Backfields, a cess-pit of filth, was how it was described in the 1870s. These days, we know it as an unassuming narrow lane running between Division Street and Wellington Street. Once it was rural idyll, the fields behind Coal Pit Lane (Cambridge Street) but by the mid-1800s contained slum housing and workshops.
There were a few unsavoury public houses to satisfy the thirst of the poor and were joined in the 1850s by another one.
It was an ambitious attempt by John Banks to capitalise on the success of ‘The Book of the Age,’ and he called his small hostelry Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, in full, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly,’ was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in serialised form in the United States in 1851-52 and in book form from 1852 onwards. An abolitionist novel, it achieved popularity, particularly among white readers in America’s north, by vividly dramatising the experience of slavery.
The first London edition appeared in 1852 and sold 200,000 copies. “Anything in such universal demand has never been known in the history of literature. Many booksellers aver that they are selling nothing else, the trade for the time being seemingly centred in this one book, which, unlike almost all others, presents equal attractions to both old and young,” reported the Sheffield Independent.
It was a brave move by John Banks, and one that probably raised a few eyebrows.
Very little is known about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and by the 1860s had been let out to another tenant before disappearing.
However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had another claim to fame.
In 1857, a new lodge in connection with the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds – Ashton Unity, was formed at the house of John Banks, under the sign of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
This strange society had been formed on Christmas Day 1826, when several groups came together to create a mutually beneficial society. It came into existence in consequence of the refusal of the officers of the Manchester Unity to permit the opening of an additional lodge in Ashton-Under-Lyne.
The aim of the Order of Ancient Shepherds was “To relieve the sick, bury the dead, and assist each other in all cases of unavoidable distress, so far as in our power lies, and for the promotion of peace and goodwill towards the human race.”
They drew their mythology from biblical sources, emphasising pastoral aspects of mutuality that could be exercised for and by members of the lodge.
The pioneers attached importance to regalia and symbolism. When completing lodge business all members had to wear aprons made of lambskins with the wool on. The Chief Shepherd was to wear a mantle. Guardians were decorated with sheep shears, and to wear broad brimmed hats, and the Minstrel was to carry a harp, an imitation of the Biblical shepherd David.
In 1829 it was designated the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds. Loyal referring to the Crown, and Shepherds referring to the nativity of Jesus.
Shepherdry was introduced into Sheffield with the Shepherd’s Care Lodge in 1852. It was followed by the opening of the Sir Colin Campbell Lodge in 1853 and afterwards several other lodges, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, opened.
It held its national AGM at the Cutlers’ Hall in 1867 and at the Church Institute in 1886. It survived in Sheffield until 1930 when all the Sheffield District lodges transferred to the City of Leeds District.
Interestingly, the society still exists, and became Shepherds Friendly in the 1990s, now offering Isas, investments, life insurance and income protection.
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