Out of the wreckage

Rehearsals for a play on the Luddites anniversary at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.
Rehearsals for a play on the Luddites anniversary at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.
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It’s 200 years since Luddites who smashed machines to save their jobs were hanged. Fiona Russell reports on how these sons of the West Riding are being remembered.

Trouble in Europe, an unpopular war, high unemployment, a stagnant economy and a country divided between north and south. Sounds familiar? Historical parallels are often strained, but this one seems a good fit. The year is 1812 and, if you add into the mix soaring food prices, protest and riots, you have the West Riding in uproar.

This was the background to the Luddite uprising, a tale of desperate men and desperate times.

The West Riding was flooded with 12,000 troops, more than Wellington had taken to fight the Penninsula War four years earlier. And government spies and informers spread out into the villages to track down the Luddite ringleaders.

The outcome was the end of a way of life as the authorities, locally and nationally, hunted down the men and then cracked down hard.

In January 1813 a total of 64 men went on trial at York Castle. Three of them including George Mellor, sometimes known as Yorkshire’s King Ludd, along with William Thorpe and Thomas Smith were convicted of a mill owner’s murder and hanged on the 8th.

A further 14 Luddites were executed eight days later. Six were sentenced to transportation. The rest melted back into the West Riding.

Young people have just been reworking the story of the Luddite protests at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield under Madeleine Thorne, the director of the LBT’s Youth Theatre.

“I’m encouraging them to think about technological change and how it relates to their lives,” says Madeleine. The result is Have You Seen Ned? which played to a packed and appreciative audience in the LBT’s Syngenta Cellar.

It is the first event in Uprising, a celebration of the bicentenary of the Luddite protests, sponsored by the Jubilee People’s Millions and co-ordinated by the LBT, bringing Huddersfield University, the Tolson museum, the Mikron Theatre Company, and artists and community groups.

At its heart is the story of the “cropper lads”, skilled artisans who finished the surface of woollen cloth using cropping shears.

When the innovation of shearing machines in the 1790s threatened their livelihoods they responded with threats, sabotage and ultimately murder.

It is a story that inspired novels (including Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, and Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance) and still retains its hold over the imagination.

The croppers weren’t the first or the last machine breakers: before 1800 the destruction of industrial and agricultural machinery was a relatively common form of industrial protest. The difference lay in the scale, the numbers of the men, the level of their organisation and the force with which they were put down.

And then there was the potency of the name. It originated in Nottinghamshire where stocking-frame weavers ganged together in the name of “Ludd” to fight the introduction of mechanical frames. The story (probably apocryphal) was that a stocking frame knitter named Ned Ludd had been told to “square his needles” because his knitting was too loose. But instead of adjusting his frame as instructed, he took a hammer to it.

“Ned Ludd” subsequently became “General”, even “King Ludd”, in whose name the stocking frame weavers set about their destruction.

The legendary Ludd was no Robin Hood – just a common or garden young man, sullen, perhaps lazy and incompetent. By smashing his frame Ned interprets his superior’s command literally, but there is an undercurrent of menace and anarchy. Ned doesn’t reason, he smashes. One historian described Luddism as “collective bargaining by riot”.

It’s the borderline between protest and riot that writer Maeve Larkin has been keen to explore. She has been working on Can You Keep a Secret? Which is the Mikron Theatre Company’s contribution to Uprising.

“It’s the tipping point I’m interested in, where politics becomes banditry,” she says. “ An action may have a political cause but in the end not be a political action at all. It becomes a symptom instead.”

Maeve lives in Marsden, an industrial village nine miles outside of Huddersfield and a Luddite hotbed.

Marsden Infant School stands on the site of the forge where Enoch Taylor made shearing frames, as well as the hammers used to smash them.

Behind the Co-op is Enoch’s tomb and across the Manchester road is the site of Ottiwells Mill, then owned by William Horsfall. He was the Luddites’ sworn enemy, whose murder marked the beginning of the end of the uprising.

“The Luddites met on Marsden moors to drill,” says Marianne McNamara, Mikron’s artistic director. “Many of them would have walked miles to get here. There were hundreds of them. Imagine living here then. It must have seemed as if whole armies were moving around at night.

“Our aim is to tell the story behind the events and one way is by imagining the uprising from a woman’s point of view.”

Women are almost entirely absent from the official record. They did often have jobs in the textile industry, but croppers were invariably men because it was heavy work.

“There’s a pair of cropper’s shears at the Tolson Museum – they’re huge, really heavy, and so were the hammers the Luddites used to smash the frames,” says Marianne. Croppers were easily identified because the shears made their wrists calloused, or “hooved”.

They were also notoriously wild, with a reputation for hard drinking. One local legend goes that when they got to hell the Devil was desperate to get rid of them.

So he opened up the gates and shouted “Ale! Ale!” The croppers ran out and the Devil bolted the gates behind them.

The suppression of the Luddites, adds Marianne, was brutal. “They didn’t stand a chance.”

The usually radically-inclined Leeds Mercury had been hostile to the frame smashers. But their reporter in court at the trial in York was impressed by the Luddites’ dignity and wrote, “The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual… not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned”.

Benjamin Walker, the Luddite who gave evidence against the rest, later applied for a £2,000 reward. He was refused and was last heard of begging in London.

Uprising events at www.uprising events.org

See also www.ludditelink.org.uk

Can You Keep a Secret? see mikron.org.uk