Saturday, 12 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: South Yorkshire

Sheffield[1] relied heavily on the tool and cutlery industries, which were produced mainly in small workshops by “little mesters” (master craftsmen working in small workshops with a few others). In the 18th century as demand for knives began to grow, the Sheffield cutlery industry had the upper hand over all its rivals in the form of natural water power. Sheffield is built at the confluence of several rivers (the Don, Rivelin, Loxley, Porter and Sheaf) fed from the hills. Natural sandstone was also in abundance in the nearby peak hills. Sheffield sits at the edge of these hills making it an easily extractable resource. By 1740, Sheffield became the most extensive user of water power in Britain and probably Europe. By this time, ninety mills had been built (two-third of them for grinding). By 1850, these mills numbered well over a hundred. They could operate grindstones, forge-hammers and rolling mills, a vital part of the production route for knives. Another natural resource, coal which is used to feed the furnaces and forges was also readily available

The town was overcrowded and filthy. Working lives usually started at twelve years of age in Sheffield; in Barnsley’s mines, it was younger. Barnsley’s living and working conditions were generally far worse than other areas. There was a large population of Irish linen weavers in Barnsley. Major problems in this area were caused by the trade cycle, which hit the economy hard. Forms of trade unionism did exist, and memberships were large. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the building of workhouses helped to spark off Chartism.[2] In 1830, the Sheffield Mechanics’ Anti-Bread-Tax Society was formed. This later allied with the Anti-Corn Law League. On 14th October 1837, the Sheffield Working Men’s Association was formed and in 1837, the Barnsley Working Men’s Association was formed. The following year, the Rotherham Working Men’s Association was formed.

Chartism in Sheffield was slow to rouse and initially mild in character. As time went on, however, the mood grew increasingly angry, until, in the wake of the failed uprising at Newport, preparations were put in hand to seize control of the town for the Chartist cause. A successful rising in Sheffield would have been significant. An industrial centre with a history of steelmaking stretching back to the Middle Ages, the town was the second largest centre of population in West Yorkshire (after Leeds). Pigot’s 1834 Directory for the county records that between 1821 and 1831 the population had grown from 65,275 to 91,962. Mark Hovell records that on the day after a massive meeting of Manchester Chartists at Kersal Moor on the night of 25th September 1838[3], “a similar demonstration took place at Sheffield, Ebenezer Elliott being in the chair”. Hovell goes on: “Sheffield definitely and Manchester largely were not strongly moved by the oratorical fireworks of Stephens and O’Connor. The speeches at Sheffield were conspicuously mild. Elliott declared that the objects the people had in view were, ‘Free Trade, Universal Peace, Freedom in Religion, and Education for all.’ Another speaker placed the Repeal of the Corn Laws in the forefront of his programme, followed by ‘a thoroughly efficient system of Education for all,’ ‘good diet for the people and plenty of it,’ and ‘facilities for the formation of Co-operative Communities’.”

By 1838, the memberships had increased sufficiently for the south Yorkshire Chartists to hold their own meetings. In September 1838, one such meeting was held in Paradise Square, Sheffield, with a reported crowd of 20,000 people[4]. Speakers included Ebenezer Elliott (the ‘Corn Law Rhymer’)[5], Michael Beal, Isaac Ironside[6] and William Gill. At this stage, the moral force, self-help Chartists, dominated Sheffield Chartism. After the rejection of the first petition and the collapse of plans for the ‘Sacred Month’, Ironside said that ‘Chartism became a desperate movement’. In Sheffield, there was a change of leadership. William Gill resigned because he said that he “did not want to represent a disunited people”. James Wolstenholme[7] who did not oppose violence replaced him. Elliott left because he got little support for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Gill, Beal and Ironside stayed away from meetings.

These early agitations appear not to have been notably successful, however. Hovell recorded that in March 1839[8]: “From Sheffield came a request that a delegate be sent to rouse the workers there. Very little success, the communication adds, had followed attempts to further the Chartist cause in Sheffield, but greater things were expected if the Convention sent a delegate. It was emphatically stipulated that a moral force man be sent.” In September 1839, the Sheffield trade unions decided that they “could not as trade unions support the Chartists or any other political party”.

In July 1839, numerous meetings led to fears of rioting, and magistrates warned the new leaders, Peter Fodden and Charles Fox, that they were breaking the law. The meetings continued. After a meeting on 12th August 1839, seventy men were arrested. The arrests were followed by stoning of the Town Hall and continued violence. Meetings then went ‘underground’. On 12th September 1839, an evening meeting attracted over two thousand people. Troops were used to disperse it and a running battle ensued. An account of these events appears in Reminiscences of Old Sheffield, Its Streets & Its People, where a group of men who had lived in the town in the 1840s are recorded in conversation during the 1870s[9].

One, named as Johnson, says: “On the 12th September, 1839, the Chartists held a “silent” meeting in Paradise square, which was dispersed by the soldiers and police. The Chartists reassembled in ‘Doctor's field’, at the bottom of Duke Street, Sheffield moor, where they were followed by the soldiers and police, and 36 prisoners taken. At the Town Hall, next day, which was guarded by the dragoons, and the doors kept by policemen armed with cutlasses, I saw several anxious mothers inquiring for their missing ones. Amongst the rest was the mother of a young man who has since been an influential citizen in St. George's ward. He was tried at the assizes and acquitted. A night or two after the Doctor’s field meeting, hearing there was to be a Chartist meeting at Skye edge in the Park, my brother and I tried to find Skye edge, but not succeeding, met the Chartists coming away. They marched down Duke Street, singing lustily a Chartist melody: “Press forward, press forward, There's nothing to fear, We will have the Charter, be it ever so dear.-

“But, alas! on turning the corner at the bottom of Duke street, they caught sight of the helmets of the 1st Dragoons, who were coming to meet them. Instead of ‘pressing forward’ we all ‘pressed’ every way but that, and in two minutes not a Chartist was to be seen. The dragoons on that occasion were under no less a person than Sir Charles Napier, at that time Commander of the Northern District; and I believe the incident is referred to in his life.”

On 25th September 1839, Wolstenholme and the secretary emigrated. On 25th November 1839, following the Newport Rising, the police broke up a meeting at the Fig Tree Lane meetinghouse, with Morton being arrested. In Barnsley there had been a greater threat to peace; a newspaper reported that “About three fourths of the population of Barnsley are Chartists, and of the most violent kind”. On 15th July 1839, threats were made to remove money from the banks. Shopkeepers were also threatened. On 2nd August 1839, troops were sent to Barnsley and the Riot Act was read. Serious trouble was averted.


[1] On Sheffield see, C. Binfield and D. Martin (eds.) The History of the City of Sheffield, 1843-1993, volume 1: Politics, Sheffield Academic Press, 1993. Sidney Pollard A History of Labour in Sheffield, 1850-1939, Liverpool University Press, 1959 has some useful material on the situation before 1850. D. Smith Conflict and Compromise: Class Formation in English Society, 1830-1914, a Comparative Study of Birmingham and Sheffield, London, 1982 is a valuable comparative study.

[2] David Hey Yorkshire from AD 1000, Longman, 1986, pages 181-301 provides the most accessible study of South Yorkshire.

[3] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester University Press, 1918, page 119.

[4] Chris Williams ‘Expediency, authority and duplicity: reforming Sheffield’s police, 1832-40’, in Robert Morris and Richard Trainor Urban Governance: Britain and Beyond since 1750, Ashgate, 2000, pages 115-127 is a valuable examination of the nature of politics in Sheffield in the 1830s.

[5] K. Morris and Ray Hearne Ebenezer Elliott: Corn Law Rhymer & Poet of the Poor, Rotherwood Press, 2002 is the most recent biography.

[6] On Isaac Ironside (1808-1870), see Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 259-261 and Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography volume ii, Macmillan, 1974, pages 201-207.

[7] John (or James) Wolstenholme was born in 1804 at Dunfields near Sheffield. He was a file-maker and delegate to the first Chartist Convention. He left Britain in September 1839, “for America, with all their tools, to escape arrest” (Sheffield Iris, 1st October 1839) and was reported in Westbury, Connecticut. He is believed to have returned home in 1850.

[8] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester University Press, 1918, page 130.

[9] R.E. Leader Reminiscences of Old Sheffield, Its Streets & Its People, Sheffield, 1896, chapter xi.

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