Sheffield's Old Town Hall was once a focus for political protest movements

If you could stand quietly in the cells of Sheffield Old Town Hall, would you hear the echoes of those who led the struggle for people’s rights?

Monday, 9th September 2019, 1:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th September 2019, 4:05 pm
Cells at Sheffield Old Town Hall

Hard to imagine now that both inside and outside, the Town Hall was the focus of the battle; but perhaps no surprise as the building was Sheffield’s civic centre, home to the law – police and courts – and local government. It witnessed many protests.

In 1812, a Luddite-inspired protest led by a file cutter’s wife from Coal Pit Lane (now Cambridge Street) attacked the Town Hall in Waingate.

The magistrates convicted her of theft and jailed her for a few months in Wakefield prison.

Sheffield's Old Town Hall, once a focus of protests

Perhaps they went easy because some of the militia joined the protesters.

In 1816 one Thomas Blackwell, carrying a pole with a bloodstained loaf and a banner saying ‘Bread or Blood’, led a rebellious crowd to the Town Hall.

He was arrested and imprisoned at York.

The following year, six men were arrested and detained in the cells, accused of high treason by planning to attack a major armoury in Doncaster and Wentworth House.

Bill Moore, left, secretary of the Holberry Society, and the Lord Mayor Coun Frank White unveil a plaque in commemoration of Samuel Holberry in the Peace Gardens

The magistrates doubted there was a case because a government agent had apparently stirred the men up; they were never brought to trial.

Then in 1820 Blackwell was back, leading 200 men to the Town Hall.

A shot was fired but the crowd dispersed and the next day he was arrested and back in jail in York.

Blackwell later died in the workhouse.

In December 1832 the first election for Sheffield MPs was held, following the 1832 Reform Act.

Tempers flared as badly-organised polling resulted in polling being taken twice and the initial loser winning.

The crowd started stoning anyone wearing his colours.

The magistrates fled to the Town Hall to read the Riot Act but were met by a hail of stones.

After the special constables and the local militia failed to calm things down, the magistrates called in the yeomanry who came in shooting, killing five demonstrators including two teenage boys.

The bodies were laid out in the Town Hall for an inquest to be held. The verdict was justifiable homicide.

In following years political agitation grew as the Chartist movement spread across the country; their main demand was for votes for all (they meant men).

After failing to get Parliament to listen to them, some Chartists decided peaceful protest was not enough.

In Sheffield, Chartists planned to take over the Town Hall.

On January 12, 1840 six men, betrayed by an informant, found themselves in its cells instead, and facing the magistrates.

Their leader, Samuel Holberry, later died in York prison; his funeral at Sheffield’s General Cemetery drew a huge crowd.

Election riots carried on over the years - 1865, 1874, 1879, 1880 and 1920.

In 1925, in echoes of previous riots Communist Party supporters attempted to storm the Old Town Hall and the nearby police station and were fought off by baton-wielding policemen.

In 1984 following the “Battle of Orgreave” in the miners’ strike, 71 miners were charged with riot and 24 with violent disorder.

Their trial in the Old Town Hall collapsed in the face of unreliable evidence.

Next time you go past, think of all those voices of protest that echoed over the years.