - hardly the catchiest of slogans, but it seems to have worked, as the crowd stormed the headquarters of the local militia. Failing to find any ammunition, they just destroyed militia equipment until cavalry from the barracks dispersed them.
In 1832, Sheffield held its first Parliamentary election, which was accompanied by more riots, an understandable response to only about 3% of the population being able to vote. Election time riots seemed to be a fairly common feature of South Yorkshire life before the vote was granted, as the 1865 election prompted a mob to gather in Rotherham, smash and loot a wig shop and attack obvious conservatives until dispersed by troops. Interestingly, although 30 people were arrested, they were only charged with "riotous behaviour" and not the more serious charge of "rioting", due to a widespread feeling that their behaviour was a legitimate way for people to express their views at election time.
In 1893, attempts to cut the wages of coal miners sparked off a series of riots throughout August and September, with disturbances at collieries including attacks on police and property on at least 7 different occasions during these two months, and the red flag being flown at Bolsover. This militant tradition carried on into the 20th Century: in August 1921, there were a series of what the press referred to as "Communist riots", with fighting in Fitzalan Square and Bridge Street, with one Alphonso Wilson being charged with "charged with inciting persons to commit a riot and attempting to cause disaffection among members of the police force in a speech to a crowd of 5,000." In May and August 1922, there were more riots by unemployed workers, with the May riots even getting a mention in the New York Times! The Jessop steel company seems to have been a frequent target, with the Times reporting that "a crowd of about 3,000 people came into conflict with the police" on the 17th August at the Jessop steel works. It also described the crowd as being made up of "the unemployed, headed by the extreme section".
Closer to the present day, the 1980s saw a different kind of struggle in Sheffield, as young Asians fought back against racist attacks, and faced severe police harassment while doing so. In June 1982, Ahmed Khan was arrested and charged with serious wounding for fighting back against racists, an event that led to the formation of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement. The Sheffield AYM organised against police harassment and deportations, and to support people being prosecuted for self-defence. It was never simply a communalist group, with Asians, Afro-Caribbeans and white skinheads marching with the AYM banner on demonstrations, and it came into conflict with the existing leadership of the Asian community as much as with the white establishment, with one community leader complaining that "our children were growing up hating our culture. They were angry and withdrawn and we could not reach them." Leaders of mainstream groups like the Asian Welfare Association refused to speak at the AYM's events, leading to angry youths producing leaflets with slogans like "Fight for your rights, do away with tribal chiefs." The Sheffield AYM folded in 1987, but the Sheffield Defence Campaign continued to do similar work, organising a big demonstration against racism and fascism from Burngreave to Sharrow in 1989. In 1994, the police reacted to race riots in Darnall by arresting a disproportionate number of Asian youths, leading to the formation of a Darnall Defence Campaign, who organised a well-attended picket of Attercliffe police station. The names and faces may change, but the struggles - from wages and food prices to racism and police brutality - go on.