Two hundred years ago, on 11 April 1812, hundreds of men gathered in the darkness around William Cartwright’s Rawfolds Mill at Liversedge in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Inside the mill, Cartwright had set up shearing machines that finished woollen cloth, to replace the skilled manual workers (called ‘croppers’) who did this work to a quality the machines could never attain. It was the aim of the gathering masses outside to put the mill out of action and stand up for quality products by skilled workers at a decent price against mass-produced, shoddy work.
There were weavers, colliers and other workers as well as ‘croppers’ in attendance and they came from far and wide, with contingents from Leeds, Huddersfield, Halifax, Lancashire and elsewhere. What united them was a recognition that the ‘masters’, with the active support of the State, its laws and its armies, were intent on breaking the growing power of independent working-class organisation. The fight went much further than a dispute about technology – it was about who controlled production in terms of quality, skills, safety, wages and price. It was about solidarity.
In the preceding years, stocking-frame workers in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, weavers in Lancashire and Cheshire, croppers and shearmen in Lancashire and the West Riding, had organised extremely effectively and in spite of the 1802 Combination Acts forbidding such organisation. They had raised the funds to influence Parliament to protect laws on apprenticeship and defend the attempts of masters and factory owners to de-skill their trades. They paid for advocates to attend parliamentary committees to present their case. In 1809, Parliament abolished protection for apprenticeship, totally deregulating the various cloth-making industries. Redress through constitutional means had failed. As working people had no influence on Parliament, which was elected by and for a tiny élite of landowners and merchants, they turned to more militant tactics, as well as attempts to control their own industries by setting up independent, union-run workshops. In 1811, the first organised machine-wrecking commenced in Nottinghamshire under the auspices of the mythical ‘Ned Ludd’.
The idea spread by direct contact and word of mouth, across the north of England, the West Country and even to Scotland. This was ‘leaderless’, working-class self-organisation on a scale never before seen, and it terrified the authorities. Despite being involved in a major war in Spain, the State sent masses of troops to occupy the North and suppress the ‘Luddite’ movement. Undaunted and in great secrecy, the attacks on the hated mills and factories continued. On the night of 11 April, however, William Cartwright had built defences and brought militiamen into his factory and was armed to the teeth. When the Luddites from the Spen and Colne valleys struck they were met by a hail of gunfire and driven back. The Leeds contingent melted away without taking action. Two men were wounded, John Booth and Samuel Hartley, dying the next day without giving away the names of their colleagues.
The massive State repression that followed, drove the local Luddites to more desperate measures, and a few weeks later someone murdered William Horsfall, a mill owner who had threatened ‘to ride up to his stirrups in Luddite blood’. Eventually, with a network of informers and spies, and the secret torture of suspects, the authorities led by the magistrate, Joseph Radcliffe and army troops, rounded up more than a hundred men, of whom 64 were arraigned to be tried in a ‘Special Commission’ to be held at York Assizes in January 1813. In all essentials, from start to finish, this was a ‘show trial’ designed to terrorise the working people of Yorkshire, not just in the West Riding, and to deter them from any form of self-organisation and the taking of oaths, whether or not directed towards violent or peaceful ends. The jury included the magistrate Radcliffe as well as no less than five baronets. Hardly a jury socially equal to the accused and without bias.
The ‘trials’ started on 2 January 1813 and finished on 12 January, by which time the authorities decided they had enough people to hang and transport as a deterrent to the others. Three men were hung on 8 January, in the middle of the trials, for the alleged murder of William Horsfall: George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith. They were all young, under 23, well-educated and therefore were picked out as likely ‘ring-leaders’. Their bodies were taken to the York County Hospital off Monkgate, there to be dissected ‘for medical science’, but really to prevent their funerals becoming a focus for more protest. This barbaric act had been decided weeks in advance of any trial or conviction.
On 16 January, in two batches, fourteen more were hung for the attack on Rawfolds Mill and for various attempts to steal arms. Singing the Methodist hymn, ‘Behold the Saviour of Mankind’, on the way to scaffold they met their fate: John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, Thomas Brook, William Hartley, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, James Haigh, James Hey and Job Hey. The scaffold had been deliberately set higher than normal so that the assembled crowds at the Castle could see the whole body of the hanged men twist, squirm and convulse as they died. Let 21st century York redress this official barbarism!
We know their names, and those of the men who were transported to Australia, as well as those who were released on bail and under various discharges- “if they will conduct themselves as honest and industrious subjects”, under threat of the ultimate penalty. In the 21st century, we have much in common with the Luddites: governments who won’t listen, rule by and for a rich oligarchy, laws designed to gag, intimidate or render impracticable any kind of peaceful protest or organisation to achieve redress of wrongs.
I think we in York should play our part in the many activities to commemorate the Luddites, by focussing on an event or events in York in January 2013. Contact YAH if you want to be involved.
Further Information on Luddites:
Richard Reid: The Land of Lost Content
EP Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class