(For William Howard: 1818-1832)
Fifty thousand feet on cobblestones.
A chance to have their say, but never win.
The odds against them: twenty-six to one;
they had no right to vote, for all their sin!
Young William stood in awe. The crowd, in hope
of voice for suffrage, was bereft of one.
A chance to vote for what, he’d never know.
Was he a man or still his mother’s son?
Mrs Howard sits in Lambert Street,
displacing her concern with hearth and home.
A thud, more than a knock, an urgent fist
brings news there is much groaning in the town.
Conflicting desire to stoke the fire or save
remaining embers for his coming home,
she muses on her boy, the working man,
whose little hand she’d held before he roamed.
The vocal mob, angry as a dragon,
whose fire surpassed its legal right to jeer,
the ballot box to them, still missing lagan,
the targets of their gall did not appear.
Another knock, an echoed voice that said:
“there’s bin some shootin’ at the Tontine Inn!”
Her heart skipped, then the voice of fear and dread,
intractable pain, cried out across her skin.
Without a thought, and half way through the door,
she felt a strong hand on her arm, instead.
It turned her back against maternal will;
against the voices screaming in her head.
Each time they moved or dragged him from the fray
his screams, lost in the din, renewed his pain.
He felt the closeness of his mother’s breast
and then the shot behind his ribs again.
His weakening hand still clutched a blackened trace
of coal; the piece he’d found on Dixon Lane.
He’s drowning in the dark and bitter throng,
but no one heard his plaintive cry for Mam.
She’d saved the fire for him, in vain, be damned.
Where is the boy that she had lost … to man?
© 2014 John Anstie
[This is a product of the “Voices in Conflict” Workshop, run as part of Sheffield’s Midsummer Poetry Festival on Saturday, 7th June 2014. The poem is set against the background of a burgeoning, city-dwelling population, poor housing, unemployment and deteriorating public health, in early industrial 19th Century England. It is a story of how discontent and anger at social and political injustice, led to the death of innocence. A fourteen year-old boy in 1832, forced prematurely to be out – working and protesting – in the harsh world of men, might be compared to an 18 year old in The Great War … but he was still a mother’s son.
At 14 years old, this boy was one of six people, who tragically died of gunshot wounds in post-election rioting at the Tontine Inn, Sheffield. This occurred after troops were called in, following the [disputed] reading of the Riot Act on the fateful night of 14th December 1832. The riot followed a massive gathering of an estimated 25,000 working people, exercising their only right in law to gather and express their satisfaction or otherwise, by cheering or jeering, for the successful candidates of the election, who were staying inside the Tontine Inn at the time. At 14 years old, young William would still not be allowed a vote today. As a footnote, at 18 years old, every British citizen, both men and women, now has a vote – even though every 18-year old man, who served in the first world war, was old enough to die, but not, then, old enough to vote!
It is timely now to publish this, as we approach a crucial General Election for the United Kingdom, in May. Those, who refuse to vote, whether through apathy, cynical or conscientious protest, should take note of this story and the many sacrifices made by our ancestors through recent history, over the past 200 years, for the sake of a vote for democracy and our freedom of speech.]