Nobbling the NobsticksBINGHAM was an anarchist whilst M’Loughlin, his alleged target, was a 'nobstick', the local term for a blackleg. Sheffield had a tradition of deterring blacklegging by violent direct action, frequently involving the use of explosives. Although 1889 was two decades since the end of the 'Sheffield Outrages' the authorities were determined to prevent a resurgence of militant unionism.
Robert’s StoryBorn in 1849, Robert Bingham’s birthplace of Norton was still very rural although just five miles south-east of the smoke blackened centre of Sheffield. Small scale workshops had sprung up in the area, powered by the rivers and streams flowing down from the Peak District and this unique blend of small-scale workshops amidst sublime natural beauty persuaded John Ruskin to back a cooperative scheme enabling skilled craftsmen to continue to work the land.
Established in 1877, Ruskin’s 'St George’s Farm' colony attracted practical socialists. Although living nearby, the youthful Robert Sykes Bingham was initially more impressed by the republican ideas of the radical Liberal MP, Charles Dilkes. In 1871, Bingham organised Dilkes’ security for a huge public meeting held at Leeds’ Victoria Hall. When determined royalists tried to disrupt and wreck the meeting, in the words of the Sheffield Independent, 'He called on the Stewards to follow him into the crowd but they did not. He went alone. He was seriously manhandled.' It was Robert Bingham’s baptism of fire.
No Hammer or SickleAs a scythemaker, Robert’s dad was exactly the sort of skilled craft worker that Ruskin hoped to attract to his 'Guild of St George' social reform movement but Ruskin’s ideas proved more attractive to Robert and his siblings for both his brother John and sister Louisa, also became anarchists. Although all three shared advanced social ideas none was attracted to either making or wielding scythes, and all three settled for retailing groceries.
Robert was most entrepreneurial and at various times all three worked together at branches of a chain of grocery stores that he owned and managed. Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing and in 1873 Robert was in trouble with the law and fined £10 and costs for selling adulterated lard. In 1876 he was back in court and forced to hand over another tenner, this time in damages to labourer William Ollerenshaw whom he’d carelessly run over in his horse drawn delivery cart.
In 1881 Robert’s grocery empire was in dire financial straits and he was pursued by creditors. Fortunately he found suitable backers, continued in business and remained a grocer for the rest of his life.
The Grocer and the CarpenterEdward Carpenter, the pioneering gay libertarian, who lived nearby was a friend of Robert’s. In 1885, the pair campaigned together for an independent radical candidate, Mervyn Hawkes, who stood for Irish Home Rule, free education and “root and branch land reform”.
The following year the nucleus of this group started the 'Sheffield Socialist Club' with a libertarian manifesto composed by Carpenter but with Robert as one of the original signatories. John and Louisa, by then married to a drunken bully named George Usher, joined soon after.
Café SocietyTo promote the cause, Bingham and his comrades persuaded William Morris to visit Sheffield and deliver two lectures in the Secularist Hall, on Sunday 28th February 1886. Morris was pleased with the result though the Sheffield comrades resolved to remain independent and not affiliate to Morris’ 'Socialist League'. In March 1887 club members invited Kropotkin to Sheffield and he lectured, “to a considerable audience, which consisted mainly of the working classes”.
Initially Robert and his chums met at the Wentworth Café in Holly Street and hired halls for public meetings but with Carpenter’s backing they were able to acquire their own spacious premises, the old debtors’ jail in Scotland Street. They created a 'Commonwealth Café' on the ground floor and a meeting hall on the floor above.
Carpenter fondly recalled these early SSC years:
'We organized lectures, addresses, pamphlets, with a street-corner propaganda which soon brought us in amusing and exciting incidents in the way of wrangles with the police and the town-crowds… A dozen or twenty at most formed the moving and active element of our society - though its membership may have been a hundred or more; and these disposed themselves to their various functions. Mrs. Usher, large-bosomed and large-hearted, would move on the outskirts of our open-air meetings, armed with a bundle of literature. She was an excellent saleswoman and few could resist her hearty appeal "Buy this pamphlet, love, it will do you good!" Even in the streets or the tramcars the most solemn and substantial old gentlemen fell a prey to her. Her brothers, the two Binghams, were among our two speakers, and both of them pretty effective, the one in a logical, the other (Robert) in a more oratorical way. They were provision merchants in the town; and their business suffered at first, but afterwards gained, by the connection.'
Anarchy in the AirIn those halcyon days the Sheffield comrades marched happily together towards common goals but as the decade advanced political paths began to diverge. As late as the summer of 1889 Robert’s own politics were still fluid, as fellow club member, George Hukin frustratedly observed “(Robert) first of all goes in strong on one thing – say the eight hour day – and just when you think the meeting is going to settle about what’s to be done, he suddenly remembers that after all the 8 hours is only a palliative and it’s doubtful whether it’s worth our while to bother about it.”
Everywhere miltant unionism was advancing, the successful strike action of the London gas-workers was rapidly followed by that of the dockers, lifting the spirit and ambition of the whole working class. In June 1889 it was the turn of the Leeds gas-workers. When Leeds Council brought in scabs and the military to break the strike, workers fought back attacking both blacklegs and local worthies.
Whilst Carpenter’s closest confidants were chastened by the workers’ militancy, Robert was exhilarated. All three Binghams, Robert, John and Louisa, along with the majority of club members were moving ever closer to anarchism. As propaganda activities intensified, more strident speakers were invited. In November 1889 the fiery London anarchist Charles Mowbray came to Sheffield but, as Commonweal reported, William Morris was also invited.
'Comrade Mowbray addressed large meetings on Saturday (16th Nov.) at Penistone Street, West Bar, Gower Street, the Monolith, assisted by Bulas, Bingham, Carpenter and Sketchley. Mowbray also addressed a meeting at the Hall of Science. At the monolith a police inspector wanted his name and address. On Sunday evening we had a tea and social meeting, after which Mowbray lectured on “Revolution and Reform”. On Monday a meeting was held at Gower Street of the workmen at Cammel’s Ironworks and also at the Monolith, Fargate. No police interruption. At 8pm William Morris lectured to a good audience at the Cambridge Hall. Commonweal sold out; 7s worth of literature; good collections.'
A Comrade in NeedWhen Fred Charles, an unemployed anarchist arrived in Sheffield in the autumn of 1889 Robert offered him a clerking job in one of his grocery shops. Charles enthusiastically joined Bingham’s band of militants and submitted this ominously revealing report to December’s Commonweal: 'Things are moving splendidly in this district. In addition to several meetings held during the week we have good meetings on Sunday – at the Monolith in the morning, Gower Street in the afternoon and the Pump, Westbar, at night. This morning a reporter was specially sent down to report our speeches to the Watch Committee of the Corporation and several rumours are about of various impending prosecutions by the police authorities…'
A speech about a local strike recently delivered at the Monolith by Robert received particularly close attention. Twenty-eight men had downed tools at 'John Brown and Company’s' Sheffield works and the management replaced them with blacklegs. The strikers responded by resurrecting Sheffield’s traditional treatment of “nobsticks” and the scabs complained to the police of being beaten up. The reporter Fred Charles mentioned claimed Bingham had incited the strikers’ violence by his incendiary speech.
Confounding the ConstabularyThe following February the reporter’s notes were read out in court and there was no disputing their accuracy;
'There is a little strike going on at Brown’s. These men are making a very just fight…The men who prevent them from winning, who are making the fight a difficult and unequal fight are the “scabs”…They are traitors to the cause . Men who did this sort of thing in war…would be taken and shot…it is not murder, it is killing a traitor.'
Unfortunately for the authorities, the reporter fingered the wrong Bingham brother and the charges against John were formally dismissed after witnesses established that John Bingham did not make the claimed speech nor had he ever delivered any public speech at the Monolith!
The prosecutors were unabashed. It was conceded that, unlike his brother, Robert Sykes Bingham did regularly speak at the Monolith so the authorities simply substituted his name on an identical charge sheet and proceeded with the prosecution. The judge gave the jury no doubt that it was their duty to convict, 'Mr Justice Grantham in summing up characterised the speech as strong, clear and positive incentive to murder, observing that if it was not so he did not understand the English language.' The jury defied the judge and declared Robert, 'Not Guilty!'
1891 –the Year of Living DangerouslySheffield was fast gaining a reputation for anarchist militancy and Robert Bingham was encouraged rather than quieted by his failed prosecution. On the 15th of November 1890 William Morris, utterly frustrated by the absurd revolutionary posturing of the anarchist-communist faction, abandoned the Socialist League, warning, 'Men absorbed in a movement are apt to surround themselves with a kind of artificial atmosphere which distorts the proportions of things outside, and prevents them from seeing what is really going on' but Robert Bingham and his anarchist comrades were in no mood to listen.
There had long been ideological tension between Sheffield comrades but the final straw arrived just before Morris’s announcement in the form of roving Irish adventurer and insurrectionary anarchist, Doctor John O’Dwyer Creaghe. Although Creaghe had only landed in London on 15th October, en voyage from the River Plate, he was immediately installed in the Sheffield anarchist group. Creaghe’s name, alongside Robert Bingham, appears on printed handbills advertising a public commemoration of the Chicago Martyrs held at Hallamshire Hall on 11th November 1890. His impact on Bingham and Sheffield was immediate.
By the end of January 1891, exhorted by Creaghe, Robert Bingham’s anarchist faction boycotted their old clubrooms, denounced their former socialist comrades and started their own anarchist club at Creaghe’s Westbar premises. They held their fiery propaganda meetings at the Monolith beneath a banner declaring, 'NO GOD, NO MASTER!'.
Prior to Creaghe’s arrival, Bingham’s brand of miltant anarchism resonated with local trade union direct action tradition and sustained practical comradely cooperation with fellow Sheffield socialists. Robert, along with his brother and sister, was well known and respected in Yorkshire – which explains why he was acquitted by a jury despite being condemned by a judge. Under the incendiary influence of Creaghe all that went up in smoke. In 1891 Creaghe initiated a series of campaigns that although nominally anarchist demonstrated contempt for the everyday opinions and underlying political consciousness of local workers
Aided by two other anarchist incomers, Auguste Coulon and Cyril Bell, in 1891 Creaghe published eight editions of 'The Sheffield Anarchist' . A propaganda sheet that makes 'Class War' appear moderate and sensible. Where Bingham’s incitement was focussed, purposeful and rooted in local conditions, Creaghe’s propaganda was sweeping, arrogant and ultimately authoritarian. Unfortunately Bingham and his otherwise sensible comrades were swept along by Creaghe’s sincere but inappropriate, devil-may-care attitude and ineluctably drawn into an illegalist political net.
Within a year Creaghe was drummed out of town by local workers who in August 1891 physically attacked and besieged the Anarchist Club. The incumbents embarrassingly relied on police protection to save them from a working class mob who had smashed every single window in the building.
Creaghe returned to Argentina leaving Bingham to lick his wounds and repair relationships with local workers but Fred Charles was not so lucky. Encouraged by Coulon, now proved to have been a police spy and agent provocateur, he’d been drawn into a bomb plot and jailed for ten years. My own research leads me to conclude that Cyril Bell was also a state agent who curiously also departed for Argentina before the end of 1891.
Voice in the WildernessFrom 1885 until 1891 the British anarchist movement had developed and grown until hubris caused anarchist-communists like Robert Bingham to promote tactics devised by the State and served up by agents like Coulon and Bell. After 1891 British workers distrusted anarchists and direct action and backed labourism and electioneering.
Robert’s immediate task was to liberate Fred Charles and his fellow 'conspirators' from jail. He energetically campaigned in Walsall and other Midland and Northern towns on behalf of the imprisoned anarchists but despite gaining widespread support from the labour movement the authorities were unmoved. Shamefully, Robert received little support from local Marxists who told the local paper: 'In our judgement the Walsall prisoners had been properly convicted and we the Sheffield branch of the Social Democratic Federation, have no sympathy with the conduct of the prisoners'!
Fred Charles remained inside for 7½ years before his eventual release. When Robert travelled down to Portland Prison, Dorset in November 1894 to visit Fred, the authorities refused him admission.
Bingham doggedly continued to argue for anarchism and was grudgingly recognised by the local press as 'Mr Anarchist Bingham'. When anarchist journalist David Nicoll was released from prison, Robert offered him a home in Sheffield. Nicoll was incarcerated for accusing the police of framing the 'Walsall Conspirators' and revealing Coulon’s role in the affair. With Robert’s support David Nicoll was enabled to publish several invaluable anarchist pamphlets during the three years he lived in Sheffield.
Let them Eat Bacon!As an anarchist grocer, Robert attracted mocking comments from critics who thought anarchists should only survive in the impoverished cracks and crevices of society. In 1894, a correspondent to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph ridiculed Robert’s anarchist-communism by suggesting, “Mr Bingham, by way of example, begin the sharing-out system by distributing his stock of bacon, hams and other provisions among his comrades.” The sarcasm was unwarranted as Robert showed when police prosecuted the manager of the Mexborough branch of his grocery chain after he absconded with money out of the till. “Apprehended by Sergeant Forman, the prisoner, who expressed his sorrow for the offence, said, “I have been horse racing and mixing up in bad company”…As the prisoner admitted his guilt, Mr Bingham did not wish to press the case.”
Pillar of the Community
Robert’s last libertarian campaign came in 1898 when he organised the UK speaking tour of the American libertarian, William Francis Barnard. Reporting on Barnard’s Bradford engagement, at Laycock’s Coffee House Lecture Hall, the anarchist journal Freedom observed that, 'his lecture on Government proved that government per se is exploitation'. Enquirers were directed to Robert’s shop premises at Lady’s Bridge Buildings, Wicker, Sheffield.
Anarchism in England and Sheffield was by then but a pale shadow of its former self. Fred Charles and David Nicoll had returned to London and Creaghe’s adventurism had alienated Edward Carpenter who’d shifted into the state socialist camp and started a new Sheffield Socialist Club free from of anarchist taint.
Robert Bingham eschewed the political manoeuvrings of the Sheffield Labourites and instead worked with the 'Young Liberals'. When Robert died in July 1934 he was granted an accolade given to few other English anarchists, a lengthy positive obituary in his local newspaper, of which this is but an extract;
“The death has occurred of Mr Robert Sykes Bingham, known as the father of the Sheffield provision trade, also known as an ardent enthusiastic and determined political worker.
In his early days he experienced a great deal of the rough and tumble of politics. He regularly stood near the Monolith in Town Hall Square and talked advanced views to the crowds until the Monolith actually became to be known as Bingham’s Monolith…
He was a friend of many prominent people including William Morris, the poet and Prince Kropotkin, the Russian social worker (sic)…”
Christopher Draper – November 2016
(The eleventh in a monthly series of “Northern Anarchist Lives.”)