Never get in between a Yorkshireman and his stomach, especially not in the waking nightmare and the BBC’sfourth worst year in British History that was the year of 1812. The Napoleonic wars dragged on, the economy was in tailspin, the Prime Minister had been murdered in the lobby of the Commons and his assassin had been cheered by the gathering crowd. While the Luddites were making targeted raids on industrial machinery, thousands across the North were erupting into spontaneous fights for that most basic of resources: food.
The Sheffield Cutlers used to employ hundreds in the town before this Annus Horribilis. But after half the workers had been laid off, they were now in a compulsory workfare programme, “Dressed in rags and forced to wear clogs as a ‘badge of receiving parish relief” (for no greater shame can come than being made to dress like a Dutchman). On April 14th, these men came to town to buy lunch and a dispute erupted over the price of potatoes. The dispute turned quickly into riot, with people grabbing everything they could from stalls, and though local volunteer police suppressed it, a small group, watched by a crowd of around 5000, moved on to raid the local Militia’s weapons store in the western outskirts of the town (the Militia was the army’s domestic reserve force, but their role in suppressing dissent at the time made them a popular target for attacks). The two soldiers guarding the store tried to hold their ground, but were pelted with rocks and fled. 900 rifles were taken out of the store: some were destroyed when no ammunition could be found, many were kept. Although a cavalry regiment showed up shortly after, made some arrests and dispersed the crowd, most of the weapons were never recovered.
The knife-edge tension of a city with an armed populace, skirmishing with an occupying army in their midst, without enough money to get a simple potato, must have been unbearably intense. Civil war must have been a fairly high possibility. We know now that the war would end, the military response would scale back, and conditions would gradually improve. But they didn’t.