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Luddite Spring: 17 - The Moorcock Inn

...“Oh, there are lots of things that need putting right, but I don’t know how. I’m blowed if I do! Perhaps one man can’t do all that needs doing to make things right. Our little Mary’s death set off something inside of me. But it wasn’t just that. There are lots of things that aren’t right.”

“There could be others that feel the same way about things, Seth,” confided Crowther...

Rebellion is brewing among downtrodden mill works.

Ronnie Bray continues his epic novel based on real events in English history.

Seth Gledhill, immersed in grief for his daughter, Mary, went further abroad one night on his walk than he was usually wont to do. He had some thinking to do that called for different surroundings so that the customary distractions of familiar places did not divert his mind. The moon shone brighter than it had for some nights, and the evening was cold. The chilling air was brittle, and the ground crunched under his feet when he trod on the relics of the previous night’s snowfall that lay along the track.

He strolled, pondering the circumstances of Mary’s death, the condition of his family, and those of his fellow workers. An hour into his journey, and he had found no answers to the questions that busied his mind. He became increasingly vexed with himself for not knowing what he ought to do. He was exasperated that some of his fellow workers seemed as if they were content in their discontent. There must be a way to stop workers being treated like farm animals to make owners rich. He brooded over low wages, scrappy diet, poor health, widespread diseases, unfit housing, stinking pools of sewage in the streets, and early deaths that afflicted textile workers. His mind’s voice raged at habitual and vicious abuse, such as that which caused his daughter’s death. He railed at economic ravages inflicted on working families. He was faced with a multitude of pressing problems that made life unbearable for labourers, and knew there had to be an end to them if they were to survive.

He saw parallels with the conditions under which textile slaves lived with the conditions under which Israelite slaves built the treasure cities for Egypt’s Pharaoh. They were forced to pay ruinous rents, conditions were made worse, almost daily, and they were so heavily and unremittingly burdened that their spirits broke. Their cruel taskmaster exchanged sticks for whips and used the without mercy on the backs of the slaves that seemed slow, or stumbled under heavy burdens.
Gledhill was awakened by the ancient scenes remembered from his time as a church attender. He was especially heartened when he recalled that when their sufferings were at their worst, a divinely commissioned go-between was sent to challenge Pharaoh, demanding in the name of God that he release them all. In the contest that followed, Moses was triumphant and the enslaved were released, enriched with Egyptian gold, and allowed to proceed to the Land of Promise. What a victory that was, especially when he envisioned the armies of Pharaoh being submerged and drowned in the sea because the greedy Pharaoh changed his mind about freeing them.

He allowed himself to smile through his grief remembering that Prince Moses had killed a slave driver that was abusing an Israelite slave. If Gledhill remembered right, Moses had been rewarded for his righteous indignation. He advanced the theory that if it was proper for Moses to do what was necessary, even taking life, to procure justice, then it was an activity on which Almighty God smiled.

Gledhill had someone in mind for divine retribution. More than once, he had pictured his breaking a stout branch from the ancient beech close to Outcote Mill. He had laid in wait for Staithes and, when he appeared, had brayed him to a pulp with the limb. In saner but less satisfactory moments, he knew that would not change the circumstances of other folk, and that he would hang for sure. Then his wife and children would be punished, turned out of work and home, and starve quicker than they already did. A different master would take Staithes’ place, and he could be ten times worse than the Devil they knew. No matter how hard a master was, there was always a worse one waiting to take his place.

Gledhill sighed at his imaginings, accepting their futility, and strolled along aimlessly, thinking all the while. His breath formed small clouds of white vapour that were lit by the moonlight. After a while, he stood still and looked about to think where he might be. His surroundings were unfamiliar, but in the distance, he could see feint lights coming from windows close together and thought it might be the Moorcock Inn, a place he had not patronised because it was a good walk from his home.

It was an out of the way place, not long since built, that provided shelter and nourishment to travellers passing from the West Riding into the South Riding on their way to Sheffield, or Derbyshire or Manchester on business. It was also alleged to be a place of outcasts where undisciplined rough men were wont to gather because law and order did not habitually drop in on it.

Gledhill stood still, peering at its outline in the distance until it took on a more solid appearance. He decided that even if it were not the Moorcock, it had windows and lights enough to be some kind of hostelry, and, since he was ready for a rest, he would warm his frozen bones and take refreshment there.

He walked towards the lights and found it was the Moorcock. Upon entering the inn he found to his surprise that it was almost full of customers. Some patrons he recognised as workers from Outcote Mill. All of them were attired in the livery of labourers with the exception of a young man who almost buried inside a large woollen riding coat. This man sat in a corner seat with a group of thirty or so men listening eagerly to what he was saying.

As Gledhill approached them, the speech stopped, silence prevailed, and all turned to look at him. Those that knew him nodded at him, and he returned the salute. The landlord came up to the bar and motioned with his hand that he was to move into the adjoining room. When he left, the talk continued energetically but in tones too low for him to hear what they were saying.

He sat with his thoughts and his pint of brown ale in the corner of his appointed room, quietly observing what he could see of the occupants of the room he had been forced to quit through the open serving hatch. Now and again, he heard sounds of agreement. His curiosity was sharpened, but his hearing did not rise to the same degree of acuity.

He was close to three men nursing mugs of ale with their heads together at a small round table discussing the meeting in the next room. One of the three occasionally jerked his thumb backward over his shoulder towards the meeting partly visible through the hatch. Gledhill realised that what was to him a mystery meeting, was fated to remain a mystery. Therefore, he concentrated on trying to work out a scheme to shift power from owners to workers and make conditions and pay fairer. For a man whose education had been significantly overlooked it was a long and arduous process.

He caught sight of his reflected image in the window on the wall opposite the room door, and thought himself a sorry spectacle. He thought his mind a poor one because although it could identify evils he had not been able to find a way to resolve unpleasant life situations that did not involve the shedding of blood. Such a course he believed to be counter-productive and inclined only to make matters a thousand times worse.

Dissatisfied with the results of his contemplation he drained his mug and went outside, nodding farewells to the others after the custom of Yorkshirefolk. Each of them nodded back with a soft. “Now then, lad,” by way of farewell.

He was returning home at a fair pace when, half a mile down the road he heard footfalls behind him, and turned to see who approached. He recognised the man as one that had been in the Moorcock, and knew him as a workman at Outcote Mill. He stopped to let the chap catch up to him. It was Jack Crowther, a cropper. Crowther extended his hand as he caught up with him, evidently intending to walk along with him.

“I’m Jack Crowther. I work in the next shed to you.” He extended his hand in a friendly gesture.

“Gledhill, Seth Gledhill,” he said in reply, gripping the other’s hand in fraternal greeting. He felt the callus on the heel of his fellow’s hand that was the distinctive feature of a cropper, raised by years of contact with the push bar of heavy and cumbersome cropping irons.

‘Yes, Seth, I know who you are. I’ve seen you going in and out of your cropping shed, but we’ve never met. There’s not much time for meeting, Seth, work being like it is. But why didn’t you come to the meeting?”

“I didn’t know as there was a meeting,” said Gledhill, not wanting to ask about the rendezvous, but eager to know what it was about.

“Well, it was just some of the lads getting’ together to talk about their trades and such.”

“Oh,” said Gledhill, wanting more information, but doubting that he would get any. For the next mile, they walked silently in lock step until Crowther started up to talk again.

“There was a Gledhill lass as died a while ago after being poised by the Master. Was she any kin of thine?”

“Aye, she was. Mary Gledhill was my daughter.”

“I am sorry, Seth. How’d that make you feel then, eh?”

“I could have slaughtered Staithes!” His anger rose at the memory’s revival.

“Why didn’t you, then, eh?”

“Yes, and got myself hung for it, and my wife and bairns thrown out into the street, eh? Then what? What would happen to them after my neck was stretched, eh? Who’d have looked after them? They’d have starved to death and they’d have been worse off than they are now. No, Jack, lad, that isn't the answer. I’ll tell you I don’t know what the answer is to my predicament! I wish I did. Do you?”

“Perhaps.” Crowther spoke furtively although they were quite alone on the edge of the bleak moor in the late hours of evening, and not a soul in sight. “Perhaps.” he repeated. This time his voice rose as he intoned the word, leading Gledhill to expect more. Crowther remained silent for several more hundred yards, weighing whether he could trust Gledhill with the information locked in him.

“Tell me about your lass, and what you’d be willing’ to do to set the matter right. That is if you could do anything.”

“It’s not just our lass, though that was bad enough.”

“What else is it, lad?”

“Oh, there are lots of things that need putting right, but I don’t know how. I’m blowed if I do! Perhaps one man can’t do all that needs doing to make things right. Our little Mary’s death set off something inside of me. But it wasn’t just that. There are lots of things that aren’t right.”

“There could be others that feel the same way about things, Seth,” confided Crowther. “Have thou ever thought about that? I mean, you are not the only one with sufferings to lay at the feet of yon black-hearted beggar. There are hundreds like you with similar feelings. And there are lots of men in other mills that would like to settle outstanding scores and bring things round to where they used to be. Did you know that?”

“I didn’t know it, but I suppose there must be. I’ve never given it much thought until just lately. It makes sense, though. The trouble is, it is dangerous even to breathe about troubles. Those that have done so are jailed or sent off to Australia for sedition and the like. Some of them never see their families again. What life is that? It just isn’t safe for the likes of me and you to talk about what’s on our minds. It isn’t safe. Maybe it never will be.”

Crowther did not answer, but merely nodded his agreement. They walked another quarter mile and Crowther again broke the silence. He stopped walking, and Gledhill stopped with him. Turning to his friend, Crowther placed his hand on his shoulder, looked into his eyes, and asked in a quiet but grave tone, “Can you keep a secret, lad?” '

'Yes. I reckon I can,” answered Gledhill, wondering what was coming next, and whether he had spoken unwisely to a man he didn’t know other than as a comrade in suffering. He might be a spy out to trap a careless man deemed to have a grudge against his employer. He had heard rumours that spies were operating in the area. Was Crowther an informer? What was he up to? On the other hand, was he really of the same mind as himself? More importantly, was he trustworthy?

“I’m taking’ a risk on you because I think you are trustworthy,” said Crowther in a profoundly confidential tone. “I think you are trusty, and I hope you are. So, if you can keep a secret, then I’ll tell you, but you must promise not to tell anyone, not even your missus!”

“I can and will keep your secret, Jack. Nevertheless, you must know that I don’t know you or your friends and what you are up to. Am I safe to trust you?”

“Perfectly safe, Seth. I’m no spy if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m a man like you that has suffered much, seen more, and wants justice. I already know things that would get me put away. We need more men to join with us to put things right. Just think about it this way, you and me are in the same trade. Now we can see that it is just a matter of time before we are thrown out of work by the new iron machines that run without food, rest, or wages. Some of us are not willing to be got rid of without doing whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t happen. If I am to tell you more, I must be just as sure about you as you need to be about me. If you will give me your word to keep it a secret, then I will share some of what I know with you. However, this is serious and you must promise me you’ll keep it secret whether you agree with us or not.”

“I promise, Jack. What is it, eh?”

Crowther stood a step closer to Gledhill so that his mouth was by his ear, and whispered hoarsely, “You must promise me that if that don’t agree with what I’m about to tell thee, that you will never tell a living’ soul, so help you God!”

“I’ve already said I would. However, if it will please you then I promise that I will say nothing, whatever it is you tell me, so you tell on. What’s your great secret?”

Crowther’s voice dropped so much that it was almost inaudible. This was to provide the opportunity to say he had been misheard if his confidence in Gledhill was misplaced.

“Some of us are going to do something about yon Master Staithes, and we’re going to do something about others of the same stamp as him. Do you want in with us?” Crowther gripped the other’s shoulder tight and waited in silence for him to answer.

“What are you going to do?” Gledhill was surprised, but made the effort not to sound as if he was. “Are you going to break his head?”

“Nay, lad. No details yet. I must be sure that you are as like-minded as the other lads are. I will tell you that we’ve no intentions to spill anyone’s blood, unless we are pushed into it. We have other means to win the struggle for our lives.”

“It sounds like a big thing. And are the chaps that are with you in the same frame of mind?”

“To a man. We’re solid. We’re shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, and mind to mind, to the last drop of our blood if need be!”

“By heck, Jack. Can you tell me any more about it?”

“Not yet, Seth. What I want you to do is let what I have told you sink in a bit and see how you feel about it. I need to know whether you can stand solid like with us after you have thought it over. When you have, you must come and see me at home and I will tell you all there is to know. How does that suit you?”

“I’m feeling to join you right now, Jack. However, you are right about giving it plenty of thought first. Aye, that is what I will do. I will!”

Pleased with the exchange, Crowther dropped his hands from Gledhill’s shoulders and gripped his right hand with both of his, shaking it vigorously.

“I’m right proud of you, friend, but you remember, whatever you decide to do, you must tell no one. No one! Understood?”
Gledhill nodded. “Understood! Give me a couple of days and I will be your man. I must think it through first. Like you say, it’s a big step with big risks.”

The rest of the journey towards their homes, they lived two short streets apart, was spent in conversation about their experiences since leaving the country for the town to find their fortunes. The nearer to home they drew, the better each man liked the other, and the more confidence they expressed about the outcome of what lay ahead. When they parted, Gledhill still did not have any absolute idea of what his participation in Crowther’s scheme would involve. That would soon change.


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