Mick looks at bloody early history of Sheffield trade unions

Notorious Victorian Sheffield trade union leader William Broadhead
Notorious Victorian Sheffield trade union leader William Broadhead
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A Sheffield writer and former trade union activist has written a new account of the bloody history of early Sheffield trade unions.

Mick Drewry’s book, Intimidation, looks back at what became known as the Sheffield Outrages in the 1850s and 60s, a tempestuous time in the city when skilled workers’ attempts to gain recognition from their exploitative masters spilled over into violence.

Sheffield writer Mick Drewry

Sheffield writer Mick Drewry

Former steelworker and community development worker Mick, who now lives in Dunford Bridge just outside Sheffield, said: “I wrote it principally, as I did my first book on the Sheffield Flood, because it was another under-stated aspect of Sheffield’s history.

“It doesn’t get the coverage that it merits. There’s occasionally been bits in The Star.”

Mick said that the best-known story is about William Broadhead and the saw grinders’ union and the killing of unpopular boss James Linley but it involves many other trades.

For example, nail makers’ workshops were blown up at Thorpe Hesley in 1861 and the boss of a sickle works in Dronfield told a Royal Commission that looked into the Outrages that he “had been at war with the union for 40 years”.

Anti-union bosses and workers received threatening letters or beatings, horses were hamstrung and there were arson attacks and ‘rattenings’, when men’s tools were stolen or interfered with.

The book tells how unskilled saw grinder Joseph Helliwell was temporarily blinded when gunpowder put in his grinding trough exploded after sparks landed in it.

Mick said: “There were two deaths which were at the hands of William Broadhead’s henchmen, Samuel Crookes and James Hallam.

“A widow, Bridget O’Rourke, was blown up in her own house by an incendiary device that was thrown through her window, intended for someone else. It just happened to be her bedroom.”

His first book, Inundation, looks at the Great Flood of Sheffield of 1864 because Mick believes most people would think of 2007 if you asked them about a flood, not the disaster when a burst dam at Dale Dyke Reservoir sent 650 million gallons 0f water crashing through Malin Bridge, Hillsborough and Neepsend, killing 240 people and devastating a huge area.

“So many Sheffield people aren’t aware of this history. I wanted to raise the profile more of both these issues,” he said.

Some good came of the industrial strife, said the former T&GWU trade union convenor and multi-union committee chair: “The Outrages were the catalyst for improved legislation, following the commission in Sheffield and one in London.

“Before that, unions had no recourse in law to retrieve subscriptions that hadn’t been paid and the embezzlement of funds. They had to use illegal means.

“The trade union legislation that resulted eventually in our trade unions, professional bodies that look after workers.

“There’s more to it than what meets the eye. It’s not the horrible, evil history its made out to be. That was the motivation for writing this book.”

Mick said the violence has to be taken in the context that life was harsher and people settled disputes violently.

He believes that both the Great Flood and the Sheffield Outrages could be big tourist attractions if their stories were exploited properly in the city.

“A statue of William Broadhead outside the Cutlers’ Hall would be taking it a bit too far! There should be a central focus for this part of Sheffield’s history.

“There are steel relics, workshops and buildings that existed then that could be a focus, like the Globe Works.”

It also angers him that key buildings associated with the flood, like the Old Blue Ball pub at Hillsborough, have been threatened with demolition.

Intimidation: The History, the Times and the People of the Sheffield Outrages (£9.99) by Mick Drewry, is published by Austin Macauley.