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Luddite Spring: 46 - What Dreams May Come

Ronnie Bray continues his dramatic story of a workers' rebellion in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Staithes rode home hard that night. He had enemies on both sides charging him with all kinds of offences. Handing his steaming horse to the groom, he went in, threw off his clothes and went straight up to bed. “Half a bottle of brandy will help me to sleep and let me escape these accusations,” he told himself. His stay in bed was no more than fifteen minutes long when he fell asleep, but all he escaped was wakefulness. It was a night of such dreams that he would not have cared if he were never to sleep again!

No sooner had he surrendered to Morpheus’ enticings, aided by the half bottle of brandy he had consumed as he lay in his bed, than he was transported back to the Cherry Tree Inn and restored to the company he had fled an hour since. He resumed his seat and was surprised that no one mentioned that he was only dressed in his nightshirt. Squire Radcliffe was exactly where he had been when he asked him the question that made him, so uncomfortable that he had fled into the night. As if he had not been missed, and ignoring his night habiliments, Radcliffe repeated, “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!”

Staithes was distinctly uncomfortable. He thought he had escaped the Inquisition, but chose to tough the situation out and hear what the magistrate thought he knew about him and conditions inside Outcote Mill.

“Go on, then, Mister Radcliffe. Tell on. I’ve nothing to fear from anything anyone says. Do your worst!”

Having been challenged by Staithes, Radcliffe set himself squarely in his chair and pulled a bulging packet out from his pocket. Although the Cherry Tree Inn was not the venue Radcliffe would normally have chosen as the place to square off against Staithes, preferring his own courthouse, he accepted what he felt was Staithes’ impudent challenge. He knew that he had evidence to show that Staithes was not been the beneficial spirit he claimed to be. Although Ramsden had little sympathy for textile workers as a class, he had been busy gathering information that he believed was dispositive of why Staithes had been chosen as a particular target by Luddites. Opening the envelope, he pulled out a sheaf of papers, set them in order on the table, and without preamble, began to read.

“These are testimonies of cases where children have been viciously used and abused in your premises either by yourself, your Baillie, or your other overseers. Only your manager, Humphrey Sutcliffe, escapes condemnation. I will present them in the order in which I received them.”

“My name is Hannah Goode. I work at Mister Staithes's mill. I think the youngest child there now is about seven, although I have known 3 year olds work there. I daresay there are at least 20 children under 9 years. It is about half past five by the church clock when we go in and still dark, and we come out at seven by the mill clock. We never stop to take our meals except at dinner. Wullie MacTavish is overlooker in our room. He is cross-tempered sometimes. He does not beat me, but he beats the little children if they do not do their work right. I have sometimes seen the little children drop asleep or so, but not lately. If they are catched asleep, they get the strap. They are always very tired at night. I can read a little. I can't write. I used to go to school before I went to the mill. I don’t now because I am sixteen.”

“Hah!” burst out Staithes. “She says nothing happened to her. She is just one of hundreds that came to no harm working for me. Did you take their testimonies too?” He slapped his thigh hard, making his leg smart because his nightshirt was not the tweed he usually wore to the inn.

Radcliffe was angered by Staithes’ interruption, especially since it was made in such a base way. He fired back at him with all the sternness he could muster, and that was considerable.

“Have you no shame, man? Did you hear what she said about the treatment of other children in your factory? That is what you should be hearing. Here is another for you to ridicule.

‘My name is Robert Blincoe, and I worked in Staithes’ mill. The blacksmith had the task of riveting irons upon any of the apprentices whom the master ordered. These irons were very much like the irons usually put upon felons. Even young women, if they suspected of intending to run away, had irons riveted on their ankles, and reaching by long links and rings up to the hips, and in these they were compelled to walk to and fro from the mill to work and to sleep.’”

Staithes pursed his lips, but did not speak. If he had been thinking of rendering an opinion Radcliffe’s grim features made it clear to him that further interruption would not be tolerated by the magistrate. Radcliffe continued reading from the sheaf of papers.

“My name is Samuel Davy, and I was seven years old when I was sent from the Southwark Workhouse in London as an apprentice in Outcote Mill. Irons were used as with felons in gaols, and these were often fastened on young women in the most indecent manner by keeping them nearly in a state of nudity, in the depth of winter, for several days together.”

After this fashion Radcliffe strode through the list of testimonies, each of which condemned Staithes as a brutal master and the cause of the suffering of his mill hands.

“I am Henrietta Marsh. I have been a workhouse apprentice at Staithes mill since I was a little girl. We were always locked up out of mill hours, for fear any of us should run away. One day the door was left open. Charlotte Smith said she would be ringleader, if the rest would follow. She went out but no one followed her. The master found out about this and sent for her. There was a carving knife which he took and grasping her hair he hacked it all off close to her head, and made her head bleed in several places. They were in the habit of cutting off the hair of all that were caught speaking to any of the lads. This head shaving was a dreadful punishment. We were more afraid of that than of any other punishment, for us girls are proud of us hair.”

Staithes wanted to scream in protest, but dared not. Radcliffe continued reading.

“I am Jonathan Downe. When I was seven years old, I want to work at Mister Staithes’s Outcote factory at Holmeside. I’ll tell you what I saw. If a child was drowsy, either Mister Staithes or Mister MacTavish touched the child on the shoulder and says, ‘Come here.’ In a corner of the room there is a big iron cistern filled with cold water. They takes the boy by the legs and dips him head first in the cistern until he near drowns, and then he lifts him back out coughing and struggling and sends him back to work.”

“Surely,” thought Staithes, “that has to be the last of them. I know some of the overseers are a bit hard, but children don’t work well unless they are thrashed. Children’s ears are on their backs. You have to whip and beat them to make them hear!”

Radcliffe was not done. Had Staithes noticed the thickness of the sheaf of papers on the table that were yet to be turned over, he would have realised that there was much more for him to answer. Radcliffe went on.

“My name is Emily Spencer. I work at Outcote Mill, and speak for a child that cannot speak for herself. She is a little girl called Caroline Thompson. We called her Carrie. Both the master and the overlooker and the Baillie beat her and beat her and beat her until she went out of her mind. She is in a lunatic asylum where she will end her days.”

“I am Sarah Goodling. I was an orphan apprentice worker that was taken proper poorly with an unknown illness. I was not taken to the doctor, nor was the doctor called to see me. I was forced by cruel means to go into work and tend my machine. While tending my machine, I became so ill that I had to stop my machine. The Baillie went over to me and, without speaking, slammed his fist into my face, knocking me senseless to the floor. The other children were petrified with fear so none went to try to help me, knowing that if they did they would be subject to the same brutality. After a few moments, I roused and attempted to rise, but I was very shaky, weak, and crying, and before I could gain my feet, the brute knocked me down again. I was now bleeding from my nose and ear. This time I did not rise but lay on the mill floor groaning quietly. I was eventually carried to the apprentice house. Later that night, my bed-fellow found me dead in bed. MacTavish was not charged with any crime, for the mill owner was close friends with a magistrate, and I was nobody, a nothing, only a common apprentice taken from an orphanage and sold into slavery with none to care for me in my death just as no one had cared for me in my short and unhappy life.”

The inn room had fallen eerily silent as Radcliffe read out each case. Staithes was visibly crestfallen, and became even more so as each testimony was heard. When he had finished, Radcliffe replaced the papers in the envelope and returned it to his pocket.

Looking Staithes full in the face as if addressing a felon in the dock, the august magistrate declared, “These are just a small selection from the cloud of witnesses whose testimonies I have here.” He held up the large envelope before Staithes’ eyes. “Do you see how you have brought this on yourself? Now you have the effrontery to act surprised when you are threatened by Luddites! Goodness alone knows what other things might be laid to your charge. For my own part, I have no wish to be privy to more of your works of darkness than those already brought to my attention. The tragedy is that I must act to protect you to prevent the whole nation being lost to a revolution that could end up as bloody as the French one did. It goes against all I hold sacred to have to support a man such as you, but my sense of duty to my class compels me to do so.”

Staithes was rattled. It took him some moments to regain his composure. Having settled himself, he addressed Radcliffe as if nothing inappropriate had been said against him.

“I see! I note your reticence to afford me the protection of the law, but note that you will do so. For that assurance, I am grateful. As to the Luddite threats on my person and property, I consider myself unjustly charged by these … these malingerers, but I am able to withstand any attack even if the Luddites come at me with an army!”

“An army is just what they’ve got, Staithes!” snapped Radcliffe testily. “Look at what’s been going on these past two months and ask yourself how many men it must have taken to be in all those different places at the same time destroying dozens of machines. At least twelve shops within a radius of ten miles have been broken into, and after the machines have been put under the big hammer, the buildings and their contents have been torched. Thousands of yards of cloth have been shredded and set afire. Did you think it was a random gang of ruffians loose in the county? Every few days we see more solid evidence of the depth and strength of their organisation. Last night there was a weaving shed burned down a quarter of a mile from my own house in Milns Bridge, and two nights ago three croppers shops, one in Marsden, one in Birkby, and one at Far Town, were smashed. They tried to destroy another at Slaithwaite on the same night. They would have succeeded if the doors hadn’t proved too strong for them. If we don’t stick together and set our own houses in order they will overrun the Government, take the country, and we’ll end up in tumbrels like the French nobility!”

“I’ll lend a hand where I can, gentleman,” said Bray, alarmed at what he had heard about Staithes, but little surprised by the revelations. There had been rumours for years. “But, like I said, I’m taking my frames down, and then they’ll not have excuse to trouble me and mine.”

“I’ll not give in to traitors, roared Staithes, not caring that he could be heard through the servery by common workers. I shall fortify, and get reliable men to stand with me, and I’ll have soldiers inside. The cavalry detachment at Holm Firth can be with me in less than five minutes when I sound the alarm.”

Spiggot pursed his lips, and raised a forefinger, “Hush, Reynold! You don’t want to go tipping your hand, and I’ll be bound there’s more than one or two of them in the other hole.” He beckoned across to the other bar whose occupants had gone unusually quiet. “Happen they’ve heard you and are taking notice. It’s a risky business.”

Staithes was quick, too quick for his companions’ liking. Raising his voice so that it would be heard in the next room he defiantly stated, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’ll ride up to me saddle girth in Luddite blood before I’ll give an inch!”

Clearly alarmed by his intemperate outburst, his friends rose as one man, gathered their hats and coats, donned them as if they were dancers in a chorus, and then stepped outside in the brittle night air. Noting their departure, the host, who had all that had passed, offered a cheery, “Will there be anything else, Mister Staithes? Are you warm enough in just a flannel shift? ”

Angrily, Staithes went into the night. He had much to think. If Radcliffe was right there was little time remaining in which to think before they would be at war.

It did not seem strange to Staithes that as soon as he left the Cherry tree he was immediately home in bed. He woke with a start, remembering what had passed in his dream, wondering whether any of it were real, and how much the others knew about his treatment of workers, particularly children.

By the scant light of moonlight that entered his dark room where the curtains were untidily drawn, Staithes began to see strange shapes in his room that his imagination, spurred on by cold fear and hot brandy, transformed into groups of armed men ready to leap at him and beat him senseless – or worse. As he looked harder at them they faded into the common objects they were. Fear and bravado are poor companions for those that are bent on keeping secrets and making foes.

Quite unconnected with Staithes phantasy, when James Bray got home that night, he had told his wife, Sarah, “Them frames is coming down in the morning!” Sarah smiled and laid a large piece of meat and potato pie swimming in savoury brown gravy on the table before him. “My favourite dinner! Thank you, lass.”

Also unconnected with Staithes; night visions, Joseph Radcliffe, JP, wrote to Lord Castlereagh requesting more informers and more military to be billeted in the district.

Also separated from the turmoil Staithes had conjured up for himself, Seth Spiggot’s sleep was marked by his tossing and turning, worrying about his future, what it might bring, and whether he had one!


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