Insurrection: Sheffield author Mick Drewry's new book looks at history of rioting in city

A Sheffield writer has been looking back at the city’s long history of rioting on the streets in his latest book.

By Julia Armstrong
Thursday, 19th May 2022, 10:06 am

Insurrection is the third in a trilogy of books by Mick Drewry. It follows on from Inundation, which looks at the terrible disaster of the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, and Intimidation, an account of the Sheffield Outrages and the violent beginnings of the city trade union movement.

A former Sheffield steelworker and trade union convenor, Mick graduated from Sheffield Hallam University in 1997.

He has also worked for a local community group before moving to Barnsley Council as a community development worker, then taking early retirement in 2010.

Sheffield writer Mick Drewry, whose latest book Insurrection looks back to rioting in Sheffield in the 18th and 19th centuries

Mick said: “This follows on from my other two books. I think it’s an area of Sheffield history that hasn’t got the coverage it deserves. I was surprised when I did the research that some events are so obscure.

“I’ve covered most of the riots that have been documented, such as the resurrection riots. There’s two stories to that. Rioters burned down the medical school, then there was a riot at Wardsend Cemetery.”

Both events concern fears of ‘body snatchers’ illegally taking corpses to sell for anatomical research.

“The book starts by giving a bit of a background of what Sheffield was like in the 18th century,” said Mick. “I’ve covered the 19th century in the other two books.”

The cover of Sheffield historian Mick Drewry's new book, Insurrection

Mick said there were coal riots in 1728 and 1774.

“It’s economics that created the problem. In 1774 the Duke of Norfolk a tramway from his pit to a coal depot in Sheffield,” he said.

“Carters at the time realised that was going to lose them work. It caused a bit of an upheaval.”

Methodists living in the city were also targeted by rioters. Mick said: “You wouldn’t have thought a religious organisation would give a reason to riot but there was great opposition to them. The magistrates were weary of them because of the influence they had on the people.

An illustration of 'resurrection men' robbing graves of bodies in Sheffield history writer Mick Drewry's new book, Insurrection

“They got opposition from the mob who didn’t want them and the powers-that-be who didn’t want them.”

Years later, the Salvation Army came in for similar treatment when their crusade against drinking offended local publicans.

‘The nearest we came to a revolution’

The established church and the rest of the city establishment also came in for angry protests, caused by the Enclosure Acts that prevented common people from having access to agricultural land that was grabbed by the rich and enclosed.

An illustration depicting anti-Salvation Army riots in Sheffield history writer Mick Drewry's new book, Insurrection

Mick said that the Vicar of Sheffield Rev James Wilkinson connived with rich landowners such as the Duke of Norfolk and felt the anger of poor people in consequence.

Another riot on Norfolk Street took place in protest at low military pay.

“Other things in the background were happening at that time,” said Mick. “People were living in poverty and prices were going up.”

He said that people were also hit by the Corn Laws, where high tariffs on imported grain and poor harvests at home combined to push up prices during the Napoleonic Wars. Anger eventually boiled over on to the streets.

“There are such a lot of parallels between that and what is happening today,” said Mick. “I’ve done a comparison between then and now as an epilogue.”

With the Governor of the Bank of England warning MPs at the Treasury Select Committee about ‘apocalyptic’ food price rises, those comparisons are easy ones to draw.

A cartoon commenting on 18th-century unrest at rising grain prices, taken from Sheffield history writer Mick Drewry's new book, Insurrection

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He pointed out: “The nearest we came to a revolution was the Pentrich riots in 1817. Pentrich is a village in Derbyshire. Some people were workers who worked in local industries.”

Food prices were still high and so was unemployment.

“There was a push for a national uprising at the time. In various parts of the country people organised and they were supposed to come together in one big uprising but none of this happened,” he said.

“An agent provocateur gave away exactly what was happening and it was able to be put down.”

‘So much Sheffield history that people aren’t aware of’

Elections caused riots in 1832, when Sheffield went to the polls to choose MPs for the very first time. Five people were killed when the popular candidates who won support in public hustings didn’t get elected – unsurprisingly, as only men who owned property valued at £10 or over were allowed to vote.

The Chartists, led in Sheffield by activists such as Samuel Holberry, took up the fight to demand more democratic rights for working-class people, including the ability to vote.

In 1855, trouble broke out around West Bar when police attempted to arrest one of the city’s Irish migrant population who lived in the area for attempted robbery. His angry neighbours fought back and that resulted in the death of William Beardshaw, the first Sheffield policeman to be killed on duty.

Mick continues to be fascinated by the social upheavals that figure in all three books. “There’s so much of Sheffield history that people aren’t aware of. They don’t promote it as they should do.

“The Great Sheffield Flood remains the biggest tragedy of its kind. It comes to the fore on the anniversaries and that’s it. The Sheffield Outrages were instrumental in changing industrial relations and the trade union movement.”

Insurrection by Mick Drewry is published by Austin Macauley, priced £10.99 in paperback. To order it and find out more, go to mickdrewry.ampbk.com

An illustration showing Church of England clergy looking on as Methodists are attacked, taken from Sheffield history writer Mick Drewry's new book, Insurrection