Chartism in Sheffield was slow to rouse and initally 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.
In his 1918 book The Chartist Movement , Mark Hovell records that on the day after a massive meeting of Manchester Chartists at Kersal Moor on the night of 25 September 1838, “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’.”
These early agitations appear not to have been notably successful, however. Hovell records that in March 1839: “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.”
This changed to some extent following the Newport rebellion in 1839. R.G.Gammage, author of History of the Chartist Movement 1838-1853 , writing in 1854, says:
“At Sheffield things began to look ominous. Large meetings assembled in the open air at night, at which not a word was spoken. Several persons were arrested in connection with these meetings, which were dispersed by the military.”
An account of these events appears in Reminiscences of Old Sheffield, Its Streets & Its People by R.E.Leader, published 1896, where a group of men who had lived in the town in the 1840s are recorded in conversation during the 1870s.
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.”
Gammage takes the story forward: “About the same time [January 1840] a large number of the Chartists of Sheffield were arrested for conspiracy and administering illegal oaths. The principal witnesses against them were persons who professed to have been engaged with them in the conspiracy. One Thompson deposed that a large number of persons were formed into classes, and that they had provided themselves with arms, and fixed upon a plan for taking some, and firing other, parts of the town. That they had agreed to strike down every policemen and watchman that they might meet, and catch the soldiers before they could fire upon them. The barracks were to be fired, and the insurgents were to possess themselves of the Town Hall and Tontine, which they were to defend with the barricades. After the evidence had been given, Samuel Holberry, William Booker, Thomas Booker, John Clayton, Samuel Bentley, John Marshall, Thomas Penthorpe, Joseph Bennison, and William Wells , were fully committed for trial, Mrs Holberry , a very interesting woman, was also arrested; but the evidence against her not being sufficient, she was discharged.”
In the mean time, a further uprising was thwarted at Bradford, and further arrests were made.
Gammage says of the trial: “On Monday, March the 16th , the Yorkshire assizes commenced, before Mr Justice Erskine and Mr Justice Coleridge when the Sheffield Chartists were brought to trial. The court presented from the outset a very animated appearance; the gentlemen of the legal profession attending in large numbers both for and against the prisoners. Holberrry, the two Bookers, Duffy and Wells were first indicted for conspiracy and riot. By way of supporting the evidence against the prisoners, a large basket full of hand-grenades, and other combustible materials, was placed upon the table, and a great number of pikes and daggers were also produced. The evidence went to prove that these were found in possession of the prisoners at the time of their arrest. The charges appeared to weigh most heavily against Holberry, who did not, when arrested, deny, but on the contrary, admitted, that his object was to upset the Government, and he professed his willingness to die for the Charter. The principal witnesses for the prosecution were Foxhall and Thompson, who were admitted as Queen’s evidence, and who had taken an active part in the proceedings of the accused. The Attorney General prosecuted, and Sir Gregory Lewin, Mr Watson, and Mr Murphy defended the prisoners, and dealt in strong terms on the evidence of the witnesses; but after Justice Erskine had summed up, the jury found all the prisoners guilty. William Wells, John Clayton, John Marshall, Thomas Penthorpe, Joseph Bennison, and Charles Fox were charged with similar offences, and pleaded guilty. Robert Cox, George Gullimore, James Bartholomew, Joseph Lingard, Thomas Powls, and Joshua Clayford , who had been out on bail, were also indicted for riot and conspiracy. Mr Baines and Mr Wortley prosecuted; Mr Murphy and Mr Wilkins defended the prisoners in able addresses, and succeeded in procuring a verdict of acquittal. John Marsden was indicted for riot, and attempting to liberate from prison Peter Foden , one of the arrested Chartists, to which charge he pleaded guilty. William Martin was indicted for sedition. Messrs Baines and Wortley conducted the prosecution. The prisoner was most eloquently defended by Mr Watson, but the result was a verdict of guilty.
The assizes continued, with Feargus O’Connor next up before the court to face charges of newspaper libel. According to Hovell: “He called, or proposed to call, fifty witnesses to prove that he had never advocated physical force, though it does not appear that this point was at all material to the question. He was condemned to eighteen months’ imprisonment, but actually served only ten, being released on account of bad health.”
The Bradford Chartists then faced the court charged with offences of riot and conspiracy.
Gammage says: “On the 21st of March the Sheffield and Bradford prisoners were brought up to receive sentence. Holberry was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, and bound over in fifty pounds, and two sureties of ten pounds each, to keep the peace after the term of his imprisonment should expire. Thomas Booker was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and bound to keep the peace in thirty pounds, and two sureties of ten pounds each. William Booker , his son, was imprisoned for two years, and bound over to keep the peace in the sum of twenty pounds. James Duffy was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and bound over in the sum of twenty pounds and two sureties of ten pounds each. William Wells received a sentence of one year’s imprisonment, and was bound over in the sum of twenty pounds. Marshall, Penthorpe, and Bennison , were each sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
Sheffield City Council’s archives and local studies library has an excellent Chartism in Sheffield Research Guide which includes a special focus on Samuel Holberry, who would die while serving his prison sentence..
A less sympathetic account of the attempted Sheffield rising appears in a Victorian pamphlet reproduced in Reminiscences of Old Sheffield, Its Streets & Its People . It goes as follows:
“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 councilroom 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 beerhouse 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 reestablished 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 tonguet ied. 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. “