If you've an interest in local history, the chances are you'll be aware of the tragic events of 7 September 1893, when troops opened fire on a crowd of striking miners and onlookers in Featherstone, killing two of them, James Duggan and James Gibbs.
The shootings followed the reading of the Riot Act – but this was not the first time this rarely-used piece of legislation had been called upon in this part of the world. For that, we have to go back a further 98 years, to 8 August 1795, and move three miles down the road, to Castleford, for an incident which, had the military personnel involved not been armed with swords rather than guns, could well have had similarly drastic consequences.
The 'Castleford corn riot' had been almost forgotten for more than two centuries but it was brought back into the spotlight with the aid of beer, bread and balladry when the 220th anniversary of that tumultuous day was commemorated, appropriately enough, at the town's Queen's Mill. The event was a joint effort between Castleford Heritage Trust, who are based at the former Allinsons Flour mill, and
Commoners Choir, a Leeds-based group of radical musicians led by long-time member of the band Chumbawamba, Boff Whalley.
The choir performed a specially-written song – Beer And Bread Today – as the audience ate bread baked from flour ground at the mill and drunk ale brewed for the occasion by Castleford's own Revolutions Brewery. Choir members then made a donation of food, which was split between two of the town's food banks, at Trinity Methodist and Smawthorne churches.
The singers had travelled from Leeds to Castleford by boat, along the same Aire & Calder Navigation on which a keel laden with wheat had been making its way from the Humber to the corn market at Wakefield in August 1795.
That summer, people across the country faced starvation as harvest failure the previous year, a cold winter and the effects of the long-running war with France created a grain shortage and pushed up the price of what little was available way beyond the means of ordinary people.
In towns and villages across Britain, disorder broke out as crowds broke into mills and grain stores and hijacked farmers' carts: they
became known as 'beer and bread riots' as desperate people were driven to violence to acquire the main ingredient of those two staples of the 18th century diet.
Only a couple of days before the Castleford incident, the Pontefract MP, John Smyth, had written to the government from his home at Heath Hall, complaining of “the great disposition to riot of the lower orders of the people in many different parts of this county”. In those tinderbox circumstances, then, perhaps no-one should have been surprised when, after that boat en route to Wakefield tied up for the night at Castleford (at that time a rural community of fewer than 800 people), hungry villagers seized the vessel and began to unload its cargo.
The following morning, Saturday 8 August, local magistrates, led by landowner the Earl of Mexborough, demanded that they hand over the boat and return the sacks of wheat – and when they refused, troops were summoned from Pontefract and Wakefield.
Once the cavalrymen arrived, the Riot Act was read and a riot duly ensued as troops and villagers battled for possession of the boat. By the time order was restored, 12 people had been arrested including two women, Ann Sharp and Margaret Wilson, and a miner, Michael Sidebottom, who seized the reins of a horse and held on until it unseated its rider, Captain Jeremiah Naylor.
The trio were put on trial at York Assizes the following March and could well have faced the death penalty. However, the judge displayed leniency, sentencing them to a month in prison and advising “they and others in their rank of life ... to submit with patience and resignation” to the privations they faced in the grossly unequal society of the time.
Back to 2015, before the choir arrived, local historian David Pickersgill, whose blog post telling the story of the riot inspired Commoners Choir to write the song, had set the scene by recounting
the tumultuous events of 1795 to the gathering of more than 100 people who had come to hear the performance.
He also compared the state of affairs in the Castleford of 220 years ago with more recent times in the town, pointing out that the people at the forefront of the 1795 events – women and a miner – were the same groups who led the fight for what they believed was right for their families and community in 1984–85. He also noted that, just as the church in Castleford had donated money from the parish rates to buy food for hungry villagers in 1795, so it was churches in the town who were meeting present-day needs through their foodbanks.