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.”

LET US REMEMBER:
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”

LET US REMEMBER:
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.

LET US REMEMBER:
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.

LET US ALSO REMEMBER:
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…

http://soundcloud.com/nicksmith1982/nick-smith-yah-interview-part-2