In defence of the Luddites

Historical effort: Helping research family trees are Craig Abbs and Pat Sewell at the Central Library, Halifax
Historical effort: Helping research family trees are Craig Abbs and Pat Sewell at the Central Library, Halifax

IN profile, the Reverend Thomas Shillitoe has a hawk-like nose and a pointed chin.

But despite his rather severe appearance, history paints him as a compassionate man.

For it was Shillitoe who in the early months of 1813 visited the families of those Luddites who were executed, imprisoned and accused of crimes the previous year.

He walked for miles in the process - through the Calder and Spen Valleys.

The story of Thomas Shillitoe now features in a new exhibition, Man v Machine? unveiled at Halifax Central Library, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Luddite rebellion.

The exhibition has come about through the Luddite Link, a partnership between West Yorkshire Archive Service and the University of Huddersfield and brings together documents and material never seen before by the public.

“There has been tremendous interest in the Luddites particularly in this anniversary year,” explains collections co-ordinator, Pat Sewell, who has helped to put the exhibition together.

She also adds that to support the exhibition, a special booklet, of the same title, has been produced and is now on sale.

“Most people have heard about the Luddites and what happened but we are hoping that this exhibition and the accompanying booklet will help to put some faces to the names that were part of this particular period in history.”

The Luddites were mainly croppers, a small, highly-skilled group of cloth finishers who, at a time of the worst trade depression since the 1760s, were facing deepening poverty, rising wheat prices and food scarcity.

They turned their anger on the new cropping machine which had been developed in Yorkshire by the Taylor brothers of Marsden, as they feared it would put them out of work.

Although Halifax and Huddersfield saw the main force of disturbances in the area, the whole country became alarmed and affected and in 1812, the two key events were the attack on Rawfold’s Mill, Marsh, on April 11, 1812, and most significantly, the ambush and murder of William Horsfall, on April 28.

Names of those who now feature in the exhibition include Luddites such as John Ogden, who was only 28 when he was executed for shear breaking, Joseph Crowther, a cotton spinner, who was also executed, aged 31, leaving behind a heavily pregnant wife and three children.

William Hartley, accused of stealing fire-arms from a house in Copley, also went to the gallows. He had eight children who tragically were made orphans upon his execution as their mother had died only weeks before. And Nathaniel Hoyle, a weaver from Skircoat Green, was 46, when he was executed.

An extract from the Rev Shillitoe’s diary records: “In the afternoon we went to Scar-coat-green. Our first visit was to the widow and five children of Nathaniel Hoyle - he suffered for robbery: they lived with her aged father and sister, who sat with us, and who appeared to be under great difficulty themselves to procure the necessities of life; their situation to us appeared to be a very pitiable one.”

The attack on Rawfolds Mill also features, including accounts of the battle written by mill owner, William Cartwright himself.

The exhibition also charts the assassination of William Horsfall with extracts from letters relating to the event.

Joseph Radcliffe, a highly ambitious man, became a magistrate in the West Riding and developed a reputation for heavy handed justice.

In February 1812 he began a prolonged campaign to bring the Luddite disturbances to the attention of the government.

Letters written by Radcliffe about the nightly patrols set up to contain the Luddite violence as well as about threats to himself and his family are also included in the exhibition.

“All the material that features has been held at the five West Yorkshire Archive Service offices - Calderdale, Bradford, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield,” explains Pat.

“But to see it all pulled together for the exhibition is really fascinating and the feedback so far is that people are finding it really interesting.

“There are some very quirky pieces, including correspondence and hand bills and even one particular document which alludes to the Emperor Napoleon as a beast of the Apocalypse.

“I think one thing that strikes you is how harsh the penalties were for the Luddites. Smashing up a machine became a capital offence. The Government response really was stern.”

Pat adds that the exhibition will be on display at the central Library until May 10 before it moves to King Cross Library in June and then Todmorden library in August. On May 12, a day school will be held at Huddersfield University which will feature a variety of speakers. The booklet is now on sale at Central Library, price £2.