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Sheffield 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). 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.
In 1830 the Sheffield Mechanics' Anti-Bread-Tax Society was formed. This later allied with the Anti-Corn-Law League. On 14 October 1837 the Sheffield Working Men's Association was formed and also in 1837 the Barnsley Working Men's Association was formed. The following year, the Rotherham Working Men's Association was formed
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. Speakers included Ebenezer Elliott (the 'Corn Law Rhymer'), Michael Beal, Isaac Ironside and William Gill. At this stage, Sheffield Chartism was dominated by the moral force, self-help Chartists. 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'. He was replaced by James Wolstenholme who did not oppose violence. Elliott left because he got little support for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Gill, Beal and Ironside stayed away from meetings.
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 12 August 1839, seventy men were arrested. The arrests were followed by stoning of the Town Hall and continued violence. Meetings then went 'underground'.
On 12 September 1839 an evening meeting attracted over two thousand people. Troops were used to disperse it and a running battle ensued. On 25 September 1839, Wolstenholme and the secretary emigrated. On 25 November 1839, following the Newport Rising, a meeting at the Fig Tree Lane meeting house was broken up by the police, 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 15 July 1839 threats were made to remove money from the banks. Shopkeepers were also threatened. On 2 August 1839, troops were sent to Barnsley and the Riot Act was read. Serious trouble was averted.
The Sheffield Plot, 11 January 1840
A group of Sheffield Chartists led by Samuel Holberry had collected weapons. They planned to meet and seize the Town Hall and the Fortune Inn, besides setting fire to magistrates' houses. They were to be backed by men from Eckington, Rotherham and Barnsley, while riots were to take place in Nottingham and Dewsbury.
Much secrecy surrounded the plan, and Holberry threatened to kill anyone who backed out. The plot was betrayed by James Allen, the landlord of the Station Inn, Rotherham. He overheard some of the plans and reported them to John Bland (the Chief Constable of Barnsley) and to Lord Howard (the Lord Lieutenant). Many arrests were made, including Holberry, who was sentenced to four years' imprisonment. Allen was forced to leave the country, while Bland and Howard kept their roles quiet. In February 1840, five hundred special constables were sworn in at Sheffield alone to deter threats of rioting.
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 so 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 a meeting held in Paradise Square was attended by only 150 people.
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 13 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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