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Luddite Spring, Luddite Spring: 45 - The Warning

Unless you dispose of your sheering frames with out delay we shall break through your doors, smash them in pieces, and set about you other property to great damage. It is no good you resist we are more than a thousand and can come at pleasure. No one can help if you choose not to help yourself. If you fight it will be the worst for you.
General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers...

Ronnie Bray continues his dramatic story of industrial unrest at a turning point in British history.

Staithes stood in the open doorway of his home transfixed. His trembling hand held a letter scrawled on a scrap of paper in what looked like blood. He felt as if he had been struck in the face with a coal hammer. He read the letter repeatedly in disbelief.

Unless you dispose of your sheering frames with out delay we shall break through your doors, smash them in pieces, and set about you other property to great damage. It is no good you resist we are more than a thousand and can come at pleasure. No one can help if you choose not to help yourself. If you fight it will be the worst for you.
General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers

The note had been wedged in the jamb of his front door and had fallen out when he opened it to go to the mill. He saw immediately that the Luddites were upon him! Afraid, angry and uncertain, he thrust the letter into the pocket of his greatcoat, mounted his horse, and in a panic galloped over the hard ground to Outcote Mill. His mind raced in all direction at once. Luddites had been at his very door, perhaps they had been there when he was planning their defeat!

He ran into the mill to check that it was running without problems, and then rode his horse hard into Huddersfield to the Cloth Hall to oversee sales to some important buyers. Despite doing better than expected business with them, his mood remained dark because of the threatening letter. He had known other clothiers that had them and he had blithely suggested that they placed too much credence in them when they should not. Now that Ned Ludd had sent him such a letter, he saw matters in a different light.

He left the cloth market after the buyers had gone, leaving his men to pack up his stalls and stock. His first call was to Captain Dredge of the standing militia, whom he showed the letter and received the confident assurance that he and his premises would be kept safe at all costs. This, however, brought him little comfort. He was not disposed to trust anyone’s word, particularly the militia whose vaunted ‘ring of iron’ had been penetrated by at least one Luddite to deposit the communication at his door. Afterwards, he went to the Cherry Tree.

“Welcome, Mister Staithes,” called Baggett, far too cheerfully for Staithes’ liking, as he entered to hostelry. “You’re early today, Reynold. What’s up?”

“Wait until I’ve got my hot pot, and then I’ll tell you,” he said through clenched teeth. The contents of the Luddite letter tormented him to such an extent that he was fully overtaken with fear and rage.

Baggett scrutinised Staithes to see if he could read in his face what the cause of today’s bad mood could be. As usual, he could not make out its cause. Guessing why he was out of sorts was a game Staithes’ companions played without letting him know that they sported with him.

“Bad day at the Cloth Hall, Reynold? Left with too much stuff, eh?”

Staithes was not to be baited with such banter. After getting rid of his topcoat and hat, he ordered his meal and sat opposite Baggett with his face set towards the table wearing a scowl as broad as New Street. “I’ve done a good day’s business, if it’s any concern of yours!” there was a direct challenge in his words.

“Now, Reynold, What’s eating’ thee, lad,” insisted Baggett, softly, sorry for his taunting. “Have you had some bad news, then?”

Staithes reached into his breeches pocket for the letter of blood and thrust it under Baggett’s nose, shaking it as if it were burning his hand. “Read this!” he bellowed.

Smiling gently, Baggett took the letter without taking his eyes off Staithes’ face. He unfolded it and held it towards the light. His eyes widened as he read in disbelief, and his face resolved into soberness. Handing it back to Staithes, he said, “You’d better get that to Squire Radcliffe so he can get some soldiers over to your place. Clearly you are in for it, unless this is just a joke.”

“Men don’t make jokes with blood.” Snapped Staithes. “This is real, all right. I’ll get it to the Squire, but the way things are I don’t hold out much hope of protection from the soldiery. They’re already spread too thin and children make sport of them. Only last night some five or six lads were playing at Moor Edge when a party of soldiers were making their way to the George Inn. The young blighters shouted and clapped their hands and then ran off shouting ‘Ned Ludd’s here!’ and the soldiers ran for cover! The Army’s heart isn’t in this fight.

You’d be wise not to trust them, Jory. I don’t. I am going to see to my own protection and heaven help those that rise against me. I’ll find them all places in the graveyard if they so much as make a move to keep this threat.” He brandished the letter wildly as he spoke. He folded the letter and replaced it.

A sombre Baggett said, “By heck, it’s a serious matter, Reynold! You’d better put it in the right hands before yon candle gets much shorter.”

“I shall, Jory. I shall!”

Staithes’ meal was brought, and he and Baggett ate in silence. It was not a time of much speaking, rather one that required some careful thought.

The evening wind blew south-westerly, raw and cold, over the tops of the Pennines, forcing black sulphurous smoke from the chimneys to curl down into the streets. Staithes had reached the point of supping the gravy from his basin of Hot Pot when James Bray, Seth Spiggot, and Squire Joseph Radcliffe came in together. Removing their coats and hats, they hung them on the pegs on the wall.

“What’s hot pot like tonight, Reynold,” asked Spiggot. “Is it any good, eh?”

“Just what’s needed on nights like this,” intoned Staithes, anxious to gulp as much down as he could before someone bought a round of ale. “It’s sticking to me ribs and will keep the cold from me chest on the ride home.”

“By heck!” exclaimed the alderman, “So, you recommend it, eh?”

“I do that,” rejoined the slurping Staithes. “It not only hits the spot, but it has powerful medicinal properties that’ll rid a man of the quinsies in less than half-an-hour.”

“Is that why you’re eating it, eh? Have you got quinsy?” asked a shocked Spiggott, stepping back two paces.

“I hope not,” shivered Radcliffe, speaking for the first time after he had sat down on the bench by the side of the fire. “I’ve heard that quinsy is catching and will go through a family like water through a mill race. If you’ve got a dose of it keep well away from me!”

Don’t fuss yourself,” growled Staithes, shifting uneasily on his seat. “I didn’t say I had it, just what it’s good for. You have need to be fearful, though. This weather is the worst time of year for cabdriver’s throat. It’s cold, wet, dismal, damp, miserable, and if anyone’s going to ail anything this is the time of year they’ll likely catch whatever’s about, including the quinsy. You mark my words!”

“You sound like you’ve caught a bit of Luddite Pox,” chortled James Bray, disturbed by what he saw as a falling off of the genteel but spirited conversation that usually marked their close of business drink on market days.

Staithes swung round in his chair to face Bray, who had stationed himself at the far end of the table. “I’ll likely catch much more than the pox off them Luddites! The way things is going I shouldn’t wonder if they’re out to do some blood letting, and any one of us could be on their list!”

“Nay lad,” Bray offered, in a conciliatory tone, “I was only pulling your leg.”

“Aye,” returned Staithes with a deep sigh. “I’m just a bit touchy about Luddites just now. Heaven knows what is afoot with them. I’ve got a letter supposed to be from the chap called General Ludd, threatening what they’ll do to me and my mill if I don’t move me cropping frames out right away.”

“Have you, now, Reynold,” asked Radcliffe, his eyebrows lifting alarmingly. “Have you shown it to the Ward and Watch?”

“No. I’ve little faith in Ward and Watch. I’ve told Captain Dredge of the militia.”

“What did he say he would do?” asked Radcliffe. The magistrate was surprised that Staithes had told the militia, in which he had little faith, but not informed the magistrate and their local force of peacekeepers.

“He said he’d keep a weather eye out for dissemblers and let me know if he heard of any movement against my property.”

“How about letting me see the letter, Staithes? Do you have it with you?”

“I do,” Staithes snarled, reaching for the letter and handing it to Radcliffe. “See what you think about it.”

The magistrate read it, nodding the while. Then he handed it back to Staithes, eyeing him with his keen eyes, asking, “I see. How long have you had this?”

“It came this morning. Someone had shoved it in the side of my front door”

“You wasted a whole day! This should have been in my hands as soon as you got it.”

“I didn’t see who brought it, but, like I said, it was stuck in the side of my door.”

“They came to your house! They could have burned you alive, man. Only this week they burned a clothier’s house to the ground in Lancashire because they could not get into his mill. You have to take a more realistic view of their threats! We are getting a better picture of Luddites and their activities with every day that passes. They attacked three premises in our district last night, and obviously visited your home too. You should know that I do not have much confidence in the army. They have shown themselves to be out of touch with the threats and with the pressing need for many more soldiers to be in towns and villages where manufacturing is carried on. The handful they send here is pitiful and insufficient to protect anyone, and that leaves us wide open to attacks by Ludd’s people. Staithes, you have to be more wide-awake when you get letters like this. You can’t sit on a threat for a whole day and then expect us to catch the thugs!”

“What can you do?” queried Staithes, ruffled at Radcliffe’s pointed oration. “Now you know about it, what can you do?”

“Well,” whispered Radcliffe drawing nearer to the group. “You must keep this under your hats, but I have a man paid to get inside and will warn me of any action they are planning in and around Huddersfield. He is my advance warning, so I can act in time to stop any wrongdoing, and keep your properties safe from their nonsense.”

“You’ve got a spy?” asked Spiggot, springing into life at this. “Is that what you’re telling us? A spy?”

Radcliffe put his finger to his lips and quietly said, “Shh!” The bar hatch was open through to the tap room and those that drank in there could overhear. “Let me just say that I have more than one man working his way inside where he can learn of their plans and warn us. And I must stress to you all that whenever you get any threatening letters,” he stared into Staithes’ eyes, “then you must put them into my hands without delay, even if it is the dead of night! We cannot sleep on this. We have to be forever vigilant if we want safety!”

“Spies, eh? I should have thought of that,” grumbled Staithes, unhappy that Radcliffe had outthought him, and ignoring the magistrate’s explicit jab at his slackness in informing him of the letter.

Radcliffe went on, “It’s already in place, and I have plans for more informers so I can discover the leaders of these troubles and bring them to justice before they do any damage.” He leaned even closer and spoke more confidentially, “And some of them will hang!”

“How will your spies go about it?” asked Bray, who like the others had become aware of how impenetrable, the Luddite underground was.

“They’ll get to know some of the men, get them to trust them, get taken into the circle where plans are made, and then relay their intentions to me. I’ll see to the rest, but I am not alone. Mister Roberson of Hartshead and others are with me, and they too have men working their way inside. Lord Castlereagh, the Home Secretary, tells me that he already has informants ready to come. They will report their findings to me and to the Home Office. We will take away from King Ludd all element of surprise.”

“By heck,” Spiggot offered, “That’s a turn up for the books! Getting spies to get on good terms might work with ordinary mill hands, but it’ll not work with croppers. Cropping is a handed down craft, and while an outsider might manage to learn to weave or spin in a few weeks at another mill before he comes to one of ours, it takes years for a man to become a cropper and months to form the cropper’s hoof. Croppers won’t be easy to penetrate and most threats are against our cropping frames. Only a few have said anything about our power looms.”

Radcliffe abruptly acknowledged, “That’s true, and I am mindful of it, but that doesn’t make infiltrating cropper circles impossible, it just makes it harder. We’re concentrating first and foremost on mills and cropping shops where threats have been received already, which is why, Mister Staithes, it would have been useful for you to report your letter to the Watch and Ward and they would have notified me. Now I shall have to work twice as hard to afford you the protection you will need.”

“That settles it for me,” joined Bray. “I’m going to take my cropping frames down and avoid all this molestation. I have a living to make, and a family to provide for and keep safe. If this trouble blows over, then I’ll think about putting them back up.”

“That settles it for me too,” cried Staithes, jumping to his feet. “I’m bound to get some of my own spies and root out trouble before it gets too wick! How do I go about getting Government spies? I am sure that some of my hands are stirring up trouble, and I want to crush them before they crush me. I am one of the biggest manufacturers in the district, and my views about Luddites are well known. You’ve only got to read my letter to know that’s true!”

Radcliffe looked sternly at Staithes before answering, “I would have liked to have had the opportunity to see your letter in a timely fashion. Since you thought fit to keep it to yourself you are marked down as a late-starter when we could have had men in place already. I could have moved one or two in this morning. This here is a serious business, Staithes, and we have our hands full as it is. We know your place will be under threat, mostly because of your bullheadedness about frames, but you must also blame yourself because you can’t keep quiet. You run all over creation boasting what you will do if Luddites come to settle their score with you. That’s inviting trouble, man! Nevertheless, I’ll see what can be done. But you could have helped yourself even more if you had made the threat known earlier.”

“Settle their score with me? What score?” demanded Staithes, angered by the suggested that there was a score to settle. “There’s no score to settle. I treat my workers as well as any clothier does.”

“That’s not the tale most people tell, Staithes. They impart a much different story. Do you want to hear it?”

Clearly discomforted by being taken to task by the Magistrate, Staithes spoke with a small voice as if asking for mercy. “I don’t say that you’re not right, Joseph, and some might see things the same way you do, but I say I do treat my workers well. There’s no clothier in all these valleys that treats them any better.”

“That’s not saying much,” retorted Radcliffe, spoiling to put him in his place. “I asked you if you wanted to hear what’s on record about conditions in your mill. If you hear them, you might have to take a closer look at how you really carry on within the walls of Outcote Mill!”

“Not now,” fired Staithes, angrily. “I’m late. I have to be on my way. Good night, gentlemen.” In no time at all he was dressed and gone from their midst.

The remainder stayed on until late, discussing the state of affairs that prevailed in the district, becoming more uncomfortable and apprehensive with each passing minute.


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