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Luddite Spring: Episode 5

...“Damn them!” he cried, his pent-up anger bringing his clenched fist down on the kitchen table hard enough to make stale crumbs leap out of the sprung joints of its warped pine boards...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel which concerns the tide of change that was to sweep over industrial workers in the north of England.


A week after Mary had been buried, Gledhill and Sarah were sitting downstairs. The children were abed. Sarah was remaking one of Mary’s smocks to fit her youngest daughter. Gledhill sat staring at the wall, brooding, deep in thought. Sarah could feel his hurt across the table. Suddenly, the calm was shattered by his outburst.

“Damn them!” he cried, his pent-up anger bringing his clenched fist down on the kitchen table hard enough to make stale crumbs leap out of the sprung joints of its warped pine boards. His face was set hard, his head weary, and his cheeks tearstained. “Damn the masters! Damn the magistrates! Damn the soldiers! Damn them all!”

“Nay, Seth,” pleaded his wife, Sarah. “Don’t you speak so loud. The bairns might hear you and blab out somewhere they shouldn’t.”

“Why don’t you go and see if they’re hard on? If they are, they’ll hear nowt as we say. The poor mites sleep so hard that they hear nothing until we get them up for work”

“I’ll go us and see how they are, Seth,” said Sarah, rising from her seat, taking the candlestick with her.

She knew what was gnawing at her husband’s innards, and she knew he was angrier than she had ever seen him in twelve years of marriage. Her greatest fear was that her children in bed in the room above might repeat what their father had said, and that could lead to tragedy of such proportions that she could not bear to think about it. She slipped through the door and up the stone stairway to look in on her children.

Seeing their pinched faces as they slept turned her heart over. They had gone to bed hungry. They always did and she blamed herself for it. Most mothers that watched their little ones slip from the world through abuse and starvation bore the guilt themselves, even as they knew it was something over which they had no control. The circumstances of their lives plunged them so deep into want that they saw no end or escape other than death. Whether it was the way their children lived or the way they died, they felt guilty.

Satisfied that they were asleep, Sarah went back downstairs shielding the candle so the flame did not go out. Closing the door she turned and sat at the table with her husband.

“They’re all fast on, Seth,” she said, blowing out her candle. “They always are. They get bone weary at the mill, bless them.”

“Damn them!” Gledhill repeated, more earnestly, overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness. That sense had never held him so tight as it did when he recognised that he was powerless to do anything about the fiend that cursed their lives.

“I’d like to take his head off and feed it into the rag grinder,” he spat, pale with anger, his knuckles white over his clenched fists.

“Hush, Seth,” his wife urged in her soft resigned voice. “It’s no use fretting yourself, lad, you know you can do nowt against the Maister without getting us into more bother, even being put out into the street with no place to go! There’s nowt we can do, Seth. We’ll just have to do what other’s do and keep us mouths shut and us backs bent until we can find how to shift ourselves from here to a better place.”

“You’re right, lass. Them as has stood up against heartless masters have been flogged, even hung for trying. It’s a poor law that doesn’t let us ask for better conditions and enough pay to live on. We’ve only to think on in the past year how many of our friends and their families have been torn from their houses to fend for themselves. They’ve had to live rough, forage, poach, and steal, to make their way back to their old villages to get back to farm work. And we know how few managed it because the old ways of working the land have gone.”

“Aye, Seth, that’s just what Old Annie said when she were forced back into the mill after her and her husband tried to go back. She found the little farm her family had worked for generations had been swallowed up by a landowner that never had muck on his hands or sweat on his brow. The old ways were gone! There was nothing for them but to come back to the mill. She were heartbroken. Well, they all were.”

Old Annie and her family experienced what almost all that tried to go back to their roots had. They were stranded in the no-man’s land between the hurrying horror of factory slavery, and the awful emptiness of lost ways when they stood weary and confused in the places that once had been congenial ground, and found them strange and desolate. They found the opposite of the havens they remembered. The road home yielded no home, no friends, and those places had changed so that wherever they turned for work, shelter, comfort, or help, they found none. They were treated with suspicion, even hostility. The old times were gone, obliterated, and the people changed for the worse with their passing.

Some said it was better for workers to suffer an evil today for a blessed tomorrow. Not many of those preaching patience were working people. Some workers believed because no one wanted to accept that the terrible conditions under which they worked and lived would last for long. Time passed and the teeth of a hard life bit into the flesh and bones of workers. Trust yielded to suspicion that they were being had on, and that the fulfilment of the promise of better times was not going to come, no matter how long they waited. When trust is turned into disappointment and apprehension, then the patience of the duped is likely to turn to vengeance. Vengeance was not anticipated by the promise breakers because of the low opinion they had of their dupes. This low opinion balanced their fears of revolution after the French pattern, and kept an uneasy equilibrium in place for longer than most expected. But even the most patient is disinclined to be patient forever, especially when the promised target not only does not draw near, but rather withdraws until it is virtually gone from sight.

When the steel of the trap closed in on the poor, then they began to look earnestly for escape from their intolerable situation. When men have no hope, even a slim chance of escape becomes as attractive as if it had been the offer of a marvellous kingdom whose designation was Freedom, in which all men walked like princes, and where want and pain were unknown. No one should wonder that when such a prospect was held out, the dispossessed seized it and did not count the cost, because the prize was priceless.

Sarah broke the silence. “Ee, Seth, lad, we never thought it would turn out like this, did we?”

Gledhill shook his head before exploding his anger into the cold air.

“Damn them!” cried Gledhill through his clenched teeth so as not to wake his sleeping children. “Damn them! Someday … ”
Sarah closed her eyes. Tears course down her cheeks. She reached across the table and took Seth’s hand. Both wept stifling their sobs for a good ten minutes before rising and holding fast to the other’s hand went up to bed. They lay awake in the darkness brooding on the circumstances of their life. Like all young couples they had fallen in love, courted, and married young. Their family came along in quick succession until they had two daughters and two sons. Although agricultural life was hard it fed them and gave them time for ease and enjoyment. When the countryside began to fail to sustain them, the town beckoned. The proclaimed good wages of the textile mills enticed them to leave their old life and make a new one in Holmeside in Staithes’ Outcote Mill. In that situation, they had struggled to keep going as they saw their hopes crumble and fail. By the time they realised they had been mistaken it was too late for them to do anything about it. What at first had been disappointment had run through the stages of discontent, to frustration, then despair, and finally to anger that had turned into rage. In other ages they might have extricated themselves from their situation. Their era did not afford escape. All that was left was to knuckle under, submit to harshness, and endure the unendurable.

Mary’s death had changed their outlook. They had seen similar circumstances hit other families and witnessed their grief when they had lost little ones to the savage culture of the textile mill. Now they had reached the stage where they could not take any more. It was time to take revenge. Yet vengeance had to be thought through lest in the taking of it, they brought further sorrows upon themselves.

Gledhill fell asleep muttering, “Someday … Someday … ”
Sarah heard his whisper and stiffened in fear. She lay awake all night until it was time to rise, make breakfast for her brood, and go to work at what she thereafter referred to as “The Murder Hole” when no one could hear her.


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