The Age of George III
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The first and most active Corresponding Society was in Sheffield, set up December 1791, by five "mechanics". The aim of the society was political reform and it became the centre of propaganda at the press of Joseph Gales, editor of the Sheffield Register. Sheffield's society also sent out 'missionaries' who organised societies in Leeds, Birmingham and Coventry. Paine's Rights of Man was widely read; there was much support for French Revolution and it was common to find the use of 'Citizen' as a form of address.
The Sheffield Corresponding Society had over 2,000 members by 1792 and was always bigger than London Corresponding Society, founded January 1792 by Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker. Sheffield had a large population of skilled craftsmen but there was little political power for the majority: the people wanted parliamentary representation and political rights. The town had no MP.
Sheffield's main industries werethe manufacture of cutlery and edge tools, the making of implement handles and silver plate production. There was also a thriving silver trade and Sheffield was given its own assay office in 1773. The population of the town grew rapidly during the period of the industrial revolution. In 1790 there were 25,000 people living there but by 1820 this had risen to 40,000.
The working classes comprised artisans, the owners of small cutlery manufacturing units (known locally as 'little mesters') and a growing group of permanent journeymen who could not rise to be masters because of the increase in merchant capitalists. At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Sheffield was fertile ground for radical ideas and the growth of popular political clubs. In the 1790's many violent popular disturbances and political agitations occurred in Sheffield. For example, in 1791 several thousand people were involved in anti-enclosure riots and attempted to burn down the residence of Vicar of Sheffield. The riots lasted three days. There were also cries of 'No King', 'No Taxes' and 'No Corn Bill'. The scale of the violence led to the permanent billeting of troops in the town. The soldiers were unpopular and violent clashes between troops and. mob occurred in 1792 and 1796. During the widespread social unrest, Sheffield was considered' to be the 'storm centre' of trouble,
In the autumn of 1792 there were popular street demonstrations celebrating French victory at Valmy over Prussia and in 1793, 10,000 Sheffielders signed a petition for reform that was rejected by Parliament as 'insolent'. In December 1793 the Sheffield and Leeds delegates to the Scottish Convention were arrested by the Government. In May and June 1794 there were more arrests and trials when it was revealed that one Davidson, Gale's journeyman printer, had offered to sell pikes to London Corresponding Society.
Consequent upon the problems experienced by the Sheffield Corresponding Society, plans to hold an English Convention were postponed and Gales fled to America. As late as December 1795, large meetings were held in the town although membership of the Society declined. This decline coincided with a 'leftward' shift in its policy although the popularity of the Corresponding Society rose and fell with distress and prosperity in the town. By 1795 the adverse effect of the war was being felt in Sheffield's trades and bread prices reached an all-time high. Troops were called out to control the crowds, killing two people and wounding several more. The Corresponding Society did continue its activities after this, but mainly in secret.
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