Holberrys
Friday, 19 April 2024 03:47

Holberrys

Published in Theatre

Holberrys is a play about two Sheffield Chartists, Samuel and Mary Holberry, who helped organise the betrayed ‘physical force’ insurrection in the city in January 1840.

Samuel, a distillery worker, former agricultural worker and ex-soldier who had served in Ireland in the suppression of the Ribbonmen rebellion in 1833, and his wife Mary, were at the centre of militant campaigning and planning the rebellion. Their plans were divulged, with Samuel sentenced to four years imprisonment in prisons in Northallerton and York, where he died of consumption in 1842 at the age of 27. A hero of his time to working people, over 50,000 people attended his funeral procession in Sheffield.

The Holberrys’ story is illustrated using moving photographs taken by Ron McCormick during a schoolchildren’s re-enactment of the Chartist rising in Newport, South Wales in November 1839.

Holberrys dramatises the lives of Samuel and Mary and their years in Sheffield, ever a city of resistance and struggle. Its author, Chris Searle, is a teacher and it is a play for both the stage and the classroom, telling of an important episode in British history which is rarely remembered. It is free to download as a pdf, below.

Workers’ Playtime: community and culture in industrial Lancashire
Friday, 19 April 2024 03:47

Workers’ Playtime: community and culture in industrial Lancashire

Published in Cultural Commentary

Finally clocking off for the day, leaving the dark satanic cotton mills of Manchester and Lancashire behind for a few precious hours, what were the options available for workers in Victorian times and the early years of the twentieth century to lighten the gloom and grimness of the daily grind?

Quite rightly, we usually focus our attention on the appalling conditions of the working life for mill workers and the alienation they experienced. The premise of this exhibition at the John Rylands Library (Deansgate, Manchester) is that it is worth our while spending time considering and recognising the determination and ingenuity of working people to seize opportunities to engage in communal and cultural activities, to shed some light and hope for a brighter future.

The exhibition itself may be confined to a rather small, cramped and very darkly lit room, but it does enable us to be beamed straight back into the nineteenth century thanks to its wonderful display of historical documents. Once transported to the 19th and early 20th centuries in this tiny time machine, you can delve into the many fine examples provided of the extent of the playground. There is evidence of literary groups meeting in pubs, workers’ newspapers, poetry, drama performances, sporting clubs, music making, correspondence courses, trips to the seaside and so much more. The workers were organising themselves, socialising, networking, all in the pursuit of a more fulfilling life, which of course also included political engagement.

Fellowship is life

As anyone reading this review knows: culture matters! The good life for socialists is not just limited to achieving better working conditions, but needs to go hand-in-hand with greater leisure opportunities for education, artistic expression and fun. William Morris believed that 'fellowship is life' and a precursor of what a socialist society would be like, and it is sometimes said that Marx beavering away all hours in the British Library would have been happier spending more time reading his beloved Balzac.

This exhibition summarises the changes, after a great deal of campaigning by trade unions, religious groups and enlightened employers, which provided more scope for leisure, especially more time for women and men to devote to running their own affairs. For example, the Factory Act of 1833 and the Education Act of 1870.

At the heart of the exhibition then are the various historical documents. This is a small-scale exhibition covering a large subject across a wide timeframe. The selected items though do represent key areas of cultural and communal activity in the Cottonopolis region. They capture the range and variety of cultural interests that were evolving. The choice is stimulating, encouraging us to look more closely into a particular aspect, perhaps at home in our leisure and with all the aid of 21st century technology. The exhibits are all from the Rylands collection and it would be interesting to find out what other, similar treasures they hold.

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You can read the front page of The Clarion, that entertaining socialist newspaper begun here in Manchester which built up a huge circulation, 80,000 at its peak. Or check out The Cotton Factory Times aimed initially at Ashton-under-Lyne mill workers. Back in the day, you might have been one of 40 or 50,000 also browsing it.

There’s The Labour Church Hymn Book and searching for further information afterwards, you find that it was founded by John Trevor, a Christian Socialist. The church provided a shelter for the homeless on Deansgate. 

There are photos of sports clubs, trips to the seaside. Humour is to be had in the dialect poets and the spoof rules of The Moss Side Debating Society.  Filling yourself with ale to deaden the misery of your work and surroundings was understandable, but was it fulfilling? The influence of the temperance movement is highlighted with a map of Manchester showing the proliferation of pubs. So many of these different items raise issues which merit their own in-depth study and display.

The Co-operative Movement

Here’s a challenging statement in the section on the Co-op: ‘The Co-operative Movement is the great working-class success story of the 19th century.’ As significant as Chartism, or more? This claim is backed up by the display material and background facts, for example, by 1890 it had 721,310 members, and one person one vote was not restricted to male membership. Its reach was extensive, providing safe and affordable food, but also educational and cultural opportunities.

The ‘Workers’ Playtime’ exhibition certainly is ambitious, whetting the appetite for more. At reception staff spoke about the plans for the Library to have improved exhibition facilities and it must be said that this is a small taster type of exhibition. Anyone visiting Manchester from afar could also visit The People’s History Museum, a short walk away, which would perfectly complement what’s on offer here.

I benefitted and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of accompanying one of the three curators of the exhibition, along with many others, on a free tour. The tour was led by Michael Sanders, Professor of 19th Century Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester, and a contributor to our Culture Matters website. ‘He really brought it all to life’ was one comment I heard afterwards. The next tour he will be conducting will be on May 4th at 2pm.

In solidarity with journalist and Just Stop Oil protestor, Jan Goodey
Friday, 19 April 2024 03:47

In solidarity with journalist and Just Stop Oil protestor, Jan Goodey

Published in Cultural Commentary

I’ve known journalist and lecturer Jan Goodey for many years and was shocked and saddened to learn he had been sentenced last November to a six-month jail term for taking part in one of the Just Stop Oil protests. Jan is a decent man, unassuming and thoughtful, but he is—demonstrably—passionate about environmental issues and the damage that's being done to our planet, as are many of us. It tells us everything about the moral bankruptcy of Tory Britain where idealistic activists are criminalised and temporarily removed from society when they are no threat to anyone.

The judge said that Jan’s conduct—climbing up onto a gantry over a motorway to hang a banner—was "not acceptable in a peaceful and democratic society". But isn’t protest supposed to be a core component of a “democratic society”?

The huge irony here is that our “democratic society” only ever came about precisely because of protest. Our very universal suffrage was achieved through the protests and sacrifices of radicals such as the Levellers, Diggers, Chartists and Suffragettes—all were persecuted and criminalised in their times, but all have long since been historically vindicated as democratic pioneers. I believe in time Jan will also be vindicated, and, I suspect, a lot sooner than his precursors.

Jan undertook a radical act of protest, it was inescapably disruptive, that’s part of the point of protest, but it was peaceful, and did no actual harm to anyone. With our prisons overspilling and in appalling condition, how can it be justified either morally or practically to sentence peaceful protestors to serve jail terms? A key sign of a society that has lost its way morally is when compassionate idealists are criminalised by its legal system.

Below is a poem composed in support of Jan—it is based on the villanelle verse form which repeats the first and third lines of the first verse alternately for each third line of the subsequent four verses and the closing two lines of the four-lined final sixth verse, but here I’ve varied the third lines throughout, so this is a semi-villanelle, or what I will term a ‘villanelle-vague’.

Jan on a Gantry

In solidarity with Jan Goodey, first protestor to be convicted for
'causing a public nuisance' under the draconian 
Police, Crime,
Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act – sentenced to six months in
HMP Belmarsh for climbing a gantry over the M24 to hang a
JUST STOP OIL banner


No place in a peaceful democracy
For peaceful protest, disruptive dissent
& Jan hanging a banner on a gantry.

Radical demurring, recusancy,
Outspokenness, complaint, argument:
No place in a peaceful democracy,

Certainly not a busy motorway—
Where cars career in daily sacrament—
Brought to a standstill by a bannered gantry;

Just as, historically, Winstanley,
John Lilburne, Robin Hood, Samuel Bamford,
Had no place in peaceful democracy,

Nor Levellers, Diggers, Chartists, tree-
Hugging green men, Suffragettes, rent-
Strikers, Unions, & Jan on a gantry

(Just who scooped the protest from Protestant?)—

Heroes of our hard-won rights & liberties
Without whom we’d have no enfranchisement
Nor, in fact, meaningful democracy,
But banners urging OBEY from gantries.

Alan Morrison