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Luddite Spring: Episode 7

...He was a man that was feared, but not because of his physical bearing, for a robust child might have sent him flat on his back with a firm push. He was feared because he was mean and spiteful and because people believed that spiteful people were possessed by the Devil...

Continuing his dramatic story set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Ronnie Bray tells of an evil Yorkshire mill owner.


It is said that evil days bring forth good men to match them. What is even more accurate is that evil men bring forth evil days, and Reynolds Walkden Staithes was an evil man. The best thing anyone could say about him, and the best thing anyone ever did say about him was that he was a Yorkshireman. After that, most were stuck for words. Stuck for commendable words, that is.

Oh, yes, they had plenty to say about him that was uncomplimentary because that’s where their experiences with him led them. He was a man that was feared, but not because of his physical bearing, for a robust child might have sent him flat on his back with a firm push. He was feared because he was mean and spiteful and because people believed that spiteful people were possessed by the Devil. An old tale in the village was that someone had once witnessed him raise a horse over his head out of sheer anger with a carrier who had tried to overcharge him. Whilst it was noted that the more ale supped by the taleteller, the higher the horse went, there was something in the eyes of the witnesses that led to belief in the story by people that were known not to be insane, and the tale was, therefore, regarded as believable. To sensible people, such tales were as unbelievable as they were credible to the artless. Yet, no one durst speak against their truthfulness lest the Demon overhear and subject them to unspeakable things.

It would be a brave man that openly dared to doubt the tales of demonic wiles and supernatural wonders that girdled Maister Staithes, the grim and formidable master of Outcote Mill at Holmeside in Yorkshire’s West Riding. Staithes’ natural temperament was useful for keeping his workers in place, especially when he found it necessary to cut their wages to compensate for some business he had invested in that went bad. His workers didn’t like it, and he knew it. Nevertheless, there was no revolt against his autocratic rule because he had not only the evil eye, but he also had their wages and their futures in his evil grasp. In these bad times, his grip on his workers’ fate was, de facto, the power of life and death.

Staithes had only to look out from beneath his beetling brow or raise an eyebrow to instil fear into the strongest of his men. Their fear of loss of livelihood was more menacing than a direct threat.

Torments hung over the heads of Staithes’ worker’s like the Damoclean sword. It promised more pain and fear than the simple loss of a job, because being dismissed meant forfeiture of livelihood, character, food, and home. It was as close to a sentence of death for a man and his family as any one wished to come. Fear of being sacked was greater than the fear of death itself. It was not the certainty of roasting in Hell’s unquenchable fire that held worker’s tempers in check, but the certainty of starvation. Staithes relied on their doubts and insecurities to curb their antagonism when he imposed afflictions on them. Even those that might brave many dangers, balked at the risk of being thrown out of work and into more starvation than their wages already forced on them.

Workers knew better than anyone how hard the times were and what starvation felt like. Staithes’ fierce eye pulled up desperate men short, made them bite their tongues, buckle down, and obey! By their submission to his will, they died as to their manhood, and went on living base and self-despising lives. Those that have nothing but what they stand up in and are dependant on employers for their hovels, hold on to what they have, however little it might be, and whatever the cost to their sense of self and dignity. This was no time for stubborn pride. Men had to swallow their self-respect if they and their loved ones were to survive. There is no beast as vicious and unpredictable as a man that knows he has you cowed into submission by the fear that no matter what he does to you and yours, you cannot defy, thwart, or best him.

Staithes’ belief was that the poor were subhuman creatures of a lesser god provided for his pleasure, profit, and use. Another breed of domesticated animal with whom he did not share common humanity. He believed the poor lacked normal feelings that ladies and gentlemen had for each other including romantic and filial affection. His beliefs in this direction were based on observations of how he witnessed the poor living in their hovels, and what he had seen of them in his factory, and out in the streets. He was at one with the prevalent social irrationality that blamed the poor for the pitiful circumstances, rather than recognising that their situations were the results of circumstances and habits into which they were forced as the alternative to starvation.

While Staithes’ grasp of the mechanistic structure of cause and effect within societies was lacking, he believed passionately that he must dominate them and that they must remain ignorant and deferential. That essential difference coupled with his calculated pursuit of lucre was the engine that drove Staithes, heedless of the pain and suffering he caused to others. Only three things occupied Staithes’ mind: servile workers, increased output, and endless wealth. No one knew that there was a fourth concern that robbed him of his sleep, for Staithes kept a secret until the time when it was no longer solely in his keeping.

As a producer of fine worsted suitings and waistcoatings called fancy cloths, much in demand in Regency England, and his keen eye for design had elevated him to bespoke supplier to the major fashion houses in the nation’s capital and the high fashion centres of Leeds, Harrogate, and Manchester.

He read some men as some men read books, but brooded on what could be going on in the minds of his workers whose faces he found inscrutable. His secret and the unknown machinations of certain men in his employ gave him nightmares whether he slept or remained awake. He gave but little thought to the death of Mary Gledhill, telling himself with practised callousness, “I can’t fret for every dead child!” After which he excluded her and her family from his thoughts.


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