Retro: Dark days and lighter moments in Sheffield on eve of war

NSS1 Retro June 1914 Sheffield Telegrapgh reproductions
NSS1 Retro June 1914 Sheffield Telegrapgh reproductions
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We soar and swoop from the sublime to the ridiculous, via the tragic, in this instalment of Sheffield stories from June 1914.

In the month that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, which for many historians of the First World War represents the opening shot of that conflict, Sheffield was opening its summer festivities.

For South Yorkshire, as for the rest of Edwardian Britain, Whitsuntide was a special occasion, a day of the year that ‘really mattered’.

More than 80,000 children attended parks around Sheffield to sing – and then spend the day playing – as part of the Free Church’s organised events.

Norfolk Park alone saw 10,000 children engaging in communal song, led by the Sheffield Sunday School Union, on Whit Monday.

Young choristers singing from the hollow of the park’s wooded slopes created the effect of a natural amphitheatre. They recited the Lord’s Prayer and songs such as Lydia and Hallelujah! Song of Triumph, the latter of which was composed by one of the day’s spectators, W J Denman of Manchester.

Events like these lend themselves to the notion of a long, idyllic summer of peace that was then shattered by war.

On the other hand, of course, the holiday atmosphere influenced some degree of misrule, and the courts had a busy day asthey sat on Wednesday.

A man who had been refused a serving of tripe ‘on credit’ attacked the Gleadless tripe dealer with a vinegar bottle, resulting in a citizen’s arrest by said dealer, who had to have stitches for his wounded head.

The tripe shopkeeper, Edwin Ward, said in court how he had explained to the man he “paid for his stuff and expected his customers to do the same”, before being assaulted and then giving chase to his assailant.

Similarly, after festivities on Whit Monday, two brothers, Edward and Richard Walton, were sent to prison for 28 days and fined £1.

They had been drinking in Millhouses on the Monday evening and when they left the pub had blocked the pavement to “respectable people” and used “bad language”.

When the police arrived on the scene, they were “badly kicked and knocked about” by the brothers before the situation was brought under control.

There seems to have been a minor epidemic of speaking back to authority at the time in Sheffield, making the courts worried about public order.

Later in the month, Sir William Clegg, a renowned former footballer, council leader and solicitor, observed in court that no fewer than nine cases had been heard within one morning of people using “abusive and filthy language”.

He commented: “It is simply disgusting how people in this district are turning out this sort of talk absolutely regardless of anybody or anything.”

He was determined to hand out heavy fines in order to stamp out the evil.

Yet the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, not known for liberalism, had other ideas on the matter. Its editorial comment claimed that Clegg’s campaign would not succeed, arguing that swearing was usually “due not to an excess of vice than a defect of vocabulary”.

The editorial recounted a parable of sorts about a preacher who could find no other words about his love of God than swear words, thinly veiling some very bad language itself. Racy stuff for the time.

While it had been a typically happy and high-spirited Whit weekend for many in the city, tragedy had struck both at home and abroad.

Sheffield grieved for the dead from a maritime disaster and from the collapse of a colliery near Barnsley.

On the Friday morning before the Whitsuntide weekend the Empress of Ireland liner was struck by another ship, the Storstad, near Quebec, and sank, killing 1,012 of the 1,477 passengers.

The disaster, known as Canada’s Titanic, took the lives of several Sheffield people, notably A Gordon Maginnis, one of the directors of Mappin and Webb.

Sheffield’s loss of a number of its former residents speaks of the extent of economic migration to Canada. Travelling members of the Salvation Army, a mining engineer, a farmer and a saw-mill worker, all originally from Sheffield, were among the drowned.

Remarkably, one Sheffield man, 18-year-old Thomas Boulton Bishop, an assistant cook employed on the boat, survived the wreckage by jumping overboard.

A good swimmer, he leapt into the water, which was teeming with struggling bodies, managing to finally catch hold of an oar to which a woman, tragically holding her dead baby, was clinging.

The woman was pulled down by the suction caused by the sinking ship but Bishop clung on and awaited rescue.

In grim details, he describes how “several times I swam towards what appeared to be wreckage, only to find that it was a dead body”. He survived the freezing waters for an hour before finding a lifeboat.

His father related how Thomas had survived drowning twice before, once at age 18 months when he was rescued from a sump in Walkley, and again at nine years old when he was pulled from a Manchester Ship Canal lock in Warrington by the lock-keeper. A very lucky man indeed!

On the Saturday, the day after the ship sank, a mine in Birdwell, Barnsley collapsed, killing 11 men. According to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, “there was a roar, a blinding flash, a rush of poisonous air; in a space of time which probably did not exceed five seconds 11 men perished at the coal face; homes in the mining villages of High Green, Hoyland Common, Warncliffe Silkstone, and Birdwell were left without bread-winners, women were widowed, and children orphaned”.

Whitsuntide was a dark time for many in Sheffield that year.

Despite the events in Barnsley, it was a buoyant month for Sheffield industry. Coal yields were at an all-time high of eight million tonnes in the year so far. Demand for armour-plate and armaments spiked in late June as “the representatives of a foreign government” had placed a huge order.

On top of Vickers’ supplies to the Russian government, this contract would have kept factories in business for years to come.

It might surprise us to hear of contracts tying Sheffield to countries such as Russia and an unnamed ‘foreign government’ when we look back on this directly pre-war period.

We might, further, be a little suspicious about the arrival of a certain Herr Krupp in Sheffield, our industry’s biggest rival of the time, the week before this major order.

Dr Krupp Von Bohlen and his wife Bertha were given a lavish reception by Sheffield’s Sir Robert and Lady Hadfield (of Hadfields) on June 19, despite Krupps’ ownership of “the world’s greatest factory of destructive agencies” in Essen, Germany.

Astonishingly, considering that just over a month hence the two countries would be at war, Sir Hadfield spoke publicly of “excellent relations prevailing between England and Germany”, hoping that they could work together “to add to the peaceful progress of the world”.

Krupps was given an access-all-areas tour of Sheffield factories.

Unsurprisingly, he “specially requested that his various visits should be as private as possible”!

Yet for Sheffield, it was a matter of civic pride that the city was shown as industrially competitive and prosperous on the world stage, and so was honoured to honour him (and probably a lot better off financially, too).

We end this compilation of June 1914 stories on a high.

On June 3, Marcus Manton arrived in Sheffield to provide thrilling aerial displays at Redmires Racecourse and training camp.

His Blériot monoplane could be seen soaring, banking, diving, twisting, turning and steeplechasing during a multi-day exhibition.

The crowds were particularly keen to see his famous looping of the loop and thousands lined the Redmires Road and the road leading from Redmires to Fulwood, many of them seeing Manton for free, causing some consternation to the establishment press.

Manton later joined up to the RAF for the war effort, but was rejected on medical grounds, so became an instructor at Hendon, where he taught many RFC and RNAS officers to fly.

Teaching a generation of brave pilots would be as much Manton’s legacy as the spectacle of his daredevil flights over Redmires in his home town.

Our focus for June 1914 in the next installment of our Sheffield 1914 project goes literary, recalling the work of a little-known Sheffield poet who gained some prominence in this month, Ms D F Dalston.

Her poems are like the uneasy dreams that England awoke from as it moved towards the war.

n We’d love to hear your thoughts on Sheffield 1914 and to hear your own stories and memories.

Please get in touch at, @sheffield1914 or Sheffield 1914 Team, C/O Dr Helen Smith, Jessop West, Upper Hanover St, Sheffield, S3 7RA