Luddites and York: Execution and Commemoration

As our post from earlier this week describes, we’re moving forward with preparations for our commemoration of the Luddites in York. We’re planning a three-part day: talks in the afternoon; a memorial event at the execution site; and an evening wake of radical song. It’s the middle one that’s been on my mind this week: how to suitably remember the lives and deaths of seventeen men (some of whom were convicted of murder) who campaigned and died for better worlds that arguably never arrived. Turning this over in my mind, I’ve been drawn to two otherwise unrelated questions, one fielded by a famous politician and one by a mate of mine. The first: the late Lucio Magri begins his epic history of twentieth century Italian Communism with an anecdote. At a meeting in 1989, he relates, just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, somebody asks Pietro Ingrao, a senior Communist figurehead, how in the aftermath of all that was happening in Eastern Europe could communism still be a viable and useful notion as a means of defining the struggles that still lay ahead. Ingrao gnomically answers him with a reference to a poem written by Bertolt Brecht about a medieval tailor who, determined to show to sceptics ranged against him that people could fly, built himself a contraption, took himself to a tower-top, and crashed and died on the ground below: although the tailor’s life is lost, and his individual effort for the skies failed, history’s vicissitudes vindicated his beliefs (and perhaps even ultimately redeemed his lost life). The second question: last month, in exasperated mirth and only half-serious, I asked my friend Jay why the Left was always so very sad; laughing, he said “maybe it’s because we always bloody lose”.

On the 19th of January, alongside the learning, the discussion, the song, and the comradeship, we’re going to be communally charged with commemorating, through our actions and words, seventeen lost lives: men who were strangers to York, but who were brought here for the sole purpose of being put to death by a state enraged with their activities and rhetoric. There’s usually a pretty standard blueprint for this sort of thing, a process which operates independently of the memory’s content: people gather around in a symbolically significant patch of ground, solemn words are spoken that are designed to burden us with memory’s heft, we fall quiet and think our thoughts about time and loss and death and life, and then we strike that camp and it’s on to the next thing. And let’s not knock that form: it serves us well, and for modern lives lived in a style that frequently alienates us from reflecting on those deeper resonations of life and loss by filling every waking moment with bleeps and dings and screens and chatter, such a stop-and-think moment is a precious commodity indeed. We’ve got to make sure that we get this bit right, that we seem neither too maudlin nor too glib, and it’s a difficult balance. Part of the problem, perhaps, lies in the foreignness of those we’re remembering: they seem sharply different from us, drive by different fires, and we struggle to pull them and their campaigns back into the present and make their fervour comprehensible enough to commemorate.

We’re thoroughly estranged now from death-match struggles for freedom or rights, so the whole notion of going to one’s execution for what seems dangerously like utopianist idealism can be a little hard to process. Indeed, historical distance risks rendering that level of fervent sincerity somewhat suspicious and hard to celebrate. But these were desperate times which required commitment and action, and although there’s an inevitable unease with the memory of a murder, most of those who were condemned to death were executed for little more than the consequences an unswerving commitment to building a more just and equitable society and so despite our distance from it, it’s worthy of defiant celebration indeed. Writing about utopianism-as-faith for those who follow its song, the anarchist David Graeber delineates the responsibilities of those who strive for a better world. It’s easy to misconstrue the people fighting those crusades: their idealism looks dangerously swivel-eyed and spittle-flecked. In fact he says, all that it boils down to is that if people believe that another world is possible, and that the way things are being run now is not inevitable, then they have a moral imperative not to reproduce the mess they find and so must fight to free themselves from it, building a better future for all. And the people who follow that through, even to the bitterest end imaginable, those people command respect, in whatever era they inhabit. For us, we’re still climbing that tower, our plans for flying machines clutched in our hands, ready to jump from the top one more time, and, moreover, it falls upon us in the now to remember all those who climbed the stairs before us and did exactly the same; we’re just torn about how to articulate that remembrance.

To put it another (more crude) way: are we to mourn or celebrate? Is our moment one of grieving sorrow that reflects the tragic loss of life at the hands of a twisted and malign judiciary, or one that triumphantly bestows those deaths with an overarching significance ringed with glory and recruits them into a successful narrative of working-class struggles-done-good? Our pessimism/optimism debate is actually but a puzzle-piece in a much larger extant historiographical jigsaw, as there are ongoing debates about whether we view the Luddite uprisings more generally as either small-scale-industrial or large-scale-political.  If we view them as the former, then we’re right to be sad: the executions stand as the premature ending of a narrative truncated, as the immediate objectives and aspirations of the movement went unfulfilled. If we view the campaign as political, however, we can read across the events in Yorkshire with justified hope and pride: the lost lives and their fights become co-opted into a longer narrative arc about political struggle, one small yet valuable step forward on an extended journey of proto-trade unionism and working-class identity politics. Inevitably, perhaps, a third way works to combine the two. Then we get the appropriate melancholia of the Left, understandably drawn to the magnetism of the tragic and unfulfilled, and yet we retain the sense of significance and efficacy we need if we read them as atomised instants of broader struggles. Yet, to go back to Brecht’s tailor once again, history has already caught up with his vaulting ambition and rendered a resolution to his narrative: as time unfolds, it finds us free to fly in our contraptions and thus casts him as a prescient hero. For our Luddites though, the roles they play in history’s narrative are still precarious, and, as the final updated chapter in Alan Brooke and Lesley Kipling’s narrative of their struggle points out, each generation over the past two centuries has interpreted them as they saw fit. There’s no over-arching redemption because the fights they fought, politically and socially, are as yet un-won. In fact, in the shattered post-crash economic landscape laid waste by robber-barons and their neoliberal hegemony, our very notions of progress and advancement are being brutally tested. Many gains that were fought hard for and we thought were won for keeps are now under threat, either directly from Coalition legislation, or indirectly through late capitalism’s contagious miasma of apathy. There is something unsettling about the way in which our contemporary conditions of labour are beginning to reshape and mimic those of the nineteenth century, and it is that incipient replication that reminds us why now, more than ever, we need to be remembering these men, sad or happy, in whatever way will do their memories the most justice and allow us to move closer to furthering the hopes and dreams for which they died. They may have been defeated, but that defeat will never be without purpose.

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4 thoughts on “Luddites and York: Execution and Commemoration

  1. I grew up very close to Cartwright’s Mill in Liversedge, W. Yorks. We were constantly taught about the history of Luddites at school. Their struggle was presented as a kind of tragedy – a brave but ultimately doomed struggle. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised that the word “Luddite” was not generally a compliment – as kids we pretty much saw them as heroes. We all visited the site of the Shears pub where the attacks were planned, and walked along the route taken by the machinery along Primrose Lane to the mill – and identified likely ambush spots – a task made much harder because the best ones were formed by tunnels under the railway line – which of course had not been built in those days.

    But it didn’t ever seem like some abstract political campaign – it was a very concrete attempt to avoid unemployment.

    As my memory serves me, the Rawfolds Luddites were sentenced to transportation to the colonies (not that I was there ! – the teachers told us this) – but perhaps I’m wrong. It still seems a draconian punishment. Certainly the only people killed at Rawfolds were two of the Luddites themselves – shot dead by armed troops. They were not murderers on that night.

    I see them as heroes – but perhaps misguided ones – but really what other guidance could they possibly have had ?

  2. Thanks, Nilsinela Boray. When I was growing up in Sheffield, I remember being taught about a popular uprising against the Enclosures in 1791 that led to the destruction of a manor-house very close to our school; we were even tasked, as nine-year-olds, with writing a dramatisation of the events for full emotive effect: an admirable mixture of radical history, empathy, and localism that probably came out of teacher influenced by the Schools History Project seeking to shape young minds. Sheffield in the ’80s was that kind of place.

  3. @nilsinela – it’s unlikely anything was planned in the Shears as, at the time, it was owned by James Lister, a Constable & Bailiff. Frank Peel has Luddites singing ‘the Cropper Lads’ in there, but I think you can see how highly unlikely that was. Frank Peel’s book is not a reliable historical source.

    Five men accused of being at Rawfolds were executed (Mellor, Thorpe & Smith were also found guilty, but had already been hastily executed for shooting Horsfall). Those sentenced to transportation never left these shores – 3 were later pardoned & 3 died on prison hulks.

    In relation to what happened to Horsfall, some of us prefer ‘political assassination’, which is what it was. My own research indicates that it was impossible that George Mellor was there at the time Horsfall was shot.

  4. (Nilsinela Boray – actually five of those hung at York were charged with the attack on Rawfolds. Three others, Mellor, Thorpe and Smith had already been executed for the assassination of Horsfal)l. I think that the York commemoration is extremely significant and should be both a commemoration of the martyrdom of the Luddites and a celebration of their spirit of reistance.

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