For 90 people to turn out on a chilly, miserable Saturday afternoon, to sit in York’s draughty Guildhall and listen to a couple of hours of talks on a relatively ignored piece of York’s history has to be some sort of triumph for York’s Alternative History. What follows is a personal sense of this part of the day’s events, and my reflections on what the speakers had to say rather than a summary of their talks (which YAH hopes to provide elsewhere).
As commented by Adam Gutteridge, who chaired proceedings with a light and unobtrusive touch, YAH had originally booked the Council Chamber, where the warmth, comfort and acoustics would have been better. Nevertheless the historical setting we were given lent its own ambience.
Adam skilfully introduced the speakers, setting the event into the context of YAH’s aim to interest the general public in a re-engagement with York’s past outside the constraints of what tends to be publicly portrayed by events such as last year’s York 800, now mercifully past. The test of speakers of such high calibre is whether one comes away wiser, in this case with a better understanding of the Luddite rebellion in the West Riding in 1812, its dénouement in York in January 1813 and its continued relevance today. We were handsomely rewarded.
Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire) wove an intricate argument that set into context the seemingly desperate attempt at armed rebellion against the local manufacturers and, by implication, the State that lay behind them with a massive military presence in Yorkshire. These were skilled workers rather than self-employed artisans, threatened with the loss of their livelihoods, who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Parliament of their case. They were supported within a community and culture intrinsic to the landscape of the Calder Valley and the West Riding Pennines, with its valleys, hamlets and market towns. Support came from many other trades than the cloth-dressers or ‘croppers’. They sought to defend what they regarded as their common rights against the private interests of a handful of manufacturers. Their defence of what they called ‘the commonality’ echoes interestingly with our own fears in 2013 for our own ‘commonality’ under threat from cuts, outsourcing and corporate aggression. They were not a lot different from us in that regard.
Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds) spread his analysis beyond the immediate issue of the Luddites. With case after case, he described York Castle and its 800 year role as the main centre in the North for political and social repression, second only to London. I could not help but note that this division of labour exactly matched the organisation of the Church of England into its two provinces, with York the administrative centre of the Northern Province. From medieval times, York was frequently chosen to handle the legal repression of revolts and opposition to the State, and not merely in Yorkshire or the North generally. You would have struggled to have found anything of this in last year’s fatuous York 800 junkets or in the way in which York’s history is customarily portrayed by public institutions. York Castle (and the former Tyburn on the Knavesmire) was the scene of multiple cases of mass trial and executions until the 19th century. Only then did public sensitivity begin to recoil from this conspicuous brutality and some slight reform of the jail system begin to be effected. But York’s former black role should not be ignored in its present day historical presentation. Our commemorating the execution and trial of the Luddites points at only one small fragment of this bloody heritage.
Alan Brooke (from Huddersfield Local History Society and co-author of Liberty or Death), dressed appropriately in contemporary Luddite costume, explored the legacy of Luddism. If in one sense it was not spoken about in the Huddersfield area in years afterwards, that was part of the close culture of the people protecting their own and reflecting the extreme secrecy within which the Luddites had organised. Luddism was only one of three revolts in those times in which Huddersfield people took part. It seeped into local consciousness. To a degree it was also a precursor to Huddersfield’s unusual level of conscientious objection in 1914-18. But Alan also traced the influences through dystopian literature, the politics of Bavarian revolt in 1919 and through to modern debates about technology in society. It is useful to understand that the re-appraisal of the Luddites by today’s historians has its counterpart in current political and social movements. There is an ongoing debate as to whether we can build a relationship with technology that is not fundamentally de-humanising, degrading and impoverishing of all but a minority. Livelihoods continue to be mercilessly destroyed in the name of a ‘progress’ that seems to have little to do with human well-being. Technology is double-edged and that comes down to the question of who is in control and for what purpose.
Perhaps picking up from Alan’s more political appreciation of the Luddites, many of the contributions from the floor seemed to focus on the relevance of the Luddites for today’s politics, rather than directly engaging with the arguments presented by all three speakers. This had the unintended affect of deterring some people who had come to learn more about who the Luddites were, losing the value of having Katrina and Malcolm to answer questions and comments. Katrina’s discussion of the importance of communal context is just as vital for guiding action today and Malcolm’s arguments laid bare how politically loaded is the idea of ‘heritage’, which can subtly influence the sense that people have of themselves today, as Adam commented in his introduction.
This minor cavil apart, thanks to the wide coverage of the talks, we came away with much on which to ponder and reflect. Involvement in this commemorative enterprise has given me a wholly new appreciation of the significance of Luddism that will lead me off into further investigation, both of the past and of its relevance today – hopefully others will be similarly motivated. Meanwhile perhaps this highly personal view, only one among ninety, will prompt others to comment?