Leeds nostalgia: Why Luddism is as relevant today as it was 200 years ago

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It is 200 years since the Luddites rose up in protest at what they saw as machines taking their jobs and although we have perhaps become used to the phenomenon, the sentiment remains an entirely understandable one.

The term ‘Luddite’ passed into common parlance, albeit as a pejorative. In the first of a two-part series, historian Mike Harwood looks at some of the events which helped shape a movement whose aims remain as relevant today as they did then.

Take a trip to Liversedge and walk up the Halifax Road and you will come to The Shears Inn, which stands on ancient route dating back to Roman times. By 1740 it was a turnpike from Wakefield to Halifax.

Owned by the Jackson family whose cropping shop was further up Halifax Road, the building became an alehouse in 1803. Landlord James Lister was also a Sherriff’s Officer. The Shears’ beer was popular with thirsty croppers. When newly-invented machines replaced their skilled jobs, some croppers met in an upstairs room here. They took the Luddite oath of secrecy and plotted to destroy the machinery to save their livelihood.

Most famously, in Yorkshire in April 1812, Luddites attacked Cartwright’s Mill at Rawfolds (just up the road from the pub). The attack failed. On January 22, 1813, 14 Luddites were hanged outside the gates of York Castle, in two batches of seven at a time, five of them for their part in the attack. In total, within two weeks, 17 were hung and 7 transported.

The plaque outside the pub concludes: ‘Their families were left destitute. By 1820 the job of cropping by hand had gone.’

In 1841, historian E P Thompson noted: ‘In 1814, there were 1,733 croppers in Leeds... since the introduction of machinery, the whole of the cloth is dressed by a comparatively small number, chiefly boys aged from five to eight.’Take a trip to Liversedge and walk up the Halifax Road and you will come to The Shears Inn, which stands on ancient route dating back to Roman times. By 1740 it was a turnpike from Wakefield to Halifax.

Owned by the Jackson family whose cropping shop was further up Halifax Road, the building became an alehouse in 1803. Landlord James Lister was also a Sherriff’s Officer. The Shears’ beer was popular with thirsty croppers. When newly-invented machines replaced their skilled jobs, some croppers met in an upstairs room here. They took the Luddite oath of secrecy and plotted to destroy the machinery to save their livelihood.

Most famously, in Yorkshire in April 1812, Luddites attacked Cartwright’s Mill at Rawfolds (just up the road from the pub). The attack failed. On January 22, 1813, 14 Luddites were hanged outside the gates of York Castle, in two batches of seven at a time, five of them for their part in the attack. In total, within two weeks, 17 were hung and 7 transported.

The plaque outside the pub concludes: ‘Their families were left destitute. By 1820 the job of cropping by hand had gone.’

In 1841, historian E P Thompson noted: ‘In 1814, there were 1,733 croppers in Leeds... since the introduction of machinery, the whole of the cloth is dressed by a comparatively small number, chiefly boys aged from five to eight.’

The croppers were driven to seek employment at anything they could get to do: some acting as bailiffs, water-carriers, scavengers, or selling oranges, cakes, tapes and laces.

There is now a statue some 400 yards down the road from the pub, erected by the Spen Valley Civic Society, on a corner in Sparrow Park, in commemoration of the Luddites.

A plaque there notes: ‘At a time when to be out of work meant starvation workers met in secret at the Shears in Hightown and made their plans for smashing machinery. Croppers [shearers] were central to this. They used hand-held shears to trim the nap from cloth. But a machine could do the work of four men. This statue depicts a defiant cropper in Jackson’s Cropping shop at the corner of Aquila Lane (Hare Park Lane – as it is now). A family man, he has just heard that William Cartwright has ordered more of the infernal shearing frames for his Rawfolds Mill. Around midnight 12th April 1812 all hell broke loose when 150 Luddites attacked the mill with hammers and axes. Two men were shot and the attack was repulsed. Men carrying their wounded may have fled via Knowler Hill. Seventeen Luddites were later hanged at York.’

An information board next to the statue tells what life was like for a worker such as a cropper, even when there was work – poor, cramped housing with no electricity, gas, tap water or bathroom; the toilet ‘a wooden seat over a hole in the ground with ashes to cover your poo’.

Education for their children was confined to bible reading in Sunday School until a National School was built in 1818 and even then the child was more likely to be working in the mill or down the pit than attending school.

The board gives some figures: ‘In 1812 more than a million children worked, a third of whom were seven to ten-year. Many worked six days a week up to 12 hours a day, from as young as five... Until 1842, some children under 10 worked underground in coal mines. Children could be hurriers, pulling the heavy tubs of coal...’ And young boys having to climb up and down chimneys as sweeps was not just a jolly fantasy of Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies. And so it went on.

If a worker lost his job there was no social benefit of any kind - beyond charity and his family and friends (no doubt in the same position), real destitution awaited him and his family.

The term ‘Luddite’ mis shrouded in some mystery: hardly surprising when the possible consequence of involvement could mean death. The movement was led by ‘Ned’, sometimes ‘King’, sometimes General Ludd, as in the Luddite song: ‘Though the Bayonet is fixed they can do no good, As long as we keep up the rules of General Ludd.’

But there is no such person now identifiable by the name ‘Ludd’. One suggestion was the name was taken from that of a weaver, from Anstey, near Leicester, who, in 1779, being whipped by his master for idleness, smashed two knitting frames in a fit of passion.

The obscurity of the Luddite organisation was aided by the Luddite oath of secrecy. The use of such an oath was much commoner in that more religious period, when its divine sanctification was widely accepted;, especially at a time when the Luddites were widely infiltrated by government spies.

The Luddites had no chance of halting the march of the Industrial Revolution. They did hope - a hope perhaps often enough found in present-times of rapid technological change - to gain a more sensitive implementation of the changes such as the replacement of men by machines.

In Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley, which is contemporaneous to the Luddite attack on Cartwright’s (Robert Moore’s) Mill, the following earlier confrontation takes place between Moore and one of the workers:

‘Ye’re a raight hard un’ returned the workman. ‘Willn’t ye gie us a bit o’time? Willn’t ye consent to mak your changes rather more slowly?’

His employer’s practical and measured response: ‘Am I the whole body of clothiers in Yorkshire? Answer me that. If I stopped by the way an instant, while others are rushing on, I should be trodden down. If I did as you wish me to do, I should be bankrupt in a month.’

The Luddites were driven on by two sentiments: first, by the attempt to give themselves and their families some protection against the possibility of actual destitution. Second, the development of the factory system of mass production was seen to be an attack on the very ethical and social basis underpinning society and which had held sway for hundreds of years. In the words of E P Thompson, perhaps one of the first historians to give a part on the stage of history to ordinary workers: ‘In this light, the conventional picture of the Luddism of these years as blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less tenable. What was at issue was the “freedom” of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory system, or by unrestricted competition, beating down wages, undercutting his rivals and undermining standards of craftsmanship... The tradition of the just price and the fair wage lived longer among “the lower orders” than is sometimes supposed... They could see no natural law by which one man, or a few men, could engage in practices which brought manifest injury to their fellows.’

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