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Hidden away in a corner of Sheffield’s Peace Gardens is a memorial to Samuel Holberry, leader of the city’s Chartist movement in the nineteenth century. Given his treatment by the authorities, it’s a little ironic.

Today, Samuel Holberry would be denounced by Charles Clarke and Tony Blair as a preacher of terrorism. His crime was to organise a plot to seize the town hall in 1840 in pursuit of the Chartists’ objectives of universal suffrage, and he had no compunction about using violence.

Samuel Holberry wasn’t a terribly effective terrorist: he and his conspirators discussed their plans in a Rotherham pub and the landlord shopped them. He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment (rather more lenient than the penalties now proposed by ministers) and died in jail.

Time has an odd way of changing our perspective. Holberry became a working class hero. But put a bunch of intemperate radicals in the Peace Gardens now and antisocial behaviour orders would be the least of their worries.

Samuel Holberry might be pleasantly surprised to see the Peace Gardens on a typical summer day. Children of all backgrounds run in and out of the fountains; parents and students mix with office workers on their lunch break. Youths hang around hoping to catch the eye of a good-looking girl. It’s a place for everyone.

But that harmony is reinforced by the discreet presence of burly security personnel. It’s not a place to start a revolution.

As we plan our urban renaissance with its world-class public spaces, we must risk the public using them in ways we don’t envisage. Trafalgar Square hosted the poll tax riots. Is the solution to sanitise it so legitimate protest can’t be expressed? At the other end of the scale, do we protect our spaces with armies of wardens primed to impose spot fines on anyone who carelessly drops a sweet wrapper?

A report by Demos this week suggests we use our spaces in a huge variety of ways, but a common factor is that we go where we feel comfortable. Some find comfort at car boot sales; others in pubs and cafes. That sense of wellbeing comes when we feel we have the freedom to make public spaces our own, and the security to do so untroubled by others.

And much as Samuel Holberry might appreciate today’s Peace Gardens, I can’t imagine the authorities giving him space to propagate his views now.

Julian Dobson, editor

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