This is the fifth article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a StoryMap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each StoryMap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, taking you onto the city streets of the past.
The street has always been a space of protest. It is not just a venue for demonstrations or a mere stage on which debates or physical contests take place. The spaces of the street are often the very thing being contested. The democratic movements of the nineteenth century claimed the right to meet and speak in public spaces. In demanding the right to vote and to be represented in parliament, working-class democratic societies also claimed the freedom to hold meetings and demonstrations in their hometowns. Public and civic spaces such as squares were often privately owned and controlled by local authorities who sought to exclude those whom they did not regard as part of a ‘respectable’ public. Successive Tory governments sought to suppress the working-class democratic movement through legislation against ‘seditious’ meetings (in 1795, 1817 and 1819), royal proclamations against Chartist processions in 1838-9, and the imprisonment of radical leaders. Contests over public space represented a fight for the right to be represented nationally as well as locally.
Sheffield was a highly active site of democratic and trades union action throughout the long nineteenth century. The centre of the cutlery trade, artisans and skilled workers in small workshops fostered a ripe environment for political independence. Chartism, the largest popular democratic movement of the period was particularly strong in the town.
The Sheffield Chartists had their committee rooms on Fig Tree Lane. It is an unremarkable site, a steep and narrow street leading up from the parish church (now the cathedral). The Chartist committee held their weekly meetings at number 21, and the youth and female groups also had lectures, teas and dinners in the rooms from 1839 to 1844. Chartism was much more than the national petitions to parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848. It was a way of life, with weekly meetings, social activities and education as a central part of the political movement. This is why these small, everyday spaces, matter so much to its success in attracting thousands of members and supporters.
Sheffield Chartists enacted two of the most creative uses of public space: the ‘march on the churches’, and the silent demonstration. These forms of protest vividly challenged the authorities’ control over key civic sites in the town. They also heightened class tensions caused by the government’s clamp down on public meetings, the royal proclamations against Chartist processions and meetings, and Parliament’s rejection of the first national petition for suffrage and political reform.
In August 1839, Chartists decided to make a show of attending Sunday service at Anglican churches across England. The tactic had two aims: the working class sought to demonstrate their respectability, while at the same time challenging the hierarchies they saw as inherent in the spaces of the church–local elites would take the most prominent seats, while the poor and the ‘unrespectable’ were relegated to the back pews or excluded altogether. These tactics were also a way of challenging restrictions on processions and meetings in the royal proclamations. In many towns the ‘march on the churches’ passed peacefully, but in Sheffield authorities were resistant.
The churchwardens issued a notice that such assemblies in the churchyard would be treated as trespass. Paradise Square was the central site for meetings and demonstrations in Sheffield, but the police barred the Chartists from meeting there after a series of rallies in August. On Sunday 1 September, the Chartists processed down to the church singing a hymn composed by local poet Ebenezer Elliott. The police prevented them from entering and locked the gates.
The Chartists then held nightly silent meetings in Paradise Square as protest against the royal proclamation and their treatment in church. The tactic of silence was innovative: it made it difficult to be arrested for speaking seditious words, and the orderliness meant there was no evidence of riot. Silence also overturned the expected aural experience of protesters occupying public space, that is, noise, speeches or music. After four evenings of protests, the magistrates issued a placard prohibiting public meetings in the square and sent in the police and dragoons to disperse the crowds.
Paradise Square continued to be the site for political meetings throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. The Chartists held mass demonstrations in the square in support of their third National Petition in April 1848. From the steps of the Freemasons’ Hall, Isaac Ironside, the firebrand Chartist and socialist local councillor, declared, ‘this flight of steps belongs to the people – that this square belongs to the people’. The square was also the venue for Reform League demonstrations to campaign for the second Reform bill in 1867, and rallies of the unemployed in the 1880s.
Contests over local spaces were not inward-looking or parochial. Raymond Williams characterised local conflicts as ‘militant particularism’, a defence of place that initiated rather than precluded links to a wider class consciousness or global movements. In challenging local authorities’ restrictions on meeting in a specific place, holding simultaneous meetings or strikes, working-class and democratic societies connected their actions with the broader movement across the country, and with international currents of ideas. The local is connected to the global. Conducted in many industrial centres across Britain, the ‘march on the churches’ linked Chartists with each other in a wider movement of democratic action. Occupying the physical site of the square and the churchyard was a bold show of unity and a symbolic claiming of the space. Streets, squares and other public spaces were and still are an integral part of political struggle.
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Katrina Navickas is Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire, and author of Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848, published by Manchester University Press in 2015. She is 2020-21 Open Spaces Society Fellow at the Museum of English Rural Life, and co-investigator on two AHRC funded research networks on landscape change. She is working on her third monograph on contested public spaces in England, 1700-2000. She tweets as @katrinanavickas.