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Luddite Spring: 26 - The Gledhills

...“Why don’t they call it by its proper name when an owner or overseer kills a child? Why do the little ones have to be beaten, kicked, and half drowned every day to make them keep up with machines that run faster and faster? It isn’t right.” ...

Ronnie Bray continues his dramatic story of industrial rebellion.

After the children had gone to bed, Gledhill and his Sarah sat before the dying fire. It was the only time they had to talk, especially since he had become a Luddite. Work and worry occupied most of their time. She worried constantly about what would happen to her Seth if things did not go well. The signs were that bigger trouble was coming their way. More so than they had ever known. They had been married for twelve years and were closer than ever. Theirs was true love.

“If there were laws to keep us safe at work and make things easier for our children, Seth, we wouldn’t have all this trouble.”

“There are plenty of laws meant to protect us from harm and danger, but not enough people kept on to make them work. Even where there are inspectors, they are in the pockets of the masters, so it is as if they were not there at all. No, Sarah, it is not laws we need, what we need is honest men to make them work. But there aren’t any, and those there are won’t enforce them so we all suffer.”

“Why don’t they call it by its proper name when an owner or overseer kills a child? Why do the little ones have to be beaten, kicked, and half drowned every day to make them keep up with machines that run faster and faster? It isn’t right.”

“They don’t call it by its real name because if they did there’d be the Devil to pay. Those with the power make the rules in workplaces, even when their rules run contrary to the law of the land. Powerful people run things their way to benefit themselves. But, my bonny Sarah, you are right, it is not fair, and that is why we have to fight to make it fair. In the meantime, calling things by their proper name if done too loudly or publicly only makes things worse. It is better for us if we do not tip our hands too early. Our will to change things, and keeping that a surprise are the only weapons we have just now. That will change, but for now, discreet silence serves us well.”

Sarah knew the arguments. She had heard them many times. She had seen their effects during her years at the mill. She had been allowed two unpaid days off from work when each of her children was born. Then she went back to the mill. She had not raised any of her children. Older women that were too feeble for work raised babies until the children were old enough to go to work in the mill. Mothers then saw a little more of them, but not in any circumstances that allowed them to be nurturing parents. They were little more than occasional servants to their own children, providing board and lodgings and collecting their wages without having time to teach them how to be children and members of a loving family.

If frank and well deserved judgements reached the ears of masters or supervisors, then the offending family would have been instantly dismissed. They would be homeless, penniless, social outcasts, and no one could or would lift a finger to help them for fear that they would share the same fate. Not all slaves wore iron chains.

Sarah Gledhill knew that her man was not only angry with Master Staithes, but he was even angrier with himself because he had not stood up to the brutal man that had killed their Mary. The Gledhills’ rented home belonged to the murderer. It was a commonplace sandstone terrace dwelling with one room upstairs and one downstairs. It stood shoulder to shoulder with its neighbours in long terraces in the shadow of Outcote Mill. Like every other house in that place, it was theirs only as long as the family was employed by Staithes. If they lost their jobs, they lost their homes. This was the most powerful reason that many abused workers remained silent.

“I wonder what will become of us, lass,” Gledhill mused softly.

“Nay, Seth lad, I don’t know.” It hurt her to think what could follow. She had seen families that had dared stand up to Staithes and marked their decline into poverty and early graves. “We must do our best to last so that, if better times come, we shall be here to enjoy them. We have to think of the bairns we have left and hang on.”

“I wonder if we can hang on, or whether we shall have to take a hand in making things better ourselves.”

“How would we do that, Seth?” Sarah was troubled to think he would act recklessly and throw them into destitution. It was a fear that had haunted her since the night Mary died. That was the first time she had heard Seth say he was ready to do something to make amends, and it frightened her. She had warning in her voice. “We have to be careful, Seth. We’re not able to do anything to keep ourselves safe except keep quiet and be still about things.”

Gledhill wanted to comfort her. But he knew things he could not share with her. “I know, our Sarah. I know you are right. But things are getting worse and not better. Waiting for them to get better by themselves and waiting for masters to have a change of heart is like trying to catch ducks with a kerchief. It’s useless. It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to get better. If it was it would have happened when things got really bad. It didn’t happen then and it won’t happen now. It’s not what masters are about! Any changes for the better will only come when they are made to come!”

“Just you don’t go getting yourself into trouble, Seth Gledhill, that’s all!” She was We’ve all on to manage now shorn of our Mary’s wages without us all getting thrown out of work and onto the roadway!”

“I’m not making any promises I might not be able to keep, our Sarah. Nobody knows what will come if things don’t change. Who knows how long us croppers will keep our jobs? The machines are eating our lives and nobody cares to do anything about it unless they feel the bite themselves.”

“Well, just you be careful, my lad. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I know lass, and I will. I’ll promise you that. I shall be as careful as I can. But the day might come when I shall not be able to hide behind caution any more, and then it may well be a race into unknown to put a stop to all this madness.”
He pulled Sarah towards him and buried her face in his chest, tightening his grip as if he was afraid some power might take her from him.

Sarah was troubled to feel her man’s fear. It seemed she was witnessing a change of mood in him. In that moment, she agreed to support him in whatever it might be that she felt might soon take place. It was a moment of illumination, tinged with fear, but shot through with a determination to stand by her man.

Without lifting her head, she spoke into his chest, “When that time comes, Seth, then what must be done you must do. I know we cannot let fear overcome us when the time comes to be brave. You are a good and strong man, my Seth, and I trust you to act right whatever it takes. I shall be at your side, come what may!”

“I give you my word, my Sarah, that when the time comes to do something, then I shall do whatever needs doing. Where it will end, I do not know. But I must do what needs to be done to make things better.”

A tear ran down her cheek, unseen in the dark room. “It could end badly.” Her voice sank as she uttered the warning. She did not want to think about life without her husband. “Seth, if you hear anything … ” she began, but could not continue. She fell silent, distressed at how he would feel and what he might be pushed to do if he learned about what Staithes had done to her.

He spoke softly, brushing her hair. “I know how you feel about things, lass. I know. Don’t fret.”

In all their years together, he had never guessed what she kept inside and feared to let him know. This was one of her greatest gifts to him, and was for his safety, even though it could cost her so much to keep him and their future safe.
He reached for her. They embraced and kissed, blending tears on their touching cheeks. Each hoping that good sense would prevail and allow them to retreat from their fears before unthinkable and unspeakable things happened.

Sarah had endured Staithes’ repulsive carnal attentions, borne his child, kept these shameful matters hidden from the love of her life, and with her betrayed husband, had buried poor, murdered Mary.

They settled into sleeping positions, covered themselves with blankets, and cried, stifling their sobs so as not to wake their children until anguished sleep eased some of their distress. The morrow morn they rose uncomforted.


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