When Rotherham was on lockdown ...in 1838

When Rotherham was on lockdown ...in 1838

By Gareth Dennison | 29/04/2020

When Rotherham was on lockdown ...in 1838


QUARRELLING between navvies — which witnesses said could have escalated to a level similar to military conflict — brought a lockdown to Rotherham in 1838.

The dispute between navvies working on the North Midland Railway led to most shops closing their doors and putting the shutters up within minutes.

Before the episode was over, extra special constables were sworn in, artillery brought in from Sheffield and additional police arrived from London.

The antagonism had boiled over between English and Irish navvies who had been constructing the line between Darfield and Swinton.

The English alleged that the Irish were working for lower wages and, on Wednesday, October 10, tried to drive them away — at the same time pulling down and destroying the mud hovels which had housed the Irish and their families.

But as the trouble moved down the line towards Rotherham, the Irish grew in number and confidence. They broke down fences and used parts to arm themselves, while others had spades and other weapons.

Estimates from the time suggest there were about 600 English and 300 Irish.

Anticipating serious rioting, Rotherham went into lockdown.

The Leeds Mercury, in a report based on Doncaster Gazette coverage, said: “The peaceable inhabitants of Rotherham were suddenly alarmed by the report that a serious disturbance had taken place between two parties of men who were working on the North Midland Railway, and that a large party were assembled on Masbro’ Common, preparing for a desperate attack upon the town.

“In the course of a few minutes, every shop in the High street was closed, and with the exception of perhaps one of two in some of the back streets, not a single shop was left without the shutters being put up and the door was securely fastened.

“The town at this time presented a very singular appearance, all the shops being closed and groups of people standing at every corner of the streets of course magnifying the rumours into events of the most dire description.”

Railway contractor John Stephenson happened to be nearby with some directors, making a survey of some parts of the line. They came between the opposing sides.

The newspaper report said: “Mr Stephenson placed himself before the Irishmen, and promised to protect them if they would put themselves under his care, and otherwise there is little doubt but a great number of lives would have been lost.”

The contractor led the Irish peacefully to Rotherham and into the railway station yard on Westgate — placating them with a supply of ale.

Magistrates Henry Walker, of Clifton, and Thomas Walker, from Ravenfield were called to visit, assuring them that, in the case of a full-scale riot, they would “find the law too strong for them”.

The JPs then rode their horses to the English just out of town, where they were still assembled in large groups.

In the meantime, the Rotherham troop of Yeomanry Cavalry had assembled on horseback outside the town’s courthouse, waiting until the magistrates came back.

A detachment of 40 of the artillery arrived from Sheffield shortly before 4pm, but were able to return home without entering the town.

A number of special constables were sworn in during the day to add extra protection. Some of them were posted to Wath, while the rest were placed under the command of Mr Womack, the police officer, and patrolled the streets though night.

The Mercury said: “No further disturbance of any moment took place and the town, after a scene of great commotion during the day, assumed its customary appearance, with the exception of the being disturbed by the drunken brawls of some straggling parties of the railway men.

“It is but justice to add that every precaution was taken by the inhabitants of the town, as well as by the authorities, throughout the whole proceedings.”

But the quarrelling resurfaced the next day, with the English congregating outside Mr Stephenson’s house and threatening to pull it down.

Artillery from Sheffield was needed this time, apprehending a number of ringleaders while police were sent from London. Henry Walker had to read the riot act.

Shops were closed again as everyday business in Rotherham was all but totally suspended.

North Midland Railway said in a statement: “We are sorry to state that hostilities were threatened on the following day at Masbro, but through the active exertions of Earl Fitzwilliam, Messieurs Walker, and other magistrates in the neighbourhood, measures have been taken to preserve the peace.”

WM Creswick, reminiscing in the Rotherham Advertiser in 1890, said: “I saw it commence near the Travellers Inn.

“The road was newly covered with cinders and the soldiers got a fair share of them, I saw a navvy nearly pull a soldier off his horse. They then began using their swords.”

Another correspondent, John Hauge, described a dense mass of rioters at the bottom of Westgate, filling the street as far as the Crown Inn.

He added: “To force a passage a lancer was detailed, who put his weapon in such a position that any man who was in his way would be speared like a salmon.

“But he cut his way through the crowd like a knife goes through cheese and owning to the fear his exploit inspired, the riot collapsed without damage to property, life or limb.”

The Mercury concluded that the presence of the Mr Stephenson and the directors on the Wednesday had stopped the outcome being much more serious.

The paper said: “Their prudent and active exertion and foresight were the chief means of preventing a conflict that might have been almost as fatal as a military engagement.

“It is hoped the workmen of both parties will see the folly and danger of quarrelling, and will in future work peaceable together.”

Local historian Peter Feek came across the 1838 lockdown tale while working on a project connected with Irish immigration into Rotherham.

Mr Feek said: “Over 30 people were arrested, of whom five were jailed as surety for the behaviour of the others.

“On the Friday, as a result of rumours that an attack was to be made on the jail, these five were removed to Sheffield.

“Subsequently, most of the Irish left the town. In late October, eight London Policeman arrived in Rotherham to supervise the special constables.”

He added: “Fights and riots between the two construction factions were to continue for many years, often fomented by alcohol and heightened political fear. Another riot, in 1869, in the Heeley area of Sheffield was initiated over a barrel of beer.

“The press reported later in 1838 that the railway had aroused new activity in Rotherham and, ironically, it made Westgate the access point for further Irish immigration.”

Mr Feek is keen to hear from people with Irish ancestors who would like to share memories of their families’ arrival and subsequent life in Rotherham. Email book@thundercliffegrange.co.uk.