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The past Government of Sheffield

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The government of an ancient place like Sheffield was more mixed and difficult to understand in the distant past than it is to-day, though life then was, in many respects, more simple. Now Parliament makes laws; public councils and other bodies, generally elected by the people, carry out or administer the laws; and magistrates, or in more serious cases, judges, with the assistance of juries, punish those who break the laws; and the police are the law's strong arm. But, in the past, English people were governed quite as much according to customs as by recorded laws, and the arrangements for ensuring obedience and punishing offenders were more irregular than they are now, and changed as time went on.

In all such matters of government, Sheffield, until recent years, that is, until about the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, was backward and slow, compared with many towns of similar importance. It had no properly organized public life by which the people themselves had power over their own concerns. It had no separate representation in Parliament till 1832. It was not made a borough, with self-government, till 1843. It did not have its own magistrates till 1848.

How then was it governed before modern times? The reply to that question must necessarily be rather complex, for local government itself was broken up, patchy, and confused.

From the earliest clays the ordinary government of the city was carried on by the Lord's Court, or the Court of the Lords of the Manor - the Lovetots, the Eurnivals, the Talbots, about whom we have read, who lived in the castle by Our Lady's Bridge. The Court was held at frequent intervals - at one time every third week - and the juries and people who had cases met at the "'Sembly Green," or Assembly Green, just over Lady Bridge, on what is now called the Wicker. Probably there were different kinds of Courts - it was so in most places - the Court Baron where the Lord's business was done, and the Court Leet, which represented the general law of the land, or the King's law, and from which appeal might be made to the King; but the Courts were held on one day, and, when one kind of business was disposed of, the other followed on with a different jury, for men were tried by their equals who sat as juries.

The Lord's steward presided over the court, and the Lord's bailiff saw that sentences were carried out. The Lord had his own jail for prisoners, and it remained, long after the Castle had disappeared, on a site in what is now King Street, but is covered by the Norfolk Market. It was to the Lord's Court that the first juries dealing with the regulation of the Cutlers' craft reported offenders, and, later, the Company of Cutlers relied on the Court for the enforcement of its rules.

But, besides the Lord's Court and the Cutlers' Company, and working in a friendly way with them, were, from very early times, the Burgery of Free Tenants, who have been succeeded, in modern times, by the Town Trustees, and also a rather vague body who had to do with the management of the affairs of the Parish Church and were called the Church Masters, and who since have passed through two stages and have become "The Capital Burgesses and Commonalty," and are now known as the Church Burgesses.

Already, in tracing the story of religion in Sheffield, we have read of this latter body. They now inherit certain funds left for religious, charitable, and public purposes, and use them for the furtherance of the religious objects of the Church of England in the city, for the support of hospitals, for Church of England education, and, to the extent of 5 each year, for the repair of the highways. Their income is about 8,000 a year. The members are self-elected, and when one of their number dies the others choose his successor. In this way they carry out the provisions of a Charter granted in the reign of Queen Mary.

The Burgery of Free Tenants are of much earlier origin. They date from the year 1297, when Thomas, Lord de Furnival, a man apparently of most splendid public spirit and worthy to be borne in everlasting remembrance, granted to all his free tenants the freehold of the property they occupied, on the condition that they paid him a lump sum yearly. He also gave them exemption from "all exactions and demands of toll." In fact, he made them a free and independent body of people, with a certain degree of management of their own affairs.

The first doings of the Burgery of Free Tenants are lost in obscurity, but they had property left to them for public purposes, such as mending bridges and improving roads, Lady Bridge being particularly under their charge. When, in Queen Mary's reign, funds left for religious and charitable purposes were allocated to the "Capital Burgesses and Commonalty," the Burgery of Free Tenants also had their own income for ordinary uses, and held their meetings and arranged the business of superintending the highways, cleansing the streets, and appointing a constable to preserve order, more or less. They presented their accounts yearly to be examined and passed by the Free Tenants at a public meeting.

In the course of the centuries they saw stormy times, according as the people were or were not satisfied with them. In 1682 they were formed into a body of Trustees, thirteen in number, and in them their public property was vested. But in 1707 there was a kind of rebellion, and for seventy-one years the Free Tenants took matters into their own hands, appointed a collector and six assistants, and managed the property. Then, however, the plan of management by Trustees was reverted to, and in 1828 was finally made permanent; so that now the property of the Town Trust is managed by thirteen Town Trustees, the senior being the Town Collector, or Chairman; and if one dies his seat is filled by a vote of the freeholders, or property owners, of the Township of Sheffield, that is, the older central part of the city. The Town Trustees have an income of about 7,000 a year, and though they are only a semi-popular body, being elected by comparatively few persons, they have, on the whole, spent the money which they inherit in most wise and helpful ways, so that they have retained the deep respect of the townspeople.

Their last great public act was the purchase of the beautiful Botanical Gardens for the use of the public. Constantly it has been a great public advantage to have an enlightened body of this kind, possessed of funds which they could spend for the public advantage on objects which the law would not always allow a City Council to support.

When the legal authority of the Lord's Court ceased, and the dispensing of justice passed into the hands of the magistracy, these magistrates were entirely what we now know as "the County Bench." Indeed, until 1848, all offenders taken before the Petty Sessions were tried by magistrates of the "country gentleman" type, who had little sympathy with the town life of the working-classes, and it may be said that, for a hundred years before the establishment of a Borough magistracy, the most heated feelings of the public were raised by the dispensing of justice. The rough ballads and rhymes of the people show a passionate rebellion against the manner in which the laws were enforced in days when the people had no share in the making of the laws. Indeed, the final incorporation of Sheffield as a borough was brought about by a general revolt against the town being practically governed by an outside magistracy. It was the determination of the West Riding magistracy to bring Sheffield under a new County Constabulary Act that roused the town to demand incorporation as a borough, and so secure real self-government.

Let us now look back at Sheffield in the middle of the eighteenth century, and we shall see how strangely it was governed according to present-day ideas. The dispensing of justice through the courts was then from the outside, though at times there were good Sheffield magistrates, who understood public rights, as in the case of the Jessops of Broom Hall. The Cutlers' Company had some indefinite powers, without the means of enforcing its decisions. The Town Trustees often served the city well, and with them on public occasions acted the Cutlers' Company, and sometimes the Capital Burgesses, perhaps rather outside the powers given them by their charter.

When public rights had to be defended, as in the case of an attempt to impose a Hearth Tax which, would have applied to the fire in every smithy, there was united action. When works of public importance, such as the improvement of the Don Navigation, or the making of the Sheffield Canal, were being promoted, the Town Trustees gave practical and vigorous assistance. If men of distinction came to the city, the Town Trustees and the Cutlers' Company jointly assisted in their entertainment - much as the Lord Mayor and Master Cutler to-day act in friendly co-operation; but there was no way by which the town as a whole could unite together on a public policy, and bring all its resources to bear to ensure improvements or defend public rights. The bad effects of this want of public unity, and the consequent inability of the townspeople as a whole to secure what they felt was just and helpful, led to scenes of popular clamour and disorder, which an outside magistracy were always ready to suppress by force.

The most striking example of the want of some means by which public interests could be defended was seen in the failure of the town to take any satisfactory steps to prevent the passing of Inclosure Acts, by which large tracts of commons and waste lands that by long usage had acquired a semi-public character were bestowed on certain private owners, without any compensation to the general public for their loss of invaluable privileges.

The first appropriation of this kind in Sheffield was the inclosing of a thousand acres in Ecclesall, in 1779. The inclosures extended from Broomhill across the Porter valley to Machon Bank, and included Sheffield Moor, and among the recipients were the then Vicar of Sheffield, the Rev. James Wilkinson, who, with his relatives, received 200 acres because they had a claim on the tithes. Again, in 1791, six thousand acres of common land were, by Act of Parliament, inclosed in Hallam. Of this land the Duke of Norfolk received over 1,400 acres, and the Vicar of Sheffield over eighty.

How could the people object? There was no organization by which the public wishes could be focused and effectively brought to bear on those who in this way were seizing lands hitherto unoccupied, to which the people had had free access. The Parliaments which passed these Inclosure Acts were manned almost entirely by landowners who were themselves benefiting by inclosures.

The Vicar of Sheffield of that time - James Wilkinson - was a very wealthy man, who, through his mother, Barbara Jessop, inherited Broom Hall, where he lived, a fine gentleman bachelor, "all of the olden time." He was the most active magistrate of the town, and attended regularly at the Cutlers' Hall, which then was the Court of Justice, to sentence wrong-doers. Opposite the Cutlers' Hall, on the day when the magistrates met, Joseph Mather, a file-cutter and abusive song-writer, used often to take his stand and sing his songs, in hot resentment against the severe punishments pronounced, and the Vicar was his special dislike. The Hallam Inclosure Act lashed Mather into fury, and he wrote a fierce song that so roused the feeling of the populace that they rushed off to Broom Hall, which then stood alone in a fine park, burned the Vicar's stacks and greatly damaged his house, and the library that had been brought together by the Vicar's learned ancestor Francis Jessop.

This foolish and useless deed led to the first building of barracks in Sheffield. The town paid the Vicar 561 15s. l½d. for damage done to his house, and one of the rioters, a poor half-witted fellow, was hanged at York. But the incident, according to Dr. Gatty, put an end to the expectation that a clergyman can advantageously administer civil justice in a manufacturing town.

It may further have had the effect of suppressing popular protests against Inclosure Acts, for when, in 1810, the Attercliffe Act was passed, and four village greens were seized, as well as Attercliffe Common, no protest was made. Yet this Act was so shameful in its injustice that it even roused Joseph Hunter, the mildest of antiquaries, to denounce it as "one of the most selfish Inclosure Acts ever passed... in the true spirit of the monopolizing genius of modern times, which would leave the poor and the public as little as possible which they can claim as a right."

But how could the people effectively object? They could meet in Paradise Square and pass resolutions, and parade the streets with threats till they were shot down, as they were when they sympathized with the French revolutionists, but they had no power. That power they claimed for themselves for the first time when, on October 21, 1840, they, in Paradise Square assembled, passed, almost unanimously, a resolution in favour of a Charter of Incorporation, "inasmuch as it would give to the ratepayers the entire management of their local affairs, and provide for the appointment of a resident magistrate, and the extension of the lighting and watching as from time to time may be required, and give character, independence, and importance to the borough."

How far that ambition, so wofully unfulfilled before the incorporation, has been realised since, will be seen as the story of the city's municipal developments proceeds.

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Pictures for The past Government of Sheffield

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