Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: The Sheffield Plot 11 January 1840 2

A less sympathetic account of the attempted Sheffield rising appears in a Victorian pamphlet reproduced in Reminiscences of Old Sheffield, Its Streets & Its People:

“The Chartist conspiracy, which culminated in the audacious attempt, in January, 1840, to give the town over to pillage, anarchy, and fire, is an event of which most of us have some recollection. The number of the conspirators and their, dupes has never been accurately ascertained, but probably amounted to several hundreds, exclusive of the much larger body of the moral-force Chartists, who shrank from the wild extremes of their hot-headed leaders, and also exclusive of the armed contingents expected from Rotherham, Eckington, and other places. The programme of the Chartists, and the arrangements made for carrying it out, are matters of history. Taking a hint from the Wesleyans, the Chartists met in ‘classes’ at the houses of their respective ‘leaders,’ scattered over the town. They had a general assembly-room in Figtree lane, and a secret council room at a public-house at the top of Lambert Street. Guns, cartridges, daggers, pikes, hand grenades, and ‘cats’ were provided in considerable quantities by the leaders and members of the council ; and the equipment of the conspirators was to be completed by pillaging the gun shops of the town, when the proper time came. The ‘cats’ were small spiked implements to scatter in the streets for the purpose of laming the cavalry horses, being so made that however thrown on the ground one spike pointed upwards. The conspirators were to meet in their class rooms on the night of the rising, proceed thence under the command of their leaders to a few general meeting places in the outskirts of the town, and then move in bodies to execute their atrocious designs. Some of the more daring classes were deputed to take possession of the Town Hall and the Tontine, which were to be the headquarters; others were detailed to fire the Barracks as soon as the military had been called out, and to burn other obnoxious places in the town. The rest were to fire the houses of the magistrates, their clerk, and other gentlemen of position living in the outskirts, the notion being that this would draw the authorities from the town to look after their own affairs. It was supposed that, thus deserted, the general body of the population would concede all that was asked, and that a decided success in the outset would so swell the ranks of the Chartists as to give them complete control over the town and district. The poor policemen were special objects of vengeance, all the conspirators having instructions to murder every policeman met with.

Though the information published at the time on all these points is full and complete, the circumstances attending the discovery and frustration of the plot, constitute an unpublished chapter in the annals of Sheffield; and the men to whom the town owes its rescue from a terrible danger are not only unrewarded, but to this day unknown to the general public as the detectors of the conspiracy. The object of my paper is not to recapitulate the facts published at the time, but to recount the yet unpublished details of this, for Sheffield, most fortunate detection. “The instrument in the great discovery was James Allen, then the keeper of the Station inn beer-house in Westgate, Rotherham, (and not to be confounded with James Allan, who at a later period was landlord of the Station inn in that town). He was shrewd and intelligent, a superior workman as a stove-grate fitter, and was employed by Messrs. Yates, Haywood and Co. The man who used that instrument was not the respected chief of the Sheffield police, nor any of his subordinates, but My. John Bland, then, and for many years afterwards, the active and intelligent chief-constable of Rotherham.

For some time before the plot was fully hatched, wild rumours, spread of the intention of the Chartists to possess themselves by force of the entire neighbourhood, drive out the rich, and divide the spoil. By many the rumours were regarded as the ravings of maniacs, and utterly disbelieved. But the reports that reached Mr. Bland as to the intentions of the Chartists at Rotherham assumed such consistency and pointed so persistently to one end, that he, happily for Sheffield and the entire neighbourhood, determined to investigate them. Unsuccessful in his first efforts, he went at length to Allen. Partly, no doubt, from fear on his own account, but mainly because, though an ardent Chartist, he shrank from the horrible measures in contemplation, Allen admitted that a Chartist organisation was being established at Rotherham, in conjunction with the more extensive organisation having its head-quarters at Sheffield ; and that the directors of the whole movement, in order to avoid the suspicion that would be likely to arise from too frequent meetings at Sheffield, occasionally came down to Rotherham and held their secret councils at his house. He added that they had begun to despair of peaceable measures; and that though he and others strenuously opposed all resort to violence, the whole tendency of their deliberations was towards a determined physical force movement.

As yet the conspiracy was a mere unshaped design. It gradually ripened, however, into a definite plot against life and property, as well as against law and order. The results of the repeated conferences were regularly reported to Mr. Bland by Allen, and the conspiracy no sooner assumed a distinct shape than Mr. Bland took Allen’s report of it in writing. With Allen’s consent he communicated it personally to the present Earl of Effingham, then Lord Howard, resident at the time at Barbot Hall ‘near Rotherham, and a West Riding magistrate. On the advice of his Lordship, Mr. Bland, and Mr. Oxley, the magistrates’ clerk, privately visited Mr. Hugh Parker, then the leading. Sheffield magistrate, and read the statement to him. The statement was to the effect that delegates from Huddersfield and other places had met those of Sheffield and Rotherham at Allen’s house; that they had finally resolved to carry the charter by violence; that the delegates from a distance had guaranteed the assistance of their respective districts to Sheffield; that the Tontine and Town Hall at Sheffield were first to be seized as head quarters; and that the town itself was to be taken possession of as a step to ulterior measures. The houses and places of business of obnoxious persons were to be sacked and burnt, no atrocity being thought too great that could pave the way for the charter. The story was laughed at and pooh-poohed by Mr. Parker and the Sheffield authorities, who refused to believe that any scheme so wild and atrocious could possibly be entertained.

Still the Chartists held their sworn councils day by day, chiefly in Figtree lane and Lambert Street, Sheffield. Allen’s moderation having excited their suspicion of him, they met less frequently at his house, and took him less into their secrets. He was, however, sufficiently acquainted with their designs to know that a force was to be mustered at Rotherham as well as at Sheffield, and that that force was to strike their first blow by seizing the Court House, and then sacking the residence of Mr. Henry Walker, at Clifton, and Lord Howard, at Barbot Hall. When things had reached this pass, Mr. Bland urged Allen again and again to ascertain where the ammunition and arms were collected for the final uprising. All Allen’s efforts to do this, however, were vain; he only knew that there were to be a number of such depots, and that the Chartists, when they rose, were to be plentifully armed with ‘cats,’ to protect them from the cavalry.

The time for the execution of the plot was evidently drawing near, but Allen was still kept ignorant of those details upon which alone the police could act in anticipation of the rising. It became clear that Allen must either go the whole hog as a Chartist or break down as an informant; and Mr. Bland, whose duty was plain-to fathom and frustrate the conspiracy at any cost-urged that a man could not possibly play the traitor in a better cause than in the frustration of so hopeless and atrocious a design. Allen at length strung himself up to the emergency, and it was arranged that he should go to the next council, declare himself a convert to the absolute necessity of the physical force movement, and offer to be ready at any time with 150 men upon a day or two days’ notice. This bold course re-established Allen in the confidence of the council. It was about the beginning of January, 1840. On the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings of the same week Allen attended sworn councils. On the Friday evening, January the 10th, he reported that the crisis was to come on the following night, but that the Council of delegates were to meet at Sheffield at three o’clock on the Saturday to determine the precise hour of the rising, and the several rendezvous from which the various bands of insurgents were to start on their errands of death and destruction. The information most desired by Mr. Bland all this time was the names of the leading conspirators, their meeting places, and their arms and ammunition stores. Allen left Rotherham at one o’clock on Saturday to attend the final council meeting,-the understanding with Mr. Bland being that he was to return as quickly as practicable to Rotherham after the meeting, with the details which were so much longed for and by the possession of which alone the rising could be stopped before mischief was done. Lord Howard reached Rotherham at three o’clock, remaining with Mr. Bland in readiness to act upon a moment’s notice. Anxiously they waited hour after hour until past seven o’clock, and began to be terribly afraid that Allen’s pluck had failed him at the last push.

Between seven and eight o’clock, however, he arrived almost breathless with haste and trembling with fear. No wonder Allen was terrified; the ferocious character of the plot gave him little reason to hope for mercy at the hands of his old friends if it were discovered that he was the betrayer. He must never again show his head in this part of the country, for his life would not have been worth an hour’s purchase. Faithless to his wretched comrades, Allen was true to the active and energetic officer who had so cleverly turned him into an instrument for the frustration of the conspiracy. He had brought all the required information. The ‘classes’ were to meet at their leaders houses at ten O’clock on Saturday night.; were to carefully arm themselves were to repair to three or four specified points, and march thence to their appointed work, each class detailing a few of its number to empty the gun shops, in order to arm their comrades.

For a few moments the recipients of this information anxiously debated the question, ‘What is to be done?’ Evidently the great rising was to be at Sheffield. Its authorities had been aroused from their dream of incredulity by the further information which had been communicated to them from Rotherham, after their rejection of the first statement, and by the evident stir and excitement among the Chartists. But they were still in a great measure ignorant when and how the rising was to be effected; and it was of the most vital consequence that the intended rising should be frustrated before it had been made, not because there was the least chance of its ultimately succeeding, but because a temporary and partial success must necessarily be attended with the most dreadful results. The Rotherham police were not charged with the safety of Sheffield, but the conspirators were one body, and their success in the greater must have been dangerous to the lesser town. The plot was discovered, and for humanity’s sake, if for no other reason, Sheffield must be made aware of the extent and nearness of its danger and the means of preventing it. So reasoned Lord Howard, and manfully determined to be himself the messenger of mercy. Provided with a copy of the particulars of Allen’s information’ he mounted his horse and galloped at full speed to Sheffield, leaving Mr. Bland to take all necessary precautions to frustrate the Rotherham contingents, which were to arm at the gun shops and assemble near Brightside at twelve o’clock, under the command of Allen, or, in his absence, of such other leader as they might choose. His Lordship reached Sheffield towards ten o’clock, and found the police authorities on the qui vive, though quite unprovided with definite information. The intelligence was alarming but welcome.

There was no time to waste in idle fears, a few hours only remaining before the mischief would begin. A detachment of soldiers was called out immediately, and, with the aid of the civil power and the remarkably accurate information supplied from Rotherham of the full details of the conspiracy, happily succeeded in frustrating it. Holberry, the principal leader, was apprehended at his own house, No. 19, Eyre lane, before he left home to head the conspirators, considerable quantities of arms and ammunition being found in the garret of his house. Booker, Peter Foden, Thompson, and other leaders, were taken in the streets or at their own homes. The general meeting places of the conspirators were visited, and the ‘classes’ chased and dispersed as they arrived. All was confusion and dismay in the ranks of the baffled plotters; they fled in all directions, throwing away or hiding their arms, quantities of which were found in the neighbourhood of the dams and Crookes moor.

Thus ended, with the wounding of a few policemen and two or three innocent citizens, whom necessity had forced into the streets, a conspiracy which, but for its timely discovery, would probably have resulted in enormous mischief. “Allen, who was at once suspected by his comrades, was kept under the care of an armed guard at Rotherham for several days, until Earl Fitzwilliam had communicated with the Home Secretary, and procured his removal from this part of the country. Government, as was their duty, offered to provide Allen with the means of emigrating and setting up in life in the colonies, but he declined to leave England. Employment was found for him at his own trade in the South of England, where he remained for some time under an assumed name. At length he was recognised by a man who had known him at Rotherham, and his removal became necessary. Government provided for him elsewhere, but he never, after leaving the southern fender manufactory, communicated with Mr. Bland, or his friends here, and his fate is unknown. “Praises and rewards were bestowed on the Sheffield police and other officials, for their ability and zeal in the discovery and frustration of the plot. They monopolised the credit due of right to Mr. Bland in the main, and to his officers in a minor degree. Mr. Bland and his associates were tongue-tied. Though the conspiracy was defeated, Chartism was still a dangerous element in society. Lady Howard was so alarmed, that Lord Howard, yielding to her natural fears, bound Mr. Bland and his officers beforehand in a solemn promise to conceal the part he and they might take in the matter, in order to avoid the vengeance of the Chartists. Galling as must have been the knowledge that others were reaping the honours and rewards due to them, Mr. Bland and his subordinates religiously kept their promise until Lord Howard had left the neighbourhood and Chartism had died out. Sheffield officials in positions of the highest trust knew that there was some secret about the discovery, but could never fathom it. It was not until the resignation of Mr. Raynor that the least hint was publicly given that it was to Mr Bland ‘Sheffield was so much indebted in 1840. “

The events of 1840-1 and the failure of the plot hit Chartism hard. It never really recovered. Moral force came to the fore again, with the return of Gill, Beal and Ironside. Chartism was not as popular as it had been during the physical force years, either. In 1841-2, there was massive unemployment, but little popular protest. Many leading Chartists joined the Complete Suffrage Union. In May 1844, only 150 people attended a meeting held in Paradise Square.   Chartism was helped by the slump in trade and the European revolutions. Ironside emerged as the new leader in Sheffield. He and Thomas Briggs were elected to the Town Council. On 13th March 1848, twelve thousand people attended a meeting in Paradise Square and elected Thomas Clarke, a moral force man, to the Convention. The rejection of the third Petition led to an increase in violence -- weapons were found in Sheffield and Barnsley. Interest was maintained via meetings. In Sheffield, Chartists came to dominate the town council, led by Ironside. Chartism in south Yorkshire began to disappear by the mid-1850s.

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