I am often accused of being a Luddite, for which there are several quite legitimate reasons. I will list just a few.
I refuse to waste my brass on a smart phone. They manipulate people’s lives way too much for my liking, in the way they dominate and or interrupt conversation. They also answer disputes and troublesome questions within seconds, which immediately eliminates the need for a search that often took days, thus depriving the finder of that self-satisfied feeling of cockiness associated with successfully spending all that time proving someone wrong. I remember often spending an entire evening with my mates arguing about a subject without a satisfactory conclusion, and if a smart phone had been available, I would have been proven correct immediately. Surely there’s little satisfaction in that!
I don’t hold with this social media malarkey either. The whole thing is in league with the Devil. They’re influencing conspiracy theories, spreading false truths and downright lies, and have a detrimental effect on younguns’ body image. Social media is not for grumpy Norky, thank you very much.
By eck! I feel better for that.
The rise of the Luddite movement
Now that I’ve had a little purge, I will write something about the proper Luddites, who were very much associated with the Colne Valley.
The Luddite movement started around 1811 and emerged within an atmosphere of constant difficulties, where starvation and homelessness were constant threats. Life was harsh. There was no welfare state and so if the breadwinner within the family could not get work, then the family starved. Britain was still basically a rural economy, but industrialisation and capitalism were beginning to take hold which caused a certain amount of destabilisation.
Things began to come to a head when Enoch Taylor, a blacksmith from Marsden, developed a textile-cropping machine that did the work of ten men. Groups of excitable young men saw these machines as the last straw and began a campaign of destruction.
One of the great ironies of the time was that the large sledgehammer they used to break up these machines was also produced by the blacksmith Enoch Taylor. The mantra at the time was ‘Enoch made them, and Enoch shall break them’.
The origin of the name ‘Luddite’ has drifted into folk lore. One explanation seems to stem from the frame braking perpetrators blaming Ned Ludd, possibly Edward Ludlam, as the ringleader, as a person by this name had already a reputation of breaking stocking frames during a fit of rage.
On the other hand, it is also said that this Ned Ludd incident took place many years before the Luddite movement was conceived. Also, to confuse history further, there is little to no evidence that Ned Ludd, or Edward Ludlam ever existed.
Luddite deaths “justifiable homicide”
The late 1700s and early 1800s was a period of particular turmoil, and harsh living and working conditions for the masses. This ran alongside a justice system that treated those same people with the most heart-breaking sentencing for what we would regard now as very minor offences. The threat of deportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) for stealing a loaf of bread was not unheard of. But there was always a chance of returning when a sentence was carried out. Many of the Luddites did not get that chance.
To combat the growing threat of the Luddites, mill owners were employing local militia, even using cannons to protect their mills and livelihoods. One incident took place at Rawford’s Mill in Dewsbury, where the owner, William Cartwright, had anticipated an attack and had heavily defended his mill. As a result, two Luddites were killed and many more injured. The official verdict for these deaths was ‘justifiable homicide’, which resulted in mass demonstrations.
This incident is described in the book Shirley written by Charlotte Bronte. She was probably told about it by her father Patrick, who was curate within the parish of Dewsbury from 1809 to 1815.
The Frame Breaking Act: death penalty for Luddite activity
During the run-up to this period, the French revolution had been raging from 1789 to 1799. Then the Napoleonic Wars, 1803 to 1815, led to unpopular demands for men and money. With the “mad” King George on the throne, the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Percival in May 1812 added to MPs’ concern that anarchy might ensue. Therefore, as many governments did, and still do, our government responded with violence of their own, and rushed the ‘Frame Braking Bill’ through parliament in 1812, whereby anyone found guilty of breaking textile machinery could be sentenced to death.
Lord Byron, in his maiden speech to the House of Lords, spoke out against this bill, saying that it would “value [a life] at something less than a stocking frame”.
The Act finds its victims
With this background, in April 1812, four idealistic young croppers, George Mellor, William Thorpe, Thomas Smith and Benjamin Walker, waited in hiding at Lane End, and then ambushed and mortally wounded William Horsfall, a mill owner from Marsden, as he left the Warren House pub and continued home six miles along the packhorse route following his weekly visit to the Huddersfield market.
William Horsfall seems to have had a strange disregard for his personal safety. A mill owner who used much of the equipment hated by the Luddites, he built a substantial wall protecting his Marsden property that included shooting slots. He was a known and vociferous hater of the Luddite movement and yet rode on horseback through the centre of the Luddite heartland almost as if he was provoking something.
In January of the following year, these four were captured, convicted and three were hanged. Benjamin Walker turned king’s evidence and survived. Fourteen others were also hanged, none of whom had anything to do with the William Horsfall murder. There was also little to no evidence suggesting that they had broken any frames either, but they were known ne’er-do-wells and were convicted of being Luddite supporters – handy victims for the authorities’ determination to make an example.
The hanging of these 17 men left approximately 70 children fatherless. Seven siblings were made orphans as their mother had died a few months previously.
Finding traces of the Luddites
There were some spasmodic outbreaks for another couple of years, but essentially the Luddite movement was over, as they could not stop progress. There were no improvements in living standards for the poor and, in many cases, they became even worse off.
Some one hundred years after his murder, a street was named after William Horsfall. However, the packhorse route, Lane End and the Warren House pub have long gone, replaced by Blackmoorfoot Road, Tom Lane, housing and shops. The Luddite headquarters was in Longroyde Bridge, near the start of the packhorse route on which William Horsfall passed every week. Another Warren House pub, built nearby on Manchester Road, is also now closed. All these names and places are at the eastern end of the Colne Valley and are approximately two miles from my home. Enoch Taylor’s blacksmith shop and William Horsfall’s mill was a further six miles to the western end of the Colne Valley in Marsden.
The photo on the left is William Horsfall Street. The site of the old Warren House is in the background. The photo on the right is the site of William Horsfall’s property in Marsden, dominated by a huge horse chestnut tree. Who would dare dispute that this tree was likely planted by William Horsfall?
This is a reconstructed set of stocks, no doubt used during the Luddite period for people who were late paying their rent or looked at the local gentry in a funny way. Oh, how I would like to see their return, for people who constantly play rowdy music, who don’t treat or train their pet dogs properly, or who completely block the pavement with their cars.
Another purge, I feel even better now.