- The threat of starvation in August 1795 drives villagers to seize a boat laden with wheat and leads to a riot.
In the summer of 1795, the frightening prospect of starvation loomed over tens of thousands of people all across Britain. The previous year’s harvest had failed owing to drought, then a severe winter followed which saw the River Thames freeze over in temperatures as low as –20 degrees centigrade. The cold weather and the floods which followed the subsequent thaw meant neither large-scale farmers nor the multitudes of smallholders with their strips in village fields were able to prepare their land properly for the following year’s crop, after which a cold, wet spring came as the final blow. Poor harvests were by no means a rarity during the eighteenth century but the usual expedient in such circumstances, of importing grain from the continent, was impossible because Britain was at war with France. Not only that, but since the government’s priority was to supply the army and navy with bread, the civilian population was left even more at the mercy of shortages and of rocketing prices for such grain as was available.
Wheat which in 1790 had cost around £2 10s per quarter rose to around £3 in 1794 and by 1795 was selling at anything from £4 to almost £5 per quarter, while the same year a 4lb loaf of bread cost a shilling, almost double its price twelve months previously. There were regular allegations of wheat merchants and millers hoarding grain to inflate prices still further or depriving local markets of their produce in order to sell it in places where a higher price could be got. Throughout the country, mills and grain warehouses were broken into by crowds of desperate people, farmers’ carts were seized, riots broke out and ever more lurid rumours fanned the flames of discontent. A steady stream of reports of hunger and disorder arrived in Whitehall from the government’s representatives out in the counties, to the alarm of ministers who were all too aware that similar events in France had played a big part in sparking the revolution of 1789 – even if Marie Antoinette never actually did say “let them eat cake”…
On 6 August, Pontefract MP the Rt Hon John Smyth wrote from his home at Heath Hall, near Wakefield, to Lieutenant-General Scott, army commander for the Yorkshire district. He informed Scott of “the great disposition to riot of the lower orders of the people in many different parts of this County” and suggested “the utility of your sending a Regiment of Dragoons to Wakefield or the neighbourhood if you can with propriety do so”. He added that “a great riot is now existing at Knottingley” and that several smaller disturbances had taken place “all relative to the high price of corn”. The Knottingley incident had seen a group of townspeople stop a boat laden with wheat the previous evening (Wednesday) – probably as it passed through the locks near the town’s mill – and start to unload its cargo. The arrival of a troop of the West Riding Yeomanry cavalry from Pontefract barracks saw order restored, but the episode demonstrated the desperation prevalent in so many communities and the willingness of the authorities to use military force to keep the lid on the situation.
The same day Smyth also wrote to the Duke of Portland, the government minister charged with overseeing the crisis, enclosing a copy of his plea to Lt Gen Scott and adding: “Wheat sold here the last market day for above a guinea per bushel – and the people entertain an idea that it is hoarded so to increase the price. I have not been able to ascertain the truth of the fact.”
These were the tinderbox circumstances in which, on Friday 7 August 1795, a boat made its way along the River Aire laden with wheat (probably from East Anglia rather than across the English Channel) bound for the market at Wakefield. Having managed to pass safely through Knottingley, it continued upstream and entered the stretch of canal at Castleford which bypassed the weir. By now it was too late in the day to reach its destination before dark and so, after passing through Castleford Lock, the vessel proceeded straight ahead into the River Calder and moored up for the night, most likely at the wharf which served Castleford Pottery, in Whitwood Mere. This stretch of water is now a partially-dried out ‘ox-bow’ lake, formerly referred to as the Pottery River, now known as Pumphouse Pond, having been isolated from the river when the Aire & Calder Navigation company straightened and deepened its course in the 1830s, but at that time it was still part of the main river channel.
There were hungry people in Castleford that summer, too. Although the price of wheat in Leeds and Wakefield had begun to fall by this time, supplies were still short and the cost of bread was still extortionately high when set against the meagre incomes of most of the villagers. Money from the church rate, usually used for the running costs of the building and salaries of the clergy, had recently been diverted to help pay for bread but such efforts could only go a small way toward relieving the situation. Consequently, when word got round that there were sacks of wheat for the taking, there was no shortage of people with no qualms about helping themselves. Several dozen men and women, armed with pikes and scythes, descended upon the wharf, boarded the boat and began to unload it. Whether the crew had stayed with the vessel or had sought accommodation for the night elsewhere is not known, but the villagers were still in possession of the boat the following morning when a deputation of magistrates and various members of the local gentry arrived on the scene, having probably been alerted by Castleford Pottery owner David Dunderdale who was a key witness to subsequent events.
Unsurprisingly, the protestations of this privileged group, which included major local landowner the Earl of Mexborough and two of his sons, cut no ice with the villagers and they refused to budge. While the stand-off continued, one of the magistrates rode to Ferrybridge, where members of the Pontefract yeomanry, under the charge of Lieutenant Torre, had stayed to keep watch on river traffic after the Knottingley incident and had been joined by additional volunteer troops from Wakefield. A detachment was soon galloping towards Castleford where, upon its arrival, the riot act was read – and a riot duly ensued as soldiers and civilians battled for possession of the boat. Chief among the protagonists was a collier by the name of Michael Sidebottom: having yelled at the troops that they would not escape alive, at one point he grabbed the reins of a Pontefract cavalryman’s horse, tried to drag it towards the river and kept hold until the bucking animal unseated its rider. Also in the thick of the action were two women: Ann Sharp, the wife of a Castleford boatman, and Margaret Wilson, from Methley. In all, a dozen people were arrested.
Eventually, the military prevailed, the villagers were removed from the vessel and, with several constables on board, it was able to resume its journey to Wakefield. Of the villagers arrested, Michael Sidebottom, Ann Sharp and Margaret Wilson were remanded in York castle (the two women on the word of David Dunderdale, who must have observed with real fear the events happening alongside his premises, and Sidebottom on the oath of a Captain Jeremiah Naylor) while another three were sent to Wakefield prison. Sidebottom was charged with riotous behaviour and threatening the lives of the soldiers, while Sharp and Wilson were accused of aiding and assisting the detention of the vessel; the latter two were released on bail but Michael Sidebottom remained in custody at York, with all three set to stand trial at York Assizes the following spring. It was by no means uncommon for the penalty for such offences to be execution.
Pleased with the militia’s putting down of the riots, on 12 August the Justices of the Peace for the West Riding convened at Ferrybridge where, the Leeds Intelligencer reported, they “unanimously voted their thanks to Colonel Tottenham, and the corps of the Wakefield Volunteers; and also to Lieutenant Torre, (the commanding officer) and to the troop of the Pontefract Yeomanry Cavalry, for their recent meritorious conduct in assisting the magistrates in the suppressing and dispersing a tumultuous assembly of men and women at Knottingley and Castleford”. This was reported in the 17 August edition of the newspaper, while the following week it could, with evident satisfaction, state: “The late obstructions of the navigation of the rivers Aire and Calder at Knottingley and Castleford are totally removed, owing to the ready assistance afforded to the Magistrates and Gentlemen of the country by the Wakefield Volunteer Corps of Infantry, and the Pontefract Troop of the West Riding Yeomanry Cavalry. The public may rest assured that the same exertions will not be wanting (tho’ we trust they may not, in future, be necessary) to protect all property passing those rivers.” Many members of the Castleford public, still struggling to feed themselves, most likely saw things somewhat differently – but so far as the authorities were concerned, the rightful order had been restored.
That such order would be maintained by whatever means necessary was made clear by an edict issued on the day of the Castleford riot by another figure who was unlikely ever to have felt the pangs of hunger, the Duke of Norfolk. Published in several Yorkshire newspapers throughout the month, it read as follows.
To the Magistrates of the West Riding of the County of York
I have His Majesty’s Commands to recommend it to the Magistrates in their respective Divisions of the West-Riding of the County of York, to employ the greatest Care and Diligence, and to use their utmost Endeavours and Influence to enforce due Execution of the Law against all riotous and unlawful Assemblies, Combinations and Confederations which shall be entered into, to obstruct the free Circulation of any Articles of Provision; and that for this Purpose they should avail themselves of every Degree of legal Authority with which they are invested, and call forth all the Powers which the Constitution has placed in their Hands; and that they do call before them the High Constables and other proper Officers under their Direction, and give them the strictest Orders for preventing all such unlawful Proceedings, and that they do issue their Warrants for apprehending and seizing all Persons concerned therein, in order that they may be dealt with according to Law.
I have the Honor to be,
Your obedient humble servant,
Clerk of the Peace’s Office, Wakefield,
August 8th, 1795.
In fairness to the government, it must be remembered that at this time there was no effective police force in most areas, simply an occasional parish constable with very limited powers. Consequently, there was little alternative to at least a degree of military involvement when the efforts of the magistrates to secure order were clearly failing in so many cases.
On Tuesday 15 March 1796, at York Courthouse, Michael Sidebottom, Ann Sharp and Margaret Wilson stood before Mr Justice Clayton and pleaded guilty to the charges laid against them the previous August. In the intervening months one of the women (the records do not state whom) had become pregnant but, more significantly, it seems the local magistrates had taken time to dwell upon the circumstances in which the riot had taken place and were by then taking a much more sympathetic view of the defendants’ actions. Before passing sentence, it was reported in the Leeds Intelligencer, the judge told them that it was to the leniency of the magistrates that they owed their lives, “for had their offence been laid capitally in the indictment and the facts as there laid been proved (of which there was no doubt) they must have been capitally convicted, and that in times like the present when it was of the utmost consequence to preserve a due subordination and submission to the law, they could not expect that mercy would have been extended to them, and most certainly they would have undergone the dreadful sentence of the law, which would have condemned them to death”. Although the judge could not resist lecturing the trio that “they and others in their rank of life” were not acting in their own best interests by refusing to “submit … with patience and resignation” to the privations heaped upon them by the inequalities of late-eighteenth century society, he nevertheless concurred with the magistrates whose “highly humane” conduct had been impressed upon him by the prosecuting counsel.
The magistrates’ view was that since it was clear “it was in their power with the common force of the country to quell a riot of so alarming an extent as this had been, and bring the ringleaders of it to that bar to answer to answer for their offence,” then this action would “have its full effect in preserving peace and order”. Consequently, they had asked that mercy be shown to the defendants, a request Justice Clayton was happy to grant. Before passing sentence he commended the “cool and determined conduct of the two corps of volunteers … particularly to that gentleman of the cavalry, who, though his own life was in danger from the violence of Sidebottom, who endeavoured to force him and his horse into the Rive Aire, had declined to making use of his sword”.
Each of the three defendants was then sentenced to a month in prison. Michael Sidebottom was further bound over in the sum of £150 to keep the peace for a year, while Ann Sharp and Margaret Wilson were ordered to behave for a similar period or face a payment of £50 each. Their relief, and that of their families, can only be imagined – as can the potential reaction of the wider Castleford community if the harsher sentences had been imposed. Perhaps this latter consideration figured as prominently in the minds of the judiciary as did their much-vaunted humanity and leniency.
By this time, the worst of the dearth was over. The 1795 harvest had not been as bad as feared and supplies of wheat from Canada were now reaching British ports. At the previous week’s Leeds market, wheat sold at between 35s and 40s for a three-bushel load in comparison with the guinea (21s) for a single bushel reported by John Smyth in his letter to the Duke of Portland seven months previously. Poverty and hunger were to remain a blight on most Castleford people for many decades to come as the agricultural village underwent the transformation into an industrial town, but outright starvation would never again threaten on anything approaching the scale which had driven Sidebottom, Sharp, Wilson and their neighbours to act in the way they did on those tumultuous August days.
Government correspondence on the wheat shortage crisis is in the Public Record Office, Kew, in file HO/42/35. Copies of the Leeds Intelligencer are on microfilm in Leeds City Library.