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Luddite Spring: 47 - Get Their Names

...The factory was a prison where the minds of workers were chained to its brutal system as were their emaciated and ill-clad bodies...

Ronnie Bray continues his magisterial novel about an uprising of textile workers in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Staithes’ entered his office next morning with more irritability than usual, his aspect more fierce, and his fears intact. The morning paper carried news about increased Luddite activity against the persons of manufacturers rather than against machines. He burned with anger that he had been forced against his will by the spirit of sleep to sit at Squire Radcliffe’s feet and listen to testimony after testimony about his disposition and treatment of workers that he hoped he could hide, but for which he had not the grace to be ashamed, and because he had been made afraid. He rapped on the window-glass and shouted for Sutcliffe to attend him. Sutcliffe hurried in.

“Morning Mister Staithes,” he said in his typical pleasant tone.

Staithes slammed the door shut with evident ill will, then addressed his manager. “What’s all this damnable Luddite talk, eh?” His tone was anything but pleasant.

“I’ve heard nothing about Luddites, Mister Staithes.”

“Then you must be deaf and blind! The newspapers are full of them and the country’s ablaze with nothing else but their doings, and you tell me you’ve heard nothing of them and expect me to believe you?”

Staithes jabbed his forefinger angrily through the office window towards the weaving shed, shouting, “What I want to know is how many of them are joined up with them, and I don’t want any nonsense! I want every man’s name that is involved with them and I want it now, or else!”

“Well, Sir,” began Sutcliffe softly, deeply offended, but wisely cautious of Staithes. “Luddites is common knowledge hereabouts, but I’ve heard nothing in the mill about them. If there are any sympathisers here they are keeping it very quiet. I know no more about it.”

“I want you to root them out, every blasted one of them, and I want their names on my table by noonday tomorrow. Do you get that, Sutcliffe? If you don’t get them, you can consider yourself out of collar!”

An imperious gesture notified Sutcliffe that the audience was concluded. He returned to the mill floor a sorrowful man.
There is little profit asking men that must work at whatever employment they can get whether or not they were part of a movement, membership of which meant their being dropped through a hole in a platform with a rope round their neck whose other end was tied to a gallows rail.

Humphrey Sutcliffe was not afraid to ask the hard questions set by Staithes, for that was a normal part of his duties, and time had inured him to taking Staithes’s angry responses personally. Nor should it be thought that mill hands would be aggressive in their responses to searching questions. Their code was “Anything for a quiet life. Anything to hang by their jobs, and anything not to hang by their necks!”

They were slaves to the system. In a cruel inversion that brought comfort to no one, while African slaves in the Americas were deemed soulless, therefore incapable of getting into heaven, in England it was the factories where English slaves laboured that were soulless. That fact alone was enough to turn many a labouring family away from wanting to enter heaven if heaven’s social order was anything similar to the social order they suffered here on earth.

Migrated workers, like Israelite captives in Babylon, wept when they remembered past lives, and their country songs they remembered no more except with sadness and tears. Whether as agricultural labourers, or as beings that had scratched a pitiful subsistence from the soil of their own gardens, they could choose when to rise and when to sleep, when to dig up vegetables, when to sit a spell on their doorsteps, and when to smoke a pipe. Once in the maw of the factory, all decisions were made for them by those whose sole concern was to exact the maximum amount of labour for the least amount of pay without consideration for their safety, comfort, health, quality of life, or cause of death. The factory was a prison where the minds of workers were chained to its brutal system as were their emaciated and ill-clad bodies.

An unhappy Sutcliffe stopped by each worker in turn and asked what sympathy he or she had with Luddites. There was no leeway for a humorous or jocular answer, because even a jesting reference could be taken as proof that someone approved Luddite aims, and would be cause for dismissal, arrest, incarceration, committal, and death. Staithes looked out on through his all-seeing-eye window that permitted his gaze to penetrate that floor. Nothing brings a man under control of a tyrant more readily that the knowledge that he is being constantly watched.

Those that lived, worked, and died among the muck and grime of Yorkshire’s West Riding burgeoning textile industries developed rich and biting senses of humour that were extraordinarily insightful. It allowed them to put up with many of the ignominies and hardships of life if, when they were not overheard, they could describe their lives in ways that hit the targets of their dissatisfactions, acted as safety valves for their frustrations, and furnished the fuel for the revolutions yet to come.

As Sutcliffe anticipated, no worker claimed allegiance to Ned Ludd or his Army of Redressers, and none expressed any dissatisfaction with his or her lot as an employee of Reynold Walkden Staithes. But then, only a suicide would dare to do so, and Christmas was a bad time to choose to end one’s employment, even for those that did not wish to live a day longer in hopelessness.

The mill discharged its workforce not a second earlier that crisp night when it is remembered the world over the night when Hope was born into the world. In the throng that quit Outcote Mill that Silent Night, hope was not the furthest thing from them. Crippling despair and the terror of doubt about their futures settled like sea mist over them rendering their community cheerless. But some held fast the secret hope of what they had heard whispered in the streets and alleyways, and what they had promised with their hands on the Holy Bible when they had been twisted-in.

Yet, unsurprisingly, Sutcliffe had not one name inscribed on the list he had to render to his Master. Although Sutcliffe was not unhappy with that result, he knew that Staithes would be, and braced himself for his reaction.


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