Thursday, 16 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Isaac Ironside

Ironside[1] was born at Pool Green, Masborough, near Rotherham, on 17 September 1808, the son of Samuel Ironside, clerk at an ironworks and lay preacher at Queen Street Congregational Church. After the family moved to Sheffield in 1809, Ironside was educated at Queen Street Sunday school and the Gibraltar Street Lancastrian school. At the age of twelve he was apprenticed as a stove-grate fitter and then worked at Longden and Walker’s Phoenix foundry. He continued his education at John Eadon’s night school and the Sheffield Mechanics’ and Apprentices’ Library and won a mathematics prize awarded by the Edinburgh Review. In 1833, Ironside joined the accountancy and estate business firm that his father had founded the previous year. From the 1840s, he was in complete control of the business and by the end of his life he had become a wealthy and successful accountant and share-broker.

Ironside began a long career in Sheffield politics in 1830, when he moved an amendment at a Whig political meeting demanding universal suffrage, the ballot, and annual parliaments. The following year, he joined the Sheffield Political Union and became the unpaid campaign secretary for the local radical candidate T. A. Ward. Despite the drift of his politics, Ironside collaborated closely with middle-class Liberals in establishing the Sheffield Mechanics’ Institute in 1832. However, by September 1838, when he appeared at a Chartist meeting in Paradise Square, Ironside was demanding the franchise as a prelude to the disestablishment of the church, repeal of the Corn Laws, nationalisation of the banks, the establishment of agrarian colonies and national education.

Increasingly immersed in Chartism and socialism, at a Chartist meeting in September 1838 Ironside proposed the erection of agrarian communities and, on 17th March 1839, joined Robert Owen in opening the Hall of Science, Buckingham Street. In 1840, Ironside published Brindley and his Lying Braggadocio, a bitter attack on the acerbic Christian controversialist John Brindley; his increasing scepticism of orthodox religion had already ensured his dismissal as honorary secretary of the mechanics’ institute library the previous year. Although soon disillusioned with orthodox Owenism, Ironside retained his interest in the Hall of Science and launched the Workers’ Educational Institute there in 1847 and he continued his passion for education by helping raise the new mechanics’ institution on Surrey Street in 1848. That year, he took his Address to the French Provisional Government (a fusion of Chartist and Owenite aspirations) to Paris and, returning bearded, vowed never to shave until social justice had been achieved in Britain.

Ironside was one of two Chartists elected to the town council in 1846 and remained a councillor until 1868, first sitting for Ecclesall ward and latterly for Nether Hallam. He built up an ultra-radical grouping, calling itself the Central Democratic Party numbering twenty-two by November 1849 and forced several debates on the Charter and national education. On the practical side, Ironside established a health committee and, in 1848, gained council backing for the erection of a model workhouse farm at Hollow Meadows, near Sheffield, which by 1854 had seen 22 acres of wasteland reclaimed and farmed.

Inspired by the works of Toulmin Smith, Ironside successfully started experiments in anarchist political education. Central to the scheme was the creation of ‘wardmotes’, local parliaments attended by interested citizens. It was through the wardmotes’ approval that Ironside, as chair of Sheffield’s highway board in 1852–4, caused the town’s streets to be paved and the first deep sewers to be laid, signalling his continued Owenite belief in environmental influences on character formation.
Ironside helped found the Sheffield Free Press in 1851 and through its pages he led the support of the controversial Russophobe ex-diplomat David Urquhart. He also published a pamphlet entitled The Question; is Mr Urquhart a Tory or a Radical? (1856). This lost him much local popular support and prestige, as did the opposition to his unsuccessful attempt to get Toulmin Smith elected to parliament for Sheffield in 1852. He remained involved with the foreign affairs committee (established in 1855) until his death, pressing his Urquhartist agenda and publishing The Part of France and Russia in the Surrender of the Right of Search in 1866. His only other work, Trades Unions: an Address, a defence of union rights, appeared the following year. Ironside died after a long illness on 20th August 1870 at his Sheffield home, Alma Grange, Carr Road, Walkley, and was buried in Sheffield general cemetery.


[1] Sources: J. Salt ‘Isaac Ironside the Sheffield Owenite’, Co-operative Review, volume 24, (1960), pages 218–19, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 22nd August 1870, J. F. C. Harrison Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America: the quest for the new moral world, 1969, R. G. Garnett Cooperation and Owenite socialist communities in Britain, 1825–48, 1972, J. Salt ‘Experiments in anarchism, 1850–1854’, Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society, volume 10/1, (1971), pages 37–53, J. Salt ‘Isaac Ironside, 1808–1870: the motivation of a radical educationalist’, British Journal of Educational Studies, volume 19, (1971–2), pages 183–201, J. Salt ‘Isaac Ironside and the Hollow Meadows farm experiment’, Yorkshire Bulletin of Economic and Social Research, volume 12, (1960), pages 45–51, W. H. G. Armytage and J. Salt ‘The Sheffield land colony’, Politics for the People, volume 35, (1961), pages 202–6: Archives: Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester: letters to G. J. Holyoake; British Library: Gladstone MSS; and, Sheffield Central Library: Leader MSS.

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