The revolution will be published
How Sheffield's radical bookshops fostered working-class activism
By Lucy Brownson
From Chapel Walk, if you go up Church Street and down St James Row, you come to the deceptively-named Paradise Square (perhaps counting only as such for those looking for parking). At one end of the square a cobbled path takes you to a hulking block of student accommodation. But this is only 105 Queen Street’s most recent incarnation. From around 1938, it was the site of the Workers’ Bookshop — which did pretty much what it said on the tin, acting as a vital hub for workers to swap information and organise. It also acted as the former headquarters of the Sheffield Communist Party.
While this might sound like the sort of fact you could successfully deploy in a local pub quiz, it isn’t some colourful anomaly. Examine Sheffield’s political history and you’ll find a persistent pattern. Head to an independent bookshop in this city or else read about one in the history books and as often as not, you’ll often find a connection with working-class activism.
Communism’s core demands — namely economic equality and workers’ liberation — had seeded amongst Sheffield’s working classes long before the Communist Party of Great Britain, or CPGB, was established in August 1922. One hundred years earlier, an alliance of six cutlery workers’ unions founded the Sheffield Mechanical Trades Association, the city’s first trades union council (indeed, one of the first of its kind in the UK). Chartism, widely regarded as the world’s first mass movement for workers’ labour rights, also found fertile ground here in the mid nineteenth century. In 1837 the Chartists founded the Sheffield Working Men’s Association, a mass campaign for workers’ rights and political suffrage. The Sheffield Trades and Labour Council was founded in 1858 to give local workers a voice and a political foothold, predating the Trades Union Council by a full decade. Because heavy industry has historically been so concentrated in Sheffield, those who wanted better working conditions have always found strength in numbers; as such, workers’ uprisings have happened here with a frequency that’s unmatched elsewhere.
Given this storied past, the CPGB thrived here in the twentieth century — despite attempts at state repression. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, the local papers are peppered with reports of people being arrested and charged with sedition for publicly speaking or demonstrating against church and state — in one memorable incident from 1921, a local coppersmith was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for declaring that World War 1 had been ‘invented by capitalists for the purpose of hounding down the working classes.’
As distributors of anti-capitalist literature, Communist Party booksellers were easy targets for such charges — which is perhaps why the Sheffield Workers’ Bookshop relocated four times in the 1940s, eventually settling into premises at 20 Matilda Street around 1948. With this move came a new (less provocative?) name, The Sheffield Bookshop, and a new custodian, Charlie Eason, both of whom would stick around for many years.
Born in Oxford, Charlie moved to Sheffield in the 1930s and began managing The Sheffield Bookshop when he returned from his military service during WWII. On the face of it, Charlie didn’t have a great deal in common with the men of industry who were prominent in the local CP — he was a vicar’s son from a comfortably well-off family, and one can’t help but wonder what his family made of his career choice.