Sunday, 15 January 2012

The historic context of West Yorkshire Luddism in 1812

In 1812, the West Riding of Yorkshire was the centre of the woollen cloth industry in England. But it had not always been this way: for a long period of time the South West of England - and in particular counties like Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset - had been at the forefront of the woollen trade. But the industrial revolution saw the centre of gravity shift to the North of England.

The wool trade had 2 distinct branches - woollen and worsted. In the woollen or cloth branch the raw material was short wool, which was first carded and then spun, whereas in the the worsted branch, long wool was prepared by combing prior to spinning. Spinning and weaving were common to both branches, but the cloth branch required separate processes: 'felting' ('milling' or 'fulling') which strengthened the cloth and 'finishing' which involved raising the fibres into a nap, which was then cut, leaving a smooth, high quality finish.

In the South West, the industrial model saw master manufacturers or 'gentlemen clothiers' buying the raw material and then employing others to produce the finished product. An increase in trade had led to many of these capitalists becoming merchants.

In the West Riding of Yorkshire, the system was semi-domesticated, dominated by an increasing number of small master manufacturers who worked on the wool and took it to market themselves. The workers were self-sufficient, frequently living on small plots of land which they cultivated to provide much of their food. Later, factories took on much of the 'felting' process, but spinning, weaving and finishing remained semi-domesticated.

The introduction of machinery into the industry came first in the form of James Hargreaves' Spinning Jenny, a machine that could be used to spin multiple spindles of yarn. The effect was to increase output, but it was still possible for the industry to remain domestic, since the Jennies could be used at home. Nevertheless, the introduction of Jennies by the capitalists in the trade in the South-West in 1776 caused serious uproar amongst cloth workers there, with rioting taking place at Shepton Mallet. Workers were naturally concerned about increased mechanisation leading to widespread unemployment and severe hardship. An increase in trade had negated the ill-effects of mechanisation. When the conditions of trade took a turn for the worse, hardship increased with predictable results.

Specific existing legislation afforded woollen workers some economic protection from a 'race to the bottom' amongst laissez-faire capitalists, at least in theory. These were: a statute of Edward VI prohibiting the use of gig mills; a statute of Elizabeth 1 enforcing apprenticeship in the woollen trade; and a statute of Phillip & Mary limiting the number of looms that clothiers and weavers could own outside of cities and certain towns. It was the abrogation and eventual repealing of this legislation which escalated the class conflict in the period running up to 1812. The workers at the sharp end of the changes in the industry at the beginning of the nineteenth century were those working in the cloth finishing trade, and in particular the 'Croppers' as they were called in the West Riding (they were known as 'Shearmen' in the South West).

The Croppers/Shearmen were amongst the most skilled and privileged of workers in 1812. They played a crucial part of the cloth finishing process, using huge four foot long hand shears which weighed 30 to 40 pounds, to crop or shear the nap that had been raised by another worker using a teazle. The direct application of their skill could increase or decrease the value of a piece of cloth by as much as 20%, placing them in an unusually strong bargaining position. They controlled the finishing process, and could keep out unskilled labour. Between 3,000 to 5,000 croppers were employed in the West Riding, largely concentrated in the Spen Valley, with only a third of this number employed in the South West.

The use of gig mills - a machine that raised the fibres on a piece of cloth to produce a nap - had been a flash point in the South West in 1802, when the introduction of this machinery had become more widespread, along with the more limited introduction of shearing frames, a machine which mechanised the shearing of cloth. A number of mills containing the machinery had been attacked and destroyed and a parallel wages dispute had resulted saw clothiers conceding to the demands of Shearmen. Despite the Combination Act, the Shearmen/Croppers were very highly organised, and there were links between those working in the South West and those in the West Riding. But because of the Combination Act, the workers had good reason to have no faith that the capitalists would keep to their word.

In Yorkshire, the unrest in the South West had horrified the authorities to the extent that they discouraged manufacturers from installing them in their mills, and in August 1802, the mere threat of a strike by Croppers over the introduction of more machinery had brought the capitalists to heel. Another strike by Croppers came about when Benjamin Gott of Leeds had used non-apprenticed labour in his factories - the strike lasted for months, and the Croppers won.

Thereafter, the disputes in the woollen trade moved to the Parliamentary level. The clothiers of the South West first mounted a campaign to repeal all the protective legislation, and were soon joined by clothiers in the West Riding. The Shearmen and Croppers organised and petitioned to oppose the changes. The campaign was long fought, and in the interim a number of suspending acts were introduced giving the clothiers temporary suspension. In 1806, the House of Commons produced a report into the state of manufacture of the woollen industry in England, which recommended the repeal of the laws that the clothiers objected to. This was not actually achieved until 1809 with introduction of Woollen Manufacture Act (49 Geo.III.c.109.)

With the 1806 parliamentary report being particularly vitriolic in it's attitude to the Croppers/Shearmen and the way they were organised, these workers now had no choice but to go underground. With the declaration of war with North America in and the consequent loss of the American market for cloth goods, the West Riding was hit particularly hard. Allied to the broader context and in this climate, the capitalists increasingly moved to step up the pace of mechanisation in an effort to undercut their rivals and corner what little trade was now left.

The scene was set for confrontation.

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