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Luddite Spring: Episode 6

...“If I worked my slaves as hard as you drive your freemen, I would not be able to lift up my head among my fellows, nor my voice to heaven!''...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel about the rebellion of down-trodden mill workers.

The Murder Hole

Outcote Mill emerged from the morning vapours as dawn’s weak light and feeble warmth crept across its stone roof, slid down the east wall burning off the morning haze. The sunshine rendered the huge building deceivingly cheerful to those visiting it for the first time. Its appearance brought no cheer to the villagers of Holmeside. In this place handloom weavers had lived and worked for at least two centuries in their cold stone cottages. Their homes had quarried stone floors and flagged rooves. They huddled squat against each other and seemed part of the ancient landscape, mute witnesses of slow times in which life had hardly changed for village, home, or inhabitants.

That had been the natural and accepted order of life until Staithes built his four-storied mill hard by them to power his factory from the ancient watercourse. Outcote Mill dwarfed the cottages and their people to Lilliputian nothingness. In its shadow, forlorn cottagers with hands fallen idle abandoned domestic spinning and weaving frames, sat back, wondered, sighed, concluded they were defeated, and went to work inside the mill. As flies caught on spiders’ webs they did not grasp until it was too late that they were shut in until death released them. The Mill stole their freedoms and confined them as securely as prison doors imprisoned the condemned.

Local folk and those from further afield were forced by changing times, economic hardship, and insinuations of factory wealth to run from their agricultural villages forsaking traditional homecrafts as new markets opened to cheaper and better stuff produced on the new machines. Moreover, it came to pass that working in textile mills became their only means of earning. It was a choice between the mill and starvation.

Textile mills imposed a new reality for those that worked inside them. What had been a free people were now become the slaves of industry. Mill owners thought of themselves as gentlemen, but their actions belied any gentleness they claimed. Edmund Jeffries, an American slave-holding plantation owner, visited Outcote Mill to see how cotton picked from his fields by African slaves was spun and woven. After witnessing the process from start to finish, he commented.
“Do your workers labour under these conditions every day? Isn’t today’s demand on them unusual?”

“No. This is their normal day-to-day work.”

“But, they are burdened with too great a load at machines that run too fast for them to keep up with.”

“They either keep up or get out. I tolerate no slackers in my mill!”

“If I worked my slaves as hard as you drive your freemen, I would not be able to lift up my head among my fellows, nor my voice to heaven! Your workers are free in name but they are slaves of measureless drudgery. The only difference is that yours are hired slaves, wage slaves, instead of slaves bought at the auction block. My slaves have some level of dignity and limited hours of labour. Your slaves have only degradation and their whole obligation is to you and your demands, whatever you decide they will be. You do nothing for their minds, souls, the protection of their bodies, or the chastity of the young girls and women that you allow to be ravished and tormented without penalty.”

“My workers know what they are getting in to when they come to work in my mill. I pay their wages and their wages provide a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and clothes on their back. They have no other needs. If anything, I am too generous to them. I get no thanks from them, just scowls and bad feelings.”

“I am ashamed for you. My field hands had no choice in coming to work for me. I bought them, but I guarantee they feel better disposed to me than your slaves do to you.”

“If you have no further business, Mr Jeffries.” Staithes held out his hand to the cotton producer. Jeffries took the hand but shook it without enthusiasm.

“I trust you not to mention your opinion to my workers. They have enough wildness in them after the manner of the French, without you saying things that will encourage them to consider themselves badly used.”

“Nevertheless, they are badly used. You have only to look in their faces and at their bent limbs to see that. They look as if they had just stepped out of the boneyard.”

“They look a sight better than their kind in other factories. That’s because I treat them fairly. I’ll have your carriage brought to the front door. I bid you farewell, Mr Jeffries.”

Staithes watched as Jeffries’ carriage left the mill yard and turned towards Huddersfield. Snapping his hand against his thigh he went back inside.

“Slaves, indeed! They’d be rotting corpses if I didn’t provide wages to feed them! I won’t tolerate a foreigner coming here and telling me what’s what. I know what’s what, and what has been is what will always be for as long as I am the master of Outcote Mill!”


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