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Luddite Spring: 25 - Gentlemen To Arms

...Every Luddite swore an oath in which he accepted the sanction of death if he were to deal treacherously with his brethren either by revealing their activities, or did or said anything that betrayed a brother or the fellowship...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel concerning epic events which marked the start of Birtain's modern industrial age.

Staithes's madness prevented him from recognising that neither King Ludd nor Lord Discontent needed a Trojan device to get inside his business. His irascible behaviour, brought them in from the first day he operated the mill. He planted, fed, and watered his own Luddites by virtue of his disagreeable disposition, the appalling working conditions he imposed, and his willingness to sacrifice workers, their health, and their lives for his own selfish interests. His hands saw production overtaken by new inventions and accepted the changes as part of the flow of history. When more competent contrivances increased the quality of his goods and drove his output ever higher, they saw the writing on the wall, and the message was ‘You are sacked!’

Initially, Staithes’ mill hands met these changes with silent submission. They could make no other answer, so they conformed, having no alternative, and suffered whatever was done to them. When reports of lace makers and hosier riots in Nottinghamshire reached them, they thought, “If they can do it there, why can’t we do it here?”

In time, the changes did great harm to textile workers. Then, a rising tide of discontent joined with its comrades in other areas. It rolled through the Huddersfield area like a summer wildfire, and a new spirit was born. The new spirit encouraged them to cease from silence and to be overtly critical of conditions, wages, and jobs losses. Poverty and its attendants will change men’s minds much quicker than it takes them to starve to death.

Workers drew together under King Ludd’s Ensign. Its expansion was matched by a corresponding increase in the gloomy unease that settled on the heads of West Riding textile masters. Because of the number of jobs threatened, croppers, the elite of textile craftsmen, were in the vanguard of the fray.
Other operatives saw Luddism as a means of settling their own troubles, and hastened to join. When vast quantities of jobs had been lost, it was easy for workers to recognize that using even more powerful machines would lead to an exponential increase in unemployment and proliferate its ills. This was a prospect so terrifying that it could not be allowed to happen. Consequently, ultimatums threatening violence if demands for the removal of machinery were not met intensified.

Owners ignored workers’ pleas for compromises that would allow operatives to stay in work, and instead they ploughed ahead with more mechanisation. They were not slow to see that the hard cash with which they purchased machinery could be quickly and extravagantly recovered by slashing wage bills. Machines proliferated and tensions mounted as workers feared the worst. Their reactions to the insouciance of their masters were rooted in their fear of starvation, and worse. Despite this apprehension, many feared to take up arms or to be found speaking of any action that sounded like warfare. Fear has a life of its own and feeds on what might happen whether it is likely to occur or not. Ruthless measures were taken against hands each time they tried to improve their futures.

Like all folk movements, Luddism cultivated its own lore, which in turn emboldened workers’ resistance to change to the point where opposition became an article of faith and surrender to the status quo was deemed treachery. Change from the old ways was bad. They had witnessed it, felt it, and had not liked it. Change, therefore, was the enemy, and the agents of change were enemies of the people. The lines were drawn.

Petitions to His Majesty’s Government for ease of their distress were answered with ever more Draconian statutes and punishments, that rather than easing their desperate situations, more deeply embedded the abuses from which they sought relief. The Law strengthened owners’ hands and weakening what few rights labourers had. Their situation became so unfair and so crushing that workers realised they had nothing to lose even if they lost their lives. It was a matter of mind and will, of bone, of sinew, of muscle, and of blood.

Beginning with these travails, Luddism at its most noble and best, was born. It was the bitter harvest of a series of dishonoured debts, low deceits, and continuing exploitation of the poor by their superiors. Men hastened to become Luddites because they could see no other way to make their lives bearable. They would not starve to death without first trying to prevent it.

Every Luddite swore an oath in which he accepted the sanction of death if he were to deal treacherously with his brethren either by revealing their activities, or did or said anything that betrayed a brother or the fellowship. There are those that consider this oath to be evidence of the low moral character of participants. Ye the history of oath taking is as old as civilisation, and is attested to in the Hebrew Bible and is not regarded there as unworthy. Oaths were necessary if for no other reason than to secure loyalty, and to make the fellowship secure. Luddites, were largely engaged in illegal activities and, therefore, could not afford to register traitors.

But, morality was not an issue, and neither was good character. The dishonourable do not volunteer stand shoulder to shoulder and shed their blood with the brave and bold.
Under the banner of Luddism, attacks on cropping frames in the West Riding multiplied. There was hardly any place where tales of Luddite derring-do were not debated, by those in sympathy with their aims and those that stood against them. In a short space of time, Luddites achieved a twin status that combined adulation as folk heroes on one hand, and contempt as ignorant, criminal savages on the other. Just like Robin Hood, Ludds were regarded as heroic by the poor and as a blight whose demise was industriously sought by rulers and masters.

Not all supporters of Luddism were formal members of the brotherhood. There were a significant number in textile communities that leaned towards them but did not attach themselves to them. Some complained that Luddites were too open and incautious. However, the evidence shows that they were distinctly vigilant against infiltration and exposure. They were aware of the many that did not join them but that were in sympathy with their aims. This is borne out by the fact that of thousands of Luddites, only two are known to have turned traitor, and no non-Luddite is on record as having betrayed anyone connected with the movement.

All mill operatives experienced short wages, abuse, and the fear of unemployment, but the motivation to join with the luddites was predominantly the result of an individual’s experience and a resolve to take no more ill-treatment, especially when children were involved. All that had had children abused, maimed, or killed, needed only a sign that they were not alone to induce them to enrol for the direct action and redress that Luddism promised.


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