The Sheffield Democrats' critique of criminal justice in the 1850s

Williams, Chris A. (2004). The Sheffield Democrats' critique of criminal justice in the 1850s. In: Rodger, Richard and Colls, Robert eds. Cities of Ideas: Civil Society and Urban Governance in Britain 1800-2000. Historical Urban Studies. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, pp. 96–120.



This article examines the attempt by the Sheffield Democrats to take control of the institutions of local government in 1851. The political basis for this challenge was the collapse of the national political stage provided by Chartism: the ideological framework was the ultra-localist analysis of English liberty provided by Joshua Toulmin Smith. The Democrats utilised a specifically urban variant of ‘Norman yoke’ theory to justify a bottom-up democracy, which was offered as an alternative to a centralising and professionalising tendency. Their challenge is examined through their policies and statements regarding the criminal justice system. It was driven as much by expediency as by theory, and it reveals the limits to political action and the extent to which the Democrats were consciously excluded from police power by the town’s Liberal ruling group. It also demonstrates the extent to which a firm adherence to ‘respectability’ among the working class and lower middle class need not necessarily lead to a support for the political order and its police institutions. It makes a claim that the 'politics of action' of the Democrats must be taken into account when debating the nature of social history, which has recently been pre-occupied with the politics of discourse.

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