« They Don't Marry | Main | Tutu Much »

Luddite Spring: 28 - Starkey And Gladstone

There's talk of slavery when two old friends meet up in a pub.

Ronnie Bray continues his epic story concerning industrial unrest in the early days of the industrial revolution.

“Hello, Job,” said a cheerful Harold Starkey as he threw off his coat in the Pack Horse Inn. What’s new in the papers?”

Starkey was used to Gladstone’s delving into the pages of the Leeds Intelligencer to assail him with some reference to radical thought. Gladstone refused to be painted as a radical, but Starkey was convinced that he was of their number.

“What has Tom Paine to tell us about today, Job?”

Gladstone would not be drawn by his friend’s jovial impudence. He had his subject ready to poke Starkey out of his comfort zone, but decided to let him get his ale in first, and then he would set about him.

“Get your ale in, Harold. I’ve paid for a pint for you, so you can sup cheap while I tell you today’s news.”

“Thank you, Job.” He passed his regular jug over the bar to the barman and waited until it was filled. After blowing the excess froth from it, he turned and sat down opposite his friend. “What’s to do today, Job?”

“Well, I know you’ll not believe this, but they have found an hitherto unknown and undiscovered nation of slaves.”

“Well, bless my soul,” retorted the carrier, feigning surprise. Has Tom Paine been out exploring the Dark Continent?” He chuckled at his own joke.

“Why, Harold. You have been reading the reports yourself. You are right. Mister Paine has been looking into a country few people know, and he has discovered a nation whose entire population, well almost all of it, is held in abject slavery. Most people are shocked to learn of this nation, but most of the non-slaves do not believe it.”

“I’m not surprised. Slavery is on its way out. There are meetings all over the country to abolish American slavery, and I’m sure that if other countries had slavery then the Society for Abolition of Slavery would have raised the alarm. If they have not heard of it, then it is unlikely to exist. What’s the catch?”

Gladstone smiled, knowing that his carefully baited hook had caught his friend. It was almost time to reel him in, but first he would have a little sport.

“Well, Harold. Can you think of anywhere, apart from the Colonies, where slavery could exist that was exposed to public view? Think hard, mind you.”

Starkey’s pint needed his full attention at this point, but after drinking a third of it, he put his jug on the table and furrowed his brow to consider the matter. “Are you saying that it is widespread but hidden?”

“That I am. It seems that some people prefer to call it by another name so that its character is not recognised. If it were, it would raise uncomfortable questions that some would find problematic to answer, and most would vociferate against it.”

“Job,” began Starkey, raising his glass for another third’s quaff, “You might want to put that into English. You know I’m no schooler, never having gone. What are you saying?”

Gladstone was pleased that he had led his friend into deep water, but had no wish to embarrass him too badly. He explained, “Well, Harold, these slaves that have been found are working in terrible conditions and rarely have enough to eat, but they are not known as slaves and are not called slaves because, if they were, it might offend their slave masters. Is that any better?”

“It is a little clearer. But what has offending slave owners got to do with anything? If they keep slaves, they should not run from being called what they really are. They ought to have the backbone to be honest about what they are doing and to be willing to be known for what they are.”

“By George, Harold. That is strong stuff for you. Do you mean it?”

“Of course I do. I never meant anything more in all my life. Why should they be afraid of the truth? It’s not as if it is illegal.”

“Do you think it should be illegal, then Harold?”

“What, slavery?”


“I don’t know. I suppose if I think about it, then it should be. Owning a man is not the same as owning a horse or a dog.”
“What makes the difference?”

“A man’s a man and a horse is a horse and a dog is a dog. The last two are animals, but the first is a man.”

“And you believe that men are different than the other animals.”

“I should say so, yes. That’s what we were taught when I went to church. Man was made in God’s image, and so he should be treated better than an animal.”

“So no one should be able to buy and sell men?”

“It seems wrong to do so. What do you think?”

“I think it is too. So what about these hidden slaves that have been discovered? What should be done about them?”

“They should be set free.”

“Even if setting them free only makes them free to starve?”

“Why should they starve when they are freed?”

“You see, Harold, setting slaves free is one thing. But since they have been slaves, they have become reliant on the slave system to feed, house, and clothe them. if they are freed, they lose their food, their shelter, and their clothing. What will happen to them then?”

“Job, you’ve led me down one of your roads again. You are very clever. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know which is worse, being a slave or being a free slave that starves to death. What about, let me see …”

He stroked his chin waiting for inspiration. It came. “How about if we change what they are called, and deny ownership of them to other men, but still feed, house, and clothe them properly like ordinary workers and not like slaves? What would that do?”

“I’d say you were getting close to solving the problem of slavery. They would need to have their humanity confirmed and their lost dignity restored. Do you agree?”

“I do. The question is, which country is it that has these secret slaves? Is it the New World where the Spaniard and Portugee are taking hold? I’ve heard they are very hard on the native people in the southern lands of America. I know they have slaves in the old English colony, but what are the Spaniard and Portugee doing down there?”

“That’s not it. It’s much closer to home.”

“If it’s not them, then I don’t know where they could be. I give in. You’ll have to tell me.”

Well, Harold, let me give you a clue. When to stand out in front of your stables you can throw a stone and hit a slave colony.”

“What? All I could hit from out front of my stable would be Blamire’s Mill.”

“That’s it. You’ve got it.”

“Are you saying that Blamire’s a slave place? That cannot be right. I can sit by my window and see Blamire’s hands loosing every night and going home. They’re not slaves, man!”

“What makes a man a slave?”

“Well, first he has to be owned by another man that controls his comings and his goings. He does nothing without permission unless he wants to be leathered.”

“Do Blamire’s workers get leathered?”

“Oh, yes, but that’s not the same as … Wait on, Job. What are you saying? Blamire’s workers are slaves?”

“What do you say they are? You were defining slaves. You said that a slave owner controls their ins and outs and leathers them if they displease him, and you agreed that Blamire does that. How else would you identify a slave?”

“He’d be kept in poverty and not cared for properly. He’d be tied to his job and would starve if he ran away.”

“Yes? Do you know any like that?”

“When you put it like that I suppose that almost every mill is a slave shop. But I think that’s taking things too far.”

“Alright, Harold, perhaps you are right and we are taking this too far. But suppose we stop and think about this for a moment?” Here, Gladstone drew his paper out of his jacket pocket and opened it to read.

“Let’s see what it says and whether what it says addresses any conditions in local textiles. Of course, we are free to discount anything we believe is stretching the truth. But, to be absolutely fair, we must also count anything that we know is accurate. Are you game?”

Starkey nodded his consent, taking the last of his ale. “This is thirsty work, Job. Let me get you one in.”

He rose and took both pots to the bar, returning in a few moments with them full to their brims. After seating himself, he motioned to Gladstone to continue. Gladstone began reading.

‘Yorkshire workers caught up in the jaws of the Industrial Revolution envy American slaves in the worst plantations, because they consider the treatment and conditions of their African brothers as golden in comparison with their own. Plantation negroes work an average six hours a day. Textile operatives work a minimum of twelve hours and often as many as sixteen hours a day. These hours are not shortened because workers are infants or because they are old or crippled.’

“Now, Harold, does that satisfy the similarities between slaves over there and slaves here?”

“It doesn’t compare favourably, that’s for sure. What else does it say?”

“It says, ‘A few years ago, a party was created by philanthropists to demand the limitation of labour in mills and factories to ten hours a day. The movement recruited supporters from workers, aristocracy, and factions of the middle classes hostile to manufacturers because of what they saw as their inhuman practices. This movement and its demands, even though they were ignored, is a burden on the minds of masters whose conduct towards their workers is shameful.

‘That these oppressors sat in church and chapel on Sunday mornings receiving compliments reserved for holy saints, bites hard into the necks of workers that are forced to attend Christian services or be thrown out of work. It is the thin end of an hypocrisy that has not yet reached its full height, but is continuously advancing towards it.’

“There’s your radicalism again, Job. I thought I could smell it coming. I didn’t have the Intelligencer down as a radical sheet, but it seems to be getting closer and closer to Paine and his cronies.”

“The only question we must ask, Harold, is whether what it says is true. If it is not then we can cast it aside. However, if it is true, then we have to take a side one way or another. If it is true, what is the side honest men ought to be on?”

“Why ask me whether it’s true when we both know it is. However, I still don’t know that I’d call it slavery.”
“What would you call it?”

“Give me time to think. I feel as if you are trapping me again. You make me say things and then I cannot get out of them when you spring your trap. You should have been a lawyer, Job.”

“Well. Have you given it some thought?”

“I need a drop more ale before I can think that hard. It’s your round. I’ll have the same again.”

Gladstone had their ale pots filled and went back to the table. “Have you had chance to think yet, Harold?”

“Of course not. You’re making my head ache. I see where you are going and I’m not saying you are wrong, but it can’t be as simple as you make it sound.”

“Nay, Harold, I’ve said nothing. I’ve just read what the newspaper says and then asked you about what you know. Maybe if I come at it a different way we can get somewhere.”
“That’s it, Job. Try something new.”

“On the inside page there’s report about what they call ‘grass roots movements’ of workers themselves that are trying to get recognition for their grievances. It shows how difficult it is for ordinary people to be heard and have their grumbles taken seriously.”

“I’ve heard nothing about it, Job.” Starkey spread his hands, palms up, the universal sign for denial. “Why haven’t I heard about it?”

“Because all you know about the news is what I read to you in our daily parleys.”

“Better not let the Ward and Watch hear you speaking like a Frenchy! They’d have you in charge for treason as soon as look at you!”

“Maybe. But, that side, listen to this.”

“Is it more Painite observations? I swear you’ll not be satisfied until you’ve made me into as big a radical as you.”
“I’m no radical, Harold. Just someone interested in what’s going on around me.”

“And social justice, eh?”

“Of course, social justice. If we don’t have that then some will always suffer at the hands of the rest. Listen up.”

Gladstone folded back the newspaper and started to read.

‘Grass roots working men’s societies are springing up all over the nation Most of them are small but each of them is informally connected by ideals and ambitions to improve the conditions and wages of the labouring class. Each group has met with fierce resistance from the civil establishment, the manufacturers, and large agricultural landowners that form the three-headed giant of oppression of the poor.”

“They sound like Luddites. No wonder they are opposed by the gentry and mill owners. They want to change things back to the bad old ways, and where would masters be then. Not only that, but where would we be, Job? If the masters suffer, then we suffer with them. If production goes down the demand for your yarn drops and the call on my delivery services also reduces. We shall be paupers!”

Gladstone was pleased that Starkey was showing some passion. “It would have to go down a good bit before either you or I felt the pinch, Harold. We did all right before and we would still do all right under the old way. What about those that are thrown out of work altogether. What happens to them?”

“I don’t know, but I am sure Luddism isn’t the way for them to go.”

“well, my friend, try putting yourself in their place and see how that would feel. If you lose your work, you lose everything. There aren’t jobs waiting for them. They have real grievances and someone ought to listen to them and do what they can for them. Luddism has come into our district from Nottinghamshire’s lace and stocking makers by way of Lancashire’s cotton workers. They threaten manufacturers that have modernised their mills with steam and machines that have made tens of thousands of workers unwanted. If Luddism isn’t the right way for them to go about making things better for themselves, then can you tell me what is? What do you think they should do, Harold? What’s your advice to them?”
“I don’t know what they can do. They are just ordinary workers and they have no rights.”

“What’s another name for someone without any rights?”

“What do you mean?” Starkey was bewildered.

“If you come across a man that has no rights at all, then what is his condition?”

Starkey furrowed his brow, took a sip of ale, paused and then exclaimed, “Why, he would be a slave! That is what he would be. A slave!”

Gladstone settled back in his chair and raised his eyebrows at his friend. “Congratulations, Harold. You have squared the circle!” Well done.”

“Squared the circle? What can that mean?”

“It means that you have done the impossible. Our generation looks at working folks wrestling with the revolution that has taken place in manufacturing in the last twenty or so years, and have chosen to ignore the awful plight of the labouring poor. They have not even been able to give them a proper name. They call them ‘hands,’ signifying that only their hands are worth noting. They dissuade them from education. Some owners will not employ men that can read and write, not even if it is only their own humble name. They consider a man that is more, and can be no more than the sum of his two hands, because, if he is, he will likely become a danger to them. He might outthink them, replace them, or remove them. You identify them as slaves, and you do it on less than three full pints of ale. Well done, my old friend, that’s squaring the circle!”

Starkey scratched his head as if it was painful. “Well, Job, I can’t say that I understand all that you have said, but I do see how workers in these conditions are worse off than slaves.”
“Then we have found the location of the nation that has hidden slaves that amount to almost all of its labouring class. It is right here. You will remember when you came in tonight that I told you they had found an hitherto unknown and undiscovered nation of slaves?”

“I remember you saying that.”

“Well, Harold, you have discovered them for yourself. Now you have to decide what you are going to do about it.”
“Do about it? What do you mean do about it? Why should I do anything about it?”

“Now you have discovered it you cannot just sit back and be an observer. You agree that slavery is wrong, and should be stamped out?”

“Yes, but I meant African slavery.”

“Why would the nation of a slave make any difference to whether their slave is wrong and musty be obliterated? Isn’t all slavery the fruit of the same social evil?

“I suppose it is. But it looks different when I look over at Blamire’s and think of his workers as slaves.”

“Why does it?”

“Because Ebenezer Blamire is one of my customers. I carry for him two days a week. If he discovered that I was backing his worker against him I’d lose his interest and my business would suffer.”

“You wouldn’t starve.”

“No. I would not starve, but if it got round to Staithes and the other owners that Blamire had dropped me, it would not take long before I did starve. I’d lose all my customers”

“Then you would be in the same situation as croppers and weavers that lose their jobs to machines. They are starving.”
“Don’t forget single spindle spinners, Job. You have let a lot of them go since you put in the multiple spindled machines. Aren’t your workers slaves?”

“I employ more spinners now that I did when I had single spindle machines. I have taken on more of them. As for them being slaves, I treat them well, make sure they get rest, and I pay them fair wages. There are no Luddites at my place because there is no need for them. My machines are guarded, I do not take on small children, and I have not had an injury in two years. That tells you something.”

“I knew you had a good name as an owner, but I didn’t know why. Job, other than you telling me I should clasp Luddites to my bosom, what are you doing about slavery? Are you persuading other owners to lighten the load on their workers?”
“I’ve tried, but they are a hard-nosed lot. When I mention better conditions for their workers, their minds fly straight to their counting houses and they tell me what it would cost them. I’ve told them they would sleep better and wouldn’t get indigestion every time they walked through the church doors or saw their Bibles on the table. Then, they tap their temples and tell me I am touched. I do my best. I don’t get far, but I’m trying. Perhaps that is all anyone can do for the time being. I’ve no mind to take up rifles and march under King Ned’s flag, however much I understand their plight.”

“Then you understand my reluctance to do the same?”

“I do, Harold, I do. Still, the poor beggars have my sympathy. Let me read something else to you before we go home. This is about men whose only thought was to provide for their families.”

Turning the pages of his newspaper that had laid on the table during the last exchange, Gladstone read:
‘In Devonshire, seven agricultural labourers in the village of Tolpuddle formed an oath-bound beneficial society, in contravention of a law of that forbade swearing of oaths, and paid for their audacity by being transported in chains to Australia.’

‘In these and other ways, the unquestionable and proper objectives of the poor are stifled and crushed.
‘Clashes between manufacturers supported by armed police and militias have led to violence in which many died, many were wounded, many suffered incarceration, and those held to be ringleaders had their necks stretched on the gallows.’
“That’s a sad commentary on our nation when we shout to the world that we are a free nation that never will be slaves. The moment our slaves make a move to free themselves of their fetters, they pay the price just as plantation Negroes do, which is at least a flogging and, perhaps, transportation. The fortunate ones are hung and their suffering is over and done with.”

A much sobered Harold Starkey did nothing but nod. He was done with words. He had been brought to the fire and had felt the heat. He had almost decided that he could do nothing to help his fellow men, and this realisation sickened him. He disappointed himself and held his manhood cheap. He was not alone, but the bravest were paying with their lives, even as Starkey shuffled off home with his shoulders hunched.
The anthem, ‘Rule Britannia,’ often rang through the streets as glittering military bands blasted it out to bolster national pride when accompanying troops shipping out to the Peninsula Wars, insisting that ‘Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.’

Even as this imposing ideal rang out across the nation, Britons were everywhere in chains that were so fastened that it was their belief that their shackles ’never, never, never’ would burst free from their necks and limbs. Those that attempted to free themselves and their fellows were denounced as traitors and treated accordingly.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.