"When they come to attack our people, we will stand our ground and fight!"

A poster produced by the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement
A poster produced by the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement

The third article in the Fargate Speaker's series on Sheffield radical history.

Submitted by Farce on April 24, 2010

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.