January 8th, 2013 Headsman
This is the bicentennial of the hanging of three Luddites for the murder of manufacturer William Horsfall.
While often understood casually as a sort of mindless technophobia, wreckers — Luddites and otherwise — actually had material labor grievances. New more efficient power looms reduced skilled workers to the ranks of unskilled subsistence labor, or to those of the superfluous unemployed.
With trade unionism illegal (and severely repressed), their means of resistance were of a desperate character. Lord Byron, almost alone in Parliament, rose to defend them: “These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.”
Hence, Byron sarcastically remarked, “new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt.” Parliament did indeed extend its capital statutes to the protection of these new looms.
“Wrecking,” in the analysis of the late Eric Hobsbawm, “was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution.”
Hobsbawm quotes a Nottingham town clerk describing the way textile manufacturers “acquire entire control of their workmen” by putting them to work on the owners’ power looms rather than hiring out workers who use their own looms. “Perhaps the most effectual manner in which the combination [read: proto-union] could coerce them was their former manner of carrying on war by destroying their frames.”
And the descriptor “war” was not far off.
The Luddites — so named for legendary loom-smasher Ned Ludd — proliferated in 1811-1812. Beginning in Nottingham with a protest against falling wages signed by General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, they tapped a wellspring of discontent.
It was a time of war, of economic crisis, of spiking wheat prices whose rise to an 1812 record peak further immiserated those who scraped to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. A generation after the French Revolution, with Napoleon rampant on the continent, English elites had reason to fear their own legitimacy stood on unstable ground.* In 1811, the king even went mad.
And they thrive well who from the poor
Have snatched the bread of penury,
And heap the houseless wanderer’s store
On the rank pile of luxury.
-Percy Bysshe Shelly, “The Devil’s Walk” (1812)
From their birthplace in Nottingham, Luddite societies spread out through textile country, conspiring by moonlight to break into factories and smash up frames or commit other acts of industrial sabotage. (There’s a pdf timeline here) Byron, the Luddites’ defender, owned that the night before he departed a recent visit to Nottingham, “forty frames had been broken the preceding evening as usual, without resistance and without detection.”
Terrified manufacturers — some were known to have armored their establishments with what amount to siege fortifications; others, to outfit homes with early panic rooms as bolt-holes in the event of a Luddite attack — met this mob action violently. Westminster put 12,000 troops into Luddite country to fight the wreckers.
And the wreckers fought back.
William Horsfall, owner of a Marsden wool mill with 400 employees, had vowed to “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood” … which promise gave a poetic twist to his actual fate: while riding on Huddersfield‘s Crosland Moor** in April 1812, a group of Luddites lying in wait opened fire on him and shot Horsfall through the groin.
“As soon as he fell after being wounded the inhuman populace surrounding him reproached him with having been the oppressor of the poor — they did not offer assistance,” an officer later reported. “Nor did any one attempt to pursue or secure the assassins who were seen to retire to an adjoining wood.” A fellow-manufacturer helped Horsfall to an inn, where he expired painfully 38 hours later.
It was several months before the powers that be were able to crack it.
Eventually, the energetic Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe† was able to exploit the threat of hanging to force a Luddite cropper‡ into impeaching his confederates in the plot. This investigation is covered in marvelous detail at the Luddite Bicentenary blog, an outstanding resource on the period in general, but for our purposes we’ll sum up to say that the hunt for Horsfall’s killers wound up zeroing in on George Mellor, Thomas Smith, and William Thorpe.
That was a Wednesday.
That Friday, the three hanged in their manacles behind York Castle under heavy military guard to forestall any possible rescue, having never admitted any part in the murder. The authorities judiciously eschewed a more demonstrative (and potentially riot-inducing) execution at the scene of the crime.
“The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual in York, on those melancholy occasions; but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene,” the Leeds Mercury reported§ — and darkly explicated the intended lesson of the scene for other machine-wreckers.
all those who may have been so far infatuated as to become members of such societies should, from this moment, and by one common consent, desist from taking another step in furtherance of their objects. They must now see that they have stood on the brink of a frightful precipice, and that another step might have plunged them into that gulph which has overwhelmed their less fortunate associates.
The mailed fist deployed against wreckers in 1812-1813 did indeed smash the movement. Still, sporadic Luddite attacks would continue as late as 1816, and Luddite veterans went at the fore of the 1817 Pentrich Rising … just outside the place it all began, Nottingham.
* It was in just this period — in fact, only a few days after William Horsfall’s murder — that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. Given the conditions abroad in the land, many an elite feared upon first notice of this event a revolutionary rising … although Perceval’s killer turned out to be a deranged merchant whose confused private grievance had nothing to do with Britain’s social tensions.
† Radcliffe’s exertions in the war against the Luddites secured for his family a still-extant baronetcy.
§ Leeds Mercury report via a reprint in the London Times of Jan. 12, 1813. (Also see this excerpt.)
Also on this date
- 1900: The private, decent, and humane execution of a human being named George Smiley
- 1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik
- 1908: John Boyd, by John Radclive
- Themed Set: 2010
- 2010: Jeong Dae-Sung and Lee Ok-Geum, for escaping North Korea
- 1603: Not Tommaso Campanella
- 1864: Two Dodds, as two spies, in two states, and twice botched
- 1697: Thomas Aikenhead
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Martyrs,Murder,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Terrorists
Tags: 1810s, 1813, capitalism, class, crosland moor, economics, george mellor, huddersfield, industrialization, january 8, labor, luddites, machine wrecking, marsden, textiles, thomas smith, william thorpe, yorkshire