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Luddite Spring: 38 - Suicides

...“We’re bound to do it then?” said Ellies, his eyes wet with tears at the contemplation of his release from a world in which he had only known cruelty and fear.

“That we are, pal!” John was also weeping, overcome with the magnitude of what they were about to do...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel concerning the suffering of workers, old and young, in the early days of the industrial revolution.

The dead bodies of Ellies Oliver and John Keith Atkinson were discovered by Jack Winder, a journeyman mason, making his way home after a day’s patching at Outcote Mill. It was dusk and Winder’s eyes were tired. The well-worn pathway was not yet illuminated by the moon’s watery gleam. Therefore, it was easy for him to dismiss what he saw dangling from one of the low boughs of the Devil’s Oak. It looked to him as if two little old men were suspended by their necks with cords, but he knew that it couldn’t be, and turned his mind from it so that he could without distraction pick out the ribbon of trail that would take him to his cottage. When he passed closer to the tree, he looked again, just to be sure, and saw the bodies of two young lads.

Ellies Oliver and John Atkinson were orphan apprentices that came from different parishes, but were bedmates in the apprentice house behind Outcote Mill. They had been fellow sufferers been since they were conveyed there under the apprenticeship scheme. Now in their second year of an apprenticeship that would last for another thirteen years, they found their work and conditions hard to bear.

Ellies was a small child for his age and could not carry the burden of long hours, arduous tasks, and poor diet without becoming ill. John was considered unusually inept at whatever task he was given. Overseers referred to them collectively as ‘That Pair,’ since they were, by their rigid standards, equally intentional underachievers.

Special punishments were reserved for The Pair when they fell short, which was constantly. They were beaten mercilessly and sent back to their tasks with less capacity than they had before the life was almost thrashed from them. Hurt and frightened without protectors or champions to break the cycle of violence and contumely, they confided to each other, in whispers in the night, that they were beyond hope and could not stand to be tormented any longer.

“What can we do?”

“We could run off.”

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. Do you have any family?”

“No. I’m an orphan like thee. You know that. If I had an uncle I’d run off to him, but I don’t and even if I did I wouldn’t know how to get to him.”

“I wish I could die.”

“I know, and so do I.”

“That’s the only way as I can think of before I go barmy.”

“Me too. Shall we, then?”


“Die. We can hang ourselves.''

“We’ll have to. I can’t take another pounding. I can’t bear it no more.”

“Aye. Me too. Shall we do it in the morning after breakfast?”

“Best do it while they’re all at breakfast.”

“Aye. We shall need some rope.”

“I’ll dodge some from out the warehouse.”

“Get two bits. One each.”

“Yes. And I’ll make sure as they’re long enough as well.”

Breakfast next day found two lads missing. Nobody gave them any mind because they were often late to eat. They often had to cram the food down in quick time before the sitting was over and the bell rang for work to resume.

The two absentees ran as fast as they could into the copse by the mill and made for the Devil’s Oak that was called that because of some matter that took place nearby in the Civil War.

“Give us a leg up, John. You climb better than me.”

John handed a piece of stout cord to the only friend he had in the world, and boosted him up the trunk. When his foot reached the bole, he made his way up to the long branch and sat on it. He tied one end of the cord to the branch and the other he fastened around his neck.

John climbed up and sat on the branch besides him. His own knots tied, John turned to face his friend. Both were solemn.

“We’re bound to do it then?” said Ellies, his eyes wet with tears at the contemplation of his release from a world in which he had only known cruelty and fear.

“That we are, pal!” John was also weeping, overcome with the magnitude of what they were about to do. Their one act of defiance against an inhospitable world would take them from it and place them beyond the reach of their tormentors.

“Do you believe in heaven, John?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it much. I’ve had all on thinking about getting from one day to the next. What do you think?”

“I’ve only heard about it, but no one seems to know much about it. It’s supposed to be nice, like Squire Radcliffe’s house.”

“Have you seen it?”

“What, heaven?”

“No, you barmpot! The squire’s house?”

“No. I’ve not seen it. But them as has they say it’s big enough to hold a market in it.”

“Well, we’ll soon find out for ourselves what heaven is like.”

“What do you know about God?”

“Nothing. How about you?”

“I heard some men talking in the weft shed and one of them said that God was always angry with poor people.”

“Is he?”

“I don’t know, but that what he said. He said that when he died he’d have a list of question to ask God.”

“What did he want to ask him?”

“He said his first question was what God had against poor folks.”

“Are you afraid to see God? Will he be angry with us?”

“I don’t think so. I think he’ll be like Mister Sutcliffe. He’s always kind unless the Master is there, and then he speaks roughly to me.”

“Yes. I’ve seen that. It makes you feel that you never know what’s going to happen next. That’s what frightens me so much.”

“I hope that God is more like Mister Sutcliffe than he is like Mister Staithes. Otherwise we shall both be dead for nothing!”

“God’s got to be better. Even on his bad days. Me dad once told me that God would smile on the poor and make them welcome when they died.”

“Did your dad know God?”

“He must have done. He seemed to know a lot about him and heaven. But I’ve forgotten most of it. I can’t remember much of him or me Mam and the others. You can only take so many thumps on the head with a man’s fist. After that, it’s hard to think straight and remember much. Sometimes I think I’ve dreamt what I remember. It begins to come in pictures in me head like it was real. Then, just as I can almost touch it, it gets lost in a grey fog that makes it go away. I don’t like it.”

“I heard me Mam talking to me once when I was fettling under the big swift.”

“By heck, that must have been grand.”

“Not really. As I was under the machine someone opened a door in the carding shed and all the fluff I was after blew into me nose and mouth and I was like to choke to death. Everything went black and I heard me Mam say, ‘Breathe, lad. Don’t thee die! Breathe!’ I coughed out a ball of stuff as big as me cap and started breathing again. I thought for sure I was bound to die!”

“You’d have been well out of it if you had died.”

“Aye, I would. As it was I got the back of me head onto the swift and lost a big patch of hair and some skin. That made me scuttle out from under it as if I was being chased by the Devil.”

“And here we are sat on this branch with rope round us necks ready to hang ourselves to find a bit of peace.”

“I feel sorry for them as we’ve left behind that will have to work until they die unless they starve to death first.”

“All this talking is making me thirsty. Shall we do it?”

“Yes. Let’s do it. Thank you for being my friend these years. I’m sorry I’ve nothing to give you as a present.”

“I’ve nothing to give you. You are the only friend I have had in the world. My people died after our house fell down with all the rest.”

“I don’t know what happened to mine. I only remember being in the orphanage. I don’t remember being anywhere else.”

“Some days your kindness was all that stopped me from running away from here.”

“Me too.”

Turning towards each other on the branch, they embraced and threw themselves off into the air as one body. They did not weigh enough to make the branch sway or even creak. The little bodies writhed for some minutes arms flailing in the still morning air as the strangling ropes did their work. Then they were still.

They were at peace, at last, and beyond the weight or pain of tongue, boot, lash, or fist. There are times when peace comes at exactly such a dear price when one is friendless and despised.

Jack Winder came upon them an hour later. From a distance, he could not make out what they were unless they were scarecrows. His curiosity made him bend his route towards them to get a better view. When he came closer, he recognised two little corpses with the plum coloured faces and tortured eyes of the throttled. He touched them gently with his stick. He knew about ghosts and malignant spirits and didn’t want to upset any that might still be in that place. He changed direction when he reached the village and went to the vicarage where he notified the vicar. The vicar would know what to do with dead boys.

At Outcote Mill, life and work went on as if nothing had happened. The suicides were expendable and replaced without any trouble.


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