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Luddite Spring: 32 - Hunger

...“I’ll have machines, and workers to run them, even if have to steal children from off the streets and chain them to my frames and looms!”...

Ronnie Bray continues his gripping novel concerning workers fighting for their rights in the early days of the industrial revolution.

“They complain of hunger,” said Staithes as he attacked his generous supper in the Cherry Tree Inn one evening.

“They would know what hunger was if I hadn’t introduced power machinery. They would still be toiling with handlooms and inefficient spinning wheels and not getting any richer for it. I know it caused some resentment, particularly among croppers when they learned that machines would make nine out of ten of them surplus, but they just have to accept that progress isn’t always easy, but that it always leads to better things.”

“You can see their point,” said James Bray, looking directly at Staithes. “It’s not something any man would look forward to with a peaceful mind. His being made surplus, that is. They have to live and feed their families. But when they have no job, no job means no money, and no money means no food, and no food means starvation. Well, Reynolds, you can see their point of view.”

Staithes snorted, “Maybe so, but it’s not my place to look after them that don’t work. Let the parish look after them, or the church.”

Bray was not in any mood to be silenced. Wagging his finger at Staithes, he argued, “In a more rational age support would be offered to your victims of progress. If it were in place now, workers’ reactions would be less troublesome. However, that time has not come and that is why the upshot of lost jobs is anger. If it doesn’t change, then the situation will become more intense than we can imagine. A blind man can see why there is trouble and talk of more trouble.”

Staithes was not a man that accepted rebuffs or contradictions with serenity, especially not from the like of Bray, whom he considered weak. He was the owner of his own mill and his word was law. If he wanted machines, then he would have them, and nothing anyone could say or do would change his mind.

“I’ll have machines, and workers to run them, even if have to steal children from off the streets and chain them to my frames and looms!”

Jory Baggett had been silent until now, paying more attention to his food, but Staithes’ mention of chaining children to machines drew his interest.

“I’ve heard that you and other masters do chain children to machines. I don’t like it. It’s not right.”

Staithes was threatened by contests he did not choose, but his resolve did not buckle in the face of opposition however robust it might be. He set out to make his point. “I was one of the first masters to introduce cropping frames in this district. Not all at once, but just a few at a time to maintain production. So for a time, some of my goods were finished by hand, and a smaller, but growing, amount of cloth was machine finished. I showed you lot that frames were successful, and you and other manufacturers bought them in and have benefitted from them. You may be frightened by all this wild talk and threats, but I am not. I am not yet done with mechanising either. I’ve still got a goodly number of hand croppers, but when I am all frames, then I’ll be able to save the wages of nine out of every ten of them. I’ve ordered another twenty of the latest cropping frames from the Taylors over at Marsden.”

“I hear you, Reynolds,” said Baggett. “But these frames are trouble. They aren’t only trouble for big masters like you. They have led to some small independent cropping shops shutting down, and they don’t thank you for that!”

“It’s progress, Jory. Only fools and the ignorant, like workers and little masters stand in the way of improvement. Progress leads to a better tomorrow. No one can be against better times coming.”

“It’s not the better coming that anyone is against,” said Bray, butting in abruptly. “It’s the hunger of today and the threat of worse coming before that better tomorrow you hold out to them dawns. I know men that have been thrown out of work that are looking to starve along with their families. I’d say they had a right to worry about what will happen to them. What would you think about if you saw your own future shutting down?”

Staithes was angry. He didn’t need this aggravation. The possibility that his future would vanish was all too real to him, especially if he was discovered in his perfidy and his wickedness to Sarah Gledhill. That discovery could well wipe out his future. He had increased his offences by his brutal treatment of Sarah Gledhill and her daughter, apparently his daughter, Mary, on top of the Marsden affair. He had troubles enough to threaten his future and Luddites just added another layer of woe that he could do without. He didn’t want to lead the discussion towards his peccadilloes, so he blamed his hardships on progress and acted as if his hands were clean of all other matters.

“In time, Power machines will eliminate hand production altogether, but for the time being, some croppers still finish by hand. No one can say how long they’ll last doing it the old way. As I say, I’ve ordered twenty more shearing frames, and that’s just for a start. I’m thinking about building a big cropping shed against the main mill to house them all under one roof instead of having them here and there through the mill as at present. When they are installed I am minded to offer commission finishing. That will mean rehiring some croppers that have been fired already, and some of them that have to go before I get set up right I shall have to hire back.”

“You can hire them back if they haven’t already starved to death by the time you go looking for them,” said Baggett. “Where will you seek them? Where will they go when you turn them out of your houses, and they have to move to new towns to find work? What makes you think they’ll hang around outside your mill waiting for you to take them on again?”

Staithes slammed his fist down on the table, his eyes blazing. “It’s progress, and it can’t be stopped. Progress means moving forward. If you stop moving forward, you are not standing still, you get left behind and lose everything.”

He returned to his stew bowl. He knew that hand croppers were important craftsmen on whom he relied to make his cloth marketable. No one would buy rough cloth, so it had to have the raised nap cut off as close to the weave as possible and croppers, the aristocrats of the textile industry, were worth their weight in gold. Theirs was a hard trade to learn. Cropping shears were more than four feet long and weighed as much as fifty pounds a pair. When cropping frames appeared, they signalled the loss of the craft. Handloom weavers had lost their jobs first because power looms that needed little skill or strength to operate now did all their work. Women and children were hired to do what men used to do, and the men declared redundant and sent away.

“Remember,” cut in Bray, with feeling, “that losing a job means a loss of income. And what with food prices rising higher and higher, and worker’s incomes dropping lower and lower, when the two come together it’s a death sentence!”

“You’ve already said that, James,” said an angry Staithes, spilling a spoonful of stew down his chin. “It doesn’t get any better with the retelling.”

“Aye,” said Baggett, ignoring Staithes’ interjection. “And there’s discontent among mill workers in the Riding like there is in Nottingham. Factories have been burned, machines smashed, and employers threatened with their throats cutting in worker’s efforts to fend off starvation. I don’t hold with such doings, but if I were in their boots I cannot say that that I would not be driven down the same road.”

“Pah!” snorted Staithes. “Protest is treason. It should be a capital crime punishable by hanging, drawing, and quartering!”
“I believe it is,” enjoined Bray, evidently displeased that it should be. He believed that men should enjoy the freedom to express themselves if they did so gently. “If you get a nail in your boot that sticks into your toes, you should be able to speak about it without having your innards drawn out while you are still alive.”

Baggett jumped in. “The trouble is, the poor believe they can’t be dealt with fairly unless they stop power machines. And, looking at it from their side, I tend to agree with them. Machines will change the world forever and lives will be lost because of them. I can see it coming”

“Nay, Baggett,” said Staithes to his friend, “Since when are you getting soft and standing up for the worker’s side? You’re getting to sound more like Jim Bray and he’s bad enough!”

Baggett was offended, but not silenced by Staithes’
response. “You can’t blame out of work men for not wanting to lie down quietly and die if they can do anything about it. While it is true that revolts and breakings are uncivilised, they don’t know of any better way of doing it. Workers are at the bottom of the heap. They earn least and lose their livings first. They have no education. Some cannot write their names. They don’t go to school, and no one teaches them to think for themselves.”

“And a good thing too,” broke in Staithes. “Teaching the poor to read and write will make them want to rise above their masters, and then where will we be? They will be the bosses and we will be their servants. I will not stand for that! I know my place and I know their place and, by God, I’m going to keep it that way!”

The different opinions of Staithes, Bray, and Baggett perfectly defined the differences between workers and owners, and patently illustrated the tensions between antagonistic positions. It would take a sea change in social relations before the upper and lower classes could reach a mutual understanding in which each was appreciated. Nothing short of a revolution would bring about such a state of affairs. Each would have to give way, and each would have to come to appreciation of each other’s positions. Failure to move towards a meeting of minds would inevitably lead to revolution based on civil or class war. Men will not always be content to remain as thoughtless fortune and careless masters place them.
After a thoughtful silence, Baggett broke the spell by asking Staithes a question that had been on his mind for some time. “About children in chains, Reynold.”

Staithes eyebrows shot up almost to the top of his forehead. If he had been wearing a hat, it would have shot off his head. Baggett ignored Staithes’ surprised look, and continued, “How many childer do you have chained to machines at Outcote?”

Staithes was taken back. He thought that Baggett had finished with the question of chains. The subject had been, he thought, dropped a little while back and he was displeased that it was raised again. “How many do I have chained?” he asked, squirming in his chair to the amusement of Baggett and Bray. “Oh, not so many. Only the runaways. They have to be kept chained up for their own safety. It’s a kindness I do for them.”

“A kindness? Don’t you see it as cruelty?”

“What? Keeping them safe so they cannot run off and get into danger? Of course not. It’s not above a month since I heard of an apprentice lad running off from a mill in Cleckheaton. He hid himself in Lower Spen Wood and was shot as a poacher. That will not happen to any of mine. I keep them chained to keep them safe! It costs me a fortune in chain and iron for the smith to fasten on them, but it’s worth the cost because I haven’t lost one chained boy or girl.”

“I’d rather let my child workers go free than chain them up,” said Bray, stiffening in his chair. “It isn’t human. I don’t care what anyone says. Children need to be able to move, breathe, and ease their limbs, especially when they have been at work for many hours. The day will come when …”

Staithes interrupted Bray loudly. “The day will never come in my mill, because I won’t let it! I am in business for one reason and for one reason only, and that is to make as much brass as I can, any way I can, and to keep it where I can put my hands on it when I need it. Chaining apprentices is a guarantee that they will do their work. I’m entitled to profit by their labour, because I paid five pounds each for them to the poor house, and they are mine until they are twenty-one!”

“I’ve never had an apprentice run away from me,” said Bray, calculatingly. He looked at Staithes straight in the eyes. “If they’ve run away from you, Reynold, there will be a reason for it, and it won’t have anything to do with your kindness or generosity!”

Staithes’ anger rose up his neck. He took his pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket and, after consulting it, announced, “My goodness. The time has fairly got away from me. I have to turn in early tonight. I have an important appointment in the morning.”

Without another word, he rose, took his hat and coat from the peg, and donning them briskly went out into the night where he did not have to listen to criticisms from the likes of Bray. “What does he know about running a major concern like mine!” he muttered. It was not a question.


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