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Luddite Spring: 22 - The Cherry Tree Inn

...“I’ve spoken with Squire Radcliffe, and he says as I’m within me rights to defend me property and machines every way I can. So, I’ve bought in some firearms and powder and I have a lad making musket balls out of lead as we’re sat here supping. I’m ready for them whenever they want to come and try their hands at wrecking anything of mine!”...

Ronnie Bray continues his epic story of the Luddite rebellion.

When out and about, Staithes frequented particular inns and hostelries. Not because he was an inveterate imbiber, for he was not, but riding about the countryside astride a horse, especially in winter, made it essential that both rider and horse had their needs attended to regularly. Horsemen had been known to freeze to insensibility and fall from their mounts to expire on the stone hard ground in the bleak days after the winter solstice when frozen winds from the polar ice cap carried deadly chills in its biting blasts. Inns kept cheering fires blazing halfway up their chimneys to warm chilly bodies through to the bones as soon as a rider cast off his outer coat and sat down before it.

Inns retained ostlers that worked magic on cold horses, warming, drying, and massaging their joints and muscles, so that both rider and horse were readied for the next leg of their journeys through the bleakness of Northern England.

It is said with some justification that Yorkshirefolk are the hardiest of all the British breeds because their winters are the worst in the islands. Travellers say Yorkshire winters are worse than the snow and ice storms of the bitterest blizzards that assail the Scottish Highlands. Nobody knew this better than those hardy folk that wrenching their livings under the gruelling conditions of the White Rose County.

Staithes’ particular watering places were the Cherry Tree Inn in Westgate, the Pack Horse Inn in Kirkgate, and the Warrener Inn up the Manchester Road near the narrow lane that turned down towards Milnsbridge. He did not frequent inns close to his home because his workers patronised them and he did not enjoy seeing them any more than they enjoyed seeing him. He carried a flask of ‘warming liquid’ in his saddle coat for help when he was between his last call and Holmeside Hall.

Inns were to Yorkshire travellers what oases were to Saharan nomads. They were places to rest, refresh, eat, and drink, before travelling on to the next stopping place where the process was repeated, until journey’s end. Textile travellers had favourite places along their journey ways where they met with acquaintances in trade and exchanged news, ideas, gossip, and alarms.

After quitting the Cloth Hall, Staithes collected his horse and walked it the few hundred yards down Market Street and across Westgate crossroads to the Cherry Tree Inn for a hot dinner of stew and dumplings as insulation against the cold. As he entered the Inn, he could tell that the talk was serious.

Heavy clouds of sweet smelling tobacco smoke hung in the air circling the heads of the seated men, most of who puffed on clay pipes. Some were successful businessmen, and some were on the point of going out of business. Some were fishing for a prosperous partner who could step in and rescue their concerns. Many a multi-partner manufacturing concern grew out of agreements struck under the beams at the Cherry Tree. Coates and Bairstowe, Haigh and Hinchliffe, Moorhouse and Illingworth, Starkey and Milner, and other textile companies had been born in that hostelry.

No matter how long Staithes tarried at an hostelry he sooner or later had to quit its gladdening interior and make his way to his comfortless home. His daily woman cleaned and cooked, and left his evening meal in a basin on the hearth, and a plate of cold cuts covered with a dinner plate on the kitchen table for his next day’s breakfast. He could have eaten better by employing a cook or housekeeper to take better care of him, but it seemed to him to be more trouble than it was worth. That was, until he saw Sarah Cartwright. Then, his mind was changed in an instant. He was remembering the first time his eyes had rested on the fair Sarah’s face and form when his reverie was interrupted by one of his familiars.

“Luddites!” said Jory Baggett noisily, slamming his fist down hard on the oak table. “They’ll be the ruination of the lot of us!”

“It could blow over, you know,” offered a stranger not of their company, nursing a pot of hot winter stew. “It’s blown over in other places before now and none much the worse for it.”

“That may be so, lad,” said Baggett, “but it’s also got worse in some places too. Some of them too close to here to let us sleep well at night, and by all reports it is coming closer. We shall have to sleep with our eyes open!”

All present nodded in agreement. Pipes clamped in jaws sent smoke circles reeling upward to the low beamed ceiling.

“What’s this about Luddites?” said Staithes, divesting himself of his coat and shaking its rime into the hearth.

“They’re on the move and coming north,” said Baggett, warming to his subject. “And I’ll be capped if they’re not in Huddersfield before the month is out! There’s talk that they’re here now.”

No one spoke. Staithes had never known them so taciturn except when trade was bad. Trade looked fair now, at least until the end of the year and, they hoped, it would continue fair into the next. It did not look as if it would get any better than that.

“What’s thy long face for, then, Will?” he inquired of William Dirker, a worsted manufacturer whose mill stood less than two miles downstream from his own. Dirker was a serious man who looked even more serious today. He explained, “Well, Reynold, you know as how I’ve got some of them cropping frames. I have heard ugly rumours about how Ned Ludd and his gang is bound to come and break them in bits! I’ve put the word out that if they try to lay a finger on my machines I shall blast them to merry Hell with lead and gunpowder!”

Staithes remained grim faced. He spoke in a severe tone. “Aye, William, I’ve heard you brag more than once in the market, threatening what you’d do with the Luddites if they come near your place. What does the law say about that?”

“I’ve spoken with Squire Radcliffe, and he says as I’m within me rights to defend me property and machines every way I can. So, I’ve bought in some firearms and powder and I have a lad making musket balls out of lead as we’re sat here supping. I’m ready for them whenever they want to come and try their hands at wrecking anything of mine!”

“By gum, Will,” said Staithes. “Do you think it’ll come to that, then?”

“I do, and I’ll promise you this, that if they come to my place they’ll find more trouble than Boney’s given us in all his wars. You watch and see if I am not right! You know, Reynold, if it comes to war you’ll not want to wait by in idleness. You must get yourself and your places ready for them, for it is certain that they are bound to come. You mark my words!”

The company grew more restless and gloomy after being treated to Dirker’s predictions and details of his preparations for what he saw as inevitable disorder with the fearful wild men known as Luddites. They were attracting attention and could be moving into the district even now. No one knew for sure, but it was not altogether wild speculation that they would come, and it was sure that there would be a gory reckoning if they did.

The Leeds Intelligencer and Huddersfield Clarion newspapers were full of speculation about whether Luddites would reach the West Riding’s textile areas and, if they did, what the upshot would be. The gloom of the men in the Cherry Tree was as reasonable as were the grounds for Luddism. Owners and clothiers were the enemies of Luddites, and even as they tried to look uncowed, each was afraid as he had never been before.

“I’ll tell you what, Will,” began Staithes. “If it comes to fighting them Luddites we must join forces and settle their hash before they settle ours. What, do you say about that, eh?”

“Aye, Reynold. We are not too far from each other, so we must make the best of a bad lot if shove comes to push. I am for that, lad. We must set us stalls out and make arrangements. Come and see me in a two-day, will you?”

“That I will. That I will!”

There was comfort in strength, and both men were much in need of comfort. The yellow flags of industrial unrest were unfurling above their heads, stretching stiff out like boards in the teeth of a gale the like of which none had ever seen. What they did not know at that moment about the trouble coming their way, they were soon to find out.

“Luddites!” repeated Jory Baggett, slamming his fist down hard on the board again. “They’ll be the ruination of the lot of us!” He declared it this time more emphatically than he had before after ruminating about Dirker’s dire prediction.

In his mind’s eye, Staithes pictured himself as heroic. This self-image was fashioned after one he had adopted as a young schoolchild, in which he saw himself as a Crusader wading up to his knees in Saracen blood whilst liberating the Holy City. For some reason, it excited his imagination. By this stellar vision he hoped he possessed his means of redemption for his base treatment of a married woman and his vile duplicity in the wishes of a dying man. With the disingenuous illusion of himself as a shimmering deliverer reviving in his mind, he rejoined the conversation.

“Well, I’ll tell you something, now,” he said, having heard enough to put him off staying to eat, intent on getting home as soon as possible. Reaching down his coat from the peg against the side of the chimney breast he pierced the gloom of the smoke-filled room, his hawkish eyes fixed on the faces and open mouths of his companions, “If they come anywhere near my place I shall wade knee deep in their blood before I’ll give in to them!”

“Knee deep?” gasped Baggett.

“Yes,” rejoined Staithes. “Knee deep and sat on my horse!”

“It could cost you dear, Reynold. You must be careful, now!” said Baggett knocking the dottle from his pipe onto the table. “I hear as they’re out for masters’ blood!”

“I heard that they were just after the machines,” remarked the stranger, noisily sipping the dregs directly from his supper bowl without the benefit of his spoon. “But I also heard that they’d acquired a taste for breaking heads as well, and that it was certain to get a lot worse before it gets any better!”

Staithes was visibly rankled by this remark. He raised his voice and shouted, “If there’s blood spilled, then it’ll be theirs!”

After this, he was gone, disappearing into an elemental swirl of wintry air outside the doorway before he slammed it shut. He was ready to face the Luddite hordes there and then! Inside the Cherry Tree Inn, the conversation was not finished.

“By gum, they’re strong words!” said Baggett. Heads nodded agreement “He sounds just a bit mad.”

“Mad? Aye, he sounds mad,” said Dirker, “Knee deep in blood, eh? But whose blood shall it be, eh? Reynold reckons as it will be Luddite blood, but I am not so sure, myself. Reports in newspapers tell that the breaking of things is not all one sided. When the army is sent in to break Luddite heads, some owners have had their heads broken too. It’s a hard time, and from what I can gather there are harder times coming. I can’t see how we shall escape being mixed up in them.”

“By gum,” Baggett piped up, “I know I said so myself, but I was hoping it wouldn’t come to fighting. What should we do? I am right in the middle of building another mill at the back of my present one. I have a thousand pounds spent or with its hat and coat on to go out the door to finish it, and I’ve shaken hands on the deal with the Taylors brothers at Marsden to make a whole huggin of cropping frames for the finishing department. And I’ve bought some of them power looms. I have no choice but to go forwards or else pack the lot in and go back to home cloth making, and everyone knows there’s no future in that. We’ve come too far to go back!”

Dirker laughed aloud, then pulled himself up, and with an assumed air of solemnity addressed the distressed Baggett. “Don’t talk daft, lad. You, Staithes, and me have brought home production to its knees, starved it to death, and it has all but toppled into its grave. There’s no going back to home weaving now. It’s forward as we are set, or else surrender and follow home crafts into the grave.”

“Happen you’re right, lad, Happen you’re right. I’d give anything to be able to take a peep into the future, but, I’m not sure I’d like what I’d see.”

“They say as Ludd’s got an army,” piped the stranger. “It can’t be much of one or else they’d be seen marching through the outlying districts on their way here.”

“Don’t talk so daft,” said Baggett. They don’t have to come here. They are here already!”

The stranger, Israel Spivey, a cloth merchant from Saddleworth, did not understand. It was clear that news was short in his village. “What do you mean, ‘They’re already here?’”

“You take a good look at the men in the street when you go back to Saddleworth. Any one of them could be a twisted-in Luddite out for our blood. They work in our mills, they are croppers, weavers, slubbers, dyers, spinners, carbonizers, weft lads, warehousemen, carders, teazers, boiler tenterers, finishers, boiler tenders, fettlers, and pieceners. Every man that works in textiles could be a Luddite. They are ne’er do wells that are not satisfied with their lot. Radicals have bitten them and they have Tom Paine’s disease. They howl for bigger wages, less work, longer breaks, and a list as long as your arm of what they call ‘improvements.’ They’ll not be satisfied until they own our mills and we work for them!”

“By heck,” said Spivey. “That sounds serious. Very serious. Then that fellow wasn’t jesting when he talked about blood being spilled?”

“He wasn’t. He was in deadly earnest. We all are. It’s bound to get a lot worse before it gets better, that is, if it ever does.”

Nodding assent, the company attended to their meals, having been treated to too much to think about to speak more, except for short farewells as each of them finished eating, drained their tankards, coated up, wrapped scarves around their necks and faces, stuck their hats on their heads, donned their riding gauntlets, and went out to mount and ride, one after the other in quick succession until all were gone.

After the door closed for the last time, a maid came in, collected their plates and jugs, snuffed the candles, and left the room. Shortly, the fire in the grate fell in, glowing dimly before it went out, leaving the once cheerfully lit room as dark as night and growing colder by the minute as if chilled by the news that Luddites were abroad.

Behind the bar, the innkeeper asked his helper, “Did you hear what they were on about? It sounds like trouble.”

“It could be trouble. But only if it’s true,” replied the bar servant,” polishing glasses with his linen cloth.

“It doesn’t have to be true to bring trouble,” said the landlord, thoughtfully. “It only has to be believed to be true, that’s all. More trouble is caused by things that aren’t true but are believed than is caused by all the truths ever told.”

He sighed, lifted his eyebrows briefly, and went to take an order from a customer at the bar in the other room.


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