Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In a Dark Wood: Words and Images of Mental Distress Across a Century

Sheffield’s third Festival of the Mind (15-25 Sep 2016) will be kicking off this week with a full programme of varied events across the city.  Included in the programme is a project called In a Dark Wood: Words and Images of Mental Distress Across a Century.

This collaboration between Archive Sheffield, Sheffield City Archives, and Professor Brendan Stone (University of Sheffield) will explore changing perceptions of mental distress/illness by drawing both on contemporary accounts and on the photographic archive of South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum (later Middlewood Hospital) in Sheffield.  A collection of large-plate glass negatives, kept in the Sheffield City Archives, and almost certainly unseen in the last hundred years, offer a powerful window into a different era of medical care.
The history of photography in mental hospitals is a long one, dating back to the work of Hugh Diamond in the mid-19th century. Diamond was a doctor, photographer, and the Superintendent of Surrey County Asylum. The practice soon became widespread, and was based on the idea that the photographic image could provide an accurate and scientific insight into ‘insanity’. In Diamond’s influential 1856 paper ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity’ he claimed that the use of photography negated the need “to use the vague terms which denote a difference in the degree of mental suffering”, and that photographic images indicated “the exact point which has been reached in the scale of unhappiness”.
The photographing of patients was predicated on a desire to ameliorate suffering. Nevertheless, what may strike us now is the inadequacy of an approach which focused on surface appearance. As we look at these almost 100 year-old images from the old Middlewood Hospital, we might reflect on the stories and voices of those we witness, and wonder how many were untold, unheard. There is no identifying information included with the images, nor any explanation as to why they were taken.
These anonymised images will be presented alongside contemporary audio reflections on the nature of illness/distress and care from people currently living with mental health problems. The combination of images and sound will represent a kind of dialogue across time which will generate insight and provoke thought about differing perceptions of mental health, as well as drawing out resonances. Visitors to the exhibition will be invited to leave their own thoughts and reflections in response to the exhibits.
The exhibition In a Dark Wood will be showing at Bank Street Arts from 15-25 Sep 2016 as part of the Festival of the Mind.

Date: Thu 15 - Sun 25 September 2016

Time: 11am-4pm, except 11am-9pm on Wednesday 21 September
Location: Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street. Sheffield, S1 2DS
Entry: Free

© Glass negative images from the collections at Sheffield City Archives (Sheffield Libraries), [early 20th cent.], reference: NHS3/5/26.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The story of Peter Raeney, the ‘Maniac of Woodseats’

A few years ago, we uncovered the sad story of Peter Raeney of Woodseats who lost both his love and his mind in the early years of the 19th century.  The story unfolds in a detailed account from 1828, held at Sheffield Archives, which was published in local magazine, Active8.  Four years later, a local band, who read the article, have written and recorded a song called ‘Peter Raeney’ inspired by the sad life story of the tragic character who hid himself away and ‘died for love’.

Raeney, a fine-looking 20-year old, had courted Mary Jones, the daughter of a local landowner.  The couple were due to be married at Dronfield Church but Raeney’s bride-to-be left him standing at the altar, instead marrying another Sheffield man in a different part of the country on the same day.  Raeney returned to the Woodseats hovel which was his family home, tore a hole into the loft, climbed into it and vowed never to leave.  His family took him food but he refused to speak to them.  They left the door open for him each night and, after a while, he would creep down from his hiding place when it was dark and either cover himself with earth or roll in any pool he could find.  According the account from 1828 ‘at last he refused to go out any more and pulled his bed all to pieces; everything which has since been given him for bedding or clothing, he destroys’.

After 14 years, two people travelling from Sheffield to Derby heard about his existence through talking to people at the Freemasons' Arms (now The Big Tree) and they learned where to find ‘the maniac’s dwelling’.  Heading towards Chesterfield, just 200 yards from the inn, they discovered a small croft: ‘A miserable abode of the creature whose wrongs or miseries we sought to enquire’.  They were allowed into the tumble-down building by a widow, but she was reluctant to let them see her son.  At that moment the two visitors noticed something in the loft above: ‘a moan we knew to be human was heard’.  Offering the old woman a few shillings, they were pointed in the direction of a few stone steps which led to a hole in the ceiling.  In the darkness they discovered Peter Raeney, bent double in the loft space wrapped in a ‘foul discoloured sheet’ and covered in a mass of hair.
The visitors describe in great detail the physical and mental state of the man: ‘the lower part of his face was buried in hair… the whole body was in the attitude of an ape sitting..’ The narrator goes on to say: ‘I looked around the miserable loft which contained nothing but the naked body of the poor maniac, the dirty sheet I have spoken of, myself, my friend and the woman who conducted us.  In spite of my appetite for information, I grew physically as well as mentally sick, when, to my surprise and almost horror, the poor wretch who had kept his wild looks almost continually upon us, turned his face to the floor, and said in a tone which smote the heart “I am bound to sleep”.’

The 2,000 word account concludes that ‘Mentally he has died for love.  It cannot be doubted that the falsehood of Mary Jones broke the heart of Peter Raeney’.  Raeney died two years later and was buried at Norton Church in December 1830.

Some years later, after reading this account in Active8 magazine, local songwriter Andy Whitehouse, realised that the Raeney family home must have been very close to his own house at Woodseats.  Taking some of the narrative word for word from the original account he put ‘Peter Raeney’ together.  Now his band, The Silver Darlings, are to release ‘Peter Raeney’ as a single on 17 Sep with a launch party at Shakespeare’s, Gibraltar Street, Sheffield.  Doors 8pm, admission free.  Listen to the song here:

To find out more about this dramatic story as retold by Andy Whitehouse and Tim Knebel, listen to Rony Robinson’s show on BBC Radio Sheffield (8:00 to 24:00).

The original article can be viewed at Sheffield Archives (reference number: JC/29/21) and a copy can be seen on Picture Sheffield


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Chartism: a Sheffield Uprising

James Throup, a student from the School of English at the University of Sheffield, has been spending time in the archives uncovering some of the fascinating documents which tell the history of Sheffield.  His final blog post discusses Chartism: a Sheffield Uprising...

Near midnight, Saturday the 11th of January 1840: police officers Atcherly and Wilde, accompanied by others, gained admission to a house on Eyre Lane by asking for a man named Hartley. Their real target was the owner of the house, a man called Samuel Holberry. Resting in bed, Holberry heard the approach of the thick-booted officers, surprise mixed with a feeling of resignation, a sense of inevitability. The officers burst into the candlelit room to find Holberry propped up on his elbow in bed, fully dressed except for his shoes, the bedside candlelight fluttering briefly about the scene. Wilde stepped forward and ‘caught hold of a dagger from a side pocket in his coat, which was in a red leather case’.


“Are you one of the people called the Chartists?” said Wilde.

“Yes.” replied Holberry.

“This dagger is a deadly weapon – you surely would not take life with it?” said Atcherly.

“Yes; but I would in defence of the Charter, and to obtain liberty” replied Holberry.

So runs the report on the ‘Trial of the Sheffield Chartists’ in the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, March 21st 1840. Holberry was subsequently arrested and tried for conspiracy and sedition, and sentenced to four years imprisonment. He later denied ever making the remarks alleged by Wilde and Atcherly, and some have speculated how culpable he actually was (Lewis 2009). At the same time, the police did find a substantial arsenal of weapons in the Eyre Lane house, so it is hard to deny that some form of Chartist agitation was at hand. Delving into the history of the Chartist uprising in Sheffield, I found this to be one of many suspicious elements.

Chartism was a political movement which campaigned for increased worker’s rights in England in the nineteenth century. Betrayed by the Reform Act of 1832, which extended voting rights to middle class men, workers adopted a People’s Charter aimed towards an extension of suffrage. Their aims included: the vote for men over 21; a secret ballot; a wage for politicians; a rebuttal of the stipulation that politicians had to own property; equal electoral districts; and yearly parliament elections. By the end of the century all but the last of these were implemented.

In 1839, an armed uprising in Newport by Chartist sympathisers was violently suppressed by the police. In the wake of this, several other uprisings were planned across the country. The one in Sheffield was spearheaded by Samuel Holberry, and aimed to seize the town hall by armed force. However, on the night of the planned insurrection, the police pre-emptively put a halt to any mass action thanks to information from James Allen, himself a Chartist.


After the Chartist leaders had been arrested, Allen was placed under police protection:

Employment was found for him at his own trade in the South of England where he remained for some time under an assumed name. At length he was recognised by a man who had known him at Rotherham, and his removal became necessary

(Taylor and Otley)

Oddly, Allen’s fate was not revealed until 1864, when John Taylor recounted the events at a meeting for the Young Men’s Book Society, an account reprinted in the Sheffield Telegraph. In reply to this article, Richard Otley, another former Chartist, wrote in decrying Allen as an agent provocateur, intent on inciting others to take up arms in a plot which he planned to derail.

Another suspicious factor was that Allen’s evidence was not submitted to the court when Holberry was tried. In addition, Holberry was not permitted to speak throughout the trial (Lewis 2009). Instead the prosecution relied on other Chartists members turning ‘Queen’s Witness’. It was later revealed that the main ‘witness’, Samuel Thompson, acted under duress: the police had arrested his father without reason, and threatened both with imprisonment if Thompson failed to co-operate. 

Holberry was sentenced to four years in prison at Northallerton. Whilst incarcerated he received a number of letters, a collection of which are preserved at Sheffield Archives. One of these is a petition challenging the unjust treatment of Holberry:

the said Samuel Holberry when sentenced to imprisonment for the above term [four years imprisonment for conspiracy and sedition], was not sentenced to hard labour, yet, at the commencement of his confinement, he was placed on the tread mill; a punishment (in the opinion of your petitioners) – when the sentence of the judge is considered – clearly illegal   


Holberry was moved to York due to poor health, but died in 1842 as a result of the enervating hard labour he had endured. While it seems clear that the authorities wanted to make an example of Holberry as a warning to other Chartists, it is also evident that no depth was too low for them to stoop to: hidden informants, pressured witnesses, and illegal punishment. 

Samuel Holberry is quite rightly commemorated today in Sheffield Peace gardens, a plaque bearing his name acting as a proud reminder of Sheffield’s contribution to a momentous period in history. Over my time working for the Archives and Local Studies Library I have come to understand how involved Sheffield has been with some of the major movements and events of the past few hundred years. But more than this I have learnt how, more often than not, the history of Sheffield is one which tells of a people willing to stand up against oppression, and willing to fight, campaign, and unite for ideals of freedom and greater equality.

James Throup, University of Sheffield


‘The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 21st March 1840’ accessed through Local Studies Library

Catherine Lewis ‘Samuel Holberry: Chartist conspirator or victim of state conspiracy’ (2009) Local Studies Library: MP 211 M

John Taylor and Richard Otley ‘How the Sheffield Chartists were betrayed’ (Holberry Society Publication) Local Studies Library: 942.08 S

‘Letters sent to Samuel Holberry while in jail, 1841-1842’ Sheffield Archives: HS/1/1-15


Monday, May 23, 2016

The Spanish Civil War: a fight for democracy and freedom

James Throup, a student from the School of English at the University of Sheffield, is currently spending time in the archives uncovering some of the fascinating documents which tell the history of Sheffield.  His fifth blog post takes us back to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War...

Lasting from July 1936 to April 1939, the Spanish Civil War was one of a number of events that foreshadowed the Second World War and precipitated one of the darkest periods of European history. The war pitted the Republicans, who supported the democratically elected leftist government, against the right-wing ‘Nationalists’, who sought to overthrow it. Due to superior backing from the German and Italian governments, the Nationalists, under General Francisco Franco, were victorious, inaugurating a dictatorship that lasted until 1975. 


During the conflict, the British Government signed a non-intervention agreement stipulating that it would not support either side, a move widely viewed as a cynical attempt to protect British economic interests. Nevertheless, public support was strong, helping to provide money, medical resources, and food to send over in aid.


But some offered more than this: the International Brigades were contingents of foreign fighters who travelled to Spain to fight on the side of the Republicans. Comprised of fighters from countries such as France, Russia, England, the USA, Austria, Italy, and Germany, the Brigades were united by a belief in democracy and leftist politics. It is estimated that around 40,000 foreign nationals fought in the International Brigades, with 2,000 coming from England.       


Several residents of Sheffield travelled to Spain to fight with the Brigades, one of whom was Joe Albaya. Born in 1911, Albaya was the son of Spanish immigrants from the Basque region of Spain, and was driven to join the Brigades by his strong ancestral ties and his belief in democracy.


Albaya’s wife, Win, remembers his departure sadly:


The week before Christmas 1936, Joe came to my home to say goodbye. Most partings are sad, but this was unusually so, due to the combined elements of uncertainty and unknown dangers. The virtual blackout of his movements from then, until a link of communication was restored, made that period one of the darkest I can remember. (Moore 1986)


During his stint in Spain, Albaya worked as an interpreter due to his ability to speak English, Spanish, and French, and sometimes worked 24 hours a day.


Sheffield Archives hold a collection of postcards sent from Albaya, whilst in Spain, to Judy Abbot, the secretary of the Sheffield Left Book Club. I found these pieces particularly fascinating: colourful works of pro-Republic propaganda, they reveal a sense of buoyancy and hope, a sense mirrored in the levity of Albaya’s missives. From June 20th 1937:


The big feature tonight has been a boxing display in the bull ring. It was good fun (though the English were easily superior) until seven Fascist planes passed over. You ought to have seen the stampede. Happily they flew away without dropping anything.


Though the tone of the postcards is mostly light hearted, this should not obscure the more distressing side of the war. One of many present at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, Albaya was lucky enough to survive, but seems to have been deeply affected by the event. The skirmish took place along the Jarama River, east of Madrid, and resulted in severe casualties for both Republicans and Nationalists. Of the original 600 of the British Battalion who fought at Jarama, only 225 survived. Win Albaya notes that, though her husband was generally forthcoming with tales of his time in Spain, the Battle of Jarama was strictly off limits – intimating the traumatic impact this experience must have had on him.


Though it is easy to single out local heroes from this period, praise should not be neglected for those who worked tirelessly to raise aid for Spain, and for those who contributed generously to the war effort. Speaking on door-to-door collections, Bill Moore, a local left-wing historian, recalls:


the self-sacrifice of these people on the doorstep was matched by the self-sacrifice of those who gave food and money – as willingly in 1938 as they had done in 1936 – at a time when unemployment was still high and the wages of those lucky enough to have a job pretty low. (Moore 1986)


The international ‘Aid for Spain’ campaign garnered much support from the Sheffield area, abetted by the local communist party and trade unions. Moreover, Sheffield has never been shy in honouring its links to the Spanish Civil War. In 1986 the city hosted a commemorative event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the war, featuring art exhibitions, films, theatre, poetry, music, and lectures. During the event a memorial plaque was unveiled in the Peace Gardens, dedicated to the brave people of Sheffield who fought in the Spanish Civil War.


I remember seeing this plaque for the first time when I moved to Sheffield five years ago. It was the middle of summer and families had flooded the peace gardens – a myriad of different cultures and backgrounds mingled together in the heart of the city, their children playing freely together. Here was a symbol of the freedom that so many had fought to preserve. And though the Republic and the Brigades were defeated in 1939, the courage and bravery of those who fought against tyranny and oppression serve as a lasting example for those who value the ideals of democracy and liberty.

James Throup, University of Sheffield



Bill Moore (1986) ‘Behind the Clenched Fist: Sheffield’s ‘Aid to Spain’ 1936-1939’ (Sheffield: Holberry Society) Local Studies Library: 946 081 SQ


‘Postcards from the Spanish Civil War, etc.’ Sheffield Archives: X274 Acc. 2009/118 Box 16


‘Sheffield City Council: Programme of Events [to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the] Spanish Civil War: 1936 – 1986’ Local Studies Library: MP 3883 S

Photograph of Joe Albaya, Picture Sheffield: arc00310


Friday, May 13, 2016

Sheffield and the Nuclear Winter: A Cold War Exhibition

The City Archives has been home to two university students over the last few months. Sabrina Webster and Chantelle Francis are studying for an MA in Public Humanities at the University of Sheffield. They chose to base themselves in the Archives and Local Studies Library in a quest to find out more about the city’s recent Cold War history.  They are now ready to share their research in a special exhibition at the Central Library next week...
We hope you'll come along to our exhibition on Saturday 21 May, 12.30-3pm in the Carpenter Room (first floor), Sheffield Central Library. Our exhibition offers the opportunity for visitors to learn more about the South Yorkshire County Council and anti-nuclear activism in Sheffield during the Cold War. Visitors will have the opportunity to explore selected archival material from various archives across the city, including Sheffield City Archives, Sheffield Local Studies Library and Sheffield Reference and Information Library.
The exhibition will shed light on a variety of topics, from the workings of both South Yorkshire County and Sheffield City Council, as well as efforts made by Sheffield CND and other local activist groups in the city during the Cold War. As such, there will be the opportunity to hear different stories from those at the centre of this unique period of Sheffield’s history. We have been lucky enough to have interviewed John Cornwell (former Deputy Leader of SYYC), Roger Barton (former Chair of Sheffield City Council’s Nuclear Free Zones Committee), Maggie Tyson (former member of the activist group Library Workers Against the Bomb), and Stewart Kemp (former Nuclear Free Zones Officer for Sheffield City Council). All of these interviews were fascinating, and we are looking forward to displaying excerpts from the interviews we have conducted with them over the past few months.

There will also be the opportunity for visitors to mingle, discuss the exhibition’s content and enjoy the complimentary refreshments available in the adjoining Jackson Room.

For more information, check out the event’s facebook page, at:

Or follow us on twitter, at:

Sabrina Webster & Chantelle Francis
Public Humanities MA Students
University of Sheffield