SCT, in collaboration with the Workers Educational Association – which will be running courses designed to help local people acquire the skills they need to take full advantage of a Speakers’ Corner project – commenced a programme of consultation in Sheffield in the summer of 2012.
One of the UK’s Great Cities
Sheffield, with a population of over ½ million, is one of the UK’s great cities known throughout the world for the skill of its metal workers and the quality of the steel it produced. While those industries have long been in decline, Sheffield has met significant success over the last decade not only in diversifying its economy but also in recreating its city centre and its reputation.
Though there is evidence of settlement in the area dating from approximately 10,000 BC, the city achieved national and, indeed, global prominence as a centre for steel production in the nineteenth century.
That industry was founded on a long tradition of metal working dating back at least to the fourteenth century. By the early seventeenth century, under the tutelage of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, it had become the largest producer of cutlery outside London.
The Industrial Revolution saw Sheffield pioneering a range of innovative new techniques including the development of stainless steel and silver plating pioneered and, in turn, in the course of the nineteenth century a very significant increase in population, from 60,000 to 450,000.
In the face of overseas competition, the steel declined steeply in the 1970s and 1980s. But in recent years, Sheffield’s economy has diversified and in 2008, the UK Cities Monitor report found Sheffield one of the top ten business locations as well as one of the greenest. Indeed, with an estimated 2.5 million trees, Sheffield can claim the highest ratio of trees to people of any European city.
The simultaneous collapse of the steel and coal industries hit Sheffield hard but a programme of major public works, starting with the development of the Sheffield Arena, Don Valley Stadium and the Ponds Forge complex to host the 1991 World Student Games and, more recently, the renovation of the Peace Gardens, the opening of the Millennium Galleries and the Winter Gardens have contributed significantly to the city’s regeneration.
Restoring A Sheffield Tradition
Sheffield is one of many cities in the UK which had at least one and perhaps more Speakers’ Corners at which people gathered to campaign, proselytise or exchange views and opinions.Most had fallen into disuse in the course of the twentieth century, their decline hastened by the advent of mass communications and, in particular, the introduction of the TV in most homes. The Speakers’ Corner in the Sheffield neighbourhood of Attercliffe was to be found in the local public baths, perhaps not surprisingly as this was a natural place for local people to congregate before most homes acquired their separate bathrooms.
SCT conducted a wide-ranging consultation over the summer of 2012 which led in September to setting up of a Speakers’ Corner Committee which included representatives of the City Council, the NHS, the police, the two universities, the cathedral, the Sheffield Star and many local voluntary and community groups.
With the enthusiastic support of the Council, they decided to embrace the model pioneered in Leicester and adopted in Bradford and organise a programme of events during Local Democracy Week (15-21 October) under the banner Sheffield Speaks. Details of the events can be accessed below.
Welcoming the initiative, Leader of Sheffield City Council, Cllr Julie Dore, said, “I think it is important we support and encourage people to speak out about issues and subjects that matter to them. We have such a diverse city and it’s fantastic when we can all come together and listen to each other and share our thoughts, interests and issues. It gives us all an insight into the different communities and the lives of people we wouldn’t always necessary know about.”
The Sheffield Amateur Parliament
We are very grateful to Benjamin Longden who, inspired by a report about the Speakers’ Corner initiative in the Sheffield Star, conducted extensive research in the Sheffield Local Studies Library and discovered the existence 130 years ago of the city’s own ‘Amateur Parliament’ which, for a few years in the 1880s, mirrored the composition, conduct and preoccupations of the Westminster Parliament. Here is what Benjamin discovered.
The Sheffield Amateur Parliament was set up in 1880 and its rule book states that the ‘object of the society shall be to promote the art of Public Speaking, by holding Debates, to be conducted as far as possible in accordance with the rules and regulations of the House of Commons’. It would meet every Friday evening from 1st October to the 1st April at Firth College in Bow Street. Anyone who was aged between 20 and 50 and lived within 10 miles of Sheffield could be a member. It aimed to have 652 members, which would represent all of the constituencies of the country at the time. The idea of this parliament must have struck a chord with people of Sheffield, because not only did 652 people put themselves forward on the very first day membership was open, but apparently hundreds more had to be turned away as it was over subscribed.
It took things very seriously, and was set up just as the national Parliament was. So when it first began, the Liberal Party was in power so the Sheffield Amateur Parliament had the Liberals in Government and the Conservatives in opposition. 14 months later there was a General Election and the Conservatives came to power which the Sheffield Amateur Parliament reflected. The comparisons did not end there: there was a Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Speaker of the House, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Colonial Secretary, Secretary for War, Attorney-General and even a Postmaster General! All members where referred to by the names of their constituencies and all the great matters of state at the time where debated including the extension of the franchise, Irish Home Rule and House of Lords reform. It took things so seriously that the Sheffield Amateur Parliament even impeached the Liberal Leader charging him with attempting to abolish the House of Lords, admitting the principle of equality between the people of India and the people of England, with neglecting his duty to Egypt and with hopeless failure in the conduct of the war in the Sudan!
The Sheffield Amateur Parliament came to an end in 1885. It had been a source of fun for some but many others got a lot out of seeing current issues debated seriously in their home town in the days when the only reports of Parliamentary business were in the newspapers. There was a public gallery from which to watch the debates and this was often full. People of all ages paid to see them and in the first session alone the receipts for the gallery came to nearly £100. Many felt the Parliament provided an excellent education in political issues, in acquiring good speaking and logical debating skills. A number of ex-members would later occupy public positions in Sheffield.
Sources: Sheffield Local Studies Library: Laws of the Sheffield Amateur Parliament and List of Officers October 1st 1880 (Local Pamphlets Vol. 163, 042s No.5); Newspaper Cuttings, Vol. 16, page 57 942.74SF; Newspaper Cuttings, Vol. 40, page 10 942.74SF
Sheffield Speaks Programme
Members of the public joined Council Cabinet member Leigh Brammall and representatives of some of the 15 local organisations and community groups behind the Sheffield Speaks initiative at its open air launch in the city centre on 15 October.
No fewer than 60 people took the opportunity to address their fellow citizens for 60 seconds on subjects close to their hearts from a platform at the Town Hall Steps on Pinstone Street as a central feature of a programme of debate and discussion to mark Local Democracy Week (15-21 October).
They spoke about a hugely diverse range of subjects, from the shortage of affordable housing to the future of Sheffield’s markets, from the need for more subsidised childcare for working mothers to a celebration of the birth of a grandchild, from the sate of the city centre to the case od an unrepaired pothole in Darnall, from attitudes to Muslims to memories of the Manchester City goalkeeper of the 1950s Bert Trautman, from cuts to public services to the benefits of recycling old computers, from the need to maintain the cycle network to the case against the planting of lime trees and from the consequences of NHS reforms to booking fees at the Crucible theatre. Many, including a number of refugees, spoke of their love for Sheffield and its people; a tourist from Dublin simply wanted to wish his wife a happy birthday.
Later in the week, Sheffield Hallam’s Student Union also set up a Speakers’ Corner in Hallam Square and some 20 events took place in different venues throughout the city.
They ranged from a debate on Sheffield Past, Present and Futureorganised by Sheffield 50+ and Sheffield Futures to explore how young and older people can make their voices heard to a hustings organised by Sheffield Third Sector Assembly and Voluntary Action Sheffield to allow voluntary groups to quiz candidates standing in next month’s elections for South Yorkshire’s Police & Crime Commissioner.
Events open to the general public included a discussion organised by the Workers’ Educational Association about why people do or don’t participate in the democratic process, a meeting organised by Sheffield for Democracy to explore how community assemblies might develop and a discussion led by John Steel, lecturer in Journalism Studies at Sheffield University, on the roles of free speech and a free press in our democracy.
The Sheffield Speaks programme was the first step in a longer term plan to create a permanent Speakers’ Corner in Sheffield’s city centre and a programme designed to provide opportunities for Sheffield people to express their ideas and opinions and get involved in debate about the issues which matter to them.
Sheffield Speaks Joint Chair Howard Duffy, the Democracy and Communications Officer at Sheffield Hallam University Students’ Union, said:
“Local democracy is about local people of all ages and backgrounds and we want to give them the opportunity to express their ideas and opinions right from the start of our programme and to celebrate all the wit and wisdom Sheffield people have to offer.
“Now more than ever it’s vital that people get the chance to speak out and be heard and we hope the 60 second format will not only encourage people who haven’t spoken in public before but also ensure that everyone gets a chance to air their views.”
Joint Chair Vicky Seddon of Sheffield for Democracy, added:
“This initiative really is owned by and run for the people of Sheffield. The enthusiasm and goodwill of the growing number of groups and organisations which make up our partnership is extraordinary.
“We want to create a platform for all of Sheffield’s communities, right in the heart of our city centre. It’s difficult to know what to expect at our Speakers’ Corner but I’m sure there’ll be humour as well as serious contributions. What’s important is that people have the opportunity to speak their minds.”
You can find details of the Sheffield Speaks Programme here.
The launch was widely and positively reported by the Sheffield Star and BBC Sheffield as well as featuring in the The Guardian blog The Northerner. The Sheffield Telegraph’s video of the launch can be seen here.
Creating A Speakers’ Corner
At its meeting in January 2013, the Speakers’ Corner Committee shortlisted three sites which it felt could provide the space for Sheffield’s new Speakers’ Corner. It is now drawing up plans to ‘roadtest’ them in the Spring with the help of local actors to identify which works best in terms of footfall, acoustics and relationship with neighbouring uses. It is also hoped to involve the Sheffield public in the final choice.