Textile workers looked heavenwards when those that should have alleviated their sufferings failed them,. Their pleas and plaints had risen by day and by night. “Do we have a champion? Will a Deliverer come to right our wrongs, break the oppressor’s yoke, and lead us out of slavery?” The region between their murmurs and the ears of God was blocked and answer came there none.
Perceiving their situation as that of human and divine abandonment they visualised a champion rising from their own ranks. Perhaps a King Arthur, a Robin Hood, a Wat Tyler, a Queen Boudicca, or a dragon-slaying Saint George. In whatever form they imagined their rescuer might come, he or she would be a flesh and blood, but supernatural, manifestation of a warrior to lead them to victory.
Eventually, one came who was embraced by working folks as a saviour and a portentous, even godly, warrior. That they really believed him to have been heaven-sent is improbable bearing in mind the disappointments they endured at the hands of institutional religion and its practitioners. There were some exceptions, but overall there was little love or trust between workers and religion. It would not be proper to suggest that the poor were entirely without religion, for when institutional systems are rejected their underlying structures are often transformed into non-religious models that possess the trappings of faith.
An underpinning of unity in commonality enabled them to frame their hopes for temporal salvation on a figure that could easily have sprung from biblical apocalyptic. In such matters, timing is everything. When a dire need is perceived to have been answered it is immediately invested with the character of the numinous in the minds of its recipients.
And so, when one came who was majestic in manner and bearing, although not from Galilee or Mount Olympus, but from somewhere as non-exotic as Nottingham, just a fair few miles down the road from Huddersfield, that was ready to do battle for them, he was made as welcome as any champion in history or folktale ever was.
This remarkable benefactor was adopted as the hope of the despairing, the help of the powerless, and the defender of the disregarded. The Nottinghamite was welcomed as Warrior, Lord, and Saviour, bearing the titles of King and General. Whatever he was or was not, he found a place in the hearts and minds of the working poor as the probable reliever of their oppression.
_ _ _
When anyone said the name, ‘Ned Ludd,’ aloud, a welter of opinions filled the air. Some said that Ludd - sometimes referred to as King Ludd and sometimes as General Ludd - was a stocky man with an iron will, an insatiable hatred of injustice, and an enduring sense of grievance that he employed with equal force for others as well as for himself. His history is much like that of others of his class that surfaced in the turbulent dawn of the industrial revolution. Some are known by name, but others are not.
Others said Ludd was a phantom, a timely fiction that epitomised the sum of the immediate ambitions of all thrown out of work by the wonderful machines of the industrial age that could make and finished cloth faster than men ever could by hand.
To those unemployed, or threatened by its approach, Ludd was no revenant. To them he was The Man of Destiny, a saviour come to restore balance and fairness in a kingdom ruled by tiers of despots at the expense of the poor. Ludd was said to detest the feudalism imposed by mechanisation where man served the machine and the machine dictated how fast human service was to be rendered to itself. He also denounced civil and economic inequality and the intransigence of the Ruling Classes that considered poor folks less than human, unworthy of consideration, sympathy, assistance, and undeserving of anything higher than contempt.
Ludd came to the rescue of workers as Moses had come to free Israelite slaves from their Egyptian masters, and as Joshua had ascended to escort the Tribes of Israel to the Promised Land. In short, Ludd, whatever he might or might not be, was the essence of apocalyptic intervention in a situation from which only an uncommon, even Divine, faculty can defeat worldly tormentors and usher in a New World in which the downtrodden are made free. Despite their misgivings about divinity, it is certain that his cohorts regarded Ned Ludd as heaven-sent.
Yet it was not primarily their servitude from which workers wished to be freed. Their foremost needs were to be rid of the twin evils of starvation and unkindness that dominated their world of work. A man might be a slave yet contented with his lot if he is well fed, well housed, and his material, mental, and spiritual needs are sufficiently furnished, especially if he is treated respectfully. That this rarely happens is due to the diseased condition of humanity that unfailingly emerges when one man is the lord of other men.
Some compare Ludd to the revolutionaries that struck at the roots of the French social order. However, Ludd’s attack was not against the social structure of England. Rather it focussed on injustices imposed by thoughtless and greedy rulers on the ruled. Masters subjugate slaves, and lordly ones dictate terms to their menials. Likewise, industrialists ruled dealt uncompromisingly harshly with workers in their factories, and the powerful crushed the powerless because they could.
This unfairness was the whole world of Ludd’s cause because it led to starvation. Luddites tried to persuade masters to treat their servants well enough so that the poor could feed their families and think of themselves as men. When earnest appeals to reason failed Ned Ludd and his Army answered the indifference with fire having, they understood, no other option.
“We’re sent to keep a weather eye open for trouble from Ned Ludd’s lot, your worship,” said a red-capped corporal. “There are many more of us coming soon, just as soon as we make a survey of likely trouble spots and send in our report.”
“What’s your understanding of the danger from these Luddites?”
“There’s rumblings that we’d be silly to ignore, sir, and there’s the situation of the working masses, and that alone makes this area ripe for trouble from a few discontented and rabble-rousers. Hussar Captain Dredge says they can do as they like but we’ll be ready for them.”
“If they come, eh?” asked North.
“Aye, sir, if they come. Likely, they will, though, sir. Likely they will.”
Further gloom settled on the brows of the merchants. They drank their ale and sucked on their pipes in unison as if they needed to be part of a uniform company for safety.
“Trouble on top of trouble on top of trouble,” offered Spiggot.
“Aye!” sighed the other merchants, in unison. Their minds visualising how vulnerable they would be if Ludd’s Army came to their doors. Many Mills were isolated. The rugged hills of the region could make it impossible to mount a simple defence. Yet, at the same time, it was ideal country for hiding villains, evildoers, and Luddites. They had already inflicted injury by their relentless arms gathering. Sizeable quantities of weapons had been obtained by Luddite collectors, if the reports were reliable. This information rendered the bravest anti-Luddite patently tremulous.
Staithes, his self-inflicted probation at the Pack Horse Inn ended prematurely, turned to the corporal to ask, “Exactly how many soldiers will be sent to defend us against these villains? We’re very spread out, so not many of us will be able to render aid to each other if Luddites come upon us.”
“We don’t have details of that, sir, but we are expecting Parliament to send goodly numbers. That is, sir, if they’re needed, sir.”
“Why should they be needed, eh? It’s nobbut a bit of local bother,” Piped Jory Baggett, who hadn’t lost his worried look since he had first heard the name, Luddite. “What have they done in Nottingham but broken a few of them machines? Isn't it all over by now?”
“Not according to this here,” chipped in the Alderman, opening his newspaper with the swift and fancy flourish of one that regularly read the broadsheets.
“What does it say?” asked several of the men who were paying close attention to the experts, namely, the Alderman, and the red-capped corporal.
“It says here,” sang his worship, in his pontificating voice,
“Several attacks are taking’ place each and every night, and, accordingly, the constabulary has been raised to one thousand specials, and they're just to keep factories safe from Luddites. But it says nothing about catching the beggars, so they will be out and about running loose and ready for more trouble.”
“That’s why we’re here.” volunteered the corporal bravely. “There are rumours that there are so many Luddites now that no town will be able to contain or control them. That’s why the army is being sent in.”
“Aye, lad,” said Baggett, warming to his position as news bearer, “and it says here that things have got to such a pass that the Prince Regent himself has put up £50 reward to anyone ‘giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames.’ He wouldn’t be doing’ that if he wasn’t worried sick about the whole business!”
James Bray of Deighton had entered the room as the Alderman was reading this report. Sloughing off his coat and standing with his broad back to the fire, he inquired pleasantly, “What’s up, lads?”
“Luddites!” answered the whole room, including the red-capped corporal, who said it loudest.
“Luddites?” repeated Bray, questioningly, expecting to receive more information. “What about them?”
Baggett seized the vacant opportunity to air his knowledge. “Aye, James, Luddites. Luddites and their wicked doings! They’ve been smashing stocking frames in Nottingham and creating fuss and trouble over in Lancashire. Every night there’s something new either broken into, broken down, broken up, or just plain broken. It’s madness, and now they are even active in our own districts!”
Bray sat down before speaking. “We know they’re here already. Reynold had one of their letters and other manufacturers have had the same. Everyone knows they are up at nights taking guns and pistols and goodness knows what from people so they can arm themselves for a fight. You can’t say we haven’t had fair warning.”
“I know times are hard these days, but they must realise that they’re bad for all on us? We’re all suffering,” said Staithes, as if his sentiment would explain the foundations for Luddite activities away.
North, who had been mostly quiet throughout the discussion, offered his insights into the reasons for the uprisings.
“There's no mystery about the causes, lads. It’s as plain as the nose on your faces. Luddites are upset by having their wages forced down at the same time as the price of food is shooting up! You can’t blame them for being upset. While it’s true we can’t give in to their every demand, some clothiers could treat them better than they do.”
North’s apparent sympathy for the Luddites was not well received by the manufacturers, most of which stood to lose heavily if they did as they promised to do in their threatening letters and devastated their properties. The mood, gloomy to begin with, now turned sullen and morose.
Staithes was silent, but listened carefully trying to make sense of the situation and evolve a way to either avert a confrontation that would wreck his business by contriving how interruption to trade could be avoided. His mind was in turmoil. No easy answers suggested themselves. He asked, “What do you think we can do about it, so it doesn’t happen here?”
Heads were scratched, a sign that some thinking was going on, but for a long time the scratching produced nothing apart from a few grunts, and now and again a snort of futility as if there was no answer to the problem of Ned Ludd and his Army. Nevertheless, since these manufacturers were men that solved problems in the way of business it was necessary that a solution was found. Yet, the immutable Law of Inevitability was in operation, therefore no answer was found that met with universal approval.
“We can’t just’ do nothing,” splurged Eli North, as if someone had suggested they do just that. “What with the Frenchies abroad and the Luddites here, we’re surrounded by foes that wants to spill our blood!”
“Aye, lad, and it looks as if the American Colonies are getting uppity again and the Indians are being shoved off their lands. I reckon we’ll be going in on the side of the Indians to save them being thrown about again!”
Sage nods were the only response, for there was some truth in what he said, although most of the manufacturers and merchants including his Worship Alderman Seth Spiggott benefited by making cloth for uniforms for the British Crown Forces on land and on sea, so although they had no great love for the French, they were, after a manner of speaking, beholden to them for much of their profits.
Luddites were a horse of a different hue. As yet they were an unquantified threat that seemed less than real, but which could flash upon them as a flood does after a dam burst and smash their worlds to smithereens. The threat was at the back of their minds with every morsel they ate, every drop they drank, every word they said, and every thought they thought.
Nightmares were nothing new to Staithes. He lived in a nightmare world where, whether waking or sleeping, he was plagued by his diseased conscience on the one hand, and by rational and irrational fears on the other hand without relief. His conscience would not play according to his rules, but resolutely held him to account for an extensive list of misdoings that held him fast at the bar of judgement as if they were chains of steel. In his perplexity, he attempted to define his life line by line as a book keeper when settling a final account. When he considered one of his actions that his conscience told him was wrong, he argued with himself until he was exhausted. He often reached a point where neither he nor his conscience would yield. He noted how unpleasant and uncomfortable it was to see his life set out as if it were a profit and loss account. Staithes’ reverie was broken by James Bray, who was coughing to indicate that he had something of note to declare to the company.
“It seems to me that if we can keep our own workers on our sides, then the Luddites will not be likely to mob our mills.”
He paused to let the weight of his message sink in, knowing that it had a lot of uneasiness to get through before it could penetrate the thinking parts of their minds. Then, his patience grew weary of waiting, and he continued.
“Some of them have genuine grievances, and we’d best take them into consideration before we go much further down this road. If not, then we will likely get our own workers fighting against us.”
“Our own workers? Do you think so, James?” gasped Jory Baggett, suddenly sitting bolt upright at the thought of traitors within.
“Why not,” asked Bray. “Who’s most likely to be disgruntled about conditions in us own mills than those that work in them?”
This generated severe agitation in the minds of the manufacturers. The distant drums were sounding too close to home. They were afraid that their own employees might join the rebels and exact revenge for wrongs, real and imaginary.
At that moment, Zebedee Hinchliffe came in the room, shook off his coat, and pulled a newspaper from his jacket, where he had kept it from the worst of the weather.
“Listen to this! He exclaimed. You’ll not believe What’s going on!”
“Sit you down, Zebedee. You look done in.”
Sitting, as Spiggott suggested, Hinchliffe briskly unfolded his paper and read a passage aloud.
“This is the Leeds Mercury, and it says,
‘The finishing shop of Mister John Wood at Longroyd Bridge, near Huddersfield, is said to be the head-quarters of the ringleaders of the Luddite disturbances in this part of the West Riding.
‘The building stands on the canal, close by the road, and is used as a wood store. Several of the daring and turbulent spirits who planned and carried out most of the midnight attacks to destroy machines are employed there. Mister Wood, who’s the Mister of the cropping shop, says he knows nought about any of this, and says if it’s true, he knows nought about any conspiring among his men.’
“Longroyd Brigg!” said Spiggot, alarmed. ”That’s not just on our doorstep. It’s in our house!”
Hinchliffe agreed. “That’s what it says. Moreover, it’s only a mile from here! It’s enough to make a brave man afraid!”
“They need to go and take him in charge. Why don’t they?”
“Because it’s only a rumour, and there’s no evidence to show it’s them.”
“I’d take them in charge any way and worry about evidence later. Let the spies supply the evidence.”
James Bray took his turn to address Hinchliffe. “Now then, Zebedee, you sup at the Pack Horse. What’s the feeling down there about this Luddite business?”
“They are up in arms about it. They don’t feel safe in their beds any more. It’s a nightmare, and no mistake. They’ve sent me up to you to find out what you think and what we should do for the best. They’ve all read this and want to know what they can do. They’ve never been so scared.”
Then, everyone spoke at once, and all at some volume, such was the level of their disquiet. The soldiers, having finished their stew and ale, rose to leave. Bray addressed them as they passed between him and the outside door.
“When are the extra soldiers coming to keep us safe, then?”
The Corporal paused and doffed his cap. First towards Bray to acknowledge his question, and then to the whole company in a fashion that while it might not have been designed to test their patience, certainly did. Fear and patience do not make good bed fellows, and fear was taking more than its share of the berth. His pantomime done, he spoke.
“Gentlemen, we are doing our best to keep the peace, and, as I have already assured you, more troops are on their way to the area. As to their number, and the time and place of their arrival, none can say, but come they will. Moreover, when they do, they will be despatched to secure the areas under threat to maintain the peace, and to secure safety for property and life. Your confidence in us as His Majesty’s soldiers is not misplaced. Gentlemen, I bid you a welcome adieu,”
Covering his head with his cap, he turned on his polished heels and was gone before he could be asked further questions that were buzzing around in each of their heads like angry bees after the hive has been kicked over by naughty boys.
“Well, I’ll be …” began Seth North, pushing his hat to the back of his head. “If that doesn’t cap the lot. There are murderers down the road at Longroyd Brigg, in Wood’s cropping hole, and the Army’s playing silly beggars and keeping its counsel, and its soldiers, to itself.”
The party registered its dissatisfaction, individually but all at once, with a variety of sounds peculiar to their distinct characters. None of them was intended to be complimentary to Soldiers or Luddites. They felt caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. If they were to describe their condition at that moment in a single word, that word would be, ‘Unenviable.’
From Ronnie Bray's "Luddite Spring" - An Historical Novel based on the Huddersfield Luddite Uprising of 1812