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Luddite Spring: 52 - William Dirker

...“Four muskets, a keg of powder, and plenty of lead for making shot. I’m getting’ six more muskets and a hundred rounds apiece for them day after tomorrow. I am also getting a cannon to stand behind my main doors in case they break through. To make sure they don’t get in I’ve had the doors clad inside with boilerplate and heavily studded on the outside with carriage bolts and bighead nails so they’ll not get through. But,” he added, “if they do, then I’ll blow them to smithereens with the cannon!”...

The masters prepare to defend their mills against attacks from militant workers.

Ronnie Bray continues his novel concerning epic events in the early days of the industrial revolution.

A few days after what he called ‘the Little Bishop’s nonsense,’ Staithes called on William Dirker at his mill to make arrangements in case of a Luddites attack on either of their businesses. He was certain that they would attack Outcote Mill and needed to weight the odds in his favour as heavily as possible. If Dirker were to take on significant arms, it would save him the expense. Their premises were less than a mile apart, and the lane between them was not so badly rutted that it would impede men in a hurry if one needed to fly to the aid of the other. He had to make Dirker as scared as he was to be sure he would buy plenty of weapons to bring to his defence.

They sat in Dirker’s office with their backs to the window that looked out into the spinning shed. This was a precaution Staithes always took to prevent his plans being lip read by his workers, and he thought it politic to take the same measure in case any of Dirker’s workers were up to ‘Luddite tricks.’

When the door was closed and braced against intruders and overhearers, Dirker produced a copy of the Leeds Intelligencer from his desk and showed Staithes a report of a Luddite attack on a cotton mill. The report said that three hundred armed men had gone against the business under cover of darkness and having broken its doors they proceeded to smash its windows, ransack it, shatter machinery with sledge hammers, and destroy thousands of yards of finished cloth. The damage was said to be substantial. It went on to say that incursions into the Yorkshire textile region were only a matter of time, and advised West Riding’s clothiers to fortify their establishments and prepare to repulse ‘a wild and ungovernable army under the banner of General Ned Ludd,’ whom the newspaper called ‘The Destroyer.’

Staithes saw that Dirker was well prepared to be frightened. “What! Will it never end!” he said angrily. “I’d heard it was bad in Nottingham, but I never thought it was that bad at its worst! I suppose we would be foolish to think it wouldn’t come here! We’d best make ready for the hordes of Luddite soldiers before they are on us and us not ready, and overthrown! What have you got in the way of firearms, William?”

“I’ve got a couple of fowling pieces, and a brace of saddle pistols, but nothing apart from them. What have you got?”

“Four muskets, a keg of powder, and plenty of lead for making shot. I’m getting’ six more muskets and a hundred rounds apiece for them day after tomorrow. I am also getting a cannon to stand behind my main doors in case they break through. To make sure they don’t get in I’ve had the doors clad inside with boilerplate and heavily studded on the outside with carriage bolts and bighead nails so they’ll not get through. But,” he added, “if they do, then I’ll blow them to smithereens with the cannon!”

“By heck, Reynold.” said a wide eyed Dirker, “You’ve got a proper army! I reckon you’ll not need my help unless they come thousand handed or better!”

Staithes was warmed by his friend’s compliment on his preparations, but terrified by the suggestion that he could go it alone when the Luddites poured off the moors to overwhelm him, smash his machines, fire his mill, and seek his life. With this scenario at the front of his mind this was no time to bask in praise.

“Well, William, I see it this way, I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got, and no band of vagabonds is going to come and ruin me and get away with it or my name isn’t Reynold Walkden Staithes. If they attack you, I can be at your place in less than ten minutes with my big horses and my cart and my men armed to the teeth to defend you. Get a bell and put it on your roof. If it starts clanging without stopping, then I’ll know you need my help. I’ll keep my team in harness and have my teamster sleep in the stable at nights because they’ll not come be day, I’m certain of that. I’ll be there to defend you and your mill whatever it cost me. You have my word on that!”

Dirker was impressed with the affirmation of support from one that he doubted would ever move himself to help another. So lavishly did Staithes promise to rush to Dirker’s aid that Dirker became just as expansive as Staithes had been.

“In that case, Reynold, You can count on me to come and assist you in repulsing the ruffians. What you have promised to do for me in case I am attacked, I give my word that I’ll do the same if they come after you. You will give me the alarm by ringing your bell – you have got a bell?”

I have one coming in two days. I have had the gantry for it put on the roof and a hole pierced through three floors for the rope!”

“Right, Reynold, when I hear your bell, I’ll rush my men to your place. I’ll come right quick, you have my word. That’s settled then, eh?”

Staithes nodded. “I’m paying four chosen men to stand picket with me in the mill, and I’ve bought them for a pretty penny so they’ll not be changing’ sides whatever happens! I shall have my bell fixed on the roof as soon as the carrier delivers it. Its constant pealing will be my signal. Keep your ears open!”

“I will,” affirmed Dirker.

Staithes continued, “If I were you, I’d get some more firearms because a few pieces against what might be a thousand Ludds won’t be any good! Best play it safe and prepare for the worst.”

“By heck, Reynold. If you think they’ll come a thousand-strong I’ll get more rifles and shotguns. You sound ready for them. Have you got soldiers to stand with you?”

“I’m asking for some militia riflemen to stand with us. I’ve been promised them. The captain says if it comes to a battle they’ll give those damn Luddites what they gave Boney in France!”

Dirker wide-eyed and impressed was taking this in as Staithes continued. “And I’ll tell you something else, William.” His voice dropped to a whisper making Dirker lean towards him and strain to hear. “If those damnated rogues do get though me doors and past me cannon, and I’m telling you for sure as they won’t, then I’ve got more surprises for them.”

“What's that?” asked Dirker, amazed that Staithes could have more preparations than he had already divulged.

“My inside stairs are mounted with spiked rollers that will spear them to death if they try to get past.”

“Well, Reynold,” retorted Dirker, pushing his chair back from the table and slapping his forehead, “You are a master of warfare, I’ll be bound! I would never have thought of those things.”

Staithes acknowledged the compliment, but knew that he had more to lose than Dirker, a man recognised for uprightness. He bent closer to his friend, “I don’t always sleep at nights, and when I don’t I think how I can beat them. Besides, if the doors, the big gun, and the roller spikes don’t stop them in their tracks, I have four carboys of sulphuric acid on the first floor at the head of the stairs and I shall pour the lot down on them! They shall not beat me, because I’ll send them all to Hell first!”

Dirker was beside himself as he drank in the spectacle Staithes’ delivery fashioned in his mind. But all he could say by way of a response was, “Well, I’m capped! If that doesn’t beat all, Reynold.”

Nothing more passed between them for a time, other than sundry grunts and nodding showing that the matter was sealed and they were ready for trouble if it came to their respective doors.

Finally, they rose and struck palms, pleased to have reached an agreement that was mutually beneficial and seemingly unassailable. However, Staithes had not finished enjoying summarising his impressive assortment of defences to Dirker.

“I've chosen men that will not turn against me when it comes to the pinch. Men that I can rely on. How about you? Have you secured men that you trust with your life?”

“Men can be bought,” rejoined Dirker confidently. “Ten guineas straight in their pockets and a bit of a raise in pay will buy a lot of loyalty from starving men!”

“Aye, that it will. Though I am minded that many can be bought for half that. Five guineas is a fortune to folks that live on a few shillings a week. But it’s no use waiting until the fray is afoot to see if we’ve paid them enough to stand with us, eh?”

“Yes.” nodded Dirker. “You are right, Reynold. Five guineas a man and a raise in pay it is!”

“I’m counting on it. Hungry men will do anything for a few guineas. I’m also confident that my Baillie MacTavish will be loyal when push comes to shove.”

“That’s right. Baillies will stand true, and we won’t have to pay them anything but what we’re already paying them, eh?”
More nods, followed by a second striking of palms and the business was done. As he reached the door of Dirker’s office, Staithes paused with his hand on the latch as if studying the door. After a moment, he turned back to speak to his friend. Something had entered his mind and he must to give voice to it. “William, I’m not saying that I’m afraid, but I’m given to wondering’ how many of our own workers are tied up in all this! I sweep through the main mill every night after closing when I’m there, which is most days except market days, to see if any of my hands are lingering with a view to starting their own blazes, doing a bit of damage on the side, or letting Luddites in.”

“Aye, Reynold, you are wise to do so. I cannot see how the Luddites know so much about the places they are attacking without help from workers inside the places they have harmed. Sweeping for laggers is a grand idea, and I’m going to do it as well!” He nodded, affirming his resolve. “Besides,” Dirker continued, “I had heard that you were seen attending to some matter when you thought the mill was empty!” He grinned knowingly at Staithes.

Staithes turned on his heel and demanded, “Who said that? Who saw me in the mill doing what? No one saw me. No one could have seen me!”

He was as mad as a wounded bull elephant, for his mind had gone straight to his rape of Sarah Gledhill, and he knew, or thought he knew, that he had not been seen.

“Who is supposed to have seen me?” He grabbed Dirker by the cravat, tightening it as he dragged him towards him. “Who? Speak, I say, or else I’ll … “

“It’s just talk, Reynold. You know how workers are when they think they’ve seen something. It’s probably nothing. Just forget it.”

Staithes could not forget it. That was a dread secret that seemed to have escaped from the darkness of his mind. But it didn’t sound as if Sarah had spoken. “Dirker said I was seen attending to some matter when I thought the mill was empty. Seen? Seen by who? The mill was empty, dammit! No one could have seen. Nevertheless, Dirker said I was seen. If I was seen, then how did he hear of it?”

Staithes continued in this manner asking and answering questions that raised scores more questions, to none of which he had the answer. “If I was seen with Sarah, who saw me, where were they, and why were they there?”

“I’ll forget it, William, if you will. Some folks will invent all kinds of nonsense to get at a master they don’t like. You know how they are. Then someone else gets hold of the tale, embroiders it, and then before you know it there’s a detailed history of something that never happened.”

“You’re right, Reynold. It’s probably nothing more than that. Anyway, our business was a mutual defence pact not some sill gossip, eh?”

Not fully content that Dirker would discount the report of his illicit connexion with Sarah Gledhill, if that was the matter to which he referred, but satisfied that he was as zealous to prepare for Luddites as he was, Staithes turned on his heel and left.


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