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Luddite Spring: Episode 2

...Now we introduce ourselves to the special time in English history when Old Albion was catapulted from an agrarian rustic land into a mechanised industrial nation by a series of events referred to collectively as the Industrial Revolution...

Ronnie Bray concludes the introduction to his epic novel.

Introduction - 2

Now we introduce ourselves to the special time in English history when Old Albion was catapulted from an agrarian rustic land into a mechanised industrial nation by a series of events referred to collectively as the Industrial Revolution. Its began in the last few decades of the eighteenth century and continued unchecked at an alarming and world-shattering pace. The major factors that spurred the Industrial Revolution were the smelting of iron ore using coal instead of traditional charcoal, the invention of water mills and the fabrication and improvement of powerful and tireless steam engines that detached mills from the necessity to be built next to watercourses, and the invention of a wide variety of cast iron textile machines that required fewer and less skilled workers to operate them.

Cotton processing machines such as Arkwright’s Spinning Jenny and Whitney’s Cotton Gin created a ready and cheap supply of yarn that increased the number of home based cloth weavers. As more proficient power looms were introduced, small domestic producers could not afford or house the new giants, rendering them unable to compete in the marketplace. As a result, they became increasingly superfluous and were swept rapidly aside.

A factor that made England the world leader in industrial expansion were cheaply bought raw materials from its Empire, that also make available eager markets for its goods, the sale of which raised tremendous amounts of capital for mill owners. The expanding system of metalled roads and a concomitant network of navigation canals made the movement of goods less expensive, even before the railways came.

With these factors in place, nothing could prevent the explosion of technology that radically altered the landscape in less than a century and changed forever the lives of all it touched. By these means, the origins of the English working class as a force for social change was forged. As is the case with all significant changes, many were painful and some were deadly as each segment of society struggled for what it believed it deserved.

Voltaire wrote in his notebook: ‘God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.’ In regard to the plight of textile workers, not only was God understood as supporting the ranks of the powerful and wealthy, despite their not being the greatest number, but also the outcomes of worker’s struggles supported the notion that the powerful were also the best shots.

It is not inappropriate to use the language of warfare to describe the tensions that developed between poor and rich, for not only was the rhetoric of the rich and powerful ideally suited to combat, but also their actions matched their words as they uncompromisingly employed violence against their pitiful compatriots who sought nothing more than to improve their lot.

The background to the Luddite struggles was a thing of simplicity that embraced the hope that the world of factory work would return to what it had been at the commencement of the exceptionally rapid process of mechanisation that kick-started the English Industrial Revolution. The introduction of more sophisticated machinery resulted in many being made jobless, while, at the same time, machine work opened up to women and children at lower pay rates than their husbands and fathers had. This imposed cutting financial pressure on the economically vulnerable and assigned Hunger as the main visitor at the tables of the poor.

Exceptionally long hours of work, low pay, and an insufficient diet quickly positioned them in a downward spiral of disease, deformity, and premature death. At this time, agricultural labourers lived an average of forty-five years, but his factoryised counterpart’s life expectancy averaged only nineteen years, an appalling statistic that speaks for itself. Something was rotten in the state of textiles!

There had been reasonable wages once in Yorkshire’s textile industries because the nation’s American and Continental wars boosted mill outputs and made masters wealthy beyond their dreams. Their new wealth enabled them to expand and take on novel machines as new forms of power were harnessed in ways never before accomplished. For a time, the new power looms and cropping frames increased owner’s profits.

Concomitantly, they hurt workers by reducing the demand for manpower. Government policies were introduced by Orders in Council that banned trade with Europe and America. The result was a steep decline in available markets.

Inevitably, wages plummeted, food prices soared, and the poor were headed towards starvation. People died in the streets from malnutrition. Treated worse than farm animals that had to be well fed and tended, workers were thought of only as a commodity comparable to raw materials, regarded only for their capacity to keep industry’s wheels turning.

When worker were sacked or made redundant, there was no safety net beneath them which would support them until times improved. They were on their own. Parish Poor Law provided too little, and that was doled out arbitrarily and could not be relied on.

The finer points of economic science escaped the working class mind. However, it did occur to them that if the new machines were removed, then their major challenges would disappear along with them. They believed that then the economy would revert to what it had been before water and steam power had troubled the equilibrium of industrial life, leading to a calculable rise in the demand for workers, then, wages would be restored, and life would revert to what it been had before the institution of pioneering changes that changed, first England, and then the whole world.

Early industrial life had been hard, but they had made a living from it, and workers were grateful for that despite the atrocious conditions in workplaces. However, owners were unmoved by appeals for a restoration of the Golden Age, having become rich, and seeking avidly to become richer and more powerful. Merchants and owners rose to civic and political prominence on the traces of wealth, and were unwilling to give up their privileges to satisfy the needs of the poor. Accordingly, they resisted moves to turn back the clock, pushing back harder to entrench their primacy over a working class that they had come to despise. In the face of spiteful denials, workers considered their situation intolerable. Yet they had no answer except to accept it and continue to spiral down towards inescapable misfortune.

An important element in the industrial world was the Radical movement whose thinkers urged political reform and democratisation of society. Men such as Tom Paine and William Cobbet moved masses by their daring opinions, although the Establishment saw them as traitors. Paine came to personify the political threads that ran through America colonist’s desire for independence, the French Revolution, and the British Radical movement.

William Cobbett was in favour of reforming Parliament to make it representative of the whole people. He also believed that the Government had a responsibility to snap out of its insouciant laissez faire policies and address the question of poverty. “Good government is known from bad government by this infallible test: that under the former the labouring people are well fed and well clothed, and under the latter, they are badly fed and badly clothed.” He also protested the Corn Laws that drove food prices up by imposing a tax on grain imports, causing bread to cost more than the poor could afford. Although in his early life he was a staunch supporter of “King and Country,” he joined the Radical movement. It was hardly accidental that Radical groups provided rich ground for recruits to Luddism, having been stirred by their pamphlets and orators to the twin philosophies of individualism and democracy.

When it became readily apparent that the neither old aristocrats nor new plutocrats would do anything to ease the burdens and sufferings of the poor, they was generated in them a streak of optimism that somebody would arise to set them free from the tyranny of their oppressors. Naturally, their thoughts turned towards old-fashioned folk heroes that had once turned their worlds upside down, especially when it seemed that common people must suffer and go under with none to help them or stay the hands of despots that doomed their wretched lives.

When these notions first found their way into the minds of working people, there was a notable absence of any far-reaching political ambitions. The only world they had hoped to change was that which circumscribed their employment. They had no ambitions towards the nation or its governance. Few had reached the logical consequences of thinkers and visionaries such as Paine and Cobbett. Workers’ needs were concrete and immediate, and did not range any further than a return to employment with fair wages and affordable food.
A people faced with such odds as textile workers faced when those that should have alleviated their condition failed them, had already looked heavenwards. Their pleas and plaints had risen by day and 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 expanse between their murmurs and the ears of God was blocked, and answer came there none.

Perceiving their situation as one of divine and human abandonment, in their innocence they turned to seek a champion to rise from their own ranks, perhaps a King Arthur, a Robin Hood, a more circumspect Wat Tyler, another Queen Boudicca, or a dragon-slayer such as Saint George, and they hoped against hope for an epiphany, a supernatural manifestation that would reveal a warrior to lead them to victory. One came and was embraced by working folks as a saviour, and welcomed as a portentous, even godly, warrior.
That they actually considered him heaven-sent is improbable bearing in mind the disappointments working people endured at the hands of the practitioners of institutional religion. There were exceptions, but overall there was little association between workers and traditional religion. It would not be proper to suggest that the poor were without entirely religion because even when institutional systems are rejected, their underlying constructions are often translated into non-religious models that possess the trappings of formal faith. This underpinning of unity in commonality enabled them to frame their hopes for temporal salvation on a figure that could have emanated from Jewish or Christian apocalyptic. In such matters, timing is everything. When a dire need is seen to have received an answer, then it is immediately invested with the character of the numinous in the minds of the disadvantaged.

When an ostensibly Olympian crusader came, not from heaven, but from Nottingham, ready to battle for their rights, he was as welcome as any champion in history or folktale. This surprising benefactor was adopted as the dazzling hope of the despairing, the help of the powerless, and the friend of the friendless.

The Nottinghamite was welcomed as Warrior, Lord, and Saviour, bearing interchangeably the titles of King and General. Whatever he was or was not he found a warm and gracious place in the hearts and minds of the working poor as the likely reliever of their oppression.

It would be folly to suggest that this story begins where I begin it, or that it ends where I have written ‘The End,’ because nothing could be further from the truth. Its beginnings lie too far back for us to do more than darkly hint at them, and its end is as far away as its beginning is. The best I have done to paint a picture of this time, a thin slice of history that is personalised and localised with broad strokes of my brush on a dynamic canvas that has some semblance of the events that foreshadowed the personalities, currents, and events in the short period of time within which this novel is drawn. But an important and transcendent slice that was an essential rung on the gradually developing ladder of acknowledgement and recognition of the lower classes as members of the human race with every right to consideration from all other classes and deserving of and entitled to equal status under the nation’s laws.


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