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Luddite Spring: 43 - Humphrey Sutcliffe

...Humphrey Sutcliffe had mourned every child that had been trundled to its grave from injuries sustained in the mill, as if it were one of his own. Unlike Staithes, Sutcliffe had compassion...

Ronnie Bray continues his epic novel about a workers' revolt in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Humphrey Sutcliffe, Staithes’ mill manager, had more opportunity than most to mark the changes that overtook Reynold Walkden Staithes. He witnessed and experienced the degeneration of Staithes both in the mill sheds and in the privacy of the office. When overtaken by one of his dark moods, Staithes often yelled wildly at him to, 'Get out!' The cause of his anger was seldom evident.

The office had a large bay window overlooking the big weaving shed that did not allow Staithes’ fits of anger to pass unnoticed, although workers were not permitted to gaze through it on pain of punishment. Any worker caught looking through the window into the master’s domain was subject to punishment by a fine levied against his meagre wage. Staithes demanded the privacy that he denied to his workers.

Staithes himself was embarrassed by his fits of anger, but could not control them. He considered them weakness that he did not want others to know about in case they should somehow give them power over him. What troubled him most was the fear that in the midst of one of his mad tirades he might reveal that he had failed to faithfully execute the wishes of his dying partner, Thomas Marsden. He had sworn he would, but had defaulted and lived with the constant fear that he might suffer imprisonment for dereliction, prevention of the execution of a will, and misappropriation. There were times when he wished he had done differently, but time had passed and it was too late to put matters right without exposing himself to the demands of the law.

For all his awareness of Staithes’ character, Sutcliffe did not know about his failure to execute Marsden’s will. That was one crime that he kept closer than his skin.

Staithes’ mental fitness was not regarded as particularly unusual in an age when the complexities of insanity in its infinite varieties were but little understood. A poor man that flew into destructive rages might be confined in an asylum and harshly treated according to the prevailing understanding of mental illnesses as evidence of demonic possession. But a wealthy man that attended to his business was tolerated as an eccentric, and that was the opinion of Staithes held by his peers.

Workers at Outcote Mill defined the Master’s erratic behaviour and fluidity of mind in their own way. Few of the terms they used were benign and none was complimentary. Slaves create codes to describe their condition, the character of their masters, and ways by which they might be free. That they dared not act to make real their dreams meant that their desires were relegated to the realm of phantasy. At their most inventive they were not far short of madness themselves, but knew that Staithes had gone all the way.

Humphrey Sutcliffe had known ‘Young Reynold,’ as he was called when he was set to learning business under Mister Staithes senior. The youth was then in the spring of his life, and was generous, kind, considerate, and tender-hearted, qualities that endeared him to young and old, partners and workers, rich and poor. It was after he established his own firm that he underwent transmogrification and adopted the customs and manners of less generous clothiers, mercilessly abusing his workforce to maximise his profits, and keep to himself what he described as ‘safe.’

Humphrey Sutcliffe had mourned every child that had been trundled to its grave from injuries sustained in the mill, as if it were one of his own. Unlike Staithes, Sutcliffe had compassion. The humanitarian principles he had held to when he was a master clothier did not change when his business failed. He was beloved and trusted by workers, but Staithes did not share their confidence in his mill manager.

As Staithes' moods became more foreboding as he railed against his operatives, Sutcliffe asked himself how much more of Staithes’ madness he could endure before he also was overtaken by madness.


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