'The freedom of election' : the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire and the growth of radicalism in Sheffield 1784-1792
In the early 1790s, societies were formed in towns and cities across Britain with the aim of persuading the government to institute a wide-ranging and radical programme of political reform. Whilst political reform organisations were in themselves not new, these societies differed from their predecessors because they were, in the main, organised by and for men who contemporary society did not consider to be part of the political process: small tradesmen, artisans, journeymen, and labourers. Arguably the most radical and certainly one of the most popular of these new societies was the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information. Historians have long sought to explain this surge of popular interest in political reform. They have pointed to the influence of earlier reform movements, the war with the American colonists, the campaigns to secure the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and to the influence, most importantly, of the French Revolution and the popular debates that it inspired. But none of the existing historical scholarship adequately explains why radicalism emerged with such vigour in Sheffield, a town not previously noted for political activism. This thesis will attempt to fill this gap in our historical knowledge by looking at what was happening in the town in the seven years immediately preceding the formation of the S.S.C.I., years during which its principal industry, the manufacture of cutlery, was riven by a bitter and acrimonious dispute. It will show how under the influence of both external events and of radical and articulate leaders this dispute, which emanated from traditional economic grievances, became increasingly politicised and how, in the process, the working men of Sheffield came to believe that the only way to solve these economic grievances was through radical political reform.