Luddite link doubt

early illustration of Luddites on the scaffold about to be hung at York
early illustration of Luddites on the scaffold about to be hung at York

The account by David Glover of the executions of six men from Calderdale in January 1813 (‘Mill protesters hanged at York’, Nostalgia, 18 January 2013) contains a number of factual inaccuracies and also raises questions about his interpretation of the links between Halifax and the Yorkshire Luddite machine-breaking disturbances, which were mainly confined to the three months between February and April 1812, whereas the incidents involving Halifax men were all committed in the latter half of the year, some as late as 29 November.

He states incorrectly that the men were executed at York Tyburn, which was situated to the south of the city of York in an area which now forms part of York racecourse. The Tyburn site was certainly used as a place of execution from the Middle Ages for more than four centuries. However, the last hanging at Tyburn took place in 1801, twelve years before the Luddite trials, following which executions took place outside the Castle where the condemned men were imprisoned until parliamentary legislation banned public executions in 1868. The abandonment of Tyburn was to prevent congestion around the entrance to the town on execution days where large disorderly crowds gathered to watch condemned prisoners transported with their coffins to the place of execution.
Another factual error is the date of 18 April given for the pivotal Luddite attack on Rawfolds Mill near Cleckheaton, which in fact took place a week earlier on 11 April 2012. The only Luddite from the parish of Halifax who is known to have taken part in the Rawfolds attack (apart from Jesse Ratcliffe who worked in Huddersfield and was part of the Huddersfield contingent) was Samuel Hartley, whose fatal wounding during the attack resulted in large crowds later assembling for his funeral at South Parade Methodist Chapel, Halifax, where both his parents were buried. The lack of Halifax involvement in the most serious mill attack in West Yorkshire may well have been because the Halifax contingent arrived too late to be of assistance, as a rather confused contemporary letter in the Radcliffe manuscripts, intercepted by the authorities seems to suggest. The correspondent, possibly a Luddite refugee, as the historian E.P. Thompson has suggested, maintained that the Rawfolds attack had failed ‘owing to the Halifax Luds not coming up as they were appointed’.
Interestingly not one of the fifteen prisoners from the parish of Halifax amongst the sixty-four prisoners held at York Castle was actually employed as a cloth dresser or cropper engaged in skilfully preparing woollen cloth for the market utilising heavy hand shears. Indeed, only one or two of the Halifax prisoners were actually employed in the manufacture of woollen cloth and the majority were aged over thirty, in marked contrast to the prisoners from Huddersfield who were predominantly cloth dressers aged under thirty. Moreover, only three of the Halifax accused were actually indicted for machine breaking and in each case the incidents were unspecified and linked with burglary offences. The extent to which these were linked with insurrectionary activity or opportunistic criminality has been a subject of debate amongst historians. The intimidation of John Tillotson, described by Mr Glover, following the forced entry of four men into the house of George Haigh at Copley Gate appears to have been partly a protest against high milk prices exacerbated by fear of the impact of parliamentary enclosure, in a year of extreme economic hardship resulting from poor harvests and economic dislocation caused by the French Wars. Milk was a vital supplement to the mainly oatmeal subsistence diet of the poorer classes and it seems likely that some local landowners like the fictional Miss Keeldar in Charlotte Bronte’s Luddite-inspired novel, Shirley, made special arrangements for supplying the poor with milk.
What is beyond doubt, however, is the severe impact of the executions at York on families living in the parish of Halifax in 1812-13. Of seventeen men executed at York in January 1813 no fewer than six, over a third of the total, were from the parish of Halifax. The executions left five women widowed, eight children orphaned and a further twenty children fatherless in the parish of Halifax as the poignant extract from Thomas Shillitoe’s record in his journal of his compassionate visits to their homes after the executions reveals. In an era in which capital punishment was employed for a wide range of non-violent crimes, this had been the most draconian sentencing imposed since the Jacobite Rising of 1745, when a total of twenty-two executions at York had taken place in November 1746.

Dr John Hargreaves

Haugh Shaw Road, Halifax.