Saturday, 14 April 2012

14th April 1812: Sheffield food riot & arms depot raid

Tuesday the 14th April was market day in Sheffield. About 12.00 p.m., a large group of unemployed men gathered in the corn-market. The local authorities had put them to work digging out a new cemetery to the West of Sheffield, but their appearance in the marketplace at noon combined with the turnout of many workmen from factories at lunch-hour soon led to a confrontation with many of the potato-dealers whose prices were becoming more and more expensive.

A two-hour riot commenced, described in the Leeds Mercury:
The stock of these they seized and scattered about the streets, or carried away in great quantities whereever they found it, in carts, in cellars or storehouses. Two or three sacks of corn were also emptied upon the pavement and wasted or purloined. Some butter was taken from the market women, and a barrel of red herrings broken, and the fish thrown amongst the spectators.
But the riot did not end there. Whilst many people had dispersed, watched over by Magistrates and peace officers, a section of the crowd had other ideas. Someone called out "all in a mind for the volunteer arms!", and some of the crowd began to quickly move away: they were headed for the depot of the Local Militia, a relatively unprotected building on the outskirts of Sheffield.

At about 3.00 p.m., a crowd of about 5 or 6 men and 40 to 50 boys assembled there and halted 30 yards from the building. But this relatively small group was then joined by a huge group of people that witnesses put at between 4000 to 5000. Silence descended on the crowd and various people were pointing at the depot - in answer to this, stones were thrown which soon smashed all the windows in the building and the crowd moved closer. A cry went up "all in a mind to enter!", and using a large stone from a nearby wall, the door was forced.

Inside were two soldiers, Sergeant Thomas Flathes and Captain Best, and Flathes chose this this point to emerge from the depot with his rifle pointed ahead, bayonet fixed. Flathes stood for some time in front of the door but soon had to run as he was pelted with stones. He ran to his house nearby and observed the rest of the proceedings from an upstairs window.

With no sign of Captain Best, the crowd, which apparently included members of the Local Militia, broke their way in. Whilst there were plenty of rifles, and even uniforms and musical instruments belonging to the Militia, there was little or no ammunition stored there. Consequently, the crowd set about looting the building, with some carrying off clothing, others destroying the instruments and some either smashing between around 300 rifles to pieces against the masonry. Others made off with around 200 rifles. All told, the depot contained 900 weapons and 900 uniforms.

Twenty minutes later, a troop of 15th Hussars from the local Barracks arrived with Magistrates in tow, and the crowd were dispersed, many of them abandoning the plundered rifles. 9 people were arrested and were later committed to York Castle for trial at the next Assizes.

The military from several units, including the Strafforth & Tickhill Local Militia and 2nd Sheffield Troops of West Riding Yeomanry secured the depot and pickets were stationed at other locations in town, including the Town Hall, a Bayonet factory and a Sword factory.

This has been compiled from reports in the Leeds Mercury of 18th April & 25th July 1812; a letter from H Parker JP to the Home Office of 15th April 1812; a letter from Sutton to General Grey of 18th April 1812; and a letter from Cochrane to Cholmley of 17th April 1812, all of which can be found at HO 42/122.

The estimates of arms held at the depot and broken vary from between precisely 222 to 400. I have used the figure presented at the trial of some of the rioters from July 1812.

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