the Luddites

Liversedge

A statue in honour of the Luddites was unveiled by the Spen Valley Civic Society (SVSC) in Liversedge, West Yorkshire in 2012.

According to the SVSC secretary Erica Amenda, “We wanted the statue to demonstrate that there was a human touch to the Luddites. That their struggle was not just gratuitous violence but was about him protecting his job, income and his family and community. They were not terrorists or crazed out-of-touch workers.”

Who were the Luddites?

They were early 19th-century English textile workers known as croppers. They employed guerrilla tactics in a desperate attempt to prevent the installation in local mills of mechanical shearing frames that threw them out of work. The Luddites took their name from a mythical leader, General Ludd. 

Their resistance arose after laws dating back to Tudor times that made it illegal to use a machine to replace people were repealed in 1806. A new breed of capitalist entrepreneurs seized their chance to break the stranglehold of the skilled craftsmen over the pace, control and location of production. Petitions to Parliament to prevent the cropping machines’ introduction were ignored. 

In an era when unemployment meant starvation and the Combination Acts  made trade unionism illegal, workers held secret meetings and took oaths to support one another in destroying the new frames. 

Liversedge is an ancient township. A Roman Road passes the Shears Pub, which today is run by former AEU steward Paul Black. In 1812, croppers – many from the nearby John Jackson’s cropping shop – held meetings upstairs where they heard of successful Nottingham risings where knitting machinery was smashed. Similar meetings were held across other parts of West Yorkshire. In response the authorities sent hundreds of soldiers to suppress any rebellious acts.

“There were more troops in the West Riding of Yorkshire than on the Spanish peninsular as the ruling class was terrified by the example of the French revolution at the end of the 18th century,” says Erica. 

On 11 April 1812, led by George Mellor, 300-400 men with blackened faces attacked with huge hammers and axes the nearby Cartwright’s Mill. Two assailants, Samuel Hartley and John Booth, sustained horrific gunshot wounds and later died although not before the latter had the last laugh on the hated Reverend Hammond Robertson. Legend has it that in order to obtain information on the names of the other attackers the Reverend tortured the men with nitric acid. Booth asked him “Can thi. keep a secret?” Leaning forward, an excited Robertson said he could and in reply Booth said: “So can I” before dying. 

Two weeks later a mill owner William Horsfall was shot dead by Mellor. After the military tracked down some of those who participated on 11 April, eight were hanged and others transported to Australia.

The Cartwright’s Mill attack was dramatised in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley. It has been commemorated with a SVSC plaque, unveiled in April 2015, on the Shears Pub. There are similar plaques at the Star Inn and the former Jackson’s cropping shop. The latter is now inhabited by Owen’s Corning company who have very generously funded all three plaques, which will be part of a new Luddite trail that will officially open this summer and will be marked by yellow signs each featuring a large Enoch hammer. 

The new trail, which has led to requests from local schools for SVCS speakers on the Luddites, will consist of two circular walks and is one of many successful SVCS projects including a Spen Fame Trail featuring numbered plaques marking the home of a famous person or event location.

If you would like to invite a speaker to a meeting and/or join the Spen Valley Civic Society please email Erica at erica.amende@talktalk.net 

www.svcs.org.uk 

Read:- Liberty or Death: Radicals, Republicans and Luddites 1793-1823 by Alan Brooke and Lesley Kipling (published by Huddersfield Local History Society)