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Luddite Spring: Episode 12

Sairy, Bright And Beautiful - 1

In the pale half light of a cold November morning, six grim faced men carried Sairy North’s little pine coffin over the frozen ground from the house to Pauper’s Field, a distance of two miles, although it was no great weight and four men could have borne the little burden with ease. They passed by the village church and its graveyard in the chilly morning mists that turned their breath into clouds. Criminals, paupers, and strangers were buried on common land known as Potter’s Field, after the field bought with Judas’ thirty silver pieces of blood money for his betrayal of Jesus.

Little Sairy’s name was Sarah Jane but she had been called Sairy after the fashion of the Yorkshire tongue since she was an infant. She was scarcely eight years old when she fell asleep and tumbled awkwardly into the thoughtless machine that she was tending, becoming one more victim of progress as her little body was overcome with unconsciousness and she silently yielded to the noisy and unmerciful engine of death, that did little more than grunt, slow a little, and then race on as it devoured her. When it ate her, she had tended it for eleven hours without a break.

“I’m paying you her wages up to the moment she died, but I’m rounding it down to the top of the hour, because she died at twenty minutes past.” Staithes spoke without any hint of emotion in his voice or face. It was simply a straightforward business transaction.

Gledhill spoke in his heart, “Even in death, she was robbed by him that held the reins of her life and cruel death in his dreadful grip. Who can endure this?”

“By rights she should be buried in there,” said Matthew North, Sairy’s father, pointing over the grey stone wall as they passed the churchyard. However, there’s few working folks that can pay the vicar and the sexton and put a fire in the church for the service. It might have been cheaper if we’d gone to Sunday services now and again. Anyway, it’s warmer and more Christian at home. Potter’s Field will have to do her like it does the rest of the lads and lasses murdered by the mill.”

His companions grunted agreement.

North continued. “We came in from the countryside to work in the mill on the promise of good wages to raise our children in decent surroundings. That didn’t come to anything. It’s true we don’t gather with the church folks on Sundays but we’ve not neglected to worship. We do that at home after we rise late from our beds.”

“Aye, Matthew,” said Charlie Denison. “You’re not alone in that. On Sundays we take a lie in as well and then see to our prayers ourselves. Lots of us do it. There’s no place in church for the likes of us.”

“It’s not as if we neglect religion,” continued North, “It’s just that we are so spent when Sunday comes around from labouring all week in the mill that we’re sapped of strength. We have no choice but to rest on Sundays when we can sleep past workday rising time. It helps us to recover, but we do fall foul of going to church. When we first came here for factory work, we went to church as regularly as the parson did. But after a few months working in the mill all the hours God sent, we didn’t have strength left to do anything on Sunday except rest like the Good Book says.”

Denison agreed.

“You’re right Matthew. Even when we went to church, the effort of rising in a cold house and eating a pitiful breakfast before going off to church with aching limbs and heads too heavy for our necks to hold up, we had to sit right at the back and listen to the parson droning about God blessing the rich not blessing the poor because, the vicar said, God knows as we won’t shift ourselves or raise ourselves from poverty and filth. The wife and me took these as slights from the holy man and better off folks. We felt it was a godless place and stopped going. We never found anything godly or Christian there.”

North and the rest of his companions grunted their agreement. It was not, they thought, a time for many words. However, Herbert Longbottom was moved to speak on the same theme.
“We used to go every Sunday, but we got stalled of singing ‘All things bright and beautiful.’ It said bluntly that not only were we in a hopeless fix, but that God put us in it and meant us to stay in it! It doesn’t take long to learn that if God ordered our misery and poverty, then our situation was hopeless. By that time, we’d already gathered that everything else in life was against us and that the best we could do was knuckle under and try to survive somehow. We looked to God for help, but when we found he wasn’t in the business of helping poor folk we treated him like he treated us and turned away from him. I wouldn’t go back into church if they paid me.”

The men knew to what he alluded, and the hopeless words of the pretty children’s hymn came into their minds.

The rich man in his castle;
The poor man at his gate.
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate!

Although labouring people stayed away from church in numbers unknown for over a hundred years, not all proceeded to godlessness. Matthew North, his wife, Margaret, and their children attended to their devotions at home on Sunday mornings, sitting in their rented hovel with too few seats for too many bottoms. After father read stories from the Bible that showed that God was on the side of the good rather than the powerful, he taught his children to read it. They sang their way through some of Charles Wesley’s, hymns that North had learned at the village church of his boyhood where Wesley occasionally stopped to preach and share some of his less hymns.

The poor as Jesus’ bosom-friends,
The poor he makes his latest care,
To all his followers commands,
And wills us on our hands to bear;
The poor our dearest care we make,
And love them for our Saviour’s sake.
- - -
Thy mind throughout my life be shown,
While listening to the wretch's cry,
The widow's or the orphan's groan,
On mercy's wings I swiftly fly,
The poor and needy to relieve;
Myself, my all, for them to give?

“It is a pity, but it’s true,” North said after a silence, “The church has no heart for the poor. We are pests to be suffered, not souls to be saved. The parson’s busy with his rich friends and no time for those that live in the midst of trials and troubles every day of their lives. You know that’s the truth, Charlie.”

Denison agreed, nodding slowly before speaking.

“I don’t know what the poor have ever done to the church, but somewhere the two have broken apart like the wheels of an old cart whose timbers have rotted and joints gone dry and loose.”

The party lowered the coffin to the ground to take a rest. The morning cold had bitten their fingers and made their knees and elbows ache. After blowing ion his hands to warm them, North spoke.

“Burial in a pauper grave is the lot of the poor. Some say are degraded, because we can’t bury our loved ones any place better. I’ve heard them say so. But our shame is heaped on us by them, not by us. We live in foul hovels, we work in stinking dust laden mills. We ail and our children die from pestilence and injury, sometimes from worse. Even with full wages, we have to depend on the parish for its dole to make up for our lack of enough food to keep us alive. That marks us as ignoble. But poverty is a curse shared by millions of workers. We are all friends in pain and exposed to the swaggering contempt and ridicule of the better off.”

Denison agreed.

“The upper classes say that poverty and respectability are opposites, like evil and good. They say we have no sensitivity and no capacity for loving connections. They look on us as nothing more than animals that breed by instinct but are not capable of feelings of love. We poor are blamed for our distress. They say it’s our own fault because God is punishing us for being poor. I overheard a gentleman tell another that there was a link between riches and civilisation. He said our marriages were nothing but economic contracts and that we marry because we must. His friend agreed, and said that whatever emotional ties we might seem to have are nothing but cheap imitations of the behaviour of our betters. Had one of them Matthew North’s heart in his that day, they would have known that what connected us with them is more real than what divides us. They would learn that workers are human too.”

“Aye,” said the group in concert. Denison continued.

“Our betters believe that we don’t bond with our children. Not even with our little bairns. They say we couldn’t bury child after child that died from starvation, disease, or machinery and show as little emotion as they say we do. Well, maybe some day they will learn that all these curses are piled on our heads by them, our so-called betters!”

“We are considered lazy, defective, without the capacity to love, and unfitted by nature to enjoy human emotion.” North’s anger rose as he continued.

“They say we lack the brains to be trained or subdued. When the circumstances of our lives are such that they result in a depression of the mind, it should be little wondered that we don’t appear to enjoy life as if we had their advantages.”
Tom Caufield, silent so far other than expressing agreement by grunting appropriately, ventured his opinion.

“Us mill hands swapped reasonably pleasant lives in the countryside for promises of good wages and benefits they promised would be ours if we went to work in the textiles. None of the benefits appeared for us although mills bring great wealth to the masters, and they are not shy of parading their plenty in our faces. Owners advertised in papers that they furnished ‘superior housing and excellent social amenities for their workers.’ This was a lie and it concealed the dreadful conditions that resulted in our class being exploited and even exterminated. We suffer sickness, weakness, physical deformities, early death, mental derangement, and even cold-blooded murder by the masters we serve. These are the curses of us working folks. And they ask us to believe that these conditions are the design of Providence to control us that they call a ‘bestial, sub-human fraction of the population.’”

“Aye, that’s what they say. Come on, let’s get on with the job and take your girl to her rest.”

The party lifted up the coffin by its rope handles and continued their journey to bury little Sairy North. They didn’t speak again until they were almost at the hole in the old wall that served as the gateway to the graveyard.

“They say we’re brute beasts and not real men. They say we’ve got violent and foolish characters that make it impossible for them to reason with us. That’s why they don’t try to bargain or reason with us to settle our problems. They throw up one rough law after another to defeat us and bring us down to the level of slaves. Having done that, it’s easy for masters to treat us any way they choose, because we’re not human and don’t have human rights. The result of this policy is in this pine coffin to be buried in the Pauper’s Ground.”
Once they drew inside Potters Field, they rested Sairy on the ground, took off their jackets, and began to dig with mattocks and spades into the frozen ground. After an hour they had gained only four feet of depth, and could not without too much difficulty and being almost spent persuade the earth to yield any more, they stopped digging.

“That will have to do, lads,” said North, resting on his spade. His breath came in clouds of vapour on the frosty air.

“Aye, we’ll not get much further down,” gasped another that also leaned on his shovel. His breath formed thick clouds as he gasped the words into the frosty air.

“You are right. The earth’s as hard as iron. Let’s lower her, and then we’ll say some Christian words to send her off proper,” her father whispered. He was too full of grief for many words and too exhausted to make any but an effete gesture towards the dark hole into which his dear daughter was to be laid.
The friends nodded. They threaded two thin ropes under the box, then lifted it over the hole. They let the ropes slip easily but gently through their calloused hands so as not to knock Sairy’s coffin against the grave’s sides on its way to the bottom. Their gentleness stood in sharp contrast to the treatment she had endured at Staithes’ mill, both from Staithes and from his overlookers’ hands. When the coffin rested on the bottom, North could not resist crying out in pain. The forced utterance rose from the depths of his suffering soul.

“Why could they not be gentle with her at the mill? She were nothing but a little lass as worked hard and did her best every hour of the day! If they’d have treated her right she’d have been alive yet and not laid in this rotten hole! May God rest her little soul, but may he bring down the full weight of his curse on the head of Staithes for her murder!”

“Aye! May he so do and more,” murmured one of his friends. “But, there’s no justice in this life but what we can deliver. God give us strength to be avenged in timely and proper ways.”

The men stood a long time gazing at the little box before North shovelled in the first spadeful of cold earth under which to bury his daughter. His companions joined in after he had covered its top, and continued without speaking until the earth lay in a mound over her place. Only a parent’s heart knows what it signifies to bury a child where he will never see her again.

When the burying was done, none of them stirred. It breaks the strongest heart to walk away from the place where dear ones lie buried in cold and lonely graves. North felt the pangs of abandoning his daughter in death as he had so often been forced to hold back from aiding her in life when she was badly treated at her work. But their day’s work waited for them. They broke off their attendance and walked home in almost complete silence. What could any of them say that would extract the sting from the death of a little one whose life had been taken by a monster?

Had Matthew North’s betters the smallest capacity for looking inside his heart and mind, as his thoughts rose and fell, coloured in turn by bitterness, despair, and his sense of loss, they would have recognised the completeness of his humanity. They would have learned that no man is so contemptible that he ceases to be human. Not even those that are seen only through the lens of their own arrogance.

Whichever of the two worlds offered by religious ministers that little Sairy actually inherited, even if it was Hell, it could not be as bad as the world from which she had been released. Lucifer at his most baneful was more benevolent than Reynold Walkden Staithes on his best day. Although Sairy was better off out of this world, she was done great wrong as to the manner of her going.

The funeral party reached their homes. Each breast smarted from what they felt of injustice, oppression, human pain, and despair. They believed that their homes ought to be safe havens in a troubled world. Nevertheless, they knew that their dwellings matched in character and warmth the cold and cheerless grave of little Sairy, who had escaped like a slave that can only lay down his burdens when released by Death. However cold the Grim Reaper’s arms may be, they are more charitable than the arms of him that caused the death of little Sairy.


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