Militant Feminism Pub Discussion 20 May

A Century of Militant Feminism
York’s Alternative History and York Social
Jointly Present:

Krista Cowman, Professor of History, University of Lincoln, will introduce a pub discussion on “Suffragette Militancy in the Regions”.

Where: The Garden Room at The Golden Ball on Cromwell Road, York.

When: 8 pm prompt start, on Monday 20 May 2013.

A century ago, the Suffragette movement in Britain took to direct action as part of their strategy to have women’s voices heard. On 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison stepped in front of the King’s horse at the Derby and died of her injuries. In memory of her and the many other brave women who risked everything for the right to vote in parliamentary elections, we invite you to hear about some of the less well known activists and their role. Come and discuss how far the women’s movement has come in 100 years, how much remains to be done and what can be learned from the past.

Krista Cowman is a founder member of the Women’s History Network and has published widely on women’s political movements and their use of history as a means of creating a strong political identity. Among her publications is “The Militant Suffragette Movement in York” (Borthwick Publications, 2007).

[Afterwards, York’s Alternative History will discuss any ongoing work we are doing and everyone is invited to participate]

Personal Stories: an interview with local activist Nick Smith part 3

Here is part three of the interview I gave to Helen Graham on 15th March 2012 (part one and part two).

In this part I discuss the politics of working with people with learning disabilities, getting involved in the York activist scene (in particular York Stop the Cuts), the University of York occupation in December 2010, consensus decision making, solidarity and pacifism.

To listen click the link below:

Luddites at the Guildhall York

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?

Eulogy for the Luddites

A Shame on the City of York

From 2 January to 16 January 1813 at York Castle, there took place a most shameful episode in the history of the City of York since the massacre of the Jews in Clifford’s Tower. It was one of a whole series of mass executions that took place in York up to this time.
In all, 64 men, alleged to be Luddites, were brought to the Castle for trial.There were two judges from London and 23 jurymen selected from the ranks of the Yorkshire landed gentry for the duration of the trial. Among them was Joseph Radcliffe, Justice of the Peace, of Milnes Bridge who had led the hunt to capture the accused men. He was effectively sitting in judgement on the evidence he himself had collected!

On Wednesday 6 January three men were convicted for the murder of William Horsfall. He was a mill-owner who had threatened to ride up to his stirrups in Luddite blood. They were allowed no right of appeal and were hung two days later on Friday 8 January 1813 on this spot.

A contemporary report describes the events:
“The Execution of these unhappy men took place on Friday, at nine o’clock, at the usual place behind the Castle, at York. Every precaution had been taken to render every idea of a rescue impracticable. Two troops of cavalry were drawn up at the front of the drop, and the avenues to the castle were guarded by infantry.”

“Some alteration had been made in the drop, so that all the whole body was visible when they were suspended; in former executions only the feet and head had been seen by the spectators. They were executed in their irons. They appeared slightly convulsed for a few moments.”

“The number of people assembled, was much greater than is usual in this city, on these melancholy occasions, but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene.”

“The bodies were taken to the County Hospital at York, for dissection, and a strong military guard was placed there several nights, to prevent any attempts to rescue the bodies.”

George Mellor, aged 22, Cloth-dresser from Longroyd Bridge
Thomas Smith, aged 22, Cloth-dresser from Huddersfield
William Thorpe, aged 23, Cloth-dresser from Huddersfield

Fifteen more were condemned to death for an attack on Cartwright’s Mill at Rawfolds on 11 April 1812 and for various acts of robbery while gathering arms and ammunition from houses in the locality. One of these was commuted to transportation for life. Five more, all radicals and republicans, were transported for seven years for administering oaths – in other words for holding illegal political meetings.
On Saturday 16 January 1813, the fourteen men remaining to be executed were hung in two batches. That was 200 years ago on this very spot. Imagine a huge scaffold with seven ropes ready dangling. The area was surrounded by mounted dragoons and infantrymen.

A contemporary account tells the story:
“On the morning before the execution, the eldest daughter of [William] Hartley obtained permission to visit her wretched parent, when a scene took place which we will not attempt to describe. The heart-broken father wished to have been spared the anguish of this parting interview, but the importunate intreaties of his child at last prevailed, and they met to take a long farewell, never again to be repeated in this world.”

The first batch of seven men were brought out at 11.30 am. “The executioner then proceeded to the discharge of his duty, and the falling of the platform soon after, forced an involuntary shriek from the vast concourse of spectators assembled to witness this tremendous sacrifice to the injured laws of the country”

Thomas Brook, aged 32, Cloth-dresser from Lockwood, for the attack on Cartwright’s Mill
Joseph Crowther, aged 31, Cotton spinner from Sowerby, for robbery
Jonathan Dean, aged 28, Cloth-dresser from Huddersfield, for the attack on Cartwright’s Mill
Nathan Hoyle, aged 45, Weaver from Skircoat, for burglaries
John Ogden, aged 23, Cloth-dresser from Huddersfield, for the attack on Cartwright’s Mill
John Swallow, aged 37, Coal-miner from Briestwhistle, for burglaries
John Walker, aged 31, Cloth-dresser from Longroyd Bridge, for the attack on Cartwright’s Mill

Their bodies were left to hang for more than an hour before they were cut down, to make way for a repeat performance of this grizzly act of judicial mass murder.

At 1.30 pm, seven more men made their dignified way to the scaffold, as their comrades before, intoning the Methodist hymn ‘Behold the Saviour of Mankind’ to bolster their courage. The bodies were left hanging for over an hour before they too were cut down.

John Batley, aged 31, Clothier from Thornhill, for stealing sundry goods
Joseph Fisher, aged 33, Coal-miner from Thornhill, for stealing sundry goods
William Hartley, aged 41, Tailor from Warley, for stealing sundry items
James Haigh, aged 28, Cloth-dresser from Dalton, for the attack on Cartwright’s Mill
James Hey, aged 25, Woollen-spinner from Skircoat, for robbery
Job Hey, aged 40, Waterman from Greetland, for burglaries
John Hill, aged 36, Cotton-spinner from Greetland, for burglaries

After these terrible events, the bodies of the fourteen men were released to their families and friends. A long and sad procession formed, with the mourners, as today, wearing white crepe armbands. They began the long, slow walk back to the West Riding to bury their men, back in their home communities.

John Booth of Huddersfield and Samuel Hartley of Halifax, who died from wounds received at the attack on Cartwright’s Mill without giving away any information about their comrades.

John Baines senior, John Baines junior, William Blakeborough, George Duckworth, and Charles Milnes, transported for seven years for swearing illegal oaths – and John Lumb, transported for life for burglary.

And the 34 men who were discharged without trial, on licence, because the judges felt they had shed enough blood and hung enough people to send a message of fear into the heart of the West Riding.
[Minute’s silence]
[Three Cheers for the Luddites!]
[Thanks to everyone who came and everyone who has helped out.]

[This is the full text of the eulogy read by Martin Bashforth at the memorial event at York Castle on 19 January 2013]

Personal Stories: an interview with local activist Nick Smith part 2

Here is part two of the interview I gave to Helen Graham as part of York’s Alternative History’s project to collect stories of local activists (part one is here).

In this part I discuss my experiences of class at Bournemouth University, protesting against student fees, getting involved in Buddhism and the Free Tibet movement, the late ’90s – early ’00s anti-globalisation movement as well as travelling to Belgrade, my involvement in the underground music scene and living as an archaeologist.

To listen please click on the link below…

Luddites and York: Then & Now

Mindfulness is a useful part of any attempt at historical remembrance. If we don’t think about precisely why we want to call some aspect of the past back into our public life in the present then we run the risk of lip-synching our histories, just miming along and going through the motions of memory. Other groups commemorating the Luddite uprisings have been thinking the same and asking: what can past events say to the present? Maybe in order to work – in order to give something back to the present – public memory should be considered, deliberate, and watchful: one eye on the past, one on the present, scanning the horizons of both landscapes. If we do this carefully enough, we might perhaps find moments when each can help the other; as we increasingly accept, the two are never segregated and isolated: a better understanding of one helps us to interpret the other (and that works both ways). Yet despite this need to constantly overlap and interlace, the past and the present never integrate with ease, nor should they be made to: they’re uneasy bedfellows at best, all sharp uncomfortable elbows and knees, misaligned limbs, no symmetry. Inevitably, the landscape of labour relations in Yorkshire and Lancashire during the early years of the 1800s looks markedly different to anything we might encounter today; the political and economic systems that sustained those working conditions and the social repercussions that they had on people are wildly different from the contemporary: we do the past as significant disservice when we say it looks ‘just like the present’ and try to force its intricacies to map neatly over our own. Nevertheless, thanks to history’s existence as a vast warehouse of narratives that can be used to think with, it would be remiss of us, in York today, not to hold up the image of the Luddites and ask ourselves why we should remember them, .what they can tell us about both the past and the present, and how we might even use them to change our futures. Remembrance offers us the opportunity to converse with the dead, and even if we really know we’re only talking to ourselves, we might learn something new nonetheless.

It is, as the historian John Archer has pointed out, very difficult to disentangle the range of different motivations for protest in the north of England during the decades either side of 1800. In a period of instability and ferment when uprisings against those wielding power were recurrent, some people were agitating for better political representation, some because economic tailspin had created alarming instabilities in the price of food, some wanted the reinstatement of their rights to use common land, and others declared that their protests were linked to the conditions of labour in the factories where they worked. Naturally these motivations intermingled: after all, low wages, high prices, unjust working and living conditions can all easily collide to affect a single family, and all lives are filled with a complex set of overlapping motivations, desires, and needs. The bottom line is this: the men executed in York in 1813 weren’t driven to protest and violence just because they didn’t like some shiny new geegaws they were being compelled to use on the factory floor; they weren’t fruitlessly protesting against the ever-expanding frontiers of knowledge and technology; they were fighting because they wanted to work, needed to work, and because the benefits of restructured working practices, which might be shared by all, instead only went to those in charge and had detrimental impact on all the others. They were fighting because they existed within a system that was rigged against them, and fighting was all they could do. This was a time of steadily rising unemployment, of insecure working conditions and decreasing wages for those who did have jobs, of spiralling food prices and an ever-rising cost-of-living. It saw a government that deregularised working practices within industry at the same time as imposing economic policies of laissez-faire to the detriment of the conditions of the common worker yet simultaneously condemned the poor for moral fecklessness. As systems of communal care, shared resources, and long-established collectivity were threatened by the elites, there was increasing despair and widespread disengagement from aspiration amongst the common man. In response to these conditions, there sprang up decentralised, cellular modes of regional opposition which created networks of resistance to the powerful that were light-on-their-feet and quickly mobilised, which led to sporadic outbreaks of violence when popular discontent erupted at structures of power that refused to be held otherwise accountable to the will of the people. And it ended with a punitive legal system dispensing harsh outsize penalties for the destruction of property. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

Work, as we understand it, has changed rapidly and unrecognisably over the last thirty years. Across this city, across the country, across even the globe, fewer and fewer of people have the kind of structured employment that was commonplace only two decades ago and more and more are slipping towards precarious, uncertain, unstable, makeshift worklives, constructed out of temporary and unpredictable short-term employment. The economist Guy Standing has popularised the term ‘the precariat’ to describe this “multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development”, existing in a realm of jobs that are part time, with unpredictable hours, low wages, and few benefits. Many of these ideas were sold to the workforce as innovative realignments of labour and wage that would be beneficial to them: chose working times to suit yourself! choose how, when, and where you work! take control and be freer in your job! This is symptomatic of the snake-oil charlatanry of neoliberal fairground barkers, continually propagating the notion of a ‘flexible workforce’ as something that is mutually beneficial, economically benign, ideologically sound. For most people working these jobs, there are no ‘choices’ involved: they are doing the same work for less money, with no attendant structural support or benefits, locked in a perpetually unstable and precarious cycle of temporary and erratic labour forever desperately perched one quick step from economic catastrophe. The new ‘technology’ of a flexible workforce is of benefit only to employers. This precarious, sub-contracted, temporary labour now surrounds every aspect of our daily lives: short-term piecemeal fragmentary jobs with poor working conditions and fewer benefits have infiltrated numerous occupations, from policing to nursing to teaching, to lecturing, to cleaning and beyond. Our government encourages it, claiming that what holds us back from true economic prosperity and liberation is that our workforce is insufficiently ‘flexible’: ‘flexibility’ in this instance really means disposable, anxious, malleable, and fraught (as described in Ivor Southwood’s brilliant and chilling book on the subject). One thing that the Olympics did brilliantly well was to foreground some of these issues, to highlight just how completely this notion of a ‘flexible’, short-term, temporary, precarious labour force has saturated our nation’s structures of work and it put these issues (albeit very briefly) on the front pages so we could understand the speciousness of their economic rationale, the catastrophe of their planning and execution, and the nonsense of their supposed efficiency.

Nineteenth century Luddism ought not to neatly map onto the present as a chuckling catchall labelling strategy to describe people who don’t like reading novels on a Kindle, can’t work out how to record Ready Steady Cook off the iPlayer, or who keep ceaselessly reminding us they don’t have a telly or a mobile phone. It should instead spark in our minds as movement generated by a wide range of unjust working conditions and embedded labour relations that were symbolised by the adoption of technology from which only one group were able to derive benefit. If anything, we need to look to the Luddites today not as simple emblems of a blinkered refusal to successfully grapple with technology but as people who were driven to protest by conditions of desperation that were systemic and required equally desperate actions to oppose them. Labour is changing no less rapidly in our own lifetimes. What lessons can we learn?

Personal Stories: an interview with local activist Nick Smith part 1

Helen Graham interviewed me as part of our project to collect and document the stories of local activists.  The interview took place on the (very wet) evening of 15th March 2012 in the York Arms pub.  The full interview came to nearly 2 hours long, so I have edited it down into smaller installments which will be posted here over the next few weeks and months.

This is part one, where I discuss how I became interested in politics as a teenager.  Includes my thoughts on how my hometown (Bedworth, Warwickshire), music, my A-level history teacher and the Socialist Workers Party influenced my developing political, moral and ethical values from socialism to pacifism, vegetarianism and anarchism.

To listen to the interview please click on the link below…

Nick Smith’s YAH interview part 1


Luddites and York: Why Remember?

As Martin’s post from earlier in the summer has indicated, York’s Alternative History are currently thinking about ways in which we might organise some kind of event to formally mark the two hundredth anniversary of the execution of a group of Luddites at York Castle. We’ve been bouncing ideas back and forth around our monthly meetings for a while now, but as the date in question is now a mere five months away, it’s probably time to begin formalising some of these thoughts and start trying to put schemes into action. As ever, though, history is a process and a conversation more than it is an arrival or a conclusion, and we want to facilitate discussion about what people would like to see take place in January next year, how they might want to participate, what they feel about the act of remembering the people who were executed in 1813, and what (if any) resonances there might be between past and present. To this end, I’m going to try to blog here semi-regularly on how our attempts at organising a Luddite remembrance are going: partly as a means of fuelling interest and opening up potential conversations and engagements about the topic, but also I think partially as a means of demystifying the act of remembrance itself (if that makes sense). Not only am I a faltering novice when it comes to the intricacies of eighteenth century labour history, but I’m also alarmingly inexpert at the business of organising events. I suppose I worry sometimes that the formal, death-suited, business of Memory (with a capital ‘M’) is too stand-offish, arms-lengthy, and patrician and that can risk alienating popular involvement sometimes. I think of YAH as something that tries to be in the business of putting history to work in the present, using it to potentially reshape our shared now for the better, and by showing those things as ongoing activities rather than as faits accomplis it might encourage people to join in whatsoever way they see fit. I just rather hope that if we can open up the process of doing ‘memory’, then the end result of a commemorative event might feel less formalised and more inclusive. That’s the justification of my ramblings, at any rate.

There are a whole swathe of smart, informative, brilliantly organised, and politically-engaged festivities and commemorations going on throughout 2012 to remember the Luddites. Many of these events are closely tied to the places where uprisings occurred, as would be expected. York is a little different. Its place in the Luddite story is the back-drop for the narrative’s dénouement: the place of the trial, execution, and dismemberment of men accused of Luddite activity across west Yorkshire. Broadly speaking there were three areas in which Luddite activity broke out in 1812: Nottinghamshire, South Lancashire, and West Yorkshire. The events in this latter area were almost all confined to the region around Huddersfield and Halifax. Because York was the administrative and judicial centre of the county, once arrests were made, the accused were brought to the city to stand trial. On the 6th of January 1813 three men, George Mellor, William Thorpe, and Thomas Smith, were tried for the murder of mill owner William Horsfell, who had been shot of the 28th of April the previous year, at Crosland Moor near Huddersfield.  Pleading innocence, they were convicted that evening on the testimony of an informant, hanged behind the prison two days later, and their corpses were taken to York Hospital for dissection. On the 9th of January a second trial took place of a group of men accused of an attempted attack on a mill owned by William Cartwright at Rawfolds, near Cleckheaton. Some were acquitted, most were found guilty, and in total fourteen men were executed on the 16th of January, standing condemned for taking part in Luddite activities. There seems little to celebrate in York, and much to mourn.

Why, then, should we remember at all? I guess this is one of the questions I want to turn over during the coming months in this space, as we think about what the purpose of remembrance might be and the means by which those purposes might be achieved. Some of the slippery difficulties we have with social memory are systemic – that is to say there are bigger problem than just the Luddites themselves, part of a much wider problematised relationship we have with memory-against-the-grain – but some issues surely in this instance are to do with the subject in hand. As many people better versed in the subject have been strenuously pointing out over the course of this year’s memorial activities, the present’s social memory of Luddism is somewhat off-beam: crazed guys smashing stuff up for shits-and-giggles, forlornly attempting to impossibly reverse the tides of progress. In fact, we need to re-remember them: to understand that they were not individuals who arrived at their actions as a result of a thoughtless and wanton compulsion to wreak havoc, but rather they were people who committed deeds derived from structures of value, making decisions based upon rational choices in a context of extreme desperation. These contexts, the political and economic circumstances in which they found themselves, are something that I’ll write about further another time, but suffice to say there are some alarming and uncanny echoes of that desperation today, more than enough to indicate that even if this year were not the apposite bicentenary of their activities, theirs would still be a powerful narrative that the present could be looking to for insight into the contemporary world (and no, I don’t just mean all like ‘computers’ and stuff). History works by analogy; it’s not so much that things ever come around twice, or even rhyme. It’s more that the narratives-of-then are reminiscent somehow of the stories-of-now, they end up telling us something about ourselves that we hadn’t even noticed, and in some cases might just act as catalysts for a will to change. And will to change is, ultimately, the most important thing.