Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Chartism: a Sheffield Uprising

James Throup, a student from the School of English at the University of Sheffield, has been spending time in the archives uncovering some of the fascinating documents which tell the history of Sheffield.  His final blog post discusses Chartism: a Sheffield Uprising...

Near midnight, Saturday the 11th of January 1840: police officers Atcherly and Wilde, accompanied by others, gained admission to a house on Eyre Lane by asking for a man named Hartley. Their real target was the owner of the house, a man called Samuel Holberry. Resting in bed, Holberry heard the approach of the thick-booted officers, surprise mixed with a feeling of resignation, a sense of inevitability. The officers burst into the candlelit room to find Holberry propped up on his elbow in bed, fully dressed except for his shoes, the bedside candlelight fluttering briefly about the scene. Wilde stepped forward and ‘caught hold of a dagger from a side pocket in his coat, which was in a red leather case’.


“Are you one of the people called the Chartists?” said Wilde.

“Yes.” replied Holberry.

“This dagger is a deadly weapon – you surely would not take life with it?” said Atcherly.

“Yes; but I would in defence of the Charter, and to obtain liberty” replied Holberry.

So runs the report on the ‘Trial of the Sheffield Chartists’ in the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, March 21st 1840. Holberry was subsequently arrested and tried for conspiracy and sedition, and sentenced to four years imprisonment. He later denied ever making the remarks alleged by Wilde and Atcherly, and some have speculated how culpable he actually was (Lewis 2009). At the same time, the police did find a substantial arsenal of weapons in the Eyre Lane house, so it is hard to deny that some form of Chartist agitation was at hand. Delving into the history of the Chartist uprising in Sheffield, I found this to be one of many suspicious elements.

Chartism was a political movement which campaigned for increased worker’s rights in England in the nineteenth century. Betrayed by the Reform Act of 1832, which extended voting rights to middle class men, workers adopted a People’s Charter aimed towards an extension of suffrage. Their aims included: the vote for men over 21; a secret ballot; a wage for politicians; a rebuttal of the stipulation that politicians had to own property; equal electoral districts; and yearly parliament elections. By the end of the century all but the last of these were implemented.

In 1839, an armed uprising in Newport by Chartist sympathisers was violently suppressed by the police. In the wake of this, several other uprisings were planned across the country. The one in Sheffield was spearheaded by Samuel Holberry, and aimed to seize the town hall by armed force. However, on the night of the planned insurrection, the police pre-emptively put a halt to any mass action thanks to information from James Allen, himself a Chartist.


After the Chartist leaders had been arrested, Allen was placed under police protection:

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

(Taylor and Otley)

Oddly, Allen’s fate was not revealed until 1864, when John Taylor recounted the events at a meeting for the Young Men’s Book Society, an account reprinted in the Sheffield Telegraph. In reply to this article, Richard Otley, another former Chartist, wrote in decrying Allen as an agent provocateur, intent on inciting others to take up arms in a plot which he planned to derail.

Another suspicious factor was that Allen’s evidence was not submitted to the court when Holberry was tried. In addition, Holberry was not permitted to speak throughout the trial (Lewis 2009). Instead the prosecution relied on other Chartists members turning ‘Queen’s Witness’. It was later revealed that the main ‘witness’, Samuel Thompson, acted under duress: the police had arrested his father without reason, and threatened both with imprisonment if Thompson failed to co-operate. 

Holberry was sentenced to four years in prison at Northallerton. Whilst incarcerated he received a number of letters, a collection of which are preserved at Sheffield Archives. One of these is a petition challenging the unjust treatment of Holberry:

the said Samuel Holberry when sentenced to imprisonment for the above term [four years imprisonment for conspiracy and sedition], was not sentenced to hard labour, yet, at the commencement of his confinement, he was placed on the tread mill; a punishment (in the opinion of your petitioners) – when the sentence of the judge is considered – clearly illegal   


Holberry was moved to York due to poor health, but died in 1842 as a result of the enervating hard labour he had endured. While it seems clear that the authorities wanted to make an example of Holberry as a warning to other Chartists, it is also evident that no depth was too low for them to stoop to: hidden informants, pressured witnesses, and illegal punishment. 

Samuel Holberry is quite rightly commemorated today in Sheffield Peace gardens, a plaque bearing his name acting as a proud reminder of Sheffield’s contribution to a momentous period in history. Over my time working for the Archives and Local Studies Library I have come to understand how involved Sheffield has been with some of the major movements and events of the past few hundred years. But more than this I have learnt how, more often than not, the history of Sheffield is one which tells of a people willing to stand up against oppression, and willing to fight, campaign, and unite for ideals of freedom and greater equality.

James Throup, University of Sheffield


‘The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 21st March 1840’ accessed through Local Studies Library

Catherine Lewis ‘Samuel Holberry: Chartist conspirator or victim of state conspiracy’ (2009) Local Studies Library: MP 211 M

John Taylor and Richard Otley ‘How the Sheffield Chartists were betrayed’ (Holberry Society Publication) Local Studies Library: 942.08 S

‘Letters sent to Samuel Holberry while in jail, 1841-1842’ Sheffield Archives: HS/1/1-15